Goodbye from 365 Songs

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We did it! Yes, we—I wrote this thing, but you read it, even if it was only once in a while. Hell, even if this is the first post you’ve ever read, you’re part of it, and I really appreciate it. I didn’t know how this project would go, but knowing that people read it made writing it every day that much easier.

You might be wondering: Did I write it every day? Yes and no. As I predicted, I played a lot of catchup, and once in a while I was even ahead of schedule. But generally, yeah, I was writing whenever and wherever I could squeeze it in—on lunch breaks, on the bus, on the subway, in my car (parked, of course). I wrote on a laptop, in a notebook, on an iPod. I wrote while my toddler napped, I wrote when I couldn’t sleep, and I wrote at 5:30 a.m., before seemingly anybody else on earth was awake. If there was one difficult thing about writing this blog, it was coming up with something interesting to say about Phil Collins before dawn.

In my “welcome” post on January 2, 2013 (see? I was already behind), I wrote this about the blog:

This is the part where I admit that I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no plan, other than to write about a different song every day. These aren’t necessarily my favorite songs, or songs by my favorite artists. They are songs I want to write about.

That mission stayed consistent, and I even added a rule that I never acknowledged on the website: I would never write about an artist more than once. And I didn’t. If I had that rule from the beginning, I probably wouldn’t have chosen, say, “Black or White” as my only Michael Jackson song. But what can you do.

Anyway, thanks again for reading, and maybe we’ll do this again sometime. Not in 2014, though. I could use a breather.

Now, for your consideration, a list of all 365 songs:


Song 365: Boyz II Men, “End of the Road” (1992)

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I struggled for a while to find a song about endings. I could think of many good candidates, but they were mostly by artists I’ve already written about; I’ve come this far without repeating an artist, and I wasn’t about to start on the last post. Then it came to me. Of course the right choice is “End of the Road.” It always was.

We all know this song, even if we don’t think we do. I actually didn’t think I knew it all too well, but when I listened to it the other day, everything came back to me: the bittersweet lyrics, the catchy melody, the melisma. I’m an unabashed Boyz II Men fan—”Motown Philly” was one of my first introductions to contemporary pop music—but I didn’t think I liked “End of the Road” very much. I was wrong. Of course I was.

Here’s what always set Boyz II Men apart from their genre counterparts: talent. Even detractors of BIIM (did I just make that up? I hope so) have to admit that these dudes can sing. And they can sing the hell out of a song like “End of the Road,” which sounds tailormade for their brand of modern soul. Sure, the spoken intro is maybe the corniest thing in the world (“I have no time for you to be playing with my heart like this”), but then we’re off to the races: “How could you love me and leave me and never say goodbye?” is sung with such passion and conviction that I ask myself the same question. How, you terrible person, how??

One more thing about this song: the inclusion of the word “unnatural” in the chorus (the chorus!) is a very strange choice, but it totally works. The way they sing the phrase—”isss un-natch-ur-ahl”—is, um, unnatural, but it somehow makes the thing more honest. If these guys were bullshitting about wanting you back, wouldn’t they have scripted this so they pronounced the word correctly? This is a spontaneous exclamation. A radio-friendly, immaculately produced spontaneous exclamation.

Songs about endings are probably hard to write, but the guys who wrote “End of the Road”—Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, and Daryl Simmons—did it exactly right. We all mourn this breakup, even though we don’t know anybody involved. That’s pretty impressive.


Song 364: B.B. King, “Everyday I Have the Blues” (1965)

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I was all ready to write about how I love B.B. King’s simple, relaxed, direct guitar style, and then I listened again to “Everyday I Have the Blues,” and I had to scrap that plan. His trademark clear tone is on display here, but this performance isn’t exactly un-flashy. It’s full of flash, and it’s fantastic.

Live at the Regal has been lauded as King’s masterwork in the 48 years since its release, and rightly so: this thing is awesome. Recorded in 1964 at the Regal Theater in Chicago, the album captures King in his prime. The man, with a horn section behind him, plays song after song without taking a moment to catch his breath. In its two-and-a-half minutes, “Everyday I Have the Blues” features those horns, King’s pleading and soulful voice, and That Guitar, accomplishing what would take some bands five or six minutes to accomplish: determination and anguish, energy and despair. “Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care,” sings King, but he sure sounds okay with it. I have a feeling he’ll be fine.

B.B. King’s guitar tone is probably my favorite of all the blues players. In the same way that the great Muddy Waters sounds like he’s playing from his gut, King sounds like he’s playing from his throat: there’s a voice-like quality to Lucille, and maybe that’s one reason we know her by first name. She always sounds like a person, singing away while the song chugs along behind her. She’s the star here, and B.B. King knows it.


Song 363: The Postal Service, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” (2003)

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When The Postal Service’s Give Up came out ten years ago, it sounded like a revelation. Beats, keyboards and synths blended with string samples and voices to make something that sounded both new and familiar. It sounded like the future, and in a way, it was (for better or worse).

At the time, I only vaguely knew about Death Cab For Cutie. The big draw for me was Jenny Lewis, then a member of Rilo Kiley, a band who I was obsessed with. Lewis sings some beautiful backup and duet vocals on the record, but Give Up, of course, belongs entirely to Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard. It continues to amaze me how cannily these two guys brought their exact skill sets to the project; Tamborello’s work as Dntel draws genuine emotion from clicks and clacks, and Gibbard, whether armed with an electric or acoustic guitar, can write a song that is guaranteed to break your heart.

“The District Sleeps Tonight” is the first song from Give Up, and it starts in a way that seems to say that it’s just the beginning of something big. Those low notes make the song creak to life, and Tamborello’s beats—which are somehow full of humanity, despite being totally synthetic—feel like fingers or toes moving, helping the song awake from a deep sleep. As opening lines go, “Smeared black ink/Your palms are sweaty/And I’m barely listening to last demands” is a great one. It’s like the opening to a noir novel—mysterious, intriguing, and dark, dark, dark.

Like the rest of Give Up, the chorus of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” is pop at its most direct. The combination of that directness with the often chaotic digital mess underneath is, in my opinion, what makes this record so great. There’s a tension between those two sounds, and it reflects the tension in each song, even when the song is seemingly full of joy. In Gibbard’s hands, to his great credit, nothing is entirely happy.


Song 362: Django Reinhardt, “La Mer” (1949)

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“La Mer” is credited to guitarist Django Reinhardt, but the recording belongs just as much to violinist Stéphane Grappelli. The two were perfect musical complements; they always sounded like they were dancing.

Reinhardt first is perhaps the most dexterous guitarist of all time, a man capable of playing fast without losing a single thing in translation. He never sounds like he’s showing off, he just sounds like this all comes to him very, very easily. In reality, it only came easily at first; at age 18, six years after mastering the banjo, the third and fourth fingers on his left hand were so badly burned in a fire that they were paralyzed. So he had to learn all over again.

Reinhardt met Grappelli soon after. As part of the Quintette du Hot Club de France (along with three other musicians, including Reinhardt’s brother, also on guitar), the duo made music that was at once simple and breathtakingly complex. Within relatively simple jazz and blues chord structures, the two bobbed and weaved with great strength and agility, playing with such mutual appreciation that they often sound like a single performer.

“La Mer” is my favorite of the Reinhardt-Grappelli songs, because not only do they sound great together, they sound incredible individually. I love the way Reinhardt picks gently one second and thunks heavily the next, as if he’s building something that requires both a screwdriver and a hammer: one tool for fine motor skills, one tool for blunt impact. Then there’s Grappelli, who handles that beautiful melody by French composer Charles Trenet. “La Mer” has been interpreted countless ways (including, famously, by Bobby Darin), but this rendition, so sad, beautiful, and serene, will always be my favorite.

I just realized that I wrote much of the above in the present tense: “plays,” “sounds.” That must be the result of music that sounds, years after its performers’ exits, so alive.


Song 361: Uncle Tupelo, “Black Eye” (1992)

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Uncle Tupelo gets lots of well-deserved credit for fusing country music with punk and post-punk aesthetics. I get that, and I get why their debut, No Depression, was such a big deal when it came out. It was a game-changer, plain and simple, a real landmark in the timeline of rock and country music.

But my favorite Uncle Tupelo record will always be March 16-20, 1992, an album whose simplicity matches its title: this is the sound of a bunch of guys in a room for five days. The band sounded amazing when they were their bombastic, chaotic selves, but I love this side of Uncle Tueplo, the side that was interested in singing quiet songs about people and places. It’s that versatility that made the band so impressive.

“Black Eye” is not only my favorite Uncle Tupelo song, but one of my favorites by Jeff Tweedy. Though it certainly seems like it could be autobiographical, something about the song seems like a character sketch. Lines like “He had a black eye that he was proud of” and “He almost always forgot what he was gonna say” sound straight out of a Raymond Carver story, in the way their bluntness and directness somehow hint at endless meaning.

Peter Buck produced March 16-20, and though I can definitely hear his influence, it sounds like he was a pretty unobtrusive producer. He brought the subtlety that you can hear on R.E.M.’s best work, especially their acoustic songs, to a band whose subtlety was a secret weapon. He did what any producer should do: make an artist sound like themselves, only better.


Song 360: Pulp, “Like a Friend” (1998)

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I didn’t know much about Pulp before I heard “Like a Friend,” and I still don’t, not really. I know that the band’s been around forever, and I know a handful of great, great songs, but for some reason, I never fully investigated them. I suppose I should.

In the meantime, there’s “Like a Friend,” a song that was originally written and recorded for the Great Expectations soundtrack and was later added to rereleased versions of the band’s record This Is Hardcore. I’ve written before about how much I admire and respect Jarvis Cocker’s writing ability, and this song is a good example of what I love about him: he’s pretty angry about this gone-wrong relationship, but there’s also a sense of acceptance about his own responsibility in the matter.

When the song kicks into high gear, it’s as if Cocker is simultaneously acknowledging his role in the toxic relationship: by saying “You are the car I never should have bought,” Cocker’s essentially saying, “You’re bad news, but I should have known that.” On top of all that awareness, which he and the band pound away at like an angry subconscious, there’s the fact that Cocker absolutely nails the frustrating thing about friendship. Feelings are hard, emotions are complicated. It’s not like a car accident, when an insurance company can just name one party as “at fault.” Though that would be nice.


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