Thursday, June 30, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 30: Your Favorite Song This Time Last Year

      Today's the last day of the 30 Day Song Challenge, and it's been a lot of fun for me. That's partly because I love music so much, and spending a whole month thinking about the different whys and wherefores that brought me to the songs that I love has indeed been a "challenge," but a thoroughly enjoyable one. This is also the first time that I've dedicated my blog entirely to one topic for such an extended period of time. I'd like to do something like this again in July, but I haven't yet found a 31-day worthy topic, so I'll leave the comments section open for suggestions. Maybe I'll aim for more modest challenges-- like 10- or 14-day ones.

      It was about this time last year that my very dear friend E introduced me to The (other) "King" Solomon Burke's excellent album Nashville. I've been a fan of Solomon Burke's Philly-soul sound for a long, long time, but I had no idea that he had recorded an album of Nashville (country) standards reinterpreted through that Philly-soul sound. The combination, as unlikely as it may seem, is a perfect one. And Burke's execution of it is pure sonic gold.

      The song I've chosen for today was most definitely my favorite song at this time last year. It's Solomon Burke's version of the old Tom T. Hall ballad "That's How I Got To Memphis." Here's a live version of Burke performing it (and it takes a little while to buffer, so be patient):

      Vezi mai multe

      I heard a few years ago that the city of Memphis is mentioned in more songs (over 1000 and still counting) than any other city in America. A well-deserved notoriety, in my view. I like this song because it's not sung from the point of view of a Memphian who loves Memphis, but rather from the point of view of someone who followed his heart, which demanded that he follow a Memphian back to Memphis. Burke's right, if you love somebody enough, you'll go wherever they want you to go. If that's how you got to Memphis, you should count yourself doubly lucky.

      Memphis has got a lot of problems, to be sure, but (as my friend Dr. Trott once told me) you can't really say you love a place until it's given you reason not to love it. The same goes for people. I think "That's How I Got To Memphis" manages to capture that insight about both places and people. I love Memphis all the more because it's given me plenty of reasons not to love it, and I don't think that's some kind of nativist sentiment on my part. I think you've got to spend the time and effort to see everything this city has to give... and that's a lot. Y'all should come here sometime and see for yourself.

      I'll just wrap up this 30 Day Song Challenge by saying that I count being from a city that is so thoroughly infused with music as one of the great serendipities in my life. That's not how I got to Memphis, but it sure is why I'm happy to stay.

      Wednesday, June 29, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 29: A Song From Your Childhood

      The television show that I loved the most as a child was a vaudeville-type show created by puppeteer Jim Henson called The Muppet Show. Some of my very best Muppet friends appeared on the show regularly: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzy Bear, The Swedish Chef, Rowlf the Dog, Statler and Waldorf (pictured left), Sam the Eagle and many, many more. Every week the show had a famous (non-Muppet) host but, to the child-me, none of the hosts ever seemed to be as famous as the Muppets themselves. The world of the show was, to the child-me, a completely real world where pigs and dogs and frogs and whatever Gonzo was could talk and where the soundtrack to everything was provided by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Eventually, the Muppets made it to the big screen in movies like The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan, and I love those movies now as much as I did as I child.

      Part of the brilliance of "The Muppet Show," I now realize, is that it was just as entertaining for adults as it was for children. Some of that had to do with its featured guest-hosts, who put themselves in the awkward and hilarious situation of having to talk to puppets, but more of it had to do with the archetypical characters created by Jim Henson. Each of the Muppets had a fully-developed personality that no doubt resembled some "real" person that you knew. Anyway, here's the theme song, which still makes me giddy-happy whenever I hear it:

      Maybe it's too "dated" at this point, but for those of you who are parents of small children, I highly recommend giving them a healthy dose of "The Muppet Show." I've seen some of the children's programming today and none of it seems as good as this classic.

      Tuesday, June 28, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 28: A Song That Makes You Feel Guilty

      Funny enough, I was just thinking about "a song that makes me feel guilty" a few days ago, when I noticed that the ice cream trucks in my neighborhood were playing "Camptown Races" and a bunch of other tunes that seemed to be taken from Foghorn Leghorn's Greatest Hits. My selection for today is another one the ice cream trucks were blaring (in their totally creepy, carousel-winding-down, kind of way), and I mentioned to a friend that it made me feel guilty. Or, I should say, it makes me feel guilty now. It didn't when I was younger.

      The song I've picked is "Dixie" also unfortunately known as the "Confederate Anthem." For most (white) people of my generation, this song is probably best known as the sound of TV's two lovable outlaws, Bo and Luke Duke, on the run. The Dukes of Hazzard drove a car (called the General Lee) that played the first few notes of "Dixie" when they blew the horn. I doubt I knew, back in my Dukes-fan days, that the lyrics to their horn sound were: I wish I was in the land of cotton. I probably did recognize the flag on the top of the General Lee as the Confederate flag, but I doubt I really knew what it meant. You see, I was in grade-school in the 80's and we didn't get a super-nuanced rendering of the Civil War in history classes, as far as I can remember. I mean, we certainly knew that the South lost and that it may or may not have had something to do with slavery-- and also that slavery was wrong-- but the idea that there might be a substantive connection between General Lee, the Confederate flag, the War of Northern Aggression, the sound of "Dixie" and the racism of people I actually knew quite simply never crossed my mind back then.

      When I got older, I learned better, of course. And that's why "Dixie" makes me feel guilty. Here it is:

      "Dixie" is a song left over from another embarrassing art form in American history: blackface minstrelsy. The song's original source is contested, but it's be re-written several times (in various gradations of "racist") over the years. Almost all versions of the song present themselves as anthems of Southern Pride, which could be a innocent demonstration of region-specific affection... but only if you don't know anything about the Civil War.

      Monday, June 27, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 27: A Song You Wish You Could Play

      Okay, so I actually can play the song that I'm selecting for today, but I play it badly. Despite my pretensions to the contrary yesterday, I'm not a very good guitar player. I never learned the scales, I don't know anything about musical theory, and I can't pick worth a damn. What I can do is good enough for rock n' roll, for the most part, but when it comes to playing slower songs with a lot of nuance, I just don't have the chops.

      One of the most frustrating things is to have a song that you can sing but can't play. This is one of those songs for me. If I had my druthers, I would be able to play not only the slow-pickin' parts of this song, but also that sweet slide. The sound of a slide guitar is, in my view, second only to the sound of a pedal-steel in mimicking the human voice. There's just something about that sound that wails and cries. It's beautiful.

      Speaking of wailing and crying, today's song selection is from Sugarland, whose lead singer Jennifer Nettles has a voice that I would easily cut off a limb to have. Sugarland does a lot of the kind of overproduced pop-country that shouldn't really count as country music (think: Lady Antebellum), but Nettles' voice redeems all of that for me. Anyway, here's their very best, "Very Last Country Song," from their 2008 album Love On The Inside:

      So, yeah, I can't play this in any way close to what might do it justice. But what an amazing song. There are a lot of jokes about country music-- what happens if you play a country song backwards? you get your job, your wife and your dog back!-- and I suppose that ridicule is somewhat earned. The great thing about "Very Last Country Song" is that it trades on all of the same stereotypes of country music, but does so with all of the affection of a true country music lover. And, come on, this is just one of the best choruses ever written:

      If life stayed the way that it was
      And lovers never fell out of love
      If memories didn't last so long
      If nobody did nobody wrong
      If we knew what we had before it was gone
      If every road led back home...
      This would be
      The very last country song.

      I suppose that would be nice if lovers never fell out of love and every road led back home and all that.. but, for my part, I sure would miss the country songs.

      Sunday, June 26, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 26: A Song That You Can Play On An Instrument

      Yesterday, I noted that I couldn't believe I made it 25 days without picking a Johnny Cash song. Today, I can't believe I made it 26 days without picking a Bob Dylan Song. Something must be wrong with this Challenge.

      Bob Dylan's songs were the first songs I learned to play on the guitar. I got my first guitar almost 20 years ago now. I had dropped out of college after my second year and was living in Boston at the time with a group of ne'er-do-wells, several of whom were in a band together. One of my roommates gave me a guitar in exchange for some rent money. (I still have that guitar, which I love dearly, though it's in significantly poorer condition after all these years.) I never really played any instrument as a kid-- I mean, I did massacre some songs on the recorder in grade-school music class, and I think I reluctantly took piano lessons for a short time when I was small-- but when I got my first guitar, I couldn't read music (still can't) and I didn't really know anything about it. But I wanted to play, and so I picked and strummed and winced and built up callouses, and eventually I got to the point where I could rightly pass as a guitar player.

      By the time I moved back to Memphis (the first time), I had learned enough guitar to semi-justify joining a band. Which I did. Then I started writing songs. For the next ten years or so, I played in various bands (of various qualities) all over Memphis. The bands I was in played at some of the very worst places in Memphis and sucked it up pretty badly, but my last band was quite good and had a regular Thursday night gig on Beale Street. (That last band even opened for Dr. John once at W.C. Handy Park!) All in all, it was a good run, a fine way to spend one's 20's, and something that I don't think I'll ever regret.

      That whole time-- in every band, at every campfire, during every pickers' night, even to this day-- I've been playing Bob Dylan songs.

      Most of Bob Dylan's songs aren't that difficult to play on the guitar, so it's not that much of an accomplishment to say that you can do it. But this song is one of the more difficult to play and it's the one that I'm most proud of being able to play well. It's also, not for nothing, one of his BEST songs. Here's Bob Dylan (né Robert Allen Zimmerman) doing "Don't Think Twice, It's Allright" from his 1963 The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan:

      The story I always tell about this song is that my good friend, Prof. Grady, once convinced me that this is the Saddest Song Ever. (You can read that story here.) Since I've said about all a person can say about the lyrics in this song, I thought today I would note the one musical moment that makes this song so great. In the lines right before "don't think twice, it's alright," there's a chord progression from the G to the G7 that is just soooooo perfect. Go back and listen to it again. Dylan's move from the major chord to the 7th exactly reflects the sentiment in those moments when it occurs. The story of the song is going along fairly predictably, when all of the sudden the 7th chord gives you a sonic hint that something unusual is about to sneak up on you. (Namely, the "don't think twice, it's alright" line.) For some reason, going from a G to a G7 always causes me to cock my head sideways. It's almost as if the very sound of it is like saying "hooooold on just a sec" or "wait a minute, whaaaaat?" or something like that. I suppose if I had any kind of technical knowledge about music, I could explain it better, but I don't. I just know it sounds right.

      The fact that playing this song made me think a lot more about how music and words should go together is one of the reasons that I like it so much.

      Saturday, June 25, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 25: A Song That Makes You Laugh

      I can't believe I made it 25 days into the 30 Day Song Challenge without picking a Johnny Cash song. I could probably do all 30 days of this Challenge ONLY picking Johnny Cash songs. Maybe I'll start over in July and do that.

      I suppose it's appropriate that I finally picked Johnny Cash on the day that I'm to select "a song that makes me laugh." The novice Cash fan may not appreciate just how funny his songs can be, what with all their drinking and philandering and incarcerating and repenting and killing men in Reno just to watch them die. But the truth is, Cash had a way of telling the stories of life's lesser moments with a healthy helping of... well, see the picture to your left. All it takes is a little irony in your lyrics, a little snark in your voice, a little twinkle in your eye and, all of the sudden, an execution song becomes downright amusing-- even when YOU are the one set to be hanged.

      That's the story of my selection for today. Poor Sam Hall, he killed a man (so they said) and a-swingin' he must go. But before he goes, he intends to give the Big Fat Finger to anyone and everyone who has come to look. Here's my choice, Johnny Cash's "Sam Hall" from his 2002 album The Man Comes Around:

      When Johnny sings "so I said, Sheriff, how are YOU?" I can't help but bust out laughing every time. And there's something about Sam Hall's declaration "I hate you one and all" that seems less the expression of a cold-blooded killer and more the expression of a frustrated 2-yr-old who's just been busted. Cash wrote a lot of "epic" stories during his time-- "Folsom Prison," "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," "Long Black Veil"-- but this is not one of them. "Sam Hall" is the story of a small, mundane, ordinary and thoroughly petty man who just so happened to do something noteworthy. The fact that Cash grounds the song in the personality of Sam Hall and not his actions is what makes it so funny, and so believable. For that reason, it belongs right up there with "A Boy Named Sue" as one of Cash's best.

      Johnny Cash was one of the greatest songwriters to have ever lived, in my view. He wasn't an innovative musician or even a great singer. At heart, he was an ordinary, rural, somewhat broken man who loved his pills and his bottle as much as his wife and his God. But he was emotionally plugged-in to all of the mistakes and missteps that befall our misbegotten species. Humanity-- a weak and assailable and resilient, but quite often very funny, group of talking animals-- was the bread and butter of Johnny Cash's art, and we're all better for it. I've said it before and I'll say it again: if God's speaks to humanity, He does so through Johnny Cash.

      Long live the Man in Black.

      Friday, June 24, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 24: A Song You Want Played At Your Funeral

      IT'S A TWO-FER TODAY in the 30 Day Song Challenge!! I just couldn't pick one so I'm giving you both of my picks for today. That may be kind of a sad commentary on the things I think too much about, since today calls for me to pick a song that I want played at my funeral... but, whatever. This has been the most fun category so far.

      And I'll go ahead and say that it was very hard for me, like a lot of people I'm guessing, to NOT choose "Another One Bites The Dust." Hey! They're gonna get you too!

      My first pick, I have to admit, is one that I stole from the early-80's movie The Big Chill. If you haven't seen that movie, you should watch it. Besides having a star-studded cast and being a pretty decent mid-life crisis existential flick, it's also got one of the best soundtracks of all time. The basic premise of the film is that a bunch of long out-of-touch adult friends have gathered for the funeral of their friend who has committed suicide-- and also who, by the way, is played in the film by Kevin Costner, although you only see him for a second (and in a casket). In the movie, this is the song that is played at his funeral. It's The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" from their 1969 album Let It Bleed. In case you've been living under a rock for the last 40 years and have never heard this song, here it is:

      Now, I was pretty young when I saw The Big Chill-- certainly not old enough to appreciate the delicious irony of having this song played at one's funeral-- but even then I remember thinking what a great song it was. And as weird as this sounds, I remember thinking what a great funeral song it was. Maybe it's that haunting boys' choir at the opening, I'm not sure. At any rate, I got older and "got" it eventually, and the selection only became more solidified in my mind. I suppose that I particularly like the "ah well, those are the breaks" kind of attitude behind playing this at your funeral. I like that it's unorthodox, maybe even a little ironic, and I like thinking that people might chuckle a little when it started to play. I mean, if you're going to leave people with one last memory of you, it might as well be funny.

      Which brings me to my next selection: this one is from the musical Chicago. If you don't know the story, it takes place during the Chicago 1920s, when the combination of liquor, celebrity, and jazz produced equal numbers of scandals and scoundrels. The protagonist is a young jazz singer facing trial for "accidentally" shooting her lover. She's placed her fate in the hands of a oil-slick lawyer who manipulates the newspapers, the jurors and the public and who makes a mockery of the entire judicial process. In this song, the lawyer and his (very obviously guilty) client are about to go into trial. She's worried that they can't win their case, but he knows they will. Why? Because he's going to give them the ol' "Razzle Dazzle." Here it is (the actual song starts about a minute in):

      It's all a circus, a three-ring circus. This trial, the whole world. It's all show business. That's what he tells his client when, quite literally, her life is on the line. Just give 'em the ol' razzle dazzle. Razzle dazzle 'em.

      I know it might seem a little cynical to want this played at my funeral, but I like it for the same irreverent feel that the Stones' song has. I mean, I don't want people to be all sober and sad at my funeral. I'd prefer they snicker a little and shrug their shoulders when they hear these songs and say to themselves, "well, she's got a point." You can't always get what you want. Might as well razzle dazzle 'em.

      Now that I have officially documented my funeral song selections, I expect all of you to make sure this happens.

      Thursday, June 23, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 23: A Song That You Want Played At Your Wedding

      I don't plan to ever get married, but that doesn't mean that I (like every other girl in America) haven't ever thought about what song I would want played at my wedding. When I was younger, I wanted my wedding song to be "Rainbow Connection" (though I prefer the Willie Nelson version to Kermit the Frog). At some point, I think I outgrew "the lovers, the dreamers and me" stuff, though I still thought it was possible that I might still marry at some point. After I got a little older, there was a long period that I wanted my wedding song to be the Dixie Chicks' "I'll Take Care of You," which I still think is a super-sweet and realistically romantic song. Then, for a whole lot of reasons, I guess I just stopped thinking about a wedding as a realistic-- or desirable-- thing for my life, and the whole idea of picking a wedding song just kind of fell by the wayside.

      Today's 30 Day Song Challenge made me realize that I hadn't really stopped thinking about it, though... because as soon as I read the prompt, I knew exactly which song I would want played at my wedding. I can't remember when I decided on this one since I can't even remember the last time I really thought about a wedding that might involve me. At any rate, this is the song that I would want. It's Percy Sledge's "Warm and Tender Love," which is on a lot of albums, including his 1990 The Best of Percy Sledge. Here it is:

      First of all, I love that there are practically no other lyrics to this whole song EXCEPT the inimitably sweet invitation to "let me wrap you in my warm and tender love." I'm not sure what else a person could want than that. Everything about this song is warm and tender: the sentiment, the organ, the back-up singers, the horns, and those sweet, sweet vocals of Percy Sledge himself. I know that, quite often, weddings are more about the families and friends and guests than they are about the betrothed, so I like the idea of playing a song like this that is both demonstrative of a powerful love and at the same time very, very intimate.

      So, if any of you out there were thinking of courting Dr. J, you better make your peace with Percy first.

      Wednesday, June 22, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 22: A Song That You Listen To When You're Sad

      Unlike yesterday, when I interpreted a "song that you listen to when you're happy" to mean "a song that makes you even HAPPIER," today I'm interpreting the 30 Day Song Challenge prompt in just the opposite way. When I think of the "songs that I listen to when I'm sad," I think that even though they're sad, they still tend to make me feel less sad when I hear them. Maybe misery does love company.

      I'm not going to go on and on again about how much I love sad songs. (I did that already on Day 4, if you're interested.) I will say that this particular song is not your garden variety sad song, despite the fact that it's subtitle is "Sad Song." Here it is, Otis Redding's "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)" from his posthumously-released album Dock of The Bay.

      I waited until too late in the day to get started on this selection, so I won't add a whole lot here, except to say that I like the fact that Otis' "sad song" is also a sing-a-long song. That whole "my turn" and "your turn" stuff he does is very comforting, I think, and whenever I hear it I am reminded that sadness is something that we ought to share with others more.

      Also, those horns. THOSE HORNS. Yes, please.

      Tuesday, June 21, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 21: A Song That You Listen To When You're Happy

      The prompts for today and tomorrow's 30 Day Song Challenge seem a bit repetitive to me. You may remember that back on Day 3 and Day 4, we were supposed to pick a "song that makes you happy" and a "song that makes you sad," respectively. And now, on Days 21 and 22, we're to pick "a song that you listen to when you're happy" and "a song that you listen to when you're sad." Since I'm trying to take this Challenge seriously, I've been struggling to figure out what the difference is between a "song that makes me happy" and a "song that I listen to when I'm happy." I've decided the latter must be a song that makes you happi-ER, since it's something that you choose to listen to when you were already happy and I think it's safe to assume that nobody reaches for his or her iPod in order to become sad.

      Now, that's a challenging pick. I mean, I've got to find a song with a whole load of happiness in it. So much happiness, in fact, that if I was already happy I would not only listen to it, but get happier doing so.

      I'm pretty confident that this one does the trick. It's on my "Driving" playlist that I mentioned the other day (on Day 18), definitely a roll-down-the-windows and crank-it-up summer Car Song. It's also one of those songs (like Al Green's "Love and Happiness" or the Stones' "Beast of Burden") that is recognizable right from the opening lick, which in this case is a super-groovy one. Here it is, The Staples Singers' "I'll Take You There" released as a single on Stax Records in 1972:

      I mean, who doesn't get happier thinking about a place where nobody's crying, nobody's worried, there's no lying to the races, and where The Staples Singers are going to take you? (Though there is that weird line about "ain't nobody smiling," too. I never really understood that. Can someone explain it to me?) I saw Mavis Staples perform this here in Memphis a few weeks ago, and I can verify that this song makes a LOT of people happy. Once she got going, concertgoers young and old all threw their heads back and their hands up, starting swaying side to side, and sang along the "I'll Take You There" lines with full abandon. It was about as close to church as I've ever been at a concert.

      As a matter of fact, I'm listening to the song right now as I write this entry. And, yup, sure enough, I definitely feel happier.

      Monday, June 20, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 20: A Song That You Listen to When You're Angry

      I almost listed today's selection on Day 14 for the "song no one would expect you to love." Like 50 Cent (who I chose on Day 14), I'm guessing that most people wouldn't expect me to love Jay-Z-- or his better half, Beyonce-- as much as I do. Oh, but I do love them both.

      Today's prompt for the 30 Day Song Challenge is something that I can honestly say I've never thought much about as a manner of categorizing music. Since I'm way past my 20's now, I just don't spend a lot of time being angry anymore. It's a complete waste of emotional energy as far as I'm concerned, and it does way more harm to me than it does to whomever or whatever might have made me angry. Even in those (increasingly rare) moments when I find myself succumbing to protracted anger, I don't generally direct that at music. Even still, I suppose that I could think of songs that would definitely make me feel better (in a cathectic, or at least cathartic, kind of way) should I find myself in a white-hot rage.

      Obviously, I've never experienced anything like the problems Jay-Z recounts in "99 Problems" (from his 2003 The Black Album), but inasmuch as anger-- especially anger of the righteous indignation sort-- seems to be a universal experience that we all share, this is my selection for today. (Fair warning, this is NSFW.)

      I wish all of the people who hate this song because of the "but a b*tch ain't one" line would listen to the rest of the song. If you haven't paid attention, it's obvious that Jay-Z isn't celebrating not having a girlfriend. In fact, in the last verse, he mercilessly ridicules the man who thinks his problem is his "b*tch." Those guys, who think that "strong-arming" women makes them hard have completely misunderstood what their REAL problems are. Suffering under what Frantz Fanon would call the "Negro myth" in an anti-black social structure like the one we live in-- now THAT'S a real problem, according to Jay-Z. It's (at least) 99 problems, in fact. And a b*tch ain't one of them.

      What makes this a good song to listen to while you're angry is not only the infuriating content, though. It's also that vitriol-driven, thumping, driving, almost speaker-buzzing bassline. The music practically growls for you. Also, there's something about the tone of Jay-Z's voice that has always sounded to me like he's got his head cocked sideways, eyebrows raised, shoulders scrunched-up, like he's saying "whaaaat?" no matter what he's actually saying. In general, I think that describes my affective posture when I'm angry-- a sort of "wtf is wrong with the world?" stance. Jay-Z pulls it off a lot better than I can, which makes him a good choice for vicariously expressing my occasional indignation that life doesn't always play out like I drew it up in the locker room. "99 Problems" is good for reminding oneself that, quite often, the things we end up pointing our finger at for getting our blood boiling aren't the real things to be angry about. At any given time, we've probably all got at least 99 problems, and often what (or who) gets the brunt of that anger likely shouldn't.

      Sunday, June 19, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 19: A Song From Your Favorite Album

      One of the terrible things that happened to music after the introduction of the iPod was that people stopped buying-- and listening to-- whole albums. Most people get their music one track at a time these days, which unfortunately encourages artists to produce hit "singles" and discourages them from producing albums with some kind of thematic or sonic coherence. (The other thing that disappeared with albums was liner notes, a very specific and unique genre of historical and aesthetic writing that I miss very much.) With the exception of a few rap or hip-hop artists who regularly produce "concept albums," and also a few singer-songwriters whose dedication to authenticity keeps nostalgia alive, the true "album" is becoming more and more of an anomaly... which is a sad thing.

      Obviously, I have a lot of "favorite albums," but most of them are ones like Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde or the Rolling Stones' Beggar's Banquet or Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger. That is to say, most of them are at least 30 years old. So, for today's Challenge, I tried to find a favorite album that is more recent. I should say at the outset that, for me, an great album must be more than simply a collection of great songs. It needs to have some kind of internal logic. It needs to be something that one not only wants to, but also feels obligated to, hear all the way through (and, usually, in order). It needs to have its own emotional center. And, of course, it needs to be something that one plays over and over and over and over again.

      Ryan Adams' second solo album Gold is one of those albums for me. It came out in the third week of September 2001 and, as a result, the first track on the album-- a love song dedicated to "New York, New York"-- became an immediate hit in the midst of our national post-9/11 trauma. There's not a single bad song on this album, but the following is one of my favorites. Here's "Gonna Make You Love Me More":

      Alt-country music fans are really divided about Ryan Adams, despite the fact that he is not only the heir apparent to the Americana Throne but also a bona fide musical prodigy. In the last decade or so, Ryans' has produced albums at an astonishing rate, resulting in what many judge to be a fairly mixed bag in terms of quality. I'm a real fan, though. I think he's one of the best songwriters of my generation. This album and this song are good evidence of why.

      It's not easy to say what makes Gold hang together as an "album" so well. That's part of the reason why I like it-- it requires some thought. But if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that all of the songs on Adams' Gold demonstrate a sort of devil-be-damned attitude towards love. This song in particular is one that paints a tenuous, even treacherous, picture of the world in which lovers find each other. It's a world with riot in the streets, cops with guns, amphetamines, dancing idiots, and where the Lord will have His way. But what is the consequence of all that uncertainty, danger, risk and madness? Well, it's only gonna make you love me more.

      I imagine that, like everything else with Ryan Adams, this kind of sentiment will divide people. There will be those who don't find his melodramatic mise-en-scène attractive at all; they'll see it as reckless and foolhardy and destined for disaster. (They'll probably be right, for the record.) And there will be others, myself included, who find the whole combination of love & danger to be irresistibly endorphin-producing. As I said on Day 1 about Mick Jagger's "Beast of Burden," I'm really enamored with the coincidence of braggadocio and vulnerability in songwriting. Ryan Adams' chorus on this song hits just the right spot:

      This old world, well, it was mine to take
      Faith can keep you warm, but I'll teach you how to shake
      I'll come to you like a little girl
      It's only gonna make you love me more

      The whole of Gold manages to corral this sort of emotional ambivalence in an utterly satisfying way. And, because Adams' is a brilliant songwriter, he is able to do it with driving musical urgency (like in this song) just as well as he is able to do it with measured, gentle ballads (as in "When The Stars Go Blue"). As a result, I find it very difficult to listen to only one song on this album. Each one makes me want to listen to the whole.

      And THAT is what makes a great album.

      Saturday, June 18, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 18: A Song You Wished You Heard On The Radio

      Okay, I'm going to say it: the categories for the 30 Day Song Challenge are starting to suck a little. ( "A song you wished you heard on the radio"? C'mon now. Puh-lease.) I've looked ahead and, fortunately, the prompts get better, so hang in there.

      Here's what I'm going to assume about today's prompt: the creators of the 30 Day Song Challenge must think that "what we listen to on the radio" basically amounts to "what we listen to in the car." So, I'm assuming that the song we "wish we heard more on the radio" is going to be something like the song we wish we heard more often while we were driving. That's about all the sense I can make of this category.

      On my iPod, I actually have a playlist entitled "Driving Music"-- and it's exactly that. It's what I listen to when I drive: a whole collection of great Car Songs. I mean, Roll-Down-The-Windows, Bang-On-The-Steering-Wheel-Like-A-Snare-Drum, Flash-The-Rock-Horns and Sing-Like-The-People-In-The-Next-Lane-Can't-Hear-You songs. If there's one song on that list that I wish I heard more often on the REAL radio, it's the following.

      Here it is, John (Cougar) Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane" from his 1982 album American Fool:

      As I've said many times before, Mellencamp's line "sucking on chili dogs outside the Tastee Freeze" is one of the best ever written. And, as a whole, the story of "Jack and Diane" is a really great, really well-written story. Some of the lines not involving chili dogs or the Tastee Freeze are equally memorable: like "dribble off those Bobbie Brooks / let me do what I please" or "Jackie sits back, collects his thoughts for a moment / scratches his head and does his best James Dean." But I suppose the reason I wish I heard this song more on the radio is because of what always seems to me like the unexpected turn in the song, when it goes from being a sweet ballad about teenage love to a full-on existential anthem.

      So let it rock, let it roll
      Let the Bible Belt come and save your soul
      Hold on to sixteen as long as you can
      Changes come around real soon
      Make us women and men

      That's just great, simple and true, songwriting. And it sure doesn't hurt that it's preceded by a musical break that makes for a perfectly melodramatic air-drum solo in the car. I wish I heard more songs like "Jack and Diane" on the radio, in the car.

      Last summer, I saw John Mellencamp (with Bob Dylan) at an outdoor concert in Oregon. It was a beautiful, cool summer night in the Pacific Northwest and both Mellencamp and Dylan were in fine form. Unfortunately, however, Mellencamp never played "Jack and Diane." That still seems wrong to me. But I realized during that show just how many great Americana songs Mellencamp has written, many of which have the same rootsy feel as "Jack and Diane" and almost all of which are examples of Mellencamp's truly impressive storytelling skills. He played "Little Pink Houses" and "Small Town" and "Hurts So Good" and even a few from his new album, including the very excellent "Save Some Time To Dream." Mellencamp has a way of telling sad stories in a hopeful way, and hopeful stories with a heavy dose of sadness, just like he does in "Jack and Diane." What is consistent among all of them, I think, is a kind of matter-of-factness that celebrates the celebration of simple life, warts and all.

      Oh yeah, life goes on. Long after the thrill of living is gone.

      Friday, June 17, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 17: A Song That You Hear Often On The Radio

      Like most people, I don't listen to the radio as much as I used to. I do listen to NPR every morning as I'm getting ready, but as soon as the news programming is over I usually plug in my iPod. The same is true in my car. However, when I am listening to radio in my car, it's almost always one of two stations: either 94.1 WKQK (which is basically an oldies/classic rock station) or 92.1 (which is the Rhodes Radio station). As a rule, I find most DJ's pretty annoying-- with the exception of the Rhodes Radio DJ's, many of whom are quirky and endearing-- and there isn't much that is played on the radio that I don't already have in my iPod. So, today's challenge is a little hard, since I don't think that what one "hears often on the radio" really means all that much anymore.

      Nevertheless, the song I chose today IS a song that I hear often on oldies/classic rock radio when I'm listening. It's from one of my favorite bands of all time, Three Dog Night. I feel pretty confident that there aren't many people who don't know at least a handful of Three Dog Night's songs, even if you don't know that they're Three Dog Night songs. They produced so many good ones, and their songs seems to capture the sound of at least a decade-long slice of Americana. Here's one of Three Dog Night's better-known tunes, "Joy To The World" from their 1971 album Naturally:

      I grew up as a PK (for the uninitiated, that means "Preacher's Kid") and so there's a little soft spot in my heart for this song in particular. When I was younger, I was exposed to more than my fair share of gospel/church music, but at home my mom and dad pretty much raised us on "oldies," especially the music of Motown, Creedance Clearwater Revival and Three Dog Night. In particular, on Sunday mornings, we would listen to this music (and ONLY THIS MUSIC) as we were getting ready for church. The consequence of that was, as my mother tells it, when we were children and someone asked my younger brother and I to sing "Joy To The World" we would begin by shouting: JEREMIAH WAS A BULLFROG! HE WAS A GOOD FRIEND OF MINE!

      Not exactly what most people would expect from Preacher's Kids, to say the least.

      Since I'm on the topic of "oldies" music, I want to register a longstanding complaint about how this gets played on the radio. To me, "oldies" and "classic rock" are genres that have a very particular musical sound and belong to a very particular historical period. Nowadays, I will occasionally hear things like Pearl Jam or Nirvana on the "oldies" station and it really does drive me cuh-razy. Here's the thing: "oldies"/"classic rock" does NOT mean "anything that is more than 20 years old." It means something that IS or SOUNDS LIKE the music of the 60's and 70's (maybe early- to mid-80's). I'm talking about CCR and Three Dog Night and the Rolling Stones and Cream and Buffalo Springfield and Fleetwood Mac and The Mamas and The Papas and Steppenwolf, maybe the Beach Boys, maybe even some early Aerosmith. But make no mistake about it, Pearl Jam is and will NEVER BE "oldies" or "classic rock." We've just got to have standards, people.

      [Climbing down off of soapbox now]

      Back to Three Dog Night: I'll just say in conclusion that I think "Joy To The World" has one of the best lyrical lines in classic rock music-- second only to John Cougar Mellencamp's "sucking on chili dogs outside the Tastee Freeze"-- when they sing:

      If I were the King of the world, I tell you what I'd do
      I'd throw away the cars and the bars and the wars,
      And make sweet love to you

      For my part, I'd probably want to keep the bars... but otherwise Three Dog Night gets an AMEN! from me on that one.

      Thursday, June 16, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 16: A Song You Used To Love But Now Hate

      Let me just say at the outset that the ONLY reason I didn't choose Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" for today is...

      Wait, I'm not sure... can we pick two?

      I used to love "Brown Eyed Girl" until I heard every cover band in the country massacre it and had to choke back throw-up in my mouth as tone-deaf bar crowds everywhere shouted along to the "sha-la-la-la-lala-lala-tida" parts. But I suppose the truth is that even still, I like it when it comes on the radio AND ONLY VAN MORRISON IS SINGING IT. Let me just offer an unsolicited PSA here and encourage all of you to never, EVER, sing along to "Brown Eyed Girl." Just don't.

      I'm not picking "Brown Eyed Girl" today, but I'm picking a different song for a similar reason. That is, I'm picking a song that I used to love until someone else took it over and ruined it for me. The ruinous agent in this case is none other than the Madame of the Illiterati, Sarah Palin. And the song is "Redneck Woman" by Gretchen Wilson (from her 2004 album Here For The Party). Here's Gretchen Wilson:

      And here's Sarah Palin (and a bunch of other mouth-breathers with no rhythm, style or, from the looks of it, detectable pulse) ruining it:

      You may remember that Sarah Palin began her all-out assault on this otherwise really fun song during her campaign in 2008. I think she thought it was some kind of a "Main Street" anthem, connecting her with the "real America," ya know? But the truth is that I don't care how many weirdly-named children she produces or how much 5th grade history she misremembers or how many moose (mooses?) she shoots or how few newspapers she reads, Sarah Palin has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING IN COMMON with the hell-raising, honky-tonking, neighbors-be-damned raucousness of Gretchen Wilson's "redneck woman." Sarah Palin is a Stepford Wife, if only the Stepford Wives were as dumb as a bag of hair. And actually real.

      [Shudder to think]

      There are lots of reasons to hate Sarah Palin, but ruining "Redneck Woman" is pretty close to the top of the list for me. I really did love this song when it first came out, but now it's impossible for me to hear it and NOT think of The Alaskan Freak Show. There are many things (most things) about the stereotype of "redneck" that I wouldn't want to embrace, but Gretchen Wilson's song captured that little corner of country-fried provincialism that can be more than a tad endearing. I mean, I'll admit it: I do say "hell yeah" and "yee-haw." Sometimes those are the only things that fit. They're Southernisms that have their own irreplaceable place. It's like "fixin'," about which I will maintain to my dying day that there is no adequate English equivalent.

      Seriously, damn you , Sarah Palin. As if it wasn't enough for you to make a complete mess of American history and rudimentary vocabulary, you had to go ahead and co-opt one of the better country-pop tunes in the last decade. This is something I cannot forgive.

      Wednesday, June 15, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 15: A Song That Describes You

      We're halfway through the 30 Day Song Challenge today. Thanks to those of you who've been hanging in so far.

      Today I'm supposed to post a "song that describes me." Before I do, I just want to offer something like a preemptive apology for my lack of elaboration on this particular selection. You see, this blog has never really been anything like online "diary" for me. Although I try not to be too impersonal with the content here, you shouldn't hold your breath for anything deeply revealing. Asking someone to choose a song that describes him or her, in my view, is a pretty personal question. So, I'm treading lightly today.

      There was absolutely no question in my mind about which song I would choose for this category. It's Jackson Browne's "Love Needs A Heart" from his 1977 album Running On Empty. I particularly love this performance, which is from a 1978 live concert at Shepherd's Bush Theater in London. Anyway, here it is:
      And that's all I have to say about it.

      Tuesday, June 14, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 14: A Song That No One Would Expect You To Love

      It's Day 14 of the 30 Day Song Challenge, and I'm guessing that I've revealed enough about my musical tastes by now for there to be several songs that "no one would expect me to love." For those of you who were looking for a complete U-turn from my selections on Day 2 ("least favorite song") and Day 12 ("song from a band you hate"), sorry to disappoint but there's no Toby Keith or The Doors here today.

      Today is one of the more interesting categories so far, because it requires me to step outside of myself and try to think about what others think about what I think about music. And, given that others know that I think a lot about music, I fear that this requires me to think about what others think about me, my tastes, my prejudices and biases, even my own image of myself as a music-lover. (Meta-meta post here, for sure.) As it turns out, I think that today's selection goes a long way toward upsetting the picture I've presented of myself so fat in the Challenge. This is a song from a genre of music that I haven't featured, but which I listen to a lot. It's also from an artist who I don't think I've ever mentioned before on this blog, but all of whose albums I own (and listen to a lot).

      Let me just go ahead and kill the suspense. Here's one of my favorite songs by 50 Cent (featuring Olivia), "Candyshop," from his 2005 album The Massacre:

      I'm guessing that most people who only "know" me through this blog would be surprised to learn that I love 50 Cent. I pretty regularly sing the praises of roots music (country, blues, rock-n-roll), but don't often enough write about the rap and hip-hop artists that I also love. But even if you may have guessed that I like rap and hip-hop, and even if you guessed that I like 50 Cent, I'm still betting you didn't guess that "Candyshop" was something I'd like.

      Here's why I think no one would expect me to love this song. First, it could be heard as more than a little sexist. The video doesn't help that much, being set in what looks to be a modern-day brothel and suggesting that the ladies are the "candy" in that "candyshop." In my defense, I'll just say that it's not clear to me that anyone is being objectified more than anyone else in this song. Olivia certainly is meant to be the candy, but 50 pretty much reduces himself to a lollipop. So, I'll call that one a draw.

      Second, it's a pretty straightforwardly sexual song. Like, awesomely nasty sexual. I mean, sure, there's the whole extended metaphor of the "candyshop" (and 50's "lollipop"), but when he says "if you be a nympho, I be a nympho"-- well, I think at that point the metaphor has been dropped as fast as 50 and Olivia's pants. ("Soon as I come through the door she get to pulling on my zipper / It's like a race who can get undressed quicker.") Now, there's a lot of R&B music that I love that is equally sexual, but it tends to present its content under a slight cover... with the obvious exception of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" or "Sexual Healing," that is. If you were of the opinion that I don't like these songs, you were just wrong.

      Finally, I'm guessing that most people wouldn't expect me to love a song by 50 Cent, who has a reputation for being violent and misogynistic and homophobic. Well, I don't particularly like Toby Keith, either, though I like his music. And my favorite artist of all time, Johnny Cash, was no angel. Hell, I even like a couple of Stanley Kubrick's and Lars von Trier's films... so I know how to separate the art from the artist.

      Anyway, I love "Candyshop." Sue me.

      Monday, June 13, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 13: A Song That Is A Guilty Pleasure

      Oh man, seriously, I love ABBA soooooo much. No joke. I once said that if I were ever to get a tattoo, I would have "Super Trouper" tattooed on my shoulder. (For the record, no tats here. My skin remains as clean as the driven snow.) I kind of wish I did feel guilty about my ridiculously unrestrained ABBA fandom, but I don't. Not really. ABBA was not only one of the most iconic bands of the disco era, but also one of the best.

      (An aside: Wikipedia explains "disco" as a musical genre that "had its roots in clubs that catered to African-American, gay, psychedelic and other communities" in NYC and Philly in the late 60's and early 70's. Make of that what you will.)

      Anyone who had the grave misfortune of not already being familiar with ABBA was certainly relieved of that in the last few years as a result of the film and Broadway hit Mamma Mia!, which features the band's music. (The best film featuring ABBA's music will always be Muriel's Wedding, though. One of my favorites.) As an unapologetic ABBA fan, I was glad to see their recent revival, if only because a new and even younger generation now gets to experience all of their chintzy, glittery, bell-bottomy awesomeness. And the guilt that comes along with it. I'm not sure why everyone feels like they should feel guilty about loving ABBA. It's the same way with Neil Diamond, I think, who is equally undeserving of that kind of self-loathing. The fact is, ABBA gave us some great music with great stories. They make people get up and dance. They practically define an era of grooviness. And besides, they're probably the only Swedish band you know!

      Still, if I had to pick a guilty pleasure from this already guilt-laden band, it would be the following. Here's ABBA performing their lesser-known "Fernando," which in 1975 was their first non-album hit, but which appears on their 1992 compilation ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits:

      I mean, come on. Even as an ABBA lover, I find myself thinking: how in the HELL did this ever make it onto the pop charts??!!

      Here's the thing: "Fernando" is not a song, it's a Tolstoy novel. It's got star-crossed lovers, it's got guns and cannons, it's even got the Rio Grande. For god's sake, there's REVOLUTION in the air! (Please oh please let me be a part of whatever liberty is won by this song!) But even I'll admit that it's about as CHEESY as they come. I suppose it's the sweeping, world-historical pretense of the song that makes me feel a little guilty for loving it so much. Ah well, I do love it so.

      If I had to do the same again, I would, my friend, Fernando.

      Sunday, June 12, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 12: A Song From A Band You Hate

      I don't actually "hate" a lot of bands, mostly because I don't really listen to bands that I don't like long enough to log the emotional time it takes to generate real hatred. For today's 30 Day Song Challenge selection, I was going to pick a song by Creed... but then I figured everyone with any kind of musical taste at all hates Creed, so what's the point? So instead I'm picking a band that I've actually put some effort into disliking: The Doors. Why it is exactly that I dislike The Doors so much, and Jim Morrison in particular, is kind of a mystery even to me. In general, I'm a fan of a lot of music that is very much like theirs. I like classic rock-n-roll and, when I'm listening with my most unbiased and sympathetic ears, I can hear in The Doors' sound a lot of what I like in some of my favorite bands. There's a little bit of The Who sound, a little bit of The Velvet Underground, a little bit of Cream, and I like all of those bands. So what is it that just turns me off to The Doors?

      I suppose a lot of it has to do less with The Doors' sound than with the iconographic status of images like the one above, which have made Doors' front-man Jim Morrison into something like a latter-day saint. It may also be a generational thing. Oliver Stone's movie "The Doors" (starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison) came out in 1991. I was about at that age when it's very important to decide what you think is "cool" and what you think isn't, and it seemed to me at the time that everyone thought The Doors were the coolest. A lot of people I knew then fell face-forward into hippie nostalgia, despite the fact that we were all too young to know anything about the kind of heavily-drugged hard-livin' that constituted Morrison's tragically truncated life. We weren't even old enough to understand nostalgia, for goodness sake. Still, the posters of Morrison and The Doors went up on everyone's wall... and I started to dislike them.

      Here's Morrison in action, performing The Doors' "Touch Me" from their 1969 album The Soft Parade:

      I can't really blame anyone for liking The Doors. They're not awful. Maybe it's not so much that I hate The Doors as I hate the way people love The Doors... because I don't think they love The Doors as much as they love the tragic story of Jim Morrison. Most of the hardcore Doors fans that I've met harbor a not-so-secret Christ complex. They think of themselves as artistic geniuses, sent to rescue the rest of us from our mundane, suburban, bourgeois and sober ordinariness. They're "misunderstood." This world is not their home. They are defined in equal measures by hubris and hamartia. And they secretly pine for the inevitable tragedy that will befall them, after which we can bemoan their passing greatness at their graves.


      The way I see it, almost everyone has some tragedy that he or she loves. (Yes, I'm talking to you, Jeff Buckley fans.) For whatever reasons, Morrison's is just not a tragedy that moves me. And, unfortunately, The Doors catch the brunt of my irritation at everyone else's decision to drink the Kool-Aid.

      Saturday, June 11, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 11: A Song From Your Favorite Band

      Well, no surprises today for the 30 Day Song Challenge. My favorite band of all time is the Rolling Stones. I picked their song "Beast of Burden" on Day 1 of this Challenge, when the rule was to post your favorite song. So, my song choice for today is, I suppose, another favorite song from the Stones. There are just SO MANY good ones to choose from that I tried today to avoid the obvious choices. So, no "You Can't Always Get What You Want" or "Honky Tonk Women" or "Brown Sugar" or "Under My Thumb." each of which are great examples of what makes the Stones so great. Instead, I'm going with one of the lesser-known hits. And also one, by the way, that explains why I chose that disgusting photo to your left.

      Despite being a Stones fan for a long while, I wasn't actually familiar with the song I'm choosing today until a few years ago. My good friend and colleague, Prof. Grady (also a Stones fan), introduced me to it. Weirdly enough, I didn't listen to the Exile on Main Street album that much for many years, though after being turned on to it by Prof. Grady, I participated in a contest sponsored by No Depression magazine pitting the Beatles' White Album against the Stones' Exile on Main Street album. (You can read my entry here: "Why Exile on Main Street Gets My Rocks Off".) Since then, this song has been put on regular rotation at guitar nights among me and my friends. It's easy to play, it's got a great chorus, and it's a genuine sing-along song.

      Here it is, the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Virginia" from their classic 1972 album Exile on Main Street:

      Okay, first a funny story about this: For some reason, I cannot help but confuse this song with the Allman Brothers' "Sweet Melissa." That's not because the songs are anything alike, obviously, it's only because the titles are alike. So, for years my friend Prof. Grady has told me that his favorite Stones song is "Sweet Virginia" and I keep thinking of "Sweet Melissa," which is kind of embarrassing since I'm fairly positive that Prof. Grady is NOT an Allman Brothers fan. It's also embarrassing because I actually learned "Sweet Melissa" on the guitar as a result of this mistake.

      Anyway, back to "Sweet Virginia." I'm always surprised that this song is not on the Beggars Banquet album, what with all its drawling honky-tonk. (Btw, Beggars Banquet is not only MY favorite Stones album but also, according to rumor anyway, one of the STONES' favorite Stones albums.) Upon listening to "Sweet Virginia" again, I think I might put it in my top 2 or 3 "campfire" songs. Assuming, of course, that you understand the Camping Triumvirate to be: fire, guitars, and alcohol. It's just a rollicking good time to sing-along to, and a lot of that is because of the flat-out unabashedly rock-n-roll lyrical content. Like this:

      Thank you for your wine, California
      Thank you for your sweet and bitter fruit
      Yes I've got the desert in my toenail
      And I hid the speed inside my shoe

      But this is not any old rocker's braggadocio. I mean, "Sweet Virginia" is straightforward 16-bar country blues, so the story here (as in all country and blues) can't be a loner's story. Mick does what Mick does best on this song: he brags and he begs simultaneously. The begging part is aimed at "sweet Virginia," whomever that is, a honey child who Mick wants to come on, come on down. (She's got it in her.) And she must be some very special kind of "sweet" if she inspired a song by the Stones meant to encourage her to scrape that sh*t right off her shoes.

      What a great line that is: Got to scrape that sh*t right off your shoes. It's such a perfect metaphor for the never-ending challenge of leaving the remnants of old missteps and mistakes and misdirections behind. Don't track the past in here, Mick says. You got to scrape it off.

      Yes. Yes we do, Mick.

      Friday, June 10, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 10: A Song That Makes You Fall Asleep

      My guess is that a lot of people are going to choose a song that they think is boring for today's 30 Day Song Challenge selection, which actually calls for "a song that makes you fall asleep." There are a lot of boring things that make me want to fall asleep-- boring movies, boring conversations, boring meetings, even boring books-- but not boring songs. Boring songs tend to irritate me and, consequently, I find it impossible to go to sleep listening to them. Unlike with movies, meetings or books, I don't consider it a negative to say that a song makes me fall asleep. In fact, for a song to make me fall asleep, it not only has to be familiar enough to me that I don't have to actively listen to it, but it also has to be actively soothing and calming to me. I suppose those are the same criteria used to classify songs that we count as "lullabies," songs which have as their whole telos the inducement of sleep.

      Despite my pretenses to the contrary, I don't think I am a very "relaxed" person by nature. I tend to gravitate toward overstimulation and I can be pretty tightly, if also deceivingly, wound-up about something or another most of the time. For that reason, it's hard to find things that genuinely soothe and calm me. As I mentioned on Day 3 of this Challenge, I don't abide silence or stillness very well, so the usual candidates for sleep-inducement don't really work in my case. Also, I'm not 5 years old, so lullabies don't work either.

      The song that comes about as close to a lullaby as any non-lullaby that I know is Simon & Garfunkel's "American Tune" from their 1982 album The Concert in Central Park. Here it is:

      I don't know what it is about this song that I find so soothing. Maybe it's the pitch-perfect harmonies. Maybe it's those moments when Garfunkel's voice soars into its soft, high falsetto. Maybe it's the calming repetition of that oh-so-simple reassurance "it's all right, it's all right" in the chorus. Maybe it's the steady, rolling sound of Simon's guitar arpeggio, which kind of reminds me of gentle waves lapping up on a shore. Maybe it's when they sing:

      Still I know that tomorrow's gonna be another working day
      And I'm just trying to get some rest
      That's all, I'm trying to get some rest

      Whatever it is, I find it very easy to get some rest to this song.

      Thursday, June 09, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 9: A Song You Can Dance To

      First of all, let me give dance credit where dance credit is due. The woman to the left is the BEST DANCER I've ever met in my life. She's a friend of mine and a regular at Wild Bill's juke joint here in Memphis, my very favorite place in the world for dancing. (A close second is Hollywood Disco and/or Paula and Raiford's Disco, both of which claim to be the "new" home of what was formerly the Memphis dance-mecca Raiford's.) Everyone knows her as "Woman's World," which is the phrase she has a habit of shouting as she's shaking it up and down the aisles of Wild Bill's. I've never met anyone who dances with such uninhibited joy and complete abandon as Woman's World, and it's totally contagious.

      That said, I'm not going to lie, I can dance too. There aren't many songs that I couldn't choose as a "song I can dance to." There are songs that nobody can dance to and songs I wouldn't dance to, but if it's got a beat and there's room to dance, almost everything else is fair game. So, I decided to pick the song that I most often dance to-- and by "most often," in this case I mean "almost every Saturday night."

      Regular readers of this blog will already know that "Saturday night" and "Wild Bill's" are pretty much synonymous in my life... and the dancing that takes place at Wild Bill's is no small part of that. I can't tell you how many people who I would never have imagined stepping foot on a dance floor and yet who have been moved by the Spirit of Bill's to get up and shake their groove thangs. It's just one of those places. Of course, it helps that almost every song that is played there is eminently dance-able, and also that dance partners are not hard to find. (In fact, they're hard to avoid!) The dance floor is small and cramped and almost always overcrowded, but I suspect all that just contributes to the willingness of people to get up on it, since it's one of those places where you never feel like your being watched or judged. As much as I hate those little feel-good mantras that get passed around on Facebook and the like, the one that encourages people to "dance like nobody is watching" is one that I wish more people heeded more often.

      Anyway, here's the song that ALWAYS gets me up and moving on Saturday night at Bill's. It's a live version of Theodis Easley performing "Stand Up In It" from his 2004 album Stand Up In It. Fair warning, this song is NSFW.

      There's no way around it; this is just a nasty, dirty song. I mean, it's not even like most other blues/R&B songs, which cover their salacious content over with a thick layer of innuendo. No innuendo here. When Theodis sings "stand up in it," that's exactly what he means. But the song is also flat-out hilarious. It's a story about the sometimes very wide abyss between a man's bragging and the actual ability of that man to do what he's bragging about. It's also a story about the fact that men think they know what women want, but really don't, even after being given explicit instructions. And that story, dear readers, is the ladies' half of blues music.

      Now, all due respect to Theodis, this song really should be sung by a woman. His is the only recorded version I know of, but it's not my favorite version. The truth is, the person who is able to draw out every last ounce of dirty, nasty soul in this song is Miss Nickki, the regular singer at Wild Bill's. And she does it every Saturday night to a FULL dance floor. I was able to track down this video of her performing the song live, which doesn't capture half of the awesomeness of actually being there, but it gives you a taste:

      I'm pretty confident that if Miss Nickki wanted to sing the phone book, and she was backed by the Memphis Soul Survivors, I'd probably get up and dance to it. In the meantime, though, I'll take "Stand Up In It" anyday.

      Wednesday, June 08, 2011

      30 Day Song Challenge, Day 8: A Song You Know All The Words To

      I'll begin with an apology for today's 30 Day Song Challenge selection. I'm aware that it may seem a little like cheating (and a LOT like shameless self-promotion) to choose one of my own songs as the "song I know all the words to." In fact, it may not even be true. As most people who have ever played music with me will attest, the songs that I most often forget the words to are my own songs. But I think this song is an exception to my general rule of lyrical amnesia. I pretty consistently remember all the words to this one.

      I don't remember exactly the year that I wrote this song, but I'm sure that it's more than a decade old now. (I know that because I'm sure I played it with the band I was in before graduate school.) Like a lot of songwriters' songs, this one is heavy on the autobiographical. But also like a lot of songwriters' songs, it's a product of a specific place and time and set of circumstances in my life that have, like all things do, passed.

      I recorded this song for the first and only time a few years ago here in Memphis. At the time, I had made new friends with a couple of guys (a keyboardist and a guitarist) who were in the process of setting up their own home recording studio. They were trying out a new mixing board the day I was there, and asked if I wanted to lay down a song. We got one take, and this is it. The accompanying video, on the other hand, was shot over the course of 3 days in Memphis by my friend Chris Morgan (of Bombring). We didn't have any kind of budget for the video, so we called in favors to shoot at all of the locations, and all of the "actors" (Max Maloney, Marlinee Iverson, and Emily Fulmer) are friends of ours. Here it is, my song "Heart of Stone":

      This is a song that definitely needs a bridge, and I kind of wish that the organ parts sounded a little more "Whiter Shade of Pale"-ish, but otherwise I think it's pretty solid. I think it captures a fairly simple sentiment-- something like "Just GO already!"-- and I'd like to think that's a feeling more people have experienced than just me.

      A long time ago, someone (I don't remember who) gave me a little nugget of wisdom that I've never forgotten and have repeated often since: Breakups don't "take" until at least the third time. I've always liked that particular phrasing, because it depicts a breakup not as an "event" but as something more like a "treatment." You apply a breakup to a bad relationship like a topical ointment: sometimes it "takes" and the relationship goes away, but it rarely does so on the first application. I think my song reflects a little of that insight. Sad but true.

      I also want to say one last thing about the difference between knowing/singing lyrics to a song you've written and knowing/singing lyrics to someone else's song. For me, there isn't any difference. Or not after a while, anyway.

      Also, for the record, I don't have a heart of stone.