Song Series #9: Breaking Through Time

queen

It is common, when listening to a song or album that you haven’t heard in a long time, to find that it brings back an era of your life, maybe an era of history. It can be fun to listen to old favorites for this reason. But there are songs that also transcend their era (or the era when we first listened to them) while also capturing something of it. Over time, they show their newness, which does not go away.

What do such songs have in common? They are bold and beautiful at once, and there’s nothing quite like them. The boldness may be quiet or brash, but you can feel it. It becomes part of you as you listen.

An obvious example is “We Will Rock You” by Queen. It appeared on their 1977 album News of the World. It needs no explanation. The foot stomping and the a cappella voices, the anger and the promise, the irresistible melody and beat–all of this made it a song that I heard again and again without even owning the album. I probably heard it in high school first, without knowing what it was. In college it got played at parties and dances. Bands covered it. People started singing it out of the blue. Many years later, in 2008, when I was teaching at an elementary school way out in East New York, Brooklyn, my students struck up their own version of it on the bus ride back from a field trip. I can still hear them singing the chorus (which consisted of the name of one of the students, who was the fifth grade class president, I think, and who was well liked and respected).

The next song, in a very different mood, is the Smiths’ “Half a Person.” Originally released in 1987 as the B-side of the single “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” it is also included on their compilation album Louder Than Bombs. I first heard it at the Daily Caffé in New Haven (where I heard a lot of music for the first time). I bought Louder Than Bombs and listened to it over and over–the song and the whole album. “Half a Person” is so beautifully melancholic and semi-young. It seems to be about a teenager’s confusion and wandering, but it feels older, probably because of the reminiscence in it. “Call me morbid, call me pale, I’ve spent six years on your trail, six long years on your trail….” It’s perverse and poignant at the same time. And even today, when the narrator of the song would be quickly written off as a stalker, the song gives a glimpse of the person’s soul and circumstances. “That’s the story of my life….”

Since I seem to be proceeding decade-wise, I’ll continue with Beck, whose genius I didn’t appreciate at first. When “Loser” was all over the place, and then when Odelay came out, there was so much talk about Beck that I couldn’t listen to him. Later, with his Mutations and Sea Change, I started to listen, and now I am listening to those albums I missed early on, as well as later ones. What is it about Beck? It isn’t just his versatility, his ability to take different directions in his music. It isn’t only his craft either, though he knows how to compose a song that you will want to ride all the way through, anticipating each shift and break. There’s more to it than that, something I want to get to know.

His song “Where It’s At” (from Odelay) was all around me for years before I knew that Beck wrote it.  I think it was on many an mp3 playlist at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater–it got played there in intermissions, dance parties, etc. But that’s not the song I want to include here. The song I have chosen is “Girl,” from his 2005 album Guero, because it so messed up and perfect at once. I love how the first “Hey” comes a split second after the “try” of “nothing that I wouldn’t try.” I love the attitude of the song–downcast, dorky, disturbing, mischievously wry, and, towards the end, celebratory. The video stands out too, with its series of fold-in scenes, a tribute to MAD Magazine.

The last one I’ll mention today is Sonny Smith, whom I first heard in San Francisco in 2000 (when he had been around for a few years, putting out tapes). During the break, I ran up to Carrie Bradley, who was headlining the show that night, and said, “Sonny Smith was fantastic!” She motioned to her left; Sonny was sitting next to her and I hadn’t even noticed. I was so flustered that I couldn’t say anything. Later we became good acquaintances; I edited some of his stories, many of which I published in my literary journal, Si Señor; he played at two of the Si Señor celebrations. Over the years I got to listen to his music as he formed Sonny and the Sunsets, toured the world, put out album after album, wrote a musical (The Dangerous Stranger), pulled off the 100 Records project, started a record label (Rocks in Your Head Records), and did so much more that I lost track. What Sonny has in common with Beck is a relentlessness, a desire to try new things, and a knack for a darn good song. What’s different is all the difference between them (a lot). It is difficult to choose a song to feature here. But I’ll choose “Pretend You Love me” from Sonny and the Sunsets’ 2012 album Longtime Companion. Why? Because it’s so sad, yet it lifts up as it goes–in a way that is not tied to time and place, even though it brings back various memories at once. (For contrast, and for another Sonny great, listen to “Well but Strangely Hung Man.”)

That will be all for this post, since I soon head into Budapest to hear a Platon Karataev acoustic duo!

This is the ninth post in my Song Series. For other posts in this series, go here.

Listen Up: Platon Karataev

platon karataev

Photo by Tamás Lékó / Phenom’enon.

One of the most exciting things about music–any style–is the feeling, when you listen to something exceptional, that you must both take time with it alone and bring it to others. When you tell someone, “You have got to hear this!” you mean, “The music will not stay secret–and even if it is well known already, it will become even more so, right now.” Even if you’re just one of thousands of listeners, or hundreds of thousands, you have to do your part.

Many songs, many compositions have had this effect on me, but now it is the Hungarian band Platon Karataev. I was introduced to their music indirectly, through online recommendations of Marcell Bajnai, the guitarist, lead singer, and songwriter of Idea. At first I was intrigued by their name (after the peasant in Tolstoy’s War and Peace whom Pierre Bezukhov comes to know in prison, and whose attitude toward life inspires his own transformation). Then, once I started listening, I kept returning, and then something took hold. They have elements of The Smiths, Elliott Smith, Radiohead, and Grandaddy (especially The Sophtware Slump), but their style is their own, with unabashed intellect and feeling and gorgeous sound. Their new album, Atoms (released just last month), whirls both inward and outward. According to the band’s own description, “This album is about searching for our innermost selves, and also about questioning everything. The title, ‘Atoms’, refers to the idea that just like us, each song on this album is an individual shivering atom on its own.”

They usually sing in English. Usually I prefer to hear Hungarian bands sing in Hungarian–not only for my own immersion in the language, but because English has become the language of streamlining and mass access. Many songwriters write in English in hopes of reaching a wider audience. While that’s understandable, it’s a loss to the Hungarian language (and sometimes to English too). But when Platon Karataev sings in English, it’s different, because they bring something unique to the language. Take, for instance, some of the lyrics from “Aphelion” (one of my favorites on the new album):

I’m a paraphrase
Of silence as I’m floating over nameless days
With sanguine eyes
And blue lips I lie on God’s chest I’m paralyzed

If there’s such a thing
A spiral of nothing
Well, it pulls me down

 

Hearing this for the first time on the radio, you might think they’re singing “Ophelia” instead of “Aphelion.” That would work, too; the whole song could easily be sung to Ophelia by Hamlet. But it’s “Aphelion,” the outermost point in a planet’s orbit–that is, when it is farthest from the sun. The song takes you into private and cosmic pain. (By the way, Earth’s 2020 aphelion was yesterday. )

Another of my favorites–and so brief that I have to play it over and over again–is “Ex Nihilo,” the first song of Atoms. It starts out with the chorus, “Ex nihilo nihil fit,” which catches the ear because of the rhythm of the syllables and the way the end becomes the beginning. This is one of those songs that you would want both in a philosophy or physics class and on a desert road trip. But not for background music, ever.

 

I know why I love these songs and the others on Atoms. They have everything: sound, hooks, lyrics, character, guts–and together they form an album. But it’s harder for me to explain what’s great about “Elevator,” for instance.

 

On the surface, the lyrics sound ordinary:

You can call it anything, but that was love
When we were happy just because we shared the blanket.
You can call it what you want
You can call it anything, but that was love.
That was pure Love.

But if you listen carefully to the rhythm, the lilting of “You can call it,” you find that the genius is right there–taking simple words and setting them to time and tune in an absolutely memorable way. That, and the “elevator” part, which takes you by surprise, and the way the song progresses–the tight, surprising structure and the a cappella ending. All together, “Elevator” has what many songwriters long for: the feeling that every second belongs and must be heard and sung along to, again and again.

And that’s what songs are, isn’t it? These short musical stretches of time that you want to repeat and sing along with, because, like the character Platon Karataev in War and Peace, they bring something inside you to life.

You can find Platon Karataev’s albums and songs on their website, as well as on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and elsewhere. Photo credit: Tamás Lékó; photo originally published in Phenom’enon.

This is the first post in a new series called Listen Up (different from the Song Series), in which I will write about things worth listening to.