Tom Waits before he went full-weird (was still weird but) really flaunted the true nature beneath the weirdness: an ooey-gooey starry-eyed hopeless romantic and a great documentarian of American life. Before he settled into his current persona – a mad carnival barker from an alternate universe where the Great Depression never ended – he was basically… Bruce Springsteen. Up until their paths diverged in the 80’s, those two practically shared the same diner booth, so to speak. They were both gravely-voiced troubadours in porkpie hats who sang about the plight of sad and lonely people (and also occasionally covered each other’s material.) Tom Waits is in own way as much of an Americana buff as anyone. If his songs evoke images as vivid as an Edward Hopper painting, it’s probably because he’s spent a lot of time looking at Edward Hopper paintings. He’s not the bard of the working class like Springsteen is. He’s the bard of the people below that, the dimebag hobos and floozies and all-night-diner wenches and the old men who sit on corner stoops all day because they’ve got no place else to go – people who live in a world where the Great Depression literally never ended. And he sees them with a sympathetic eye and he understands that what those people really want is some love and a little dignity and someone to listen to their stories. Everyone in those all-night diners and bus stations and wet street corners is just looking for a warm body and a sympathetic ear, and maybe some whiskey too.
Organ music is very underutilized in the world of rock’n’roll. Nothing brings a sense of portent to the proceedings like a good organ intro. And if it’s followed by a gospel choir – that’s a recipe for perfection. Why that’s not the formula for every hit pop song on the charts, I don’t know. (I do know: pop charts, and the songs on them, are stupid.) If you haven’t guessed, I freaking love it when someone takes takes unexpected elements from very unhip corners of the music world and uses them to their own weird ends. It’s diversification in action! So we of course have a Devendra Banhart song to listen to today, because he is a modern master of the weird and unexpected, and when he brings in that gospel choir there’s not a dry seat in the church.
St. Vincent has been a darling for her last two albums, but let’s go back to before she became well known. A time when, I must confess, I had only the vaguest awareness of who she was. Late to the party again! Well, now I know. It takes a while for an artist to really come into their own, and it takes a while to build an audience, instant-superstar prodigies notwithstanding. And it’s especially hard, sad to say, to break out of the pastel ghetto reserved for Women Who Write Songs and Play an Instrument™. So I’ll admit that the first time I listened to St. Vincent I dismissed her as yet another earnest singer-songwriter type with too many feelings. That was before she really let her freak flag fly, so to speak, but it was wrong of me anyway. The keen and clever songwriting was always there, and Annie Clark has always been too intellectual to lean on her feelings for material. She’s said many times that her work is not confessional and she resents the implication that it is. She is absolutely right and I’m glad that she’s put her foot down on it, because it is an absolute fallacy that women’s creative work must by default be confessional, rooted angst and emotion rather than in the imagination or in the intellect, or primarily a means of working out personal trauma. Those tropes are wearying and dull.
Save me from myself, Aretha Franklin. What was Aretha herself trying to get saved from? Bad men, as always. It’s always bad men. The root of all sin, if you will. A gospel singer’s job is to help save souls from earthly sins and inspire them towards God. Aretha Franklin started as a gospel singer; as a secular musician she left most of the Jesus talk behind but never lost touch with the spirit of gospel. What she brought to secular music was the ability to rouse the soul, though it may have been mundane emotions that were being elevated. It certainly helps get through those mundane life problems when we see them as a metaphor for a higher struggle. It’s not money or love trouble, it’s a battle with sin and a journey towards a better state of being. The ups and downs are just tribulations on a broader metaphysical path. They’re there to be overcome and you’re there to be redeemed.
“Underneath it all, we’re just savages
Hidden behind shirts, ties and marriages…”
As if I needed anything to validate my lack of faith in the species. We are, all told, impenetrably dumb, desire-driven dysfunctional monkeys and the only thing we’ve got going for us is a pop song or two. But, as Marina points out, we like to think that our suits and social institutions elevate us somehow. It’s all about that veneer of civilization that makes us think we have our shit together. Shocker, we don’t have our shit together. But, again, we do have culture, which is more than most of the other animals can say for themselves, and if it doesn’t redeem us in the grand universal scheme of things, at least it makes our short and brutish lives a tiny bit more meaningful.
It is A.R. Rahman’s time to shine. He’s a well known name in India, but that generally doesn’t translate to any sort of status whatsoever in the English-speaking world. Yet he was – briefly! – in a band with Mick Jagger, and he gets Jagger to sing in Sanskrit. If hearing Mick Jagger go Bollywood is something you’ve fantasized about, this is your only chance to scratch that itch. Jagger fronts a glorified blues band most of the time, and fans don’t seem to like it when he goes off and gets weird, but doesn’t it seem like he hasn’t sounded this energized in years? He’s belting out that Sanskrit chorus like it’s the most fun he’s had in a decade, which may actually be true.
Well, Saturday night still hasn’t come yet, but the days of the week mean nothing to me, so I recommend getting out and doing what Elton John recommends; get a belly full of beer and go get oiled down at the pub. It’s hard to imagine Elton John living the life of a tough lad as he describes, but I guess it wasn’t always cocaine and tiaras. Young Reginald Dwight started his professional music career as a pub pianist at the age of 15, and most likely saw a fair share of switchblades and fisticuffs while he was at it. Maybe participated in a fight or two himself, who knows. And we all know that Elton John knows how to party. (Observe his nose-wiping tic in the Wembley performance.)