Category Archives: Song

Toxic Rock Syndrome: Street Spirit (Fade Out)

I don’t know how it took this long for me to get to Radiohead on this blog*, but I figure it’s time to correct that error. I got into the band through a back door, actually, starting with Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, and then moving straight on to the polarizing Kid A, mostly interested in their electronic stuff and ability to use their studio as another instrument. I eventually branched out to either side of their discography, but always held fast as that era being their best and most creative. Why, then, does The Bends‘ album closer, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, have by far the most listens on my iTunes? The Bends was the band’s second album and showed them on their way up in the mid-90s, a guitar-laden cornerstone of the Britrock scene of that era, in among Pulp, Blur, Oasis and others and a prelude to the monolith that would become of OK, Computer. Why is is that on a quiet walk home, “Street Spirit” is my go-to song and not “Everything In Its Right Place”?

It’s perhaps their most clear precis on the sheer urban paranoia that is a throughline in much of their work, but usually presented in a much more cryptic way. Here, Yorke croons about “rows of houses/bearing down on me”. Here’s something you can easily connect to – there’s no imagery stand-ins. It’s just what’s around you. No need to make up something else to fear when you you’ve got houses right there, especially as he struggles to get the words out to anyone: “This machine will/will not communicate/the thoughts and the strain I’m under.” In contrast to the paranoia, Yorke calls on a camaraderie that may not exist, but that he must believe in to deal with the concrete prison around him: “All these things into position/all these things we’ll one day swallow whole.”

Honestly, though, it would be difficult to put anything but the main riff/picking pattern at the center of this song, with the descending A minor pattern pulling you down with every iteration. The chords change, but the pattern never does – no matter how you twist and turn, it gets you every time, creating a web over the whole song. Even when the song takes off at the end, and the synths soar, and the mumbled coda of “immerse your soul in love” reaches out of the darkness, it’s still lying underneath before everything drops out again, and you’re left what you started with.

Despite the bleakness of the whole affair, it continually scratches an itch I have whenever I’m not listening to a new or barely-remembered album – I can throw it on almost any time and immediately get into it. The atmosphere is full realized and it never breaks out of the initial mood it puts you into. The vocals and melody are quite strong and the performances are a fairly light touch for Radiohead, but delicately placed where they need to be. A single vision, no matter hopeless, makes for a powerful song.

*I am a person with a music blog, of course I like Radiohead.

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Toxic Pop Syndrome: The Strange Case of Dr. Oates & Mr. Hall

Welcome to Toxic Pop Syndrome, so named after the Britney Spears single that just seemed far and away in another category from the rest of her songs.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, per se, of Hall & Oates. I know a few of their big singles, and that’s pretty much it. They were pure 80s pop and did what they did very well. “Private Eyes”, “Kiss On My List”, “Maneater” and so on. But for some reason, every once in awhile, every single element comes together in a perfect storm and creates that pop song that it is impossible to sing, to groove with, to get up and dance to. “You Make My Dreams” is just such a song.

It is the only one that manages to surpass that “I’m listening to an 80s pop song” feel, and just move into “I’m listening to some damn good music” as I start throwing shapes like nobody’s business, bobbing my head back and forth and howling the lyrics without even knowing what most of the lyrics are. And it all has to do with that magic organ and its interplay with the beat.

The song opens with the organ by itself, the better for you to soak in the glorious riff it’s layin’ down. It fills up the sound nicely, but hits those offbeats heavily, which gives it that lurching feel – it’s always sort of leaning forwards to the next beat and gives that urgency and immediacy. The backbeat almost stands alone as the keys and guitar crunch down the chords on that offbeat. You can hear it when the electricity disappears for a second on the “Listen to this!” part, where they come down on the normal beats and it sounds a bit more like their other hits.

Just before the initial vocals come in, all the instruments stop to let them come in solo, creating much of what Queen called ‘hot space’ (on their album, Hot Space, where they got funky), the vocals going on their own half a step longer than it normally would, because the organ comes in on the offbeat. Leaving the listener hanging for that split second creates a great tension and excitement for when the instruments come back in.

Preliminary research (thanks, Wikipedia) tells me that this song wasn’t even one of their #1 Billboard singles, which boggles my mind. It’s basically the only Hall & Oates song I would consider to be a party in a can. Yeah, I can nod along to “Private Eyes”, but it doesn’t quite hit the same high. “You Make My Dreams” is, like, “Superstition” level (which, come to think of it, has that same offbeat feel). It gives a bit more of a peek into the duo that might have been. Even so, most groups don’t even get that effervescent moment.

Bravo, Messrs. Hall & Oates, bravo.

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Fare Thee Well: The Story of Inside Llewyn Davis in a Single Song

*SPOILER WARNING: This review ruins some key moments in Inside Llewyn Davis, so beware if you’ve not seen it yet!*

 

 

Ever since the day after I got to see the Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack almost incessantly. What struck me in some of my repeated listens were two versions of the same song that more or less bookend the album – “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”. In thinking about it further and reflecting on the movie afterwards, that this song actually encapsulates much of the character development and plot found in the movie. Indeed, much of the movie actually revolves around this song.

We’re introduced to the song when Llewyn puts on the album that he and his now-deceased partner Mike Timson put out (played in a vocal cameo by Marcus Mumford). It’s the cut we hear from the album and, presumably, it was the lead track/single, as the first four words of the song comprise the title of the album (“If I Had Wings”). Despite its slightly somber title, their version has a fairly upbeat poppy (for 60s folk) arrangement in 4/4, with some interlocking fingerpicking parts with a guitar and banjo and a break for a fiddle solo.With Mike taking the high parts in their two-part harmonies, his voice easily dominates over Llewyn’s lower one. This is, essentially, the type of music bigwig Sal Grossman tells Llewyn he should be involved in in Chicago after Llewyn plays him a song from his solo record, and, it seems, the exact type of music that Llewyn wants to get away from.

While it doesn’t seem that Llewyn was particularly glad of his partner’s dead, it’s clear that he did see it as a chance to establish his own voice, and play the way he wants to play, as evidenced by the scene in which he’s staying over at the house of a professor friend of his. He and his wife ask Llewyn to play a song after dinner, to which he begrudgingly obliges. He begins to play “Fare Thee Well” (a very different version, which we’d hear later) and the wife begins to sing the high harmony, which causes Llewyn to stop playing. “But that was Mike’s part!” she claims, to which Llewyn responds “Fuck Mike’s part!” He then goes on about not wanting to do what he does for a living on command, for free just to entertain people. The idea of being beholden to his past career and replicating what worked in the past to gain any sort of attention or acclaim in anathema to Llewyn. He wants to do it absolutely his way, which why he says no to Sal Grossman.

Towards the end of the film, we see Llewyn’s performance from the opening of it, but where one song was omitted at the beginning, here we get to see it in full – “Fare Thee Well”. It’s stripped down to just its basic chords, and put in a more insistent, more lyrical 3/4, as we get to hear the melody soar for the first time, with Llewyn putting his heart into it. “I have a man/who’s long and tall” has been changed to “the woman I love/is long and tall” as Llewyn tries to put as much of himself in the song as possible (his semi-requited for love for Jean, chiefly), also adding the stanza “one of these mornings/it won’t be long/you’ll call my name/and I’ll be gone” that wasn’t in the first version – Llewyn clearly doesn’t want to stick around Greenwich Village forever after the time he’s had. At the same time, performing that song live and accepting it back into his life after his history with it allows him to literally say goodbye to his partner and that chapter of career and go forward his way, for whatever fortune that brings him.

Llewyn likes his folk pure as he can get it, (as you see his disdain for the quartet of minty-sweatered college boys singing “The Auld Triangle”) and is trying to be both successful and honest in a world which rarely rewards both in the same way. The stark contrast in the different versions of “Fare Thee Well” go a long way in showing Llewyn’s attitude towards music (ostensibly,  his life) which, in turn, gives an insight into why he often seems to make the odd decisions he does in the movie and ends up where he does.

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