Song 6: I Can See For Miles

January 25, 2009

I’ve let things go a bit quiet here of late, though all those (millions, no doubt) who’ve been jonesing for more song action will be pleased to learn that I have a number of posts written up and ready to go in the next few weeks. For now though, just a quick one, to demonstrate that vital signs are still stable.

The Who’s 1968 album, The Who Sell Out is a pop art concept album based around the themes of advertising and consumerism. But like almost all concept albums, there’s a song or two that seems to have been shoe-horned in with scant regard to the integrity of the concept. “I Can See For Miles”, a seething warning to a straying girlfiend, is one such a song. Listen, it is awesome, no?

A great musical eccentric, Petra Haden is the daughter of revered jazz bassist Charlie Haden. A violinist since she was a child, she has played on a dazzling array of records that you probably have in your collection, first but not least of which is Beck’s “Loser” (yeah, I hadn’t noticed it had a violin on it either). For a year or two she was a member of briefly infamous Obama-boosters The Decembrists.  One of triplets (her sister Tanya is married to actor Jack Black) she occasionally performs with them as a sister act, The Haden Triplets (here’s a clip of them doing a pretty version of the Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl”).

In 2005, having never heard the record before, Haden was persuaded by a friend to do a note-for-note interpretation of The Who Sell Out. Well before Bjork’s entirely a capella Medúlla, Haden produced an oddball classic, “Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out“, using only her own voice, layered and multi-tracked. As if that weren’t enough, she decided to tour the album, which necessitated the recruitment of a choir, The Sell-Outs, and the arrangement of a 60’s rock album for 10-piece female choir.

All of which is a way of introducing the following clip, to which I’ve been addicted for the past week or so. The Who were probably the most resolutely masculine of all the classic rock bands, so there’s something wonderfully strange about hearing them interpreted thus. The performance is not quite “feminine”, with all the connotations that word entails, so much as it is defiantly female, something visibly underlined by the presence of a very pregnant singer at the far left of your screen . They are women: hear them roar.

Update: Embedding is disabled for this video, so follow the link here.


Song 5: I Was Drunk At The Pulpit

December 10, 2008

We were sitting outside a bar somewhere, and one of us, thinking aloud rather than engaging in conversation, absently read aloud the words “Made in Milwaukee, Wisconsin” from the label of his beer. “What Made Milwaukee Famous…” I responded.

“What made Milwaukee famous what?” he asked.

“Oh, I think there’s a song, What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out of Me)

“That’s an incredible song title. Is it a country song?”

“Probably. I bet it’s a great tune.”

“How could it not be?”

A few days later we had tracked down a Rod Stewart album with a reasonable-sounding version of the song, originally written by Jerry Lee Lewis. We bought one each. As expected, the song totally ruled.

Sometimes all you need is a title. The great story-telling songs are remarkable for their economy, for how they can make their story seem real to you with only a few lines, and a short few minutes. Some go a bit further and tell you everything you need to know in the title alone. The rest of the song is just a fulfilling of that outline.

Thus it was when I discovered the existence of a song by The Palace Brothers called “I Was Drunk At The Pulpit”. Familiar already with the gothic Americana of the Will Oldham style, I could hardly have failed to be enthralled by a title like that. This was a song that had me at hello. I immediately sought it out, and was not disappointed.

I was drunk at the pulpit,

though I knew it was wrong,

and I left in mid sermon,

tempted by a bar house song

it begins, the opening quatrain as striking as the title that makes up the first line. No time period is specified, though the song has an archaic feel to it. One pictures our narrator striding unsteadily out of a wooden New England church, sometime in the eighteenth century. Out the door and into the bar he goes, joining his old school mates, now far gone, years gone in drunkenness. They pull up a stool for him, as if they are surprised only that it’s taken him so long to join them. And there, in that “shit-smelling pit”, amongst the “grinning and dribbling” drinkers, our narrator has a crisis of faith. Whatever faith he professed and preached in the fool’s paradise of church was bogus, and only now in the dark and with the sinners does he feel God rise within.

The lyrics are extraordinarily complex, and I had to see them in writing before I could grasp everything that was going on in the song. This is most unusual – most songs seem a little thin and banal when stripped of their music, but this one loses none of its profundity. The phrase “church-dark widened eyes” is wordsmithery of the highest order, worthy of the finest of poets. Barely a line in the song is wasted – also unusual in song-writing, a discipline that does not disdain filler in the same way as does poetry. Take, by way of further example these piety-scorning lines:

Let them abstain

on unbucking high horses,

Poor wooden structures

that merely eye courses

This is an inspired conceit: the high horse as hobby horse, “unbucking” and therefore untesting, eyeing the courses of the world, but never running them.

There’s relentlessness to the song, an unswerving journey from church, to bar, to deep within the darkest recesses of the soul. The faith that is found here is a deep, dark, fiery one, and it is born of solitude. It ultimately amounts to nihilism. In shunning the church, the narrator shuns human society. The fact that he is surrounded by others in the bar does not mean he is not alone – a glance at the alcoholics drinking at mid-day in any pub will confirm that. In line after implacable line, he retreats further within himself, expressing his scorn for the very idea of companionship, concluding that “the world is within you and without is mud”.

It’s an uncompromising, frightening song, but then I knew that before I ever heard it.

Song 4: Carpetbaggers

November 26, 2008

After the end of the American Civil War, the farmers and plantation owners of Dixie were forced to confront the consequences of fighting a losing battle to maintain a slave economy. They had no money and no assets but land, and the land was both ruined by years of war, and unworkable without slave labour. Down from the north came opportunists with cash, looking for bargains. There’s a scene in Gone With the Wind where Scarlett confronts two of these Yankees, sending them home, as one might imagine, with fleas in their ears. The camera, with clumsy portentousness, makes sure we get a long look at their luggage.

These bargain hunters bought up much of the South for a song, and were unsurprisingly hugely resented, the best Irish parallel being the flash Returned Yank (someone someday should write a song about that, and the whole Yank/Yankee connection.) “Carpetbagger” entered the common language of the South and later of all of America, where it means any opportunistic outsider or new arrival on the make. When Hillary Clinton made her home in New York, the better to run for US Senate there, the epithet was levelled at her, as it had been at John McCain upon his arrival in Arizona years before.

Jenny Lewis was born in Las Vegas, and is best known as lead singer of Indie band Rilo Kiley, so the emphasis in her solo work on American roots music might strike certain purists as a bit carpetbaggerish itself. Me, I think the proof is in the listening, and given my tastes, it’s hardly a surprise that I prefer her two solo records to anything by Rilo Kiley. In “Carpetbaggers”, written by her boyfriend and musical partner Jonathan Rice, she warns not of Northern Republicans but gold-digging women. “Carpetbagger” has shown it’s self to be a versatile phrase over the decades, and Lewis here gives it a whole new meaning without ever overstretching. The song’s opening lines combine the metaphor’s new use with its post-bellum origin so effortlessly that one is amazed that no-one ever thought of doing it before:

They come to town when the war is over

Dirty boots in the middle of the night,

Trolling the bars, hitting on soldiers,

The boys give it up without a fight

Yes, the boys always give it up without a fight. Not for us the resistance of the Confederacy. Seduction goes from Fort Sumter to Appomattox within the space of an evening. Speaking of seduction, although it doesn’t come within the remit of the song as written, I feel I must draw your attention to the middle portion of the below video, and the awesomeness therein. There is a certain kind of male music fan with a fondness for the female voice who looks upon certain of the more attractive of those artists with an adolescent mixture of adoration and lust. They are nothing so vulgar as groupies – they actually want the singer in question to be their girlfriend. This video, and in particular the bit starting at 1:20 will be like catnip to them.

I am not, quite, one of the dudes described above, but seriously, synchronised dancing in a gold lame minidress and cowboy boots with a beer bottle in hand? That is perhaps the finest minute of rock chick cool I have ever witnessed.

The song’s second verse continues the warning, this time relating the cautionary tale of a friend who let himself get hooked by one the carpetbaggers. In the released version on Acid Tongue, that part is sung by Elvis Costello, but I prefer the live version where the song’s author sings the verse. Costello’s voice is all wrong for country, and his arrival is so sudden and incongruous that it threatens, for a moment, to throw the whole song off kilter. There is something a bit awkward about having that second verse sung by a male voice, whoever’s it is. It has to be admitted that the ball-and-chain type stuff is a little misogynistic, but I suppose songs about no-good wives and husbands are par for the course in country music. (In fact, I’d argue that up until gangsta rap took over hip hop, mainstream or classic rock was the genre that was most consistent in it’s marginalising of the female perspective. But that’s for another post). Whatever the sexual politics, it’s a well written verse, providing some symmetry to the song, and finishes with a reference to the Carter Family’s “I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore”, appropriate given the genre. True, it might have been more palatable sung by Jenny, by the break gave her an opportunity to do that dance. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back and watch it again. Though, as I say, I’m not really one of those dudes.

Songs 2 & 3: Absent Friends

November 14, 2008

Poor Kirsty McColl. In life she was always overshadowed by her father, folk singer and songwriter Ewan. In death, she is remembered more than anything else for her duet with Shane McGowan on Fairytale of New York. Even in this post, she suffers the indignity of having to share space with another. Never mind, she produced so many jewels of the songwriting art that I’ll have plenty of material for a later post dedicated to her alone. Despite her roots, McColl wasn’t much of a folkie. One of the Pogues once joked that she had to learn the words to her father’s songs – it was only Beach Boys songs that she knew by heart. She specialised rather in witty, polished pop, sometimes shot through with melancholy. Her persona; smart, funny, nobody’s fool but hopelessly romantic, was in place right from her first single, the deathless “They Don’t Know”.

Though held in high critical esteem, her record as a commercial artist was consistently disappointing. Her 1985 single, “He’s On the Beach”, like most of her releases, was a flop.

“He was just a friend of mine I’d run into from time to time” it begins. The remainder of the song is devoted to how much she misses her old friend, now that he’s gone to Australia, maybe forever. It’s possible that he was more than just a friend, but I think that this doesn’t really matter. The sadness in the song is as much about missing one’s own lost youth and the days when “we used to share a taste for wine”, as about missing the person. The chorus, decked out in 80’s synthesizer finery, is thrilling, the refrain of “He says it’s brilliant there” managing the trick of being euphoric and sad at the same time. McColl finds the time over the song’s four minutes to muse on whether her friend is happy in Australia, and speculates that he might be lonely there, might not have found whatever it was he went looking for. To my ears, this is unconvincing, like her assertions that “he’s changed somehow, it’s in his postcards now”. All of this concern for his well-being feels like window-dressing for the fact that his leaving upset her more than she cares to admit. Maybe he was the one that got away, or maybe he’s just a reminder of the foreign adventures that the singer never got around to having; either way the sadness of knowing that “he’s out reach” is palpable, and lends an air of dreamy longing to the song’s closing.

Most people of my generation will acknowledge that for much of our childhoods, the best time to see music videos was on Sunday morning. The Beatbox held the slot for longest, but the original and best Sunday video show was Vincent Hanley’s MTUSA. Hanley presented the show from New York, and only played American videos, so you could usually be sure of seeing and hearing things that you just couldn’t get at home. One of the songs Hanley introduced to an Irish audience was “Anchorage” by Michelle Shocked. The song was never a hit, and yet most people I mention it to remember it, so it seems likely we all heard it first on MTUSA. I remember liking it, but I had no very strong memories. Then, a few years ago I heard it on the radio, and it was…astonishing. It’s little wonder it didn’t leave that much a mark on my 12-year old self. Anchorage is a song for adults, more specifically for those around the age of 30.

Texan Michelle writes a letter to one of her old Dallas buddies, but the reply is postmarked Anchorage, Alaska. The rest of the song is the text of her friend’s reply. We all have old friends who live far away, and in our more sombre moments we wonder how many years it will be before we see them again. The line “Hey ‘Shelle, the last time I saw you was on Me and Leroy’s wedding day” will resonate with many of us. As much as a wedding is about starting a new life, it is often about leaving behind some of one’s past. In ways we’re not aware of on the day, it is sometimes a goodbye party. Michelle sang a love song that day; her friend can’t recall how it goes. Life speeds up when you’re far away, and changes that might have been considered earth-shattering – like moving to Alaska – can happen to friends without you even knowing about them. Michelle’s friend says she’s got a brand new baby girl, and notes that if she sounds like a housewife, it’s because that’s what she’s become.

We all make our choices for a reason, but part of us, like Kirsty McColl in “He’s on the Beach”, wonders what might have happened if we’d done otherwise. Such reflections bring with them reminders that we only get one life, and one youth, and they can’t but be bittersweet. Though happy enough in the chilly domesticity of Alaska, Michelle’s friend is envious of the different path taken by her musician friend, mumbling a half-spoken “New York City, imagine that?” in appreciation. Shocked is not unaware of the powerful symbolism of settling down in a city called “Anchorage”, and makes full use of it, repeating the phrase “Anchored down in Anchorage”, evoking security as well as an end to adventure – or a certain kind of adventure, at any rate. There’s an acknowledgment in her friend’s letter that her own wild days are behind her, but there’s no resentment of Michelle’s more footloose life, and the affection that Shocked puts into the line “Leroy says ‘Aaaw…keep on rockin’, girl’ ” is close to heartbreaking.

The world may seem smaller now, with friends never more than an email or Skype call away, but the brute facts of geography and time remain real, and these songs, though different in style, speak to our experiences of those realities. There can be few people over the age of 25 who don’t feel the truth of at least one of them. It’s sentimental to think that the roads we didn’t take must always have been better ones than those we did, and it’s unrealistic to think we can embrace the future without leaving some treasured things behind us on the way. But I think it’s only fair that we are allowed to occasionally feel sad about it.

Song 1: Frankie And Johnny

November 11, 2008

Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts, that’s the way the story goes. Actually, the story often doesn’t go that way at all. Like so many of the best folk songs, the origins of Frankie and Johnnie are wrapped in mystery and ambiguity. Was the song a true story? Did Frankie actually kill Johnny? Were Frankie and Johnny even their names?

The song has taken on many forms, but the basic outline remains the same. Frankie and Johnny (or Frankie and Albert, or Frankie and Alan) were sweethearts. Johnny done Frankie wrong, with a girl named Nellie Bly (or Alice Bly, or Alice Fry, or Alice Pryor, or Mary Bley). So Frankie shot Johnny dead. Within that framework, anything can happen. Folk songs collect and cross-reference meaning over time, acquiring and shedding layers in a confused game of pass the parcel. Johnny Cash, though still in his dangerous, edgy prime, turned the song into a depressingly harmless morality tale, Johnny’s infidelity limited to a little flirting with Frankie’s sister, and his comeuppance amounting to no more than a slap in the face.

More often, Frankie is matter-of-fact and undistressed as she pops a cap in her man’s ass. She goes to the gallows unrepentant – after all, he was doing her wrong, what else is a girl supposed to do? Often, the judge agrees, and lets Frankie go free, with the suggestion that he and she might be meeting up after the trial.

This much we know. On Monday October 16th, 1899, in St. Louis Missouri, Frankie Baker shot and fatally wounded Allen (aka Albert) Britt after an argument over another woman, Nellie Bly. By the following night, local singer Bill Dooley had written a song about it, called “Frankie Killed Allen”. The number of versions spawned by that hastily written cash-in are estimated to number well over 300, from this Elvis Presley travesty to this hugely likeable rendition by Lindsey Lohan.

The definitive version is probably Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie”, a measured, almost amused rendition of the tale, accompanied by sprightly, complex guitar picking. Legend has it that classical guitar maestro Andrés Segovia heard this beautiful recording and was astounded to learn that the shower of splintering notes was the product of a single guitar.

Sam Cooke’s 1963 version is another thing altogether, though not without a share of the same fatalistic humour. Updated with references to nightclubs and sportscars, it had a Sinatra-esque swing, a mix of showtune and the Soul music Cooke was still only beginning to invent. Despite the jauntiness of his version, it remains a murder ballad, with all the bleak flatness of the genre. Psychology has no place in the folk song. People just do things, we don’t know or care why. We get no insight into Frankie’s thought process. She sees Johnnie’s arm around the waist of another woman, and that’s enough to send her into her handbag for her pistol. Without even demanding explanations, she puts three bullets into Johnny, right there on the dancefloor. Cooke was no stranger to seedy, occasionally violent nightclubs, nor to the fury of women betrayed by infidelity. As an artist it was his special genius take the simplest of material and imbue it with melody and romance. Thus, as Johnny falls to the floor, he delivers an aria of grovelling: “Frankie, you know that I love you… Frankie, I was telling her about you…” It is as beguiling as it is pathetic, the half-sincere pleading of a man so charming he believes his own bullshit. It almost seems too neat, too perfect that Cooke later died from a gun shot by a woman, but it remains true that the man’s beauty, charm, talent and irresponsibility, summed up in those dying moments of Frankie and Johnny, are also what got him into the kind of trouble which would eventually kill him.

If Cooke made Johnny a lovable rogue, while barely bothering with Frankie, Beth Orton turns the tables to haunting effect. A big hit with her first album about ten years ago, the English folk singer has delivered diminishing returns ever since, and dropped off the popular radar, but her “Frankie and Albert” is perhaps the finest version I’ve heard. Here, the key is not that Frankie shot Albert, but the fact, hammered home in refrain after refrain, that “He’s her man, and he was doing her wrong”. For Orton, the song is about Albert’s betrayal, nothing else. She doesn’t even try to argue that Frankie’s reaction was reasonable, it was simply what Frankie did, as if fated. He was doing her wrong, Orton repeats, as if that was all we needed to know. “Dark was night, cold was the ground”, sings Orton, echoing another great blues song, as Frankie goes to gallows. No explanation, no repentance. Frankie’s execution doesn’t even matter in Orton’s scheme of things. It’s not even the last verse. With the protagonists both dead, she revisits the scene of the real crime once more, repeating the verse where Frankie finds Albert with Alice Fry, as if it were a sin more profound than mere murder. By the time she’s finished, you’re almost inclined to agree with her.

How does this happen? How does the same story tug our sympathies this way and that, or not at all, depending on how it’s told? How does such a sparse framework support so much meaning? I’ve said that one will search a folk song in vain for evidence of the workings of reason.In Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, a film all about folk songs and the wisdom held therein, George Clooney says “It’s a fool as looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” So maybe it’s something to do with that.

These Are Songs

October 16, 2008

At any given time, there will usually be one or two songs driving me crazy. For days, sometimes weeks on end, I have to listen to them every few hours, and I spend hours on end thinking about them, trying to figure them out. The idea of this blog is that I can do my obsessing out loud. Where possible I’ll embed youtube performances of the songs, otherwise I’ll use links to Grooveshark, which seems to offer every song in the world for free streaming.

The songs will tend to be American, because that is where so much of my favorite music comes from, but I’ll do my best not to get stuck in one genre, place or era. Readers can feel free to send me suggestions, but because I can never predict what songs I fall in love with, I can’t promise I’ll include your suggested song in the blog. Finally, I will never write about a song from the Berlin Cabaret tradition, because that is the worst kind of music in the world.