FFWDing to the Best Part: “American Girls,” Counting Crows (2002)

hasYesterday, I realized a natural confluence of two activities that I a) have to force myself to do despite these activities b) being good for me and c) ultimately being somewhat enjoyable. The activities of which I speak are, of course, running and maintaining this blog with any sense of regularity.

Every year or so, for a period of several weeks, I begin a running campaign in earnest. Because I’m starting from the ground zero known as the couch, I ease myself in through a regimen that works as follows: “run one song, walk one song.” Naturally, as I documented a dog’s age ago, I become hyper-focused on the “running” songs, trying to calculate the milliseconds to their completion, at which point I will be put out of my misery for four or so minutes of walking.

And so I took to the small gym my company graciously provides its employees.  I was alone for the bulk of my experiment—in fact, for 3.5 of my 4 designated sprint cuts. Right as I reached for the air drums that would send me into the waning seconds of my excursion, I was interrupted by that one guy who works out in our office gym every day.  (I suppose the irony of this intrusion is limited, since he is, in fact, there every day.)

At any rate before my solo workout was disturbed, one of the songs to which I had to hasten my pace was Counting Crows’ “American Girls,” from their fourth album, the polarizing Hard Candy. It’s apparently just 3:51, but my legs and lungs begged to differ.  In a relatively clever synergy of mid-90s alt/folk-rock, it features Sheryl Crow on backing vocals. I’ve never thought that much about this perfectly accessible (but not exactly iconic) song until my cardiovascular life depended on it.

But there is, in fact, a “best part.”  At 2:50, Sheryl sneaks back in with her harmonies, strong but relatively predictable as far as the intervals are concerned.  She’s gone again by 2:58, replaced by male harmony (perhaps the newly bloated* Adam Duritz singing over himself).  And then, at 3:06!  We’re launched into a modified chorus as the hook repeats over and over. Sheryl is back, and the male/female harmony collides into a series of “ohs” until Adam brings it home.  Just a perfect ditty for some treadmill/fist-pump mashup action.  Anything to make the miles pass in a more pleasant way.

*He really looks terrible in this vid.

FFWDing to the Best Part(s): “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” Nirvana (1993)

For people born between, let’s say, 1972 and 1977, it’s a bit of a cliche to talk about how much Nirvana changed the musical landscape “back in our day.” In fact, it’s a statement as obvious and well-worn as the tattered pea-green cardigan forever associated with Kurt Cobain. But here, just past the TWENTY-FIRST anniversary of Cobain’s death—and amid news of Rolling Stone’s high-profile chat with Frances Bean—it’s worth saying again.

Although Frances Bean already hates me for doing so …

My dad was exceptionally ambitious. But he had a lot thrown on him, exceeding his ambition. He wanted his band to be successful. But he didn’t want to be the f**king voice of a generation.

Erp.

Anyway, I was listening to Nevermind before Frances was even conceived, so I’ll ramble about it anyway. I was a senior in high school when Nirvana ascended onto the Top 40. Prior to, I had spent years in the sh*t, listening to (and enjoying, mind you) the New Kids on the Block, Bel Biv Devoe, Mr. Big, Sweet Sensation, Roxette, Michael Damian, and Color Me Badd. The top-20 songs of 1991 reveal a litany of harmless schlock: Amy Grant. Bryan Adams. Paula Abdul. Marky Mark Wahlberg and the Funky Bunch. The only things passing for “alternative rock” those days were R.E.M., EMF, and Jesus Jones.

Then Nevermind hit the airwaves, thanks to heavy rotation on MTV (when there was such a thing) and a listening audience willing to give something new a try.  Like so many girls out of Nikki Sixx’s bed, hair metal was kicked to the curb. Meticulously sprayed updos and latex vanished, as unwashed hair and flannel shirts became the new style. We all know this story well, but looking back, it’s still amazing such a sea change even happened. It never would today.  “Popular” music is too siloed, there are too many channels on which to consume it, and traditional “rock” music is fighting to be heard on most of them.

All this said, it was a struggle for me to pick a “best part” of any Nirvana song. They didn’t rely on easy flourishes like key changes or lengthy crescendos. Chords progressions were simple and beats were steady. But I’ll try.

The first three notes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are worthy of mention because they are so unmistakably recognizable. The final utterance of “Breed” at 2:56 (“She said–uh”) is another nice one … so final, so crisp, a burst of annunciation capping off a flurry of what many dismissed as marble-mouthed warbling. The gradual spiraling to the completion of “All Apologies” (especially the Unplugged version, 2:30 – 3:28) is haunting and surprisingly fun to sing along with (though I’ll never forgive the friend who sang “All we are is all, lasagna…” and now you’ll never forgive me).

But I think my favorite snippet to share here comes right at 0:13 of “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” track 5 off In Utero. This has historically been among my favorite selections from the regrettably small Nirvana catalog, and it starts off with a whimper and a bang. After a bit of bass-guitar plunking (that, one discovers when listening through headphones, is nearly entirely contained to one channel), the guitar comes in, all brash and cacophonous like it owns the place.  Just as quickly, things recede once again, leaving the stage to the bass, vocals and drums. The ups and downs continue throughout the song, and this bipolar aspect of the backing melody is a good fit for the titular heroine and the seemingly paradoxical hook: “I miss the comfort in being sad.”

FFWDing to the Best Part: “My Hometown,” Bowling for Soup (2004)

How many songs can make you both laugh and cry (or at least snicker and sigh)?  Over the course of three short minutes? And if such songs exist, how many are performed by chubby, 30-something pop-punkers from North Texas?  I may have found the one example of this phenomenon in the entire pop catalog.

“My Hometown” in an unassuming, mid-album track from the band’s seventh album, A Hangover You Don’t Deserve, which is their most successful album to date (thank you, novelty hit “1985”). Bowling for Soup frontman and chief songwriter Jaret Reddick has made no secret of his lack of affection for the town in which he was raised, though he does remain loyal to the Lone Star state, or so the lyrics of “Ohio (Come Back to Texas)” (and his prominent placement of the Texas flag in various places) would suggest.

But the opening lyrics of “My Hometown” allude to a rather unhappy childhood as a “fat kid and a marching-band geek,” who had few friends and fewer chances at escape. The lyrics are irreverent yet poignant, and the closing verse—a extended-stanza tribute to his big brother—ends with the disappointing realization that while Reddick escaped the town that stifled him, his childhood role model has failed to do the same. Following this denouement is an abrupt and distorted end to the song, at which point the narrator’s cresting frustration collides with the listeners’ ears.

The song’s conclusion is is powerful and memorable, but it’s not the best part, which actually comes shortly after the tempo accelerates into the song’s second verse. Here’s where Reddick credits those that set Bowling for Soup on the path for success: a professor, generous friends who happened to work at music stores, and—right at 1:05-1:09—”and to all the clubs that let us play…” The lead vocal modulates higher, gets louder, and there’s a real sense of passion and gratitude in Reddick’s tone. It makes sense that this coincides with the favor that probably helped the band along more than anything else.

(No video for this one, but the song is worth a listen anyhow. Note: explicit lyrics, so make sure you aren’t listening alongside wee ones.)

FFWDing to the Best Part: “Absolutely (Story of a Girl),” Nine Days (2000)

If you liked rock music that wasn’t too hard or dissonant but you still wanted to seem “alternative,” the late ’90s and early 2000s were a glorious time.  After grunge but before auto-tuning, there were scores of bands—some seemingly indistinguishable from one another—who churned out accessible “adult alternative rock” (slash “power pop”) that zoomed its way up the charts.

Some acts got pretty big (Matchbox 20 Twenty, The Goo Goo Dolls).  Some were one (hit) and done (Semisonic, Stroke 9). And I. Loved. ALL. Of. Them.

One of my favorites was Nine Days, based on the upbeat and guitar-rich contents of The Madding Crowd, the band’s fourth album (but the first to appear on a major label). “If I Am” was used to great effect in a Dawson’s Creek episode or two, and was wrought with emotion and catchy as hell, despite the seemingly contradictory phrase that closes out the song: Continue reading

FFWDing to the Best Part: “Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974)

There is an ever-growing lists of songs that I don’t hate, per se, but which I’d be perfectly content with never ever hearing again during my remaining years on this proverbial merry-go-round. ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is among them. Also on the list? ‘Sweet Caroline,’ ‘Brown-Eyed Girl,’ ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me,’ and even — dare I say it — ‘Hungry Like the Wolf.’ Done to death, are these numbers.

‘Sweet Home Alabama’ also has that relatively unique but certainly annoying trait where it conjures up a vaguely unpleasant aural memory every time I hear it. Picture it: 1994, I’m a college junior, and I was with my boyfriend at the time, who was DJing some sort of high-school dance (a church youth group? Such details I cannot remember.) Anyway, this song was already dead tired then, but it was requested, so he played it. And the kids had a chant that accompanied the chorus. I had never heard this chant — as clever as it is forgettable — before, have never heard it since, yet I hear it in my brain whenever forced to listen to this southern-fried-rock classic.

It went a little something exactly like this:

Sweet home, Alabama (‘Bama, bama, bama!’)
Where the skies are so blue (‘They-are-so-blue!’)
Sweet home, Alabama (‘Bama, bama, bama!’)
Lord, I’m coming home to you

You’re welcome.

There is one slight hiccup of a second of this song that I still enjoy, however, proving the theory once again that nearly every song can have a “best part…” Right at 2:17 – 2:19, before one of many instrumental breaks, Ronnie Van Zant mutters “Here I come, Alabama.” It’s a throwaway, but I always liked the rhythm of it … and how it leads into the eventual second-best part: Merry Clayton in the background, wailing away: “Alabama — Ahhh, ahhh, ahhh — Alabama ahhh, ahhh, ahhh…”

FFWDing to the Best Part: “What’s the World Coming To,” Fleetwood Mac (2003)

Disclosure that some of you may or may not know already: I mother-effing LOVE Fleetwood Mac. Loved them as a three-year old, when reportedly I would sing certain phrases of “Second Hand News” verbatim (specifically, “won’t you lay me down in the tall grass and let me do my stuff”). Loved them recently, when I saw them in concert and have the $45 tee shirt to prove it. How Stevie Nicks could be wrapped in layers of black velvet while Lindsey and John and Mick sweat it out in tees and jeans is a mystery for the ages. Were I to ever trip my way into having a son (or get the honor of naming a friend-baby/cousin), the middle name might just be Fleetwood. (Thereby ensuring I never get such honor.)

When decompressing after the aforementioned show, I started listening to all of the band’s offerings on my iPhone.  I always liked “What’s the World Coming To,” and exclaimed “Oh! New Fleetwood Mac” when it started playing, quickly realizing that it is nearly 11 years old. But it’s all relative, because it is from what is still, in fact, their most recent album.

This wasn’t a single/hit, so very few of you will know it, and the only YouTube clip I could find (other than live performances) was lacking in video (or correct spelling), so [sic] all over the place. The basic theme of this song is “Stop this world, I wanna get off,” or “Life’s a bitch, and then you die,” or “Get off my lawn,” but the chipper percussion and fast tempo betray the underlying cynicism.

And then, at the best part? From 3:14 – 3:21,  Lindsey Buckingham sets off on a rousing vocal arpeggio that suggests he might have a little hope in this dark, dark world after all.  A similar run takes us into the close.  And for the record, WOW does Stevie Nicks look beautiful in the picture on the screen at the same time.  No wonder he’s been so pissed at her all these years.

(Don’t) FFWD To the Best Part: “Take a Chance on Me,” ABBA, 1977

Til the one day when the ladies met these fellows

Til the one day when these ladies met these fellows

How long does a song have to stay awesome to be an awesome song? Some pop songs offer their best moment right out of the gate, no fast forwarding required or even recommended. A great opening hook gives a song huge momentum, as in today’s song from ABBA. The song as a whole presages the transition from disco to New Wave, with prominent synths instead of strings or horns. But the chugging, “take-a-chance, take-a-chance, take-a-take-a-chance-chance” fifth interval bassline from Bjorn and Bennie, switching to an open octave on the dominant for the second chord, makes such a terrific counterpoint to Agnetha’s and Anni-Frid’s melody that I’m actually disappointed when the “real song” kicks in halfway through the chorus.

If you understand the relevance of this picture, you are officially old.

If you understand the relevance of this picture, you are officially old.

I seem to be a sucker for those cold acapella openings; I love them from Fun., and The Eagles, and Larry Gatlin too. Even Blue Swede’s bizarre “Ooga Chocka” version of “Hooked on a Feeling” gets the blood pumping far more than the pedestrian 70s rock-pop instrumentation comprising the bulk of the song. Music requires tonal movement, and there are so many directions to go after a sparse-yet-arresting beginning.

Nothing gets me down, except requests for sensible lyrics.

Nothing gets me down, except requests for sensible lyrics.

Some songs put a great instrumental riff at the beginning and then spend the rest of the song on autopilot: Axel F and Jump come to mind. (These were also the first two that my wife independently suggested when I mentioned this theme.) Does anyone really care about any part of “Gonna Make You Sweat” after the first ten seconds? Often the opening riff recurs again under the vocals later (The Power of Love, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, Orinoco Flow, Layla, Every Breath You Take) or between verses (Nine to Five, Land of Confusion). Occasionally it never rears its head again, as in the Go-Go’s Head Over Heels. All these songs have decent middles and endings that still don’t live up to the full promise of their iconic openings. Often, one good riff is all it takes.