Wednesday, December 3, 2008

God Only Knows - Beach Boys

Everytime I hear the higly reverberated harpsichord and French horn (those staples of all classic rock and pop) announce this majestic song, I almost always say, "Please stand for the national anthem!" This is one of the best pop songs ever written and performed. Ever. And it may be my very favorite pop song.

With "God Only Knows" (and with the rest of Pet Sounds, for that matter), the Beach Boys progressed beyond the simple teenage ditties glorifying hot rods, surfing, and girls, girls, girls. Not that those songs were bad...many of them (I'm thinking "409," "Little Deuce Coupe," "Surfin' USA," "Surfing Safari," "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Barbara Ann," just for starters) have justifiably remained classics and formed the backbone of much pop and rock ever since their release. But soon the Beach Boys moved on to much more mature subject matter, chord progressions, and instrumentation that all deserved to be compared favorably to the Beatles.

This heartfelt song defines the ambivalent nature of human love, swinging from nonchalance to desperate longing. It begins like practically no other love song:"I may not always love you," and even echoes the sentiment in the beginning of the second verse: "If you should ever leave me/Though life would still go on, believe me..." But the second half of that verse swings back immediately to desperation, as Brian Wilson sings, "The world could show nothing to me/So what good would living do me?/God only knows what I'd be without you."

As for the instrumentation, after the harpsichord and French horn come jingle bells and some clip-clop percussion resembling, randomly enough, a horse's gait. But it works. Strings that echo "Eleanor Rigby" follow, and during the final verse, one of the most gorgeous, lilting flute duets ever put on tape. Every instrument (save the flutes) return for the ending fade.

And of course, those amazing harmonies the Beach Boys are famous for are on full, glorious display during a luscious bridge that's over far too soon. Thankfully, they come back, echoed over and over again during the song's fadeout - again, teasingly short. (See the movie Love, Actually for a wonderful rendition that fulfills the desire for this song to - almost - never end.)

My only quibble with this song is that it is just too damned short for its own good. Such amazing sounds, harmonies, and sentiments deserve to be on display for much longer than just under three minutes. In this day of ADD-riddled pop culture, it's easy to switch the station or click to the next song on the iPod if the song - or even just a part of it - sucks. But "God Only Knows" not only compels you to listen for the entire song, but leaves you begging for more once it's over. It's that good.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Gun Shy - 10,000 Maniacs

In the mid 1980s, 10,000 Maniacs became poster children of the college rock scene. Tuneful, (like R.E.M.)? Check. Furtive, painfully shy lead singer (like Morrissey)? Check. Quirky sound (like just about anyone out there at the time)? Check. And the clincher that set them apart from other college rock bands: topical, sometimes political lyrics that showed these guys had brains in their heads and weren't afraid to show it.

Sometimes the topics they chose seemed to suffer at the hands of the music, though. It's hard to take a song seriously about the personal trials of illiteracy ("Cherry Tree") while jingle bells are ringing in your ears the entire time. Or a song detailing the ravages of depression ("Like the Weather") that's as jaunty and perky as anything you've heard on Top 40 radio. Then again, maybe that was the get the bitter message across with as much sweet, attractive sheen as possible.

But this pop gem, arguably the best on the Maniacs' best record, In My Tribe, does away with the frippery and the fake happiness, and condenses its anti-military sentiment into a tight, tuneful nugget. The drumming is in a strict 4/4 march, quick and efficient. The guitar arpeggios are light and never obstruct Natalie Merchant's quiet, concise monologue. Even those signature organs with some of the strangest reverb/vibrato in rock history are downplayed.

Perhaps more important, the song is based in real life, and feels like it. Natalie Merchant wrote the song, addressing her younger brother as he came back from boot camp. In other songs, her disapproval of lifestyle choices (child abuse, alcoholism) maintains a haughty distance from the perpetrator. Not here. Her familial connection forces her to make concessions-however small and fleeting-and show her humanity. ("I don't mean to spoil your homecoming, but baby brother? You should expect me to.") The intimate nature of this song brings the message beyond an anti-war rant and into the world of what used to be childish sibling rivalry, now grown up and much more serious.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

What A Wonderful World - Louis Armstrong

First heard this one as part of the Good Morning Vietnam soundtrack in 1988. The song served as a shocking juxtaposition to the death and destruction in that movie. So simple...but words can't do it justice. Heartwarming? Heartwrenching? Stirring? Emotional? Whatever it is, at its most basic, it's just plain lovely. Lush orchestration and a nice, meandering pace accent the emotion in Louis Armstrong's rasp of a voice.
And the lyrics: It's always good to be reminded of the beautiful things in life, and to feel gratitude for them. And really, that's all this song is about...gratitude. No sadness, no plot lines, no developing theme, just plain old fashioned gratitude, through and through. Really, no day should go without it. Especially days where you just feel ground down by life.

Because, really, all the world really needs... another blogger, or another music critic. That's why I'm here. That, and an insatiable desire to scratch an itch and document what I consider fabulous music. A huge guilty pleasure. Not just to listen but to critique. Call it mental masturbation. My partner would possibly walk in here and laugh his ass off. But anyhoo...and with no further ado...