I had to think about this one a little bit, I must admit. The Letter E does not seem so difficult on the surface, but once I started digging around my music collection, I realized that songs do not commonly begin with it. Still, we’ve got a nice roundup of excellent tunes for you this week, guaranteed to make your heart swell:
1. Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight – Whiskeytown
(This is a live version, since YouTube was not forthcoming with the studio version. Get thee to Spotify for the studio version.)
You will never see me turn to the country radio station or CMT. Really, most of what is on there makes me nauseated, what with all the “Jesus Take the Wheel,” and the idea that “empowered” country women should just smash a guy’s truck if they have a problem with him.
How did we go from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to crap like Toby Keith and Kelly Pickler? When did the songs that resemble old country music turn into the label “alt-country?” Where along the way was it acceptable to wander away from the folk roots and turn into a bizarre, homogenized and very insular cash machine? Why is that popular with so many people? I may never understand it, but if you have a way to explain it to me, I’m willing to listen. That’s not to say that country music from decades past is without its problems, but at least more of it is listenable.
Ryan Adams is still alt-country adjacent, but this one from his old band, Whiskeytown, has all the twang of an Emmylou Harris song, and I mean that in a good way. For me, a good country song should stir the soul in the tradition of a great spiritual but be as far away from a mega-church as possible. It should speak to the heart but still be light on the clichÃ©. The best sad songs should feel as though your heart is at once breaking and filling.
Excuse me if I break my own heart tonight
After all it’s mine, After all it’s mine,
After all it’s mine,
Can I have it back some time?
Whereas some country songs about a bad break-up consist of one big sob story about what the other person did to them, “Excuse Me…” will not let the other person take credit for their state of mind. If “this situation don’t seem so goddamn smart,” and even if that other person is at fault, it’s hard to not feel like a jerk for letting it happen in the first place. I find it a little delusional to think that relationships end with only one person to blame, but realizing that can be just as heartbreaking as the end of the relationship itself.
The very first time I heard this song, it cemented itself in my list of all-time favorites. I find it impossible not to sing along, and the ache behind the song makes me want to write. Unfortunately, the sort of writing I end up wanting to do after hearing a song like this is the kind that makes me forever dissatisfied that I have not accurately conveyed heart-crunching, complicated love. While that leads to endless tinkering, even a sad, great song fills me with such possibility and hope. Given time, I know I can do better.
2. Eleanor Rigby – The Beatles
In a Portland community college music room, the conductor handed my sixteen-year-old self the sheet music with the cello solo. “You’re the first chair. Try it,” he said. I probably only landed every third note, but it was so much fun. The college’s first chair obviously had a great deal more practice than me, and she sounded great. That afternoon in 2000 was the first time I’d ever heard “Eleanor Rigby.” I loved it, yet I had no idea what the words were. The first time I ever heard the song “for real” was a few years later on public radio.
It’s true, up until about 2006, I had only a casual relationship with the Beatles’ music. I knew a lot about the Beatles, and I could tell you the titles for a good chunk of their songs, but as to what songs came from what albums and when? Forget it. I admit I became familiar with “I Am the Walrus” mostly because Oasis covered it. My mother only had only a handful of Beatles albums (She claims that she had Meet the Beatles, which she received when she had the chicken pox as a kid, but I’ve never seen it, so who knows what happened to it) and my dad’s general attitude toward the band was “Enh – they’re fine, I guess.” (I know, I know. My dad could be even more contrary than I am.) Because my mom would never venture into the cold basement only to put on a record, The Beatles did not get regular rotation in my house. Even now, I’m definitely no expert, but I have Revolver on CD, and I’m now the caretaker of Let It Be, The White Album, Rubber Soul, and The Blue Album on vinyl.
Since I heard “Eleanor Rigby” only in an instrumental form at first, I primarily respond to the music over the lyrics. Yes, the song is supposed to tell a story, and we’re all supposed to know Paul McCartney for the memorable words, but I find myself pantomiming bow movements. Although I spent only one afternoon with the sheet music, it’s the sort of song that fills me with the urge to take up the cello again, to track down that solo piece, and this time, to play the hell out of it.
3. Extraordinary Machine – Fiona Apple
(The above is a fan-made video, but I found it kind of cute, so that’s the one I’m embedding here.)
I love the word extraordinary, and I wish it got more play. Containing two words not said as two words (i.e.”˜ringside’ or “˜pancake,’) extraordinary just rolls off the tongue in a satisfying way.
Linguistic nerdery aside, Fiona Apple’s voice is just as much of an instrument as the orchestra backing her. I love a big Jon Brion production – He has a way of making a song with a lot of instruments still sound light and airy, and there’s always a lot going on without seeming overwhelming. Although Fiona’s voice is supposed to be the focus, the song wouldn’t be the same were it not for the whole package. Pizzicato strings! An oboe! When does an oboe get play outside of the classical concert hall? If the viola is the most unloved of the string instruments, then the oboe has to be among the most unloved of the woodwinds, maybe save for the bassoon.
Hearing this song once will have it stuck in my head for days, but it’s a great song to have taking up room in your brain when you’re just trying to persevere.
If there was a better way to go,
then it would find me.
I can’t help that road just rolls out behind me.
Be kind to me
or treat me mean,
I’ll make the most of it, I am
An Extraordinary Machine
It reminds me of a symphony-backed, more elaborate version of Oasis’ “Roll With It.” While that song says, “You wanna be who you be if you comin’ with me” Fiona says, “I’ve been getting along for long before you came into the fray.” I suppose the difference between the two is that “Roll With It” tries to make room for another person, whereas “Extraordinary Machine” seems indifferent to whether or not it will work. I tend to agree with the “Roll With It” sentiment more than the willfully self-sufficient Fiona Apple, but it’s still a great song. I won’t have room for “Roll With It” in The Letter R, but many of reasons why I like the song are the same as this, so I’m sneaking it in under The Letter E. Of course, it’s the drums that get me on that one, not an oboe.
And on a side note: How excited are we that Fiona is finally coming out with a new album? Perhaps it contains a future favorite song.
4. Euphoria, Take My Hand – Glasvegas
James Allan can take a one syllable word and stretch it into six. His singing voice is just as heavily Scottish as his speaking voice, if not exaggeratedly more so, which makes understanding the words on the first listen through nigh impossible. All I know is that every time I listen to Glasvegas, I wish I could take music intravenously.
Heartbreak, I’m not holding your hand anymore
why can’t you understand
euphoria, take my hand
If Joe Strummer and the Edge had a baby, and if that baby was raised in Glasgow on a steady diet of Oasis and The Smiths, you might get something like Glasvegas. Never have such sad songs felt so good. And yet, on their second album, Euphoric Heartbreak, there is a little less wallowing in that despair. The lyrics and shimmering guitars are attempting to rise above shitty circumstances, but that “waiting for impact” feeling remains. The impact could be good or bad, but there’s the sense that something big is on its way.
Right time – wrong line
myself – I’m alien
I swear to god – lies and bad thoughts
1, 2, 3, 4 – let go
The lyrics are rather basic compared to many Glasvegas songs. Allan crams a lot of feeling into those stretched syllables. Listen to the ache in his voice and the radiating, soaring music, and you can’t help but feel good. When I am filled with memory, fragments of my own fiction, and the urge to write more, I know the music is at work on such a greater level. I never, ever tire of listening to any of their music, and though they are a relatively new band, they are definitely one of my favorites.
5. Everyday – Buddy Holly
Perhaps compared to last week’s personal story extravaganza, this week seems a little light (and I keep looping everything back to Oasis, but uh, get used to that). For whatever reason, my favorite songs for this week I appreciate on a simpler, “That’s a great tune” level, rather than have them correspond to specific, pivotal moments in my life. You don’t need to know the where and when (and sometimes, for how much) I bought a certain album unless the story is interesting. When it comes to Buddy Holly, I don’t even have that, except to say that I bought Rave On, the tribute album. Fiona Apple and Jon Brion do an excellent cover of “Everyday,” which makes for a nice parallel to “Extraordinary Machine,” but there is no faulting the original.
While I may not own any Buddy Holly albums, every time I hear one of his songs, I remember how great he was at what he did. He does the singer-songwriter thing quite unlike others in his time, and certainly unlike the shoe-gazing or dude-bro versions of “Guy with guitar” we often see now.
Everyone said go ahead and ask her
Love like yours will surely come my way
This isn’t “Oh I love her and I feel so invisible” self-loathing – It’s “I love you, and I am going to do something about it. And if it doesn’t work out, love like yours will surely come my way.” It’s two perfect minutes, a declaration. This is the same man who proposed to MarÃa Elena Santiago on their first date, a woman who had never before had a boyfriend, and she said yes. Of course, we cannot know for certain how long-lasting the marriage would’ve been, since he died six months later, but it was still something special.
I know it’s easy to over-idolize those who are gone too soon, but Buddy Holly deserves it. Everyone from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen would be lesser artists were it not for what Holly began. He was one of the first to set the tone for all the rock n roll to come, and as a fan, I should really do better by him and start digging up some vinyl. Rave On is an excellent tribute, but I should finally own the source.
Evaporated – Ben Folds Five (The way Folds sings, “And I poured my heart out” kills me.)
Elephant Stone – The Stone Roses (If any of you out there are able to see their reunion gigs, I am forever jealous.)
Everybody Knows – Ryan Adams (This would have made the Top 5, were it not for the Whiskeytown song. I try not to violate my arbitrary rules. Go listen.)
Everybody’s on the Run – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (Choir and strings, get in!)