Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Day 05: A song that reminds me of someone

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, today's song is also a prime example of a song which never fails to make me sad. It's been a favourite for many years, and for as long as I've been listening to it, it's rarely failed to make me cry like a little girl. But in the last few months, particularly, it's gained an extra poignancy.

The reason it's always made me sad should be fairly obvious - it's got a heartrendingly-beautiful melody, with lyrics which paint a bittersweet portrait of the devastating toll which time and disillusionment can wreak on the hopes and naivety of youth. The live version above is a good one, but there's an additional backing from the Northumbrian pipes on the original studio version which gives it an even more haunting quality. But that's got nothing to do with why it reminds me so strongly of someone.

Many years ago, back when I was a mere high school student, I went to Glasgow for the day with my friend Ben and his family. His father was an architect, and there was an exhibition on display in a gallery in Glasgow which he wanted to see (embarrassingly, I can't remember if the architect on display was Frank Lloyd Wright or Charles Rennie Macintosh, which says everything which needs to be said about the depth of my architectural knowledge). Since I was staying with them for the weekend, I got to be taken along.

The exhibit was fine enough, but it's the car journey back which I remember most clearly. Ben and I, as terribly serious, music-fixated teenagers, had been given charge of the music for the journey north, but for the return trip, Ben's father Roger wanted to listen to something of his own choice. Since he was driving, we were really in no position to object, and besides, Ben (who was, obviously, rather more familiar with his father's tastes in music than I was) assured me that it would be fine. The cassette tape he selected contained selected highlights from two albums - 1991's Rumor & Sigh and 1994's Mirror Blue - by English folk/rock guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson.

These days, as anyone who knows me can't really help but be aware, Thompson's music is such a crucial part of my life that it's hard for me to remember a time when I hadn't heard of him. From his early days in seminal UK folk group Fairport Convention, through his collaborations with then-wife Linda Thompson in the '70s and his subsequent solo career, he's been a unique voice for over forty years, never quite achieving true mainstream recognition, but acknowledged by almost every musician who's aware of him as one of the greatest guitarists in the world of popular music. Equally-brilliant at everything from trad folk reels to delicate acoustic ballads and full-bore electric rock (although, unusually, always with his roots in British folk rather than American blues), he rarely fully indulges his virtuosity on record - where the emphasis is very much on impeccable compositions and instrumental arrangements. In concert, though, on the handful of songs where he allows himself full rein as a soloist, he's probably the most spectacularly-gifted musician I've ever seen play.

But as a sixteen-year old, I knew none of this. All I remember is hearing these wonderful songs, listening to the sharp and often hilariously-caustic lyrics, and thinking that I'd never heard music quite like this before. At the time, both Ben and myself were most taken with a different song, the laugh-out-loud funny (and delightfully-suggestive) Read About Love*, but these days, it's 'Beeswing' which really sticks with me. Roger said at the time that it was one of his favourite songs, and today, I'd say the same for myself - the delicate melody, heart-rending lyrics and gorgeous, restrained performance all mark it out among the finest pieces of music I've ever heard, and as I said above, it almost never fails to make me cry.

Roger Wilkinson died earlier this year. I wasn't able to attend the funeral, and I've only spoken to Ben (who remains one of my best friends) a few times since. But whenever I listen to Richard Thompson, and to this song in particular, I remember how kindly he always treated me when I visited his house as a kid, and how much I enjoyed the few conversations we shared in more recent years, as adults, and it makes me terribly sad that he's not there any more.

*Sorry about the somewhat tacky Supernatural fanvideo - it was the only version of 'Read About Love' I could find on Youtube, and it's a song worth listening to.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Day 04: A song that makes me sad

It's taken me a long time to settle on this one, mainly because there was an0ther song which seemed like the obvious choice. That song, however, fitted a little more neatly into the theme for tomorrow's entry, "A song that reminds you of someone" - something which is almost-equally true of this one, to be honest, but since the person it reminds me of is the person who wrote it, a man I never met, I suspect that isn't really playing fair.

In fact, choosing this one feels a bit like a cop-out, since the song is so clearly-calculated as a shameless bid to rip your heart out. Given the circumstances, though, that's fairly forgivable, and besides, it doesn't actually make it any less effective. Written and recorded during Zevon's final months, after being diagnosed (rather too late) with the cancer which ultimately killed him, this isn't the only excellent song on his final album, The Wind, but it's easily the most affecting. Stripped bare of the intellectual detachment and dark, dry wit which had characterised so much of Zevon's previous work (traits which were still gratifyingly present and correct elsewhere on the album, perhaps most prominently in the splendidly-titled My Dirty Life & Times and the engagingly-ragged, raucous Springsteen duet, 'Disorder in the House'), this goes straight for the jugular with a stark, direct plea to be remembered from a man who knows he's about to die.

Zevon was hardly the first artist I admired to have died during my lifetime, but his death affected me more personally than any other I can think of. It's partly just that I'd been a fan for a long time - but more than that, I wasn't just a fan of his music, I was (or so I thought) a fan of the man himself. I first discovered him via a radio interview/session on BBC Radio back in the '90s, and his persona caught my attention every bit as much as the music - smart, funny, self-depracating, literate and fiercely-intelligent, he just seemed like a really nice guy. That his music shared all of these qualities in abundance, therefore, was enough to hook me completely.

He wasn't a nice guy at all, of course - that was laid shockingly-bare in his ex-wife Crystal Zevon's excellent posthumous biography, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. Written in response to a deathbed request from Zevon himself, it's probably the most devastating portrait of a deeply-flawed human being I've ever read (written, paradoxically, in a more sympathetic voice than one might expect), and utterly shattered any illusions I'd harboured about the man. But oddly, it didn't make his death any less upsetting.

Given this backdrop, then, it's hardly a surprise that 'Keep Me In Your Heart' reduces me to tears every time I can bring myself to listen to it. Simple, almost naive in both melody and lyrics, with a delicate arrangement that brings Zevon's frail, cancer-ravaged voice to the fore, it's an eloquent farewell from a much-missed musician, and speaks powerfully to anyone who's ever experienced any sort of grief, or loss.

Sentiment aside, The Wind is a good but not quite an excellent album - the story behind it, though, gives it a weight which it would be churlish to dismiss. Somewhat inevitably, that tragic narrative brought Zevon more press attention than anything else he'd done in decades (including, sadly, much of his finest music), and won him a couple of posthumous Grammy awards.

It remains, I believe, his best-selling album.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Day 03: A song that makes me happy

Obviously (to anyone who even vaguely knows me, at least), my instinctive response to this one would be to post something by the Rolling Stones (most likely either Jumpin' Jack Flash or Rocks Off), or at least, the very next best thing. Earlier today, for example, feeling a bit crap, I decided to cheer myself up by selecting an appropriate song on my iPod, and settled on the Drive-By Truckers' 'Marry Me'. For the benefit of anyone yet to hear it, the song in question would doubtless be a fondly-remembered classic single by the Rolling Stones circa 1970, were it not for the minor handicap that it wasn't technically recorded until 2003, by an entirely-different band.

But since the chances of the Stones not coming up again later in this blog are somewhere perilously-close to zero, I figured I should attempt to vary things at least a little. Besides, there are days when even I grow weary of vintage rock'n'roll, and sometimes I need to cheer myself up on those days too. On such occasions, there's a better-than-average chance that the album I'll reach for is the one featuring this utterly-charming little gem...

Outside of the twin peaks of A-ha and Black Metal, Norway's contributions to the world of popular music to date have been relatively meagre - shut up, my Norwegian friends, you know in your hearts that I'm right - which makes it doubly-unfortunate that, so far as I'm aware, Marit Larsen is still largely-unknown as a solo artist outside of continental Europe. If her name garners any recognition, it's most likely as the former teen member of not-particularly-good girl group M2M, along with fellow Norwegian Marion Raven, whose subsequent career hasn't been quite so much to my taste (the last I heard, she was touring as Meat Loaf's female accompanist du jour, after releasing a couple of largely-forgettable pop/rock singles under her own name). Marit Larsen, by contrast, has spent the past few years becoming one of the most popular and critically well-regarded pop artists in Scandinavia.

I wasn't aware of M2M myself, so I had absolutely no preconceptions when 'Don't Save Me', her first post-M2M single, first started showing up on the radio here in Norway back in 2006. At the time I'd only been living in Norway for a few months, and was working in the only job I'd been able to find to support myself, a tedious menial post for very little money in a hospital laundry (today, of course, I'm largely doing equally-tedious non-menial work for a bit more money in a variety of soulless office complexes, which I suppose technically counts as progress). As such, the power of radio was playing a more vital role in keeping me sane than it had done at any point since my early 'teens, and I was completely at its mercy. Lucky, then, that this track rapidly became the most over-exposed song of the year, because if just about anything else had been played as often as this was, it could very easily have killed me.

From the very first seconds, all lush guitar and what sounds for all the world like a child's toy piano, it's an infectious surge of melodic pop joy. So joyous, in fact, that one could be forgiven for entirely missing the deceptively-cynical sting in the lyrics - the story of a dead relationship crumbling around the singer's ears, and her callously-indifferent reaction. This combination of an upbeat melody/arrangement and dark, cynical words is one of the oldest, most effective tricks in the pop lexicon, and Marit Larsen consistently deploys it as well as any other songwriter out there right now. It locks itself into your head with all the tenacity of a weapons-grade earworm, but it's so damn likeable that you don't really mind.

Sweet without being saccharine, charmingly-odd without succumbing to tweeness or pretention, and bitter without rancour or nastiness, it may not be Larsen's best song (a title for which there are already plenty of worthy candidates), but it's still an absolutely terrific opening salvo to a hugely-promising pop career. Both of her albums are well worth a listen, but I'd especially recommend seeking out her debut, Under The Surface, if it's at all available outside of Scandinavia.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day 02: My Least Favourite Song

Another slightly-tricky choice, this one, albeit for rather different reasons. Again, it's not as though I'm not spoiled for choice - so many terrible songs, so little time...the obvious answer would clearly be something along the lines of 'Agadoo', 'Achy Breaky Heart', or 'We Built This City (on rock & roll)', songs so obviously, inescapably awful that only a fool could fail to despise them. But those are all rather too easy - besides, bad as they are, I don't really hate them, not least because - honestly - how often am I ever going to hear them?

No, for true loathing, a song needs the personal element. A bad song by an artist of whom one could reasonably expect better is always going to sting more than an even-worse song by someone one doesn't really care about in the first place. So, after careful consideration, I suspect that my least-favourite song is...

It could have been any one of a depressingly-large number of Dylan tracks from the same period, really, but since I have to pick just one, the nod goes to 'Emotionally Yours'. Unfortunately(?), the original studio version of the track is currently unavailable on YouTube, so you're being spared the true awfulness of this ghastly, ghastly song, but the live version posted above is still pretty dreadful. It does, at least, capture the essence of the song - a bland, plodding arrangement, syrupy guitar, and quite unrelentingly awful lyrics, delivered with an embarrassing cod-sincerity by a vocalist who really ought to know better.

The studio version, though, really does take it to another level, drowning what little charm might have been found in the original melody under layers of strings, synth, and the most inappropriately '80s-sounding, echo-laden production imaginable. To compound the horror, Dylan sings it with an uncharacteristic clarity, carefully enunciating every last word as though he really, really means it - "
I could be dreaming but I keep believing / you're the one I'm living for / And I will always be emotionally yours."

Banal by most conventional standards, let alone Dylan's, the song is absolutely typical of the throwaway pap which dominates his output from that era. This is despite the fact that, as demonstrated by releases such as Biograph and the Bootleg Series Vols. I-III, he was actually writing some of the strongest material of his career at the same time, only to sabotage it by either choosing manifestly-inferior takes and arrangements for the albums ('Jokerman', 'When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky', 'Tight Connection To My Heart'), or simply refusing to release them at all ('Blind Willie McTell'). Of all the legendary '60s/'70s artists who entirely failed to navigate the treacherous waters of the 1980s with dignity or credibility intact (which, sadly, amounts to "almost all of them"), Dylan's very public decline into alcoholic self-destruction was perhaps the most disheartening.

Of course, he recovered eventually, with one of the most remarkable late-career comebacks any major artist has yet managed. But for a long time, he was absolutely lost - 1985's Empire Burlesque is possibly his worst album, and 'Emotionally Yours' is the worst song on it. What pushes it from "bad" to "awful", though, is the fact that the final track on the album - 'Dark Eyes', as covered beautifully by both Calexico/Iron & Wine (for the I'm Not There soundtrack) and Patti Smith (live, both with Dylan himself in 1996 and on her own in this rather lovely performance from 2006) - is one of the finest tracks Dylan ever recorded, meaning that I can't quite bring myself to forget it entirely. Just as 'Johnny B. Goode' is my favourite song partly as a stand-in for everything else I love about rock & roll, so is 'Emotionally Yours' a completely-fitting surrogate for every awful, trite piece of sickly pablum released by artists smart and gifted enough to know better.

Or maybe I should have just gone with 'Imagine', for much the same reason.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day 01: My Favourite Song

...a phrase to inspire terror in the heart of anyone with the slightest fondness for music. One song? How on Earth could anyone possibly be expected to condense the vast expanses of their (doubtless awe-inspiringly broad and eclectic) taste in music into a single song? Surely you jest, good sir - or, indeed, madam, since I acquired this particular challenge from a person of the Female persuasion?

Which is, of course, precisely the sort of ridiculous over-thinking which defines the nerd mindset. Just pick a damn song, and have done with it. Yes, you'd almost certainly come up with something different if you were asked the same question on a different day, or while in a different mood, or with a stronger Moon in the ascendant. But you weren't, you were asked it now. As, indeed, was I. So, with a certain numbing inevitability...

Well, it sort of had to be, really. There are plenty of singers with stronger voices than Chuck Berry, songwriters with more depth and range, and even a few guitarists who could probably outplay him on a good day. There are rock & roll songs which defined the template before 'Johnny B. Goode', and songs which came later and refined it into something more sophisticated, more powerful, and more successful.

But to this day, I don't think any song has ever taken the form to such heights of utter perfection. 'Johnny B. Goode' is - and watch carefully here, as I tiptoe uncertainly out onto the precipice of absurdly-overblown hyperbole - arguably the single greatest work of art produced in the last century. Richer than Joyce's Ulysses, more universal than Eliot's The Waste Land, more evocative than Picasso's Guernica . . . possibly even more spectacular than that amazing wig Elton John wore to his 50th birthday party. If haiku is the true test of a poet's skill - challenging the writer to overcome the incredibly-rigid constraints of a brief, three-line structure - then the 12-bar blues is surely the litmus test for any truly great rock guitarist. An incredibly restrictive formula, with little room for indulgence or showboating, but one with room for potentially-infinite variations on a theme. Chuck Berry spent more time than most exploring what could be done within that formula, and he outdid himself with 'Johnny B. Goode'.

If rock & roll is the artform which defines the 20th century - and I'd argue strongly that it is - then 'Johnny B. Goode' is the song which defines that artform. The iconic riff (lifted note-for-note as it is from Louis Jordan's '(Ain't That) Just Like A Woman', in a splendid demonstration of the truth behind the maxim "talent borrows, genius steals") sums up the exuberance, drive and pulse which lies at the heart of all great rock music more clearly than anything recorded before or since. The deceptively-simple lyrics sketch a story in colourful, broad strokes, providing just the right amount of detail needed to paint a vivid picture, and no more. There isn't a word wasted, not a note played or omitted which isn't absolutely necessary, and at a little over two-and-a-half minutes, it's over almost before you've noticed that it's there. It's been covered more times than almost anything else in the rock & roll canon, but nobody has ever quite matched the timeless perfection of Berry's original. It's the only song of which I could never imagine growing weary*, and it will never, ever die.

There are genres beyond pure rock & roll to which I listen far more frequently, and there are artists to whose work I'm far more devoted than Chuck Berry. But none of them could have existed without his influence, and this is his crowning glory.

A masterpiece.

*A hypothesis I tested to somewhere approaching breaking-point a few months ago, when in response to a slightly-silly challenge I'd made to myself, I listened to it on repeat, without pause or variation, for a little over three consecutive hours. Not something I'd rush into doing again, perhaps, but at no point did I feel any inclination to turn the damn thing off, and it's not impacted my ability to enjoy the song in the slightest. It has, however, imprinted every last note into my head so firmly that I could, and occasionally do, listen to it in my sleep.

Declaration Of Intent

OK, to get started, I'll be working through the "thirty days of music" meme, inspired by LittleSheBear over on LiveJournal (hey, remember LiveJournal? It's still a Thing, apparently. Who knew?). It's pretty self-explanatory - thirty days, thirty posts, thirty songs. The list runs as follows:

Day 01 - Your favourite song
Day 02 - Your least favourite song
Day 03 - A song that makes you happy
Day 04 - A song that makes you sad
Day 05 - A song that reminds you of someone
Day 06 - A song that reminds of you of somewhere
Day 07 - A song that reminds you of a certain event
Day 08 - A song that you know all the words to
Day 09 - A song that you can dance to
Day 10 - A song that makes you fall asleep
Day 11 - A song from your favourite band
Day 12 - A song from a band you hate
Day 13 - A song that is a guilty pleasure
Day 14 - A song that no one would expect you to love
Day 15 - A song that describes you
Day 16 - A song that you used to love but now hate
Day 17 - A song that you hear often on the radio
Day 18 - A song that you wish you heard on the radio
Day 19 - A song from your favourite album
Day 20 - A song that you listen to when you’re angry
Day 21 - A song that you listen to when you’re happy
Day 22 - A song that you listen to when you’re sad
Day 23 - A song that you want to play at your wedding
Day 24 - A song that you want to play at your funeral
Day 25 - A song that makes you laugh
Day 26 - A song that you can play on an instrument
Day 27 - A song that you wish you could play
Day 28 - A song that makes you feel guilty
Day 29 - A song from your childhood
Day 30 - Your favourite song at this time last year

Given how spectacularly I failed at this Blogging game last time around, starting off with a clearly-defined project seems like a reasonably-sensible approach. Here goes!

Yeah, I know - I dropped this one very quickly, and have been doing other things since then, so it's a little odd to be posting here now. But I've had a few blog ideas bubbling around my head for a while now, and since I had this profile saved already, I figured I may start doing something with it again, maybe see if I can actually get it off the ground properly this time. In the meantime, I've deleted the original introductory couple of posts, since they're no longer particularly relevant, and will see where I end up going from here. If nothing else, I still think that "Groucho Mark's...." is too good a pun to waste.

No promises, though.