Request Line: “Breaking Glass,” “Stevie Nix,” “The Obvioius Child,” “Only Wanna Be With You”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 8, 2010
Reader Justin writes:
Ok, as a long time reader, occasional commenter, here are my four carefully chosen picks:
Breaking Glass – David Bowie
Stevie Nix – The Hold Steady
The Obvious Child – Paul Simon
Only Wanna be with You – Hootie
Carefully chosen. I respect that.
The best song on Low, perhaps? Certainly the most underappreciated. I guess Low made its reputation largely on the weirdness of its instrumental second side, but it’s the crazy new wave stuff on side one that actually holds up as really being ahead of its time, and as some of Bowie’s most purely badass work. “Baby, I’ve been / Breaking glass in your room again.” Fantastic opening line for any number of reasons, mostly that it implies so much resignment and truly pathetic desperation without actually saying anything particularly damning–Bowie was never the type to dwell in self-pity, so he just kind of lays it out there in one mundane but surreal detail and lets you draw your own conclusions. Combined with the last line, in which Bowie appears to give the game away by suddenly blurting out “YOU’RE SUCH A WONDERFUL PERSON!!!,” but holds on to add the tempering qualifier “…but you got problems!“–it’s really a wonderfully snide, cutting, fucking funny little song.
Little not in stature of course, but verily (and thankfully) in size. On an album side basically defined by its unapologetic brevity (Only the sublime “Sound and Vision” breaks the 3:00-mark, at an epic 3:05), “Breaking Glass” is the very brevitiest, running a scant 1:53 and sounding even shorter than that. One verse (sort of), one chorus (sort of), intro, outro and we’re done. And you’d be something of a fool to want it any other way. Sure, the insidious menace of the song groove–and I’m talking mean, with a whip-smart drum line, jarring synth-stabs and a positively lacerating guitar lick–may tempt you into wishing for a 12″ cut, but unlike CERTAIN SONGS it feels fairly satisfying in its unusual running time. It’s kind of comical in itself, really, as the song begins to fade out and you think to yourself “hah, is that really all he’s going to say on the matter?” It gives the punch of the few lyrics the song makes room for that much more of a sting. (As if to prove the point, Bowie also released a minute-longer single version, which just loops the verse/chorus once and comes off as a well-heeded lesson on the perils of songwriting wastefulness.)
Also undernheralded: The impressively controlled cacophony of “What in the World“–like something off A Wizard, a True Star, but a step or two removed from completely unrestrained lunacy. Bet you Animal Collective are/were big fans of that one.
I wonder what The Hold Steady think about Kings of Leon. The two leading candidates for Best Bar Band of the 2000s (and no, that’s not necessarily a fair descriptor for either, but yes, it’s an absolutely accurate descriptor for both), the two bands likely reached the peaks of their respective potentials towards the end of the decade, but while for the Hold Steady that ceiling meant appearing on the cover of the Village Voice and opening for big bands on worldwide tours, for the Kings it meant crashing the Billboard charts and headlining the worldwide tours themselves. I would be curious if Craig Finn and company resented the Kings their fantastic success, knowing that they’re infinitely superior lyricists and probably just a better band in general, or if they could still manage to acknowledge that better band though they may be, they’d still never be capable of a pop song as unifying simple and directly powerful as “Use Somebody.” I’d like to think it’s both–the Hold Steady are good enough to deserve to seethe a little about the worldwide fame that should rightfully be at least partially theirs, but old and wise enough to know just how impractical that prospect is.
The semi-ironic thing is that despite Kings of Leon’s blockbuster potential being far greater than that of The Hold Steady, it’s actually the latter that has a far deeper understanding of and appreciation for both Top 40 pop and classic rock. The riffs (guitar and/or piano) to the best Hold Steady songs–“The Swish,” “Chips Ahoy!,” “Sequestered in Memphis”–contain in their riffs the very DNA of great rock music, a raw source that very few bands have the know how to tap into (especially among those bands whose members looked like they should be manning the help desk at Staples). Their reverence for the greats runs throughout their songs and their lyrics, sometimes with stylistic lifts and just as often with straight-up references or namechecks. Meanwhile, the band wisely acknowledges and embraces their most obvious influences. They write songs that sound a lot like Springsteen, and they covered “Atlantic City.” Lead singer Craig Finn hails from the underground rock domain of Husker Du, and he talks about idolizing Grant Hart as a kid. (By comparison, Kings of Leon openly and somewhat cowardly reject their arena-rock antecedents, even as they continue to reap the benefits of the experience gained from them. Shameful.)
I’m not sure what exactly “Stevie Nix” has to do with the titular Fleetwood Mac star, aside from the opening line about the song’s subject “wearing a long black shawl,” but the Hold Steady show enough respect for the gypsy woman to just use her name and a vague reference to her traditional getup to invoke their audience’s memories of and feelings associated with Nicks and apply them to their song’s otherwise nameless-heroine. In many ways, actually, LCD Soundsystem makes for a more appropriate comp for Hold Steady than KoL, because like LCD, Finn and company always sound like they’re trying to sum up the collective experience of their generation. Hold Steady’s songs are usually stuffed to the brim with action–stories abound with characters, locales and lessons learned, and while it’s not always sex, drugs and rock and roll (or at least not the good parts), it’s just so much life lived that it all ends up sounding romantic and nostalgic and totally enviable. But it’s not an exclusionary thng–Finn tends to juggle up the narrative voice in his songs so much (several times in “Nix” alone) that he could be singing about himself, or he could be singing about some people he heard about once, or he could be singing about you or your friends. It’s a brilliant way to bond not only fan to band, but also the fans with each other–I’ve never been to a Hold Steady show, but I imagine a lot of thirty-something strangers end up falling irrationally in love with one another as the Hold Steady play these fantastic songs about their lives.
“Stevie Nix” isn’t necessarily one of my favorites of the 15 or so Hold Steady songs I know (Why I’ve never listened to more than one of their full-lengths is anybody’s guess), but it does do a lot of the things that I really like about them. Lyrically, there’s the wordplay (“She got screwed up by religion, she got screwed by soccer players”), the deep pop references (“She said you remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young / You’ve got passion, you think that you’re sexy and all the punks think that you’re dumb”) and the dreamy feeling of nostalgia that gets reeled in before it becomes mawkishly sentimental (“Lord to be 17 forever…Lord to be 33 forever.”) My favorite thing, though, is a musical tic which the Hold Steady does better than just about anyone else–starting a song on one musical theme, and arriving at somewhere completely different, while never making the journey a pointless or illogical one. When I listened to “Nix” for the first time in a few years to jog my memory for this article, I totally failed to identify it as the “Lord to be 17 forever” song, until that beautiful conjoining piano drizzle rained recognition on me. That feeling of recognition washing over you…it’s very powerful, and in this case goes hand-in-hand with the intended memory-evocation of the lyrics. It’s a very hard trick to pull of successfully, but the Hold Steady have done it a handful of times (think “The Swish” or “Stuck Between Stations”), with stunning results.
I downloaded the new album. Pitchfork doesn’t like it much, apparently, but the couple songs I’ve heard are OK. Maybe I’ll work my way backwards through their back catalogue in time for their next live gig in New York.
You gotta love a good commercial suicide single. I love Graceland, more as the years pass, and so did everyone else back in the mid-80s. But the album’s incredible commercial success was at the very least serendipitous and at the worst totally fluky–world music polyrhythms and Ladysmith Black Mambazo and whatnot might have been more crossover-acceptable in the mid-80s, with Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel and some other friends paving the way a little, but mostly the album worked because Simon wrote some great pop hooks and singalong choruses to go with the international trappings. (Not to mention the time-proven Chevy Chase effect.) Now I’ve never heard The Rhythm of the Saints, but if lead single “The Obvioius Child” is any indication of the album as its most accessible, as lead singles tend to provide, then Simon was either convinced that the rhythmic experimentation and coolly distant production was what made Graceland such a hit, or he just didn’t give a fuck about selling five million this time around. (I tend to drift towards the latter explanation.) Either way, “Obvious Child” was an unsurprising flop, peaking at #92 as Saints went on to move less than half the units of its predecessor.
That said, it’s still a pretty cool song. The “coolly distant” production previously mentioned might not have been the key to Graceland‘s commercial success, but it’s certainly one of the reasons I liked the songs so much. They really were these pristine little gems, with Simon’s echo-laden voice hovering over them almost like a delayed transmission. It ended up making for a hypnotic pop sound, a point probably best demonstrated by the Todd Terje dub of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” which nearly locates the song’s long-dormant dancefloor potential. The drum-heavy (to put it mildly) groove to “The Obvious Child” might have been an even better choice to turn into a nine-minute chill-out anthem–I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing that drum part ride out for a couple minutes, with the guitar and bass and Simon himself only occasionally cutting in, and the whole thing capping of course with the climactic drum break towards the end. The rest of the song is almost a distraction to me, as Simon spins a tale on his standard approaching-middle-aged themes of growing older, making peace with the past and still finding beauty and wonder in life and the future, accompanied by a typically breezy guitar riff. There’s no real hook or chorus to speak of, which under the circumstances is actually pretty OK by me–just keep that groove running, keep the observations short and bittersweet, and get out before the song becomes too redundant. Works.
Of course, there’s subtleties in both the lyrics and the production which are probably worth isolating and picking apart to a greater extent as well, but I don’t really find the song quite interesting enough for that level of analysis. I’ll leave that for you to do in the comments section below, if you’d care to do so.
Along with my re-evaluation of Counting Crows in recent years, another personal stunner in my newfound perspective on 90s pop/rock was my coming around to this song. When I was growing up, Hootie and the Blowfish were the absolute pinnacle of uncool, a fact that I realized and respected even as a ten-year-old–not to mention one whose first CDs owned were Alanis’s Jagged Little Pill and DMB’s Crash. Something about Hootie seemed so purposefully corny, as if they were openly daring us to feel superior to them, a challenge I have been more than up to the task for the past decade and a half. But while most of their songs do just straight-up suck (ten points to anyone who can actually make it through all of “Hold My Hand” in the year 2010) and bring back memories of all the most cringe-worthy parts of the 1990s, I do sort of have to give it up for “Only Wanna Be With You.” It’s a song so self-effacing (probably even moreso than Darius Rucker ever intended) and so thoroughly devoid of irony that one can’t help but be the slightest bit won over by it. Or maybe it just has a better guitar hook than the other songs, dunno.
Actually, you know what the song really reminds me of, a revelation which didn’t come to me until just now? “Silly Love Songs.” It’s the exact same kind of “Yeah, I know I’m kind of a tool, and yeah, I probably deserve a fair amount of shit for saying half the things that I do, but this is who I am and what I do and I’m not apologizing for it and IONLYWANNABEWITHYEEEEOOUUUUUUUUUUUU” song that Macca was so proud to write once upon a time. I’m an absolute sucker for that classic and I’m quickly becoming something of a sap for this one as well–the lithe guitar riff, the sweet two-part harmonies, the countless fake endings, and of course, those ridiculously lame lyrics. I barely even remembered the verse where Rucker lapses into quoting half of Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” for no particular reason–other than that he “put[s] on a little Dylan” at the beginning of the verse and concludes “Ain’t Bobby so cool?” in the chorus–until stumbling through it at karaoke about a year ago. All I could do is shake my head. It’s a pointless diversion, and one which makes precious little sense given what a bitter song “Idiot Wind” was, but hey, Rucker just felt like quoting it, and what does it really matter as long as by the end of it all he still ONLYWANNABEWITHYEEEEOOOUUUUUUUUUU? It’s logic whose effectiveness can’t really be denied in a song as essentially unclever as this.
And naturally, it would be somewhat remiss of me not to mention the song’s classic 90s sports cameo-strewn music video. It’s the kind of video they don’t make anymore, largely because there was never any real reason to make it in the first place–nothing about the song (aside from a throwaway line about the Dolphins making Rucker cry) suggests that it should be accompanied by a clip in which they play various pro sports poorly with a number of real-life celebrity athletes (some good, some retired, some WTF?) and have the action commented on by a number of SportsCenter’s catchphrase-spewing best-and-brightest. Ultimately, it seems like a waste of time and resources, but one in which the band certainly at least appears to be having a good time, and with videos as dumb as this one, that’s really the whole point anyway. If nothing else, it’s all worth it for that unforgettable final shot of a bug-eyed, head-in-hands Dan Marino, completely stunned at Rucker’s inability to reel in one of his out-route deep balls. (It probably says something about the video, though, that Chris Berman is still prodded into sneaking his “IT’S A FUMMM-BAHHLLL!!!” soundbyte into his play-by-play of the scene, despite the fact that the play would be more colloquially described as “an incomplete pass.”)
Doubt it at your own peril, but I could see this song making a major comeback on the 90s nostalgia circuit, whenever that officially comes around. All it needs is a key appearance in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or maybe How I Met Your Mother to get the ball rolling.
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