Sounds of Music

Songbook: Like Janis

Once upon a time I was talking to a person about Searching for Sugarman, which everybody seemed to be watching then (I haven’t so far) and she said that Rodriguez was so great, “better than some Bob Dylan.” Hah. Say to me someone is better than Bob Dylan and see what happens. (Nothing will happen because I’m a polite and restrained person but I will think things about you.) But when some time later Spotify played to me a Rodriguez song I was quite curious and while Dylan he ain’t I still like some of his songs, particularly this one.

“Like Janis” by Rodriguez

Album: Cold Fact

Year: 1970

Category: Recent-years favorites

Why it rocks:
We all try to be positive and enlightened (I hope) but sometimes there is pleasure to be found in listening to such well-put disdain, especially accompanied by such pleasant melody. Some people inspire one to think of this song more than others, I guess.

Favorite bit of lyrics:
“And you try to conceal your ordinary ways / With a smile or a shrug or some stolen cliché” and “And don’t try to enchant me with your manner of dress / ‘Cause a monkey in silk is a monkey no less” (so really the meanest of them).

Favorite moment:
When he lacks a syllable in “and your selfishness.” I like when a rhythm is broken but still works.

Best for: Feeling mean.

Sidenote: I always think instinctively that any “Janis” must be Janis Joplin but this doesn’t really sound like her, does it.

Listen here. (I just realized I can do this.)

Sounds of Music

Christmas Songbook: Silver Bells

So in 2009 Dylan recorded a Christmas album and everyone’s (who cared) jaws dropped open. But it was really such a Dylan thing to do. Me, I was always happy he did that because what’s better than two things you like separately? Two of them combined. (Somebody needs to come up with chocolate flavored comic books.)

“Silver Bells” by Bob Dylan

Album: Christmas in the Heart

Year: 2009

Category: Christmas playlist

Why it rocks:
I love getting ready for Christmas: shopping, cleaning, worrying about who to invite, you name it, I don’t mind. And this is a song which captures so well the feeling of Christmas in the city, rather than in some imaginary idyllic cottage in snow-covered woods. It’s an idyllic city though: it makes this time sound restful rather than full of berserk last-minute shoppers who curse one another in the mall parking lot.
And Dylan’s rendition makes the song sillier and more fun in the “anyone can sing” spirit. As someone who’s always the worst caroller, no matter what group I’m in, I really appreciate that.

Favorite bit of lyrics:
“Strings of street lights, even stop lights / Blinkin’ bright red and green / As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.” So visual.

Favorite moment:
Just the carelessness of his voice throughout.

Best for: A restful cup of cocoa after a whole day of frantic pre-Christmas pushing through a crowd of shoppers with their treasures.

Sidenote: I can only talk about a small selection of my Christmas favorites but “Must Be Santa” is totally on the playlist too.

Sounds of Music

Songbook: To Ramona

It’s Dylan Time. I promised you we’ll be revisiting him regularly and here we go again, also continuing the unnecessarily personal Songbook posts. This is one of my favorites, not a funny little thing to admire the dry humor of his observations but one of those songs that are there for you when you need them.

“To Ramona” by Bob Dylan

Album: Another Side of Bob Dylan

Year: 1964

Category: Best of Dylan

Why it rocks:
Maybe it’s the triple meter but this song rocks me like a lullaby in its simplicity and numbs existential anxiety (while also making me a little sad). This is not the most profound of Dylan’s songs but maybe the (relative) directness makes so many lines come to me so often and it has a certain spirituality to it. His voice has that intimate quality I love.

Favorite lyrics:
“And there’s no use in tryin’ / To deal with the dyin’ / Though I cannot explain that in lines” I find the strongest, of course, but it’s “Everything passes / Everything changes / Just do what you think you should do” that I usually remember.

Favorite moment:
I love the swaying rhythm introduced in the first line.

Best for: This time more seriously, this song helped me a few times in moments of pain so I say it’s best for when you need a bit of existential wisdom.

Sidenote: If R didn’t hate the name and if had a daughter, I think I’d call her Ramona because of this song.

Sounds of Music

Songbook: Man of Constant Sorrow

Let’s get serious guys: we will be talking lots of Bob Dylan here. Lots. Here’s one less conventional song for a good start.

“Man of Constant Sorrow” by Bob Dylan

Album: No Direction Home: Bootleg Vol. 7

Year: 1962

Category: Best of Dylan

Why it rocks:
Dylan’s bests are rarely covers but this one he completely makes his own (up to and including serious lyrics changes). It’s such a young Dylan, when he was flaunting the bad boy persona like nobody’s business and it’s fun to see him shifting the focus of this story into a more juvenile place where it’s all about a mysterious heartbreak. Also, I’ve always liked Dylan’s early harmonica (I mean since I taught myself to like it but it was so long ago it’s like in a different lifetime).

Favorite lyrics:
“I’ll say goodbye to Colorado / Where I was born and partly raised.” The “partly” is such a fun Dylan-like little shift. And people say he didn’t deserve the Nobel Prize. Heh. Basically, the best part of this lyrics is all the differences he makes to the classic version.

Favorite moment:
The last verse. But also, points for the long notes.

Best for: Arguments with people who think that version from that movie is better.


The Best of 2014

So, the uneven 2014 is coming to an end, which is as good an occasion as any (or, actually, better) to talk about the things that impressed me in the last twelve months.

Book of the year: The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. Somehow I managed to never have read Campbell before and I can’t say I expected overmuch from this transcript of a TV program that this book is but it really blew my mind, dude. Part philosophical and religious treatise, part loose ramblings about life, it has a strange, strange power to make you question things and maybe see them a little more optimistically (or, at least, bravely), even though it doesn’t seem to try to do that.

TV show of the year: The Americans have returned with another impressive, impressive season and Orphan Black was so much fun again but they will have to share the spot with a baby show Mozart in the Jungle. Now that everyone and your aunt is making scripted TV, Amazon has joined the race and it produces a couple of pilots that it later kills or develops, depending on unclear criteria. Ever since I saw Mozart‘s pilot I’ve been keeping my fingers crossed (and that’s a long time to do that) so they would pick it up and they did, and made a whole season – so yay.

Musician of the year: I discovered Langhorne Slim and Zaz and they both climbed fast up through my listening charts, dominating them completely, but the title – both for statistical and honorary reasons – has to go to Bob Dylan (as it could almost every year, I guess?). This year I’ve (re)listened to all his albums in reverse chronological order, even the 80s, which I had always skipped almost entirely before, and I discovered some gems I didn’t even know (I also discovered some things which prove 80s might not have been music’s best decade, Dylan’s music included).

Board game of the year: This would be Legendary, a cooperative game (always my favorite kind of game) in which you fight as Marvel superheroes (my favorite kind of superheroes, no question) against one threat or another. It’s dynamic, fun and so, so geeky!

Comic of the year: If we’re talking geeky, I guess of all this year’s offerings I enjoyed most All New X-men, continuing the great tradition of Morrison and Whedon and probably some other X-men writers I don’t know. (I might know too much about X-men for the comfort of an average person but I’m far from an expert, you see.) It has young Jean Grey and this is surely a fun idea.

Video game of the year: Marvel Puzzle Quest (this ends Marvel’s domination in this list, I swear). It’s basically a match-three puzzle game, which is a pretty boring kind of game to be honest, but it’s combined with gaining and leveling superheroes (of course) and it’s so unnaturally addictive that I think it might be a part of Marvel’s plan to dominate the world. Hmph.

I’m sure there are a few exciting categories missing (food of the year? pastime of the year? eh, maybe not that exciting) but I actually have plans for the night so have a great 2015 everyone, myself included!

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.

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 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.