Song of the Week: I Misunderstood, Richard Thompson

71mffl2kntl-_sx355_Scroll Down to Listen to “I Misunderstood” (Opens in Spotify)

Breakups are what keep songwriters in business. It’s a universal theme that can be mined for pathos, empathy, and sometimes dark humor. But most musical breakups are stereotypical, abstracted events—it’s hard to imagine them happening to real people. Of course, a certain amount of generality permits a variety of different listeners to see themselves in a song, but many breakup songs are so vague as to squash any emotional resonance whatsoever.

Part of the problem may be that songwriters are reluctant to place themselves too squarely under the microscope. Richard Thompson, luckily, is not. “I Misunderstood” is a breakup song about real people, who send mixed messages and change their minds. It carries the uncomfortable weight of real experience, and sounds like a human being wrote it, rather than an anodyne hit machine.

For me, the emotional crux comes at the end of the first verse into the first chorus:

“She was laughing as she brushed my cheek/ ‘why don’t you call me, angel, maybe next week/Promise now cross your heart and hope to die//But I misunderstood/I thought she was saying good luck/she was saying goodbye.” As Thompson repeats the refrain, you can feel the protagonist reeling from the shock of this new revelation.

Writing good material is only half the battle—you have to be able to interpret it well too. Thompson’s rich voice carries shock and a rueful smile, and his guitar playing is unusually understated but always harmonically interesting, from the main hook (a play on the so-called “Asian riff”) to the thumping, dark chord progression. Would that every breakup song was this good—but not every breakup.

 

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Song of the Week: It Ought to Be Easier, Lyle Lovett

Scroll down to listen to “It Ought to be Easier” by Lyle Lovett (plays in Spotify)

“Country music is three chords and the truth.”—Harlan Howard

I hope I’m not alone when I say that I have a break-up song associated with almost every relationship I’ve been in. If you’re currently in the market for such a song, I might point you to country music. Clichés aside, country music has some of the finest songwriters going, and they’re particularly good with relationships and heartbreak. Bad country writers stick to the same tropes, but the good ones find a more nuanced view of what is almost never a straightforward situation.

Lyle Lovett is a good one.

“It Ought to Be Easier,” is a track buried in his 1996 album The Road to Ensenada, and it’s written from the point of view of someone who realizes that they need to end their relationship, but just can’t push themselves over the brink.

Neil Sedaka observed that “breaking up is hard to do,” but didn’t really talk much more about it. Lovett tackles this observation head-on, particularly in the second pre-chorus:

“And you tell me I’m the one you’re not to blame

And you tell me I make you feel the same way

And we talk in circles but we never say

It’s just out of weakness that both of us stay”

Sedaka is so vague he becomes clinical, but Lovett’s specificity seems to extend an arm around you and tell you that he (or perhaps more accurately his character) has been there too.

That’s the other beautiful thing about music, particularly in times of great emotional stress. It provides you with the knowledge that someone else has experienced and survived what you are going through. Even more than that, there is something undeniably cathartic in raising your voice together with someone who has suffered as you have. That’s the reason, I think, why song is a part of so many religions, particularly in times of need.

Those are some heavy thoughts to hang on Lovett’s songwriting, but luckily it’s solid enough to bear the weight.

Top 5: Hip-Hop Songs…So Far

In the part of New York State I grew up in, you spent your study halls either googling Eminem lyrics or doodling the American Idiot heart grenade in your notebooks. Or maybe you didn’t care about music at all, but I tried not to talk to those people.

If you read this blog, you could probably guess how I spent my study halls. For better or worse, those musical choices you make in Middle School and High School stick with you, so I wasn’t into hip-hop for a long time.

Besides that fairly arbitrary Midde School choice, I think at the time, the lyrics and music I was hearing in hip-hop just didn’t appeal to me. The oldies station that I listened to in the car with my folks helped me understand songs about girls and driving fast, but it took me about eight years to figure out what Kanye was rhyming “Gold Digger” with. (Honestly.)

Since then, I’ve had a slow but steady rapprochement with hip-hop. I’ve come to this music late, and I’m still doing my homework. I know what I like—soul samples, literate lyrics, a certain degree of difficulty in delivery—but it has taken a long time to narrow it down. So here’s a few cuts from the last 10 years of study. Call it the Miseducation of John Boudreau.

 

1. “Blackalicious,” Reanimation
I heard this song, no joke, on a Sunkist orange soda commercial in like maybe 2007. I was curious enough that I looked it up on the internet, and it since then, this song has been my hip-hop North Star. Like a great chef, Chief Xcel simultaneously served me both new ingredients that I hadn’t tried (breakbeats and scratching) as well as familiar ingredients (horns) in such a way that I able to appreciate the whole dish rather than picking it apart. The lyrics, too, were no less masterful. Gift of Gab’s polysyllabic delivery and awesome rhythmic sense meshed with the jazz songs I was starting to listen to around the same time. And he was funny, too! The lines “Rappers want flames, man I injure these shrimps/skew ‘em on the barb’ with some hickory chips/I’m a level higher than the intermediates” pretty much sealed it for me.

Insofar as I can say anything about the genre being only a casual listener, it’s that if you are into hip-hop and haven’t heard Blackalicious (or have only heard “Alphabet Aerobics”), you might want to remedy that.

 

2. “Crabbuckit,” K-Os

Again, another score for our consumer society: I discovered this song in an American Eagle not too long after that soda commercial (’08 or ’09?). K-Os hooked me with their musicality; I thought it was against the rules for a hip-hop group to play chords or use real instruments. Maybe it was, and K-Os just broke the rules. This time it was the bassline that grabbed me first. Not only was it huge and inescapable, but I loved that it was absolutely played on an upright bass rather than electric or a sample. The sax solo further cemented, it of course—exciting and raunchy, almost as good as Bobby Keys. The beginning to the second verse contained the lyrical syncopation I was looking for as well: “It’s a conniption fit and the microphone’s lit/I take it higher like a bird on a wire retire the fire I never/cause I’m just movin’ on up/choosin to touch the unseen craving the clutch.” Another instant classic.

 

3. “Cut Me Off,” STS

There was a dry spell for a while in the late high school/early college years where I was busy getting into other stuff and scaring myself in the process (experimenting with country, etc.), but the next rapper who really caught me was STS. He’s got plenty of good compositions of his own (“Cliché” is one of the finest satirical hip-hop songs I’ve heard), but this is the one that first impressed me. STS is probably the first rapper who I was able to appreciate just on his lyrical merits alone. His ability to tell a story with humor and insight proved to me that narrative rapping was just as viable as the more stream-of-consciousness lyrics I was familiar with before that. A sample: “My sign’s a Sag/She a Capricorn/We incompatible, and I shoulda known/She put my number in her Blackberry/I use Iphone.” This music video edit is actually the best version of the song—the recorded version has one more verse that totally ruins it. STS just put out a new album with RJD2, which is definitely worth your time.

 

4. “What?,” A Tribe Called Quest

Like I said, I’m still doing my homework, and I slept through most of Hip-Hop History, so my chronology has been completely backwards. That’s why I hadn’t heard A Tribe Called Quest until last year, when my suitemate got out of the shower and blasted “Check the Rhime” as loud as possible from his speakers while dressing. That’s an introduction you can’t ignore. As it has for most people, the second half of The Low-End Theory blew my mind. My favorite track on the album is undoubtedly the koan-like “What?” From the excellent clavinet intro to Q-Tip’s mispronunciation of “gefilte” as “kapelka,” it’s just a fun song. There have been a few times where I’ve been playing it too loud at work, and I have to jump for the volume knob right before “What is a poet all balls and no cock?” and the bit about ménage-a-trois. Freak freak y’all indeed.

 

5. “Feel Right,” Mark Ronson feat. Mystikal

If I was going about this logically, my hip-hop education probably should have begun with a trawl through Mark Ronson’s back catalogue. He is a man who has absolutely done his homework. Before he became the poster child for the mid-2000s retro revival, he was a hot-ticket DJ in both London and New York, which means he knows what sounds best behind an emcee, and what album the groove came from. This is an original beat, but still sounds like he pulled it from dirty ‘60s funk album. Though Mystikal falls into the “crummy human being” category, he’s still a charismatic performer, with a magnetic, brassy timbre and great speed. He also plays with dynamics, which isn’t something I’ve really heard other emcess do. I think the song is so appealing because it’s essentially a funk song—something James Brown would have worked out in an alternate universe. Bruno Mars and the backup singers play Bobby Byrd and the J.B.s to Mystikal’s James Brown. Doing your homework pays off, I guess.

Album of the Week: Too Much Fun, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen

There’s a school of thinking that says in order to find out if you like an artist, or to develop an appreciation for one, you need to pick an album, any album, and jump right in.

But what happens if you start learning about Van Morrison by listening to Astral Weeks? What if, God forbid, you try to develop a taste for the Rolling Stones by starting with Their Satanic Majesty’s Request? You’ll get a false reading: Astral Weeks is a hard album to wrap your head around, even for diehard fans, and Satanic Majesty’s is just plain bad.

Enter the greatest hits album. They’re the perfect gateway into a band’s back catalog, (and I’m sure the 2 or 3 record label executives left on the planet are vigorously nodding), and allow you to get a feel for an artist’s entire career rather than just one moment. But with some bands, I find you don’t need much more than the greatest hits album. And that’s not a criticism–sometimes you just hit gold on the first try. I love this album, and I can’t imagine I’ll find another one by Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen that I’ll ever like more. In fact, I listened to this on a car ride to Connecticut last week, and I sang along with every word. Every last one.

Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1967, and enjoyed decent popularity for the next 10 years or so. Michigan might seem like a weird place for a country band, but then Commander Cody was definitely a weird country band. Rather than straightforward outlaw country or the polished Nashville sound, the band was rooted much more in Western swing, boogie-woogie, and early rock & roll, and they delivered it all with manic energy and giant ‘70s mutton chops. There’s definitely a dose of hippie sensibility mixed up in there too, from their infamously wacky cover art to their country laments about running out of weed (“Down to Seeds and Stems Again”).

Most of the songs on the disc are covers of songs by artists that I’ve never heard of. Say whatever else you will, but the band had a fantastic ear for a forgotten gem, and they were adept at taking old songs and reinvigorating them for a new audience.

The obvious place to point you is track three, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which was the band’s biggest hit. If you like Cake and John McCrea, George Frayne’s spoken delivery won’t bother you a bit. Even if it does, there’s so much to keep you entertained here that you won’t focus on it for long. Apart from the explosive riff, which is so hard that even the great Bill Kirchen doesn’t even play it clean every time (check the sour note at 0:54), there is some truly innovative playing from fiddle player Andy Stein and steel guitarist West Virginia Creeper. Between the two of them, they produce all the sound effects on the track—squealing tires, police sirens, horns.

Yep, that’s a country band alright.

The band’s version of Eddie Cochran’s “20 Flight Rock” is another keeper, propelled by Andy Stein’s bleating baritone sax and Bill Kirchen’s glassy-toned solo, which keeps the rockabilly spirit of Cochran’s version but amps it up with a full-band sound. For me, it’s the definitive reading of this song—the one I heard first and the one I keep coming back to.

“Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)” probably sounds much more outré today than it did when Tex Williams and Merle Travis first recorded it in 1947. Lyrically, it’s not particularly pro- or anti-smoking, but instead makes the point that it’s an awfully inconvenient habit: “them nicotine slaves they’re all the same/at a pettin’ party or a poker game/everything’s gotta stop when you smoke that cigarette.” This is Commander Cody and the Airmen at their best: a tight, full-band sound, layered instrumentation that veers off into jazz (the tricky interval leaps around the 3:00 mark), and a slightly naughty sense of humor.

Speaking of, the next track, “Everybody’s Doin’ It” features the f-word twenty-four times throughout the track—not something you’re used to hearing in an otherwise-forgotten, rather racist country song from 1937, but the band hits it with gusto (though they thankfully leave the racist bits out). The real star, though, is Andy Stein’s perfect intro solo, which, when combined with the steel guitar backing him, sums up the strange musical fusion that is Western swing—part country, part jazz.

To be fair, these songs are about the most clichéd country tropes out there. There’s plenty about women, a few about various vices, and a few about trucks. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s easy to brush these songs off as not particularly inspired, and some are downright cringe-worthy if you go into them with the wrong attitude. “Mama Hated Diesels,” for example, reveals a tragic tale about a broken family and the hard existence of the long-haul trucker. There’s crying, a spoken interlude, and a dead mother. But the song is so over the top, so tawdry, that you can’t help but set the music snob hat aside for a minute and just weep in your Miller High Life. It’s true country cornball, and you can either brush it off or bask in its full B-movie glow.

Cornball or not, ironic or not, I take a real pleasure in these songs and the way this band plays them. I don’t know if I’d call the album “Too Much Fun” per say, but it’s certainly close.

 

 

PS–If you’re jonesing for more, head on over to Medium.com, where another Commander Cody fan (don’t worry, he’s from Texas, so he’s legit) and I wax philosophic about Commander Cody & co.

 

Top 5: Songs for Leaving

In the spirit of High Fidelity, I like to compile top 5 lists every now and again. Since I’ll be a college graduate in 48 hours, I figured now might be the time to put a top 5 list up on here. Leaving a place filled with people I’ve come to know and love over the past four years has provoked a slurry of emotions that I can’t separate out into neat categories. So these songs embrace the complexity and the contradictions of leaving a place and the people in it.

 

1. Langhorne Slim and the Law, Salvation

One of the very best concerts I’ve been to in my time at college was Langhorne Slim and the Law—an incredible amount of energy, spirit, and great music. This is one of their quieter tracks, and hits all the harder because of it. The quiet, subdued instrumentation, including a gentle banjo line, lets the lyrics breathe. The lyrics are plain but not inelegant, and Langhorne Slim’s voice emotes beautifully. Halfway between a bleat and a scream, it sounds raw and unguarded. When he sings “I hate to leave but I know/it’s time to go,” he manages to encompass both resignation and regret.

 

2. Tom Petty, Into the Great Wide Open

Ok, granted, Eddie’s just finishing high school in this song, but on the cusp of finishing college, I can certainly identify with “Into the Great Wide Open.” I think this song captures the really knotty feeling of moving on to something else—so much possibility, but also a real fear of getting swallowed up. Musically, this is Tom at his most Byrds-influenced—big, clean Rickenbacker guitars with plenty of shimmer. This man has got songwriting down, and I’m consistently amazed at this ability to work the same six chords as everyone else in new ways. I’ve linked to the actual music video, because it’s kind of 90s kitschy (featuring Tom doing his best Dickens impersonation) but actually has a pretty sophisticated narrative—and a very young Johnny Depp.

 

3. Frank Turner, Polaroid Picture

If I got to design a graduation ceremony, I’d play this song. Like Langhorne Slim, Frank Turner has a voice where you believe everything he says. Here, he sings about the importance of trying to keep a moment, to remove it from the flow of time in order to save it. The lyrics are simultaneously about being very present (“let go of the little distractions/hold close to the ones that you love”) and very forward looking (“cause we won’t be here this time next year/so while you can take a picture of us”), the strange paradox that leaving a place always provokes.

 

4. Nickel Creek, Rest of My Life

“The battle is over/Here we all lie/In a dry sea of Solo cups/With the sun in our eyes.” I love this whole album, of course, but the first verse of the first track, with lyrics by Chris Thile, cuts right to the heart of the moment. The lyrics start sardonic—definitely a glass-half-empty perspective on starting anew, but during the bridge at 2:00, with some orchestral chops that build tension, things begin to shift. As Thile stretches out the lines “I’m coming to, I’m turning myself into something a little less promising/A little more useful,” the harmonies move under him and resolve into a major tonality at 2:38, as Sean and Sara Watkins’ beautiful backing vocals kick in. Cynicism interspersed with brief moments of clarity and light.

 

5. The Rolling Stones, Shine a Light

This song, hidden in the depths of 1972’s Exile On Main Street, was written about deceased band member Brian Jones, who died in 1969. Musically, it has a lot in common with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—slow piano intro that kicks into a gospel strut after about 3 seconds of reggae organ (00:58-1:01). It’s an almost uncharacteristically layered sound for the Stones, and the choir backing at 2:00 right before Mick Taylor’s guitar solo gives the whole thing a luxurious sonic feel. Lyrically, it contains what I think is the best blessing you can give someone. I use it for anyone who I don’t think I’ll see for a while, no matter what the circumstance. “May the good Lord shine a light on you/make every song your favorite tune.”

 

Album of the Week: Stunt, Barenaked Ladies

Give credit where credit is due: “One Week” is probably one of the Barenaked Ladies’ greatest songs. For a lot of people, it’s the only song by the band that they know (excepting maybe “If I Had $1000000,” which I first heard on an old New York State Lottery ad). But if you stop listening to 1998’s Stunt after Steven Page cryptically intones “Birchmont Stadium, Home of the Robbie,” you’re doing yourself a disservice, because this album is the Ladies’ best.

I think this band gets unfairly written off as a one-hit wonder at best, and a novelty act at worst, because their songs often contain humor. But as anyone who listens to Flight of the Conchords knows, writing funny lyrics is far from easy, and belies a really solid grasp of rhyme, timing, and vocabulary. Lines like “Forget the café latte/screw the raspberry iced tea/a Malibu and Coke for you/a G&T for me” (from track six, “Alcohol”) aren’t necessarily inevitable, and the band should be praised for lyrics like that instead of written off. You can write funny songs without being a comedy act.

And it’s the wink and grin of songs like “Alcohol” or “Some Fantastic” which makes the rest of the album emotionally bearable. It’s pretty dark and unexpectedly creepy in places. “I’ll Be That Girl,” is told from the point of a depressive jilted lover who contemplates killing himself—the closing lines of the chorus “If I were the sun, you would be in shadow/If I had a gun, there’d be no tomorrow,” are frank and unsettling, especially when contrasted with the sparkly guitars that are way up in the mix.

“In the Car,” about a stunted relationship that is never really consummated, is more melancholy than outright dark. The narrator doesn’t seem too upset that the relationship is ending, but does have a sense of how strange it is to be with someone and then release them out of your life. The guitar intro and outro here are really top-notch, and quickly establish the song’s tone.

“Never is Enough” follows this one, and is pretty straightforward pop song about realizing that the only person you really need to do things for is yourself. There’s no need to keep up with the Joneses. There’s even some fun little turntable elements sprinkled throughout, which pair very interestingly with the layered acoustic and electric guitars.

Harmonically, none of the songs on the album are terribly complicated, but the group, especially guitarist Ed Roberston, has a talent for arranging these simple structures in engaging ways that make them sound more complex than they are. Take the simplicity of “Light Up My Room,” with a fingerpicked ostinato guitar part that propels the song throughout its 3:36 length.

More so than the Ladies’ other albums, the listener feels the raw nerves of sentiment here—particularly on the sublime “Call and Answer,” where Page exhausts himself with the strength of his feeling. It’s this emotional give-and-take that makes Stunt effective as an album: the band allows the listener to explore a world that is as manic-depressive as it is catchy.

Album of the Week: Nimrod, Green Day

As a millennial, I have to confess to a love for pop-punk, and for Green Day in particular. Like many people my age, I came to them because American Idiot was released right at that crucial middle school stage in my musical development, and it blew my mind—never had I heard the f-word so many times on an album, and never had I heard music played with such intensity and attitude.

American Idiot is still a good and important album, and I’ll defend it to the death despite the hipster backlash (yes, even in my middle school), But it’s not my favorite by Green Day. Enter Nimrod.

Recorded in 1997, Nimrod has the seeds of the band that would mature into American Idiot-era Green Day. Here, the band largely shed the more repetitive three-chord Hüsker Dü-influenced grind of their previous albums for a sound that’s more diverse, more literate, and more exciting.

I suppose the inevitable illustration here is the mega-hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” which is now ubiquitous enough to have both a Muzak and a Glee version. But it’s a nice case in point—a stripped-back acoustic ballad with a string section isn’t the type of thing that most people think Green Day is capable of. It’s a far cry from “Basket Case.”

Despite the overwhelming presence of “Good Riddance,” there’s stylistic diversity all over this album. Take the song directly preceding it, “King For A Day,” which is a ska song about experimenting with drag and includes a middle eight dominated by muted trumpets (at 1:41).

But a lot of the innovation on the album is a little muted. New textures crop up even in classic power-chord slammers, like the gypsy-tinged violin on “Hitchin’ A Ride,” or the surprisingly deft harmonica playing on “Walking Alone.” These experiments with instrumentation rather than genre pastiche strengthen the songs in a way that no amount of guitar solos or shout-along choruses could.

This musical maturity thankfully doesn’t dominate the whole album, and some of my favorite tracks on the record are the ones where Green Day is at its most juvenile. “The Grouch’s” profane chorus and bitter take on aging (“I was a young boy that had big plans/now I’m just another shitty old man”) always puts a smile on my face, particularly when I’m feeling contrary. “Jinx” is Green Day distilled into a 2:13 package, with big guitars and lyrics about messing up again and again, and I don’t think it’s any accident that the end of the track fades into the start of my favorite track on the album—and one of my favorite Green Day song of all time—“Haushinka.”

Perhaps it’s the contrast with the straightforward “Jinx,” that makes “Haushinka” sound rich, layered, and complex. It’s also—dare I say—anthemic, with its rubato opening before it locks down into the normal chugging guitars. Drummer Tré Cool puts in a particularly good performance here—he’s in the pocket, and his syncopated drum fills add a nice variety to the song when the guitar gets a little repetitive. It’s here that Green Day sounds at their most fully developed and most fully realized—a nuanced sound that doesn’t sacrifice their bombast or their intensity but employs something a little more than your run-of-the-mill punk-pop power trio.

For better or for worse, Nimrod was the start of something new for Green Day. It’s at times an inconsistent album, but the slightly scatter-shot quality is what makes it an interesting listen. It’s the sound of a band experimenting, trying to get the sound in their heads onto a disc, and it’s an exciting process to hear.