Thursday, November 18, 2010

The house on Sandusky

I only lived there for about eighteen months. My first real "home" in Tulsa after moving there in 1980. Built in the 1930s and featuring a black glass art deco fireplace surround, my strongest memories of living there revolve around the music that I was listening to at that time. As a frame of reference consider Talking Heads - Remain In Light; EC and the Attractions - Trust; the Police - Zenyattà Mondatta.

At the time a little-known Kiwi band was making some noise in the US. Split Enz got some radio traffic with their 1980 single I've Got You. In 1981 their LP Waiata was released and immediately got some music videos playing on that new-fangled MTV channel. I was (and still am) very enamoured by that record. In fact I don't believe they ever released a better record. The radio hit One Step Ahead is a standout, but there are at least half a dozen other songs of equal quality on that album.

Which brings me to I Don't Wanna Dance, which appears snuggly in the middle of side one. The opening salvo of synths and drums leads to the first verse in which songwriter and vocalist Tim Finn makes the complex melody line seem simple. At 2:20 Neil Finn lets loose with an intense guitar solo that does not let up until the end of the song, and the complexion of the song changes dramatically. The angst inherent in the lyrics come front and center as the synthesizer chords build and build. The chorus returns and when repeated a second time, at just about 2:51, a moment of transfiguration occurs when the harmony is changed and Mr. Finn sings the line "I don't wanna dance.... tonight....". It is that rare moment in pop music where the perfect chord, the perfectly sung lyric, and the emotion of the moment take this song into another realm.

I drove by that house at the corner of Sandusky and 12th in the summer of 2009 and was happy to see that the current owners have spruced it up. I wonder if they kept the art deco fireplace, and what sort of music they listen to.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Why you want to keep these lies on parade

Back on the subject of Heatmiser, Elliott Smith wrote some sparkling gems during his end of days in that band. Mic City Sons was released in 1996 and for me is their most fully realized effort, with both songwriters (Smith and Neil Gust) really hitting their stride.

The Fix Is In begins with a quietly lovely electronic piano accompaniment. Always attuned to emotional violence, Smith practically whispers the warning of the opening verse:

You want every day to be like that magic first
When she took shape in your eyes and you in hers
You're going down to see her, it's a big mistake
She got ice she don't want anyone to break

Then at 1:46 the guitar ratchets up the volume just a bit as he makes it clear he is heading down a path against his will:

I fit the perfect picture that you want for all
The fix is in I'm going where I don't belong

Mr. Smith would go on to perfect his little world of sad, lonely songs sung by a singer too tired and emotionally drained to fight back. But this earlier effort still hits me right in the gut.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

You may write the perfect song

Elliott Smith was a founding member of Heatmiser, a great Portland band from the early to mid 90s. Elliott's began his solo career in 1994, then the band broke up in 1996. He was nominated for an Academy Award for best song - Miss Misery - from the Gus Van Sant film Good Will Hunting. He moved to Los Angeles and there were rumored bad vibes left behind, possibly due to his self destructive behaviors and drug abuse.

Sam Coomes, the bass player in Heatmiser, went on as the frontman for Quasi. Several Quasi songs have links to Elliott. He played bass on several tunes on Quasi's Field Studies (1999). Lyrics to several Quasi songs certainly seem to be aimed at him, including Little Lord Fontleroy from Sword of God.

Perhaps the most poignant and biting is The Poisoned Well. It is unclear whether the lyrics are self reflective or aimed at another. But given the circumstances of Mr. Smith's death, there is certainly a haunting truth to several lines.