You guys, I had no idea. For the past few years, I’ve been griping about the hipsters’ renewed (or first-time-ever?) interest in Hall & Oates. Why, I wondered, was something previously considered worthless schlock suddenly perceived as great? But you guys—Hall & Oates.
I still think that kind of thing is bullshit, but I hadn’t seriously listened to the duo (who, fun fact!, never officially called themselves “Hall & Oates”) before. Sure, I’d heard them before—for one thing, my sister bought the “So Close” cassingle back in the day—but I didn’t know how good some of the songs were.
Case in point: “When the Morning Comes,” the first track from the duo’s third record, Abandoned Luncheonette. Sure, the falsetto’s a little much, but I love the overall vibe of the song, which is mellow without being catatonic. And there’s a sweet sadness to the song, especially in lines like “I’ve got nowhere to go so I can go anywhere.” It sounds like the narrator is fooling himself, but with a sense of purpose, like fooling himself is the only logical solution to his problem.
With all due respect to Messrs. Hall and Oates, I’m still not sure songs like “Maneater” stand the test of time. But the pair is capable of greatness, and this song is proof.
I first heard Sly and the Family Stone’s version of “Qué Será Será” on “Eric in the Evening,” a jazz show on WGBH hosted by Eric Jackson. (It’s since been neutered from a nightly show to a weekends-only affair, but I’m glad he’s still around.) The song was on one of Jackson’s Martin Luther King Day shows, and it fit in nicely with songs that were more overtly focused on the fight for civil rights.
There’s an ironic sadness to this version of the song, especially when compared to the original, sung by the eternally sunny Doris Day. I like how Rose Stone’s disaffected vocals contrast with Sly’s anguished counterpoint, offering two understandable reactions to racial injustice: believing that it won’t ever get better (whatever will be will be), and crying out in anger. Or maybe those reactions aren’t so different.
In my opinion, this song is an example of Sly and the Family Stone’s greatness. Though they were capable of some masterful funk, they could also pull off moments of great subtlety. Fresh was an important chapter in the band’s history; Brian Eno reportedly cited the record as prompting a shift from guitar-centric pop to rhythm section production. I’m not familiar with the whole record, but on “Qué Será Será,” you can certainly hear the bass—loud, intimidating, and mournful—loud and clear.
I’m not proud to admit that I didn’t like reggae, at all, until a few years ago. I found it plodding and sonically thin, for one, and I was tired of frat boys toting around their copies of Bob Marley’s Legend as if they were enlightened.
That’s a slight exaggeration–I’ve always respected Marley, and I’ve always loved ska and rocksteady, related precursors to reggae. But yeah, it was a dickish position, one that remained unchanged until I started listening to the soundtrack to the film The Harder They Come. Conceived as a compilation of the Jamaican music scene between 1967 and 1972, the record was massively successful and massively influential. Along with Bob Marley’s success, the soundtrack to The Harder They Come played a major role in bringing reggae to the masses.
The reason I checked out the record in the first place was seeing a Saturday Night Live episode from the show’s first season in 1975. Jimmy Cliff was the musical guest, and he performed “Many Rivers to Cross,” and it was gorgeous. The song doesn’t sound like what we think of as reggae, but it opened up the genre for me.
I’m not sure why that performance was what made me get past my stupid bias, but I know that I was immediately struck by the humanity of it all. Cliff sounds–and, in that SNL performance, looked–so warm. And for the first time, reggae sounded like people to me, and not some tourist board’s idea of the Caribbean. It sounded homemade.
I associate this one with my father’s death, which is a strange thing. The only reason that happened is that I saw The Squid and the Whale, which features this song prominently, about a year after he died. It made instant sense to me, this song about survival in the middle of chaos.
At first, this doesn’t sound like a song about mourning. It’s pretty damn jaunty, for one, full of hoots and hollers, of fiddles and banjos. But the happiness, after all, stems from the fact that the narrator didn’t drown, that he or she kicked their legs to stay afloat (and ended up doing some cannonballs for flair), and there’s something about Loudon Wainwright’s voice that emits sadness no matter what he’s singing about. To me in 2005, “The Swimming Song” was the sound of a person who made it through the Worst Summer Ever with most things intact: I had salt in my wounds and chlorine in my eyes, but I treaded water long enough to make it past August. That’s all that mattered.
I remember that I was on a bus in Minneapolis when I listened to this song and made the association, and it was a sudden revelation; the song connected so quickly and deeply that I had trouble breathing. I listened to “The Swimming Song” for months through an angry haze, but over the years, it’s become less a vivid portrait of a few terrible years and more what I imagine Wainwright intended: a joyous song about endurance.
One more thing: the album this song is on is called Attempted Mustache. I just wanted to point that out. Attempted Mustache.
I had a dream the other night about Fiona Apple singing “Let Me Roll It” by Paul McCartney. I can’t give myself many points for creativity—she actually sang the song on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon a while back—but I should get credit for keeping things fresh. My dreams tend to feature:
A) something I hadn’t prepared for, such as a play for which I hadn’t memorized lines (curtain in 10 minutes!);
B) a faulty alarm clock (followed by waking up in a panic five hours before my alarm goes off);
C) terrorists, guns, hostages and/or apocalypse; or
D) all of the above (oversleeping, perhaps, for the end times, an event for which I had not done any homework whatsoever).
In other words, I welcome the randomness of this dream with open arms. I don’t remember much about the dream’s “plot” (New Year’s resolution: finally start that Fiona Apple dream journal), but I do remember that Apple shaved her head and was worried about performing the song. I reassured her, then she went on stage and killed it.
Why did I dream about this song six months after seeing Apple sing it on TV? No idea. But it’s amazing how a cover can bring out a song’s strengths; in this case, it’s that weirdly fierce guitar line in the verse, followed by the release of the simple, pretty chorus (set into motion by the only-Paul-McCartney-can-get-away-with-it “My heart is like a wheel”) sung with an otherworldly reverb effect. Apple, of course, gives it her all, making the title more of a desperate plea than McCartney’s gentle offer. Her performance is amazing and cathartic, and the fact that the Roots know exactly what to do is unsurprising but heartening.
I guess I know why I dreamed about this after all.