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Request Line: “Rock and Roll Friend,” “Relief,” “Mr. November,” “Delirious”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 26, 2010

Reader (and one-time Stylus co-writer) Ian Mathers writes:

Here’s my four songs request:

The Go-Betweens – “Rock and Roll Friend”
Sam Amidon – “Relief” (it’s an R. Kelly cover, by the way)
The National – “Mr. November”
Vistoso Bosses – “Delirious”

Some new faces to the program in that bunch. Cool by me.

Not sure why I don’t know more about the Go-Betweens than I do. As one of the more beloved of 80s alternative bands, they’ve certainly never been too far from my wheelhouse (and at one point in my life were undoubtedly smack dab in the middle), but aside from scattered singles here and there, I’ve never really delved to deeply. Maybe it’s just the sound. The Go-Bees (fans call them something like that, right?) really seemed to master that whole wistful, pained, sublimely sad kind of feeling with their mid/late-80s sound, and my heart can only take so much of that in one sitting. For whatever reason, I have a much higher guttural tolerance for music that’s cartoonishly miserable or just unapologetically pathetic than the kind of sepia-toned yearning that these guys seem to be selling. Not that it’s not great, or that it can’t be great– I at least like all the songs I’ve heard of theirs, “Part Company” probably being my favorite–but man, if I had to sit down for a 42-minute LP’s worth of it, I just don’t think I could make it through without collapsing to the floor in a twitching ball. No logical explanation, just how I’m built. (Maybe I should stick to the early stuff instead–“People Say” and “Lee Remick” are splendid.)

“Rock and Roll Friend” seems little exception to any of this. It’s a very, very strong song–especially considering that it was thrown away on the b-side to “Was There Anything I Could Do?,” although I suppose that was an era when burying quality songs on flips was a more acceptable practice. But it’s got all those melancholy hallmarks–the plodding tempo, the downward-cascading chord progression, the warbly, pleading vocals and the gently despairing lyrics. This one maybe packs a little more urgency than some of their others–I can only assume that it was written by Robert Forster about his girlfriend/drummer Lindy Morrison, as both band and relationship as both band and relationship were crumbling, although I suppose it’s equally possible that it’s actually fellow lead vocalist Grant McLennan singing about some random chick. (Or maybe it’s one of the guys singing about the other, though the “Lovers have to do their laps / Come hither, my only loved one” line probably puts that to bed a little.) In any event, lyrics like “All my love is now at stake / It amounts to a lot / And now it seems like I’m trying and you’re not” certainly make for a quiet touch of devastation, and the drum-heartbeat underneath the “My rock and roll friend” part of the chorus is pretty undeniable.

It’s a good song. If you’re of a certain mindset (emotional set? heartset?) then I could even see viewing it as a great song. If I had to listen to it on repeat, though, I’d probably be doing the Alex in A Clockwork Orange thing by listen four or five. Nothing personal, Go-Bees.

Not gonna lie, I was absolutely terrified of this from the first ten seconds. Those first plucks of banjo, combined with the R. Kelly connection, had me thinking one thing: The Iron & Wine cover of Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” easily one of my all-time least-favorite covers, and exhibit 1A for anyone who wants to make the argument that white people with beards and rusty-sounding guitars shouldn’t be allowed to cover pop music. (I don’t believe it, personally, but that one certainly isn’t helping my case any.) Much to my relief (pun perhaps subconsciously intended, who the fuck knows), the song actually sounds far more natural as an ornate indie-folk anthem than it does as a lithe R&B number. Indeed Ian, had you yourself not pointed out that this was an R. Kelly original I doubt I ever would have realized or even suspected–aside from a negligible “stepping” reference in the pre-chorus, there’s not too much to tip off that the Pied Piper himself was behind this one.

Practically speaking, it’s sort of an odd choice of cover, mainly because when underground folk choose to work over a mainstream original, 99% of the time they select the big hits–when the Flaming Lips choose to cover Madonna and Kylie Minogue, they go for “Borderline” and “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” not “Bad Girl” and “More, More, More.” To cover an R. Kelly song that most people haven’t heard of–one that, as far as I can tell, never even appeared on an album actually released by The R.–well, that’s pretty ballsy, or at least significantly inspired. However the decision came about, it was a perfect choice. The vaguely celebratory and awe-inspired tone of the lyrics certainly works across genres, and though Amidon is certainly prudent to trim out some of the later verses and mumble through some of the earlier ones (lyrics like “understand that struggle had no color” would’ve undoubtedly been too specific than what he was going for), generally speaking, it’s just as sublime a fit for a Sufjan Stevens-esque orch-folk ballad as for Kelly’s step music.

The arrangement is nice enough–certainly none too original, since I feel like I’ve heard its combination of piano quarter-notes, gentle string plucks, and juxtaposed low male /high female vocals in about a hundred other places before–but the appeal is almost all chorus. And holy hell, what a chorus. I don’t know exactly what makes the “What a relief…” conceit such a powerful one, but it really is quite striking. It’s just an interesting way to phrase the feeling of joy in belief and love, a way which I’d never really heard before. I guess it’s that in those three words, there’s really so much implied–hope, then doubt, then newfound faith and security–that it packs every line with an entire history of emotional turmoil and revelation. “What a relief to know that we are one / What a relief to know that the war is over / What a relief to know that there’s an angel in the sky / What a relief to know that love is still alive.” I don’t care what genre you frame that chorus in–put it in a fucking gabba anthem from 1992, and it’s still an absolute stunner.

Good find, Ian. Could see it becoming a personal mix staple for many days to come. Also, good to be reminded every once in a while that amidst all the Real Talk and the Sex Weed, Robert Sylvester Kelly could still do pure and sweet with the best of them, too.

Friend of the blog Vadim Rizov, probably the closest thing to an indie rock true believer that I still associate with on a semi-regular basis, recently wrote a fine review of The National’s most recent album High Violet proclaiming them (or at least submitting them) as the best rock band in America at the moment. It’s a hard statement for me to reasonably dispute–Boxer was probably my favorite rock album of the last five years, and though I haven’t quite connected with High Violet on the same level, it is growing on me. Besides that, I don’t have any particular slam-dunk selection to suggest in their stead. Still, the distinction doesn’t really sit right with me, and that’s because as good a band as The National, they don’t seem particularly interested in greatness. Not that they don’t write great songs–nearly every track on Boxer is–but if we’re talking about Capital-G Greatness (and I hate to be so facile, but it’s sort of necessary here), the kind of transcendent songs that strike to the core and come to write our definition of what music is and should be…that just doesn’t seem to be The National’s gameplan. That’s fine–not every band has to use that as an ideal, and The National may often be better off for not doing so–but in my opinion, that is the ideal that the designated Best Band in America needs to shoot for. And as far as I can tell, The National have only really tried twice–“Mistaken for Strangers” and “Mr. November.”

“Mistaken for Strangers” is a great song. It’s got absolutely everything anyone could want from a great song–an instantly-captivating intro, a devastating chorus, a brilliant lyrical conceit, widescreen production, fantastic build…really, just everything. It resonates and it chills, and it made me fall in love with the band within seconds.  It was one of the key rock songs of the last decade, and I’d have no problem ranking it among the all-time indie-rock greats. Most importantly, it has something that many National songs lack–it has lift-off. Most National songs sound somewhat clenched, which more often than not, is to the band’s benefit–their playing is so tight and their writing so fine-tuned that to keep their songs in these tense little packages just allows them to strike with better precision. But with “Mistaken for Strangers,” the band simply lets go, and it is just marvelous. Perhaps if they had never written it, I would never have asked for more from then than the nervy grooves and lush ballads that they so excel at–and lord knows that they’ve written some gorgeous ballads–but if they went their whole career without writing (or even attempting) a song the equal of “Mistaken for Strangers,” I’d be lying if I said I’d be anything but incredibly disappointed.

I say all this because to me, “Mr. November” was essentially a good test run for “Strangers.” There are many people out there who seem to prefer parent album Alligator to Boxer–Pitchfork ranked it the higher of the two albums on their 00s albums list, which surprised me a whole lot more than it probably should have–but to understate the matter somewhat, I don’t see it. I should say that I did hear Boxer first and have listened to it far more over the years, but really I don’t see how it can even be considered a contest. The production isn’t as sophisticated, the playing isn’t as tight or distinctive, and the songs aren’t as good. It’s a fine album, no doubt, and certainly it established The National as a band to contend with all by its lonesome, but how you could listen to it back to back with Boxer and not instantly differentiate the wind-up from the pitch….yeah, I just don’t see it. Maybe I just had to be there.

Similarly, “Mr. November” occasionally gets ranked in the National canon above “Mistaken for Strangers,” and you can probably guess my reaction to that. It’s a good song, a very good song, with a good intro, a good build up, and some really fucking good lyrics (“Wish that I believed in fate / Wish I didn’t sleep so late” being the personal standout). But it doesn’t achieve the lift-off of “Strangers.” The chorus, while catchy as a slogan (just ask our 44th president, or rather, his bloc of 20-something upper-middle class urban supporters), is actually really quite clumsy in practice, with an inappropriately chaotic drum part, and an irritatingly palindromic lyrical structure (“I won’t fuck us over / I’m Mr. November / I’m Mr. November / I won’t fuck us over”–sorry, that’s just lazy to me). The song leaves much to be desired structurally as well, returning to the “Believed in fate” line one time too many and making the utterly perplexing deicision to end on a half-rendition of the chorus, a weird way to end any song and particularly one as potentially anthemic as this.

It was a nice try, it came pretty damn close, and they’d certainly get it right the next time around. But if anything, the gap in quality between “Mr. November” and “Mistaken for Strangers” just makes me wish even more that they would continue on further in that direction, perhaps continuing to improve in their maximal songwriting, eventually challenging Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem and whoever else came to play for the throne of indie-rock Greatness. And then I’d have no hesitation calling them the Best Band in the Known Universe.

Hey, not bad. Never heard of these guys, and it seems fairly likely that I never would have without this–of their first two singles (which feature Soulja Boy and Wacka Flocka Flame, respectively–not company that screams “longevity”), only “Delirious” even grazed the charts, peaking at #42 R&B. This is nice, though. The Soulja Boy part is highly disposable–your classic “Hey, you know who I am, now I gotta jet, so here are some people you’ve never heard of” intro cameo, but the rest of it is breezy and delightful. The dance tempo of it kind of reminds me of all those great Miami bass-influenced R&B hits from the late 90s–Ghost Town DJs’ “My Boo,” INOJ’s “Love You Down,” K.P. & Envyi’s “Swing My Way“–a sound I was always kind of sad fell by the wayside (minus “So What,” the seriously underrated Field Mob/Ciara collab from 2004). My one complaint would be that I could use a little more from the flute hook–it’s just not quite enough to really grab your attention, and although the song can kinda coast on the catchiness of the “You-make-me-de-li-ri-ous!!” chorus, a more-involving hook would have really put it over the top, I think.

Still, another good find. Not much else to say about that. What does Vistoso Bosses mean, anyway? I’m too lazy to Wikipedia at the moment.

Please continue to submit your article requests in the comments section below, or at twitter.com/intensities. If I don’t get to it the week of the request, I will soon enough thereafter.

5 Responses to “Request Line: “Rock and Roll Friend,” “Relief,” “Mr. November,” “Delirious””

  1. Ken Kralie said

    I’ve been a long time reader of your blog, and I really like the new request line thing you’ve been doing so I figured I would throw my suggestions out there.

    You normally do four songs. But I came up with five. So you can pick and choose the four you want to talk about.

    Rusted Root – Send Me On My Way http://bit.ly/5J0OTI
    Yes – Changes http://bit.ly/9rECSJ
    Janelle Monáe – Tightrope http://bit.ly/9q3V6Q
    Toy Matinee – The Ballad of Jenny Ledge http://bit.ly/bTCX4a (there is a music video for this song but this clip has better audio)
    Rush – The Spirit of Radio http://bit.ly/7ucIs

  2. MBI said

    Field Mob’s “So What” is from ’06, not ’04, and it is a wonderful, wonderful song. I do not share your love of the whistle-hook and frequently find it obnoxious, but “So What” puts a big smile on my face.

  3. Aww shit, I didn’t realize that I was in the queue – this was awesome, thanks. I might give you another four at some point (plz disregard my recent four, there’s some overlap).

    I will say about “Relief” that the connection to something like Iron & Wine’s admittedly odious Postal Service cover (his originals are much better!) didn’t occur to me; the few times that Sam’s covered a modern song on his records (well, pretty much just this and Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels”) they’ve been just as sincere and well-done as the rest of the material. It might help that he doesn’t really perform originals, but you’re very right about how great “Relief”‘s chorus is, and it fits in beautifully with all the Appalachian folk songs and so on that Sam plays.

  4. vadim said

    That tag cracked me up, thanks.

    The National are (agreed) not a Great Band in that sense, but I can’t think of any indie bands of the last decade (even the ones I really love) that have shot for that. But “Fake Empire” is arguably a great song; it’s the only really anthemic song I know that ends with what’s basically a minute-long fugure for trumpets. (“National Anthem” doesn’t count imo.)

  5. humanizingthevacuum said

    You know how I feel about the Go-Be’s. Good post.

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