Archive for September, 2011

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And this woman was singing my song.

September 29, 2011

CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR


Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories – Stay (I Missed You)

From: Tails

I’m probably the wrong person to muse about the potency of “Stay.” The ideal candidate would be some girl who was aged 16 to 22 in 1994 when the song shot an unsigned friend of Ethan Hawke to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. I was 11 when the song was popular. Beyond having a crush on a girl in my 5th grade class, there wasn’t a lot to connect me with the song on any emotional level at the time of its strongest prevalence.

But even when I hear the song today or rewatch the simplistic video (by the way, is she moving into or out of that apartment? The bed frame gives no indication. If she’s moving out, I understand her annoyance somewhat. If she’s moving in, she needs to take more of a “I may only have a view of other building’s windows, but look at this f*cking space. This kicks ass and I’m gonna rock this city” attitude and stop whining about the ex), there is something unspeakably ‘90s about it.

Visually, Loeb singlehandedly brought the coffeeshop bookworm look to the masses. Audibly, she actually married a (relatively) disproportionate amount of cynicism (Lisa, babe, everyone has the “YOU’RE NOT LISTENING!” arguments) to a catchy melody and put it at the top of the charts (“You said you caught me ‘cause you want me and one day you’ll let me go—you try to give away a keeper or keep me ‘cause you know you’re just so scared to lose”). Anyone up for a Janeane Garofalo stand-up set next?

If I remember the ‘90s in broad brushstrokes, I remember a certain amount of dispassion. What Loeb was unwittingly (I hope) doing in this video, was giving every single or spoken-for girl with access to popular radio or music television ample ammo for entirely unnecessary arguments.

Dramatization:
We find a college couple in the dining room of a three-star restaurant. The gentleman surveys the menu while the lady bemoans a roommate who insists on having late night trysts despite the fact that finals are in two weeks and a certain amount of time must be afforded to study.

GIRL: I mean, I suppose it’s easy for Sasha, because her parents are paying her tuition and can afford to send her somewhere else if she fails, which she won’t because she’s totally smart and never even has to study, because she always manages to get a ‘B’ at worst anyway. But that’s not me! I’ve got loans! I’ve got to pay for all these books! And I need to maintain a certain average to keep my scholarship.

DUDE: (quietly deciding whether he should splurge on an 8-oz. steak or keep it thrifty by saving three bucks and going with a pulled pork sandwich) Mmm.

GIRL: I’m up! I’m actually studying! Hello! And I’ve got to listen to her get it on with David or whoever the new interest this week happens to be! Like I want to hear that! I mean don’t you think that’s totally unfair?

DUDE: (still looking at menu) Totally.

GIRL: What’s that supposed to mean?

DUDE: (slowly realizing he might have said “Totally” in a sarcastic tone) What?

GIRL: You think this is a joke?

DUDE: I never said—

GIRL: No, you didn’t have to say. I heard the way you said that. All sarcastic. Like this is not a big deal.

DUDE: No, I understand your frustration, but in the grand scheme of things, how big of a deal is it? There’s the library. There are study halls in your building.

GIRL: It’s my room!

DUDE: Well have you talked to her about it?

GIRL: Oh, right. And what am I supposed to say?

DUDE: How about, ‘Hey I need to study, could you please stop the porn rehearsals til all hours of the night?’

GIRL: Oh, yeah. I’m so sure that would fly.

DUDE: Well, something like that. Why don’t you just study at my place?

GIRL: Gross. And have Chad trying to offer me a beer every 10 minutes? You know, what is his deal anyway? I was talking with Lindsay Carpenter last week, and she was saying that Chad was over at her place last Tuesday for like no reason. Does he like Lindsay? Cos he knows she has a boyfriend right?

DUDE: What does that have to do—

GIRL: You know what, if you can’t see that, then I don’t know. What. I sit here and I explain to you this total crisis I’m having right now, and you just make all these sarcastic comments.

DUDE: I’m offering suggestions.

GIRL: Yeah. Real helpful. All of them. And I’m just not taking them because I’m an idiot, right? I only hear what I want to hear. Is that it?


Within a few more seconds, she’s shouting and he’s trying to quiet her down while simultaneously wondering how the hell he got from picking between a wimpy steak or a pork sandwich to this and she’s left the restaurant in a huff.

The thing about “Stay” is that it’s actually quite a passionate song. For women, I imagine the great thing about “Stay” is that they can find a great deal of comfort in it. It’s a breakup song, but it also carries a certain sense of defiance in that “I know it hurts, but this is for the best because things really weren’t going anywhere with you” sort of way. But it also undermines its whole argument—and gives credence to those using it as consolation after an argument or split with the “I missed you, yeah, I missed you” refrain. Can a pop song cut both ways like that? Of course. Human personalities are complex and certainly the range of emotions one goes through after a breakup/argument/fight range from “Dear God, what have I done?” to “I’m glad I will never see that (insert expletive-enhanced adjective of choice here) again.” The problem is it immediately establishes Lisa (and the countless women who adhere to the song) as unpredictable.

Is she simply a shy coffeehouse girl who got tied up with the wrong guy, thus having to leave (or move into?) a boss apartment following their split? Or is she a coquette using the coffeehouse chic as a front to eat shy coffeehouse boys up and spit them out? Is she a strong, proud woman standing up for fellow sisters (in the introductory Lilith Fair lineup), or an attention hound who’s going to bring cameras along when you and she try out a new restaurant?

Again, multi-faceted personalities are not a bad thing, but a certain level of unpredictability can be damning. I’m sure there were a lot of men who were turned on by the “Stay” video—likely owing to library-related fantasies stemming from Lisa’s signature cat-like eyeglasses, but I never bought into it, even in the following years when “Stay” remained somewhat popular and puberty hit me like a ton of bricks. There was something I couldn’t quite figure out about Lisa. It wasn’t the look—that’s a surface thing, and an attractive one at that. In recent years I’ve had dating experience with similarly studious-looking girls that inevitably lead to me shaking my head over a pint of beer and relaying stories to friends in the vain hope that they can make sense of what the hell had transpired. It’s more that she carries a little too much mystery with her. I have no problem with intelligent women. I have no problem with women who harbor strong feminist views. I’d rather never discuss politics in the context of a relationship, but I don’t have a problem with those who have deep-seated right- or left-wing beliefs, so long as they’re not trying to convert me.

After seeing the 10,000 Maniacs “Unplugged” appearance, I’d developed a bit of a crush on Natalie Merchant. Years later, I relayed this to my college roommate who said, “No, you don’t want a girl like that. You’ll come home one day and there’ll just be a note that says ‘I had to go to Africa to find myself.’” It was an obtuse point, but it made sense. Still, it was a character trait that you could expect, even if you hoped no such thing would occur. With Lisa, you could get a woman who coddles you one day and leaves you flummoxed at a 3-star restaurant the next. You don’t know. It’s there in the lyrics of “Stay.” It’s just a bit too much of a dichotomy. It’s as fiercely independent as it is dependent.

So I still don’t know whether it was heartbreaking or wholly appropriate that more than 10 years after she wrote a song that so many women identified with, she was the star of her own E! network reality series about her continued difficulty in finding a man. Do a Google search on “Number 1 Single” and you’ll find out that no one cares nearly as much about whether real love was found on the show (…was it?) as they do that the show afforded them screencaps of a 37-year-old former charttopper in panties.

But the power of “Stay” goes far beyond the reach of jilted girlfriends who feel like their current or former boyfriends treat(ed) them like puppets. The power of “Stay” is (for lack of a better term) its staying power.

I worked out the song on guitar during my junior year of college. My roommate burst into my room as I was faking my way through it and started singing along at the top of his lungs. Part of it was light-hearted comedy, but there was an underlying sense that he really enjoyed singing the song. I’ve used it as a party trick at different get-togethers when the guitars come out. It always, always, always starts a gusto-packed singalong.

Duplicitous though it may be, “Stay” still manages to get people right to the core, whether “this woman was singing my song” in 1994 and 1995 or they found it in later years after their own I love him/I hate him existential dilemma.

And for what it’s worth, Lisa got married in 2009. I knew I should’ve put this post up in 2008 …

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Everyday you watch the colors fall, fall, fall …

September 22, 2011

Right-o, well summer ended up being a busy season for me and it looks like autumn shall be that way as well. These are the perils one faces living in a major city, you know. Things to do. Egad. BUT! Second to the summer mix (which is second to the Christmas mix), this is the next most popular seasonal mix that I provide on an annual basis. Something about grey days and leaves changing colors make people want to listen to appropriate tunes as they go out on brisk walks or curl up by the window with a cup of tea and book e-book reader.

In addition to the Christmas and summer mixes, the “Autumnal” mix is the third of the seasonal compilations that I’ve offered each and every year since this blog’s inception once upon a long ago. This is Vol. 5 of the mix, and I hope it serves all you dear people as well as Vols. 1-4 did. Oh and I hope it brings even more people around. For although my posts now may be (extremely) limited in nature, seasonal music never goes out of season. Or something. Enjoy.

Autumnal, Vol. 5

Download Part 1 (tracks 1-1o) HERE
Download Part 2 (tracks 11-20) HERE

01. Jon Brion – The Break-Up Theme
I’m a massive Jon Brion fan, and one thing I love about him that absolutely separates him from nearly every other artist I adore is that when he does instrumental work, be it for film scoring or whatever else, he keeps me absolutely entranced. I haven’t even seen “The Break-Up.” I know it includes Cubs games and an Old 97’s concert, so it seems like it’d be right up my alley, but I’m not a huge Vince Vaughn fan and as far as Jennifer Aniston goes, well, she needs to let the Brad Pitt thing go. If I was still talking about the girl I was with 6 years ago, I think it’d be hard to keep potential new mates interested too. Anyway, musically speaking, this is just a wonderful moody little piece that sets the stage perfectly for the mix. I think it owes so heavily to Paul McCartney’s “Big Boys Bickering” that it deserves a co-writing credit, but if that means Brion is listening to Off the Ground era B-sides from Macca, well, that really just makes me love him so much more.

02. The Stills – Halo the Harpoons
Probably my favorite cut from the Stills’ 2006 album Without Feathers, which took a pretty nasty beating from critics, but remains a solid favorite for me. Lyrically, this song teeters on ridiculous in terms of pushing metaphors. I don’t really know what any of them mean, but it’s all saved by the lovely piano and Tim Fletcher’s emotive vocal.

03. The Jackson 5 – Never Can Say Goodbye
I never understood why “I’ll Be There” was always the sentimental favorite when it came to J5 ballads. It’s a nice enough song, but it’s always just come off a bit too syrupy for me. This is where it’s at as far as I’m concerned. Listen to the bassline and harmonies—the song has far more showmanship than “I’ll Be There,” and as is ever the case with Jackson 5 songs, a blinder of a vocal from little Michael. The rest of the 1971 Maybe Tomorrow album was well-crafted, but song-wise the rest of the stock proved to be forgettable next to this one. It’s hard to sit beside perfection, after all.

04. The Everly Brothers – All I Have to Do is Dream
There’s not much to say about this song that hasn’t already been said. In fact, it’s kind of puzzling that it took me five years to put this on an autumn mix. Breezy, wistful, gorgeous harmonies and guitars that modern acts (anyone else hear an obvious cover from the Last Shadow Puppets lurking?) are now falling over themselves to return to. In terms of subject matter, it’s kind of the less spooky predecessor to something like “Every Breath You Take,” but full-fledged stalking seems imminent once the guy awakes. Also—this song should never be done as a boy-girl duet. I have a version of Bobby Darin and Petula Clark trading verses on this song. It’s ridiculous. Why tell the other sex about how you fall asleep to have them? He/she is right there. Just proposition him/her.

05. Natalie Merchant – The King of China’s Daughter
I was really excited last year when I found out Natalie was going to be releasing a new album. Ever since the 10,000 Maniacs Unplugged session, which I must’ve seen at 11 years of age or so, there was something about Natalie that struck me. I’ve stuck with her throughout the solo career, despite facing derision for it from my friends. I just think she’s been fairly consistent. Then The House Carpenter’s Daughter came along and I just kind of lost interest as she was going into this rustic folk dalliance that seemed devoid of hooks. Last year’s Leave Your Sleep had it’s moments, but the concept of the album—setting old poems to new music—seemed like one of those “Oh dear, this is one of those ideas that sounds good but actually turns out to be a bit of a shambles” ventures. For the most part it was, but there are a few good cuts on the album and this is one of them. Don’t know who wrote the poem, but I dig the Far East flavor.

06. Frank Sinatra – I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You
I can’t count how many artists have recorded this tune since it’s 1932 inception, but I think the fact that it has been so many is testament to what a cool tune it is. First off it’s a great title and while the concept for the song (“I thought at last I’d found you, but other loves surround you”) is so worn over in the songwriting pantheon to be laughably cliché, it still says something that almost 80 years later, musicians are still trying to chase this. Sinatra did a take on this in his younger days when he was signed to Columbia, but when he revisited it for his 1959 LP No One Cares (with one of the very best sleeves of Sinatra’s career), he nailed the merger of being both resoundingly forlorn while also breezily resigned. Harder than it sounds, you know.

07. Conway Twitty – Lonely Blue Boy
This song was supposed to be included in the Elvis-starring movie “King Creole,” substituting the name “Danny” for “Lonely Blue Boy,” but for whatever reason, it got axed from the picture. Conway Twitty took the discarded song, washed it in country rockabilly guitar and although basically doing his own impression of Elvis in the song, he nailed down a stronger and more emotive vocal than the King ever managed with the tune. Jon Brion and Paul Thomas Anderson should also get some props here for inserting Conway’s take on it into “Punch-Drunk Love” in that great scene where Adam Sandler stands toe-to-toe with Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and delivers that great “I have a love in my life, it makes me stronger than anything you can imagine” monologue.

08. Primal Scream – Gamblin’ Bar Room Blues
This was recorded by the Scream in the Riot City Blues era and actually ended up on the B-side of their “Christmas” single “Sometimes I Feel So Lonely.” There’s not a lot to discuss about the track, it’s obviously about an alcohol-fuelled scrap and carries all the aura of a bender in the Old West … it even probably goes on a little longer than it should, as drunks tend to do. But I can’t criticize it too much because like many of Primal Scream’s songs (far more than your average critic will admit), it’s far more alluring than they’d ever get credit for.

09. Jon Langford and His Sadies – Strange Birds
From a 2003 collaboration album between Langford and the Sadies (brilliantly titled), The Mayors of the Moon, this song has always struck me and I’m not quite sure why. It’s a beautiful lyric, even if it is oblique—“If I had bounty on my head, they’d never raise the money. I’d wake up laughing in the night, and wonder what’s so funny.” It’s just such a dreamy little tune but it’s got this very real foreboding air about it. Langford’s always a safe bet to give you a kick up the backside, but more often than not it’s in his delivery as much as it is in his lyrics. Here, he sounds totally resigned, which is odd, but there’s still potent food for thought. Again, I don’t know what it is exactly, but it makes you think a little, doesn’t it?

10. Randy Newman – Dixie Flyer
“Dixie Flyer” originally opened Newman’s 1988 album Land of Dreams, but the full band treatment always kind of betrayed the intimate nature of the song. Newman has staked his claim in the songwriting pantheon as someone who gives voice to characters and personas that are more often than not willfully forgotten—ridiculous bigot (“Short People”), tunnel-vision homer (“Birmingham”), cake-eater with an overinflated sense of entitlement (“My Life is Good”), cradle-robbing rich old man (“Shame”), the list goes on. With “Dixie Flyer,” Newman dropped his characteristic role of becoming a character and actually sang about his parents and his mother’s move with him to New Orleans shortly after his birth. Lightly referencing the unorthodoxy of a Jewish family in religious right stomping grounds (“An American Christian—Goddamn!”), there’s a lot of close-to-home matter here for the author, but it still comes off like any number of his assumed identity classics. The piano-only version here from this year’s The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 finally gives this cut the up-close-and-personal feel it’s lacked for 23 years.

11. Bobby Darin – I Wanna Be Around
One of the very best post-breakup Eff-You songs of all time, Bobby characteristically nails the delivery, going from passive to aggressive in the span of about two minutes. What really intrigues me about this cut, from his 1965 LP, Venice Blue, is the drumming. Listen to it when it picks up at the end – it’s actually more aggressive than most rock and roll drumming of the time. For whatever reason, downbeats on the snare drum seemed to be discouraged from vocal/crooner tunes before about 1962 (probably to keep your attention on the singer), and drummers would instead always rely on beat-keeping through the ride or hi-hat cymbals. Maybe the advent of rock and roll changed things, and if so, great. It doesn’t drown out Bobby’s singing, doesn’t it? If anything it just makes him rise to the occasion and sing with an even stronger voice.

12. Major Lance – It Ain’t No Use
I discovered Major Lance just a few months before I moved back to the Chicago area from Madison last year and I’ve been absolutely entranced by his early-to-mid 1960s output ever since. Hailing from Chicago and actually using the Impressions on most of his OKeh Records-era tunes (an overwhelming amount, including this one, happened to be written by Curtis Mayfield), the songs he got were just R&B perfection. They lacked the polish and some of the punch of output from Motown and Stax, but they more than made up for it in pure heart. This is an absolute bummer of a song when you sit down and listen to the lyrics, but if you’re hearing the music at the same time, you can’t help but be pretty happy. Even better, it’s a B-side.

13. New Radicals – Someday We’ll Know
I never got that deeply into the New Radicals when they were all the rage around 1998 or so. I liked “You Get What You Give,” but the first time I heard it, I was sure it was a cover of an old pop tune because that bridge and chorus just sounded liked they’d been there forever. It wasn’t until about three years later that a friend of mine gave me the album and I ended up thinking “OK, I like the singles and that’s about it.” “Someday We’ll Know” is an interesting one, though, because as saccharine as it is and as much as it seems like an obvious go-to for every quasi-dramatic moment in a teen movie or TV drama of that era, there’s something about this version that hits the landing. I don’t know why. Hall & Oates covered it (with Todd Rundgren to boot) for some adult contemporary album and it sounded like cheese. Whenever anyone attempts to do this song it just sounds like schmaltz. But something about this version has power, enough even to carry it through a eye roll-inducing line like “Did the captain of the Titanic cry?”

14. Sasha Dobson – Without You
I first heard this song when I was going through a bunch of music that had been featured on “Breaking Bad” (devoted seasonal mix downloaders should notice a pattern here as both “It is Such a Good Night” and “Catch Yer Own Train” share similar backstories), but I couldn’t place when this song had been used. In subsequent DVD viewings, I found it’s the song on in the background of that shoestore when Marie pinches that pair on display. This tune bears a resemblance to the music of one of my favorite artists, Bebel Gilberto, but as summery as Bebel’s stuff is, this one just a bit more wistful and cool.

15. Kula Shaker – Ruby
Kula Shaker’s last album Pilgrim’s Progress went generally unnoticed, which, as a Kula Shaker fan, is disappointing but also not at all surprising. The problem is that it actually is stronger than its 2007 predecessor Strangefolk, which got a bit more buzz just by virtue of a band that every critic had long since dismissed reuniting. I’d say almost any cut on Pilgrim’s Progress would make a good addition to a fall mix, but what with this mentioning leaves falling, it’s kind of the shoo-in. I will say this was the one track that really struck me on the first listen though—it’s a love song from a broken place and while it apes a couple George Harrison (or I guess, Eastern religion) “beware of darkness” sentiments, it’s a gorgeous little chilled song throughout.

16. Ann Peebles – Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You
Early on when I was putting this mix together, my girlfriend heard a few of the tracks and commented that I’d loaded it with too many depressing break-up songs. I shrugged and said “Well it’s not a spring mix, is it? Things are getting cold and falling apart. It’s a thematic theme.” She countered that people stay together in autumn and that our relationship in fact began in the thick of autumn. I fully concede she has a point, but if you think about it, “Sunshine and Lollipops” just doesn’t fit on an autumn mix, does it? Anyway, as much as she loathes me placating her, here you are. This is from a magnificent 2005 compilation called I Believe to My Soul, that was done under the eye of Allen Toussaint and featured the likes of Peebles, Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples and Billy Preston. This cover of Dylan’s classic from the Nashville Skyline album just oozes sensual soul, but I guess it’s kind of ironic that Peebles voice actually might be a tad more gravelly than Bob’s given his “Pee Wee Herman” adopted voice on Nashville Skyline. Still, I prefer Peebles’ take. Stunning.

17. The Bee Gees – To Love Somebody
The big story with this song is that the Gibb brothers had actually pitched this song for Otis Redding and he’d said he planned to record it. Unfortunately, despite crappy weather, Otis decided to fly in to Madison, Wisconsin, but the plane went down in Lake Monona instead of Dane County Regional Airport and took Redding with it. Really would’ve loved to hear Otis’ take on this, but credit where credit is due—the Bee Gees aren’t as crappy as a lot of people after 1977 wanted to believe and this fits very nicely in line with a bunch of their unimpeachable 1960s oeuvre, including “Massachusetts” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You.” Fabulous stuff.

18. The Dave Clark Five – Because
Much as I love the Beach Boys and I love the Beatles’ take on “Words of Love,” this song has always kind of been the go-to example when pointing out a song with extraordinary harmony singing. This is an absolutely perfect pop song, and it always blows me away that in spite of how (stunningly) simple it is, the harmonized vocals make it a tough nut to crack when it comes to trying to cover it. It’s really better left as is.

19. Morrissey – Trouble Loves Me
My Smiths obsessions started after Morrissey released Maladjusted in 1997. It was right in that 7-year drought between albums and although I’ll pass kind judgment on a couple You Are the Quarry tracks, I’ll also say (and have said many times before), it’s not worth it anymore. The humor’s gone and so have the remarkable turns of phrase. He’s turned into the old grump that he envisioned (and we all laughed about) when he was younger. And he’s also stepped over that line he warned other aging rockers off with “Get Off the Stage.” In hindsight, he should’ve walked off with Maladjusted, which overall is a terribly average album, but it does have a few majestic moments—this being the best. This should’ve been the farewell single—“Ready with ready wit” and “In the half-light, so English, frowning” are just glorious little sighs. Ah well. We can bid adieu to summer with it.

20. Ronnie Lane – Sweet Virginia (live)
It’s probably some form of sacrilege to say I prefer this cut to the Stones’ original from the thou-shalt-not-speak-ill-of-THIS-one album Exile on Main St., but where the Stones original wore itself with shambolic pride, Ronnie keys in on the gospel aspects of the song and turns it into an outright prayer of thanks. It sounds glorious, particularly because it seems to be tainted with just the smallest bit of heartbreak. Quite autumnal, no?

Happy fall, everyone.