Thursday, April 05, 2007

MP3 of the Week #9

Again, with the country music ... I just seem to be on one of those jags.

But a good point to drive home with country: the reason why I like it is because it openly addresses the problems of adulthood, and either finds depth, sadness or humor in these things that I rarely hear any pop or rock artist getting anywhere near. In other words, some of the best songwriters going these days, as has always been the case, work in the country genre. Granted, a lot of the fluff you'll see on CMT or hear on a Country Top 40 station often presents the other side of adulthood: overbearing sentimentality and pride, and a self-seriousness that would put a 15-year-old with a mohawk to shame. I don't like that kind of country, and I suspect that's what most people are openly exposed to, thus they never develop the urge to seek out other stuff, the sort of stuff I listen to all the time.

So, I've picked four songs from my recent playlist that hit home with me: good songwriting, good melodies, just good music as far as I'm concerned, whatever the genre.

"Strip Mall" by Jesse Irwin presents a neat snapshot of what's gone wrong with America since the advent of shopping malls in the 60s. It's not a particularly sad song, although it starts with the singer noting a bunch of indian burial mounds being bulldozed at the edge of his small town so a new strip mall can be built. On the contrary, the amazing litany of shitty chain stores and restaurants Irwin reels off is pure genius. Just hearing the names strung together like this in a Guthrie-style protest song is a pleasure. If only all protest music was this smart.

"Combover Blues" by Todd Snider details the aging process and the mild depression that often accompanies it. I love the way he mimics Hank Williams' singing on the classic "Honky Tonk Blues." I think Snider is a bit of a pussy for feeling guilty over despising the tastes of teenage kids. Shit, this is a badge of honor with me -- it's my duty as an adult. When I was a kid, I thought other kids were full of shit: why should anything be different now? Youth is not a holy shrine -- it's a time in life too many people tend to romanticize as they get older. No need to piss on it, but no need to kiss its ass either. Still, the song uses a nice analogy -- the comb-over haircut of a desperate balding man -- to deal with aging, which is really mortality, the realization that we all must die. Fun stuff!

On a similar note, "I'm Never Gonna' Be a Rock Star" by Tommy Womack contains the classic line: "The hair might go/But the dream remains." The song is Womack realizing he's grown too old to achieve any sort of fame as a rock star and accepts his fate as a tasteful cult alt-country singer. This is the heart of country -- not just getting your ass beat, but what happens after your ass gets beat. What do you do? Cry? Grow bitter? Or let it sink in, learn from failure, alter your course and move forward the best you can? I think you know the answer I prefer. (It's worth tracking down Womack's rambling song "The Replacements" -- a beautiful tribute to the great 80s band lead by Paul Westerberg. Drop me a line if you'd like a copy -- every Replacements fan should own that song. It strikes me that Womack is now writing the sort of songs Westerberg should be writing a lot more of these days.)

To get the irony of "Live Free or Die" by Bill Morrissey, you have to know the state motto of New Hampshire (which is the song title, and the best state motto, by far). I often picture myself with about 30 more lbs., a handlebar mustache, wraparound shades, a sleeveless t-shirt with "Burn This One" emblazoned in angry red letters over the American flag, a screaming eagle forearm tattoo, and all I can say, in a gravelly voice, is "Live free or die." The song is about a guy in a New Hampshire prison who stops to ponder his place in life while making license plates embossed with the state's "live free or die" motto. He's not living free or dying. And while he's a bit pissed off over his situation, it makes him laugh. (As with Womack, Morrissey has another song that everyone should own: "Birches." It's about a young married couple in their chilly New England house on their wedding night, and how their choice of what kind of wood to put on the fire -- oak to burn longer and more sure, or birch to burn more brightly but fade out faster -- represents an unspoken void the wife senses. It's one of the best songs I've ever heard, a work of genius.)

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

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