Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Great Songs

The following is a partial (very partial!) list of some of my favorite songs, with a little on why I love them. Give them a listen.

* "Look for the Good in Others And They'll See the Good in You," The Chills
The Chills are from New Zealand, fronted by singer/songwriter Martin Phillipps. Their sound is quiet, melodic, maybe even a bit wispy. In some ways, it's almost as though Brian Wilson grew up in New Zealand instead of California. This song is the most rocking thing they ever did, and boy is it rollicking! From the start, they hurtle into the riffs like a mad roller coaster. Martin wails over them:
Last week just for a while
I thought I'd found someone at last
The woman in my future was a child from my past
Oh it was cruel of Fate to give me hope --
The first time in two years!
Now I know who all my friends are
And no one really cares.
He also sings of going to the "talent cupboard" and finding it bare. The sadness of the lyrics is belied by the roaring, careening music. The bridge, where the band seems to veer from chord to chord almost by chance, until you realise it was all planned from the start, then strums one chord until the drummer kicks them back into the verse again. is one of my favorite passages in pop. A wild, fun ride.

* "Open Your Heart," Madonna
Yeah, go ahead and laugh. There are only two songs of hers I can stand -- this and "Crazy For You," which is the perfect evocation of "three AM, the bar's closed and you're alone wandering the streets hurting." With a girl group homage to boot.

Anyway, the version I love is the nine minute 12-inch 45 dance remix. Well worth looking for because of the way she and the producer deconstruct the song and then spread things out. It begins with bell-like synths pecking out the main melody, then a bubbly synth creating a bass undertow. This continues until the huge, fat drums slap out the intro to a rhythm workout and then the whole song falls together with some scratched Madonna samples. Wicked. You get a bonus, too. Late into the song, Madonna cries out over the beat, "So...ya wanna go out with me or what? Whatsa matta? Ya scared of me or sum'thin'?" It looks funny here, but in the song it's a kind of bravado.

The music is compelling. It builds and builds to the choruses, where everything plays out in forceful orchestration: synth horns and bells. Only problem is the lyrics. She's asking her guy to open his heart, but she keeps talking about herself as the lock and him as the key! Oops. Still, I can play this one over and over and over again.

* "Broken Head," Catherine Wheel
A majestic, soaring rip tide of riffing. Chiming bent strings call out and the whole band falls into the one chord that's the riff, with a second guitar chattering along around the beat. The song builds and falls, like the tides, a stop-beat chord up taking you between verses and choruses. On a good stereo you almost feel like you're walking around inside the guitars, in a cathedral of roar. Another song I can listen to repeatedly.

* "The Golden Age of Rock and Roll," Mott The Hoople
Seventies glam rock! It begins with a gospel chorus oohing and ahhing over piano fanfare. Then a deep announcer's voice intones, "Ladies and gentlemen, the golden age of rock and roll." The piano starts pumping, and the rest of the band jumps in on a sliding bass dive. Classic mid-Seventies English glam. Lead singer/songwriter Ian Hunter cries and yowls trying to stay on top of the rockandroll madness of the band.
The dude in the paint
Thinks he's gonna faint
Stoke more coke on the fire.
If the going gets rough
Don't you blame us
You 98 decibel freaks, AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!
The production's great and the band's clearly having a good time. Even the gospel chorus gets in a "WOOOOOOOOOO!!" at one point.

I can see the video for this one: Hunter rising up from below the podium in a small black church during the intro. Gospel choir behind him. Band suddenly appears on stage, playing away. The doors blow open, kids on the street here the music and wander in. People drop whatever they're doing up and down the block. Before you know it, the church is full and everyone's dancing like mad, Hunter exhorting them the whole time. At the final suspended chord, where Hunter says, "That's all," the frenzied crowd falls to the floor, exhausted. Fade on a high crane shot.

Yeah, I could make that video.

* "Subways," Urban Verbs
I've blogged on this band before. Washington DC New Wave band from the early Eighties that never got the fame they deserved. This song is the opener on their second album. The drummer clacks his sticks to count it in and the bass player starts a pulsing, grace-noted two note bottom. It's the musical recreation of the clacking rumble of a subway ride! Then comes the chiming guitar, a lot like early Edge (U2) but smaller, warmer, with more sheen.
Every morning I go under the city
Handful of change takes me away from it all
I leave my problems up
on the streets
And ride the subway where it's always warm.
The choruses suspend the bass, with the drummer popping his snare and the guitarist repeating a three-note tattoo, like the train slowing down. It's a cool, subtle song. A sublime song.

* "How Can The Laboring Man Find Time For Self-Culture,"
This was for years my "Friday getting off from work" song. Martini Ranch were some cohorts of Devo and you can hear a bit of the Spud-Boys in this. Mostly it's a high-speed, disco-influenced, machine-beat rock song with a solid dance beat. Popping bass, chattering guitars, synths coming in and out. I really love the 12-inch 45 version -- seven minutes! The lyrics were complete goofiness:
How can the laboring man
Find time for self-culture?
How can the laboring man
Find time for self-culture?
I think that it's important that we take some time
Making up rhymes.
I think that it's important that we take some time
Making up rhymes.
Somehow, this song always blew off the barnacles of the work week, left me refreshed and ready to PAR-TAY! I know, I'm a geek.

* "Sleep," 'Til Tuesday
Aimee Mann is an indie darling nowadays, but she fronted this totally New Wave band before that. She played bass and had her platinum hair teased to hell and back; her big bug eyes always looked like she was scared to death back then. They had one big hit with "Voices Carry" and this song comes from the same album.

It sounds a bit like circus midway music, but slowed down. Big, echoey guitar; dramatic bass and drum moves; woozy horn-synth in the background; tinkly keyboards; production is huge, like an enormous gauzy cavern. There's the main melody that Mann sings to and a second melody carried by the keyboards; lurking in the background is a third, different melody, almost like a counterpoint. Mann sings of a lover who is gone and now she can only meet him in sleep; he might be dead, we don't know. It's a haunting tune, but what seals the deal is after the bridge and final chorus the band goes into a spellbinding coda. What had been the main melody is pushed to the back and Mann starts singing new lyrics to the earlier background counterpoint melody! The change is unexpected and doubly dramatic. The keys back down and the guitar, in widescreen washes almost like crying, moves up. Mann closes out the song's final minute with this lament:
Say good night
He's wai-ai-ai-ting.
Say good night
You're not forsaken.
Over and over through the fade. This song can actually bring me to tears. No kidding.

* "Are 'Friends' Electric?" Gary Numan
Yes, the "Cars" guy with the nasal voice and the dorky, jerky electropop. This song was the English hit that got him radio play in America for "Cars."

I've described it elsewhere as a sad, stately carnival of a song. The drummer double-times the high-hat into a sussurus, popping the snare on every other beat, setting a slow rhythm that never changes, almost like rainfall. Bass is mixed up front and is playing a riff almost out of place, jumping up and down octaves. And keyboards, lots and lot of them in vast plains of sound built around a back and forth, three-note riff. Every chorus, the band changes to a two-note riff like a piledriver with keyboard trills. Five minutes long and I love every minute.

Lyrics are the usual Numan alienation stuff:
It's cold outside
And the paint's peeling off of my walls.
There's a man outside,
In a long coat, grey hat, smoking a cigarette....

Now the light fades out
And I wonder what I'm doing in a room like this.
There's a knock on the door.
And just for a second I thought I remembered you.
The fade introduces a new synth sound like a "Whee" sliding up and down the scales. Beautiful, almost druggy, like entering another world.

That's enough for today, kids. More another time.

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