Monday, March 27, 2006

Ships (1979) – Barry Manilow (Ian Hunter)

Pop music occasionally acknowledges the relationship between a father and son: Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle” and Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” come to mind. These songs regretfully explore the inherent tension in a father and son’s inability to fully appreciate each other’s company or even to co-exist, whether it be due to lack of time or effort, or an emotional estrangement. Others, such as Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father,” and the Ian Hunter-penned “Ships,” take a more tender approach in recognizing the fondness a son might feel toward his father, even when he is unable to express these feelings. In “Ships,” a man reflects upon life’s impending deadline. He hasn’t shared an affectionate moment with his father in years—certainly not in physical terms. As an adult, he only communicates with his father through the impersonal salutation of a greeting card or comfortable separation of a long distance phone call. But in close proximity, neither truly understands how to relate to the other, so they prefer the brief encounters where small talk suffices but a true connection never ripens. He likens their lives to boats skimming along the horizon—objects heading toward their destinations, whose passengers happily wave to each other in a moment briefly shared before leaving each other behind. Through the foggy perils of Barry’s trademark melodramatic tendencies and American Idol/Dancing With The Stars promotional forays, “Ships” is a beacon reminding us to heed our emotional compass to navigate the unforgiving riptides of fleeting opportunities and familial strife to reach a safe harbor of communion.

  • Listen to "Ships" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Sunday, March 26, 2006

    Real Summer (1997) – Future Bible Heroes

    In a supernova of synthetic effervescence, songwriter Stephen Merritt and programmer Chris Ewen capture the essence of that summer of teenage epiphany—the step into adulthood where one’s realization of life’s promise is awakened through romantic episodes and leisurely pursuits. Unfortunately, that summer is in the past, and attempts to recreate it are failing miserably. Synthesizer sequences and programmed percussion pulsate, pan, and percolate in a vibrant confluence of energy that offsets lyrics toasting idle days and listless nights. As inertia settles into a lifestyle, each evening marks another wasted day closer to summer’s end. Claudia Gonson’s lulling alto underscores the disappointment when reality collapses beneath the weight of great expectations, languishing in the rubble of resentment. Even the weather refuses to cooperate: the sun only occasionally peeks through the clouds (“Octagons fall from the sun”), and it’s damn cold!: “And the Beach Boys? / Hell, they might as well play ‘Winter Wonderland’ / Summer, my ass.” As dwindling plans are discarded in a midsummer night’s bonfire, possibilities perish in a languid fizzle.

  • Not available from iTunes Music Store.
  • Saturday, March 25, 2006

    Downtown (1966) – Mrs. Miller (Tony Hatch)

    In the same vein as William Hung, Elva Miller’s recording career was a product of dubious talent, a record label insidious enough to exploit her, and a public eager for a dupe to ridicule. She exuded a carefree obliviousness that endeared her to listeners who were simultaneously repulsed yet compelled out of horror and curiosity to listen to her cavort in her own lotus land. Operatic and robust like the nun in The Sound of Music singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” Mrs. Miller’s shrill voice cracks and bludgeons with vibrato capable of shattering glass, and molests like the rotund aunt who pinched your cheeks and made you sit on her lap. In mangling Petula Clark’s signature song, Elva’s timing is more often off the beat than on; her tone and elocution smack of an etiquette instructor rather than a vocalist. She sings ahead of the beat, then waits for it to catch up to her, at some point realizing how lost she is. (She claims that she was conducted a beat ahead or behind while recording, and the orchestra would change tempo to confuse her—claims which don’t exactly pass scrutiny.) Aware of how ludicrous the whole affair has become, she laughs at one point in mid-verse. Despite her protestations that she wanted to be taken seriously as a singer, she lapses into whistling bird warbles—as if that would ever garner respect. Then, re-launching into the lyrics, she loses her place, forgets the words, and mumbles gibberish. Instead of stopping the take, she stumbles her way back into the lyric and continues about her romp. The song fades out to the strains of chirpy birdsong, but the listener escapes the whole fiasco with a peculiar sense of survivor’s guilt.

  • Listen to "Downtown" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Sunday, March 19, 2006

    New World (2000) – Björk

    As an epilogue to Selmasongs, the soundtrack to Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer In The Dark, “New World” is a swan song of sorts for Selma (portrayed by Björk), a factory worker who is going blind. Preparing to experience a new world through her remaining senses, she is saying farewell to sight, anxious about her future, yet taking delight in her heightened sense of hearing and taste and touch and smell. With soothing “ooOOooh”s that ameliorate the adversity, she heralds “a new world / a new day to see,” sustaining soaring notes that assuage the soul. It turns out that blindness has enlightened her to the beauty of life found in the details. In cinematic strokes, an august orchestral procession accentuates her growing sense of peace, each new revelation an anodyne for her impending loss. A lysergic beat parades in measured strides as Selma’s fate unfurls toward its denouement. As the vibrant colors of life fade from her vision, the world of sound is reverberating within her.

  • Not available from iTunes Music Store.
  • See also "I Remember You" (1993) - Björk
  • It’s Oh So Quiet (Blow A Fuse) (1951) – Betty Hutton (Hans Lang/Bert Reisfeld)

    While Björk’s rendition of “It’s Oh So Quiet” is beyond cavil, Betty Hutton’s version (recorded as “Blow A Fuse”) is remarkable in that, well . . . it was recorded in 1951. That’s 44 years before Björk released her version in 1995. And yet, Hutton’s version essentially survived intact when Ms. Guðmundsdóttir covered it. The song naturally suits Björk’s vocal dynamics, but amazingly Hutton was showcasing the same antipodal dynamics back in the forties: restrained breathy melodies giving way to gutsy hollers before screams erupt, a shade more manic than Björk’s. The big band arrangements are basically identical, even sharing the same key. So, while one marvels at the capriciousness of Björk’s take on this tribute to being blindsided by love, Björk herself recognizes that the original was avant-garde.

  • Not available from iTunes Music Store.
  • Straight Out Of Canton (2004) – The Notorious M.S.G.

    With the opening, “Yeah, east side Chinatown, bitch! / You gonna die. . . .,” The Notorious M.S.G. throw down the gauntlet, daring you to venture into their ‘hood. Armed with chopsocky bravado, M.S.G. drag the listener through alleyways and slums to reveal the seedy Mahjong parlor at the back of the restaurant that is their world. Employing caricaturishly thick—yet credibly authentic—Chinese accents, M.S.G. celebrate their culture by parlaying it into a shtick that actually empowers them—a sort of pre-emptive slag off, if you will: we’re making you laugh with us, not at us. Instead of degrading themselves into objects of ridicule, they turn stereotypes, particularly involving food, into rallying cries or exploit puns and double entendres: “Wanna beef with us? / Get WOKKED! That’s right!”; “I like the ladies with the big wontons!” Sharply produced backing tracks, replete with liberal doses of scratching, spotlight the engaging swagger of Hong Kong Fever, the mosquito-like darts of Down-Lo Mein, and the incoherent mumblings of Funky Buddha. Rather than being a source of opprobrium, M.S.G.’s spicy brand of gangsta mirth instills a perverse sense of ethnic pride by having fun with notorious stereotypes.

    [Despite reports that Funky Buddha was slain outside a Chinese restaurant while making a take-out delivery, there is some debate about whether that is a hoax. A clue that the “murder” is a hoax lies in the interview in a restaurant kitchen that M.S.G. gave regarding Funky Buddha’s demise. Hong Kong Fever never breaks character, even vowing “it’s time for revenge, you mutha bitch!” You decide whether they seem as if they are in mourning.]

  • Listen to "Straight Out Of Canton" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Sunday, March 12, 2006

    Escape (1981) - Journey

    Journey’s anthem for malcontent youth celebrates nonconformity, whisking the listener off for a joyride. Metallic guitars defiantly chug power chords as Steve Perry salutes headstrong teenage rebellion and obstinance. Having worn out his welcome and exhausted every dead end in his hometown, the burgeoning delinquent leaves to seek out his lot. Countenanced by a punchy instrumental break that closely resembles a section in Rush’s “Red Barchetta,” (coincidentally released on Moving Pictures six months before Escape), he stops at a local head shop before hitting the open road in his Pontiac GTO. The guitar shifts into overdrive as he daydreams about his future kicked wide-open in full throttle. Sure, he had doubts about such a getaway, but, removed from past adversity, he is discovering a new outlook. Neal Schon’s invigorating guitar solo soars in liberation, as new aspirations take flight to a triumphant declaration of freedom. Wherever he ends up, he’s already in a better place.

  • Listen to "Escape" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Saturday, March 11, 2006

    Oh England, My Lionheart (1978) – Kate Bush

    A World War II British fighter pilot lays dying on the moor, having crashed in his Spitfire aircraft which sustained considerable damage from a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 in the Battle of Britain. The injuries he suffered are fatal, but he is allowed a few moments of waning life to bid farewell to his beloved country. He envisions peace in days to come, fondly recalling the tranquility of days gone by. But, ever the patriot, even in his final moments he reminds himself that his cause was noble and just, solemnizing this reflection upon one’s life—and the affirmation of one’s deeds—as a prelude to death.

  • Listen to "Oh England, My Lionheart" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • My Adidas (2000) – Versus

    Richard Baluyut is a member of a copycat cult planning to emulate the Heaven’s Gate group suicide in 1997 that coincided with the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet, whereby followers believed their souls would be transported to heaven via a rocketship hiding behind the comet. The 39 cult members committed suicide by ingesting a fatal solution; their bodies were discovered in bunk beds, covered with purple blankets and wearing identical pairs of Nike sneakers.

    However, Baluyut’s cult, unable to score an endorsement deal with Nike, sports Adidas instead. Despite a song title that suggests a Run-DMC cover, “My Adidas” is more epitaph than parody. Baluyut steps into the shoes (pun intended, groans acknowledged) of an individual who believes that suicide will facilitate his entrance into heaven, tragically oblivious to the fact that he’s been hoodwinked. His anticipation of the journey is both naïve and jubilant. Amid guitar-drum starbursts and mellifluous background vocals by Fontaine Toups, Baluyut repeatedly announces the permanence of his decision, as if he hopes someone will stop him because he’s still unsure. To allay his doubts, he reassures himself that those left behind are the misguided ones. Unfortunately, he realizes too late his grievous mistake. As if to voice regret from beyond the grave, “My Adidas” finds empathy in the lives of those susceptible to being brainwashed—those in search of a deeper meaning to life, even if it’s to be found in death.

  • Listen to "My Adidas" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Tuesday, March 07, 2006

    Gomenasai (2005) – t.A.T.u.

    There are many things wrong with Russian pseudo-lesbians, brought together by a former child psychologist/marketing executive-turned-record producer, whose voices are probably pitch-corrected, singing English words they might not understand, in a song which features the Japanese word for “I’m sorry” as the chorus’ refrain, the title of which incorrectly combines two words (“gomen nasai”) into one. Yet, paradoxically, what seems so wrong, is also so, so right. Throw in the fact that Richard Carpenter (yes, of The Carpenters) arranged the string section, and you have the perfect guilty pleasure. Emphasis on guilty. Emphasis on pleasure. “Gomensai” is an aural éclair to indulge in the privacy of secret parlors.

    An elegiac melody wafts about on a breeze of piano and pathos in a performance that is quintessentially voice recital repertoire—emotionally immature but tenderly executed. Employing tropes and turns of metaphorical phrase, Julia Volkova and Lena Katina realize in hindsight that their misgivings about a forbidden relationship were amiss. The girls’ Russian accents further imbue the mea culpa with a sympathetic vulnerability, as if they are victims of cultural repression.

    In its guilelessness, “Gomenasai” revisits that alcove in the heart discovered long ago in an auditorium on closing night at the high school musical. In fact, the whole production would be downright poignant were we convinced Julia and Lena meant it.

  • Listen to "Gomenasai" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Monday, March 06, 2006

    Let Down (1997) - Radiohead

    Sure, it’s nice to hear what the songwriters have to say, but let’s be honest: despite guitarist Johnny Greenwood and lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Thom Yorke’s insight, “Let Down” is the most beautiful tribute to alcoholism ever written.

    Yorke acknowledges the void left by people constantly leaving or moving on to better lots in life. Stuck in a rut, those left behind must confront their failures; some do so by drinking, but soon the buzz offers no panacea. Their dreams and aspirations having all but been extinguished, they are left to wallow in inertia and waste away in futility, their spirits crushed. Hence, imbibing heavily presents the only means of escape. Eventually, a state of inebriation provides the only bearable reality.

    Chiming guitars and keyboard skirt the rhythm section in counterrhythm, while Yorke’s double-tracked vocals engage a melody that slowly subsides into the mire of lethargy. A duet of bleeps and blips from ZX Spectrum computers momentarily kicks in, later reemerging in a redemptive coda—technology offering salvation in the form of a dot-com boom.

  • Not available from iTunes Music Store.
  • Too Much (1997) - Spice Girls

    The musical virtues of the Spice Girls extolled . . . how often does one come across such an aberration? Ah, but here it is. Sporting a watery guitar that recalls Bread’s “If,” “Too Much” wanders the boulevard in search of amelioration, an antidote to the ennui. Satin sheets of warmly-compressed vocals billow in the evening calm, adorned with plucked acoustic guitar triplets. Illuminated by neon-lit theatres, the girls seek balance in their relationships, a medium between smothering and neglect. Luxuriant multi-tracked vocals navigate sirenic chord progressions. Robust sub-bass thumps in tandem with the kick drum in a convergence of urban ballad-meets-lite-FM-radio shuffle. Cascading string glissandos and pizzicatos lend a cinematic luster to the whole affair that ultimately finds no resolution due to a noncommittal apathy. Would a little more emotional investment be too much to ask, girls?

  • Listen to "Too Much" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Friday, March 03, 2006

    Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect (2002) – The Decemberists

    Colin Meloy’s thin voice lacks mainstream appeal, but his songwriting skills—exemplified in “Here I Dreamt”—should be apparent to even the most casual of listeners. To reconcile a bevy of failed relationships, Meloy casts himself in anachronistic vignettes that impose inherent limitations upon romance: a soldier in Nazi-occupied Germany who answers first and foremost to his military duty; an architect commissioned to design a palace in 15th-century Venice whose services will no longer be needed upon completion; a Renaissance-era royal puppeteer in Spain who moonlights as a lothario. Meloy is resigned to star-crossed love, acknowledging the tenuous nature of his current relationship, foreshadowing its demise. His nomadic nature ensures that a clean break is always tacit, and perhaps always imminent. Tarry not, Colin. A stint as an ancient Roman artisan awaits.

  • Listen to "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Nights On Broadway (1975) – The Bee Gees

    A stern piano bounds above a rock-oriented beat as a man struts through the streets of New York City en route to see the woman he loves, an elastic synth bass line underscoring his gumption. Except, in this case “see” literally means to “view,” not to rendezvous. She’s a Broadway singer whom he watches perform every weekend. As he publicly stalks her, it’s unclear if he ever actually had a relationship with her, or if it was wishful thinking. The true cunning of “Nights On Broadway” lies in the ambiguity of the chorus: where once they were a struggling young couple, her success in the big time led to a more upscale life that did not include him . . . or, perhaps he has only seen her on stage where he fell in love with her, but they’ve never even met. Does he blame the nights on Broadway for his loneliness—or for his pathological infatuation? He is either a sympathetic victim or pathetic erotomaniac. An instrument unto itself, Barry Gibbs’ falsetto, both ridiculous and ferocious, eventually swoops in, an insignia of romantic fervor. A subdued bridge settles in as a respite for him to declare lifelong devotion before releasing him into the night for continued brooding/plotting.

  • Not available from iTunes Music Store.