Self-Retrospect #2: ‘Never Knew Your Last Name’

And now for the second installment of Self-Retrospect, where I look back at my silly younger self, the often silly songs I wrote and the inspiration behind them.

The first edition of this series dealt with ‘Breaking’, the earliest song I chose to include on the Projects compilation. That song was special to me as it was the first time I’d put real, honest emotion into a song. The second earliest track I put on Projects was ‘Never Knew Your Last Name’, a simple three-chord song written and recored in August 2001. This was, I think, my first ever attempt at a narrative song, recounting a holiday non-romance from that summer.

The story itself was also quite simple. Again, this was the case of me liking a girl, but then not getting anywhere (I wonder what proportion of all songs have been written on this theme…). Unlike the tortured yearning-from-afar that underpinned ‘Breaking’, though, this was a far more lighthearted, fleeting affair. The whole story took place over the course of a few hours.

Never Knew Your Last Name - Chords

That summer, I was invited by my friend Andrew and his family to join them on their annual trip to France. The invite-a-friend strategy was Andrew’s parents’ attempt to get him, now 17 and having pretty much outgrown the family holiday, to come. Andrew himself was quite surprised (disappointed?!) when I accepted the invitation. The bulk of the vacation was spent at a resort in the south, where we spent most of our days at the pool and evenings drinking. Fairly standard, but enjoyable, holiday fun.

We had travelled by car, so the distance was definitely too much for a one-day journey. We stopped off for one night at a place near Paris on the way down and on the return trip, we stayed at the same place for two nights. The first of those nights, we got to know these two Dutch girls. They were both quite attractive, but somewhat aloof. There certainly weren’t any sparks flying for me anyway, so I didn’t pursue anything.

It was the second night at this place – the last night of the whole holiday – that the events depicted in the song unfolded. Andrew and I were in the bar, playing pool, something we did a considerable amount of on the trip (and in general, during that period of our lives). There was a Scottish family, who had just arrived, sitting at a table nearby. I noticed that the daughter of the family was about our age and was very cute. She also appeared to be a bit bored. I obviously needed to intervene. So, I headed over to the table and asked her if she wanted to play pool. I think I also spoke to her parents, explaining that she’d be in safe hands, etc.

In retrospect, this was a fairly ballsy move on my 17-year-old self’s part. I must have been at least tipsy at this point. Regardless, we weren’t seen as a threat (more likely seen as idiots) and she joined us for a game. She and I flirted a bit, although she did mention that she had a boyfriend back home. I’m not sure if the Dutch girls were around at this point. They may have been. There were definitely, however, two Danish guys who showed up and joined our little party. This kind of threw a spanner in the works, as they began to compete for her attention.

Never Knew Your Last Name - verse two

Did they have an edge? I’m not sure. I think the fact that I’d had a head start of an hour or so gave me a slight advantage. There was the hand-holding action to prove it! In the song I say “I stumbled just to hold [her] hand”, which sounds a bit too ridiculous to be true. Did I actually stumble? Stumble might be a bit of an exaggeration, but, yes, I did actually engineer some kind of slight tripping incident, which resulted in me grasping her hand for support. I know it was silly, but I was young – give me a break! I’m sure it was not at all as subtle or as smooth as I thought it was going to be and, ok, it was somewhat manipulative. But the important thing is that, in spite of the fake fall lasting a split-second, in spite of the Danish presence, even though I gave her every opportunity to relinquish the bond, she continued to hold my hand. And to slightly drunk 17-year-old me, that meant everything.

Ultimately, though, that one bit of physical contact did not lead to anything further. Our night was cut short when Andrew’s mother came to tell us we needed to get to bed soon as we had an early start the next morning. I may have placed the blame on this interruption at the time, but deep down I knew it was a lost cause. What went wrong? Well, the Danes were starting to gain more ground as the night went on. But, naturally enough, it was the boyfriend at home that was always there, standing in the way. In fairness to her, she did notify me of his existence early on in the evening – and shame on me for trying to get in there anyway. Still, I can’t say I wasn’t hopeful that something might happen.

Regarding the last name: no she didn’t tell me what it was. But I never asked, so that wasn’t a big deal. The song just needed some kind of lyrical hook! We didn’t exchange any details at all. I left her with the Danes and was gone early the next morning. That was that. I’ll I had was a lingering memory of holding her hand. And a first name, of course.

AND a photograph. The line in the song, “I took a picture of us both” – that happened. Well, I didn’t take the picture myself. Andrew probably did. It must be somewhere in my room in my mum’s house in Bray. I haven’t seen it in years. I should have looked for it for further research purposes when I was digging up the handwritten notes in these pictures. If I remember correctly, it’s the two of us sitting on a wall or fence, smiling. I think I might have had my arm around her shoulder (so there was more physical contact!).

Never Knew Your Last Name - end

As for the music… Well, let’s have a listen:

As I said, it’s just three chords. Pretty simple stuff, although they were three 7th chords (ooh, fancy) and I used a capo on the guitar – the first song on which I used it, I believe. I don’t think anything more complex than that would have suited the song and probably would have ruined it.

There were a few other firsts on this song, too. It was the first song on which I used my (then brand new) ukulele. My friend Steven, whom I talked about in my post on Fugazi’s The Argument, got me into the whole uke scene. The uke definitely fitted in with/added to the playfulness in the song. This was one of the first songs I’d arranged where the bass part wasn’t just the root notes of the guitar chords. It was mostly improvised, too, including the little solo about a minute in, after the not-at-all-improvised guitar solo. I was quite pleased with how it turned out. Finally, it was the first song in which I’d attempted any kind of harmony vocals. I’ll admit the vocals were still pretty terrible, but at least I was trying to embellish them a bit!

I still quite like this song, even if it also acts as a reminder of how pathetic I was back then. It’s pretty cheesy, but it knows it’s cheesy and doesn’t shy away from it. It has a bounce to it. It’s fun. It has a ukulele in it! What’s not to like?!

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Top Ten Albums of 2000-2009: #9 – The Argument

Continuing the series in which I explain why I elected to include certain albums on my somewhat spur-of-the-moment best of the last decade list. This time, it’s those revolutionary, not-so-young-anymore men from Washington, D.C.

#9
Fugazi
The Argument
[2001]

Fugazi_-_The_Argument_cover

I got to know Fugazi through my friend, Steven. I’ve got to know a lot of music through Steven. We have quite a long, shared musical history: introducing different artists and bands to one another; going to gigs; watching films about music; having lengthy discussions about music that would probably be mindnumbingly tedious and/or incomprehensible to anyone in the room with us (over the years we’ve even managed to develop a vocabulary of nonword vocalizations and hand gestures to describe certain emotional reactions to music). I think Steven is the only person I’ve ever had a telephone conversation with which consisted entirely of musical discourse.

Steven might correct me, but I believe this music-based camaraderie started when were about 15, when we realized we had similar listening habits. By that I don’t mean we listened to same bands, but we had a similar attitude to music. In particular, we both took an active approach to discovering new artists and to learning more about the artists we did listen to – something most of our classmates didn’t seem that interested in; or at least were not vocal about.

So this realization lead to some lunchtime symposia and CD exchanges. When, in the summer of 2000, I bought a secondhand bass guitar, he was the first person I ever played music with. He came over to our house and we played some Pixies and R.E.M. songs. That was the day he got me into The Clash, too.

And we’ve been great friends ever since. Aww!

Funnily enough, although that all began when were 15 or so, we’ve known each other since we were 7 or 8. In the early years we didn’t really get on at all. Hate’s a very strong word, but for exaggerated emphasis I’m going to go ahead and say we hated each other. I guess we can file this under the bridge-building power of music…

My introduction to Fugazi came from one of those early jam sessions in 2000. We were picking out songs to play and Steven suggested ‘Turkish Disco’ from the Instrument Soundtrack, because of its brilliant bass line:

After that piqued my interest, he leant me the 13 Songs compilation and Red Medicine. The former I found it difficult to get into. It was a little bit too “punk” for me at the time. (At least, that’s what I thought at the time. Thinking about it now, that was a somewhat unusual reaction to have.) Well, obviously I loved ‘Waiting Room’. But it’s impossible not to love ‘Waiting Room’:

Red Medicine was a different beast altogether. For one, it had possibly the best, most abrasive opening 50+ seconds to any album I’d heard:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lv8poVospPs

And the songs were rich, varied, exhilarating… And I realize I’ve spent nearly five hundred words not talking about the album I’m supposed to be talking about. I really need to cut down on these extended introductions.

I will have another quick aside though: Instrument, directed by Jem Cohen, is THE BEST FILM ABOUT MUSIC EVER MADE. No exaggeration. I’ve watched it about half a dozen times and it never fails to inspire me. I heartily recommend buying it.

The Argument, their sixth – and, in all likelihood, their final – studio album, came out in October 2001. Steven got his straight from Dischord. He lent it to me shortly after. Like Red Medicine, this album has a 50(-ish)-second introduction. The intro on The Argument, untitled and not at all abrasive, gets its own dedicated track. The sound of radio transmissions and static with a simple cello part on top, it certainly sets a different tone from the openings to the other releases in their catalogue. It’s soft, almost ethereal.

The first song proper is ‘Cashout’, sung by Ian MacKaye. That sentence doesn’t seem especially surprising, but in the context of their earlier work, it’s a minor shock. Up to that point, Ian MacKaye wasn’t really known for his “singing” – in the traditional sense, at least. The division of vocals in Fugazi was, if you oversimplified it, Ian does the shouting, Guy (Picciotto) does the singing. Of course there were exceptions along the way. It’s not like we didn’t know Ian could carry a tune (and Guy has done his fair share of wailing). Still, there was something odd about the first vocal you hear being Ian cooing melodically. Although sonically soft, the lyrical content is still hard-hitting, as you’d expect. Halfway through [spoiler alert!] good old shouty Ian does make a return to hammer the point home. But set alongside the tuneful opening, it’s much more dynamic and feels fresher because of it.

Almost the exact opposite happend on the following song, ‘Full Disclosure’. This one careers along, Guy screaming “I want out” repeatedly over buzz-saw guitars and a groovy rhythm until – BOOM – an upbeat chorus with “oooooh” backing vocals. And then full-on harmonies in the middle eight. This running theme of juxtapositions continues on the next song, ‘Epic Problem’, where stop-start, shouty-Ian (and brilliant, by the way) verses and choruses give way to an almost folky breakdown, with just guitar and voice. The rest of the band comes back in, loud and hard, but the melody in the vocal part is preserved.

In the opening section of the album, they somehow managed to confound expectations and hark back to the strengths of their older material, all the time maintaining this excitement. It’s brilliant.

Things go a bit more left field over the next couple of tracks. ‘Life and Limb’ is probably  my favourite on the album. Its verses are skeletal: Brendan Canty with a tight, restrained beat and guy playing an intricate but “light” guitar part and singing. When bass comes in, with the female backing vocal, it brings this amazing warmth. But at the same time, it has a very unsettling, nervy quality as all. This could be Guy’s ability to turn on the creepy stalker vibe (see the ‘Rend It’ demo on the Instrument Soundtrack). The track’s coup de grâce comes straight after the second chorus, where Guy sings “right away” and there’s short build up to a pause, which leaves you dangling precariously for four beats before …a guitar solo! Like Ian’s singing, guitar solos aren’t usually part of Fugazi’s repertoire. They allow themselves this rare one and it’s a treat. The whole song’s a treat:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbVikzsiHFg

‘The Kill’ and ‘Strangelight’, the two longest songs on the album, keep the sparse eeriness going. Especially ‘The Kill’, bassist Joe Lally’s lead vocal effort. Things get back to “normal” then, with ‘Oh’, ‘Ex-Spectator’ and ‘Nightshop’, before we end on ‘Argument’, probably the most radically different song on the album. Radically different for the band, in that features Ian MacKaye singing melodically through the whole thing!

It seems I’ve short-changed the latter half of the album. I think this is just a simple case of me being too tired to continue writing, unlike in my look back at XTRMNTR, whose second half just isn’t quite as good as its first.

In October 2002, Steven and I saw Fugazi play at the Red Box (now Tripod) in Dublin. Due to technical difficulties, there was a considerable delay before they went on. But when they did they were incredible. Thinking back, it just adds to the disappointment that, like the prospect of a new album, the chances of seeing them on stage ever again are incredibly slim.

So, no more of this:

or this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svhkL27E5Bk

🙁

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Non-Album Tracks #1: ‘Tightrope’

In this series, I’ll highlight some of my favourite non-album tracks, i.e. songs artists have released in some way other than on one of their canonical studio albums. For example: standalone singles, B-sides, songs on soundtracks, those new tracks on greatest hits/best of releases, etc.

First up, my favourite song from one of my favourite bands of the last couple of years.

Yeasayer – ‘Tightrope’

Released on:
Dark Was The Night [Compilation – 2009]

Darkwasthenight-cvr

I was first drawn to Yeasayer when I learned of their involvement in Two Suns, Bat for Lashes’ 2009 album, which happens to be in my top ten of the last decade. This was probably in April or May of that year, while I was still in the initial stages of my obsession with the Bat for Lashes album. This spurred me on to get All Hour Cymbals, Yeasayer’s first – and at that time, only – album. The first song, ‘Sunrise’, grabbed me immediately, as I’m sure it does most who hear it. But the rest of the album, even the mighty ‘2080’, just seemed a bit too hippie-ish for my tastes at the time.

Fast forward about seven months and ‘Ambling Alp’, with its completely insane (and NSFW) video, was gaining a lot of traction. When I first listened to it, I was expecting some more of the same long-haired, flowery stuff. How wrong I was. The song was utterly phenomenal. Suddenly, I had an upcoming album release to get very excited about.

Yeasayer’s second album, Odd Blood, was released in early February 2010. However, several weeks earlier, it leaked online and the Internet pounced on it. I won’t lie, I was already very familiar with the album by  the time the official release date came round. ‘O.N.E.’ was my new favourite song in the whole world (it ended up with a wacky video too, but its edit of the song is so disappointingly inferior, I’m not linking to it!). This premature familiarity and love encouraged me to get a ticket for their mid-February show at The Academy in Dublin.

On a buzz about the upcoming show, I was keen to (re-)familiarize myself with their back catalogue. This mainly meant giving All Hour Cymbals another try. Which I did. And it certainly grew on me. Not nearly to the extent that Odd Blood violently infected me, but it grew, particularly ‘Forgiveness’ (my pick of the album) and the choral closer, ‘Red Cave’.

It also meant getting to ‘Tightrope’:

This was the band’s contribution to Dark Was the Night , a two-CD compilation released in February 2009 by the Red Hot Organization in order to raise money and awareness for HIV and AIDS. The compilation was one of the numerous releases I had got in 2009, but never got round to listening to, due to my lifelong tendency to be overwhelmingly fixated on one artist at a given time. It’s like a kind of serial monogamy with music. It has always been extremely difficult – almost impossible – for any “various artists” compilations to break through that. The only successful one I can think of is the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World soundtrack and that obsession (which was mainly just an extension of my obsession with the film) didn’t last very long.

So yes, I did have Dark Was The Night. But even though I was a big fan of several of the artists featured on it (e.g. Feist, Arcade Fire, Yo La Tengo), I hadn’t given it a chance. In early 2010, though, Yeasayer was quickly becoming my new exclusive partner and I was determined to let ‘Tightrope’ into my life. I listened to it. It was very good. I went to the gig. They played it. It was very good.

“Very good” isn’t really good enough to warrant a blog post like this, though, is it? No it’s not.

(Interestingly enough, the above determination didn’t extend to the Wait For The Summer single’s ‘Final Path’, which they also played at the February gig, the studio version of which I’m listening to for the first time right now…)

So when did it get better than “very good”? It’s something I can’t pinpoint. There definitely wasn’t any big Eureka moment where it all just clicked and I suddenly loved it. I liked the song from the very first time I heard it. I just liked it more each time I heard it again. This appreciation just increased so slowly, that I never realized that the transition from liking it to being completely in love with it even happened. I was the frog that was boiled alive! I may have been the only one for whom it was slow burner, as many of the reviews of Dark Was The Night singled the track out for praise.

Where did ‘Tightrope’ come from?

According to an interview with Drowned in Sound, the song was conceived at the same time as ‘Wait for the Summer’ and other tracks from All Hour Cymbals and they have been playing it live since before that album was released. In February 2008, they performed it as part of their Take-Away Show, where they were interrupted mid-song by pesky neighbours. Chris Keating references that event in a specially recorded session in Brooklyn (also filmed by Vincent Moon) to promote the release of Dark Was The Night:

We played this song already a little bit – got interrupted by neighbours in Paris when we were doing it at one point. Then we kind of wrote it for real, recorded it up… now it’s a real song.

Those two versions are clearly stripped down, compared to the studio version. The latter one differs even more significantly, with it’s odd instrumentation, more relaxed pace and slightly altered melodies. These variations reveal just how simple the song is at its core. The whole thing rests on a simple, mellow, unchanging four-chord progression. It’s what goes on around it that gives the song its magic.

While I do like the piano from the Paris version and the banjo and melodicas from the Brooklyn one, it’s the studio version – which forms the basis of its usual live renditions – that really gets me. Key to this is the rhythm of the drums, which manage to march along, but as though they were slightly unsteady, always on the verge of stumbling. Most of all, it’s Keating’s vocal performance. Yes, the song features some of the band’s trademark harmonization, but it’s the lead here that stands out a mile. This is especially true with the second verse, where he cries out the first and third lines pleadingly, then dismisses them (reassuringly) with a load of never minds in the second and fourth.

Yeasayer played at the Academy again in October. Overall, the show wasn’t as good as the February one. I don’t know the reason(s) why exactly; it could have been as mundane as it being on a Monday night, while the February gig was on a Friday. One thing that was far better, though, was my appreciation of ‘Tightrope’. I literally squealed when those drums kicked in (an all-too-early four songs into the set). They held out the beat for what seemed like an age, before the keyboard intro started. And when Keating got to that second verse, I cried out along with him.

Here’s hoping they keep playing it at their shows. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t. As this reviewer states, it’s “interesting to hear the group play a song that was stashed away on a compilation, although it’s really too good not to play.”

It really is.

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