Sounds of Music

Christmas Songbook: Blue Christmas

To celebrate Christmas, which is my favorite holiday bar none and I’m not ashamed to admit it, all December songbook posts will focus on, well, Christmas. Here’s a classic rendered newer:

“Blue Christmas” by the Lumineers

Album: Blue Christmas (single)

Year: 2016

Category: Christmas playlist

Why it rocks:
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Elvis version. It’s been on my Christmas playlist forever, together with a ton of other Elvis songs. But I really like the way the Lumineers do covers and this one particularly. The way he seems to force those words out talks about more heartbreak than Elvis ever intended for this song and the simple arrangement underlines the truth of the voice. It also does justice to the pretty, pretty melody of the song.

Favorite lyrics:
I like how “blue snowflakes” turn into “blue heartaches.” It makes no sense but is true to the character of the cover.

Favorite moment:
His voice on “you’ll be doooooing alright.”

Best for: Dropping exhausted after a whole day of pre-Christmas cleaning. But the closer you get to actual Christmas, the more you should switch to Elvis’ version.

Advertisements
Standard
Sounds of Music

Songbook: Scandalize My Name

If you know Ida Maria at all, that’s probably from her funny, irreverent I-guess-a-hit “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked,” which I listened to quite a lot. When I recently checked her profile on Spotify, I discovered her newest album, which, surprisingly, is a collection of American spirituals and it’s quite hard to get further from the “Naked” song than this.

“Scandalize My Name” by Ida Maria

Album: Scandalize My Name

Year: 2016

Category: Recent acquisitions

Why it rocks:
It’s a simple yet pure song and the raw arrangement brings the purity out. It’s not so much a religious song as a social commentary and Ida Maria’s rendition retains some of the resentment this song carries.

Favorite lyrics:
I don’t think any part stands out to me. It’s more about the music and her voice.

Favorite moment:
The way her voice gets stronger on “Now, do you call that religion?”

Best for: Late Sunday afternoon.

Sidenote: For a more typical rendition of the song be sure to check Paul Robeson’s version, which is also very good.

Standard
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.

Standard
Sounds of Music

Songbook: At Seventeen

If I’d known this song in high school I’d probably have checked the closet to see if Janis Ian was not hiding there. Just kidding, of course (I didn’t have a closet in my room) but some things in this song sounded uncannily true to me when I heard it for the first time – though not all of them, and I’m not saying which is which.

“At Seventeen” by Janis Ian

Album: Between the Lines

Year: 1975

Category: Classic charmers

Why it rocks:
For the reasons I hinted at in the introduction: it’s an incredibly well-put description of a certain kind of adolescence. It feels very personal and thus relatable. It creates a nostalgic feeling with its swaying bossa-nova tune but the words clearly oppose any nostalgia – and I’m all for this kind of tension in a song.

Favorite bit of lyrics:
We all play the game, and when we dare / We cheat ourselves at solitaire / Inventing lovers on the phone / Repenting other lives unknown / That call and say: ‘Come dance with me’ / And murmur vague obscenities.”

Favorite moment:
The introduction itself shows you immediately all the strength of the song. And all the moments when her voice gets stronger.

Best for: Feeling glad you’re no longer 17.

Standard
Sounds of Music

Songbook: Famous Blue Raincoat

For the commemoration of the first anniversary of Cohen’s death I have chosen one of my (many) favorites of his.

“Famous Blue Raincoat” by Leonard Cohen

Album: Songs of Love and Hate

Year: 1971

Category: All-time favorites

Why it rocks:
It’s love poetry made into music. It’s a complicated song with characters that seem to melt into one another but it has a characteristic Cohenian fatalism. And it has this gentle, swaying melody and crooning vocals that make you forget about the harshness of some of the lyrics.

Favorite lyrics:
“And you treated my woman to a flake of your life / And when she came back she was nobody’s wife / Well, I see you there with the rose in your teeth / One more thin gypsy thief.”
But also an epistolary song is an original idea by itself.

Favorite moment:
Perhaps the Lili Marlene verse.

Best for: Reflecting on relationships.

Standard
Sounds of Music

Songbook: New Lover

This is another light song with somewhat heavy lyrics. And despite its theme it always makes me smile.

“New Lover” by Josh Ritter

Album: The Beast in Its Tracks

Year: 2013

Category: Recent-years favorites

Why it rocks:
Supposedly it’s a song about Ritter’s divorce, which I don’t know if it’s true. But it is an extremely observant, self-aware song about heartbreak, which manages to still be funny in a dark way. I like the constant tug-of-war between the insincere good wishes towards the ex and the much truer bitterness of someone who got hurt. If you ever tried to be a bigger person and didn’t exactly succeed (not necessarily only in romantic situations), so many things will ring true here. This is a song that relies heavily on the words but the music is there to back them up and build the emotional tension between breezy and serious.

Favorite bit of lyrics:
This song has so many smart moments. Take “I feel low and mean / For accusing you of stealing / What I offered you for free” and the mischievous “Praise the fonder that still grows / On the absent heart in fields.” But I like the simple irony of this bit the most: “I got a new lover now / I know that she’s not mine […] / And she only looks like you / When she’s in a certain light.”

Favorite moment:
Possibly the fragment with “As you go from room to room / Dropping handkerchiefs and daggers / Smoking guns and other clues” (which is another great couple of lines, too).

Best for: Thinking of old, failed relationships that you no longer care about.

Standard
Sounds of Music

Songbook: The Ballad of John and Yoko

Continuing with classics. Last year I made my students design something inspired by one of the songs from the Beatles’ One and, let me tell you, they weren’t extremely happy. Young people these days, huh? But while not all songs from this album are equally exciting, here is one I’ve always liked:

“The Ballad of John and Yoko” by the Beatles

Year: 1969

Category: Classic charmers

Why it rocks:
I’m very ambiguous about Lennon (I hate “Imagine” with a passion, guys) but this song is such a different side of his, showing his cheekiness and a sense of humor – and who can remain indifferent to those? I always love me a song based on real events and this one does it with a bang and adds a happy, upbeat melody to that. It’s like a page from a diary that you’d not get to read.

Favorite bit of lyrics:
“The news-people said / ‘Say, what you doing in bed?’ / I said: ‘We’re only trying to get us some peace.'” I watched the documentary about the bed protest of John and Yoko as a teenager and it impressed me like crazy.

Favorite moment:
I like the casual impudence of the chorus (which is also so tragic in hindsight).

Best for: Historical study of the lives of icons of the 60s that you do while snapping your fingers.

Sidenote: The students’ projects turned out very well. I’ll show you some time on the other blog, I’m sure.

Standard