This week’s glorified love letters to my favorite songs features some All-Time Favorites, of any letter, that just so happen to all start with The Letter H. As usual, we’ve got a heaping amount of love and loneliness, but this time, with a side of glitter. Behold!
[fancy_header2 textColor=”#4f134d”]The Letter H[/fancy_header2]
[fancy_header bgColor=”#4f134d”]1. The Hardest Part – Ryan Adams and The Cardinals[/fancy_header]
Seeing Ryan Adams and The Cardinals open for Oasis in 2008 was a transcendent experience – two of my favorites, together. The only way it could have been better is if I’d met Noel Gallagher instead of Cardinal guitarist Neal Casal before the gig (Casal was in the same hotel bar as I was, when I paused to soak in some air conditioning), or if I’d stopped and said something to Ryan Adams when I passed him on the street, walking to the venue. (Instead, we had a Do you recognize me?/I think I recognize you moment.)
When I bought the album Jacksonville City Nights not long before that gig, “The Hardest Part” became an instant favorite. The video I have embedded here is a slowed down, solo version that I also love, but the original is a full-on barroom confession, complete with fiddle and a great drum beat.
[blockquote variation=”slategrey”]I worked hard for every little bit I got/the things I got are gonna stay.[/blockquote]
I find it impossible not to sing along to this song. A guy I know (also named Ryan) frequently plays Ryan Adams songs in his solo gigs, and I’m always (gently) badgering him to play my favorites. I’ve succeed with another Cardinals song, “Let It Ride,” but let’s wait for The Letter L for me to gush over that one. In the meantime, I suggest you listen to it, loud and on repeat.
While writing one of the many drafts of my novel, Adams’s thematic elements of loneliness and longing particularly struck me and aided my work. He frequently sings about being a romantic screw-up, despite his best intentions, and I frequently write about good people who make bad decisions, which in turn lead to more difficult decisions about the people they love.
[blockquote variation=”slategrey”]And that ain’t the hardest part/the hardest part is loving somebody that cares for you/so much.[/blockquote]
The chronically lonely often wonder if they are worthy of satisfaction, much less blissful happiness. In fact, I’d say that the lonely are suspicious of happiness, waiting for the flood to come. All those little bits of happiness, we hoard, assuming we will need reserves when the big moments fall through, all while we are in danger of taking for granted the care we receive.
[blockquote variation=”slategrey”]I’ve been turned around/I’ve been mystified by true love/and that ain’t the hardest part/talkin’ ’bout true love/that ain’t the hardest part.[/blockquote]
No, talking about love is not the hardest part about being in it – the hardest part about true love is being a good partner, is not letting that chronic loneliness get in the way of a good thing.
[fancy_header bgColor=”#4f134d”]2. Handle with Care – Jenny Lewis and Conor Oberst[/fancy_header]
Dr. Song talked about the original version of this song by the Traveling Wilburys in her ongoing music column awhile back. Considering the members of Traveling Wilburys, once again I’ve come back to George Harrison. I do enjoy a good musical parallel, though when you think about it, it’s hard to find a group that doesn’t have shades of either The Beatles, Bob Dylan or even Roy Orbison. I like the original, but this is one of those infrequent cases where I prefer the cover.
I first heard of Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis’s main band, when I came across a review for More Adventurous in Entertainment Weekly. Rarely do I read EW, but the issue had Hugh Jackman on the cover, and the mister brought home an extra issue lying around at work. The short piece about the band was enough to convince me that they might be something I’d like, and so I went looking for some songs to download. My thoughts on downloading are a digression for another day, but I will say this – finding free downloads of Rilo Kiley songs led me to buying another album of theirs, and also led me to the purchase of Jenny Lewis’s solo album. In short, being able to listen to a few not-so-legal downloads made me a fan and led me to spend money on them that I might not have otherwise spent. However, this was before the days of things like Spotify, and believe me, when I’m shorting a group money in one way, I do try to make up for it in other ways, even if it’s something as simple as promoting them over Twitter.
State of the music industry aside, Rabbit Fur Coat does not have many weak moments, though I’m actually least fond of the title track. The album is more alt-country adjacent than Rilo Kiley, and “Handle With Care” catches my attention the same way Ryan Adams does. I never quite got into Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes, but he’s great here, taking over the chorus and much of the second half:
[blockquote variation=”slategrey”]I’m so tired of being lonely/I still have some love to give/Won’t you show me that you really care/Everybody got some body to lean on/Put your body next to mine/and dream on.[/blockquote]
I like the “Please, let this be effortless” desire behind the song. When life seems to throw one giant hassle and disappointment after another, having someone in your corner at the end of it all makes a difference. I rank this one high on the list of songs that, were I actually talented enough to be in a band, I’d cover every so often. I don’t understand it when I occasionally hear some bands get snobby about playing other people’s songs, as though that somehow compromises their “art.” Jenny Lewis’s cover of “Handle With Care” is a prime example of the well-placed tribute enhancing an already excellent album.
[fancy_header bgColor=”#4f134d”]3. Happy Phantom – Tori Amos[/fancy_header]
The summer I turned 13, I probably played this song just short of, oh…40 bajillion times. When I started to pay more attention to Tori Amos, I confiscated my dad’s Little Earthquakes CD and with near constant rotation on my Discman. I listened through battery-run speakers plugged into the headphone jack. Even though I liked the idea of a multi-disc changer, I was quite happy with the setup. After all, I did not own that many CDs yet. (What’s up, mid-’90s?)
One afternoon, a friend came over when I had “Happy Phantom” set on repeat. After about 20 minutes, and after I’d somewhat quit paying attention to what I had on, she said, “Wait… Are we still listening to the same song?” Embarrassed, I put on a different CD. She and I had different tastes to the point where we had drifted away from each other as friends less than a year later. Probably one common trait that my longtime friends and I all have is that we’re all a bit obsessive about one thing or another.
“Happy Phantom” always struck me as a song that would do well with tap dancing moves but without the actual taps. The actual tapping sound would drown out the piano, but if I were to choreograph something for the song, I can picture some sort of shuffle done in black ballet shoes.
The song is probably one of the happiest songs I’ve ever heard about death. Tori takes the attitude that’s it just an opportunity to do the things you can’t do while alive – in her case, chase nuns, run around naked, and walk in the rain without getting wet. She realizes it is inevitable that we will all die, so she’s made peace with it. The part that always gets stuck in my head is when she sings about others who have passed to the next stage:
[blockquote variation=”slategrey”]There’s Judy Garland taking Buddha by the hand/and then these seven little men got up to dance/They say Confucius does his crossword with a pen/I’m still the angel to a girl who hates to sin.[/blockquote]
I love the bouncy piano and the twirling bit at the end, and at a little over three minutes, it’s just long enough. My only complaint is the high-pitched chorus is hard for my alto voice to sing, but if no one’s listening, I attempt it anyway.
[fancy_header bgColor=”#4f134d”]4. History – The Verve[/fancy_header]
“Bungalow” has to be one of the funniest words ever. I giggle every time I say it, hear it or even read it, sometimes followed by a Beavis-like “I am Cornholio!” intermission before I can rejoin regular conversation. Yes, but what does my strangeness have to do with The Verve? Stay with me here.
The summer I turned 15, my family took a road trip through Canada. My aunt, uncle and cousin from South Carolina were visiting, and we would all drive to Lethbridge, Edmonton, Jasper and Banff. In Jasper, we had booked, you guessed it, bungalows(!) for an evening. Essentially, the bungalows were similar to the minimalist cabins just a few hours south in Montana, but Oh, Canada! You just had to make me giggle with your ketchup-flavored chips, barely caffeinated soda and Bungalows! (The word “Banff” makes me giggle, too, with the double F. Canada is nothing but f-fun, really.)
Lying in bed that night in Jasper, stretched out just so I felt comfortable and the headphones would stay over my ears, I had The Verve’s A Northern Soul on repeat. Along with that album, I also did much listening to Ani DiFranco’s Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, in particular “Hat-Shaped Hat,” which almost made the cut for the Letter H here. Considering the titles of both of those albums, I suppose it’s appropriate that we had traveled to a higher latitude, though they just happened to be the albums holding my attention at that moment.
“History” has an orchestra backing that comes as sort of the warm-up for their later “Bittersweet Symphony.” “I’ve got to tell you my tale/of how I’ve loved and how I’ve failed” – the sentiment is on a smaller and more personal scale, dissecting the path to the present. It’s one of those beautiful heartbreakers, an excellent song on a stand-out album. The Verve are definitely one of my all-time favorites.
[fancy_header bgColor=”#4f134d”]5. Hot One – Shudder to Think[/fancy_header]
From the soundtrack to one of my favorite movies, Velvet Goldmine, I first heard this song on a CMJ Music sampler CD that came with the magazine, before I had a chance to see the movie. I have a major weakness when it comes to ’70s glam rock, so it made sense that it would catch my attention. Todd Haynes’ “˜what-if?’ film, that was not exactly about David Bowie and Iggy Pop during the Ziggy Stardust years, made me wish I lived somewhere larger so that I could have seen it in the theater. Instead, my friend Amy and I rented it. Amy is one of the few friends who I knew would not stare at me and wonder why they’d let themselves be talked into renting the freak show. (We did that together later – leaving some of our, let’s say, more innocent friends slightly traumatized.)
Fun music, glitter, cocaine and Ewan McGregor – what’s not to love, right? Well, Ewan did look a bit greasy in this one, but Eddie Izzard and Toni Collette are both in it, and they’re two of my favorites. I also like a good music biopic, even if this one doesn’t exactly fit the definition, much like Haynes’ I’m Not There. (Cate Blanchett, call me. Bring the Dylan sunglasses.)
I don’t know anything about the band Shudder to Think. I only know the two songs they have on the soundtrack, and “Hot One” is one of the best on the whole disc. With the piano, low rumbling guitar and bass, and the choir-like backing vocals, the song is big and dramatic in all the right ways. It begs to be performed in front of a large audience with all the right lighting and costuming. The posturing is part of the appeal.
I haven’t seen Velvet Goldmine in awhile – probably the last time was when I rented it with the mister, when we still lived in the University of Montana dorms over 10 years ago. It recently popped up on Netflix Instant, and I’m thinking that I need to revisit all its glittery glory soon.
[fancy_header bgColor=”#4f134d”]Honorable Mention:[/fancy_header]
Happy Meal II – The Cardigans (I love how The Cardigans often ride the line between feigned-daffiness and moroseness)