Tori Amos: Winter
Every time I hear this song... I can see the dripping icicles hanging from the gutters, feel the chill of the snow piled on the lawns... and overhear the conversation between the father and the daughter - winter becomes a metaphor for loving... and leaving... and change's counterpart is constancy... and our hearts are warmed...
Saturday, February 6, 2010
A strange thing happened to me today. I started my day outside, shoveling ten inches of new snow. When the job was done, I came inside. Intellectually, I knew that the work I had done meant that we were free to leave the house if we wished. But, emotionally, I felt snowed in. I knew that we could go, but I knew that we wouldn’t. This feeling sometimes overcomes songwriters too, especially regarding relationships. Here are two of the finest examples I know of of what I mean.
Eliza Carthy: Whispers of Summer
You might have noticed my posting earlier this week of a song by Martin Carthy. Eliza is his daughter, but her work as a solo artist is quite different from his. Here, she describes the aftermath of a broken relationship. Summer exists for her only as a memory or a dream. In her waking life, winter holds sway.
Dar Williams: February
Dar Williams’ winter scene is even bleaker. It is so cold that even her memory is being frozen away. The song is the most vivid description of being emotionally stuck that I have ever heard of. The last verse talks about a new lover and preparing for winter. But the listener is left to wonder: is this a renewed hope, or a flashback?
Friday, February 5, 2010
Martin Carthy: Lord Franklin
Lord Franklin and his crew of 100 sailors set out on a brave quest for the North West Passage, and they never returned. That was all that was known for 12 years. That was time enough for Franklin to become a hero and the subject of a legend. And it was plenty of time to write a song about him.
My favorite version of the song is by Pentangle, but we have already heard from them this week. I had not been aware of Carthy’s version. He sets up a counter rhythm in his guitar part, and delivers the vocal in fine style, inhabiting the emotion of the song completely. But, on the original album release, Carthy had this to say about the song in his liner notes:
“Sir John Franklin set out with two ships, the “Erebus” and the “Terror”, on his second attempt to discover the North West Passage and was never heard of again. It was almost twelve years before the story of what had actually happened to the expedition was finally pieced together. After sailing round the island in the far north of Canada, the ships, predictably, became trapped in the ice; what was completely unexpected, however, was that the lime juice stored in barrels became useless and half the crews of both ships died of scurvy. Some of the others decided to strike across country for a mission station, but one by one they died on the journey. How they managed to die in country that was full of game where Eskimos had lived for generations is a mystery. The real tragedy was Franklin's blunder in not allowing for such a contingency: he had taken along beautiful tea-services, flags and dress uniforms for the celebrations when their mission was accomplished, instead of extra food supplies. Several rescue operations were mounted, one by Lady Franklin herself from the proceeds of public fund she started for that purpose, after the Admiralty had washed it hands of the whole affair, having itself failed in a rather desultory rescue attempt. The truth was actually discovered by an expedition in which the United States Navy took part.”
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Ween: Cold Blows the Wind
"Cold Blows the Wind", from Ween's The Mollusk, is an old Child Ballad, also known as "The Unquiet Grave". In the song, a woman spends a year and a day mourning the death of her lover. Then he rises from the grave and basically tells her to get over him, so he can finally achieve eternal peace. To get rid of her, he asks her to get him several impossible things, such as water from a stone. Does it work? In Ween's version, apparently not. The song ends with her pledging to weep at his grave for another year and a day.
James Taylor: Frozen Man
We've posted numerous James Taylor songs in our time here at Star Maker Machine, but none so recent as this one - an interesting commentary on the aging of the popular, given that the song is almost 20 years old. But our preference for James' earliest work is not, after all, atypical: though James still makes waves on the nostalgia circuit, generally, audiophiles cite his early, delicate folkwork as his heyday, and most eschew his lighter fare, especially the radio-ready products of his late seventies and early eighties poprock period, while ignoring the vast majority of what has come out since.
Count me an exception to the rule, then. For I have great respect for James' late-to-mid-career work, flawed though much of it it may be. And that goes especially for 1991 release New Moon Shine, and later nineties album Hourglass.
This song is a great example of James' middle-age period: contemporary, to be sure, and highly produced in that inevitable AAA-format folkpop style, it nonetheless manages to attain poignancy without resorting to the older formulae of confession and broken-souled youth so typical of his early work. Instead, here JT takes on the character of a man awoken out of time after being frozen in the ice for centuries, speaking to our middle-aged fears of loneliness and loss in the midst of full-flourish plastic culture in ways that few can attain at their best, either.
It's no Millworker, and it's certainly no Sweet Baby James. There's a veneer of cultural criticism here and elsewhere on the same album which is not so much forced as just plain obvious, in ways that only a middle-aged famous person might produce. But in the end, the viewpoint is tender, and the story unique; for what it claims to be, this is good, solid stuff, creative, sentimental almost to a fault, but nonetheless music from a master who can still hit the emotional high notes.
Oh, hell: let's be clear. It makes me ache, for myself and for all the loved ones that are and might have been in my life. Isn't that the true test of good music, under all our words?
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Shelleyan Orphan: Ice
Since I live in South Florida, I have been joking off-list with my fellow Star Makers about this week's theme, faux-innocently asking "what is this cold you speak of?" - I was promptly reminded of the arctic wave that blasted us the first two weeks of last month, in which the orange trees froze, I turned on our heat (for the first time in years)... and I didn't leave the house for four days...
But I digress...
I rarely step foot into a music store these days, now purchasing my CDs directly from the artist at shows or ordering online, either through the artist's website or via Amazon - however, I used to be a cut-out bin junkie (albums, cassettes or CDs, depending upon the era), loving nothing better than to spend hours flipping through the stacks, unearthing an old favorite or a new discovery (at those prices, you could afford to take chances!)...
Camelot Music... Perimeter Mall... Atlanta, Georgia... February 1992 - I found Acoustic Christmas for $1.00. I couldn't believe my luck (would you just look at that tracklist?!?) and immediately scooped it up. It more than lived up to my expectations... and the following December found me making the first mix CD of what is now an annual holiday tradition - we had just moved to South Florida from Atlanta and I had the blues, living so far away from my mom, brother and sister...
I envisioned a song cycle of emotion, segueing from melancholy and sadness to redemption and acceptance... and decided to title it Have Yourself a *Mellow* Little Christmas, using Shawn's cover as the cornerstone final song - the Shelleyan Orphan tune stopped me cold (pun intended) on first listen, and I knew it was destined for inclusion in this musical journey...
I knew nothing about what-I-thought-was-a-her-but-only-recently-discovered-was-a-group... only that the haunting voice, the bittersweet lyrics and the eclectic musicianship made it the perfect track 2 (following In the Bleak Mid-Winter) - I love the way my mix rollercoasters from head-in-the-oven futility to everything's-going-to-be-okay affirmation (Juliana Hatfield's Make It Home and Kate Bush's December Will Be Magic Again)... and I still carve out special time each holiday season to plug in the tree, light a few candles, pour myself a glass of wine and listen to my homemade compilation start-to-finish uninterrupted... to remind myself that without the sorrow we wouldn't appreciate the joy...
All this because of a song on a CD found in the cut-out bin - the power of music indeed...
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
John Hiatt: Icy Blue Heart
I can see my breath when I hear this song. John Hiatt makes you feel the chill in the air. This probably takes place in a well heated bar, but that heat isn’t reaching these two. Yes, cold is an extended metaphor for matters of the heart, but it’s no less real for that.
Monday, February 1, 2010
Little Feat: Cold, Cold, Cold
What this blog needs is more Little Feat. And luckily, they've got just the tune for our frigid theme.
Published on the cusp of the Zeppelin seventies, this Sailin' Shoes deep cut starts with cold tapping iron and then crashes into a stark drumbeat and a sax-and-guitarfuzz riff that totally overwhelm the lyrics. Thanks to a jagged rhythmic offset between one and the other, and some carefully balanced production dynamics, the instrumentation comes off as less a full wall of sound than a set of frozen, disparate, distant elements, even when the chorus kicks in.
The resulting song is an epic representation of the heartbeat of the lonely and abandoned...or the deserted, penniless junkie in desperate need of a fix, if you choose to interpret the "woman" of the song as something bit more metaphoric.
Bonnie Raitt's late-nineties "cover", off an otherwise-solid Lowell George tribute, warms the song up unnecessarily, cranking the dial up past sentimental. But it's still worth inclusion, if only for contrast.
Bonnie Raitt w/ Little Feat: Cold, Cold, Cold
Captain Beyond: Frozen Over
Progressive rock, heavy blues, wild jazz and frickin' SPACE! Captain Beyond's spicy hard rock gumbo had all the right ingredients.
Consisting of a dude from Deep Purple and two dudes Iron Butterfly, Captain Beyond was a veritable who's who of early 1970's proto heavy metal. Between 1972 and 1977 they released three must-own albums full of delectables, every bit as good as anything their associated acts ever released.
Frozen Over is my favorite song off of the first album, mainly because the ominous lyrics never fail to give me the chills (pun intended):
Honey, your face is frozen
Frozen as could be
Baby, your face is like a block of ice
Cold as the deep dark sea
The fantastic photo at the top of this post was lovingly nicked from this fansite, which is not only informative and fun, but has a layout that makes you nostalgic for the painfully slow dial-up days of 1996 when Netscape and unofficial fansites made life worth living.
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Pentangle: Rain and Snow
Like many old blues songs, "Rain and Snow" (more commonly known as "Cold Rain and Snow) seems to be an amalgam of several old folk songs. I have fourteen version of this song of marital woe by the Grateful Dead alone, but this version by British folk-rockers Pentangle remains my favorite. It comes from their 1971 album Reflection, where the band members were really expanding their influences. This song alone features both banjo and sitar (provided by the band's guitarists, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, respectively), and it's that seemingly unlikely combination that makes it stand out for me.