Song 170: Jon Brion, “Her Ghost” (2001)

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For a while there, Jon Brion was everywhere. He probably still is, and I’m just not paying as much attention, but seriously: hit records, obscure records, film scores, a weekly live music show… The man was inescapable, even if you didn’t know you were hearing him.

Add “solo record” to that list. Brion’s album Meaningless is a great record, one that rivals the work he did for Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple in the late nineties and early aughts. The songs are good, the production (in typical Brion fashion) is layered and unpredictable, and the musicianship is (again, typically) fantastic. The songs range in style from quiet acoustic ballad (the lovely “The Same Mistakes”) to frenetic, robotic pop workout (“I Believe She’s Lying,” which Brion co-wrote with Mann). “Her Ghost” is somewhere in between, a kind of a shuffle–a Bacharachesque lounge-pop number whose midtempo pace acts as a statement about a bummer of a status quo.

This dude, he’s always around, even though he isn’t. It’s an interesting metaphor, and I’m surprised nobody’s done it before. We all know people who have been hung up on someone far past the point of their actual presence, and it does seem like the person’s spirit still lingers, annoyingly, in every corner of every room. I like how Brion isn’t scared of the ghost, he’s just irritated.

I tend to gravitate towards songs with one central idea versus songs with many competing ones–mostly because I have a hard time interpreting lyrics, and it’s convenient when there’s only one motif to follow. Brion and Mann are pros at this style, and they both have songs that hinge on one metaphor, idiom or image, scouring its meaning for emotional resonance. In the case of “Her Ghost,” Brion explores this idea from the point of view of a bystander, until he points out that he’s “the one being exorcised.” The fact that the last word in that phrase prompts a wry little trumpet solo is very funny to me. Brion wins again.

Meaningless is a hell of a record, if you can track it down. In one sense, it sounds very much like 2001, and like the L.A. scene that fostered Mann, Eels, Elliott Smith and others of their ilk. In many other ways, it just sounds like pop music, from Tin Pan Alley to Cheap Trick (whose song “Voices” Brion covers for the album’s closer). I don’t know what Brion’s up to now–if he’s working with Kanye West, scoring a Vince Vaughn romantic comedy, or trying that television pilot again, but whatever it is, it’s going to be interesting.

Fun fact about my brain: whenever Brion sings “every” in the first part of the chorus, I subconsciously expect him to follow up with the rest of the Punky Brewster theme song  (“…time I turn around”). My mind is a strange place to be sometimes. Or always.

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Song 84: Spoon, “The Underdog” (2007)

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Another great running song! This one’s all about taking care of business, and not in the Bachman-Turner Overdrive sense of the term. No, this is about Britt Daniel overtaking you because you’re not paying attention. You cut out the middleman, and you’re now just dealing with the underdog, who will destroy you.

This is one of those songs that I loved the minute I first heard it. I knew I loved Spoon, and I knew they were capable of some pop magic, but until Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, it was some pretty abstract magic. This one is a balls-out blast, complete with a horn section that gets louder with each verse.

“The Underdog” was produced by Jon Brion, which makes sense when you think about it. It may not have the sad-sack beauty of his work with Aimee Mann, but it’s got the same sheen, the same kind of tactile arrangements (those clicks and clacks in the last verse sound like they’re creeping up on you, don’t they?

Interviews with Daniel revealed a Van Morrison influence on this song, which never would have noticed but seems obvious in retrospect. Like Morrison, Spoon and Brion use horns not to punctuate or emphasize, but to bathe you in warmth. It’s a funny addition to this song about kicking your ass, but that’s Brion for you. The guy’s a genius, and Spoon ain’t so bad either.