Category Archives: Sharing Is Caring

House Appropriations

Suit by Nudie

Why does our music culture tend to be in love with its own reflection? Is there any song that’s going to be left alone without reinterpretation? Not that I mind this. Just an observation. Hip hop, sampling and the never-ending remix pop into one’s mind first. 51 versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, answer songs, and live covers made to sound like samples often cause me to stand up and take notice. And Irreverent folkie covers, collage mashups, and jazz vocalist “interpretations” are all well and good. But the songs I like the best are those that manage to eak out the very knowability of a tune as an entity, by taking it’s fame and doing something altogether different–dare I say disrespectful–with it. As such, I have begun to keep a log of those songs which manage to snatch the essence of the things.

Day One: Pierre Menard, Author of the Sweetheart

The seminal country album by the Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is dominated by the earnest, plaintive presence of singer Gram Parsons, who stayed with the band for this one album before moving on to greener pastures. Here’s an account from The Adios Lounge of how that all went down:

The Byrds played South Africa in July without Gram Parsons, who decided that shooting smack with Keith Richards was better than playing segregated Johannesburg, so he essentially fired himself. While GP’s political motives were undoubtedly more expedient than heartfelt, to his credit he flew the coop on a tour that was, by all accounts, “Custer-esque.” Back on home turf … and without the motivating force behind their just-released album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo … Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman recruited Clarence White into The Byrds, then fired drummer, Kevin Kelley, and replaced him with … Gene Parsons. Hillman then reconciled with Gram, left The Byrds, and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers. GP and Hillman then asked White and Gene Parsons (no relation) to join the Burritos, but the new Byrds, upon deeper reflection, decided to remain new Byrds. Are you getting all this?!?!

Well. So. Anyways the music. The album, while it somehow manages to feel very cohesive, has songs from all over the place. There’s a tongue-in-cheek Louvin Brothers cover, two Dylan covers (including one where Roger McGuinn screws up the lyrics, only to get called on it by Dylan in a later version of the song), a Merle Haggard tune, a traditional, an amazing William Bell cover, and Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

Then there are the Parsons originals. I think a lot of folks go right for the jugular and get all weepie over his sentimental ballad, “Hickory Wind,” and so did I. That is, until I heard a Parsons-only vocal version of the tune that follows it on the album, “One Hundred Years From Now.”

The Byrds – One Hundred Years from Now (Rehearsal)

This tune is an amazing, angst-ridden diatribe against what people called, in 1968 terms, “the establishment”. While Parsons desires–with a certain amount of disdain–that people look beyond the day-to-day in order to see what really matters, he does tend to blame the powers that be for keeping him from his gal:

One hundred from this day
Will the people still feel this way
Still say the things that they’re saying right now.
Everyone said I’d hurt you
They said that I’d desert you
If I go away
You know I’m gonna get back somehow.

Well, in the Summer of 2008, Dr. Dog Singer Toby Leaman takes a different approach:

Dr. Dog – 100 Years

What’s so amazing about this song is its attempt not merely to channel the the spirit of The Byrds tune, but rather to use the same simple lyric and surround it with all things that we now tend to associate with country- and folk-rock or the 1960’s: lush harmonies, tack piano, rock drums, and well, Gram Parsons. But where GP tries to reassure his lover and tell her that it’ll all balance out in the end, Leaman takes responsibility for the space between them, and rather seems to be offering a promise to himself:

When I look back on what I done
‘Bout a hundred years from now
I’m gonna cry myself to sleep at night
If somebody shows me how.
And when I get off Tennybrook Farm
‘Bout a hundred years from now,
I’m gonna marry you out of common sense
And get out from behind this plough.

Perhaps these two songs have nothing to do with one another. Leaman may have never heard of Gram Parsons or Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Parsons may be his unknown hero, known by his deeds and accomplishments rather than his name. Where the passage of time has a more literal meaning to a frustrated lover in 1968, to a lonesome ploughman, 100 years is just the space between now and the end of the workday.

This Tornado Loves You, Neko

When sifting through the millions of songs we’re barraged with in any given day, week, month, year, there are plenty that are worthless wastes of time. There are some that deserve loathing. There are inoffensive others, enjoyable many, and likable some. And no matter your background or criteria, there are a few that you love. But if you are a songwriter, there is a select catalog of songs that you wish you had written. Not songs that are band opuses, beasts of arrangement and democracy. I’m talking about compositions broken down to their essentials, things perhaps bolstered by great arrangements but not necessarily so. In my collection of songs that I wish I had written, there are two acts that continually raise the bar I set my songwriting toward, continually develop perfect compositions of depth, beauty, and catchiness. The first of those has just released a new album, and the first song on that album is perhaps for me the newest epitome of this class of song.

Neko Case’s “This Tornado Loves You” exemplifies so many of my songwriting ideals that it’s left me fairly incapable of processing the rest of the album (although the first single, “People Gotta Lot Of Nerve” is actually another in this class). Without sacrificing hooks or pop accessibility, it’s a sprawling, wandering composition with more bridges than verses and choruses (or, perhaps, multiple verses and choruses) but that never strays from a few carefully picked chords. A continuous reordering of these chords creates a masterpiece that is as familiar as it is evolving, and with the two out-of-key chords sprinkled in for good measure, we are tossed from the evolving familiarity briefly and frequently by disturbing moments of unsettling shift. Her lyrics specialize the techniques to brilliant, poetic effect. As a tornado having power over everything but her love, she sings the compositional sway exactly as you would imagine a massive funnel barreling forward, swinging unexpectedly, calming, roaring, destructive, revelatory. Just take her first verse for evidence. “My love, I am the speed of sound. I left them motherless, fatherless, their souls dangling inside out of their mouths. But it’s never enough. I want you.” It is beauty explored in the macabre, or, as goes a phrase in a subsequent song–a phrase as descriptive of her music as it is of her subject matter–“the Sistine Chapel painted with a Gatling gun.”

I think this song is pure genius refined and replicated for the masses. And how lucky to have it. But I gush too much. Without further ado, make up your own mind. Hopefully I haven’t ruined it for you.

Neko Case – This Tornado Loves You

And, for the record, three others from the Neko Case songbook that I hold near-equally dear:

Neko Case – People Got A Lotta Nerve
Neko Case – Margaret Vs. Pauline
Neko Case – Star Witness

Stax Records 1959 – 1968

This is really the heart of it. Songs without pretense. Fun, beautifully arranged, and staffed by the world’s greatest backing band. There is this infectious quality to the Stax sound, and by the end of the song you don’t just like it, you hope for it’s success. Each of these songs was recorded around the time of Otis Redding’s death, on December 10, 1967. While there are a great number of somber requiems written for Otis (Arthur Conley’s “Otis Sleep On” being the best), I think these tunes speak to the environment that this affable,  talented and hardworking artist was able able to create around himself.

Jeanne and the Darlings – How Can You Mistreat The One You Love?

Rufus Thomas – The Memphis Train

The Charmels – As Long As I’ve Got You

Eddie Floyd – Big Bird

ollie.gifOllie & The Nightingales – I Got A Sure Thing

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