Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Lose Yourself"

I don't buy rap. Not generally. I'm not comfortable with the casual misogyny, the glorification of violence and the apparent lack of connection to the inner self. Perhaps it's just rap-lite that I prefer; the more familiar, less dangerous world of Run-DMC or De La Soul for example.
But for one reason or another, I sat myself down and listened to this song, looked up the lyrics (because ironically, rap is chiefly about the lyric) and was properly stunned. I've never quite understood why so many people, musicians included, have expressed such respect for Eminem's work, but now I do.
What amazes me first and foremost is how complicated and yet how simple the rhythm of the words is. It slinks, weaves and pole-dances around the beat, sometimes falling half a beat behind, but gathering itself in time for the payoff.
What grabs me second is the sheer power of the vocabulary. Like a lot of middle-class white guys, I have looked down on rap in general as a genre that struggles to express itself. Perhaps it does....on my terms. But on its own terms, it says a shedload.
The lines come one after the other, falling over each other in their rush to get out. And if you try to understand the lyric through just reading it, you won't get it. You have to hear this, to wonder at the rhythm, the cadence, the sheer weight of the emotion, the way the words mould themselves to Eminem's accent and rhyme in a way you can't see on the page.
A revelation.

"Don't Let Us Get Sick"

Once in a while, while we're busy occupying ourselves with our own needs and concerns, eyes cast down, ears closed to the world around us, we'll be caught unawares by an event, by some news, by a word that gets through the filters and barbed-wire that we erect around ourselves.
Perhaps our rational, selfish self is irritated by this piece of news, because it proves to us that all is not always well, and tears down our desperate need to block out the unpleasant. Perhaps the news is so painful or sad that we can't face up to it or perhaps we simply cannot work out how to react.
Here's a simple prayer to help us all get through those moments. It's a frail, weak, faltering request from the bottom of the deep, dark well: "Don't let us get sick/Don't let us get old/Don't let us get stupid, all right?/Just make us be brave/And make us play nice/And let us be together tonight." It might be too late, or it might not; this song ain't saying. But it's offering us that chance, the cracking open of a door and the knife's-edge-narrow shaft of light which we can stand in if we choose: "The sky was on fire/When I walked to the mill/To take up the slack in the line/I thought of my friends/And the troubles they've had/To keep me from thinking of mine."

"Fergus Sings the Blues"

Sometimes music is all a song needs to be about. Sometimes you don't need any more reason to listen and live a song than its joy, its circling, swooping rhythm and its irresistible draw. This song does that for me. Deacon Blue celebrate the beauty, the power and the sheer life-force of soul music, the longing most of us have to open our mouths and make that beautiful noise: "Cause I look
in the mirror/And it throws back the question/And I whisper in words/That beg an answer/Tell me/Can this white man sing the blues?"
At one point, the backing singers swoop down behind Ricky Ross' voice, singing "Sweet soul music" with such purity, as if to underline, underscore and emphasise the beauty that voices alone can produce, just by doing it. The song longs, reaches out and tries to capture the excitement, the infectious attraction and all-embracing nature of a great, great moment.

"Ain't So Easy"

Relationship songs are never easy listening. They're usually written from the distant perspective of loss, abandonment, frustration or despair. You know the sort of thing: standing in the rain, howling at the moon or staring at the bottom of a glass of whisky. Think of Bridget Jones singing "All By Myself" in her bedroom after a bottle of wine and you get the general idea.
This is a far harder kind of song to listen to. This is trying to forestall that ending, to make things right just as they're going wrong. This is pleading, promising to get it right, acknowledging the errors: "I'll find a way to make amends/It's only that sometimes I've got to break before I bend." There's a tacit admission of past wrongs, a hint at darkness, but also a brief picture of the best possible future: "I'll kiss your face/Attend to your aches/I swear that I can make you happy/And you'll rub my back/Forget the past/And baby I know that that ain't so easy."
David & David only ever produced one album as far as I know - "Welcome to the Boomtown" - but it's a dark masterpiece of observation and human vulnerability. Not your everyday listening, granted, but for those moments when you're re-evaluating, starting over, brimming with good intentions, it's a handy reminder of where you're coming from and where you're trying to go.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

"Try a Little Tenderness"

Let's celebrate! Let's testify! Hold your lighters in the air, sway to the quiet, contemplative intro. Hear the beat gently walk round the corner and watch it come up to stand in front of you, hips twitching, a knowing smile on its face as it watches you slowly, inevitably, become helplessly hooked by this supreme moment of soul.
This is one of those songs that are utterly impossible to ignore, to skate over. It demands your attention, it co-opts your heart and drafts your hips until you're singing along at maximum volume, waving, not drowning. As with so many other great soul songs it's about redemption, affirmation, acknowledgement of a higher power. It's a moment for diving head-first into the mystery of love and maybe, just maybe if you're lucky, understanding a few things. It says "yes, men and women are different but really, we're the same." It's one of those impossible conundrums, like, how did Otis Redding get the beat to be so insistent yet so modest? How did he know when to let that utter cacophony loose half-way through the song and push the whole thing to another plane? How did he know that the second half of the song could be one long chorus, repeated over and over but more powerfully each time? And that we'd love it?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

"Fearless Boogie"

I'm not the world's greatest fan of country music. Which probably explains why this song hasn't actually got a lot to do with Nashville. But Hank Williams III is pure country royalty, so maybe this counts for something.
This is a rapid-fire blues/country workout, a steam train at full speed. The beat's underpinned by the wheels clacking on the lines and a drum that rolls and pumps like nothing else, blues harp assaulting your ears like a really bitter slice of lemon in your drink, and guitar adding some home-cooked grit. It's totally unstoppable, the band's as tight as you like, with a deft, daft lyric to match: "They call me a Pontiac/The red in my neck/They call me a Cadillac/They call me a wreck/Now Im not afraid/And I'm not scared/Now I ain't gonna lose it/No, I'm not afeared/To do the fearless boogie." Another kitchen-hour classic.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

"Bohemian Like You"

For an old 70s relic like me to keep up with "the kids" these days is an increasingly forlorn task. One of the perks of growing up is that you're less worried about your peer group - you have your own row to hoe. Believe me, it's a perk. But once in a while, a song bubbles up from the increasingly foreign-sounding soup on the radio, captures the imagination and updates your cultural references. Like this one. It's a complete caricature of a subculture, a snapshot of a moment in time, perfect, crystal-clear and recognisable: "You got a great car/Yeah what's wrong with it today/I used to have one too/Maybe I'll come and have a look/I really love your hairdo yeah/I'm glad you like mine too/See where looking pretty cool/Will get ya."
Doesn't hurt that the song itself is terrific, too. Incredibly catchy, a chorus you can sink your teeth into and a rumble of guitars that, if you play this loud enough, will loosen your fillings.

"Ain't No Sunshine"

The emotion of missing someone covers such a lot of territory; from the simple, open, warm missing a good friend who's moved away; through the deep, abiding, unchanging loss of a favourite grandparent (or parent); to the dark, forbidding and vaguely obsessive missing a lost love. To say "I miss you" is such an open-ended statement, as we each carry a portfolio of loss as wide as the horizon through our lives.
I guess a lot of songs cover the last of those emotions: the loss of someone you love dearly, the emptiness of a place or a heart without them. But this song treats the loss in a gentle, contemplative way: "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone/It's not warm when she's away/Ain't no sunshine when she's gone/And she's always gone too long anytime/ She goes away." It acknowledges the basic truth and stands there, arms apart, accepting the weight of loss and promising to bear it: "Hey I'll leave the young thing alone/But ain't no sunshine when she's gone." How many of us would have the grace and the equanimity to do that?

"I Will Not Go Quietly"

I love this. This is a tall, tense, shuddering nightmare of a song, a wake-up-at-3 a.m.-with-the-cold-sweats song. It's defiance, vulnerability, determination and despair wrapped into a jarring, stop-start, wailing scream at the world. What was Don Henley thinking about when he wrote this? "Woke up with a heavy head/And I thought about leavin’ town/I could have died if I wanted to/Slipped over the edge and drowned/But, oh no baby, I won’t give up so easy/Too many tire tracks in the sands of time/Too many love affairs that stop on a dime/I think it’s time to make some changes round here." This is a song for those moments when you raise your fist at the world, at your own weakness and faults, at the injustices committed and opportunities missed.
What pushes this song over the edge for me is Axl Rose's wailing screech in the chorus, a mad-eyed, thousand-yard stare of a vocal, floating just beyond the boundaries of sanity: "I will not go quietly/I will not lie down." In fact, if you go away and read Dylan Thomas' immortal poem: "Do not go gentle into that good night.../Rage, rage against the dying of the light", you'll see exactly where this song comes from.

"Going Down to Liverpool"

I've always had a sweet tooth. It comes and goes, this craving for confection. I'll be trundling along doing whatever occupies my time and I'll pull myself up short, thinking "I could really use some sugar around now." And I'm off to the candy store. A quick burst of chemical sunshine, a fizzing mix of natural and unnatural substances and my blood sugar is up, I'll look out at the world with a renewed smile. Hey presto.
This is the aural equivalent. Such a simple little tune, something the harmony groups of the 60s might have whistled up in during their mid-aftenoon snack. This smells of California, eucalyptus trees, a warm evening and a gentle breeze whispering through the garden.
What's a little disconcerting is how this is a song about having no hope, about being unemployed: "Hey now/Where you going with that load of nothing in your hand/I said, hey now/All through this green and pleasant land?" The contrast is complete, a harmless little bear-trap that grabs your ankle quite gently and suggests how easy it is to dress up the uncomfortable realities in a lattice-work of spun sugar, like cotton candy. After the sugar is gone, you're left with the stick.

"More Than Words"

Actions speak louder than words, they say. Which is slightly ironic, given the heavy bias towards lyrics in this blog. But there are moments when words just won't do the heavy lifting. Is this because so many of us struggle to find the right words to fit the moment? Or is this because, as the cliche goes, "talk is cheap"? In any case, here's a case study, if you like: "More than words to show you feel/That your love for me is real/What would you say if I took those words away/Then you couldn't make things new/Just by saying I love you." So Extreme are saying maybe we shouldn't sweat over the problem of saying the right things, but instead focus on doing the right things. It's not a lesson that's always easy to learn: I mean, think of Shakespeare's Hamlet, who talked and thought himself into circles until the moment to act had long passed, and compare him with Macbeth, who acted without thinking too much. I know, they both bit the bullet in the final scene, but you get my point? At least Macbeth had his day in the sun.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

"Fine Line"

What a little gem this is, and thank you Natalie for bringing it to my attention! For a split-second you think you've fallen into an Abba retrospective, when the keyboards tumble into view, but before long, Paul McCartney's voice, that comfortable, friendly instrument we've all grow up with, kicks in and takes over. But what really, really makes this song fly is the incredible piano riff that runs through the chorus and lifts the final coda onto another plane. The Beatles, when his songs were at the forefront, were always pleasant, fairly easy-listening exercises in perfection. This, likewise, is a perfectly-formed pop diamond. The closing coda echoes Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra, which is only fair really, because ELO was nothing if not a Beatles tribute band. But that piano just takes everything somewhere slightly different, that minor chord is just so unexpected, so ..... right, that nothing else matters. Sometimes, songs are made by a single note, a single chord, and this is one of them.

"Walking in Memphis"

Once in a while a song comes along that burns, literally, with soul, love and a respect so deep for tradition that it takes you back in time to that nameless era when everything was just.... right. When you could access that soul and express it in such a way that you radiated love for your fellow man, when legends walked the earth and when you felt so powerful that you could stretch your arms out and cradle the moon.
At the right time, this is that song. Marc Cohn tapped into something so basic, so fundamental here that he raised music up into something primeval. A force that cures, that revives, that strengthens. "Saw the ghost of Elvis/On Union Avenue/Followed him up to the gates of Graceland/Then I watched him walk right through/Now security they did not see him/They just hovered 'round his tomb/But there's a pretty little thing/Waiting for the King/Down in the Jungle Room." He invokes the healing power of music, he celebrates it, he lives it in this song, and for just a few minutes you eat from the table of the immortals - Elvis, Al Green, gospel, the Delta Blues legends - until you too feel that nothing is impossible, that all is right with the world. Cohn's deep soul voice fits the song in a way that Cher's can't, resonating with the power and the inner strength that music, good music, can bring. This is like going to church every day of the week.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

"Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"

Crosby, Stills and Nash were arguably the first-ever "supergroup", formed by musicians who were already stars in their own right. David Crosby came out of the Byrds, Graham Nash from the Hollies and both Stephen Stills and Neil Young (who was an occasional fourth member) from Buffalo Springfield. While these groups were all highly-regarded, they were modest compared to what CSN were to become.
Forming in 1968, they captivated the masses with this gorgeous, rambling piece of harmony and guitar. If ever a song epitomised the whimsy and idealism of the hippy culture, this is it: "Remember what we've said and done and felt about each other/Oh babe, have mercy/Don't let the past remind us of what we are not now/I am not dreaming/I am yours, you are mine/You are what you are/And you make it hard." The harmony singing is as good as any there has ever been, the acoustic guitar strong enough to hold its own against the weight of the voices. The thrilling closing coda, with the close harmonies racing towards the end as Stephen Still sings in Spanish, is one of the most recognisable moments of the '60s catalogue.

Friday, September 09, 2005

"Good Times, Bad Times"

From time to time I get caught up in debates about the true origins of heavy metal. Where did the first headbang take place and how long was the hair? What was the riff that planted the seed? Some folk maintain it was Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" that started it all off, others mention Jimi Hendrix and his very heavy blues, while the British maintain the Kinks, the Who and Cream were the source. Some even point to the Beatles' "Helter Skelter". It's probably impossible to pick one name, much like it would be impossible to point to the particular fish that leapt out of the ocean and started walking on its flippers as being the origin of man.
Notwithstanding the debate though, I'm pretty convinced myself that the first band that could be properly called heavy metal was Led Zeppelin - of course they didn't plant the seed themselves. But by taking the blues and amplifying it to the limit, by bringing the rhythm section to the forefront, by using sound as a blunt instrument at times, Zeppelin took out the patent on what was to come.
We're a million miles away from those early steps now, but once in a while it's properly refreshing to revisit songs like this. Compare it with pretty much anything that's been issued since 1990 and be struck by how clean and lightweight it sounds. Jimmy Page's only slightly distorted guitar, the clean, spare bass, Robert Plant's restrained voice and John Bonham's immense, heavy yet agile drumming.
The musicianship is right there too, front and centre. The beautifully syncopated drumming, the hard-as-nails riffs interspersed with the delicate fills, the aching harmonies, it's clear from the start this is no ordinary band.
To put it another way, this song is Track One, Side One of Led Zeppelin's career, and of heavy metal. It starts here.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Sometimes the most revolutionary ideas come in the smallest packages.
Way, way back in the mists of time, rock was a simple thing; a limited number of chords, a simple drums-bass-guitar-voice set-up and a single microphone hanging from the ceiling.
After a while folk got ambitious and started stacking other things on top: a second and even third guitar, a keyboard or two, some brass, some harmony, while the guys behind the recording studio console struggled to keep up. So we went from Bill Haley to Emerson, Lake and Palmer in a staggeringly short period of time.
1976 has a lot to answer for - not just the blast of phlegm from the punks and their desire to outrage and confront, but also the stripping away of all those layers of sophistication and pretention. And if any one song best exemplified the move back to basics, it's this.
Jonathan Richman is revered as a combination of faux-naif, idiot-savant, fey flower child and rocker. His songs are...eccentric, off-the-wall and totally individual. For this, he took just two chords and strung them together with a driving biff-bang-pow drumbeat and a stream of consciousness about driving around Boston and hey presto, an instant classic. This song doesn't seduce, threaten or cajole. It just gets on with it and if you're happy to ride along, so much the better.
Oh, and there is a third chord. Right at the end of the song.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

"With a Little Help From My Friends"

And I'm not talking about the Beatles' original but Joe Cocker's flaming, rambling, incoherent live performance at Woodstock in 1969, which you can still find on the film "Woodstock". If ever a live performance encapsulated a time and a place, this was it. Woodstock was three days of idealistic hedonism, a toga party on an epic scale, a flash-in-the-pan version of the Paris Commune that brought together around forty of the top acts of the time. The event fell into chaos very quickly - the organisers couldn't keep people from sneaking into the venue and a rainstorm turned the fields into a quagmire and the organisers' resources simply melted away in the face of a tide of humanity. But on the other side, the event passed relatively peacefully - unlike the Altamont festival a year later - and there was some great music.
Joe Cocker's performance is one of those moments you watch from behind your hands, half-incredulous, half-admiring. Lurching all over the stage, eyes screwed tight, hands fiddling emptily or playing air guitar, arms flailing, Cocker looks as though he's performing a drawn-out death scene. But then he opens his mouth, and a drunken, spastic, gargling howl emerges, a sound that you know is being dredged from the very bottom of his gut. It's a noise that goes beyond soul, beyond blues and onto some higher, animal plane. He's not worried about getting the lyrics across - at one point he stops singing for a moment and then lets loose a scream that would give Tom Waits nightmares - he's in his own chemically- or alcoholically-assisted universe, where the song becomes a living breathing demon, to be fought to a standstill. In fact the song hardly matters, except as a platform for Cocker's visceral, full-contact vocal; it's not what he's singing, but how he's singing that matters.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

"Hollywood Nights"

Here's a song that really should be a film. Preferably a silent film, with no sound but this song to accompany it since Bob Seger's words are more than sufficient to tell the whole story. It's a huge, cavernous, monstrous cliche of a story, but one that romantics everywhere would probably appreciate: "She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast/He was a Midwestern boy on his own/She looked at him with those soft eyes so innocent and blue/He knew right then he was too far from home." Perfect! The whole story is right there, as clear and unambiguous as it could be. You know how it's going to progress, how it's going to be a tale of obsessive, all-consuming passion, riddled with stereotypes and cliches, but what the hell, you say, when a story's told this well....
And of course, you know how it's going to end as well: "Night after night and day after day it went on and on/Then came that morning he woke up alone/He spent all night staring down at the lights of LA/Wondering if he could ever go home." It's a song and a story as big and wide as the highways and beaches it populates, and Seger wraps it up in a driving, hammering song that doesn't let up for a moment, that reflects the urgency, the raw need and the eventual despair that plants your foot on the gas pedal to get you as far away as possible from your addiction.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

"Always the Last to Know"

Another can't-let-go song. I have a lot of respect for Del Amitri: it can't be easy being as miserable and lovelorn as they are most of the time. But we've all been to this particular place: we've fallen out with someone because of some stupidity and we live on in the hope that by being generous, by letting them go, they might just come back. It's a hell of a gamble to pin so much hope in one place, but we do it willingly. We live that time in some high sierra of heightened senses, enhanced awareness, where we see everything so clearly, sharply, we collect evidence - the occasional phone call or text message - to fuel those hopes and we are strangely contented. And yet... and yet we're not even close. "I hear you’ve never felt so alive/So much desire beyond control/And as usual I am the last to know/The last to know if you’re happy now/Or if he’s cheating on you like I cheated on you/And you were the last to know." At which point the whole construction come tumbling down, doesn't it? We deny our own transgressions only to be hanged by them. The clever sting in the tail here is what makes this song more than just another torch-type affair, and what probably makes it more honest as well.

"New York Minute"

With the benefit of hindsight, there is something almost preternaturally spooky about this song. The chorus - "In a New York Minute/Everything can change/In a New York Minute/Things can get a little strange" - has been associated with the events of 9/11 almost from the moment it happened, but what's spooky is how so much of the rest of the song is relevant to that day as well. Don Henley sings of the Wall Street banker who disappears one morning, leaving his family forever asking questions: "One day he crossed some line and he was too much in this world." Then there are the sounds: "Lying here in the darkness/Hear the siren's wail/Somebody going to emergency/Somebody's going to jail." The memory of thousands of notes stuck to walls, seeking lost loved ones is conjured up too. It's as if Henley was channeling Nostradamus, and it raises a lump in the throat; not just for the memories we all carry of that terrible day, but because the song itself paints a picture of such desolation, such emptiness that we cling like limpets to the half-hearted promise of hope in the line: "You find somebody to love in this world/You better hang on tooth and nail/The wolf is always at the door."