Only a band composed entirely of water signs could make doling out compliments feel so wistful, or resigned self-reflection feel so joyful. “It’s time to show me how you do it better”— the titular line is complimentary toward others, self-deprecating toward yourself, and eagerly determined to bridge the gap. It’s hard to put all of that into one line; Imperial Teen do it without sounding at all self-contradictory. They make it sound like a natural fit. And they also do it without a shred of resentment; they’re never anything less than sweet. What a clever bunch of Scorpios.
“Oblivion” by Grimes. 2012.
I love this song (and this video), but it took me a while to notice the lyrics. It feels like a song I listen to purely for music and not for words. I like how the song feels, not what it has to say; I’m not in it for logic. It took weeks of obsessively listening to this song over and over, plus googling the lyrics, for me to appreciate that she made “you’ve got to watch your health” sound like the sweetest thing you can say to someone.
“The L Train Is A Sweel Train And I Don’t Want To Hear You Indies Complain” by Out Hud, because you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
“Sometimes” by James is about a huge storm, and about a boy’s ill-advised adventurousness and hubris during the storm, and about how it works out OK anyway.
“Just Fine” by Mary J. Blige. 2007.
The best songs about happiness feel like they’re coming from someone who’s intimately familiar with unhappiness. Things have been bad before, so when they’re good, that’s a big deal. There’s an excitement and an exuberance that you can only find when happiness is a welcome change, when a seemingly half-hearted description like “just fine” is something worth celebrating.
“See And Don’t See” by the Afghan Whigs. 2012.
The only song they’ve recorded during their recent reunion is this cover of a Marie Queenie Lyons song from 1970. Lyons recorded one album on James Brown’s label and then disappeared forever, and her original version is exactly the kind of funk song you’d expect from an early-’70s James Brown protege. The Afghan Whigs picked up on the bleak hopelessness of the lyrics and brought it to the surface, turning the song into a desperate, regretful plea. Perfect hangover soundtrack.
“Wrenning Day” by Ava Luna, a band I saw last weekend and liked a lot.
Fiona Apple, “I Want You”. 2006.
Fiona Apple covered this song at an Elvis Costello tribute, with Elvis himself on guitar, and took the harshest post-breakup song I’ve ever heard in a completely different direction without changing a word. In the original, Elvis’s delivery is flat, defeated, beaten-down, the sound of a man who’s been crying. Even when he sings a line that sounds like a dig, it comes off like a pathetic little bump of aggression that immediately fizzles out without having helped. But Fiona Apple threw in as much inflamed emotion as she could. She’s just as destroyed, but where Costello is crumpled up in a fetal position, Apple’s a wounded animal, lashing out blindly. Costello didn’t have the strength to sound angry; Apple doesn’t have the strength not to.
I always wonder how much of this is Apple giving a performance and how much of this is Apple tapping into genuine distress. To say she gives it her all is an understatement; by the end, she looks emotionally drained, making the kinds of faces that are normally reserved for your worst days.
“Louie Louie” by Iggy Pop. 1993.
As ridiculous as “Louie Louie” covers get, Iggy Pop’s version is a completely ridiculous attempt at updating the lyrics to make them contemporary and relevant. It fails, but I don’t think Iggy cares. He doesn’t sound like he wants to make a difference— more like he showed up one day and said “you guys want to do an updated Louie Louie?” and tossed it off and then forgot about it. This is unintentionally ridiculous, but I’m still somehow laughing with him, not at him. Homeboy loads “Louie Louie” up with references to Bush, Gorbachev, even Dostoyevsky for some reason, and it’s the best “Louie Louie” has ever sounded. The next track on the album is a seven-minute-plus spoken-word dirge in which Iggy pretends to be Caesar; this album is full of high-concept ambitions by someone having too much fun to stick around and see if it worked.
My favorite part is the spoken bit around 2:40. Iggy just names issues that are in the news, sounding like he’s stumbled out of a bar and is about to throw up. Best delivery of the word “AIDS” ever.
“The Twilite Kid” by the Twilight Singers. 2000.
There are so many things Greg Dulli can pull off that other people can’t. If anyone else had tried to write this song, they’d have stumbled into soft-rock bullshit that would’ve sounded at home on an elevator. But this works! The lyrics are almost simplistic, the music is almost boringly mellow, but there’s something else there. There’s a tension, a sense that the past was darker than anybody’s saying. It’s sort of upbeat— not happy so much as not immediately agonized, not hopeful so much as aware of hope as a concept. “The ones who live are the ones who fly” somehow feels earned. Something in his voice lets you know he’s earned it. They’re not platitudes if you believe them, it’s not boring if it’s desperate, and it’s not mellow if you can feel the madness that made the song necessary.