About a month ago, Professor Fury tagged me with a meme regarding seven songs that I’m into right now, but it wasn’t until I read Michael S. Smith’s terrific contribution that I decided to get off my duff and respond. What follows also constitutes this month’s edition of “Quick Hits”—consider all songs as A-pluses.
All mp3s will stay active until 7 August 2008.
1) King Curtis, “Memphis Soul Stew” (mp3)
My sweetie La Bella works for a local soul/R&B label and so she’s been educating me on the subjects of Stax/Volt, Muscle Shoals, and the whole Memphis Sound. She started me off with this doozy. I love the concept of a quintessential song as a recipe to a studio sound. King Curtis’s dialogue sells the idea without irony or cheesiness, and it’s one of the finest jams ever put on wax.
2) Vince Guaraldi Trio, “Skating” (mp3)
It’s “Linus and Lucy” that made A Charlie Brown Christmas famous but I prefer this gentle tune. Vince Guaraldi’s fingers are snowflakes falling on the piano keys, and Fred Marshall’s drums are the dry leaves crunching under Jerry Grannelli’s walking bass line.
3) Lyle Lovett, “Up in Indiana” (mp3)
Lyle Lovett can’t quite say he’s in love with Rose—he’s not big on sincerity or sentimentalism in general, which is both his blessing and curse. Instead, he says he does “a little thinkin’” about her, and lets the rousing music pour out his heart for him. It’s not quite country, not quite rock, and all Lovett. It’s a swooping song with at least four perfect, short solos (pedal steel guitar, fiddle, mandolin, electric guitar) and a sound as big as Lovett’s home state of Texas—even if it’s, you know, not actually set there. Funny guy.
4) They Might Be Giants, “Where Do They Make Balloons?” (mp3)
Silly song, good question. And it wasn’t even written by either of the two Johns. (Thanks, Judith.)
5) Bruce Springsteen, “Gypsy Biker” (mp3)
An American soldier who loves his motorcycle comes home in a body bag, which is harrowing enough. But we don’t even see that except in retrospect. Rather, Springsteen dips into several perspectives—the biker’s lover, a friend, his mother—before collating them into the first-person plural as they torch his bike as a tribute to him. We get a sense of the town the soldier lived in, how everyone’s reacting (badly), and how the emotional devastation spreads. Lyrically, it’s the most humanizing, complicated portrait of life during wartime that appeared in 2007. By rights, it should be, from a musical standpoint, some folk dirge or acoustic ballad or something “sincere” and plaintive. Well, plaintive it is, but “Gypsy Biker”’s thundering power comes from its full-throttle ferocity. Four minutes has rarely felt so packed.
6) Massive Attack, “Teardrop” (mp3)
7) José González, “Teardrop” (mp3)
Within each of its albums, Massive Attack produced a definitive trip-hop song that both defines the genre and complicates it. Each of these groundbreaking songs features a female vocalist who sings (usually her own lyrics) about protection, stability (and the lack thereof), and the in/security of love. With 1991’s Blue Lines, it’s Shara Nelson and “Unfinished Sympathy.” On 1994’s Protection, it’s Tracey Thorn blowing us away with the title song. On 2002’s mostly mediocre 100th Window, it’s Sinead O’Connor and the lovely “What Your Soul Sings.” In 1998, the group produced its best album Mezzanine (I’ve written about it before) and, on it, crafted perhaps its most impressive song: “Teardrop.” The directness of the beat/heartbeat and spare music—a harpischord loop, four chords on a piano, just the hint of a bass line, background effects—meshes spookily with Liz Fraser’s gauzy, spider-web vocals. I could never tell exactly what she was singing in the Cocteau Twins, either, and it doesn’t matter. Her beautiful Scottish lilt is in the mix, an element of the song rather than its center. The song’s so distinctly trip-hop, supple, and feminine, however, that I never imagined it being covered by 1) a man; and 2) as an acoustic version. Enter José González. A friend put the González version on a mix CD for me back in January, and it’s been in rotation ever since. It’s just as heartfelt and spare as the original but is more percussive and rougher. I won’t call it an improvement but it holds its own.