It is, to paraphrase Suggs, it’s four in the morning and I cannot sleep. So, I’m going to try a new weekly feature at The Featherblog — Songs I Love.
There was a time when I would have apologized for this, but I love power pop. I tried to pretend to have sophisticated musical tastes, but I don’t think I do. The songs that go here will generally fall into the category of power pop, and they were also songs that at one time had an emotional resonance for me — the kinds of things I could (back when I did) put into my little walkman and listen to over and over and over again. (That tended to ruin tapes.) Most of these songs will be from the 1980s, simply because that’s when I came of age. For those who know me, this may sound odd, but I like pretty music with a bit of a bite. Not precious, but not brutal either. (I have the odd feeling I’m not communicating well…)
So here we go. I’m going to start with something I just rediscovered. Back in 1985 or 1986, when I was either in the Army or in college at San Francisco State University, my Uncle Dave regular sent me tapes. He has one of the world’s most impressive record and CD collections, and back when vinyl was still what was spun, he would put what he thought I would (or should) like on tape and send it to me, two LPs to a 90-minute cassette.
One of those was the first record by the Scottish power pop band The Bluebells, Sisters. I already had a five-track EP by this band, and would listen to it occasionally, but they didn’t do enough for me to justify buying the LP when it came out. (But I did think highly enough of the EP to convert it to MP3s not long ago.) So, this was a nice gift.
It’s fairly innocent and unsophisticated power pop. (I’ve seen The Bluebells compared to Aztec Camera, and that’s not fair. Roddy Frame was a far more sophisticated songwriter and guitarist, and his music tends to have an edge simply because its harder to tell what Frame is writing and singing about.) I hate the LP version of “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” when compared to the EP version — the LP version is trying too hard to be a bad 80’s dance song, I think. I don’t much like “Young at Heart,” which was the biggest UK single they had. (Volkswagen used the song to sell cars in the early 1990s.) And there’s someone I cannot help but remember fondly every time I hear the sweet little love song “Cath.” But none of those cuts really sticks with me. And none really make me hit the rewind and play button again. And again. And again.
But “Will She Always Be Waiting” … This is a song that leaves me breathless. (I spent an hour listening to this song this morning. The iPod makes this too easy…) Part of what catches me about either a song or a band is how well the recorded music holds together. How do the instruments fit? Do the parts cohere? Can you hear everything? Do the arrangement and the mix sound purposeful? Is it beautiful? This song does all of those things for me. I don’t really care what Ken McCluskey is singing about here. The two male voices just fit so well together. The strum of the guitar, the almost mournful wail of the Hammond mixed just far back enough so that it’s just there enough to stand out when everything else get quiet, the simple bass. But what really makes this song work is the string arrangement, which just accentuates this song’s fragile beauty. It’s very close to a perfect string arrangement. I’ve written and recorded enough music to wonder — was the string arrangement something they had in mind when the song was written, or did that happen by accident (and thanks to Elvis Costello’s and Colin Fairley’s production)? There’s almost no bite or edge to this song, but it is beautiful and poignant, and the strings, guitar and melody still make me shiver nearly three decades later.
When I still had dreams of fame and fortune as a singer/songwriter 20-some-odd years ago, I had visions of recording this song and making a video, set outside in a Canadian winter, snow falling slowly and gently (the setting would have looked like the countryside in Julian Lennon’s “Say You’re Wrong” but without the railroad), a fetching young lass I knew at SFSU named Josie trying to teach me how to ice skate and one of those falling down slowed down to almost freeze frame at the very end of the middle bit where the strings really come out. (Tell me you haven’t done this kind of thing. Just tell me.) But that was all, of course, too much to hope for.
This version is actually a different mix from the original 1984 LP that my uncle sent me. There’s a vocal in the middle part in this version and then in at the end that was not there originally. And there are, I think, some extra string flourishes as well. I recently downloaded this from a torrent site, and apparently Sisters was rereleased with some extra material at some point — including most of the mixes from the EP (but not “Aim in Life”! Grrrr!).