Song 240: Robbie Fulks, “Tears Only Run One Way” (1996)

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The fact that the whole universe doesn’t know and love Robbie Fulks is a tragedy. He’s a funny and immensely talented singer and songwriter, and he’s one of the best guitar players I’ve ever seen. He was lumped in with the “alt-country” bands and singers back when that was a thing, but, acerbic wit aside, he’s the least “alt” country musician around. In many ways, Fulks plays traditional country, as if the music of Buck Owens and George Jones never stopped burning up the charts. In other ways, there’s nobody like him.

The lyrics of “Tears Only Run One Way” are crazy clever. The central idea—that the things going bad are never going to get good again—is represented by tears falling down, down, down, and “never back the way they came.” Surrounding that idea are phrases like “my friends say I should find a new direction” and “there’s no two ways about the way that I feel right now.” The song is full of downs, ups, ways, directions… but it’s no use. There’s only down.

That all makes “Tears Only Run One Way” sound like a massive bummer, but it’s really lovely, from the gentle swing tempo to the pedal steel that adds a layer of sheen that makes the whole thing go (ahem) down easy. The song is so good that it sounds equally great—if not better—in an acoustic setting.

Robbie Fulks is a master musician, singer, and songwriter, and if you ever have the chance to see him in concert, you must. You’ll never regret it.


Song 195: Superdrag, “Sucked Out” (1996)

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I’ve been thinking about the nineties a lot lately, mostly because of a piece I’m writing about the Britpop also-rans Longpigs. Like most decades, the nineties had a handful of bands that either flamed out or faded away after a big hit song. And like most decades, a handful of them were pretty damn good.

Superdrag’s “Sucked Out” has always, erm, stuck out to me for many reasons. Its self-awareness was a little ahead of its time; the “we’re one-hit wonders!” thing seems more like an aughts phenomenon (or at least late nineties: the title of Sugar Ray’s record 14:59 was a stopwatch ticking down their 15 minutes of fame). Then there’s that melody and chord structure, neither of which are complicated, but they both sound like a little classical piece. If you played the song on a piano and slowed it down, it would sound downright pretty.

And then, of course, there’s that chorus, with its shouted “feeeliiiiiing” that sounds like it’s the apex of a toddler tantrum. (For proof, check out two-year-old Cason’s rendition.) It’s totally distinctive, and it’s probably the thing that caught peoples’ short attention spans in 1996. You know this song even if you don’t think you know it.

The rest of Regretfully Yours is more of the same, but that’s not a criticism. It’s a tight little post-grunge album, one that both represents its era and holds up completely. That’s a rare thing.


Song 154: Oasis, “Don’t Look Back In Anger” (1996)

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For a while there, Oasis’s hubris was justified. They were damn good at just about everything: songwriting, singing, playing. Their style has never been showy, but it never needed to be, and they never pretended otherwise.

I’ve never been a massive Oasis fan, but (What’s the Story) Morning Glory is one of my favorite records. There’s some real flashes of brilliance on this thing, especially the perfect “Don’t Look Back In Anger.” I liked “Wonderwall” just like everybody else, but when this song was released as the second single,  I was convinced that they really were the heirs apparent to Lennon and McCartney (an opinion that only lasted for this song, but still, that’s one more song than most people).

I ramble a lot on this blog about melodies and arrangements, but, well, I’m about to do it again. The melody here is very simple, but I think it’s really pretty (a word that I’m sure the Gallagher brothers would rather I didn’t use). The chords to the verses and chorus (that is, everything but the pre-chorus) use the old progression from Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” which has been used in everything from Blues Traveler’s “Hook” to Aerosmith’s “Cryin'” and “The Luckiest” by Ben Folds (who said he purposely used that progression to make the listener think of “Canon” and its use in weddings). The progression is used over and over again because, like the chords in a 12-bar blues, it works. Why not dig it up once again, especially if you’re trying to emulate artists from years past?

Though nobody suspected it at the time, Morning Glory was Oasis’s last piece of global domination. Be Here Now did well commercially, but it was too cocaine-addled and ego-driven to hold water. The Gallaghers are still famous, of course, and they always will be. But this song, and the others on its damn fine record, marked the last time that status was warranted.


Song 114: Sheryl Crow, “If It Makes You Happy” (1996)

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This seems like another strange one to love, right? A hit Sheryl Crow song from 1996? And yet it is in my head all the time. Maybe has a tempo that matches my walking-around rhythm. Maybe I’ve heard it so many times that it just lives in my brain forever. Or maybe—and I suspect this is the reason—I can’t shake that chorus.

Because it’s such a grand gesture, octaves aren’t used very often in songs. The most famous example of an octave is in “Over the Rainbow.” It’s perfect for that song, because that eight-note leap happens just as the chorus starts, as if the journey to that place over the rainbow (Oz, a better life, some kind of escape) is under way.

In “If It Makes You Happy,” the octave isn’t quite as certain (it starts on the fifth in the song’s key, and not the root, as in “Over the Rainbow”). Instead of a serene, confident journey, the octave is used to plead a case, to dramatically ask a question. I read an interview with Crow a while ago in which she said that the song is about critics giving her first record some backhanded compliments. It’s a fair question: if you like it, what is there to gripe about?

I’m a sucker for songs that double as music-industry complaints and relationship woes (Aimee Mann post coming soon!), so this song is right up my alley. I also like the track’s Stones-y feel, Crow’s strained vocals during that octave leap, and the fact that she says “serve you french toast again” in a dramatic fashion, which always makes me laugh. Also, I apparently love songs from 1996. Because I am an old person.


Song 109: Dar Williams, “Iowa” (1996)

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I’m writing this on April 20, the day after the manhunt for the second suspected Boston Marathon bomber, though Song 109 is for Day 109, the day of the seemingly unending suspense and the possibility of terror at any second. My sister and her husband live in Watertown, the place where the guy was hiding, and I used to live around the corner.

While Lizzie and I were wondering what to do with ourselves yesterday morning, we settled into a couple of spots: Lizzie at the computer listening to a scanner, and me next to Lilly, who was in her crib playing, thankfully unaware of the dark cloud hanging over our city. It took a while to find a radio station that wasn’t broadcasting news about the situation, but I finally found that good ol’ WUMB was playing “Iowa” by Dar Williams.

I used to love Williams’s record Mortal City, which still holds up as a funny, touching collection of songs. “Iowa,” the funniest and most touching, is the album’s highlight. It’s about the little rebellions we allow ourselves to take, bursting from the “screen doors of discretion.” I love the way she sings about driving “ten miles above the limit, and with no seat belt” (adding darkly, “and I’d do it again”). Her delivery of the line is perfect.

Yesterday, I was so thankful to have stumbled upon this song. Today, I’m thankful for so much more.


Song 63: De La Soul (feat. Mos Def), “Big Brother Beat” (1996)

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Man, this is one underrated record. Stakes Is High may be a ways off from Three Feet High and Rising, but what isn’t? And one of De La Soul’s great charms has always been their need for reinvention, which we first saw with De La Soul Is Dead, the album that mocked the trio’s D.A.I.S.Y. Age (“da inner sound, y’all”) debut.

This song is the best track on Stakes Is High, and I think it’s because of its confidence. A song called “Big Brother Beat” better have a good beat, and this one does. It’s not flashy, but it’s sure-footed and, true to the song’s title, seems to be all-knowing, transmitting the De La signal to the five boroughs and beyond.

This song also features the artist formerly known as the mighty Mos Def (he now goes by Yasiin Bey), only a few years away from Black On Both Sides but still, at that time, mainly a Brooklyn concern. So whether this was the intention or not, “Big Brother Beat” is something of a passing of the torch. It’s easy to see what De La Soul saw in Mos Def, as he shares the Native Tongues ethos and fits the group’s laid-back, affable style.


Song 42: Wilco, “What’s the World Got in Store”

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Like many music fans, I initially wrote off Wilco as the also-ran to Son Volt. Both bands spun off the adored Uncle Tupelo, but it was Son Volt that seemed to have the legs. And don’t get me wrong, Son Volt were, and are (when frontman Jay Farrar intermittently puts out records), a very good band. But Wilco. Damn. They found me when I needed them.

Someone in my college dorm lent Being There to me. At the time I was really into Son Volt’s excellent Straightaways, and I looked at the Wilco collection with skepticism: a double record? From these jokers? But then I listened, over and over and over again, to the songs about loneliness, about being in a rock band, about how wonderful and miserable it is to make art. That was a terrible year. I lived in the basement of a dingy building, with two other guys. The only windows were little rectangles up near the ceiling that, when the Maine snow piled up, let in no light. While I was living there, I had some depression going on, and I don’t typically throw that word around. It was not good.

There were many things that helped me. My wife and best friend (and at that time, my girlfriend) did the most to help me out of my depression, for which I’ll always be grateful. But music was also immensely important, especially records like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Elliott Smith’s XO, Aimee Mann’s Magnolia soundtrack, and Being There. (I know, I know, those don’t seem like the type of records to lift one out of depression. Welcome to my musical tastes!)

Why did Being There help? Who knows; maybe it just provided some welcome distraction. But I know for a fact that “What’s The World Got In Store” gave me comfort from time to time. It’s like a warm cup of coffee, starting with that banjo, coupled with Jeff Tweedy’s husky voice saying, “Close your eyes and go to sleep.” It’s not all happiness, but even the darker lines (like that great twist at the end of the first verse, “You’ve been trying hard not to think I’m a liar”) are sung with such calmness. Even when he’s screaming “nothing!” in Being There opener “Misunderstood,” I find Jeff Tweedy’s voice to be instantly soothing. (Again, welcome to my musical tastes.)

For these reasons, Being There is my favorite Wilco record. I know Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is their undisputed masterpiece, and I agree objectively with that opinion, but I’ll always come back to Being There. It found me, helped me, and stuck around.