Tag Archives: writing lyrics

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

July – Low (repost)

It’s the first day of July. Here’s an appropriate post from the archive.

It’s not the speed, it’s the space. Low’s music in its Steve Albini years wasn’t defined by tempo, but by the vast, empty physical spaces implied by the minimal arrangements, even as the band gradually moved beyond basic guitar, bass and drums and incorporated subtle strings and electronics.

Low’s approach to record making was bold in its early years, too, but with Albini at the desk and a slightly bigger sound born of more hi-fi instrument sounds, the group were confident enough to widen their sound further than ever before. July sees Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s voices mixed hard left and hard right respectively and the centre of the stereo spectrum occupied only by Parker’s distant-sounding drums, Zak Sally’s bass guitar and Sparhawk’s warmly distorted electric.

While I admire Low’s aesthetic and their consistency, I admit that I don’t usually find their work as thrillingly powerful as I do on July, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I think it comes down to something I’ve written about before in the context of Rickie Lee Jones’s On Saturday Afternoons in 1963:

I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

July works the same way. On the page, the lyrics don’t like like much, a 5-minute, bung-it-down job:

Wait — it’s late
We’ve missed the date
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July

Now — at last
I hear them pass
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July
Then August, September
October, November or December

Yet when Sparhawk and Parker intone “They’ll never wake us in time” in solemn harmony (a similarly vague, elusive phrase as Jones’s “Years may go by”), it becomes incredibly powerful. It’s a perfect marriage of melody and meaning, as if the melody, just played on its own, without words, would mean the same thing, and all the band have done is make explicit what the tune itself is already saying. And while lyrics that raise questions but give no actual context that may provide an answer may seem vague and lazy, July gets away with it because those bare statements in the chorus are sung in such beautiful harmony. Who are “they”? Who are “us”? Wake from what? In time for what? The marriage of words and music is strong enough to make you care.

This is the best they ever did. If you’re new to the band, start with parent album Things We Lost in the Fire and work forward if you want to hear them add more stuff, or backward if you want to hear them at their most minimal.

https://songsfromsodeep.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/low.jpg?w=625
Low: l-r Sally, Parker, Sparhawk

July – Low

It’s not the speed, it’s the space. Low’s music in its Steve Albini years wasn’t defined by tempo, but by the emptiness implied by the minimal arrangements, even as the band were gradually moving beyond basic guitar, bass and drums and incorporating subtle strings and electronics.

Low’s approach to record making was bold in its early years, too, but with Albini at the desk and a slightly bigger sound born of more hi-fi instrument sounds, the group were confident enough to widen their sound further than ever before. July sees Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s voices mixed hard left and hard right respectively and the centre of the stereo spectrum occupied only by Parker’s distant-sounding drums, Zak Sally’s bass guitar and Sparhawk’s warmly distorted electric.

While I admire Low’s aesthetic and their consistency, I admit that I don’t usually find their work as thrillingly powerful as I do on July, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I think it comes down to something I’ve written about before in the context of Rickie Lee Jones’s On Saturday Afternoons in 1963:

I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

July works the same way. The lyrics, on the page, look like nothing, a 5-minute, bung-it-down job:

Wait — it’s late
We’ve missed the date
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July

Now — at last
I hear them pass
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July
Then August, September
October, November or December

Yet when Sparhawk and Parker intone “They’ll never wake us in time” in solemn harmony (a similarly vague, elusive phrase as Jones’s “Years may go by”), it becomes incredibly powerful. It’s a perfect marriage of melody and meaning, as if the melody, just played on its own, without words, would mean the same thing, and all the band have done is make explicit what the tune itself is already saying. And while it may seem lazy to write lyrics that raise questions but provide no actual answer, July gets away with it because those bare statements in the chorus are sung in such beautiful harmony. Who are “they”? Who are “us”? Wake from what? In time for what? The marriage of words and music is strong enough to make you care.

This is the best they ever did. If you’re new to the band start with parent album Things We Lost in the Fire and work forward if you want to hear them add more stuff, or backward if you want to hear them at their most minimal.

low

A new song – it’s good clean alternate-tuning, fingerpicking fun!

Gillian Welch, living in the now

Queen of the fakes and imitators
Time’s the revelator.

 Gillian Welch, 2001

Between 1996 and 2001 Gillian Welch largely abandoned the in-character, past-tense storytelling of her first two records and begun writing demotic lyrics in an unidentified but discernible ‘now’.

Between 1996 and 2001 Gillian Welch turned herself into (in my view anyway) the best songwriter in the world.

Are these two things related? And was the relationship between them causative, symbiotic or merely coincidental? And if causative, which was the cause and which the effect?

Playing music that places original songs within a traditional form and sound is not easy. At worst, it sounds like a pose; if the performer can’t bridge the gap between who he or she ‘really’ is and what they claim for themselves in song, the audience can become cynical and dismissive. Certainly some dismissed Welch in 1996. Ann Powers in Rolling Stone was negative about Revival:

[The album] is a handcrafted simulacrum of rural mysticism. Most of the songs place Welch and her songwriting partner, the guitarist and vocalist David Rawlings, in settings they could know only from reading James Agee and listening to Folkways recordings. […] Concentrate only on the sound, and these songs will haunt you; Welch’s musical precision is eerie, the mark of a true obsessive so deeply wedded to her subject that she has become it. Ultimately, though, Welch’s gorgeous testimonies manufacture emotion rather than express it.

Christgau even more so:

She just doesn’t have the voice, eye, or way with words to bring her simulation off. Unless you’re highly susceptible to good intentions, a malady some refer to as folkie’s disease, that should be that.

But these were uncharitable and unimaginative reviews, saying more about the reviewers than about the record. After all, Christgau never complained that John Fogerty hadn’t really been working for the man every night and day and he never claimed that The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down rang hollow because Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson hadn’t actually served on the Danville train. In fact, while neither Powers nor Christgau heard it, Welch was a young writer of tremendous promise and the album contained several undeniable successes.

What was really going on here was a willed failure on the part of some of her reviewers to suspend disbelief, a stubborn refusal to look away from the artist’s bio sheet. Consider an analogy: no actor can convince a viewer that she is the character she portrays on stage or screen if the critic simply refuses to let go of the fact that they recognise her face and know her real name long enough to actually engage with the performance. Yet Welch’s middle-class LA upbringing – her adopted parents were writers for the Carol Burnett Show – became something of an albatross.

Perhaps the reviews got to her, but in the lay-off between second album Hell Among the Yearlings (a record that still feels like the most thin and spotty album she’s made) and Time (the Revelator), her masterpiece, Welch had not only improved as a writer but had also significantly altered her lyrical style.

It’s not immediately apparent when you listen to it – because the songs are all so much more ambiguous than those on Revival – but there’s very little linear story-telling on Time (the Revelator), just meditations and recollections. And when the songs do gesture towards narrative, you’re only given a piece of it, from somewhere out the middle. It’s also a much more urban record than Revival and Yearlings. Here’s a passage from April 14th Part 1:

When the iceberg hit, oh they must have known,
God moves on the water like Casey Jones.
So I walked downtown on my telephone,
And took a lazy turn through the redeye zone.
It was a five-band bill, a two-dollar show.
I saw the van out in front from Idaho
And the girl passed out in the backseat trash.
There was no way they’d make even a half a tank of gas.

They looked sick and stoned and strangely dressed.
No one showed from the local press.
But I watched them walk through the bottom land
And I wished that I played in a rock & roll band.
Hey, hey, it was the fourteenth day of April.

This is a world away from ‘We lease 20 acres and one ginny mule from the Alabama Trust’.

*

So if it’s clear that her lyrics did change between Revival/Yearlings and Time (the Revelator), and you grant me that Time is the best record of the three, what part does the altered lyrical style play in making Time the best Gillian Welch album?

Revival showed an already highly developed sense of melody on Welch’s part, and the singing and guitar playing of her and partner Dave Rawlings was also highly impressive for a debut. But for a songwriter whose arrangements tend to be kept to two guitars and two voices, the only thing left that she could improve was her lyrics. And they did improve: more elusive, more allusive, and richer with subtext.

April 14th Part 1 is something of a test case here in that what we’re given is far less important than what we’re not. The song takes place in a recognisably modern world (mobile telephones, vans, bands playing low-rent shows), and Welch keeps drawing parallels with three different events that all happened on April 14th: the assassination of Lincoln in 1865, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the Black Sunday dustbowl storm of 1935.

Why is she alluding to these things, though? She goes to see a rock band and then goes to work, then bed – not the greatest day ever, perhaps, but a ‘ruination day’?  What have the events of her day to do with Lincoln, with a disaster at sea and with the Okies? Despite the references, the song is not about disasters; it’s about the mundane. Perhaps it’s about living out one’s mundane little life in the shadow of terrible events. Perhaps we are being led to conclude that something terrible has just happened to the narrator, or is just about to.

While they’re good songs, with lyrics appropriate to the feel of the music, the songs on Revival are a little neat, a little easy. Welch had a tendency to tie them up with neat bows: the narrator of Annabelle ends the song contemplating the girl’s life of continuing poverty and grief; the narrator of One More Dollar ends up broke and homeless. In the world that the songs have established these were not exactly unexpected endings, and not much was left to be imagined.

By Time, she’d developed the confidence to write songs that leave their questions unanswered. April 14th Part 1’s sister song, Ruination Day Part 2, does not resolve anything that its predecessor left hanging. In Ruination Day Part 2, the singer removes herself from the story and all that’s left are the three disasters and their consequences. It replaces sadness with anger, sweetness with bitterness, consonance with dissonance. It’s purposely lo-fi; the sound is edgy, filtered, straining. We are left once again to ponder the significance of that date, April 14th, without being told what it means to the singer.

Of course, some might consider raising these issues and leaving them unresolved to be a cop-out. I think, rather, it was a mark of how much Welch had matured as a writer that she was able to play this way and get away with it. Revival was a fine record, but in comparison to Time, it does feel just a little like she’s playing with stereotypes and well-worn stories, although the lyrics do not particularly harm the songs, which would be compelling on their musical merits alone.

Hers is an interesting progression, then, for a musician whose work was once so preoccupied with the past. Rather than continuing to work at achieving a sense of place and time (as Robertson did on the Band’s second album – and no one has come close to matching his work in that idiom), she instead returned to the world she lives in, rejecting the easy route of folksy archaisms and stock characters, and instead embracing contemporary language and situations.

Clive James once noted in regard to Sandy Denny’s writing the ‘awkward truth’ that ‘to separate yourself from contemporary life is no guarantee of achieving timelessness’. Welch has come nearest to timelessness when she’s done the reverse: set her songs in her own time. I’d argue that her decision to do so, conscious or not, was an important step in the creation of her magnificent early-noughties work. Time (the Revelator) may continue to cast a shadow over the rest of her career, but it’s the inevitable consequence of having created such a towering record.

Image

Gillian Welch, in the now. ©John Patrick Salisbury