Pulp Play “Do You Remember The First Time?”

Pulp Do You Remember The First TimeListen to this track by Sheffieldian Britpop figureheads Pulp. It’s “Do You Remember The First Time”, a single as taken from their 1994 record His ‘N’ Hers. This record helped to establish the band’s propensity for strong narratives marked by a dramatic slice-of-life songwriting style.

The band began in the late ’70s when lead singer and founder Jarvis Cocker was 15. But, it was only in the 1990s that they would make their mark in the mainstream, helping to define the Britpop era in terms of subject matter, tone, and overall presentation. It would be this album that would serve as their invitation into the premiership of the UK charts, with that aforementioned flair for drama within a four minute pop song .

This particular song tells the story of two lovers, and another one waiting at home. On the surface, this story appears to be about sexual jealousy. But underneath that, it’s also a song about memory, maturity, and and how love itself can be very messy.  Read more

Suzanne Vega Sings “Small Blue Thing” (2010 Version)

Suzanne Vega - Close-Up Vol. 1, Love SongsListen to this track by New York singer-songwriter and back-catalog revisiting artiste Suzanne Vega. It’s “Small Blue Thing”, a hauntingly beautiful love song that originally appeared on her 1985 debut album Suzanne Vega. This version of the song appears on her 2010 release, Close-Up, Vol. 1: Love Songs.

This album was one of four that Vega would release between 2010 and 2012, most of which were comprised of previously released material from her back catalog, and thematically arranged on each volume. This song is an impressionistic reflection on what it is like to be in love, with all of the contradictions and overwhelming forces that have indelible effects on the human heart. How could it not be included on a volume of love songs?

And maybe this new version reveals something else, too.

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Robyn Hitchcock Sings “Daisy Bomb”

starforbramListen to this track by seneschal of eccentric pop, and left-of center singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. It’s “Daisy Bomb”, as taken from his 2000 album A Star For Bram, which was something of a twin to 1999’s Jewels For Sophia, given that the two records came out of the same sessions.

For all of his eccentricities where writing pop lyrics go, Hitchcock can write love songs with the best of them. And this is certainly one, although of course even here he escapes the cliches of typical love songs just by repositioning what love actually means beyond a simple pop song sentiment. Here, love isn’t just a gooey feeling. In this song, it has elements of danger, all wrapped in a wistful folk-rock package.

His approach here on this song is about connecting with his own unique route to love, or at least in expressing it. Even with the non-traditional approach to lyric writing, Hitchcock is still writing for an audience, providing a fresh vocabularly to the whole business of being in love. That’s what artists do.

But, how does he do that, exactly?

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Bruce Cockburn Performs His 1981 Song “Loner”

Here’s a clip of Bruce Cockburn’s “Loner”, as taken from his Toronto-centric, jazz-rock seasoned 1981 disc Inner City Front. This song is something of a jigsaw piece to the writer’s own emotional state-of-being at the time, and something of a reflection of the scarier side of falling in love.

Cockburn’s marriage dissolved in 1979, an event partially outlined in his 1980 album Humans.  By the next year he was living alone in Toronto, far removed from his old life, and on the road to pursuing new relationships and a new musical direction.  For Cockburn, the one shift greatly affects the other and it’s on Inner City Front where this is illustrated best.  From his first album, geography is of particular importance to how Cockburn’s music comes out.  This album, and its kindred spirit in the stand-alone track “The Coldest Night of the Year” released around the same time and added as a bonus track on the album’s re-issue, practically makes Toronto a main character.

And because of this, the folky wistfulness of the past has morphed into a sound that is more urbane. In leaving the acoustic textures of his 70s work a little further behind, Cockburn steps up the jazz-rock influence which had always been a part of his sound.  Here, we get Bruce’s acoustic and electric guitar, but also synths and sax.  Usually this is bad news for 70s artists moving into the 80s, where these ingredients are common. But, this album rests on the strength of the songs and a premium level of musicianship from a new, jazz-oriented backing band.  And “Loner” is my favourite song on this record.

Once again on this track, we get to hear 80s Cockburn stalwart Hugh Marsh on electric violin.   Marsh had added important texture to Humans, and would continue to do so on subsequent releases.  But this is Marsh’s masterpiece performance on a Cockburn record, the perfect sound of the wordless inner turmoil that the lyrics only suggest, with a magical interplay between the two that makes this tune both subtle and intense at the same time.

There is something in this tune which really resonates with me; a sorrow of things gone wrong in the past, a hope that there is a possibility that happiness with another is within reach, and the murky unpredictability that simmers in the soul as it sits in between the two poles.  This is a love song that presents itself without artifice –  hair disheveled, clothing tattered, and still nursing old wounds.  It is the anthem of love’s observer who is more than terrified of getting into the game again himself.  “Loner” documents that uneasy feeling at the beginning of a new love, when shades of an old one have not yet passed.

For more music, check out the Bruce Cockburn MySpace page.

And while you’re at it, get ye to the Hugh Marsh MySpace page too.

Enjoy!

Dire Straits Perform “Romeo and Juliet”

Here’s a clip of Newcastle roots-rockers Dire Straits performing their 1980 song, “Romeo & Juliet”, possibly one of the most heartbreaking “dealing-with-the-end-of-a-relationship” songs ever written, appearing on their Making Movies album.

Mark Knopfler, lead singer and guitarist in Dire Straits
Mark Knopfler, lead singer and guitarist in Dire Straits

This is a song which perhaps should have been a part of my 10 break-up songs article, just because I think it hits an important aspect of that painful process. In this song, the speaker was once a partner in one of those relationships you see that seem to exemplify what it is to be in love. The two people seemed destined to be together, the stars having aligned to bring them together. Yet, when things go sour, something happens which seems to occur in a lot of relationships – some revisionist history takes place for one lover while the other lover clings to the history being revised.

On one side, the undying love once professed turns into a half-remembered episode at best (“Oh Romeo, yeah. You know I used to have a scene with him…”). On the other, there is an inability to move on (“All I do is miss you, and the way we used to be…”). Totally heartbreaking, and yet this is no syrupy tale designed to push emotional buttons. For me, this seems as real as some of my own experiences with this uglier side of love – love gone wrong.

The fact is, people deal with the ends of relationships in different ways. Some do revise their past as a means of moving on, and of protecting themselves too. Others get stuck in the mud, and can’t get themselves out. I think this tale is one for the latter, and it’s so poignantly stated, with such respect for a painful subject, that it becomes something beyond the standard pop song about breaking-up. For me personally, there’s something about it that is flesh-and-blood real. One time, I played a version of this myself at a company picnic, and I choked up at the “All I do is miss you…” line. In that moment, the line hit me, and became as real as anything I’d ever felt myself. I had to catch myself, and keep going before anyone noticed I’d been moved. How embarrassing! Never again.  But, that’s good songwriting.

Mark Knopfler and his band have taken a lot of knocks for their back-to-basics sound, and of the slickness of their records. In the middle of punk and new wave, these guys were the antithesis. Their sound is rooted in a sort pristine take on country-rock, with Knopler’s voice suggesting a sort of mellowed out Dylan. Actually, Knopfler worked with Bob Dylan on both 1979’s Slow Train Coming as well as on the 1983 disc, Infidels. This was simply unfashionable at the time since Dylan was so thoroughly associated with rock’s old guard. And Knopler’s fluid, country-influenced guitar playing stood in contrast to the more angular, abrasive sounds made on the instrument at the time by many of his peers. Further to that, the band’s Brothers in Arms album in 1985 was among the first to be sold in the compact disc format, making it inescapable for a long, long time. And familiarity bred contempt for many, including to some extent myself. And of course, there’s the headband issue… Yet, Knopfler’s songwriting talent is undeniable, and this song is one of the jewels of his career.

To me, if you’re not moved by this song, you’re dead inside.

Enjoy.

Plain White T’s Perform ‘Hey There Delilah’

Plain White Tees All That We NeededI heard a fantastic tune today – Plain White T’s ‘Hey There Delilah’ taken from their 2005 album All That We Needed. For a minute, I thought they’d found a lost Paul McCartney song from the McCartney sessions.

Here’s a clip!

The song sounds like the Beatles’ White Album (particularly ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son’) and the aforementioned McCartney were influences. But it’s the lyrics which shine through for me; I’m a sucker for a love song that reveals insecurity and hope as opposed to just gushiness. In this tune, one gets the impression that the long distance relatioship being described is teetering on the brink of ending, and the narrator’s promises are not vows to his love so much as desparate attempts to convince himself that things will work out. I’m a sucker for the “unreliable narrator” in a story too.

As McCartneyesque as this tune sounds, these guys are from the Chicago area. Has anyone out there heard them play live? Tell me about it, people!

10 Love Songs Without Cheese

CupidLove; exciting and new, a many splendoured thing, a battlefield. It’s been described in song in many ways, and yet the fascination we have about it, surrounding it, still doesn’t seem to get old. People have written countless songs about the mysteries of love, from the ooey-gooey feelings which are often associated with it, to the struggles which are necessary to keep it alive. Chances are, a love song is being written right now, as you read this, by someone. I like to think that means it’s a pretty important aspect of human existence. As such, here are 10 love songs – these ones without what I call cheese. No Ladies in Red, or Feelings to be found here, I’m afraid.

There is more to these particular 10 songs than the gushy feelings of being in love, and all of the maudlin statements which often come out of songs like that. These 10 have some of those sentiments. But they also reveal that love is often as complicated as it is joyous. They show that love is not just a natural high – it is often a force which challenges our preconceptions, calls us to overcome the prejudices of others, and is ultimately transformative. To me, the best love songs are the ones that depict some kind of struggle, that the shape of love is undetermined, demanding that lovers rise to the occasion which it brings. In short, these are 10 songs which point out that love is not for wimps.

Too Young – Nat King Cole

Nat King ColeGenerally speaking, I’m not much of a crooner sort of guy. But Nat King Cole goes beyond his genre for me (as does Tony Bennett…). There is something deeply emotional in his voice, effortless, and full of conviction without being over the top. ‘Too Young’ is one of my favourites of his, a song about young people who are wise beyond their years, even if those around them can’t see it. This kind of love between young people is often dismissed by those who are older, and jaded. But this tune is about how love can be beyond the boundries of age, that its presence in people’s lives is all down to how aware they are of it, and what they do with the choices they make everyday under its influence – a love ‘to last, though years may go’. In this song, the bonds between love and faith in it, and in each other, are inextricable.

Somewhere – Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim

Somewhere West Side StoryThe musical West Side Story is about divisions and prejudices, with love being the ultimate overthrowing force of both. In the story, a Caucasian guy falls in love with a Hispanic girl, the sister of a rival gang-member who is leading an effort to push into the gang territory of her lover’s friends. Their love is forbidden – this is a modern day Romeo and Juliet tale, basically. The ‘somewhere’ spoken of is just a fantasy in this story, the place where the two star-crossed lovers can live and love together, and explore what love means as a couple without the added problems of other people’s perceptions of it. This kind of love demands even more commitment, because it is unsupported by everyone other than by the two who share it.

The song and its themes have a wider meaning outside of the context of the story. At the end of the 50s and early 60s when the song was making an impact both on stage and on screen in Robert Wise’s movie version, there were all kinds of divisions along racial lines, and interracial relationships were rare, and frowned upon when they were seen. And even in this modern age, the right to love those of the same sex is frowned upon by many, with same sex couples only now gaining traction as being seen as legitimate in the legal, as well as the cultural sense. The ‘somewhere’ spoken of in the song is becoming less of a fantasy, and is hopefully within sight for couples who, at one time, had to keep their love a secret.

I’m A Believer – The Monkees

One of my favourite kinds of love songs are the ones where the narrator is not a dashing figure of romance, or an insightful sensitive type. I like the ones where the narrator is a bit of a clod when it comes to love, one who easily misjudges what it means, and what it can mean as a transformative force in life. This may be because I’m a clod myself! Ultimately, I love stories about being surprised by love, by realizing that it is accessible even if it had always seemed far away, and meant for others ‘but not for me‘.

There are many to choose from here, but I like “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees (actually written by Neil Diamond), because it’s a jubilant conversion story, a waking up to the fact that love is within reach and always had been, even to those who were previously burned, or chronically pessimistic. It also has a ring of innocence to it as well, like the narrator is starting entirely from scratch.

Oh, and I love Mike Nesmith’s guitar on this song too. And that circus-organ that Peter Tork plays. You doubt that the guys actually played on their own record? What kind of believer are you? Oh, all right. How about Mickey Dolenz’ vocal, then? Say what you want, but I think he was great on those original Monkees tunes. Still not a believer? Check out his performance on this lesser-known Monkees song, ‘Goin’ Down’.

‘I’m a Believer’ was covered more recently by Smashmouth and was featured in the animated movie Shrek.

We’ve Only Just Begun – The Carpenters

The CarpentersStay with me, people. I know I said no cheese, and I’ve kept my promise. I know that the Carpenters are looked upon by many as being bland and sentimental. But this song is enormous; not just because Karen Carpenter’s voice is effortless and soaring, but because it’s believable, man. And this song is also not a soppy, sentimental mess that many other songs written in this genre are (I’m looking at you, Air Supply…). This is a song about working, about ‘talking it over’. Basically, this is about building something together, not admiring love as a polished jewel for as long a time as it takes to notice the flaws. And yet, it’s still a powerful song on an emotional level.

I know some out there may still identify this one with the waiting room at the dentist. But, listen to the lyrics, hear those horn shots, the ah-ah backing vocals. And Karen plays the drums, man! This is practically a power-pop song, people! Whatever it is, it’s one of my favourite love songs, because it is a clear manifesto of what love should be – working toward a future with another person, knowing that the path is not yet cut, and moving ahead anyway.

Every Little Thing She Does is Magic – the Police

The Police Ghost in the MachineAnother type of love song I like is the kind which comes from a writer not generally known to lack confidence, but is one which reveals how humble love can make anyone. Let’s face it; Sting is no shrinking violet. He’s a well-read, urbane, blonde Adonis with a bass guitar, a sex symbol, and with an arrogant streak which is (purportedly) about a mile wide. But in this song, he’s as weak as a kitten, a guy fumbling for words, a fellow who loses his nerve when it counts. Is this the Sting we know and love? Yes. It was about Trudie Styler, who must have made him feel a little bit outside of himself at the time, freeing him up to write from the standpoint of his inner nerd.

The song was recorded for the 1981 album Ghost in the Machine, actually coming out of a pretty tense session. The song was recorded by Sting with a keyboardist, which the guys tried to do reproduce without much success when Sting brought the demo to the session. So, they ended up building a new track around the demo, specifically around the piano and synth lines which have become its trademark. It’s always been one of my favourite songs by a favourite band. It reminds me of my wife actually, since in the seventh grade when this came out, I resolved to call her up a thousand times a day to ask her if she’d marry me in some old fashioned way. It took about 20 more years, but I finally got there.

Message to My Girl – Split Enz

Split Enz Conflicting EmotionsThis is another one of those songs which shows love in three dimensions. This song is as much about doubt and fear as it is about dedication and trust. The narrator is someone who knows what love can be, and wants to get serious about it with an acknowledgment of past weakness and loss of resolve. I love that – there is no triumphalism here. This is about risk, about pushing through the noise that keeps one from revealing oneself to someone else. This is where many of us aspire to be, not just because we want to plumb the depths of love and all of its joys, but because we aspire to the courage it takes to get there.

The song was originally featured on the latter-day Split Enz album, 1983’s Conflicting Emotions, when the band had shifted leadership from Tim Finn (who embarked on his solo career) to his younger brother Neil Finn, who would go on to write a number of love songs in this tradition, first with Crowded House, to his own solo career, and then back with Crowded House where he still performs the song regularly. I saw him do a solo version of this when I saw Crowded House last year. It had actually been the first time I’d heard it, not being familiar with the Split Enz version. It became an instant favourite.

In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel

Peter GabrielA lot of people associate this song with the 1989 movie …Say Anything, with John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler holding his boom box aloft to remind his former love of the joys they once shared. But this song isn’t one about mourning a lost love. It’s about the effort to keep love kindled. There are a lot of mystical images in this song. But there’s also the line I get so tired working so hard for our survival/ I look to the time with you to keep me awake and alive. This is a really down to earth idea, that love is not just about ‘the light, the heat’, but is also about the mundane, day to day aspects of life which wear one down, and those other details to which we must be attentive in order to keep love alive. In this, love is a very practical consideration.

Peter Gabriel has the advantage of having that sandpapery, soulful voice which lends a lot of credence to nearly everything he sings. But in this, there is another level of greatness. He sounds a bit lost in this, as if everything he’s singing seems to be coming to him in a moment of desperation, like he’s working out the magnitude of the love he’s got and is struggling to keep in focus. There is a real tension there that, for me, comes about as close as one gets to how love in moments like this really feels like; frightening, overwhelming, and absolutely essential, all in one powerful irradiating burst.

Calico Skies – Paul McCartney

Paul and Linda McCartneyAnd here is the McCartney song. This was inevitable on this blog. You knew that. But, thankfully for you, I skipped ‘Silly Love Songs’, ‘My Love’, and any of those other more predictable McCartney tracks in favour of 1997’s ‘Calico Skies’, from the album Flaming Pie. For me, this is one of his best songs he’s written, including the ones written when in the Beatles. I love the English folk influences, which are not entirely unlike those which informed earlier songs like ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son’. And his voice sounds downright boyish in this tune, as if the love that he is speaking about is coming from a place that had always been waiting for it.

This song frames the idea that love is bigger than we are, that we are drawn to it as if we have no choice in the matter. And yet there is the line always looking for ways to love you/never failing to fight at your side. So, this song is not about passivity either. In the midst of our expectations of the soppy McCartney love song, there’s a lot of imagery about fighting in here: crazy soldiers never having to be called to handle the weapons of war we despise. This is a fight, but in the context of love, in the context of a choice between two dedicated lovers. This song to me stands as a testament to his love and marriage to Linda McCartney, who died the next year of breast cancer. I imagine that the idea of fighting next to the one you love takes on a different meaning in these circumstances.

Whatever It Takes – Ron Sexsmith

Ron SexsmithThe thing about love is that it doesn’t always pan out the first, second, or third time you try and grab it. There is just no guarantee, other than at some point everyone is going to get hurt by someone else. In this song, taken from the 2004 album Retriever, Sexsmith places this in the context of trying again, and not being held back by past hurts and by the fear of things one can’t control. As such, this is not just a love song so much as a pep talk, a game plan with which to start a successful relationship with someone who has as much, or more, baggage than we do.

Musically, Ron is channelling Bill Withers here, a songwriter who has also demonstrated that he knows a thing or two about writing eloquent love songs without dismissing the darker side of it – ‘Lean on Me’ anyone? ‘Just the Two of Us’? Overall, both writers have their feet firmly planted on the ground when it comes to love. It’s risky, and can be merciless. But in this song, fear never gets in the way of the work of it, and the ultimate joy of it.

It’s Only Time – Magnetic Fields

Magnetic FieldsOften love songs are thought of as kind of wimpy. That sentiment, especially from a man, is a kind of weakness. But, to me this song ‘It’s Only Time’, taken from the 2004 album by Magnetic Fields, i, is about unshakable resolve. It’s about defiance, and firmly-rooted faith and conviction in one’s own dedication to what is most important. What, I ask, is tougher than that? This song is about how love can change your point of view, that the strength one finds in love is often enough to to make circumstances irrelevant; what could stop this beating heart/once it’s made a vow? Here, immovable, immutable love is just a given.

In this song, the love being sung about is of the transcendental kind. A lot of songs have been written trying to capture this idea, and many have been successful. But this one smashes it out of the park for me in a way that few others do. This is a song of naked vulnerability, yet one of immense strength too. Stephin Merritt is one of the best songwriters who ever lived on the basis of this song alone.

If you’re interested in more love songs by Magnetic Fields, you might want to investigate their triple album 69 Love Songs, which explores a number of genres and points of view on the subject of love.

***

So, love; wonderful, challenging, terrifying, and up for nomination for ultimate meaning of life all in one. Of course there are scads of songs about it in every tradition and genre. Artists tend to tackle the big stuff, because they know that the average person is searching to find some insight on it. And perhaps a lot of songwriters, poets, playwrites, or whoever, haven’t a single insight that sheds any more light on the subject than we could sort out for ourselves. But, thrashing about and being clumsy is sometimes as telling as being insightful and eloquent. Sometimes knowing that we’re all in the same boat when it comes to love is enough comfort to keep us forging ahead with the business of keeping love in our own lives. And this, to me, is always easiest when I have a tune I can whistle. How about you?