A Tale Of Two Lyrics
Billy Joel and Elvis Costello serve up the same liquor – but with very different spirit
If you love a good drink, you know the obvious but very important difference between a good and bad bartender. Both will put a libation in front of you for a fee – both will perform the same essential function – but what they put into it and what you get out of it can be worlds apart. And when I say “put into it”, I’m not talking about some fancy-pants mixologist sprinkling pomegranate bitters he made at home on his off hours into your cocktail… I’m talking about care. I’m talking about heart. The good bartender and the bad bartender are using the same tools – the same ingredients – but the end product, and our enjoyment of it, are very different.
And so it is with songwriters.
The tune came on in the background, creeping in while I wasn’t paying attention. The intro of this song – despite the literally countless times I’ve heard it – sometimes tricks me into not immediately recognizing it… the dominance of the harmonica over the piano can make my brain think it’s a Dylan track from an album I don’t listen to much, or maybe even an early Harry Chapin song. But then those trills on the piano take over, leading into the first verse, and I get that sinking feeling when I realize I’m listening to Billy Joel’s Piano Man. And then Joel starts singing, and right there in the first stanza is a lyric that makes me cringe so hard that it prevents any possible chance I might have of enjoying this barroom tale of woe.
It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sitting next to me
Making love to his tonic and gin
Now, it’s not the overly romantic, melodramatic nature of the observation that bothers me; yes, the sad-sack barroom is a well worn trope in song, but cliches have to start somewhere – and in that way, Joel is only as guilty as someone like Tom Waits, whose writing I very much admire. So although it feels overdramatic and corny, it is not the fact that an old man is making love to a drink that bothers me.
It is the fact that Joel refers to that drink in a way that no other human ever would.
Does he say the time is o’clock of nine? Is the song happening on the day of Saturn? Is the bar located in bizarro world? Does Joel deliver the song in character as Yoda?
So why on earth is he the only person to call that very well known drink a “tonic and gin”?
The answer is simple: lazy songwriting.
He has flipped gin and tonic around to make a rhyme. To make, no less, a rhyme involving the word “in”. Most writers who force a less than spectacular (or not quite perfect) rhyme do so to secure the use of a great word or phrase. If Joel had another patron in the second line drinking Tomatin (a single malt Scotch from the Highland region) then I might look the other way on “tonic and gin” for the creativity of the rhyme. But for “in”?! Now, I’m not saying that “in” is a shitty word… but to absurdly turn “gin and tonic” around to preserve it? That is just apathetic. And pathetic.
The first online rhyming dictionary I looked at lists 91 rhymes for “in”. And no, not all of them would work in the first stanza of Piano Man – there’s probably no place for foreskin in there… but could someone be drowning in sin? Could they be a has-been? Could they have too thin skin? Full of chagrin? Wound as tight as the string on an old mandolin? Hiding something within? Staring at their drink with the face of a mannikin? Something!?!
But of course, these are all off the cuff ideas to save the phrase “the regular crowd shuffles in”, which is a fine enough lyric, but not exactly “The ghost of electricity howled in the bones of her face” or anything. The fact is, if you need to turn gin and tonic around to save “shuffles in” in the first stanza of your song, you need to start again. But Joel doesn’t, and so he serves us up a lazy, unimaginative first draft lyric like a bartender serving a badly proportioned Old Fashioned in a highball glass. Without a napkin. (Hey – another rhyme for “shuffles in”.)
This is why I prefer Elvis Costello to serve me drinks. In Indoor Fireworks, he describes his lost love like this:
You were the spice of life
The gin in my vermouth
And though the sparks would fly
I thought our love was fireproof
Now, I know that what we have there is not a perfect rhyme. It is, in fact, a general oblique rhyme. In the hierarchy of rhyming, strictly speaking, “in/gin” is a better rhyme than “vermouth/fireproof”. But in an artistic sense, the latter towers over the former like the bottle of 30 year old Macallan four shelves above the Canadian Club at the bar.
Costello’s rhyme is audacious and wholly original. I imagine there are countless songs in the world, recorded and not, that feature “in” and “gin” as a couplet; it is quite possible that Indoor Fireworks is the only song to pair “vermouth” and “fireproof”.
That lyric is an act of engaged imagination – created by someone with a love for language and an interest in communicating in a unique and evocative fashion…not of someone simply taking the path of least resistance. Not of someone who needs some stuff to sing over the music he wrote.
Costello’s rhyme is what art should be – bold and surprising and effortful in the sense that you can tell he gave a damn. (It also doesn’t hurt that there is word play involved, using a word containing “proof” when referencing liquor. You may think that that’s a stretch, but I would lay good money on the fact that the guy who wrote lyrics like “til I step on the brake to get out of her clutches” was aware of the internal interplay…)
Elvis is making your drink with care and attention to detail, and though he may even be pouring from the same bottle of gin Billy Joel is using, the discrepancy in quality is as clear as that juniper infused liquid itself .
Costello has the heart of an artist, jumping from genre to genre as he searches and grows. He is the bartender I will seek out and follow, no matter what bar – pop, rock, classical, country – he is serving in. Joel seems like he’s still down at that dingy piano bar, serving up the easily and hastily mixed drinks, and though I may hear the strains of a tune as I pass by it on the street, I’m not going in to belly up if I can possibly help it.
I Got My First Real Non Six String – or how a Joe Jackson 45 changed my life
Growing up on the fault-line between Scarborough and Toronto in late 70’s and early 80’s, hard rock was king. There seemed to be a homogeneousness to the musical cultural landscape at that time and place that was as boring as it was comfortable. And people wore it like a Zoso patch of pride. It’s not that there weren’t some Elvis Costello inspired, skinny tie wearing boys, or the odd girl with an English Beat button pinned to her canvas purse – it’s just that they were almost drowned in the sea of lumberjackets, Kodiaks, and Rush t-shirts. These were the waters I sprung from… and they felt plenty warm to me.
It’s not that I didn’t like any music that wasn’t hard rock – if my old, crappy record player could talk it might tell tales of sensitive Styx ballads, Harry Chapin story songs and Billy Joel confessionals. But most of that music was comprised of songs I loved from my childhood – songs that I liked before I understood (and needed to understand) that what you liked was what you were like. Pass the Triumph, please.
I saw Joe Jackson on television at some point early on, singing I’m The Man directly into the camera with both a sneer and a John Waters mustache on his face. The poppy/punky/rocky aesthetic of the song made sense to me, in the way that The Police made sense to me. Still rock enough not to be wussy, but edgy in a way that was exciting and fresh. He was on my rock radar.
So when I came across a used copy of the Breaking Us In Two/Target 45 for $1.99, I figured it was a cheap way to check out more of this guy’s stuff. I tucked it under my arm along with Hooligans and put my money down.
I got home, saving Townshend et al until later – knowing The Who were dependable – and dropped the needle on the A side of my new 45. Breaking Us In Two washed over me…but to mix my metaphors, it also built a bridge – a Bridge Over The River Rock – connecting me back to the earnest, warm songwriters I loved before sheer volume and thrust were the prerequisites for admiration. BUT – unlike, say, Joel’s Just The Way You Are or Styx’s saccharine Babe, Breaking Us In Two wasn’t embarrassing in its earnestness. It was grown up, complicated, and unlike most pop songs dealing with love, ambiguous. Over an arrangement of piano, synth, bass, drums, percussion and a gorgeous melody (perhaps partially nicked from an old Badfinger song), Jackson sketches a relationship in trouble. The couple in question could “stay at home and stare into each other’s eyes”, but he admits that, “maybe we could last an hour/ maybe then we’d see right through”. We are not told what they may see through to – or if they ever do. The song is just a snapshot – a moment in time for two people not sure if they should continue or not – and the fade out is almost wistful in its uncertainty. It is a song that moves me still.
But it was the B side that changed my life.
The piano that introduced the main riff to Target had nothing to do with balladry. It was a groove I would later understand to be Latin, but at the time it was like a sound from another planet. A cool, groovy planet. By the time Sue Hadjopoulos played a roll on the timbale to bring in the rest of the band (only 4 bars in) I had already forgotten who AC/DC were.
I was probably half way through the offhand, urban cool of Target before I had a small epiphany – there was no guitar on either side of this 45! I had never knowingly listened to a song with no guitar on it – and would not have gone out of my way to do so, for fear of having my mullet revoked.
It was the first record I could remember that made me want to dance. That was a totally perplexing and alien feeling – bones were not there to support your body in movement… they were there to be crushed by Jimmy Page’s riffs, period.
The song catapulted forward for four minutes – including an organ/synth/horn/percussion break in the middle that positively burned – before fading out much like it had crept in. And by that time, what could be “cool” in music had been rewritten for me. Very soon after I bought the astoundingly good Night And Day album that these songs come from, and I immediately wanted to crawl into the inner sleeve picture and hang in that cramped studio with those magicians…
(Incidentally, if I was a target market group for how singles work – and this particular piece of vinyl was the example being studied – they would come out 100% successful. After I bought the LP these songs came from, I bought the live album some of those songs were featured on, I bought all his other albums, I re-bought many of them on CD, I bought concert tickets multiple times, and I bought his memoir. That $1.99 led to a lot of purchases. And a lot of great music.)
So while Breaking Us In Two/Target built that bridge over the river rock that went backwards into my pre-rock past… it went forwards, too. It opened my eyes to a world of music – music without guitar riffs at its centre – and every time I spin up Regina Spektor, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Carole King, Ravi Shankar or bloody Beethoven I owe Joe Jackson a thank you. And I can still enjoy guitar/bass/drums ripping-riffing up a rock song, content in the knowledge that music is a vast landscape – immeasurably wider than Scarborough circa ’81 ever seemed.
Stop it – you’re making me Hornby…
This list started, unconsciously, at a New Year’s Eve party I was attending as the aughts disappeared into the future. If I were a better, more productive, less obsessive person it would probably be a list of resolutions. Maybe one day…
It was the type of party where the snacks have a theme. Where fashionable, bespectacled people share well informed opinions about art, politics and literature. (Somewhat well informed – I did hear someone opine that Beyonce was “the artist of the decade.” I don’t have anything against Beyonce per se, but I don’t think that anyone lives in a universe where she is the artist of the decade – not even her…) Now don’t get me wrong – this wasn’t some hoity toity, stuck up affair. These were good people, and those of whom I talked to for any length of time I really liked. It’s just that it was a step or two up from the empty-a-bag-of-pretzels-into-a-bowl gatherings I’m used to. To get to the essence of it, it was the type of party where, although I can hold my own, I feel a little in over my head. Not WITH IT.
I found myself in a conversation with the party’s host (who I had just met that night) about music. He had compiled an iTunes playlist from one of the many “best of the decade” articles published leading up to 2010, and it was playing as we talked – song after song going by, unrecognized by me. As a backdrop to the inevitable question of what I thought the best album of the decade was, this soundtrack had me feeling vaguely like the anachronistic, out-of-touch person that I’m often afraid I am. His own answer to the question (a seminal recording by a well respected, independent Toronto band formed in the last decade) might have also made me panic – I don’t know for sure – but the fact is, I blurted out Bob Dylan’s Love & Theft.
Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that answer, really (and I will defend it shortly), but I did feel like a Man Out Of Time. (I should also add that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with BSS as an answer, either…) I mean, I WANT to be the guy who knows every band you’ve never heard of. And I want to love them. I really do. At least I did in that moment. The fact that probably THE most famous songwriter of the last century came out as my answer made me feel lame – but is being a fan of someone as prolific, genre-crashing, brilliant, cool and essential as Dylan lame? Hardly. And did the host of the party think that the village idiot had wandered into his apartment, scarfed down some brie, and proceeded to spout some bullshit about an archaic sixties wanker? I doubt it. At any rate, I’m willing to bet my entire seventies prog-rock collection that he hasn’t obsessed over his answer the way that I have about mine. But there you go — my obsessive worrying, to paraphrase Mamet, is my own.
The truth is, I’m a bit less elk’s-head tattoo and a bit more Goat’s Head Soup. I lean old. I don’t think I’m ageist – I have listened to, and greatly enjoyed, some young bands – or bands made up of young people. Great Toronto bands like Spiral Beach, or my friend Ben Whiteley’s band Flashlight Radio. Some of the people in those groups, I am, technically, old enough to have parented. (That is, of course, if I had had the good fortune of having sex when I was seventeen…) But it’s true, these are the exception in my listening practice, not the rule. And I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with that – except that deep down, it sometimes makes me feel a tiny bit superior in my tastes – like I’m not falling for a bunch of media bullshit about who is supposed to be good. I already know what’s good, because history has proven it. As if all the great music has already been made, and everything now is just pale frippery. I’m not proud of that, mind you – and believe me when I tell you that I LOVE being proven wrong. And have been many times. But I do have some sort of fail-safe position that says that things were better back when. But there are moments, like the one at this party, where what I like makes me feel like an out-of-touch loser.
Maybe all this is the curse of thinking too much – something I surely suffer from. It may also be a case off taking music too seriously. Hmm, not sure about that last bit…
So, all that is to say that a list started to form in my head. A list of my favourite records of the last decade, and why I love them. Some, certainly, are by people who are old. But some, it must be said, are by people who have only ever worn bell-bottoms retroactively. I should add, parenthetically, that my gig as a drummer has meant that I have been involved with a handful of records made in this last decade that might have just made their way onto this list – records by Claire Jenkins, Daniel Sky, Karyn Ellis, Treasa Levasseur, Evalyn Parry and The Undesirables. But that seems vaguely self-congratulatory – or incestuous – so they don’t make the list. They are, however, well worth a listen…
So here it is – brought to you in stream-of-consciousness order…
Love & Theft – Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan released – and I purchased – Love & Theft on September 11th, 2001. I can remember telling someone that fact a few years on, and they gave me a look that strongly indicated that that was THE WRONG THING TO HAVE DONE. Like it was somehow disrespectful and frivolous. Looking back, it seems like the perfect thing to have done. I recall wandering up to Bloor Street around 2 p.m., needing a break from the TV footage we were all glued to on that terrible day. I passed by a CD shop and there was Bob’s grisly visage in the window, staring out at me. I think it was somehow comforting – a wizened, timeless face that was going to be there to stare into your soul no matter what maniacal madness was unfolding. I remember thinking as I entered how odd it was to hear the radio playing in a record store, but the news that day was inescapable.
And the record was inescapable, too. It knew where we had been, and frighteningly, it seemed to know where we were headed. From the opening moment, where over top of a relentless and spooky groove, that blown-out-car-muffler of a voice entered with “Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee/Are throwing knives into the tree,” you knew things were going down. On the next song, Mississippi, there’s a “Sky full of fire/Pain pouring down.” Not good times. It is an album that has a certain nostalgia for old-timey, vaudeville melody and instrumentation, but the reverb of the music mixed with the dryness of the vocal seems to be saying, That was definitely Then, not Now. There is a foreboding that cuts through any sense of sweetness that the beautiful twin guitars might give you. And on that sunny September day in particular, it seemed to be saying that we can’t go back. In High Water, “They’ve got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five/The judge says to the high sheriff, I want him dead or alive/Either one, I don’t care.” If the father of evolution himself was being treated with such blatant disrespect, how were any of us – the Masters of War in particular – ever going to evolve?
The Rising – Bruce Springsteen.
And in the wake of that day – and the pain, jingoism and war that followed – it felt like someone had to make an artistic statement about it. Not a patriotic, flag-waving salute to the brave soldiers. Not a left-wing attack on all things Bush. A statement that reflected the stories of the people – their hearts, their hurts and their desire for redemptive healing. It seemed like a job tailor-made for the Bruce Springsteen of the ‘70’s – the Bruce who wrote Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Stolen Car. The Bruce who gave voice to those who didn’t always have their own – who believed in the American dream, but got mowed down anyway. That was the Bruce Springsteen that was needed, and quite amazingly, Bruce Springsteen turned out to be that Bruce Springsteen.
It’s not that Springsteen had been wandering in the wilderness, exactly. American Skin (41 Shots), a song about the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo, and Dead Man Walking (from the film of the same name) were definitely some of the OLD STUFF – but it did seem that since walking off of E Street to try some different directions, he hadn’t fully been connecting with his songs or his audience. A reunion tour with his old bandmates in 2000, celebrating the music they had made together, seemed to be a step toward the creative resurgence of that unit, and sure enough The Rising delivered that and more.
It is an album written on human scale – stories of loss, of pain and of everyday heroism. Of the firefighter climbing the stairs to his certain death, and of the one who survived – who can’t quite believe that after what he experienced that “The sky is still that same unbelievable blue.” And it is full of the emotions of those left behind. “I woke up this morning/I could barely breathe/An empty impression/In the bed where you used to be/I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye/I woke up this morning/To an empty sky.” Springsteen even goes so far down the path of humanization and empathy as to write a song, Paradise, from the perspective of a suicide bomber. And yet all is not doom and gloom. There are good times to be had – but the good times are not frivolous, they are earned. By the time you get to the end of the title track, the redemption that those two lovers in Thunder Road were looking for has arrived, and the scars it’s helping to heal make it all the more satisfying.
Funeral – Arcade Fire.
Another album born out of loss and grief, Funeral is a sonic juggernaut, unrelenting and intense. It also feels like a heartfelt, angry and earnest torpedo fired into a sea of apathy. “And the power’s out/In the heart of man/Take it from your heart/Put it in your hand.” An indie band that gives a shit. It’s almost hard to remember now, given its ubiquitous nature and its army of copycats, but Arcade Fire and their beautiful debut were fresh, unique and really exciting. The musicianship is top notch and always in the service of the song. Just try ignoring it – it’s about as easy as NOT staring at a guy who’s wearing a Viking helmet while being hit in the head with a drum stick.
The Creak Drank The Cradle – Iron and Wine.
And then there are those guys who have the gall to think that some low-fi recording of just voice and guitar is worth our time. Sam Beam’s first album, The Creak Drank The Cradle is a gentle, slightly distant sounding piece of poetry. It sounds a bit like what Nick Drake might have created if he were Appalachian. It has a strangely timeless quality, partly because of the instrumentation (guitar, voice and banjo) and recording quality, and partly because of the old, quasi-religious imagery of the lyrics – muddy hymnals, lion’s manes and kids playing with “wooden buttons and an apple core.” Iron and Wine went on to make a great EP-length record with Calexico that is wonderful as well, but this album is really special.
Time (The Revelator) – Gillian Welch.
It doesn’t take a lot of gall to make a record with only two voices and two guitars when one guitar is played by David Rawlings and the unearthly harmonies belong to him and Welch. It is hard to believe that two people can sing together this well. That they can sound like one voice, but not be tight or predictable or “part-y”. There is so much to love on this album, from the stompy banjo twang of My First Lover to the gentle seductive lilt of Dear Someone. The odd continuation of April The 14th (part 1) on Ruination Day (part 2) – and the way the first fades out and the second fades in with two songs in between – gives the whole record a slightly dreamy quality. And Welch gives us lovely images to go with the musical beauty and grit – her description of young Elvis, “And he shook it like a chorus girl/He shook it like a Harlem queen/He shook it like a midnight rambler” – and then the Graceland bound, aging King – “He shook it and he rang like silver/He shook it and he shine like gold/He shook it and he beat that steam drill.”
And then, of course, there’s the mighty epic simplicity of the last track, I Dream A Highway. It clocks in at 14:39, and in my book it’s still too short. I don’t have much to say about how much I love this masterpiece except to say that my iTunes would tell you that it is the single most played song in my whole collection, surely owing to the fact that I listened to nothing but this song for possibly a week straight, locked in its hypnotic tractor beam of wonder.
Endless Wire – The Who.
Speaking of epics…
Well, it would be hard for a record of new songs by my single favourite rock songwriter not to make the list. “The Who,” now whittled down to two of its four original members, released its first studio album in twenty-four years, removing the particularly depressing 1982 release It’s Hard from it’s position of swan song. What this really is is a Pete Townshend solo album with Roger Daltrey singing most of the songs. But, excusing the math, 50% still ain’t half bad.
The album is, in fact, much more than half good. Thematically, it is classic Townshend – the concerns and obsessions of the aborted Lifehouse project (which begat the stellar Who’s Next, among other things) pervade both the standalone tracks that make up the first half and the “mini opera” that makes up the second. From the self-consciously self-derivative Baba O’Reilly-esque opening Fragments to the beautiful, lost members requiem Tea & Theatre, Endless Wire is far better than it has any right being.
And that is the interesting thing about a new release from a classic band – no one really needs it. Or at least we’re led to think we don’t. Bands like The Who are always a little gaunt and pasty from spending too much time in their own shadows. When you’ve written a handful of formative British Invasion singles and invented the rock opera by the time you’re in your early twenties, what are you supposed to do? Townshend was already bemoaning this position back on Who Are You – thirty-two years ago. And classic-rock radio is doing great bands no favours, either. Eclectic catalogues by creative groups are narrowed down to four or five classic hits that have all the life sucked out of them with endless rotation. If it weren’t for the fact that I had a good friend who was a real Zephead, Q107 would have taught me that they were just cock-rock idiots with heavy riffs. I now know that they are cock rockers who love Tolkien…(Okay, and write great songs, and play cool odd-time stuff, and use interesting instrumentation, and have great arrangements, and have amazing guitar solos, and have the single greatest rhythm section in rock.) But unlike fellow rock gods Zeppelin, The Who has also been careless with its own legacy. Both bands officially ended around the same time, and Zep didn’t release a collection or “best of” until well into the nineties, and it was a four-disc box set. The Who had two or three greatest-hit collections out while they were still an active band. Not the best way to maintain the integrity of your work.
So all that comes to bear on a release like Endless Wire, which is earned, I guess, but also too bad. Because there are five or six songs on there that any band would be proud (and praised) to have in their collection. They might even put them on a “best of”…
Raising Sand – Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Cock rock indeed…
Not much to say about this album, except that the joy is that how big a non sequitur the pairing seemed was in equal relation to how well it worked. Two amazing singers, great songs and stunning production. Please Read The Letter is a stone cold classic, Krauss’ vocal jumps on Trampled Rose are astounding, and the pair’s take on Your Long Journey is heartbreaking. Plant passed on a Led Zeppelin reunion tour to focus on this project. Just listen and you’ll hear why.
Destination Unknown – Sexsmith & Kerr.
Speaking of great pairings…
Praising Ron Sexsmith’s songwriting ability is a little like shooting fish in a barrel. What’s the point – you’re just gonna end up with some dead fish and a leaky barrel. Anyway…this record is like any great Sexsmith collection – songs of longing, melancholy, love and joy – but the practically telepathic connection between him and his longtime collaborator/drummer/vocalist/cellist Don Kerr makes this record a thing of quiet glory. Their beautiful two-part harmonies illuminate these gentle, subtle songs in a way that makes you feel like they ran a Lemonade Stand together as children. Choose rejoicing and choose this record – it will make your heart smile.
Bachelor No. 2 – Aimee Mann.
(Okay — and Lost In Space, and The Forgotten Arm, and @#%&*! Smilers)
Well, I cannot tell a lie – Aimee is my Mann. She is as good as it gets in my books. When at her best, she swims in those rarefied waters shared by the likes of Paul McCartney, Carole King and Elvis Costello – people who create pop songs so concise, so perfect that they enter the world of the sublime. She writes songs that are, like the boxer character at the centre of her concept record The Forgotten Arm, at their fighting weight – not an ounce of fat to be found.
Bachelor No. 2, which in my opinion is her single best record – just barely inching out Lost In Space – is the record that her label didn’t want. They’d grown tired of her not achieving a hit, and decided not to release this album. Around the same time, her friend P.T. Anderson was writing what would become Magnolia, and decided to use a few of her lyrics and songs – Save Me and Wise Up in particular – as an integral part of his film. An Oscar nom later, and on her own label, this album entered the world.
And what an album it is. It is a collection of pop masterpieces, songs that go from strength to strength. Her songs are the perfect balance of the surprising and the inevitable – you don’t know exactly where they are going, but when they get there, it’s clear that they couldn’t have ended up anywhere else. There is nothing remotely haphazard going on – from the production, music, performance and, of course, the lyrics, it is a record that knows what it is doing. Mann cuts deep into the bones of sadness, greed, bravado, ego and pain in a way that a lot of songwriters don’t dare – or aren’t observant enough to manage. She’s made three other great albums in the last decade, but Bachelor No. 2 is the stuff of the ages. (It should be mentioned that she lost the songwriting Oscar in 2000, the year this album was released, to Phil Collins – so maybe I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about after all…)
Try Whistling This – Neil Finn.
I discovered this album through my friend (and record producer) Taras Petryk. He mentioned its unique production in some conversation we were having, and it sounded good enough without hearing it to…well, hear it. It IS an amazingly well produced record – old organ beat boxes, subtly placed samples and odd sound effects swarm around the guitars, drums, keyboards and voices to create a sonic landscape of beauty, scope and intimacy. But of course, after the last mellotron has faded from the plate reverb, it is the songs that remain, and this is where the real strength of the album lies. It should come as no surprise that Crowded House’s chief songwriter could crank a few more great pop songs out, but this really is something else. Songs like King Tide and the title track build from quiet places of introspection to outward expressions of love and redemption, the music swelling in waves of sympatic delight. Songs like Dream Date and Sinner slink along with grooves that pull this distinctly away from singer/songwriter territory, and Addicted ends the album with the beauty of soft transformation.
LuckyBurden – Kim Barlow.
This list goes to eleven – but not so that I can include Spinal Tap’s Back From The Dead, released in 2009. (Not that I’m not tempted, of course – this or Guest and Co.’s other collection released in the aughts, A Mighty Wind soundtrack, are joyful and crafty enough in their own way to be considered – but this is serious business…)
The list goes to eleven so that I can include the astoundingly great LuckyBurden by Canadian songwriter Kim Barlow.
This record doesn’t just make my best of decade, but it slides into the best EVER list, nestling up with Revolver, Sticky Fingers, Graceland, Wrecking Ball, The Band, My Aim Is True, Blue, Dark Side Of The Moon and Quadrophenia among many many others.
And putting it in there might seem strange in a way, but it actually would be fairly comfortable sitting in between Tommy and…The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, say, seeing as it is in fact a concept record, telling the small, everyday stories of the residents of Keno City, Yukon.
And it is the product of a master storyteller, no question. Barlow knows how to give you some tiny, seemingly unimportant detail that does the job that paragraphs of exposition still wouldn’t do for some writers. The “Friday night green pants” that one of the miners wears in Dancehall; the beautiful metaphor of Lonely Mountain – “maybe you feel like I do/Lonely Mountain/scarred up and hollow right through.” There is a moment in Get In The Car – a song where would-be reckless teenagers hit the road to escape their town of 20 some odd people – where they nearly hit a young moose on the road. Kim tells us this: “They passed it in the passing lane/Neither of them said a word/Both of them were thinking of their mothers.” That type of unusual emotional inroad to its characters is typical on this album – an album that is also musically stupendous. LuckyBurden takes you somewhere very real, full of pathos, joy, grit and comedy. It does it amazingly well, and with a sense of wonder and beauty. It is, to paraphrase Bob Babalan from A Mighty Wind, the type of infectious that’s good to spread around.
And so there it is. I guess even if I’d managed to blurt all this out at the New Year’s Eve party it wouldn’t have done me much good vis-a-vis feeling like I’m actually WITH IT – but it was a good reminder, to myself, that I was aware of some things that happened in the world of music after nineteen-seventy-something, and that some of it, I really really loved. Maybe I’m not as backdated as I think I am. And who knows, maybe ten years from now when I’m compiling my list of great records made in the teens, that old singer who was artist of the decade back in the aughts will creep in…
Epiphany – at a bargain…
Fairly recently I sat down to re-watch one of my favourite films – a less than rare occurrence in my life – and a single moment from that film keeps returning to me, playing over and over in my head, clamoring to be noticed. It is a tiny yet pivotal moment, mostly silent – and performed by a ten year old girl.
It is from the penultimate scene of To Kill A Mockingbird, the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, where Scout finally lays eyes on her childhood boogieman, Boo Radley. Scout and her brother Jem have just narrowly escaped being murdered by Bob Ewell, and in this moment she learns that it was in fact Boo who has saved their lives.
Firstly, the moment is powerful because, well, we don’t get to see people think in movies very often. To see them have a realization or come to a conclusion without action. Maybe that’s because film is first and foremost a visual medium where movement rules, or maybe it’s because it’s hard for an actor to do, but all I know is, the odd time it happens – when it’s done well, it sticks right the hell out.
(Another, less beautiful moment than this one occurs in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, where he slowly pushes in on Robert De Niro as his Jimmy Conway character realizes he could just kill the guy who’s been busting his balls instead of paying him his share. As he pulls on a cigarette and the camera pushes in to the slightly sinister and ironic “Sunshine of Your Love”, you see De Niro’s eyes light up in menacing cognition. It is masterful.)
But the moment in To Kill A Mockingbird goes beyond the joy of watching a character think on screen. It is far more powerful and life affirming than that.
Music producer John Simon eloquently described the first time he heard The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, saying that in a four-minute piece his entire viewpoint on the American South and the Civil War shifted – that the song had the power to break the stereotypes he’d walked around with his whole life. He, in fact, referred to it as an epiphany.
And this is what Scout has in that beautiful moment that culminates in the simple, wonder-filled line, “Hey, Boo.”
Scout’s journey in the film (and the novel) is certainly to migrate over the land between the innocence of childhood and the awareness of the adult world, but her moment of realization – at least for me – is greater and wider than that distance permits.
Scout does not just see that she was wrong about Arthur “Boo” Radley – that he is, in fact, the titular character in the story, (well, one of them, anyway) – I believe the epiphany that is portrayed in that moment is that there is genuine awe and surprise and wonder in the world, and that the beliefs you hold are elastic and open to change. Biases can shift. Lessons can be learned. Life affirming things.
And that is what has been bouncing around in my head the past few days. Getting that from twenty seconds of mostly silent film that I’ve seen countless times feels like a pretty good bargain to me.