Saturday, November 24, 2007

"I am under no illusion..."

(warning: I've been obsessed with the Mountain Goats lately; this is only going to get worse.)

I like sad songs. I generally don't like horror flick or scary movies. I can appreciate them in their place, but I love sad, sad, sad songs and stories (not that horror and sad stuff are really naturally comparable things, but it somehow made sense to me in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean). Believe me, I love a happy ending, but I can really get into those rip your heart out kind of stories and songs. This is not the same as the stomp-on-your-soul stories like Faulkner's _Sanctuary_ (this is not one of those dont'-read-it warnings that is meant as a challenge to your honor anticipating that you would pick it up, this is a warning against something no one should ever go through, trust me), but the tragic beautiful. _Giovanni's Room_ by James Baldwin is perhaps my single favorite piece of fiction ever. Tragic books and tragic songs have one big difference: the scope of the story they can share. A book can end tragic or have little tragic bits all along and still give you enough to buoy you up, which is generally how I feel about most sad stories. They only get to be tragic because the other parts are so beautiful. If anyone ever described _Giovanni's Room_ as a story about an execution, I'd be torn between punching them and having them committed and probably settle on giving them a look piled with so much indignation that I wouldn't have any room left for the scorn they deserved. Point being, the tragic in them is contrasted. In so much space, you've got to tell of more than just the pain.

Songs are different. They are shorter; only so much can fit in there. A sad song has to reflect enough of what ever it was that was so beautiful that you can relate to the sadness. The lyrics have to make you care and the music has to hit you just right to take you there. But they have to do it while usually really only telling you the tragedy. The beauty is hinted at, alluded to, mentioned but you only know how bright it was by how dark the song is without it.

I don't know why I love sad songs so much, but I do. I guess my whole thing is that for something to really be sad, you've got to really care about it, someone has to care about it and if someone can really communicate that caring and that pain, then I've got to be able to celebrate it. Often times, it is the sad songs which communicate more love and caring and hope (even if it has already been crushed) than the flat out love songs. "Some one loves me and I'm so happy," well, whoopty friggin' do. Lucky you (this isn't fair at all since I've been writing about how much I love some love songs, but whatev). "Somebody left me but I still love them," whoa, they mean it.

This of course is in stark contrast with my general view of the world and romance, but not really. As a general rule, whenever someone gives me crap about being lost without someone else, my response is only slightly more sympathetic than, "Oh, get a grip. You are better off without them." If I'm close friends with them, I know that if they were expecting sympathy they would have called Mason or Lisa, so I can be even more blunt. This isn't because I am down on love, just I'm don't care to call other things love and have no sympathy for codependence or fear of being alone or whatever other wretched, but oh so human, response to break-ups and such people so commonly have and call love. My curmudgeonliness comes from a tender place, though, so when I listen to sad songs, I let them totally get to me. Of course, this is only if they are well written and well played/sung. If they are just stupid and cheesy (how did we get back to Kenny Chesney again?), they get the same sympathy that most real life break-ups get. Ok, I'll leave K-Che alone for a minute (not because I've suddenly stumbled upon some sympathetic kindness, I just only have a few of his upbeat songs on my computer and figure that if I am going to write about how lame someone's sad song is, then I should at least be listening to it at the time). Luckily, there is always Brad Paisley pick on.

All my music is still in Alabama, so I'm slowly piecing together a music collection from what friends have so i have some random shit on here, including a fairly eclectic country mix. I've got nothing in particular against Bran Paisley, just normally wouldn't include him in my collection, but since he is here, let's talk for a minute about "Who needs pictures?" It is decently written, even if a little to kitschy, but only decently written. With just the right voice, it could be a sad song. When George Jones is in the right mood, he has a voice that was meant to rip your heart out and he isn't afraid to do it. Patty Loveless can do it with her hands tied behind her back and blindfolded. Bran Paisley can't. With a sad enough song, his voice might not pull down the lyrics, but with decent lyrics that need someone to make them sympathetic, no way. I know he has won a hundred thousand awards in country music and I know that he seems to be a likeable new country guy who actually loves and appreciates old country and cares about respecting those that made country something special. And sometimes he picks some good music and is a good singer and a good guitar player and... flat as a pancake. The man can feel the music, you can see it when he sings, but damn if he doesn't sing like a kareoke star. His voice has no soul. It is the soul of a cardboard cut out, not a soul musician. And his musicians are technically great, I am sure they are the best of the current "Nashville sound" session musicians, but the end effect is boring as dirt. Blank music doing exactly what it is supposed to do, blank singer doing exactly what he is supposed to do, decent lyrics having to carry it all and you feel exactly the sympathy you would feel for any other whiney-ass bachelor who wanted to tell you about how a camera reminded him about the girl who dumped him. In some people that might rustle up some sympathy; I just change the station.

This wasn't originally about how sad songs can suck. Griping gets as boring as Brad Paisley's music. I was inspired to write because I listened to The Mountain Goats' "I Still Feel The Bruise".

Holy shit.

As sad songs go, this is a whole 'nother ball-game. Right from the start, the music gets you. There is enough placid kindness in the notes to not just sound miserable, but before you hear the first word you feel the pain. Then he starts singing.

The same thing that was in the music is in his voice, in spades. He doesn't have to push it; these aren't lyrics that could be pushed. And what fucking lyrics they are! The first verse is sad enough; there is plenty of plainly stated sadness for you to know how he feels. Then the chorus slips in and knocks the breath out of you and leaves you sitting there with chills wondering if there is any way you could turn the song off now, knowing that you are going to play it on repeat. "I'm under no illusion, as to what I meant to you. But you made an impression, sometimes I still feel the bruise, sometimes I still feel the bruise..."

I can't remember the guy's name who is The Mountain Goats. I should, but I can't and I'm in the middle of the ocean and don't have the benefit of Google so you will have to google it yourself (which you have to have if you are reading this at this moment). Anyway, my first introduction to him was listening to "Korean Bird Paintings" on some music blog (maybe Thus Spake the Grammophone or Fluxblog). Of course this was right at the moment that he was appearing on the radar of everyone I knew, so I wasn't any ahead of the curve but I wasn't behind it (keep in mind this was in music nerd Brooklyn land, so not being the last to know about a musician like this took some doing). KBP was upbeat and cheerful, this pleasant love song rolls in and sounds so wonderful and you listen to the lyrics and this joy and wonder isn't just happy inloveness, it is past the breaking point desperation/ idon'tgiveafuckness. I had to listen to it a few times over and over again. Here is this crisp little cut-out from this bigger picture, so detailed in its description telling so much about the story surrounding it while kind of telling you nothing about it except that this is where the story has gotten to, leaving you to wonder how it got there and where can it go from here.

Then I got home and as with all new music I ran it past Mason. Suddenly I'm listening to "Going to Georgia", which quickly became a home hootenany staple. Mr. Mountain Goat can write like a motherfucker. He can sing like one too, and plays like he sings, but his lyrics are poetry. Phrased slightly differently, sung/played slightly differently and these songs would be straight up obnoxious, but they aren't phrased differently or sung/played differently: they blow the top off your head. I'm sure there are times he doesn't hit it just right, but damn when he does.

He followed this with "The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton". That is one of those titles that you want to both hate and love so you wait for the song to see which it is going to be. And it starts as just silly enough to laugh and like, it is just a song about some kids putting together what was probably a wretched obnoxious band and adults reacting the stupid way they so often do to such things. But it takes a turn. There is this dark moment calling this parental/authority reaction for exactly what it is and it makes you love all sincere punk forever. I can't remember the line verbatim so rather than sharing a butchered remembrance, I'll leave it to you find it and listen to it.

I saw him play live once. He played a sort of coffee house tour and played at Fix in Williamsburg. It was insanely crowded and way too hot, but he sang like a manic angel. Don't go hear him hoping to hear some song of his you want to hear live. He informed us that he hates playing old stuff so he only plays things live that aren't on any album yet. At first this made me cringe and fear for what I was in for; my fears were quickly assuaged. Given the chance, go see him live, especially if you are somewhere out of the way enough that he will be in a small uncrowded venue. I'd kill to see him in the coffee shop/bar at the Princess theater in Columbus, MS.

"Sometimes I Still Feel the Bruise", like all the best Mountain Goats songs, takes you to exactly where the narrator in the song is. In my mind, this song is exactly the message. I imagine it not as the song version of some conversation, but as written to be a song, to be heard or not by someone who may be or not be in the audience. Sort of hopeful that they are, but assuming that they wouldn't be and that even if they are, not singing in hopes that it would bring them back, just singing it because it had to be let out.

This is the kind of song writing that makes me want to hole away and just pour everything into writing songs. Not because I think I could write like that, although he is the kind of writer who makes you wish you could, but because he is the kind of prolific writer pouring so much in to it that it makes the action of it, the effort itself into a work of art. The lifestyle when well done makes it seem like something worth doing; the few people who do it so well forgives all those who do it poorly by showing the world why they are trying and asks the rest of us why we aren't.

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