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.


Song 331: Lauryn Hill, “Ex Factor” (1998)

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Have I really not written about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill yet?? What a ridiculous situation. This record is one of my all-time favorites, and a member of the list of Records That Got Me Through Freshman Year of College. Given the number of amazing songs on the thing, it’s no wonder that the songwriting credits have been in legal dispute since its 1998 release. I’d want credit for these songs too.

Fifteen years and several career dramas later, Hill’s debut sounds anything but dated. Its blend of soul, hip-hop, R&B and pop still sounds fresh and original. I was going to write about the exuberant “Every Ghetto, Every City” or the beautiful “To Zion,” but listening to the album today, I was reminded how much I love “Ex Factor.” Placing this heavy, slow track so early in the record shows just how confident Hill was about the album’s momentum. “Ex Factor” features a beat (featuring a tympani!) heavy enough to sink a ship, paired with bright, sad piano notes. In the middle is Lauryn, lamenting the relationship that has doomed both partners (one of whom being—and I swear this is a coincidence—one of this week’s subjects, Wyclef Jean).

“I know what we have to do,” she sings near the song’s midway point, “you let go, and I’ll let go too.” It’s a big fat tragedy of a song, but it’s downright gorgeous, from Hill’s typically perfect voice to the guitars and organs that ornament the sadness. The lyrics are simple but effective, especially in the coda section (beginning around 3:25), which consists of a series of accusations and broken promises: “Care for me, care for me, you said you’d care for me/There for me, there for me, said you’d be there for me.” It’s all very plain, but that’s what makes it so heartbreaking.

Speaking of heartbreaking, we’re all waiting for a true follow-up to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and it seems less and less likely to happen. In the meantime, however, Miseducation seems like more than enough.


Song 320: Homie, “American Girls” (1998)

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Good music can pop up in the weirdest places. Look at that soundtrack album art up there, for instance. Would you ever guess that a movie called Meet the Deedles (whose budget could only produce that terrible soundtrack art) could snag a song featuring members of Weezer, Cake, and Soul Coughing? No, you would not.

But that’s just what happened. It was probably just one of those music business things that made it end up on the soundtrack to a shitty Disney movie about surfers, but it’s a shame, because the song is pretty great. You can hear each band’s influence—Weezer’s pop sense (and Rivers Cuomo’s lyrics about sexual inferiority), Cake’s whip-smart guitars, Soul Coughing’s jazzy abstraction.

Collaborations like this don’t usually work out. I remember being pretty excited about The Bens—that would be Ben Folds, Ben Lee, and Ben Kweller— but it added up to less than the sum of its parts. I’m sure it’s hard to not only collaborate musically but to make the final product sound like your respective bands. Homie, which never released another song, did just that.


Song 311: Counting Crows, “Angels of the Silences” (live version) (1998)

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Bands like Counting Crows confuse me. They’re capable of some very good, even great, songs, and yet they’re also capable of some atrocious material. How is that possible? I can understand an artist being on either side of the spectrum, or solidly in the middle. But all over the place? How? Why?

I count “Angels of the Silences” among their great songs. I’m partial to the version from their 1998 live record Across a Wire: Live In New York City, which includes both electric and acoustic performances. I’m so partial to this acoustic version, in fact, that the original version—from Recovering the Satellites—sounds strange. Too strong, too loud, too disruptive.

I think everything about this version is absolutely perfect, from the chiming acoustic guitars to the way Adam Duritz sings the lines “anything at all you know there might not be too many” as one big phrase. And I just love the sound of it; it sounds both solid and light, jangly and heavy. It reminds me of everything I like about Counting Crows—their pop melodies and concision—and none of the things I don’t—the pretension (oh the pretension!).

But overall, I just think this thing is really pretty. Nice work, guys.


Song 244: Belle & Sebastian, “Dirty Dream Number Two” (1998)

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Another one for the “this song got me through freshman year of college” file. When The Boy With the Arab Strap came out, I wasn’t familiar with Belle & Sebastian—which means that Arab Strap was my introduction to the band, and not their stellar debut, Tigermilk, or their subsequent masterpiece, If You’re Feeling Sinister.

I’m glad that it worked out that way, because Arab Strap is a very good record, but it’s also rather unassuming; if I had started at the beginning, my introduction would have been something of a letdown. Instead, I found it warm and inviting. Stuart Murdoch’s voice lifts the songs like helium.

Arab Strap is so subdued that “Dirty Dream Number Two,” a slight, synth-driven midtempo track, is the record’s highest-energy moment. It’s a lovely song, and, like the rest of Arab Strap, it’s simultaneously sad and funny. “Dream two,” sings Murdoch, “you couldn’t see her face but you saw everything else.” You can almost hear him widening his eyes on those last two words.

The entire song is surprising in its … well, “lewdness” isn’t the right word, but for Belle & Sebastian, whose “twee” image was cemented even in 1998, it almost fits. Between those lyrics and its sweet melody, “Dirty Dream Number Two” still catches me off guard.


Song 206: Cake, “Let Me Go” (1998)

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Apparently the Cake record Prolonging the Magic wasn’t well-reviewed when it came out…? That surprises me, because it’s my favorite of theirs, and one of my favorite records in general. The songs are really good, and singer John McCrea, with his patented “awwww yeah, awwww no,” is in fine form. Maybe critics just wanted more songs like “The Distance.” I love that song, but these songs aren’t quite like that.

So what are these songs like? There’s a sweetness to them, as if the band was trying to reach past their deadpan reputation for something deeper, something more mature. Case in point: “Let Me Go,” a love song whose verses are all about how a particular woman stands out from the others. The chorus is a response: give me a little space, treat me like a person, and I’ll want you more. Contrasting the guy’s romantic, idealized notion of the woman and the actual woman is an interesting and admirable idea.

And in many ways, it’s also a funny idea. A lot of songwriters have their “she’s so amazing; how much longer can I wait for her?” songs, but how many have that woman tell the narrator that it’s all a little too much, that he needs to back off? In the chorus? But that’s Cake for you.

Here’s what’s also like Cake: that marvelously spare sound, driven by chug-a-chug guitars, a plaintive trumpet, and McCrea’s matter-of-fact voice sing-speaking lyrics set to beautiful melodies. It’s a formula that’s served them well for 22 years, and I’m eager to see what they do next.


Song 189: Golden Smog, “Until You Came Along” (1998)

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Man, did I love alt-country. I still love some of the bands I came to know back then, like Wilco, the Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, and the Old ’97s. But as the wave of alt-country bands came and went, so did my interest. On to the next one, I guess.

What a great time to be a music fan, though. Not only were the above acts doing great work, but so were their side projects, including Golden Smog. Golden Smog started as a half-assed cover band that played at the now-defunct Uptown bar in Minneapolis and grew into a decent act with members from Wilco, Soul Asylum, the Replacements, the Jayhawks, Son Volt, and Big Star. Not a bad pedigree.

I haven’t heard all the band’s output, but I know that their second full-length, Weird Tales, is excellent. You’d never guess that it was a record that a bunch of musicians (which, in this record’s case, included Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris and Mark Perlman, and Big Star’s Jody Stephens) threw it together between projects. It has a unified sound, the songs are great, and the band is cohesive.

“Until You Came Along” was the obvious candidate for a single from Weird Tales, and that’s because it’s a catchy slice of jangly pop. Even though the only Big Star alumnus on the song was the band’s drummer, you can hear the Big Star influence, with those shimmery guitars and sunny harmonies.

The melody is obviously the main attraction here, but I also love the lyrics. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t notice the wonderful irony of Louris singing “sometimes you’re up, sometimes your down” while the notes he’s singing are the opposite: down, then up. Lizzie pointed this out to me years after I first heard it. If we had a band, she’d be the lyricist. And the business person. And the manager. I’d play guitar, I guess?

It looks like Golden Smog hasn’t been up to much lately (their last two records were in 2005 and 2006), but I think that’s fine. The band seems like a kind of creative safety net for its members, a place to hang out and perform when they need an outlet. It’s an important thing to have.