Thursday, August 31, 2006

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the Twelfth

12. To Be the One—Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker - To Be the One

Ryan Adams has become progressively harder to like, even for those of us—Dylan fans, alt-country aficionados, Southern boys in New York—with a genetic predisposition for Ryan Adams-liking. Mr. Adams has become an egomaniac, a poseur, fame-addicted, over-prolific and, to be honest, kind of just a dick. None of which excludes him from appreciation (see: Dylan, above); rather it’s his laziness, of late, in his songwriting.

Every now and again he shows a bit of genius—some of the songs on his originally two-part Love Is Hell album, for example, and parts of Cold Roses—but more often than not the costs (in time and, given the number of records he releases, in money) of being a Ryan Adams-liker outweigh the benefits.

Not so with his earlier work, of which his first solo album, Heartbreaker—on which you’ll find this cut, “To Be the One”—is the indisputable apex. The record starts out rocking, loose and freewheeling with “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” and then quickly downshifts, where it remains for the rest of the album.

There are many highlights—”Oh My Sweet Carolina,” a gorgeous duet between Mr. Adams and Emmylou Harris, may be my favorite—and arguably no duds. The record, as the cover suggests, is a cigarette lying back on the bed, looping slow smoke curls upward. “To Be the One” is fine, too, all broke-down worry and unrequited passion and longing.

However, as someone once said (there is some disagreement as to whom), writing about music is like dancing about architecture—which means my words can’t hope to do justice to this song’s singing … so I’ll just leave you with this couplet:

And the empty bottle it misses you
Yeah and I’m the one that it’s talking to

It’s talking to me less and less these days.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the Eleventh

11. Lived in Bars—Cat Power

Cat Power - The Greatest - Lived In Bars

I am not, like some I know, an ardent Cat Power fan. She has some great songs, and a husky, distinct voice—but I often find her “downness” and fragility—especially on stage—a bit distracting and overwrought. To be fair, I haven’t listed to her earliest albums, What Would the Community Think? and Moon Pix, but I have listened closely to her two most recent records, You Are Free and The Greatest.

The former is definitely the “downer” of the two; I listened to it over and again when I was on Antarctica. (That, however, probably says more about me at the time than it does the album.) It’s good, but avoid it like the plague if it’s a nice day out; it’ll end any happy feeling you’re having post-haste.

The latter, from which the song “Lived in Bars” hails, is a bit more “up.” Or at least, if not “up,” more enjoyable: there’s a big difference between sad and moody in your darkened bedroom and sad and moody in a low-lit Memphis bar, the neon jukebox bubbles floating up slow.

The first verse says it all:

We’ve lived in bars
And danced on tables
Hotel trains and ships that sail
We swim with sharks
And fly with aeroplanes in the air

It’s a weary song, but not without a bit of tired-smile nostalgia for the past—which picks up and takes flight, backed by Memphis horns and a girl-group doo-wop finish, up tempo now, as it nears the end.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the Tenth

10. Never My Love—The Association

The Association - The Association: Greatest Hits! - Never My Love

“Never My Love” has one of the most recognizable intros of any song ever written, right up there with the intro to Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”; the bass line, which draws you in and then drops down after just a few notes, is instantly recognizable.

I heard this song most recently walking through a cafĂ© in my neighborhood called Phoebe’s, meeting a friend of mine, pre-meeting, for coffee in the backyard. Wind was through the tree leaves and all was calm; this song nicely accentuated the evening’s feel.

Certain songs sound better not at home; this is one of them. (Jeff Tweedy, in an interview in Magnet magazine, has said something to this effect.) Once, pre-show at The Mercury Lounge, on the edge of New York City’s Lower East Side, I heard the aforementioned songwriter’s band Wilco’s album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Though of course (being a big Wilco fan) I was already very familiar with the record, hearing it in that setting was an entirely new and unique experience.

Another time, in the same venue, pre-Lucero show, I heard some keening, foreboding music over the sound system.

“What is this?” I asked my friends. “This isn’t … it can’t be … the Boss, is it?”

It was. I’d always dismissed Bruce Springsteen. But the night I heard Nebraska for the first time, that night at The Mercury Lounge, my ill-informed disdain of an American treasure was kaput.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the Ninth

9. Autumn in New York—Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday - Ken Burns Jazz: Billie Holiday - Autumn in New York

For those of you out there in TV land who don’t “get” jazz, I highly recommend Ken Burns’ documentary on the subject. I really didn’t “get” jazz myself until I saw the series, which explains what the first jazz artists were trying to do with their music, how they were attempting to liberate the music from its former forms and constraints.

Previously I’d thought (though not firmly; I knew I didn’t know what I was talking about) jazz to be a bit wanky and not really that important or interesting, with the exception of maybe a few great albums, notably Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

After viewing the documentary, I feel I have a greater understanding of the jazz artists’ intent, and therefore can appreciate the music in a much deeper way. Sure, I might still love rock ‘n’ roll above all other musical forms, but now that I understand towards what those artists were striving, I feel I can really appreciate and “get”—or at least move closer to “getting”—it.

But the above’s got virtually nothing to do with the song in question here.

This song, quite simply, whether you know a lot or nothing about jazz, is vision-conjuring and beautiful. (It connects to the above plug for Ken Burns’ documentary in that I first heard it therein.) Billie Holiday makes you feel what autumn in New York is like, in a deliciously sensual way. Listening to this song I can feel the fall air on my skin; the high, angled, coppery sunlight of a fall afternoon “shimmering” down through “canyons of steel.”

Ms. Holiday is singing about a simple happiness, a full fellow-feeling with the city’s other inhabitants—and, in fact, the (at times) seemingly sentient city itself. It’s something I look forward to, but calmly, peacefully. As Ms. Holiday sings, succinctly and sweetly:

It’s autumn in New York
It’s good to live it again

How very true. Or, more accurately, how very soon to be true.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the Eighth

8. Amanda Cecilia—Elliott Smith*

*Go here to download this song.

After Elliott Smith died, bootleg recordings from what might have eventually become his next album, that after From a Basement on a Hill, began to circulate on the Internet. Today they’re known as the “Basement II” demos, a collection of songs that are more spare and less polished than anything Mr. Smith had done in his past several albums, since Either/Or. For those who prefer early-period (aka pre-Good Will Hunting) Elliott, these demos are a real treat—but lyrically they’re more or less concerned with the same subject matter as the songs on From a Basement.

black and blue from passing around
whitey says the lady ain’t a hit no more
cecelia amanda i don’t wanna see you get like you got before
another patient in a party dress yesterday
dancing on a remenant scratch
in a place where lonely men pay to make their opposites match

Bruised-ness, copping, loneliness. It felt for awhile like Mr. Smith took flight from his earthly prison of self-loathing and drugs … but towards the end he seemed to spiral back down; the lyrics on From a Basement are especially foreboding. Here’s a line from the best song on that album, “King’s Crossing” (named for a place in Australia where apparently you could get drugs), which includes a nod to Lou Reed’s “Heroin”:

it don’t matter ‘cause i have no sex life
all i want to do now is inject my ex-wife
i’ve seen the movie and i know what happens

Unfortunately, even though he knew what happens, Elliott couldn’t change the ending to his own story—even though, as one can easily see from these demos and his last album, he clearly saw it coming.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the Seventh

7. Moonshiner—Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 - Moonshiner

On my iPod I have four versions of this traditional Irish song: one by Cat Power, two by Uncle Tupelo, and one—probably the most well-known, and the one linked above—by Bob Dylan. Each is different from the others—Dylan’s is matter-of-fact; Cat Power’s stretches out a bit more; and Uncle Tupelo’s is resigned—but all tell the same story: of a man who’s “been a moonshiner for 17 long years,” and who has “spent all [his] money on whiskey and beer.”

I’ve been a moonshiner
for seventeen long years
and I spent all my money
on whiskey and beer
I go to some hollow
and set up my still
if whiskey don’t kill me
Lord, I don’t know what will

I go to some barroom
to drink with my friends
where the women they can’t follow
to see what I spend
God bless them pretty women
I wish they was mine
with breath as sweet as
the dew on the vine

Let me eat when I’m hungry
let me drink when I’m dry
two dollars when I’m hard up
religion when I die
the whole world is a bottle
and life is but a dram
when the bottle gets empty
Lord, it sure ain’t worth a damn

Only three stanzas long, this character sketch nevertheless leaves you with the feeling that you know this moonshiner, this man who has—as I’ve heard said by some—been around the world many times … on a barstool. Nothing’s left for him but his drinks, and though he looks longingly at the “pretty women,” he knows that he’ll never have them. All this has led him to the conclusion that “the whole world is a bottle and life is but a dram.”

But, as with other tragic tales, the act of telling his story lends the moonshiner a measure—a dram, you might say—of dignity … as well as immortality, as he continues to live in the voice of Dylan, Jay Farrar, Chan Marshall, and surely many more to come.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the Sixth

6. Manhattan Avenue—Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay - Get Away from Me - Manhattan Avenue

Nellie McKay is nothing if not multi-talented. On her debut double album Get Away from Me, Ms. McKay (pronounced McKai) leapfrogs effortlessly among varied genres from hip-hop (“Sari”) to torch ballad (“Manhattan Avenue”).

The song in question here is a languid, slow-moving, summery thing, a fine foil to an older song appearing later in this mixed tape. Ms. McKay doesn’t quite have the vocal chops that the later (or, depending on how you look at it, earlier) artist does, but she can certainly sing, and paint a scene—namely, Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s Manhattan Avenue, the main thoroughfare through a tightly knit Polish community not too far from my apartment, and off which several of my friends pay their rent.

Manhattan—the borough, not the avenue—always gets all the love in songs and movies; not so much Brooklyn, except, perhaps in hip-hop songs … but that’s not really the sort of Brooklyn I love.

Rather, the sort of Brooklyn I love is Ms. McKay’s version, a late-afternoon/early-evening stroll north up Manhattan Avenue towards the Pulaski Bridge, with the setting sun on the other side of the more-famous borough peeping along Greenpoint’s west–east facing side streets. The smells of Polish sausage and bacon, the pictures of the late Pope John Paul II still adorning shop windows, the old men shuffling along, the young hipsters happily arm-in-arm … me going to a Saturday night meeting.

Ms. McKay captures that here: the “scuzzy hue,” the streetlight, “chipping paint,” the “mugger and a child”—it’s a bit broke-down, but lovely, too. It’s lived-in, it’s well-loved … and Brooklyn at dusk, like Manhattan the borough, only less heralded, can feel impossibly romantic.

To wit:

Send a breeze
A pit bull’s yelp
A tender squeeze
A cry for help
Make it now
And make it fast
Such memories
Can never last
I long for the days
Music and mayhem
Mama’s a smilin’ friend
In the scuzzy hue of the sunlight
Manhattan Avenue

Lionel please
Watch o’er our door
The children tease
I beg for more
Chipping paint
The ceiling’s spent
Aw ain’t it great
Can’t make the rent
I long for the days
Kittens are meowing
Junkies are prowling
Deep in the jazzy hue of the streetlight
Manhattan Avenue

How wild it is
What strange a vice
That a mugger and a child should share the same paradise
Oh but dreams come true on
Manhattan Avenue

I was wrong

"My Humps" is much, much worse.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the Fifth

5. Stupid Mouth Shut—Hem

Hem - Rabbit Songs - Stupid Mouth Shut

Hem’s another band I got into when I was DJing at KXUA, this time in the spring of my senior year. This wistful Brooklyn “countrypolitan” group is special to many of my friends, not least for their first album, Rabbit Songs, which opens with a lo-fi tape recording of Hem’s singer, Sally Ellyson, singing a bit of lullaby called “Lord, Blow the Moon Out, Please”—an audition of sorts in response to the singer-seeking ad that band leader Dan Messe had posted in The Village Voice.

Mr. Messe writes the words and Ms. Ellyson sings them. And what words and what a voice they are: you’ll have to hear Ms. Ellyson sing to get the full effect, but Mr. Messe’s words are impressive on their own, full of surprising turns of phrase:

The sidewalk bends where your house ends
Like the neighborhood is on its knees
You’re surrounded by a chain-link fence
That keeps me out but lets me see

Well I come by most every night
The shutters pounding in the breeze
A clothesline strung like paper kites
That blow my words right back at me

But someday when my heart exhales
I’ll tell you everything
These sweet words spilling all about us
I’ll say please please be with me
And I’ll breathe so easily
But instead I’m turning blue
I look at you
And keep my stupid mouth shut

The hall light streams out through the screens
And the shadows capture me in webs
Just tangled up in what I’ve seen
And every word I have not said
I have not said

‘Cause the sidewalk bends where your house ends
Like the neighborhood is on its knees

It’s lazy, screened-in summer porch, on the bed with the ceiling fan turning unproductively music. And very American, in the best sense of the word.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the Fourth

4. Stupid Thing—Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann - Whatever - Stupid Thing

Aimee Mann’s songs are full of traps and landmines, double-dealings and betrayals. “Stupid Thing” especially, from her first solo album, 1993’s Whatever, is a good example of this, with its many dependent clauses stacked shakily one on top the other.

Nothing was saving our day
There was nothing to say
But you said something anyway
Claiming I stepped out of line
Which forced you to leave me
As if that idea was mine

And the qualifiers: “but,” “which,” “as if”—all serve to accurately convey that maddening, cat’s cradle-entangled feel to the end of certain relationships, where nothing right can be said. But Ms. Mann lifts things, albeit resignedly, with the worn-out chorus:

Oh, you stupid thing
Speaking of course as your dear departed
Oh, you stupid thing
It wasn’t me that you outsmarted
You stupid thing
Stopping it all before it even started

It’s not vicious, it’s not (too) bitter: it’s just “oh, you stupid thing.”

Another thing I love about Ms. Mann, and that’s demonstrated well in this song, is how good she is at internal rhyme—the “speaking of course as your dear departed” line stands out in particular, making the song feel woven in and out of its self, mixed-up and labyrinthine.

NB: Later in this “mixed tape” another Aimee Mann song, featuring the word “June,” will be reviewed.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the Third

3. San Fran—Kitty Craft*

This bit of ephemera dates back to the fall of 2000. I was back from a year away at Oxford for my senior year at Arkansas, and joined the newly formed KXUA college radio station as a DJ. My first shift was from 2 to 4 in the morning. I loved it. My DJ name was Spaceman H, a nod to the frontman of Spiritualized and Spacemen 3 co-founder, J. Spaceman. I figured whomever “got it” wouldn’t mind my semi-rip-off.

We had to play around 10 tracks from “heavy rotation” albums and a handful of tracks from “light rotation” albums each hour. I enjoyed DJing because it regularly exposed me to new music in a structured, weekly way. I continue to seek out new music, and have more luck and success than most, but I’m just not as likely nowadays as I was then to land on that wholly random, out-of-nowhere album like the one this cut’s from: Kitty Craft’s Catskills.

“Hey San Fran.” There’s not much to the song, but it takes me back to two specific times and places: one, Thanksgiving, November 2000. I’d ordered this CD, along with a couple of others, and received them just before my family and I left for our traditional Thanksgiving in Memphis with my mom’s family. I’d been away at Oxford the year before, so it was my first “real” Thanksgiving in two years. My brothers and I listened to this album on the drive up to Memphis the day before Thanksgiving.

The song also reminds me of, duh, San Fran. But specifically North Beach, and The Green Tortoise Hostel, where I’ve stayed the couple of times I’ve been in San Fran. Both times it’s been alone and at the end of a long trip … and both times the town’s refreshed me with its coolness (temperature-wise) and its lack, at least for me, of memory. Much like this song and this album—which makes for a lovely fall day, windows-open listen. I highly recommend it.

*Note—Again, this one’s not on iTunes. But go to this page and click on the sample for the song, just down the page a bit.

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the Second

2. Samson—Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor - Begin to Hope - Samson

Regina Spektor has an enchanting voice. Some of you out there in TV Land might think she sounds a bit like Tori Amos—and you’d be right. But Ms. Spektor doesn’t traffic in the same material as Ms. Amos, and refreshingly so. Ms. Amos, while certainly talented, seems to me a bit narcissistic and overwrought. It gets tiresome.

Ms. Spektor’s songs, while certainly full of feeling, don’t come off as melodramatic. This song, “Samson,” is a reimagined Bible story, much like the reimagined fairy tales of the late Angela Carter’s book The Bloody Chamber. The basic format runs thusly: take a story we all know (here, Samson & Delilah; there, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, etc.) and use the familiar signs and symbols to a different effect and emotion.

But really you just have to listen to it, because these words in no way do justice to the fragile beauty and nostalgia of this song—the tender way in which one sometimes remembers an old love, with all the bitterness and problems sorted out & away by time.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Anatomy of a Mixed Tape, Track the First

  1. Thunder Road—Badly Drawn Boy*
It's an accepted fact that classic songs, the best-loved songs, are hard to cover. Songs that have been implanted deeply into the minds of the general public, well ... people don't like you messing with them. The only way around this is if one radically reinvents the song in question (e.g., Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," covered by Hendrix).

"Thunder Road" is one of these. And Badly Drawn Boy figured out how to cover it properly: by reimagining it from the ground up, totally turning it inside-out, taking a single note of its complex emotion and extrapolating that out into something new.

If Springsteen's original of "Thunder Road" was like a souped-up muscle car, this Badly Drawn Boy version is like that same muscle car, only 20 years old now and rusting on blocks in the front yard of this song's protagonist. The feeling's like the memory of a feeling, as the man in question sips a drink on his porch and contemplates the rusted-out vehicle as the sun's setting.

*Note—an iTunes link isn't available for this song, because it comes from a sort of obscure Springsteen tribute CD packaged with a couple years-old issue of Uncut magazine. Future posts will, where possible, contain links to iTunes.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Worst Song Ever

Much like Lance Armstrong repeatedly bested his own record in the Tour de France, Fergie and the Black Eyed Peas continue to one-up themselves in the category of Worst Song Ever.

Previous record-holder "My Humps," a Black Eyed Peas "song" with lead vocals by the inimitable Fergie, should have stayed atop the Worst Song junk heap for a long time ... but, with innovators such as these loosed upon the world, anything can happen.

In this case, what happened was Fergie's new song, "London Bridge."

But maybe we first need to quickly lay out the Worst Song ground rules.
  1. The song must be ubiquitous, all over the place, very popular.
  2. The song must be catchy—but not good catchy; catchy like Avian Bird Flu. Catchy like if you happen to hear it in the morning it'll be in your goddamn head all day (as the travesty "London Bridge" is now).
  3. The song must not merely be annoying or poorly made. (In fact, annoying or poorly made songs usually won't qualify for Worst Song status, as they're usually fairly easy to ignore.) Rather, the song must be a real bellwether of our degraded times; narcissistic, product-obsessed, vacuous, empty, wholly consumerist.
  4. Extra points if it sounds exactly like another earlier, better song.
"London Bridge" hits all the high points here. Of course, it meets the requirements of No. 1. Already this abortion is showing up everywhere, most notably TRL. Today I am a case study in the fact that the song meets No. 2—I can't seem to get its inane chorus out of my head.

Skipping to No. 4: it sounds exactly like Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl," of the summer of 2005. Now, "Hollaback Girl" I thought was a good song. It was catchy and everywhere, true, but I feel like it was a bit subversive and surreal, which redeemed it. The whole "bananas" thing? I dunno, I liked it.

But this song, "London Bridge," phew. I mean, it hits No. 3 to the T. As with "My Humps," it's chock-a-block with product placement, the glorification of empty celebrity VIP room bullshit, and so on—but, I think, it gets lifted above even "My Humps" due to its embarrassingly lazy "rapping" and awful lyrics. To wit:
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit
When I come to the clubs, step aside...
Pop the seeds, don't be hating me in the line
V.I.P because you know I gotta shine
I'm Fergie Ferg
Give me love you long time

All my girls get down on the floor...
Back to back drop it down real low
I'm such a lady but I'm dancing like a ho
Because you know what, I don't give a fuck
So here we go!

Chorus (x2)
How come every time you come around
My London London Bridge want to go down
Like London London want you to go down
Like London London be going down like (x2)

Drinks start pouring
And my speech start slowing
Everybody start looking at you

The Grey Goose got the girl feeling loose
Now I wishing that I didn't wear these shoes
It's like everytime I get up on the dude
Papparazzi put my business in the news
And I'm gonna get up out my face (oh, shit)
Before I turn around and spray your ass with mace (oh, shit)
My lips make you want to have a taste (oh, shit)
You got that? I got the bass
Delightful, isn't it? Just wait. Hear it on the radio and see for yourself. I mean it's really like watching a train wreck.

Any and all other Worst Song recommendations can be posted to the comments page. I will analyze each that is given me.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Four of them

This is My Sister, Carrie (2nd from left), with Diana, Nicole, and Erin, at Coney Island a couple of Saturdays ago. This photo was taken at the Strawberry Shortcake stand, which is maybe the healthiest thing sold on Coney Island. (That's not saying much, but still.)

That day, we rode the Cyclone, the Log Flume ride (which is for babies, but was fun), and Erin and I rode this awful thing that spun around and up and down and upside-down and everything in between. Literally within 30 seconds of being on it I was sure I was going to puke. Luckily, Erin was able to talk me through it—though I didn't feel quite right for a good hour afterwards.

It was very nice to have My Sister Carrie in town. She is 17, and very beautiful and wonderful. I look forward to seeing what sort of woman she grows into.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Two of us

This is me and my brother, Sam. He lived with me this summer. He is wearing a Darrell "The Machine" Waltrip T-shirt. He's not actually a NASCAR fan. We had a very good time hanging out this summer, and I'm going to miss him. My sister, Carrie, also visited us just this past week, but unfortunately I didn't take any photos. It was weird–but good–walking up Metropolitan Avenue, which I've walked so many times alone, with the both of them.
Mad respect.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Beat the heat

Here are a few ways to beat the heat. One surefire method is to not use the phrase "beat the heat," because it's stupid. It's one of those lazy journalism phrases that just gets repeated ad infinitum because, well—it's too hot to think of anything better.
  1. Wet a bandanna. Put in freezer. Wait half-hour. Wrap around neck.
  2. Take one cement mixer truck. Fill with ice. Turn on mixer and get inside.
  3. Stand in the entryway of Whole Foods, which is equipped with some massive AC blower.
  4. Buy kiddie pool. Fill with water. Get in and float like an alligator. Come back the next day to find kiddie pool has melted.
  5. Hang out in the make-up store Sephora, which is kept at a cool 60 degrees Fahrenheit, to prevent make-up from melting.
  6. Purchase, as per the documentary film Hands on a Hardbody, an AC unit from an abandoned Wal-Mart. Attach to trailer home and turn all the way down. (Will cool to "about 35, 40 below.")
  7. Elect Al Gore president. Wait 50 years.
  8. Rig battery pack to portable fan. Strap fan around midsection, pointing directly at genitals. (Tip: wear no pants to increase your coolness!)
  9. Ride subway aimlessly. (Note: this works best in London, where you can ride the Circle Line all day and not end up in, say, Canarsie.)
  10. Go see a movie. Most any movie will do; just be careful not to watch something like Little Man, which will negate the theater's cool AC by boiling your blood with its stupidity.
Anyone else out there in TV Land have any tips to ... um ... god, it's too hot—the hell with it ... beat the heat?