Songs I Love – Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, “Why I Love Country Music” (1985)

Oh, I cannot help myself. The gears in the brain are turning, turning, and will not stop. And so while this may at some point be a weekly feature, it’s going to be as often as I feel the need to write. (Because Cavanaugh remains unfinished!)

Ever been in love and know it was doomed from the start? Then you probably have some songs to go along with that feeling, songs that helped you get through it, songs that either spoke to that exact feeling or made you capable of hiding in better feelings. Me, I do the first one far more than the latter. And this collection, Easy Pieces, was my late 1985 doomed relationship album.

In fact, Easy Pieces is one of my favorite albums ever. It still is. It is one of a handful of discs I’d take with me to a desert island were I exiled (because maybe that’s what happens to crazy holy men?) to distant speck of nothing. And forced to subsist on fish and copra under the southern sky.

Lloyd Cole was one of the people I discovered watching MTV. The video for “Perfect Skin” on his first disc with The Commotions was played a time or two on MTV (or something did, because I can’t find a video for this song), and it was intriguing enough to buy his first collection Rattlesnakes. Rick Ocasek of The Cars was called in to remix three of the songs for US release, adding his star power (yes, he had that in the early 1980s, which is why he was able to marry a supermodel) in attempt by David Geffen to market this record. How well it worked, I don’t know. Probably not as well as anyone had hoped. That was 1984.

Easy Pieces came out toward the end of 1985. Back when things has sides, I bought the imported cassette on UK’s Polydor label, as it had two additional tracks — “Her Last Fling” and “Big World” — that the Geffen version for the US did not have. (And they didn’t rebalance the tracks, so the first side of the cassette had about five extra minutes on it, the two additional tracks tacked on at the end of side two, so I added OMD’s “If You Leave” on to side one — because I was 18 and that’s exactly where I was, thank you very much.) Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley produced, but managed to keep their trademark slickness to a minimum with these songs, letting Cole and his Commotions do their wonderful thing with the help of some Clanger/Winstanley regulars (Anne Dudley with strings, Gary Barnacle with horns, and Jimmies Helms and Chambers singing some backing vocals).

The sound of this band is the sound I would love to have. The two guitars, the bass and drums, and Blair Cowan’s very accordiony keyboards are almost perfectly balanced on this record. (Those who pay close attention will hear the influence in my recordings.) The music surrounds Cole’s voice but doesn’t drown it out. (The reviewer for Spin at the time described Cole’s voice in almost orgasmic terms.) There’s not a bad song in the whole LP batch, though the A side — “Rich,” “Why I Love Country Music,” “Pretty Gone,” “Grace,” “Cut Me Down” — is about as perfect a covey of five songs could be on a slab of vinyl or two tracks of mylar tape. The B side isn’t bad either, but it doesn’t sink into my soul quite as much as the A side.

So, with five almost prefect songs on that side, why pick “Why I Love Country Music”? Mostly, it’s just everything about the song. Especially the lyrics:

Jane is fine, always fine, we’re unhappy most of the time
We don’t talk, we don’t fight, I’m just tired she’s way past caring
But she says she is fine, she tells lies most of the time
What she needs, I don’t have, that’s not in the hand that I’m holding
So we drink Spanish wine, she plays country records until the morning
This is mine, all of mine, she is not, she is not mine
But I feel fine only when I’m sleeping, only with the tv on
She and I and empty wine and whisky bottles
And she, white beneath crumpled sheets
She is everything I need but she would rather, be anyplace but here

I’m guessing most of you have been in this awkward and unhappy place too at least once in your lives. For me, those last two lines are the emotional core of the song. They are what make this song work for and in me, and Cole’s voice trails off into a small instrumental section, and the notes tumble down (especially the piano on the LP version) that allows the feeling to both just sit there and yet build. And then Cole finishes his story:

Jane is fine, always fine, we’re unhappy most of the time
We don’t talk, we don’t fight, I’m just tired, she’s way past caring
So we drink Spanish wine, we tell lies, we’re killing time
We feel fine, well, what’s the crime?

Well, what is the crime?  For me, there was always an irony in that line, since I always had a sense at the time that the sheer seeming pointlessness of it all was some kind of crime. At least against the self, if no one else. The fact that she’s still here, even though she could be anyplace at all, is less important than the interior world of the story teller. Cole is a fantastic teller of musical stories, and I think the song — like the poem — is an underrated and under appreciated means of telling a very sophisticated and complex story in a very simple way.

I could not find the LP version of “Why I Love Country Music” anywhere on line (I suppose I could have uploaded it), and so I found this recording from a recent Lloyd Cole tour with his Small Ensemble. The sound quality is terrible. I apologize for that.

This is the next song from Easy Pieces, and is also breathtakingly beautiful.

And this ends the collection. Well, aside from the B-sides tacked on at the end of the UK cassette and CD.

Songs I Love – The Bluebells, “Will She Always Be Waiting” (1984)

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!).