Wednesday 4 July 2018

You're Killing Me

"Mack the Knife," as sung by Bobby Darin

I've talked about this song before (when I was celebrating the singer), but for some reason, earlier today something reminded me of this singer. Bobby Darin delivers such a crackerjack performance on this number you can almost forgive him for "If I Were a Carpenter" (I know he didn't write it, but still). When I was a little kid, "Mack the Knife" was a hit on the radio and was so different from all the Elvis (he was hardly any good by then) and Ricky Nelson and Fabian and Pat Boone (Pat Goddamned Boone!) that came through the tiny tin speaker of my pocket transistor radio. It was even one of the handful of 45s I owned. And my parents liked it, too, because it was a throwback to when they had time for dancing and singing themselves.

The players start out a little stiffly, but that changes after just a few measures, and if you're at all like me, you will be singing and dancing (or at least moving joyfully) before you're halfway in. If you feel up to it, try belting out the last iteration of ". . . back in town" along with Mr. Darin. You won't make it to the end, but you'll be in a good mood for at least half an hour. I'll take that any day. And it's all about a serial killer who preyed on the anonymous poor.

Great songs, huh? They're ruthless.

Saturday 9 June 2018

An Important Number*

"Sweet Old World," by Lucinda Williams

Lately, a couple of famous people have committed suicide.** One of them I'd never heard of (fashion), the other I had (food, travel). Everyone is asking why (me included), but the only people with the answers are the dead ones, and they're not talking. It's quite a fix for the rest of us since that kind of information could be useful some day -- not as a reason to do it, but as a reason not to.

It's a strange thing, being alive, and I think there's science enough to prove how unlikely it all is. There's probably also science enough to explain how songs soothe us the way they do as we walk along the edge of all that randomness without falling off. But I don't understand all that science very well.

What I do get is that in this song, Lucinda Williams is a clairvoyant messenger who understands the whys and the why-nots of being alive. If there's a sadder, wiser, happier (listen to the last little riff), more stunningly beautiful song sung in a more angelic voice that reveals more of the truth, I'd like to hear it. (And the band had better be perfect too.) Meanwhile, I'll keep listening to this one.

* ** 1-833-456-4566 (It's a suicide hotline available across Canada.)

Monday 14 May 2018

Grinning It Out

"Give Me One Reason," by Tracy Chapman , with Eric Clapton (and the soulful pros playing along)

At first, you don't get it: Ms. Chapman is singing a sad song but she can't stop smiling. Then you realize that she realizes she's singing one of her sad songs (and what a beautiful song it is!) with a band that has chops to spare, and with a guitarist who makes you think that maybe God is String Theory. (I think "Clapton is God" was a widespread graffito long ago and far away, in the 1960s, in London, England.) I don't know how to play the guitar (I don't know how to play anything), but Mr. Clapton does, and his guitar has got the blues nailed.

I recommend you watch the video for that entrancing and entranced smile that Ms. Chapman can't stop. But then you should listen to this four-plus minutes of blues brilliance while your eyes are closed. Your smile might or might not be as lovely as hers, but it'll definitely be as happy.

Monday 30 April 2018

Why I Feel Good About The Future

"Make Me Feel," by Janelle Monae

Do yourself a favour: Listen to this song while you follow the lyrics* because if you listen to it while you watch the video, you'll get distracted from the musical brilliance. (Of course, you won't be able to read all the lyrics anyway if, like me, you're the type to close your eyes when you start moving helplessly to such an overpowering groove.) Because the video is also brilliant, watch it, if you want to, at your second listen (believe me, there'll be a second listen).

They say that Frank Sinatra was a master of unorthodox phrasing, but there's no denying that Janelle Monae is his equal while she's singing this song.  Listen to her sing the word "questions," and the word "intentions," and the word "compression," and the word "confessions," and the word "stop," and the word "jean," and the word "shag," and the word "don't," and tell me she's not in touch with the fanciful possibilities of the English language and with the marvellous little surprises of musical syncopation.

You can hear James Brown and Michael Jackson in this song, I think. And Prince -- you can hear Prince, too (he's gotta be the source of that jangly rock guitar riff in the chorus that explodes at you out of nowhere). I imagine you can hear other performers as well, but I can speak only to what I know when I'm discussing music made by someone from a much younger artistic culture than mine. (Some of us lucky bastards aren't yet blind or deaf.)

But make no mistake -- this is all Janelle Monae's song. I suppose you could say it's just another irresistible funk number, and I imagine you could say its sexual charge is meter-breaking, and I wonder about how the accompaniment to the singer's stunning voice is produced (people? machines?), but what I really want to believe is that this number is about nothing more than being carried away by love . . . Wait -- "nothing more than"? Jesus, being carried away by love is everything. Janelle Monae, while she's feeling her everything here, makes us feel our everything, too, which is one of the great things that great singers do.

Monday 2 April 2018

Sometimes You Just Know

"I'll Take You There," by the Staple Singers

Because I'm certain non-material phenomena don't exist, "soul" is a word I like to use carefully. Like millions of others, I was brought up to believe that it denoted an actual entity that existed somewhere inside me, but also separate from me; unlike me, however, it would live through a blissful eternity if I behaved myself before I had to leave the scene. The whole scheme eventually struck me as unjust and nonsensical and I abandoned my belief in it a long time ago.

Singing isn't my new religion, but I love it infinitely more than I ever did that old religion. I find it infinitely more useful, too. And I think I get the use of "soul" when it comes to singing (and playing): it's artful and sincere, and it makes you and the singer(s) and player(s) ecstatic or sorrowful (mostly the former, in my experience).

Heck, I'm just running my mouth. Listen to this song, its soulful lyrics, its soulful players, its soulful singers, the soulful woman singing lead. You'll know what I mean.

(Of course, the joke's on me because I think they're all talking about heaven, and I don't believe in heaven.)

Wednesday 14 March 2018

A Different Dementian

"I Can't Forget," by Leonard Cohen

Earlier today, I had a fascinating experience. I had purchased a book of fairly sadistic-looking crossword puzzles, and soon after settling in with the first puzzle, I started thinking I'd already tackled it. I went to my pile of old (mostly solved) volumes and, sure enough, I came across one with the same damned cover as the one I'd just bought.

No big deal, really -- I'd just plow through the thing again because the fun with crosswords is in their doing, not in their doneness. Don't get me wrong -- I like to solve them, but if I come up short, I come up short. But here's the fascinating part of the experience: After almost completing the first one, I decided to see if my first stab at the thing had been more successful or less than my present effort . . . And it was exactly the same! Disappointment and relief at the same time: I hadn't become any smarter, but at least I hadn't gotten any dumber. But, Jesus in heaven, my memory -- it shouldn't be that faulty. 

What to do, then, but to listen to the great Leonard Cohen sing this song from thirty years ago? Like pretty well all his songs, this one has so much more in it than its uncomplicated aural beauty (that steel guitar -- oh, man, what a sweet buttery treat): It's got a regretful older guy, a warm city, and a truck, and the changing seasons, and an ever remembering, ever forgetting human brain. All in under five minutes.

I still get sad when I remember Leonard Cohen isn't here anymore. 

Thursday 22 February 2018


"Lawyers, Guns, and Money," by Warren Zevon

I like it when songs abandon love, their most common subject, for stories. Love is wondrous, of course, but sometimes you can get too much of a good thing.

This song tells a hilarious, cynical, very short story (it clocks in at under four minutes), with a really unreliable narrator -- he ain't nothing if not obvious. I think an aesthete might call it using broad, mordant brushstrokes. The broadness includes the raucous players, who sound like they're having the time of their lives. They're all pounding at their instruments with great wit and panache, and Mr. Zevon (goddam, I miss that unlucky bastard), does what he so often did so wonderfully while he was still here -- talk really clearly to us while also grunting and yelling and exclaiming with near-monosyllabic verve:  Hyeah! . . . Alright! . . . Huh! . . . Yes! . . . Unh! . . . Oow! . . . Yeh! . . . Yeh! . . . Yeh!
. . . Unh! . . . Alright!