pop songs

Josh Rouse Performs “Love Vibration” from his album 1972

Here’s a clip of Josh Rouse singing a highlight track from a very good album 1972, the song in question being “Love Vibration”. The album was actually released in 2003, being named after singer-songwriter Rouse’s birth year, the year when Carole King’s Tapestry ruled the airwaves, and the last of embers of 60s idealism were still aglow. The release of this record around the time the war in Iraq began seemed like the subtlest form of protest, as an entire culture was dragged into a less-than-ideal 21st century.

The record is self-consciously retro, and this song holds to that approach, complete with a bit of jazz flute, celebratory horns, and burbling basslines. And the outlook here is rosy indeed, coming from a pure pop perspective which is a tip of the hat to AM radio hits of the time to which it harkens back. The underlying feel to this song, and the manifesto of the rest of the album is that pop records used to be about idealism and innocence. And what could embody that more than ‘spreading the love vibration’?

This is not to say that the songs are frothy to the point of being forgettable. But one of the things that makes it great is its sense of fun, with a hint or two of gray to contrast some of its sunnier skies. I think the reason it works so well is that it pits its willful optimism against the times as a means of showing us just how far into our modern, jaded outlooks we’ve slid. Maybe its simple irony being played here. But, it sounds to me that the sentiments in this tune may also remind us that being afraid of the future isn’t much of a life, as easy as it is a trap to fall into in this age of terrorism in which we live.

1972 wasn’t exactly a Garden of Eden either of course. By then, political assassinations, student protest casualties, and the continuing escalation of the Vietnam war among other social ills were harsh and unavoidable realities. But, at least they had great pop records to prove as an antidote to despair. Josh Rouse captures the spirit of this in this song, with what I perceive as the underlying hope that others will follow his example.

Enjoy!

The Song in My Head Today: ‘Life’s What You Make It’ by Talk Talk

Talk Talk the Colour of SpringThe first time I heard Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It”, taken from their 1986 album The Colour of Spring, I was in a hotel room in Perth, Ontario. I was going to attend a wedding nearby the next day, and I was watching the video. Before this, I knew of Talk Talk mostly through another video and song of theirs – “It’s My Life”. But, I was fascinated by this song and its accompanying video too. The song is built on a simple, central rhythm track as played on the piano, accompanied by a tenacious back beat. The heavy left-hand chords that are the engine of the song – plodding, yet also compelling – providing an unlikely hook. It’s like a song that is ready to start, to kick off into a torrent of rage, yet never does. The tension of that is extremely powerful. This was the direction that singer Mark Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Green were moving in at the time; creating music which incorporates a sense of space, moving away from the agendas of pop music. The two would go on to craft what is considered to be their masterpiece under the Talk Talk moniker, the 1988 album The Spirit of Eden, which was even more minimalist in approach.

Also, I am always struck by the guitar riff in this song, played by hotshot session guy David Rhodes, who among other items on his resume had built a pretty impressive track record while playing with another one of my heroes, Peter Gabriel. I can never decide on how to describe the riff; it’s both jagged and ferocious, as well as being kind of ethereal and echoey. I don’t know. Maybe that’s why it is so compelling – it’s both.

Check out this clip, and judge for yourself.

The lyrics, if taken literally, can be seen as a truncated motivational speech. Yet you get the impression that there are levels of irony at work here, perhaps down to Hollis’ mournful-yet-desperate delivery. There is darkness and pain to be mined here, below the surface of the key phrase which, in the end, is not really defined as being positive or negative. You get the impression that because of this, there is a certain emotional numbness at work here, that understanding that life’s what you make it, doesn’t necessarily mean that the energy is there to make it something good.

This remains to be one of my favourite songs by anyone, built as it is on some very basic fundamentals of the best in pop music – texture, distinctiveness, and with several levels of emotional connection emanating from some mysterious place which seem to be operating all at once.

Enjoy!

Tell Me A Story: 10 Random Story-Songs You Love and Hate

Singing CowboyPerhaps it came out of the ancient folk traditions, when the telling of a tale and the singing of a song were the same thing. But in pop music, the story-song has had tremendous impact as a form, although with varying degrees of quality, believability, and overall appeal depending on which one we’re talking about. The idea of telling a story in song may have been the best way for traveling troubadours to remember the details. Certainly, it’s a great way for listeners to remember the stories. But, I’m often left to ponder on the holes in the plots of some of these stories, even if I can appreciate the jaunty tune which goes along with them.

Here is a list of selected story-songs which I think bear talking about. Some of them are classics. Some of them are terrible. Frankly, I had a hard time narrowing my focus, as there are so many I could have chosen from so many genres of music, from the Temptation’s soul-pop classic “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”, to Cole Porter’s tin pan alley tale of “Miss Otis Regrets”, to 70s schlock like Paperlaces’ “The Night Chicago Died”. Heck, I had my pick with Smokey Robinson tunes alone! But here they are, randomly, in all of their glory and in no order – I don’t believe in top ten lists – the glorious, the grand, and (in some cases) the gut-wrenchingly awful story-song.

“Tangled Up In Blue” – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan Tangled Up in BlueFrom Bob’s 70s peak album Blood on the Tracks, comes this tale of drifters, love gone wrong, and regrets for things which might have been. It’s always been a favourite, even if Bob seems to change the words every time he sings it. Sometimes it’s in first person, sometimes it’s in third person. Typical Bob. Is he a part of the story? Is this about his own experience in some way? Or is this just a movie he made up with the engine of his fertile songwriting brain? You’ll never know. Neither will I. It doesn’t matter. This is classic cinematic storytelling, with 13th Century Italian poetry, Joe-jobs, topless bars, untied shoes, pipe-smoking, basement apartments on Montague Street, and mathematician’s wives all thrown in for good measure. Brilliant.

“A Boy Named Sue” – Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash A Boy Named SueA Shel Silverstein poem as told by the king of the outlaws, Johnny Cash. A hard life is the one lived by a boy named Sue, constantly defending his honour due to an effeminate moniker, and vowing to destroy the one who so thoughtlessly bestowed it upon him. This is the ultimate ‘blame your parents’ tune, complete with patriarchal fist-fighting and a touching, albeit misplaced, fatherly sentiment at the end. So, not just God, Murder, and Love then. Well, maybe a bit of love. But this love has broken teeth.

“The Gambler” – Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers the GamblerThis is not just a story; it’s a way of life! Kenny Rogers’ immortal tale of a gambler on his last legs handing down his famous advice in exchange for a mouthful of hooch has become burned into the brains of anyone who was in earshot of a radio at the end of the 70s and early 80s. Unfortunately, the song gave way to several TV movies about the titular gambler, with Rogers in the title role. We like the song better, Kenny!

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot The Wreck of the Edmund FitzgeraldA powerful tale of an iron-ore freighter and her crew who lose a battle with the winds of November on Lake Superior is a staple story song in Canada and has made an impact south of the 49th parallel too. It’s a typical folk tale of a modern-day shipwreck (which actually happened in 1975, the year the song was written). Shipwrecks in general have been prime fodder for folk singers everywhere. But, Lightfoot brings real pathos to this story; when the cook says “fellas, it’s been good to know ya”, your heart sinks, if you have one. The song has come to mean a lot to anyone who loves a great tale, but means the most to the relatives – “the wives and the sons and the daughters” who actually know the events of this song more intimately than anyone.

“Cat’s in the Cradle” – Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin the Cat's in the CradleIt’s the song that frightened a generation into paying more attention to their kids. Self-absorbed, workaholic Dad gets bitten in the ass when he realizes he’s raised a self-absorbed, workaholic son. Don’t let this happen to you, hints Chapin. For all of its familiarity, it still packs a punch, maybe because so many people still haven’t figured out its message. To those people: Hey! Put down that cell phone and go and play catch with your kid, already!

“Hotel California” – The Eagles

The Eagles Hotel CaliforniaIs it a song about the Church of Satan? Is it about being in Hell? Was the overlong double-necked guitar solo really necessary? What the hell does “colitas” smell like, anyway? Whatever the answers to these burning questions, HC became a radio staple, inspiring many a cover version for many a street musician and bar band. Personal factual nugget: as a child, I was sure that Henley was saying “we threw up in the middle of the night/Just to here them say…” As it is, it’s “wake you up in the middle of the night…” which is less interesting.

“Copacabana” – Barry Manilow

Barry Manilow CopacabanaThis is a tale of lust, jealousy, and madness, set in the sultry, sensual Caribbean. Is this a Jim Thompson novel? No, it’s Barry Manilow! This one has such a jaunty tune, yet is rife with violence. I wonder if Tipper Gore ever really listened to this song, which ends up with the beautiful show girl “losing her mind”, after a fatal shooting of her lover in a Cuban nightclub. There would be Parental Advisory stickers all over that sucker.

“I’ve Never Been To Me” – Charlene

Charlene I've Never Been to MeThis song is a marvel. A truly maudlin, yet preachy, tale of a good time girl trying to steer a dissatisfied house-frau from a life of debauchery, debasement, and sinfulness in favour of a good old-fashioned monogamous, Republican-approved vision of womanhood. This wouldn’t be so bad, if Charlene didn’t make the former sound so much more fun than the latter. “I’ve been laid by royalty, had orgasms that have lasted for days, and forgotten about more physical pleasure than you’ll ever know. But, don’t be like me.” Classic.

“Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” – Rupert Holmes

Rupert Holmes Escape (The Pina Colada Song)Get this. He’s not happy with his relationship. He puts an ad in the paper, revealing what he’s really into, and how much he wants to get the hell out of his crappy situation with his tired old lady. He gets an answer to his ad. He meets the mystery woman who is the answer to all of his hopes for crazy, pina colada-fueled sexual thrills on the dunes of the Cape. And whaddya know? It’s his current girlfriend. Now, is this really a relationship booster that the two of them needed, or is it an incredible burn when the realization eventually hits him that she found him to be a dismal drag and wanted to get the hell away from him too?

“Stan” – Eminem

Stan by EminemThis is actually another great story-song to beat most; a tale of a fan gone mad with murderous intent, driven by homoerotic obsession. Dido (who would never be as effective again) shines as the ghostly voice in the chorus, and Eminem packs a wallop in an Oscar-worthy performance as both the crazed fan as well as the object of the fan’s desire, Slim. It’s not just that the song is disturbing. It certainly is that. But, it’s that Em had the balls to tell the story in a genre which doesn’t traditionally value male vulnerability. It is one of the best songs of the 90s in any genre, and certainly one of the better examples of the tremendous potential of hip-hop in general.

So there you are; ten tales of the imagination to shock, to entertain, to educate, and to repulse you. Long live the story-song! Feel free to share your own!

AM

The sound was tinny and coming from the bathroom through a black, transistor radio about the size of an ice cream sandwich. From it, flowed forth so many types of music, all of it sort of murky, but the soundtrack to my early life nonetheless. I remember thinking that the radio stations must have had huge waiting rooms, while each band took their turns to play. I didn’t really have a steady grasp of the recording process, needless to say. But the sound was everywhere around our house, mostly in the mornings when my parents were readying themselves for work. I would wake up with the sun streaming through the filmy curtain to my bedroom window and cast spots of daylight on the motorcycle wallpaper. The sound of the shower, the hair dryer, the voices of my parents, the DJ telling me what had just been played – it was all the music of getting ready, of starting a new day. Sometimes when I am engrossed in a memory of my childhood, it is much like a musical dream sequence featuring the Guess Who, Queen, Elton John, ELO, The Average White Band, and so many others playing in the background, there to hold up the backdrop of the time. Music is a two edged sword that way – it ties you to a time, but it can often date easily too. When you get old enough, the dating can be another source of amusement – you remember where you were and what you thought of it all. Like so many things, in its small way, it adds a sense of continuity to things, a sense of personal history even as those songs raise a smile when you hear them years later. I complain a lot about radio these days and there is a lot to complain about. The same songs get played over and over again only unlike in years past there are fewer of them, and they are all of the same style. There are no songs played which risk breaking the format, the uninterrupted flow of advertising time. The people who play the records have no relationship to them, either. As for listeners, I hope the songs on the radio today still have the power to tie this generation of radio listeners to their times the way that Gary Numan’s “Cars” reminds me of the time I first met my childhood sweetheart on a rare occasion outside of school. As disposable as pop music is thought to be, I wonder how things will advance given that everything has become disposable, and that everything is meant only for one red hot moment before something else replaces it.

I can only hope that the spirit of what can be found in simple things, like a tinny radio playing a song which ties a listener to the track of their lives in some way, both then and years later when the song is heard again, will never be lost. That out of a world where everything changes so quickly, something will remain for everyone which will make them realize that there is treasure to be found there. There is something which isn’t meant to burn out and be forgotten, and that the best part of it is that it can’t be named, or put into a category. This sense of transcendence, this meaning in our experiences embodied in something as simple as a song heard one morning when you were a child points to something beyond the surface, which we can only glimpse at. It reaches beyond the world and yet is rooted in the most humbling elements that make it up. This is not mere history, or fashion. It is our experience. It can’t be sold like airtime.