Said the Gramophone - image by Daria Tessler

Archives : all posts by Jordan

The Byrds - "You Ain't Going Nowhere"

There is one moment of light in the otherwise frustrating and unfunny Ron Howard comedy The Dilemma. In one of his trademark virtuoso verbal improvisations, a nervous, lying Vince Vaughn, desperate to change whatever banal subject is at hand, spirals into a brief discourse on the metaphysics of art. Channeling Schopenhauer, Vaughn says, "They say music is the highest art form, that it can do the most emotional work the fastest." Such a lofty, irrelevant claim - I couldn't help but laugh.

Music acts on our emotions as quickly as our brain can process a single chord. Major chords tend to evoke happiness, minor chords sadness, diminished chords are disconcerting, augmented ones are scary. And yet we use this powerful tool perversely - why in our saddest moments are we more likely to listen to Bonnie Prince Billy than The Beatles (or when we're being hunted do we long for augmented triads)?

In truth, there's no reason for us ever to be sad or troubled. Better than Xanax or therapy and faster than fixing our problems is the chorus of The Byrds' cover of Bob Dylan's classic "You Ain't Going Nowhere." Heart-broken? Mourning? Profoundly alone in a dark, violent storm? It's nothing claves, galloping drums, pedal steel, and hope sung in close harmony won't fix. So take control of your emotional life and buy.

(Or if you're immune to The Byrds, try this: Burning Spear - "New Civilization".)

Snailhouse - "Sentimental Gentleman"

Fellow fans of Mike Feuerstack, aka Snailhouse, will not be surprised by the titular claim of the title track of the singer-songwriter's imminently upcoming album: that he is a sentimental gentleman. His songs, dating back to his 1994 debut, have appealed unabashedly to the tender emotions, and his disposition, since at least 2001 (when I first met him), has been nothing but courteous and kind. Similarly unsurprising is the fine musical craftsmanship on display here: the simple, affecting melody, the pure tenor voice, the precise guitar work - hallmarks of the Snailhouse sound, well honed over a 20-year career. For the third verse, Feuerstack sings the tune over a lovely muted guitar part that becomes lovelier as it ascends to an unexpected height. The only surprise is that it keeps getting better. [Pre-order]

The Band - "When I Paint My Masterpiece"

Considering that "When I Paint My Masterpiece" is an ode to all-consuming artistic striving, it's ironic that my primary ambition in life is simply to listen to it all the time. My parents may worry about my financial security, but when it comes to listening to this song I have a gift, and not to vigorously pursue it would be a gross disservice to me and you. If it's true that when a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it it doesn't make a sound, then the very existence of Danko's astounding bassline, not to mention that of the romantic interplay between Helm's mandolin and Hudson's accordion, depends upon a constant listener. I volunteer. [Buy]

Kate Bush - "Wuthering Heights"
Kate Bush - "Wuthering Heights (New Vocal)"

Kate Bush was only 28 years old when she released her first greatest hits collection. Eight years had passed since the release of her 1978 debut, The Kick Inside, an album of ornate musical curiosities, which despite its complexity and occasional shrillness became an enormous success. During the intervening years, Bush had become dissatisfied with the girlish quality of her voice on the album's hit single, "Wuthering Heights" (based on a BBC adaptation of Bronte's dour book), and decided to re-record the vocal for the compilation. Listen above to the teenage prodigy's masterpiece and the veteran 28-year-old's cover.

The effects of age on an artist are much like the effects of age on a fruit. The Kate Bush of the second version is softer, even a bit mushy, and a good deal sweeter. Take the sublime chorus, beautiful in both versions, but icy in the first and soulful in the second. Or consider the second version's thunderous, echoing snare drum, which underscores the more emotive quality of the re-recording. In the later song's final, oversung minute, Bush may even be displaying the first signs of putrefaction.

In fruit I tend toward sour and in song toward sweet. The highlight of the two versions is the wrenching bridge of the second (2:14-2:34), which could not have been achieved by a greener artist, and on balance, despite its faults, I prefer the re-recording. But then I'm 29 now, perhaps a bit putrefied myself; who knows what 20-year-old me would have said.

[Buy The Kick Inside, The Whole Story]

Dave Van Ronk - "Both Sides Now"

After reading Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, Joni Mitchell wrote this song that posits love, like a cloud, as an amorphous, inscrutable thing whose shape is constantly shifting along with our perception of it. It's a song that makes me think of the clouds in Carly Simon's coffee and then of another Mitchell, the novelist David, who writes of "a galaxy of cream unribboning" in his cup. (If I were a reactionary YouTube troll I would complain about the dearth of contemporary Billboard hits inspired by or evocative of great works of fiction, but I dislike those people and anyway I have no reason to believe music was ever more literate on average than it is today, which begs the question: why did I raise this?) When the late NYC folkie Dave Van Ronk first listened to Mitchell's song in 1969 he heard no Carly Simon, no David Mitchell; he heard in it the possibility of something slower and gruffer, warmer and more deeply felt in the singing.

It could be said that there are as many great versions of a song as there are great appreciators. But it's only when a great appreciator is also a great musician that the rest of us get access to one of these versions. The best interpreters of song are both preservationists and stylists; they protect the essence of a piece of music and add to it something of themselves - Ronkness, for instance, in the case of Ronk. The best interpretations, such as Ronk's lovely live rendition of one of his friend's many masterpieces, are those that show us that even when we think we've looked at it from both sides, we still really don't know the song at all. [Buy]

Rufus Cohen and Wade Patterson - "So Long: Go"

And when Rufus Cohen and Wade Patterson listened to West African folk music they heard in it something of the early sound of the American south. [Buy]

Etta James - "I'd Rather Go Blind"

While it's appreciated that Ms. James would be willing to trade her sense of sight for an opportunity to reunite with her former lover, it must be said that he has no interest in reuniting with her and sees no benefit for anyone in the promise of this adopted disability. As Ms. James knows, her ex has found a new partner, who, on the whole, he finds more desirable than he does Ms. James; blindness would make Ms. James no more attractive and thus would not change the equation to her advantage. Yes, he has heard and understood her plea - he recognizes the low trill of Ms. James's guitar as an echo in a hollowed heart and the crooked coos that emanate from her mouth as the plaint of a wounded bird - but he stands by his decision and will not be swayed. If she insists on going blind, so be it, but she should not do so under the misapprehension that this would constitute the purchase of his love. His love is not for sale and certainly not for that most unusual price. [Buy]

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band - "Fire Lake"

It is with deep regret that we must inform you that Uncle Joe will not be returning to resume his marriage with Aunt Sarah. A good and loyal wife, Aunt Sarah has nevertheless come to represent for Uncle Joe a plain and predictable life - a prison of safety. As such, Uncle Joe has made the long-contemplated move to Fire Lake, where it's said there is a population of bronze beauties, flirtatious and easy, for whom, to be frank, Aunt Sarah is no competition. You may think this is crazy - a quixotic "long-shot gamble"; however, we assure you Uncle Joe is in full control of his faculties and has taken a calculated risk. Do not seek power of attorney. Do not come to Fire Lake. [Buy]

Yo La Tengo - "Autumn Sweater"
Jay and the Techniques - "Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie"

Because John Locke said it, it must be true: the argument from authority is a fallacy - we cannot conclude that a statement is right simply because a know-it-all uttered it. This is true as a rule in deductive reasoning, and true too in informal logic in part because of the ubiquitous inability of top experts to agree. In most fields, there are central questions that even the leading, equally authoritative, authorities bicker about. Are there parallel universes? The best theoretical physicists can't agree. Is the structure of natural language hard-wired into our brains? The question is a source of endless strife among linguists and cognitive scientists. For workers in song, unanimity is no more easily achieved. You would think, given the gargantuan effort invested over millennia of music history to capture and communicate what it's like to be in love, there would be more agreement on the issue. Take these two takes, for instance, composed within a mere half-century of each other, and espousing wildly different, seemingly irreconcilable views of that state of the heart.

If we believe Yo La Tengo, love is a melancholic affair from the start: enchantment arises alongside the anticipation of its end; love begins in its autumn. If, however, Jay and the Techniques are right, love is a sweetening force that transforms us into giddy, silly, unworried creatures. Both authors are experts - take the above texts as evidence - but their conclusions are seemingly incommensurable. So which is it? Assuming there can be only one correct answer, my money's on parallel universes.

[Buy Yo La Tengo, Jay and the Techniques]

Van Morrison - "Fair Play"
Van Morrison - "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights"

Often I can't hear what Van Morrison is singing, can't make out his words, obscured as they are by the singer's heart on his sleeve, the frog in his throat. Sometimes, when Van is in his stream of consciousness mode, as with the above songs, I can't understand the words even when I can make them out. "Tell me of Poe, Oscar Wilde and Thoreau," he sings in "Fair Play." "Let your midnight and your daytime turn into love of life," he continues, and then: "It's a very fine line, but you've got the mind, child, to carry it on when it's just about to be carried on." Who knows.

What we do know is this: in the world of "Fair Play," there's a perfectly blue Irish lake, surrounded by beautiful architecture; two humans stand ashore, contemplating their surroundings and philosophizing about life, until one says "Geronimo," and then, quid pro quo, so does the other. Sometimes beauty leads us into strangeness and of course sometimes strangeness is integral to beauty; there are lakes and songs, odd and unknowable, which nevertheless or thus lure us in.

[Buy]
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Elsewhere: today Canadians are casting ballots in a federal election, which, if the polls are roughly right, may yield a once-in-a-generation realignment of our political landscape. Tonight I will watch with interest, my usual dose of fear, and for the first time in my voting life, hope, however foolish, that the government that emerges will be one I can be proud of.

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