Monday, January 04, 2010

"You won't lose the beat if you just keep clapping your hands": Top 100 Songs of the '00s, Part 15 of 16: #8 - #4

I do the hard work so you don't have to. After a mere two songs yesterday, I give you FIVE today.

8. The Ruminant Band - Fruit Bats (2009)
My favorite song of 2009 lands at #8, a shock considering this song didn't strike me as all that interesting the first time I heard it. I remember reading (on another blog) someone's opinion that this song could very well be an anthem for a generation. Again, upon first listen, I didn't feel the same way. But then first listen became second became third became twentieth and I think I listened to it three times just last hour. It is the anthem for a generation.

But... not so fast. On December 26th, knowing that this song was slated for a spot on the list somewhere between 5 and 9, I experienced a small panic: I had no idea what this song was about. I couldn't make out most of the words. Any generational anthem has to be about something, even if that something is mystical bluster or blustery mysticism. I noted the singing of the song's title (uttered only once, in the final verse) and I made out a few other phrases ("buckets of love" and "mustard seed" being the best). And Wikipedia told me that a "ruminant" is a mammal that chews its food, regurgitates it, and chews it again (aka chewing "cud"). It also means to "ponder" or to "chew on" a topic.

These meanings appear to have little to do with the song though. For days I searched for the lyrics and came up empty. Sure the song appears to be recognizable to thousands of people (tens of thousands might be a stretch.) But no one bothered to post the lyrics. (Yes if I just bought the CD, I'd apparently have access to a lyric sheet.)

Finally, someone came through and posted the lyrics; it appears that the song lyrics are simultaneously childlike and priestly. At other times, they seem like gibberish and then suddenly poetic. I still don't know what it means but I think they're getting at a communal vibe between man and nature, between animals and insects, between a merle and a murder. In other words, Tad, Ben, and Pete may be alone on one level but they have grubs and bread and music to carry them through, Tad clearly benefiting from the presence of an Indian girl. Or I can do a copy-and-paste and let y'all figure it out:
You'll always have smokes if you always give buckets of love
Like little sad Tad who was living on beetles and grubs
He had a blue-eyed merle
and loved an Indian girl
Lived alone in the warm wet fields in his corner of the world

You'll always eat bread if you always have seeds to sow
LIke old Zen Ben who lived with a murder of crows
He wore a crown of beans
And a belt of weeds
Slept alone in the warm wet fields on a bed of mustard seed

You won't lose the beat if you just keep clapping your hands
Like sweet sweet Pete who clapped for the Ruminant Band
He had a broken lung
And a bit-off tongue
Lived alone in the warm wet fields under moon and sun

7. Benton Harbor Blues - Fiery Furnaces (2006)
I used to think that Hold Steady / Lifter Puller lead singer Craig Finn polarized listeners more than any other vocalist. Those who love him idolize him; those who don't love him want to smack him and remove his vocal cords. I never understood people's resistance to Finn's talk-rap-shout-singing; his style fits perfectly with his (his band's) songs.

Then I noticed that the same people who disliked Finn loathed  Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces. Friedberger made it safe for me to play Finn for these folks. I have likely been de-friended by Facebook friends who can't stand the FFs but mostly can't bear to listen to Eleanor's seemingly classically trained yet jazzy in an indie-rock-sort-of-way vocal style. This truly puzzles me.

Look at her. She's a doll. She couldn't possibly rub people the wrong way. Is it the way she treats every word out of her mouth as the final word up to that point in time and nothing else needs to be said until the next word comes and so on. Like going to an opera where the singer has no short-term memory. In other words - MY kind of singer!

Of all the songs she's sung, Benton Harbor Blues may be her most subdued vocal performance (unlike say, Charmaine Champagne). You don't hear her voice until two minutes and 17 seconds into Benton Harbor Blues. And you feel the protagonist's quiet pain; you sense that these blues are real and, like most real blues, they're disjointed and static... fascinating to watch but ultimately sad. And the high temperature tomorrow in Benton Harbor is a seasonably average 23 but I bet it feels like 6.

As far as I know, her brother and main Furnace writer Matthew Friedberger is the one who penned the song and its killer of a line "I thought of the ways that I've broke my own heart" but Eleanor, by seemingly not wanting to sing those words and singing them anyway, owns the line. How do you recover from that? Breaking your own heart.

It's probably best that I never heard this song until 2009. It wouldn't have helped in 2006. By the way, I'm choosing the 7+minute epic version, with the instrumental quirks and odd pauses, rather than the more straightforward 3 minute version (Benton Harbor Blues Again) which gets more than twice as many listens as the other version on lala. I expect that my link will launch the long version up the lala play frequency list.

6. I'm Waking Up To Us - Belle & Sebastian (2001)
I wrote enough about them yesterday. Read what I wrote yesterday but pretend that their evolution to expert craftsmen was not complete... pretend that it's 2001, not 2004.

Also, keep in mind that Stuart Murdoch likely wrote this song intentionally as a "clueless narrator" whose arrogance is his downfall. Only he doesn't realize it. Sure, he sings "She was the one love of my life. And I let her go" so he knows the stakes are high. But then, in the same verse, he stops trying: "I fed her with a spoon. I made her mother smile. I helped the kid survive." He grabs the small victories where he can and lets the string section take over the longing.

(Some say that the song was written by Murdoch as a break-up missive directed toward soon-to-depart bandmate Isobel Campbell. But no one is that self-critical and self-aggrandizing in the same song. Not even Scott Weiland. No, it's a story, a story Stu can relate to, but a story all the same.) He would deal with Isobel more directly in 2006 with Dress Up In You. Enjoy the live version; it's practically identical to the real one.

5. The Wind and the Mountain - Liz Phair (2005)
I went up a mountain. And I saw another mountain. And then I saw yet another mountain. So I parked. And then my car wouldn't start. Then I got it jumpstarted but not before I got a parking ticket. They say the curb was painted yellow; I thought that was just a reflection. But the car - yeah it was a battery. I used up too much juice when I parked in the strange structure by the freeway and went to sleep. In my car. I was tired. Yeah, the strange structure is just a parking garage. But those were really mountains. And here come some more. And... NO! I've got food poisoning. Flat tire. Alone, stomach flu, car accident. "In love" vs. love. Fixed the tire but now the house key won't turn; did I take the spare and give the good one away. Left my wallet in El Segundo. Now the key works. But I'm not home. Why am I using my house key if I'm not home. Home is farther up and away. Went up a mountain. And there's another mountain. Yet another one. I stop. I gather my pen and notebook. I write something down, something that will soon be forgotten.

(What I did there was take the comically ridiculous frustrations that defined 2009 for me and addressed them in the context of the mountains-after-mountains message of the song, a message that probably should have been defined before my experiment began. Because only four people have ever heard this song and three of them are me and two people I played the song for.)

Yes. I truly love this song. It's truly inspiring. Though Liz Phair is not the inspiring type, it suits her well. I miss her. I'm counting on her comeback. How can I mount a comeback if Liz is still formulating hers?

4. I Trawl the Megahertz - Paddy McAloon (2003)
Here I take the most shameful of shortcuts: I re-post what I wrote about this song 3 years ago, with some edits:

Many of you know that one of my favorite bands is Prefab Sprout. They don't really exist anymore as a band but 4 years ago their lead singer Paddy McAloon released a solo album called I Trawl the Megahertz. In the 22-minute title track, a female narrator speaks Paddy's words. She tells his life story, a story that is poignantly sad and a bit amusing and - to me - infinitely meaningful and amazing. The piece begins:
I am telling myself the story of my life,
stranger than song or fiction
We start with the joyful mysteries,
before the appearance of ether,
trying to capture the elusive:
the farm where the crippled horses heal,
the woods where autumn is reversed,
and the longing for bliss in the arms
of some beloved from the past
(Present-day interruption: I'm told by a friend and by some cursory Googling that the song may actually be about a woman telling her own story, that this is why Paddy had such a person narrate, that it isn't necessarily about him. I'll accept this as a possibility but I can't say for sure.)

And with a beginning like that, I'm hooked. The story continues - absent father,  search for meaning, astute perceptions of the surrounding world. But ultimately there's a frustration in the story of his (her) life:
Ever the dull alchemist
I have before me all the necessary elements:
it is their combination that eludes me
Forgive me ... I am sleepwalking.
When he wrote this song, Paddy McAloon was 49 and suffering from both an unfortunate haircut and a temporary disease that caused him to be almost completely blind:
Repeat after me: happiness is only a habit
I am listening to the face in the mirror
but I don't think I believe what she's telling me
I love the sweeping European imagery of the song (since the Middle Ages) coupled with its small personal yet universal details (face in mirror, unseen). Not only has he handed the narrative duties to a woman, but he chose a young American woman, Yvonne Connors, to do the honors. And Paddy was a man who wrote and sang every one of his band's songs, a man who loved to be photographed as the embodiment of Prefab Sprout.
By day and night, fancy electronic dishes are trained on the heavens
They are listening for smudged echoes of the moment of creation
They are listening for the ghost of a chance.
They may help us make sense of who we are and where we came from;
and, as a compassionate side effect, teach us that nothing is ever lost
If he can't see and can only hear, then the lines and swirls that send the radio voices to his ears are the most important thing in the world. The universe is always here even when we - or a loved one or our ability to see - are not. It's "a compassionate side effect" which may seem like not enough but it's the most the universe (or any entity/thing) can do.

I won't give away the song's ending. The lyrics are here (just scroll down to the first song with words) and an interview with McAloon is here. If you want to hear the song, just ask me to play it for the next time you see me (assuming you have 22 minutes to spare). I can't find a good link.

Only three songs left. I know who they are. These are your clues (in NO order because there is no order yet. I have no idea what will happen):

    • One song is about danger.
    • No - make that two songs about danger.
    • I'm not sure what the third song is about.

    • One singer dates another singer mentioned in my list.
    • Another singer seemingly dates no one.
    • The other one keeps his/her private life private.
    Still don't know how they'll be ranked. But any one of them would make a fitting #1.

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