Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Fool Might Be My Middle Name

Howdy, howdy. When last we left off, I was listening exclusively to early Beach Boys and answering "yes" emphatically to their question, "do you do you do you do you wanna dance?"

Since then, I actually met Jessica Simpson. Alright, I didn't meet Jessica Simpson. I refilled her water. Impressions:

1) She likes her phone.
2) Famous people have big heads. I'm not being figurative. By my guesstimation, Jessica Simpson's fitted hat size would be at least a 12 1/4. I don't know what any of this means.
3) She likes biscuits. She asked me, "Could we have some more biscuits, please?" I thought, "does this place even have biscuits? If it once did, does it have more of them? Also, that sentence was oddly British. English people are weird..." I said, "More biscuits." I assume someone hunted down or grew some biscuits and brought them to the Clan Simpson. I really don't know. Carbs aren't my specialty.
4) Otherwise, not a lot going on I couldn't find at Wolfchase Mall.

None of this, of course, is as odd and ridiculous as my buddy's encounter with Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman a few years ago in which he strode up to her and actually said, "Hey Kirsten Dunst!" Full name. I won't detail the rest of the encounter here, but it involves bad math, failed chivalry, and a very quick exit.

Anyway, at some point in the past week I've actually listened to some music other than "Do You Wanna Dance" by the Beach Boys. Here, once again, is what's In My Stereo...

REM's "Strange Currencies"
I have a framed picture in my room of Woody Guthrie, with a long quote from him about the type of songs he writes. It begins, "I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose, bound to lose, no good to nobody...I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work..."

Few would accuse REM of being a folk band, but I believe Michael Stipe shares Guthrie's philosophy. I can't think of another contemporary band that, song-to-song, invests quite so much in bringing the listener up, never knocking them down. One of REM's greatest traits is selflessness. From "Everybody Hurts," to "Sweetness Follows," to "Daysleeper," to "Strange Currencies," so many of their most celebrated songs come from a place of deep empathy, insight, and courage. It's so easy to write a song about getting down, and so hard to enact hope; Stipe chooses the latter as much as anyone, and the results are often brilliant, always inspiring.

All this to say, "Strange Currencies" is a gorgeous song about a frustrating relationship. Many of you, I'm sure, have heard it before. It's plaintive, breathtakingly honest, and, despite its exploration of the relationship's problems, always optimistic.

Josh Ritter, "The Temptation of Adam"
I recently caught Josh Ritter in the second of a two-night Nashville stint, with Ingrid Michaelson opening. If it hasn't already, it's rapidly becoming clear that the slightly elder generation of singer/songwriters are bringing it in ways Ryan Adams didn't, and won't. Nobody's chart-topper, Ritter is simply a very, very sharp writer, and at times brilliant. I hadn't heard this song before the show and got it afterward. Using the cold war as a metaphor for a doomed relationship (first line, "If this was the cold war, we could keep each other warm"), complete with dates inside missile silos and a crossword asking, "what five letters spell apocalypse?" The story-telling here is inspired and incredibly sharp, and Ritter's manipulation of the metaphor throughout the narrative is, um, Hemingway-an?

If you've ever found yourself in a relationship that is constantly on the brink of explosion--and you have a bit of an evil streak--this song is for you.

(***Had to pick something sad and evil to balance out the "redemptive powers of love" enumerated in "Strange Currencies," right?)

Black Keys, "All You Ever Wanted"
I mentioned earlier that the new Black Keys is, to my ear, their best record to date. Interestingly, this record is at its best when it's trying something new (as opposed to the new Counting Crows...). There's plenty of stripped-down, blues-riff rock here, but the album's opener, "All You Ever Wanted" is an unexpected, acoustic, slow-shuffling lamentation. Where the old Black Keys would've taken to this with a single heavy guitar and plenty of kick drum, this song is brilliantly paced and built, arranged and executed by a fully matured band. Whether these decisions were made by producer Danger Mouse, or the Keys, or both, they're the right call. Everything--from the song's beautiful build, to the vocal performance, to the brilliant inclusion of an overloud organ at the song's climax, to the countermelodies of that organ and the lead guitar--is executed brilliantly. "All You Ever Wanted" gives the Black Keys a broader, more versatile sound, and a brand new dimension as a live band.

If you like organ, or bluesy vocals, or what I like to call "dignified songs about loneliness," you'll like this song.

Johnathan Rice, "End of the Affair"
Mucho propers to Sound Guy Steve for introducing me to Rice. A cursory iTunes search reveals a mixed bag of songs that I may or may not be into, but "End of the Affair" is an inspired piece of songwriting. This song is, essentially, an ongoing breakup conversation between a guy and girl, with both parts singing, arguing, harmonizing, agreeing, disagreeing, etc. The way the two vocals with--and against--each other is really the story of the song. The opening line of each verse, ("So.....honey" or "So....sugar") is a great microcosm for the conflict of the song. A bouncy, upbeat harmony on "Sooooo" followed by a minor chord and the two singers saying the least sincere "honey" in the history of pop music. The mutual resentment is palpable. And awesome.
The melody throughout is catchy and accessible. The song is maybe at its most dynamic during the bridge, in which the two voices separate and sing brilliantly overlapping parts in a brief--but revealing--moment of dialogue. The girl leads, "You've got all your problems, I've got mine" while he cuts her off, "My hands are tied behind me..." They agree they're wasting each other's time, and that all of this amounts to something that just "ain't right." Tellingly, they repeat the word "right" at the end of the song, and the vocal delivery makes it more of a question than an answer. The songs starts with a declaration of certainty, and ends with a suggestion of ambiguity. The end of the affair might not actually be the end of this affair.

If you've ever had a breakup conversation that went in every direction and never actually settled anywhere, or found yourself in a frustrating relationship you couldn't quite leave, or looked across the table at someone and thought, "I couldn't be more sick of you," or you like male-female harmonies, or catchy melodies, or, you know, anything at all about pop music, you'll like this song.

I think about that great big button, and I'm tempted,

P.S. Lest you forget...

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