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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2004/01/27
by Jesse Jarnow

Songs That Rock, January 2004

I’ve been feeling a bit scattered and overloaded lately. Shifty and frayed,
even. Like always, music has run as a current underneath everything else
going on in my life. More than ever, it’s acted as a working force — a
simple rhythmic counterpoint behind what I’m doing. For lack of a narrative
about technology or a particular album or an experience to tie this past
month together, I’m simply going to list a bunch of songs that made me happy
in recent weeks. That’s as good a common bond as any, I suppose, and – strung together – they probably do form some kind of composite image. A lot
of them are old favorites. But, I guess that’s what makes them favorites:
their unerring ability to hold together the unconscious thread that binds
together my real-time, internal mix tape/iTunes playlist.
"Surf’s Up" – The Beach Boys
Smile, the phantom, abandoned Beach Boys album from the mid-‘60s, has
been a bit of an obsession lately. And "Surf’s Up" (the Brian-sung mix, not
the Carl version from a few years later) – what pretty much has to be the
final song on any speculated track list – is easily my favorite tune off of
it (not counting "Good Vibrations"). I’ve never been sure exactly why. The
lyrics are fairly clunky ("columnated ruins domino"?), the melody isn’t too
graceful, and I’ve always been a bit put off by the way the vocals jump an
octave in the chorus (an astounding leap, to be sure, technically, but not
too graceful). I guess I admire the way it all holds together — and, more,
the way it all collapses down on itself for a brief second on the line
"Surf’s up, mmmhmmmhmmm, aboard a tidal wave." It’s in that "mmmhmmmhmmm"
that the song is just made; just exactly wordless, just exactly right.
"Stash" – Phish
Once a hippie, always a hippie. After wrestling with my constantly deficient
and too-frequently tweaking computer, I broke down and bought the Albany
show from, just so I could hear the "Stash" again. After
hearing the New Year’s run version, the song remains – quite simply – my
favorite song to hear Phish play live. They almost always enter a time warp
when playing it, switching to a mode of improvisation that they don’t seem
to be able to access from other songs: dissonant and filled with weird
rhythms. Even if Phish hasn’t broken much new ground since their return,
they have gotten quite good at carrying on twistedly inward-looking musical
conversations – no one soloing, each player fitting short phrases into a
larger picture – while carrying on with an effortless momentum.
"The Coo Coo Bird" – Clarence Ashley
A few days ago, I watched the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art
Thou? with a friend of mine. I’ve always preferred The Big
Lebowski (not to mention a bunch of their other movies) over this one,
and probably still do, but finally grokked O Brother this time out. I
still don’t think much of the storytelling itself, but quite enjoyed the
cultural moment they captured — a living, breathing version of Harry
Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, replete with the strange
curses, transformations, and mythic characters that seemingly existed at the
very beginning of the age of mass communication. "The Coo Coo Bird" leads
off the third volume of the Anthology, authoritatively titled,
Songs. Both of my roommates were staying with their respective
others, so I got to put the disc on out loud as I went to sleep, seeing the
singers’ world in color for the first time.
"Tomorrow Night" – Bob Dylan
There’s always one (or 10) Dylan tunes in constant rotation, so why should
this month be any different? For some reason, one that popped out recently
was his cover of "Tomorrow Night" – don’t even know who wrote the original – on Good As I Been To You, his 1992 album of folk and blues tunes. I’d
forgotten that it was on there, honestly. Or maybe didn’t even realize that
it was the same tune that Elvis Presley sings on The Sun Sessions.
It’s really quite a lovely tune, in the pure sense of the word "lovely."
There’s not too much narrative, just a longing. It had me plotting out an
as-of-yet-unmade mix about the concept of time in pop songs. Other songs to
be included: "Yesterday" by The Beatles, "Three Days" by Jane’s Addiction,
(an entirely different) "Three Days" by Willie Nelson, "25 Minutes To Go" by
Shel Silverstein (as performed by Johnny Cash). The tunes would be arranged
chronologically — so, of those tunes, "Three Days" would come first, then
"Tomorrow Night," then "25 Minutes To Go," and – finally – "Yesterday." I
didn’t say I’d actually make the tape.
"Return To Hot Chicken" – Yo La Tengo
There’s something about being the first song off a great record that makes a
song even better. Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
was a perfect work record, because it wasn’t too intrusive, was just the
right kind of soothing, and came to the foreground when it was needed.
"Return To Hot Chicken" is a great track on its own, but – now that I’m
familiar with the album – it always brings tidings of what’s to come, the
unlocked emotional memory of what the album experience is usually like
(which is to say: "Moby Octopad," "Sugarcube," "Damage," "Deeper Into
Movies," "Shadows," "Stockholm Syndrome," "Autumn Sweater," "Little
Honda"... it really doesn’t let up.) I know there’s deep scientific evidence
that smell is the sense that has the capacity to trigger memories, but I
think a very good case could be made for the first song of a familiar album.
Others that pop to mind for me are "A Hard Day’s Night" by The Beatles,
"Everything In Its Right Place" by Radiohead, "The King of Carrot Flowers
(part I)" by Neutral Milk Hotel.
For my next act, I will go to sleep. Good night.

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