The Song Remains the Same

This photo shows dairy farms in Buffalo Township, Pennsylvania

Winding country lanes threaded through emerald corn stalks taller than my car; major thoroughfares connected country towns alternately prosperous and depressed. Half a mile might separate neat garden-front homes from exhausted-looking structures with sagging porches and flaking paint, depending on the township.

I was driving along a stretch of highway I hadn’t traveled in years. A family health emergency had led to an unplanned trip to my hometown, and I navigated long-unvisited, yet intimately familiar, roads – the routes where I had first learned to drive.

It was a weekend afternoon, a blistering hot day with not much activity. People were no doubt taking it easy: We passed another car every mile or so. The iPod shuffled through my albums over the car stereo, and suddenly Michael Stipe’s voice flooded the car.

Half a World Away, from REM’s Out of Time. It was one of my definitive high school albums, and a CD I had on as a constant companion in the car, back in the mid-nineties, during those early days where my learner’s permit gave me my first terrifying glimpse of freedom, and the license (scored after three agonizing attempts) authorized it.

Some pieces of music seem tailor-made for certain landscapes. That afternoon, the vintage song, coupled with the instantly familiar hometown surroundings, called up long-dormant memories. I could immediately see and smell my first car: its compact seats, the lingering perfume upholstery-imprinted from its first owner, the steering wheel rubbery under my fingertips.

Researchers have found that music and memory are intricately connected in the deepest recesses of the brain, and I could practically feel my own synapses firing as I continued down the road. The opening strains of the song felt as poignant as running into an old friend. At that moment, the car and its stereo became a de facto time machine, effortlessly transporting me to an earlier era. I was suddenly seventeen years old again, worrying that I wouldn’t get into college, or worse – that I would get in, and wouldn’t be able to afford it. My sisters were driving me crazy; my parents even more so. In my mind’s eye, I could almost see us—of that era—getting ready for dinner, just the five of us, as though none of us had moved away, introduced new spouses to the family, or aged at all.

REM continued to play; the music soothed and consoled, just as it did back then.

That day, it felt as though I traveled with a shadow self. She seemed to spread out inside me, across me, stretching her limbs as though rousing from a long sleep. This younger version of me peered out with curiosity, almost incredulity. You’re married, she seemed to say. You’re already finished with college, and paying off loans. You don’t live around here anymore. The familiar suddenly seemed strange, the aural and visual triggers creating a discomfiting shuffling of time and space.

This is true, I thought in reply to the seventeen-year-old. But I’m still me. I haven’t fundamentally changed. Then—

This is ridiculous, the modern, present-day me thought. I’ve heard this album plenty of times over the years, and didn’t have this time-transport, flashback experience. Granted, it hadn’t been in the car, in this particular place.

But the eyes in my rearview mirror could have been mine or hers. The view through my windshield could haven been 1996, 2005, 2012.

The song came to a close, and the spell broke. The nostalgia lingered for just a moment, perhaps a mile down the road, disrupted completely as a more up-tempo pop song from the past year filled the speakers. I switched off the stereo and drove the remaining stretch home in silence, trying to will my shadow self to stick around just a little longer.

Photo courtesy Gerry Dincher via Flickr Creative Commons

‘Back’ to the Future

(Copyright Signature Sounds)

When I was in college, I cut off all my hair. My long hair had been my trademark, my most defining feature — waist-length as a kid, then just past my shoulders for most of high school. In a rash decision, just to try something new, I chopped it to my ears.

“I don’t even recognize you!” my aunt said to me the first time I came home with the new look.

That’s how I feel about the work of musical alchemy that Brooklyn-based Lake Street Dive pulls off with their cover of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”. This version is sultry and smoky: Bassist Bridget Kearney and drummer Mike Calabrese set the tone with an easy, assured tempo, and the listener instantly forgets the frenetic pace of the original. Trumpeter Mike “McDuck” Olson plays his notes languid and low, a patient pleading to match the lyrics.

With these choices, the reinterpretation becomes a song for adults. The rapid-fire momentum of the Jackson Five’s version embodies the madcap antics of a teenager trying to win back his girl; Lake Street Dive’s update has the assured confidence of experience. The singer recognizes she made a mistake, and she isn’t too proud to admit it. In fact, she’ll take her time to seduce and win back her girl.

The distinctive vocals and phrasing grab the listener’s ear and don’t let up. Vocalist Rachael Price sings with an assured confidence and maturity that, from the opening notes, make the song her own — a most unexpected feat, given the original’s iconic status and singer. When the rest of the band joins her in harmony on the chorus, it’s an experience as memorable as the first version. Cumulatively, the stripped-down, slowed-down performance becomes intimate and personal. If Price tries to woo someone with this song, she’ll succeed.

The song recently came up on my iPod shuffle, while I finished up the dinner dishes with my husband (himself a musician and pop culture junkie). I hummed along, by now familiar with this new interpretation.

“What song was that?” he asked when the song concluded, and I clued him in. Such is the power of a stellar re-arrangement, as it makes even the most famous and familiar work fresh, unexpected, and thrilling. It also speaks to the enduring strength of a world-class pop tune: Its foundation is always stable enough, despite the years, for other talented musicians to come along and put their individual stamps upon it.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

To Soothe and Protect

(Copyright John Rutter, Collegium Records)

My high school choir sang John Rutter’s “Requiem” during my junior year. We performed it in spring, close to Easter and Passover. Practice was daily, and like anything practiced each day, the music gradually became learned, then memorized, then second-hand. This complete familiarity with the material was our choir director’s goal: When the time came for our performances, we teenagers wouldn’t need sheet music. In the moment, we would be able to focus wholly on his direction, and the audience. And as a side effect, nearly twenty years later, the notes and lyrics are still deeply impressed in my memory.

I’m not a religious person, but in times of sadness, I find myself returning to my copy of Rutter’s “Requiem” recording by The Cambridge Singers, and the “Lux Aeterna” movement in particular. I find it, still, indescribably lovely — even despite having heard it so much during that initial memorization period. I still get chills at the sequence starting at the 2:18 mark, culminating with a lump in my throat at the 5:22 mark when the sopranos hit that sublime crescendo. Listening back to it now, and remembering all the repetition of our choir practices, I wonder how much time Rutter spent on this work during the composition process, tweaking it over and over until he got it to the level of beauty he found appropriate.

Beyond beauty, though, I find this piece to be such a comfort. No doubt part of the comfort comes from my deep sense of nostalgia I feel when I hear this piece. But in fact, maybe that’s one of the greatest values of a wonderful performance – the ability, in the face of hardship, for a performer (or performers) to reach an audience in a way that can soothe, reassure, and connect. A comforting performance may differ by the eye of the beholder, or the ear of the listener, but for me, it gets no better than this.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

Perfected Imperfection

(Copyright Bethlehem Records)

“What moves us in music is the vital sign of a human hand, in all its unsteady and broken grace … The art is the perfected imperfection.” — Adam Gopnik, “Music to Your Ears”, The New Yorker, 28 January 2013

An admission: I may be responsible for a good chunk of the 26,000+ views of Nina Simone’s 1962 recording of “Strawberry Woman/They’s So Fresh and Fine/I Loves You, Porgy”. It’s far and away my favorite Simone recording, and my favorite arrangement of these three songs. These three pieces, once Simone unites them, go so well together, like tea and honey, coffee and chocolate, whiskey and ice. Like a comforting drink, the performance soothes my insides and quiets my chattering mind. It slips under my skin, the gentle thrums of bass and delicate piano managing to reach some previously untouchable place.

The performance, for me, reaches the point of “unsteady and broken grace” between the 1:53 and 2:28 mark, when Simone conducts a soft, vocal-less interlude at the piano. The minor note Simone strikes at 2:16 is, to my ear, almost unbearably beautiful. Set against the subsequent verse and Simone’s deep, smoky vocal delivery, the performance becomes a study in contrasts. The pretty piano and the gruff voice enhance each other, coming together as cleanly and in a fashion as complementary as the three individual songs themselves.

I also love Simone’s deliberateness with this medley, both in pace and pronunciation. She works on her own schedule, taking her time with a particular phrase or note if it pleases her. If there’s a word she’d like to accent (“devil cra-abs”, for example, at the 0:54 mark), she injects a little color — a squeak, a rasp that snaps the lulled ear to attention. With this technique, Simone doesn’t just play the piano — she also plays the audience, controlling their attention by her total preparation of mood and tone. In short, she presents herself as a master of the “perfected imperfection”, fifty-one years before Gopnik even articulated the idea.

This post originally appeared on the Good Taste and Sense of Humor blog.

(No) Practice Makes Perfect

(Video copyright National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences)

I love when the familiar is made new. I love when a performer leaves his or her comfort zone. And I love when these two things happen at the same time.

In 1998, Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to perform the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot” opera at the Grammys. On doctor’s orders, he had to make an ultra-last-minute cancellation. Who steps in, with just twenty-two minutes to prepare? Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. In the original clip, there’s a the collective gasp of surprise when Sting announces the replacement. And then it seems as though the entire audience is holding its breathwould she make a fool of herself? Could she do justice to the song? What the hell were the producers thinking?

Franklin seems to have the same concerns herself. Early on in the performance, just before she starts to sing, she makes a little exhalation, one that could signal a moment of centering, or a moment of oh-my-god-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into. It’s the equivalent of the nightmare where you’re standing in front of the classroom with no clothes on—but in this case, it’s actually happening, and in front of millions to boot. Perhaps not having any time to prepare was a mixed blessing, in this caseshe had limited time to worry, little time to build up the jitters.

The first few notes are tentative. She comes in a little late at one measure, but quickly recovers. A few more lines go without incident, and very subtly, her body language changes as the orchestra swells. She begins to enjoy herself. Any attempt to evoke Pavarottiif there ever was one to begin withis completely abandoned.

Halfway through the performance, just before the choir comes in, a tone shift seems to take place. Franklin knows at this point that she’s made the song her own. It’s not quite opera, it’s definitely not soulit’s something completely unique and only something she could do. The performance takes on a once-in-a-lifetime moment, something borne of an act of friendship. It’s also an act of consummate professionalismof one artist taking up the mantle for another in an hour of need. What an understudy, and what a lucky audience was at the Grammys that night! The show must go on, and Aretha always puts on a damn great show.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

When ‘Wrong’ is So Right

(Copyright The Swell Season; Plateau, ANTI- recording studios)

“Once” made a huge impact when it hit theaters in 2006. The little indie movie that could featured wonderful music, touching performances, and the awwww-inducing real-life behind-the-scenes love story of lead musicians/actors Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Critical and widespread acclaim, including an Oscar for Best Original Song, soon followed.

Fast-forward to 2009. Hansard and Irglova are no longer a couple, although they’re still making fantastic music together as The Swell Season, demonstrated with the release of “Strict Joy”, their full-length album of songs inspired by Irish poet James Stephens. For me, the album reaches its peak on track 9, the Irglova-penned “I Have Loved You Wrong”. Whether it’s inspired more by Stephens or Hansard and Irglova’s own relationship is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s a mix of both.

It’s such a quiet song, but full of surprises. The two leads switch their trademark instruments — Irglova on Hansard’s holed guitar, Hansard on Irglova’s piano. Hansard, such a ferocious guitar player, is demure and controlled on the keys, letting Irglova steer the direction of her song in every way. The song’s hushed tone, and its last lyric of fond remembrance tinged with just a hint of regret, makes it come across as the ultimate demonstration of respect and reverence for a lost love. It’s the universal paean to “if only…”

And that last lyric–and refrain–is where the music, for me, becomes sublime. Irglova and Hansard sing together, “you’ve been/every now and then on my mind/yeah” for several measures, their voices in perfect unison. Strip away the lyric itself, and the timbre of their voices, the vulnerability and emotion behind the delivery, sums up where they once were, and the regard they still have for each other. In the span of two minutes, they manage to convey a love that’s morphed from lust to heady romance to heartbreak and, finally, to mature friendship.

As a listener, I feel a mix of sorrow and joy listening to this song — sorrow that these two kids couldn’t work things out, and joy that this gorgeous song (now available to the masses) was the result of such heartbreak. Sorrow because this song evokes the one who got away, who every now and then is on our own minds; joy because we’ve hopefully moved on to better, more sustaining relationships. The whispers of Irglova and Hansard’s voices, and the restraint of the arrangement, conveys that clash of resignation and hope, realism and acceptance.

This blog post originally appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

PSA (Proud Spouse Alert)

This photo shows an album on a record player

Sure, I know this is a space for me to share my writing and what I’m working on. But from time to time, I’ll take a minute to showcase a fellow writer, and in this case it happens to be my spouse.

After a long hiatus, my husband Andy is blogging again. If you’re a music fan (particularly indie rock), a vinyl aficionado, or just appreciate music criticism, check out The Record Nerd. I’m willing to bet you’ll find some new favorite bands here.

First up is a review of The Decemberists’ What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — and there will be much more to come.

Photo courtesy pumcus via Flickr