Song 354: Tracey Thorn, “Joy” (2012)

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You could argue that this song is kind of a bummer, that Tracey Thorn is the Debbie Downer at the Christmas party. It’s true, “Joy” isn’t all hot cocoa and snowflakes: “When someone very dear,” she sings, “calls you with the words ‘Everything’s all clear’/That’s what you want to hear/But you know it might be different a new year.” Merry Christmas.

But the next line is what makes the song more than a stocking full of coal: “That’s why we hang the lights so high.” Thorn isn’t saying we don’t, or shouldn’t, celebrate like we do, she’s pointing out why Christmas is so important. We’ve all experienced loss, despair and loneliness, and those things make the good times great. Without darkness, we wouldn’t even know the light was there.

I think it’s interesting that Thorn chose a Christmas song for these themes, which could readily apply to any time of year. I wonder if Thorn wanted to provide an antidote to all the goddamn cheeriness in most Christmas songs, or if she couldn’t resist the imagery of candles, snow-covered trees, and carols that make you cry.

I love Tracey Thorn’s voice, which recalls Linda Thompson’s in its weight and sturdiness. It works especially well for songs like “Joy,” in which weight and sturdiness play significant roles. That low voice is counterbalanced by the gentle jingle bells and high piano, which reflects the light and dark of the song’s lyrics. It’s all of a piece, and everything goes where it should.


Song 332: Aaron Copland, “Appalachian Spring” (Perspectives Ensemble, Sato Moughalian, cond.) (1944/2012)

In 1942, the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham commissioned composer and conductor Aaron Copland to write a score for her ballet. The ballet’s story evolved over the course of the two years between conception and premiere, but the final narrative centered on a Pennsylvania family in the 1800s, building their home and finding their place in the community.

I haven’t seen the ballet, but the music, like most of Copland’s music, seems to capture America perfectly: it can be as airy and open as a midwestern field or as busy and bustling as Manhattan, often within the span of a few seconds. “Appalachian Spring” begins with tones slowly and deliberately overlapping, as if the musicians are slowly building the song like the family builds their house. Suddenly, around 2:40 in the Perspectives Ensemble performance below, notes rush up and down a major scale as if they’re being chased. We’ve set the scene, and now it’s time to get to work. Let’s build this house.

The entire piece is beautiful, but I wanted to focus specifically on the seventh section of “Appalachian Spring,” the “Doppio Movimento.” This section (which begins at the 17-minute mark in the video) cribs from the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” written by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. The melody is indeed very simple, but very affecting, and its themes of appreciation for our shared and individual freedom has made the song a Thanksgiving staple. Those themes are also a perfect fit for “Appalachian Spring,” a piece centered on the establishment of an American identity.

As Alex Ross writes in his book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Copland wrote the score for “Appalachian Spring” at a time when an American identity seemed especially unstable: the Depression was not forgotten, and World War II was new. Graham plucked the title phrase from the poem “The Bridge” by Hart Crane, a man consumed by financial hardship, alcoholism, and guilt over his homosexuality (he committed suicide in 1932). The poem contains a section about a train barreling along without noticing men suffering alongside the tracks, and Ross writes that with “Appalachian Spring,” Copland “tries to stop the speeding train. Like so many other Copland works, it offers images of an ideal nation, the America that could have been or might still be.” America is still imperfect, of course, making Copland’s idealized country a timelessly hopeful view.

The excellent compilation A Copland Celebration, Vol. 1 features a recording of Copland rehearsing “Appalachian Spring” with the Columbia Chamber Ensemble, and like any rehearsal, it features the conductor trying to make the piece as perfect as possible. But there’s something very Coplandesque in the way Copland tries to idealize “Appalachian Spring”—with his boundless enthusiasm, he tries to make the piece sound clear and effortless. “Like an organ sound,” he commands at one point, indicating that he wants the sound to remain constant, not fade. “Now take it freshly again. Like an amen.” Then his ensemble finishes the section, and Copland lays down his baton with a sharp click, and says “That’s it,” without a hint of frustration. He’s satisfied, and his vision, at least for today, is complete.


Song 330: Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe” (2012)

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I know, I know, talking about “Call Me Maybe” is very 2012. But the song has withstood the test of time (a year in pop music is like a century in reality), and I’ve never gotten tired of it. I think that’s because of its layers: the pulsing synths, the string flourishes, the palm-muted guitars that push the song along.

But those are just the parts. The sum of those parts is a big, fun jam about having a crush on someone. In a lot of ways, it’s the perfect example of a pop song (it’s not the perfect pop song—keep your hands off my Jackson 5!), but a kind of archetype for the format’s strengths. Beat you can dance to? Check. Melody that will never leave you alone? Check. Lyrics about wanting someone else to be your one true love, however temporarily? Check.

Another thing I love about “Call Me Maybe” is how much Carly Rae Jepsen is tries to sound nonchalant despite the fact that she’s head over heels about the person in question. Of course, that’s the song’s great twist on the standard pop song: the chorus is intentionally misleading, because we all know that the narrator isn’t the casual flirt that she’s trying to be. As the song’s goofy video explores, Jepsen is all awkwardness.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, “Call Me Maybe” was originally written as a folk song, which is a confounding thing to try and imagine. Given the song’s great melody, I don’t doubt that it was a good folk song, but I can’t possibly fathom what it sounded like. Regardless, it could never have been as great as the pop/disco single it became, because the pop/disco format makes that chorus funny: underneath Jepsen’s assurances that she’s only kinda interested, the soaring synths and strings tell another story. An acoustic guitar wouldn’t have been ironic, or exciting, enough.


Song 260: Jack White, “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” (2012)

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For all of the well-deserved raves that Jack White has received over the years—for his guitar prowess, his inimitable voice, his passion for analog—his songwriting skills seem to get less attention. He’s a damn great songwriter, capable of fierce, monstrous workouts and subtle, beautiful ballads.

He also writes songs like “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy,” a track that sounds like a little pop throwaway when listening to Blunderbuss as a whole, but when hearing it out of context (as I did on the radio recently), it sounds like the gem it is.

The arrangement is simple but very effective: as far as I can tell, the track features acoustic guitar, mandolin, piano and drums. There’s no bass on the track, a method that lent early White Stripes record a fiery treble sound. Here, the lack of low end makes the song sound lighter than air, gentle and lilting.

“Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” is a bit of a trifle, but by design. Compared to the raw, biting “Sixteen Saltines,” it’s like someone holding your hand. The fact that White is so adept at both extremes is a credit to his incredible talent.


Song 236: Now, Now, “School Friends” (2012)

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I had the tremendous luck to see Minneapolis band Now, Now—back when they were known as Now, Now Every Children—at the 7th Street Entry, the tiny room next to First Avenue. They had just released the fantastic record Cars, and it was clear that they were poised for greatness.

Sure enough, within the next couple of years, Now, Now signed to big indie Anti- and released Threads. Produced by Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla, Threads is both big and small in sound: it’s personal and intimate, but it reaches for the jugular every time. The moment that gets to me in “School Friends” is when Cacie Dalager sings “invisible like you want her.” Suddenly, the song lifts ever so slightly, and the keyboard reaches up too, as if trying to find light above the darkness.

The two main members of Now, Now—Dalager and guitarist Brad Hale—were a couple of marching band geeks in high school, and this may be a stretch, but I swear I can hear that influence on Threads. Each part plays a role in making the song a big, beating heart, a formation on the field.


Song 219: Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion” (2012)

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It’s funny where revelations can happen: in a church, on a barstool, in the shower. In “Bad Religion,” it happens to Frank Ocean in a taxicab, presumably after the moment that doomed any possibility of romance with the man he loves.

Ocean calls the cab driver his “shrink for the hour,” but he’s more like a priest in a dark, uncomfortable confessional, listening to Ocean talk about how he’s in this religion alone, making it more of a “one-man cult” than any kind of logical belief system. But faith is faith, and just like there’s no logic to many aspects of spirituality, love just happens.

“Bad Religion” packs a lot into its three minutes, and in that sense, the song exemplifies Frank Ocean’s primary strength: concision. That may be a strange word for a guy who wrote a seven-minute song connecting a strip club to ancient Egypt, but it’s true. The main line of the chorus alone–“If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion”–is sparsely worded but dense with meaning, eliciting images of begging, prayer, and sexual acts. And though the song features an organ and strings, it sounds open and airy, like a church between services.

The album version of “Bad Religion” is excellent, but the rendition that Ocean performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is a thing of beauty. A private confession is one thing, revelation among fellow believers is something else entirely.


Song 197: A.C. Newman, “They Should Have Shut Down the Streets” (2012)

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In the span of a couple years, Carl Newman’s mother died, and his son was born. The album he recorded over that period, Shut Down the Streets, is fittingly at odds with itself, like it doesn’t know whether to mourn or celebrate.

My favorite song from the album is “They Should Have Shut Down The Streets,” which contrasts the hugely important death of a parent with the fact that people die every day. Life goes on, but why should it? Shouldn’t the schools have closed? Shouldn’t there have been a massive procession with presidents and other dignitaries? Shouldn’t they have shut down all the streets?

I love this song because, though we know it’s about Newman’s mother’s death, it’s broad enough to apply to any personal event in the grand scheme of things. This is massively significant to me; why is that dude just walking his dog like nothing happened? Why is there nothing on the news about this? Why is the sun shining? We know that’s not how life works, but that’s often how it feels.

Newman’s day job is lead singer and songwriter for the New Pornographers, who are one of my favorite bands, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for his solo work. The Slow Wonder is one of the best records of the aughts, and Shut Down the Streets was one of last year’s highlights.