Monday, August 29, 2005

Nickel Creek - Jealous Of The Moon

I've always associated the Creek with a kind of serenity, being the kind of group who once put out a song about a lighthouse, and who, with the aid of Dolly Parton, almost managed to turn Collective Soul's perennial stinker "Shine" into a reflective, almost spiritual bluegrass dance, and were only thwarted by the rankness of the subject matter.

The moon itself I tend to think of as being serene, despite the hot lundar days of actuality, and it's a body often given this trait, if not anthropomorphised completely - Shania's done it ("If I were the moon I would catch your eye/I'm jealous of the moon"), Neko's done it ("I'm so lonely/I wish I was the moon tonight"), that's just in the last three years, it's not a new thing, of course. It's also conveniently outside the earth, on which most of the problems we face with other people, work, stress, failure are located. So as a romantic escape destination, it's still got utility beyond its lack of hospitability.

Here, the narrator is half admonishing - "staring down the stars/jealous of the moon", if she's up in space already, what's there to be jealous of? - and half comforting, or trying to, exhorting her to call him, to reach into the world for assistance rather than floating above it. And parts of the harmonies in this are, despite their inherent sweetness (the Nickel Creek boys and girl gel like dusty-haired angels most of the time) are harsh and abrasive.

Misery is contagious. It starts out as asides to the depression - the tinkling is creeping through doors without wishing to be seen or heard, but by the end it's taken over everything and each word is awash in it, even though it's just the spread of someone else's pain - "Together we can find a god we can pray to". The whole thing is deeply sad on all sorts of levels, the vagueness of it all, the uncertainty of the cause means you have to paint the details yourself, but this is as pleasurable as five minutes' worth of wallowing in someone else's swamp gets.

Why this sort of stuff is basically unlistenable when done with only guitars, but can work on a fiddle, a banjo or basically anything that isn't a guitar is one of life's arcane mystries, but there's no point questioning it.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Rascal Flatts - Fast Cars and Freedom

Ah, so here's the thing. Some time, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, I decided that I no longer liked bands or singers. I liked songs. I derided ideas of having a favourite artist, or liking albums as a cohesive whole - only wanting to listen to mixes and the best songs by everyone around rather than have to deal with a lot of baggage that I just wasn't interested in.

Which is a good idea. Because it means you can enjoy "Fast Cars And Freedom" while giving only the smallest amount of consideration to the fact that RF's last single, "God Blessed The Open Road" was awful, trite and downright irritating. What's surprising, though, is that this new single is bearable - great even, and a large part of the appeal is that it's taken ideas from that much-maligned, and usually correctly, genre of late 90s, early 00s "alt-rock". Honestly, I'm not making this up.

It could almost be Lifehouse, you know, if it were scruffed-up a little bit. But what I really am taken by is the fact that it's perennially in flux between verse, pre-chorus and chorus - the actual chorus itself bleeds straight into the verses on its first play-through, into some quite impassioned "yeah"-ing, a very short break on the second, and an outro on the third. It's not just compact, it's also hooky, and all three parts are sing-along-worthy.

Lyrically, it's two parts fuzzy romanticism, one part bad imagery and two parts cornball platitude, but musically, it works. Warm piano, a solid rock base with its twang being limited other than the main riff, but there's a pleasing earnestness and honesty in the delivery - my favourite part being a slightly excitable, genuine "look at me" interjected in the second verse - and the whole thing comes out affectionate, and deserves affection in return.

I like it. You probably don't. But it's my blog.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Toby Keith - She Left Me

Okay, so I came to love Toby Keith as a larger-than-life figure who was unashamedly, but often hilariously patriotic, and basically sent the entire genre of dad-rap packing when "I Wanna Talk About Me" had US radio on lockdown at the end of 2003. A man who didn't so much deliver punchlines as send them running for cover by bellowing them and who didn't differentiate between his good lines and his bad ones, he wanted you to hear ALL of him, and (sometimes) it was good.

And what's he gone and done on us? Why, dear reader, he's mellowed, and it's not an awful lot of fun, mostly. Except for this, which is rather wonderful but disappointingly subdued. Where the old Toby would have roared out his best lines with the maniacal glee of a hack stand-up comic and you couldn't help but smile, but while there still are some ("She'll remember me until the day that she forgets me/We'd still be together.. but she left me"), it's all a bit restrained and judicious.

On the plus side, it means you might not notice a cliched clunker of a line like "I heard she ran off with my best friend Jake, I know I'm gonna miss him", but beyond that, this really could have done with some oomph. Not passion, part of the joke here is that Toby doesn't actually seem too bothered about what befell him, but a straight-faced, straight man joke goes down a bit more effectively if everything around you is a bit crazy - and it's not the fact that something's missing, it's just that what's there should have been cranked up a bit. I'll blame the producer, he was probably too engrossed in dials and buttons without working out how this plays on CMT which everyone knows is more important.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Blue Rodeo - Can't Help Wondering

I'm back. Pardon, but I was overworked and depressed, and this song, and its parent album, were my attendant company.

I saw this band live a few years ago. I can't remember in what capacity, but they weren't the headline act. I'd heard people outside muttering "I've heard they're, y'know, country.". There may or may not have been grimaces, but as this was during the last days of my indiehood, I couldn't really bear to look at the indie kids up close.

They were good, too. One particular song, which I thought may have had something to do with rain in the title, had this magnificent, insistent bass-line that stuck in my head, and even if the keyboard player didn't seem to add anything texturally to the songs, he was having a whale of a time doing whatever he was doing and I enjoyed it. I suppose it's because I don't live in Canada, where they're an institution. And not particularly loved by the cognoscenti.

But fuck a cultural cringe, anyway.

I love this band like an out-of-fashion Canadian, even though I'm only the former. I love how this song is a precisely plotted piece of lamentation that resolves, and ultimtely means nothing. I love the extended pronunciation of "I", rendered as "Ay-hay!" (could have done better things, indeed). I adore how the chorus breaks down into a series of repetitious, yet soothing platitudes. I like how it's gruff enough to be real, but not so much as to scare me off.

It's comforting music. It reminds of other things. The second song off their current album, the opening reminds me a bit of "Don't Fear The Reaper". I couldn't tell you what this reminds me of, but its recycled two-pint feelgood may be as cliched as the reassuring words of a friend, but we treasure those, not reject them.


Monday, April 04, 2005

Cowboy Troy - I Play Chicken (With The Train)

Recommended to me by the inestimably accurate Mr Swygart, it's something to behold with a measure of awe that someone has made a record that's the exact cross between "Comin' Round" by Bubba Sparxxx and "(If You're Not In It For Love) I'm Outta Here!" by Shania Twain - right down to the needless parentheses. And of course, it's Big John and Kenny Rich, but it would be.

Where others pay homage to country as a serious art, attempting to cloak its stars in black and deny the flippancy and vibrancy of its past, it's a relief that at least some people are keeping the art of hybrid-comedy-country viable by producing killer singles in such a style.

You haven't heard it? Oh, go on then. Just this once, eh?

What's particularly good is that when the big riffs kick in, you have this horrible feeling that it's going to be like Kid Rock. Then you remember that, hey, you didn't mind one or two of his singles, so it might not be all bad. But you're still relieved when it doesn't. Fiddles shoot across the speakers like gunshots, and Troy's flow is absolutely endearing. The chorus nags and torments you with its complete lack of subtlety or even a proper tune, but it stays with you long afterward.

And I'll never get tired of the trick of having multiple instrumental breaks condensed into one - one instrument, then the same thing done on another, then back to the first one again. It's a neat trick, and I can only think of one actual pop single in the last year that's done a similar thing. (Ten points if you can think of what it is. Hint: It made #7 in the UK).

What I may like most of all is that it establishes Troy as an immediately likeable performer/persona. Brash, funny and vital, and there aren't really that many around.

It crams all of this in to 3 minutes and 18 seconds. The compactness leaves you breathless, really.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Why Tim McGraw Is Not Going To Be Popular Outside the US, Even Off The Back Of That God-Damned Nelly Single

I've been hypnotised by this article about country music and morality, and the thesis of it is not as preposterous as it initially appears. If politics and music intertwine, and you accept that red-state in the United States is country, then I like to think of Tim McGraw as George W. Bush.

Think about it for a minute. George W Bush is, comparatively speaking, a charming man. He's straightforward - he weaves simple stories with the language of the everyman. You can disagree with the content, but the coating makes the pill go down for 50-odd million Americans, and rather than argue with the result, it would make more sense to understand the process. He's at his absolute best when he articulates (barely) the aspirations and beliefs - not just spiritual ones - of his constituents, because there's something guileless and uncoded about his method, which makes the message seem genuine. He's at his worst when he goes outside this; this can be in an attempt to step onto ground he's shaky on, or, particularly, to try to drag the resistant onto his territory.

Tim McGraw's a bit like that too. I'm thinking particularly about two of the singles from his "Live Like You Were Dying" LP. In the video for the title track, he's posed as a cowboy, except he's not wearing shoes. A romantic image, but brought into the zone of comfort - he sings to you from your television into your living room and he's going to look relaxed while he does it. He's got the home-spun wisdom down-pat, telling the story of a friend with a terminal disease who vows to live life to the fullest.

"Live Like You Were Dying" works brilliantly as a piece of pop-storytelling. It hits a particular nerve with me at the moment, having lost a family member to cancer this week, but even beyond that, there's something heartfelt and honest about it - and you can take the friend's steps - skydiving, Rocky Mountain climbing - as literal or figurative and it doesn't make a difference. It's a great message, it's delivered sincerely and you can hum it while crying into your beard/beer, or whistle it while running with the wind in your hair. I've tried both, and it really works. It's in the grey middle ground between life or death - joy and sadness, whatever you want. It plays upon universal ideas about mortality, the desire for exhiliration as well as pricking a masculine-coded idea of mateship to get the grown men hugging each other and weeping on each other's shoulders in his corner as much as the sensitive gals of the red states.

"Drugs or Jesus" is a bit more problematic, and several orders of magnitude more heavy-handed. I won't deny that it's an effective whistle to the faithful, but for someone who's got an in to a series of other markets, there's trouble on the horizon.

You are either with us, or you're against us." - George W Bush.
For anyone who sticks around you're either lost or you're found - Tim McGraw.

No, this is less easy to digest. The roads lead to drugs or Jesus - presumably there's a fork in the roads somewhere for those that pick both, but this is the kind of black-and-white generalisation that rankles as much in pop discourse as it does in the political. It's exclusionary and judgmental no matter what performative spin McGraw tries to put on it, and the above quotations aren't even necessary to highlight the problems contained therein. Not that there's a spin here - the sombre, sober piano wouldn't allow it. Here, Tim McGraw has moved from what he's best at to what he, and some might say, his peers and his genre, are absolutely the worst at. A didactic on the verge of self-parody - is it sincere and true, or an excruciatingly well-aimed and well-timed jab at those things? - hard to sympathise with. The reason half the songs in any given chart at any given time are love songs of some kind is because they're the one tale that we all know - this might not outright condemn those on a different road, but it takes a muted delight in a false binary opposition.

Righteous preaching goes down a storm - or at least it must - in middle America, but it is poison overseas. Something like 80% of people in countries outside the United States disapprove of George W. Bush, yet he got a clear plurality of votes. Are citizens of the US so removed from the rest of the world that their brains are wired qualitatively differently in order that they approve of this, even if nobody else does?

I don't know. But we won't be talked down to. Uplift us with universal stories of the preciousness of life - we're up for it - but do it from our level, not a pedestal, Tim. Methinks hooking up with Nelly will be as fruitless as George Bush getting Three Doors Down to play at one of his fundraisers, at least as far as (p)reaching beyond the choir.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Jo Dee Messina - My Give A Damn Is Busted

What they won't admit, but they know it, is whenever that wit who forwards that list of high-larious REAL country music songs to your inbox for the 94th time, they're secretly wishing that they had the art of a great line as down pat as your average country song writer. Oh yes, how droll it is - laugh at the silly song titles, but deny the sublime puncta that these songs often contain and you're a moron, pure and simple.

Jo Dee knows punctum - her impish, clipped arch aside in the chorus - "Let me dig a little deeper.... no! sorry, nothing!" - is the sort of deviously tricky nagging hook that few can pull off. The second verse drops references Prozac, co-dependence and enablers over ferocious fiddles - yuppie psychological angst being mocked mercilessly over country twang - magnificent combination, that. The mocking works. The non-sequiturs work ("Go ahead and water the lawn!").

The likely-false profession of feeling nothing is given away by the mix of cold contempt and taunting that probably makes her man feel about.. ooh.. THIS tall, or at least makes him feel as if he's had his genitals removed and placed in a jar atop her mantle. She half-laughs "You've really done it this time" and few dismissals are so clipped - devastatingly perfect and perfectly devastating.