Sounds of Music

I’ll Go Out of My Way to Prove I Still

I’ve started reading Girls on Fire, it made me think of Nirvana and so I played Nevermind on Spotify. If you asked me I couldn’t have name dmore than a handful of song titles from this album but when it’s playing I remember almost every single sound. It’s crazy how many times I’ve heard this album since second grade when I listened to it a lot. Like, a lot.

Also, yes, I still have this blog and maybe I’m still planning on writing it. But I also have a son and it makes it really hard to keep up with non-essential things, and with some essential things too.

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Sounds of Music

I Love Warsaw in December

As I might have mentioned, I have recently developed quite an obsession with the French singer minimalistically called Zaz. What started as an attempt to have more contact with the French language, soon overtook my listening habits and last.fm statistics. And so when in the middle of this mania I found out Zaz would be playing in Warsaw I had no choice but to blackmail R and go. (I didn’t need to blackmail him, truth be told, he agreed completely out of self-sacrificial impulses.)

The concert was so much fun! I didn’t even mind (very much) that it started late and without an apology. And I did spend that time standing in the crowd, listening to two ladies complaining about people on welfare and how they would ask for coal and not toys for Christmas (or something? it didn’t make a lot of sense). As soon as Zaz took over the stage, though, fun began. I more often than not go to concerts of artists whose names are so big it’s a wonder I can see them live (also, whose glory days happened forty years ago so it’s a double wonder) and so their very appearance is almost a spiritual experience. In other words, I don’t care so much whether they’re inclined to entertain me or mumble into the corner of the stage (love you, Dylan). Zaz, however, turned out to be a volcano of party energy. I guess she has experience working as a cabaret singer and probably all the public-involving techniques come from that but they worked pretty well. My main source of fun, however, came from the fact that listening so much to her as-yet limited repertoire, I knew all the songs and so enjoyed them all the more. In fact, you know that feeling when you go to a concert and you hope the band wouldn’t sing too many boring songs from the new album they’re promoting? For the first time I had an opposite feeling: I was sorry she limited the stuff from her newest Paris, even though the older songs were great, too.

She went through a whole array of styles and genres, including jazz, rock, pop and something Latino (I know nothing about those genres) and through as many as three outfits, so that the mood of the concert kept changing, making it even more exciting. Also, while I consider jazz something closely related to masturbation (in how mostly only those who perform it, seem to enjoy it), in the version of Zaz’s energetic band I actually liked it. The jazz, of course. Zaz even took into consideration how few people speak French outside of France (it’s very few, French people, deal with it) and she had whole bits of narration prepared in phonetic Polish. It even included a whole fable! Not a half-assed effort, that.

Even though I was exhausted from waiting for the show and the earlier long bus ride to get there, I still felt the concert could have lasted longer. That’s not to say that it was short but it had such good energy, you just wanted more of it. The anti-welfare lady did make sure everybody knew she didn’t understand French and she only liked the first album anyway, but most people seemed to love the concert. In fact, the ovation at the end was so long and enthusiastic that the band members seemed either fascinated or completely baffled (one of them even filmed the crowd). So, even though there was no “La Parisienne” (I always have a song missing from the set list), I’m so glad we ignored our duties and went to see the concert.

The next day we also saw a pretty embarrassing exhibition on free masonry and went shopping (we bought nothing) and had great dinner in a tourist-oriented restaurant (we embody uncoolness, you know); and on the ride home we watched a lot of Buffy. Altogether, fun weekend but it doesn’t make coming back to work any easier.

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Sounds of Music

More Top Songs

When compiling my last list of top music I felt a little bad about leaving out newer songs (it was necessary though). And today I have many photos to retouch and a long text to set so, just to exercise my superpower of procrastination, here comes a follow-up list of 10 songs: Top Songs, part 2. This one includes everything I skipped last time because it seemed too new for me to be sure it would last.

1. The White Stripes “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet).” With the White Stripes it’s very hard for me to pick one song because (like many other artists on this list) I like them almost in entirety and I admire how each new album was more ambitious than the previous one. I’m picking a cover because I’m feeling mischievous, I guess, but probably also because it’s very much in tune with the previous list.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “And sometimes I get jealous / Of all her little pets / And I get lonely, but I ain’t that lonely yet”

Runners-up: To name just a few “Hotel Yorba” | “Seven Nation Army” (yes, I like the hits) | “In the Cold, Cold Night” | “Icky Thump” etc.

2. The Kills “Superpowerless.” Another case of a band that I like almost completely and only pick a song because I follow my own rules. The Kills are absolutely hypnotic for me; they were an instant fascination, even though they’re unlike my usual favorite bands, and I can listen to them forever.

Favorite bit of lyrics: I really don’t listen to the Kills for the lyrics, just for the rhythm. I don’t even know them, a weird thing for me.

Runners-up: So very many, “Rodeo Town” | “URA Fever” | “Nail in My Coffin” | “I Call It Art” (my first the Kills favorite, different from the rest but gorgeous) | “Cheap and Cheerful” and more.

3. Laura Marling “I Speak Because I Can.” I will finally stop repeating that, but with Marling it’s again a whole bunch of songs of which it’s practically impossible to pick the best one. I fell in love with her music after the first album (perplexed as I was with her crazily young age) and heard the first two albums about a million times. I’m less fond of her later work but when I love her, I’m obsessed.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “When you’re running up the highway / Singing I’m the king, the king of you all / When you look back to where it started / I’ll be there waving you on”

Runners-up: “Ghosts” | “Night After Night” | “My Manic and I” | “The Captain and the Hourglass” | “Hope in the Air” | “What He Wrote” (all of these songs are so powerful and atmospheric).

4. Isobell Campbell and Mark Lanegan “Ramblin’ Man.” My listening to Campbell and Lanegan’s first collaboration honestly bordered on obsession, I loved this album so much. This song is particularly interesting in how it makes a more-dimensional dialogue out of a typical manly nonsense.

Favorite bit of lyrics: No particular bit, I like the interplay.

Runners-up: “Do You Wanna (Come Walk with Me)” (too bad it ended up in commercials) | “Revolver” | “Keep Me in Mind Sweetheart.”

5. Ani DiFranco “As Is.” Frankly, Ani can be boring every now and then but when she’s not, she’s awesome. I went through an Ani DiFranco phase and “As Is” is my favorite because of its simplicity and contained bitterness but lots of her songs are so, so good.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “‘Cause when I look down / I just miss all the good stuff / And when I look up / I just trip over things” (wonderful, isn’t it).

Runners-up: “Little Plastic Castle” | “Fuel” (the only rap I enjoy though I know it’s no rap to those who really care about it) | “Marrow” | “Untouchable Face” (awesome lyrics).

6. Emmy the Great “First Love.” While we’re talking about wonderful women songwriters, we might add Emmy as well. I like many songs from First Love but the titular one is my favorite, with its crazy story and Cohen references.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “I remember you like a verse / That I didn’t want to learn” and also “You were stroking me like a pet / But you didn’t own me yet,” such lovely cynicism about romance (I don’t share it but I’ve always enjoyed it).

Runners-up: “Dylan” (no duh) | “On the Museum Island” | “A Woman, a Woman, a Century of Sleep”

7. Deer Tick “Ashamed.” Let’s pick up the tempo for a moment with one alt-country song I dare to enter here. Love the guitar in this one.

Favorite bit of lyrics: Well, I really like the guitar more than lyrics but I guess “oh, what a crying shame, a crying shame / What we became” has certain true-to-life quality.

Runners-up: I like some songs from Born on a Flag Day and “Dirty Dishes” but no other could make it to the list.

8. The Pixies “Here Comes Your Man.” It was R that got me interested in Pixies but they have a similar effect on me that the Kills do: when I start listening to them, time flies. I know “Here Comes Your Man” is shamefully poppy and I should pick something less known but I can’t help loving this one the most, it’s such a good song.

Favorite bit of lyrics: Some of their songs have almost-meaningful lyrics but not this one, sorry.

Runners-up: “Hey” | “Debaser” | “The Holiday Song.”

9. Langhorne Slim “By the Time the Sun’s Gone Down.” The newest addition and my instant love but I’ve already written about it.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “And by the docks we’ll take a walk / and discuss things we have and never wanted”

Runners-up: “In the Midnight” (it could make the list just as well, the two are equally awesome to me) | “Back to the Wild.”

10. Carla Bruni “Quelqu’un ma dit.” This is not-too-smart an album, lyrics-wise, but Carla has so much charm and her French is gorgeous I can listen to her for hours. It started as an exercise in French but easily ended up here.

Favorite bit of lyrics: This is silly lyrics, no doubt about it. But oh, French is so lovely I don’t care.

Runners-up: “Le toi du moi” (possibly the silliest lyrics ever, but kinda funny).

And I still had to eliminate a lot of songs so I’ll just throw it out there: Johnny Flynn “The Wrote and the Writ” | Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Hysteric” | Fiona Apple “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” | Cowboy Junkies “River Waltz” | The Lumineers “Stubborn Love” | something by Mumford and Sons. There, I feel better already.

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Sounds of Music

My Top Ten Songs

Last weekend our friend A, in between playing board games, told us how he and his wife regret that no one had asked them to compile a list of their top ten songs of all times. But luckily they thought to ask each other this question and are in the process of compiling the list right now.

A is very serious about music but R and me somewhat less so and, as it looked like our kind of challenge (one which doesn’t involve stripping or singing in public), we adopted the idea and have already completed the lists. I know you’re dying to hear all about it so here, without further delay, it goes.

No, wait. First, there have to be rules. So, one spot per one artist or it would be all taken up by Dylan. Also, I pay a lot of attention to lyrics and it affected many of the choices. Finally, after much (some, passing) internal struggle I decided to focus on oldies rather than anything from after 2000 because I just can’t tell if I will still even remember most of those newer artists in another ten years. It made sense when I decided that so here goes the list now.

1. Bob Dylan “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Because of the one song per one artist rule, of all the brilliant songs I pick this one because it’s the brilliantest. It tells a story and the story is interesting, rich and well-constructed, it has a plot, memorable characters and a surprising reveal and please show me another song by anyone that does that, no, I know you can’t. Also, it’s the best attempt at the redefinition of the ballad tradition, not that you care.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown / She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear / ‘Sorry, darlin’, that I’m late,’ but he didn’t seem to hear”

Runners-up: “To Ramona” (powerful and atmospheric, it touches upon some undefined mystery; or I’m just being pretentious) | “Love Minus Zero” (Dylan’s best love song) | “Like a Rolling Stone” (it just might be the best song ever written) | “Visions of Johanna” | “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (for early-Dylanesque humor) and so on.

2. Patti Smith “Kimberly.” I love Patti Smith dearly but more for her overall feel than for individual songs so this was a bit of a challenge but “Kimberly” has a lot of magic.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “Oh baby, I remember when you were born / It was dawn and the storm settled in my belly”

Runners-up: “Because the Night” (played to death and still lovely) | “Redondo Beach” | “Till Victory” (because Patti is a rocker).

3. Tom Waits “Hold On.” I guess I might choose a different song from today’s standpoint but I definitely listened to “Hold On” the most and I love the lyrics. Also, it might not be cool to admit but I much prefer Waits that’s actually listenable than when he starts doing what one of my online friends once called “vocal torturing” and I never heard a better description of that thing he does sometimes.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “Everyone’s looking for someone to blame / And you shared my bed, you shared my name / Well, go ahead and call the cops / You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops”

Runners-up: “I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You” (when a bar story becomes a human story) | “Time” (surrealist charmer) | “Tom Traubert’s Blues” (messy but gripping) | “Long Way Home” (a hymn for a rebel-without-a-cause kind of romantic interest – was that complicated?).

4. Leonard Cohen “The Stranger Song.” Cohen is mostly about the lyrics and I had a problem choosing my favorite song based on that so I chose on the basis of replayability. “The Stranger Song” is nice to listen to.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “But now another stranger seems to want you to ignore his dreams / as though they were the burden of some other”

Runners-up: Quite a lot, including “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” | “Tonight Will Be Fine” (so much fun, especially for Cohen) | “Famous Blue Raincoat” (so much lyricism, and it’s like a puzzle, trying to identify the pronouns) | “Chelsea Hotel #2” (probably closest to making it to the actual list, what with that famous third line and the fact that I sometimes try to translate the lyrics into French when I really need to occupy my mind with something, it helps that I’m so bad at it; It even deserves a favorite bit of lyrics mentioned: “And clenching your fist for the ones like us / who are oppressed by the figures of beauty”).

5. Dire Straits “Romeo and Juliet.” Sometimes I feel like people don’t appreciate this song, how it’s not silly and meaningless (the way most love songs are) and that’s why it’s so popular. But it has lovely lyrics full of subtle humor and not so subtle heartache and Knopfler plays guitar just so well (I don’t know anything about guitars).

Favorite bit of lyrics: “You can fall for chains of silver / You can fall for chains of gold / You can fall for pretty strangers / And the promises they hold”

Runners-up: Not really.

6. Cornelis Vreeswijk “Veronica.” When I tried to learn Swedish my teacher would sometimes make me fill in the blanks to Swedish song lyrics. I didn’t get that much better at Swedish from that (though it was a lot of fun) but I found this gem of a song, proving that American-styled folk is not exclusively American.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “Veronica, Veronica släpp ner ditt långa hår / Och se din vän i ögonen och säg att han får / Och somna i hans armar och vakna lycklig sen / När det dagas.”

Runners-up: Hardly applies.

7. The Velvet Underground “Pale Blue Eyes.” Simplicity makes this song. Unlike the previous ones it has fairly simple lyrics but the delivery makes it very emotional.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “The fact that you are married / Only proves you’re my best friend / But it’s truly, truly a sin”

Runners-up: I like “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Sweet Jane” and others but there’s really no competition.

8. Marc Cohn “Walking in Memphis.” One hit wonder that is really wondrous. Possibly my favorite singalong song that is not terribly embarrassing to speak of in public (hello, Gloria Gaynor).

Favorite bit of lyrics: “And I sang with all my might / She said, ‘Tell me are you a Christian, child?’ / And I said, ‘Ma’am, I am tonight!'”

Runners-up: Not really by Cohn, just other one hit wonders, such as Merrilee Rush “Angel of the Morning”  (love the unidentifiable instrument – I must tell you one day the story of my lack of musical education, it’s colorful – and the corny lyrics) | Free “All Right Now” (I always liked the cynicism of the lyrics, for some reason) | and especially covers; I’d really love to put covers on this list but it doesn’t feel exactly right, with their being so obviously covers.

9. Having said that, Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah.” I can’t help it, it’s my favorite version. It has a sort of middle-of-the-night focus that gives Cohen’s lyrics the power that his delivery denies them. And these are shockingly good lyrics.

Favorite bit of lyrics: I can hardly choose, but I’ll go with “But all I’ve ever learned from love / Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you”

Runners-up: Beth Orton “Sisters of Mercy,” another cover that is better than the original and delivered in a breath-taking manner.

10. “Piece of My Heart” Janis Joplin. This is really a group spot for this song with other runners-up because it includes songs that I no longer listen to very often but once they were so important to me that they shaped my musical taste forever, pushing me towards older music and making me uncool in the eyes of all the Nirvana fans (yes, it’s been a while since I was in school; and I did have a passing Nirvana fascination, to be honest, but it was no longer so cool then).

Favorite bit of lyrics: Eh, these are not great lyrics, to be honest, but let’s say “And baby deep down in your heart I guess you know that it ain’t right / Never, never, never, never, never, never hear me when I cry at night / Babe, and I cry all the time!”

Runners-up: Jefferson Airplane “Somebody to Love” and The Doors “Light My Fire” (songs that really showed me what music could be and started my music quest) | “Me and Bobby McGee” if we’re speaking of Janis (another favorite singalong).

And there we went. The hardest thing when making such a list is definitely elimination and I feel bad about all the newer stuff I excluded (not that I had any spots left): these songs might even deserve another list and if I get another free Friday night (and yes, this is what passes for fun around here) I’ll think about drawing one.

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Sounds of Music

When the Sun’s Gone Down: My Current Only One

er-whenthesunsgonedownI have had a patchy relationship with Spotify’s Discover feature: what with it constantly suggesting either bland pop folk with all the bands completely indistinguishable or, sometimes, things compared to which techno radio from the 80s sounds a treat (seriously, what in my music history suggests a liking for scary electronica?). But recently it has sent my way music so great that it has by now completely messed up my last.fm scrobbling statistics and now my top artist is one I haven’t even heard of a couple of weeks ago, named Langhorne Slim.

Now, my friends are great people but somehow I don’t know anyone with whom I could discuss my folky inclinations and after hearing When the Sun’s Gone Down so, so many times I just need to share my abundant feelings – while my husband can only suffer so much. So, thank you imaginary internet audience for being here to listen.

The album has everything I like and, what is more, it works together: frantic guitar strumming, underproduced abrasive sound, catchy melodies and addictiveness. The frantic guitar (or is it banjo? I don’t care) kicks right in from the beginning with the great “In the Midnight” where you can catch such intriguing snippets as “I wasn’t faking all my quest to love you less” and this energy continues for a few dynamic songs. A short instrumental song bridges into the second part of the album which is more mixed: it has both quick songs similar to the first ones and a few slower, more bizarre ones (which, after hearing the album a few dozen times I did find a little tiresome). This leads to the incredible, sort of titular “By the Time the Sun’s Gone Down.” If the similarity of the title suggests this to be the most important song of the album, that would be quite right because it is here that the rawness leads to wonderful frankness and emotionality. Even though it’s one of the most subdued numbers of the album, to me it’s most memorable.

After that, the album picks up again with a few lighthearted songs, leading to the closing, clownish and dance-hallish “I Love to Dance” that leaves you with a smile (or, you know, just opens again into “In the Midnight” if you’re me). All too rarely I chance upon an album that I can listen to over and over again. And when it’s by someone whose sense of humor and vocals (generally higher than I like) remind me of sort-of-early Dylan (when he discovered playing with a band but still had some self-distance) – well, if you know me at all, you know that’s about the highest musical compliment I can think of. I’m sorry Langhorne Slim is not more famous (which means he’ll never ever come to play here) but I hope at least my obsessive spotifying of his songs will earn him a few cents and add to his sense of appreciation.

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Between Folk and Country: To Willie

er-towillieOn my old blog I had a small space to share the music I was listening to and so I didn’t have to actually write a lot about it except for a title and a few superlatives. Now I either don’t mention it at all or feel obliged to come up with something deeper to say and frankly not a lot of music deserves that effort. But here’s something that does.

To Willie by Phosphorescent is a tribute to, no surprise here, Willie Nelson, one of country legends. Now, where I come from country is not popular and most people can’t tell Johnny Cash from Dolly Parton but it still has a faint stink of stigma, like it’s something only truck drivers would listen to. As I was growing up I had no reason to disbelieve that and stayed away from country (which isn’t hard at all) until I started listening to Bob Dylan. I still scoffed at his more country-like tunes and even though I heard Pat Garret soundtrack a million and seven times I usually skipped “Turkey Chase” – until I didn’t. Dylan was my backdoor to country and when I later got to know Johnny Cash I had to face the facts: there was something about country I could really enjoy. (It’s the rhythm. And the acoustic aspect, but especially the rhythm.)

However, prejudice is a hard thing to shed and I never feel entirely comfortable admitting to people, or myself, that I like country classics or anyone that emulates them (except for Johnny Cash; he’s so beyond any of that). Luckily, there are so many ways to skin the cat – or, more importantly, to tinker with labels to avoid discomfort. And so while I don’t exactly listen to country, I really like various other genres: like americana, or folk, or especially indie folk.

There’s only one problem with that: many indie folk artists, while they definitely have the heart, lack the old masters’ ability to craft a catching and powerful tune. And so, to come back to Phosphorescent, the union between this modern rendition and the classic, melodic sound works wonderfully for me. I’ve been listening to this album for a couple of weeks now and I still find it very strong, but it actually moved me the first time I heard its second song “Too Sick to Pray,” and this really doesn’t happen too often.

Even though I’m a lyrics junkie, I can hardly relate to Nelson’s lyrics about partying hard or feeling bad after partying so hard. Still, the hypnotic sound that Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck weaves makes the songs go beyond their pretty trivial literal meaning and speak of existence (and isn’t it a joyous subject). What is more, the record is wonderfully consistent. After listening to any album for a few times I will normally pick a song or, at most, three that I like and never return to the rest. But even though I have favorites from To Willie (“Reasons to Quit”, “Too Sick to Pray” and “The Party’s Over”, since you didn’t ask) listening to the entire album remains a powerful experience: at times calming, at times saddening, but never leaving those heartstrings of mine indifferent.

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