A vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious, passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction.
Michel Foucault, who wrote Madness and Civilization, saw in the ship of fools a symbol of the consciousness of sin and evil alive in the medieval mindset and imaginative landscapes of the Renaissance. According to the intro to Madness and Civilization, "Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then "knew," had an affinity for each other. Thus, "Ship of Fools" crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors."
Saturday, June 7, 2008
Randy Newman: Sail Away [purchase]
Public Enemy: Can't Truss It [purchase]
Just call me Captain Buzzkill, I'm basically docking the boat where "Redemption Song" left off. I've actually had these two in my back pocket for the whole week, wondering if someone else would tackle either song. Can't say that I blame anyone for passing on the slavery discussion. We know it's shameful and really, what is there to say that doesn't come off as painfully over-earnest? A ha! That's why we have Randy Newman, a satire machine here at the top of his game. Obviously, his seemingly nonchalant treatment of such a horrible subject rubbed some folks the wrong way, but c'mon, what was he supposed to do? Write a song telling us how bad slavery was? Gee, and all this time I thought it was like Club Med for West Africans. Besides, that's why Public Enemy was invented. While Newman addresses the horrific nature of slavery through ironic distance, Chuck D and Flav get in our faces, kickin' wicked rhymes like a fortune teller. If you're interested, you should check out PE's video for "Can't Truss It." While they abandon the slave ship metaphor for filming purposes, it's still pretty intense. Bass in your face, check it yo.
Photo by Arnt Schoning
Billie Holiday: A Sailboat In The Moonlight
For all you young romantics out there, here's a nice boat song from one the all-time greats.
The things, dear, that I long for are two:
Just give me a sailboat in the moonlight
For more about Billie Holiday, head over to Setting The Woods On Fire.
Neil Young: Cripple Creek Ferry
I don't have a lot of time to write anything very meaningful (so what's new?), but I just couldn't let this topic pass without a spot of Neil Young.
And here's some unabashed cheese, courtesy of Tanya Tucker, with Gerry and The Pacemakers doing it for us Brits!
"A case of gone was all he carried,
Gerry and The Pacemakers: Ferry Cross the Mersey
"So ferry 'cross the Mersey
Friday, June 6, 2008
"Well, you mesmerize me
Stop criticizing me
You know, I'm solo that way
And I'm heading for the Cape"
I'll be darned if I know what Steve Malkmus is meaning when he sings. I have a feeling that he's okay with that, though. It isn't just this song, either: Pavement seems to have some of the most inscrutable lyrics ever invented. It almost seems the intention. It doesn't bother me, though- It's fun ascribing one's own interpretations!
"Raft" does mention a raft, an ocean (of honey), a splash and The Cape, so it's enough of a boat song for me!
Bob Marley: Redemption Song
OK - There are two songs that I thought for sure would be featured this week, but it's Friday night and neither has made the cut yet. One is When The Ship Comes In by Bob Dylan and the other is Redemption Song by Bob Marley. Since Dylan was featured in another, and more fun, context, I figured I'd take care of Marley here. This song is not about boats, but the first verse features a ship in a very powerful image that most people are familiar with:
Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
I'm not being faux-modest when I say that I just don't have the chops to do this song justice. It has become something of an anthem for many people over the years. It is beautifully written. And more than anything it is delivered with intangible authority and compassion that only Bob Marley can deliver.
But, I'm not a Marley devotee, or even a serious fan, so in this case I'm much more comfortable letting the music speak for itself.
Great Big Sea/The Chieftains: Lukey
I am unable to find a purchase link for the album this comes from; in fact I can't even find a picture of it online! You can get a copy of Great Big Sea singing Lukey on this album but, in my opinion, it isn't as good as their collaboration with The Chieftains.
The version above comes from a sampler album I picked up for free some years back, called Deep Roots and Future Grooves, which features some great songs, including Fissiriwaly by Alpha Yaya Diallo and Lauren McDonald's Wing and A Prayer. It's an album of world music, celtic influences and some tasty dub rhythms and is highly recommended if you are able to find it anywhere!
I wrote this for an old friend of mine a few years back who could just not seem to find his occupation in the twentieth century, so he just chose to live in a fantasy world. And then I looked at him [and] I went, well what the hell's wrong with that?
I'll be the first to admit I'm not really a Jimmy Buffett fan, though you gotta admire a guy who has figured out how to make a way of life out of wearing hawaiian shirts and drinking frozen blender drinks on some warm tropical beach. But there's something absolutely universal about this modern pirate's midlife crisis that always gets to me. Maybe it's because I'm getting old myself. Like Buffett's narrator, I'm a far cry from the man of potential I once was; like him, I often feel that my talents would have been better applied, and my urges better served, in a world which had already passed by the time I was born.
That the song delivers its autobiography with no stronger tone than a faint whiff of bittersweet is pure easygoing Buffett; its shrug of beach-resort regret models for us an acceptance of the world-as-it-is which is, if still not exactly what we hoped for, at least free of stress, and still sweet under its little paper umbrella. Meanwhile, surfer Jack Johnson's cover of the song 30 years later is hushed, and more introspective, with a perfect bowed cello undertone like the sea itself; Johnson is younger, but you can hear it: he knows, too, the way the subjective world of what-could-be shrinks as we grow old.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Robert Wyatt: Shipbuilding
Elvis Costello: Shipbuilding
It's wartime in a land hit hard by a failing economy. The bad news for one of the poorest areas, once a thriving manufacturing town, is tempered with the chance that an once moribund sector, the military industry, will be revived as the need for the tools of war ratchets up. The irony is the town's young are sent off to fight and perhaps lose their lives in the very same military vehicles the townspeople build. Is this about the effect of the Iraq War on one of the many villages scattered across America's Rust Belt? It's actually about the 1982 Falklands War and the United Kingdom's shipbuilding industry.
Shipbuilding is a song written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer about the Falklands War and its repercussions to the UK. While writing the song for Robert Wyatt, looking to spice up the prose, Langer had brought it to Costello who later described it as "the best lyrics I've ever written."
In 1982, Wyatt's version reached number 36 in the UK charts. The following year, Costello's turn had Cool Jazz King Chet Baker on trumpet. The lyrics are as appropriate today as they were twenty four years ago.
Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy's birthday
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon we'll be shipbuilding
Well I ask you
The boy said "Dad they're going to take me to task, but I'll be back by Christmas"
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin
It's all we're skilled in
We will be shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls
OK, this one might be a bit of a challange. Starting Sunday, June 8, the theme is Advice. I'm looking for songs that impart advice (good or maybe not so good) from the singer to the listener. It could be anything from "brush your teeth" to "smell the roses" to "don't make the same mistakes as me." Got it?
Posted by Paul at 3:53 PM
The Band: Rockin’ Chair
Hang around, Willie boy,
Don’t you raise the sails anymore
It’s for sure, I’ve spent my whole life at sea
And I’m pushin’ age seventy-three
Now there’s only one place I was meant to be:
Oh, to be home again,
Down in old Virginny,
With my very best friend,
They call him Ragtime Willie.
We’re gonna soothe away the rest of our years,
We’re gonna put away the rest of our tears,
That big rockin’ chair won’t go nowhere…
Joni Mitchell: Cactus Tree
This blog has been very active recently, and at the same time the picks have become a lot more obscure. This is a good thing for me because I get to hear stuff that I'm unfamiliar with and potentially discover new artists. However, sometimes it's nice to go back to the basics and enjoy the familiar. In that spirit, I bring you the god mother of the blog once again, Joni Mitchell.
This is actually one of my favorite Mitchell songs. It's from her debut LP, Song to a Seagull, a concept album that is treated with grudging respect by the critics. I disagree with the reviews that I've read though. I think it's a brilliant and beautiful album. It is our first introduction to this amazing talent, who would go on to write such incredible stories and music.
If my calculations are correct, Joni was about 24 years old when she wrote this album. I'm struck by her sincerity and depth of emotion at that age. She sounds like a much older soul with experience beyond her years. I think if I would have written an album when I was 24 it probably would have been about Mario Brothers or how much I liked vanilla Zingers.
The opening line of Cactus Tree is about a man on a boat:
Theres a man whos been out sailing
In a decade full of dreams
And he takes her to a schooner
And he treats her like a queen
Bearing beads from california
With their amber stones and green
He has called her from the harbor
He has kissed her with his freedom
He has heard her off to starboard
In the breaking and the breathing
Of the water weeds
While she was busy being free
I could spend some time talking about the relationship between Gram and Emmylou, but I'm sure most of you know more than I do, so that's all for now folks.
(Note to self...must endeavour to write a coherent post over here at SMM...I've just got so many songs I want to post and it's my first week, so I'm an enthusiastic newbie!).
John Hartford: Steamboat Whistle Blues [purchase]
John Hartford: Julia Belle Swain [purchase]
Jimmy Work: Hear That Steamboat Whistle Blow [purchase]
John Hartford was truly one of the greats. He's not as well known as he should be, but almost everyone’s heard his most famous composition Gentle On My Mind, which was a huge hit for Glen Campbell in 1968. Campbell’s version alone has received more than 5 million radio plays, and the song has been covered by hundreds of other artists.
So what do you do when you’ve got a hit song under your belt and royalty money coming in? Well, if you’re John Hartford, the answer is to get a job as a steamboat captain and go have yourself some fun on the river.
Hartford, a man of many talents, not the least of which was banjo picking, was a frequent guest pilot on the Julia Belle Swain out of Peoria. Notably, the Julia Belle Swain bested the heavily-favored Delta Queen to win the Great American Steamboat Race of 1976.
Learn more about John Hartford (and get more songs) here.
Learn more about Jimmy Work, another under-appreciated country great, here.
Where else but a muddy old river, would a person want to be?
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Stan Rogers: Barrett's Privateers
Ontario-based but Maritimer-at-heart master of the sea shanty Stan Rogers has a whole catalog of songs about boats: boats that got wrecked, boats that were beset by pirates, boats that were their captains' folly, and more. Most come across as true mythologies; a good number, in fact, are based enough on true events to have fit our previous theme on History, too.
But Barrett's Privateers is the one which all true folkies know how to sing: just step into the right crowd, bellow "Oh the year was seventeen seventy eight", and you'll get a gleeful shout in three part harmony in return. It's a great feeling, the heart of folk-as-community, to be a part of such a joyous singalong. I've sung it on long car rides, in Unitarian churches, and -- most recently -- in a crowd full of slightly odd hippie-types at a CD release party for one of my favorite folk trios; for a while, "the sherbet song" was my daughter's favorite car cassette, most likely because of how heartily we all sang along when it came to this track. Personally, I've got the bass part covered, but I can do Stan's own baritone in a pinch, and can teach any alto the tenor part if she asks just right.
Rumor has it that Rogers, who died tragically at age 33 in an airplane fire, wrote this one because he was sick of not being able to sing lead on his own songs. Can you hear how happy he sounds to be singing, in this live version from posthumous release Home in Halifax? And the crowd goes wild, too.
Afterword, and bonus tracks: Barrett's Privateers is set as a true shipman's work song -- sans instrumentation, with a hearty bellow that bespeaks rope-hauling and teamwork in its every whoop and holler. But if this is your first taste of the music of Stan Rogers, know that he is often cited as a dominant force in contemporary Canadian folk music; as such, we'd be remiss in not including at least one more shipsong from his catalog, just so can you can hear what he sounds like with full traditional Canadian folk instrumentation: the fiddle, the fast guitar strum, the driving bass undertone.
Here's that taste: another live cut from Home in Halifax, plus a much more bittersweet song about the benefits of staying home instead of seafaring, as covered by another one of my favorite male singer-songwriters, John Gorka.
Stan Rogers: The Mary Ellen Carter
John Gorka: The Lock Keeper
The Levellers: The Boatman
I'm far too embarrassed about posting this to actually write much. I almost chickened out. Almost. But hearing The Levellers always puts a smile on my face; I think it is like that with most music that you loved in your mid-teen years. It means something to you, and you know it inside and out...you might have even worn out the cassette from listening so much!
I saw The Levellers at Brixton Academy when I was about 15. I got sweated on by crusties in the mosh pit and a lecture as my friend and I sat on the sloping (and sticky!) floor that I should not drink Ribena because Smithkline-Beecham had some sort of hand in the making of it, the selling of it, or something. I forget...and I still like Ribena!
Apart from the aforementioned crusty sweat, the Academy smelt of cider...that smell, although I don't drink cider myself, will always make me smile, because I can hear The Levellers in my head.
Oh, and if I could be surrounded by quite so many nubile lovelies as in the picture up above (is just saying that sacrilege?) then "If I could choose the life I please, then I would be a boatman" too!*
*Although they would appear to be sextuplets, so maybe I should only sleep with one of them, otherwise it would just be wrong!
Iris Dement: Troublesome Waters [purchase]
Iris Dement: The Old Gospel Ship [purchase]
Here's a pair of Iris Dement recordings in which ships are metaphorical vehicles for embracing one's spirituality. "Troublesome Waters" is an old Carter Family tune, most famously covered by Johnny Cash in 1964, and recorded by Iris for her great My Life album in 1994. In the song, the singer laments that troublesome waters are "rockin' my boat and wreckin' my soul." Iris' father passed away in 1992 and I have to imagine that this song was great comfort to her following that loss. The stark arrangement highlights Iris' high, lonesome twang, particularly when she ascends and then descends with, "Gently I'm feelin' the touch of His hand / Guiding my boat in safely to land." That's powerful medicine.
Iris recorded "The Old Gospel Ship" for her underappreciated 2004 gospel album, Lifeline. It's an old-timey public domain number that's been around, in one form or another, since before the turn of the 20th century. In the liner notes to The Gospel Ship Baptist Hymns & White Spirituals From The Southern Mountains, folklorist Alan Lomax says that it's "a gospel song of the type that became popular around the turn of the century. The image of religion as a vessel sailing to heaven with a cargo of the faithful is a perennial favorite, occurring in old carols and modern songs alike." As always, enjoy. And as Billy Joe Shaver likes to say, "May the God of your choice bless you."
Joe Meek & The Blue Men: Dribcots Space Boat
His story is so interesting that I don't know what to tell you about Joe Meek. I'll save some details should you be waiting for this documentary or the upcoming biopic, Telstar. But I will tell you that he was an astoundingly gifted and ingenious producer - one of England's first independent record producers - and also tone deaf. He firmly believed in life in outer space, culminating in his experimental, instrumental masterwork I Hear A New World.
Though Meek is best known for his more conventional hits like Have I The Right and Telstar, there was always something a little otherworldly shimmering in all of the music he recorded. As Jello Biafra says "you can tell a Joe Meek record a mile away."
Radar Bros.: Open Ocean Sailing
This comes from the Radar Bros.'s 1999 album The Singing Hatchet. It's a great album—if you like this song then you'll like everything else on it too—yet I've never heard anything they've done since...
This is a nice tune; moodwise it certainly sounds like the kind of song (and album) you'd want to listen to on a relaxing day of sailing. Though the lyrics don't seem to be about sailing at all. Rather, it seems to be about a janitor in a factory, or something. The closest they get to references to water is in the chorus: "fight the waves of a slow production day."
Kate Rusby: I Courted A Sailor
Kate Rusby: The Sleepless Sailor
This is only my second post here and already I am breaking all the rules. The songs above come, respectively, from Kate Rusby's 2001 and 2003 albums, making them decidedly 21st Century releases. I hope to extricate myself and justify my posting of these songs, however, by making the argument that many of Rusby's songs are traditional sea shanties and are not 'modern' music as such. I do hope this washes! And her voice is just unbeatable within this genre.
Greg Brown: Ships
Greg Brown is from Fairfield, Iowa, of all places, home of the Maharishi International University.
He is known for his intimate live performances. He tells wonderful stories, he's funny, and his music is well suited to small venues. The featured track, Ships, is about Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and John Wayne. It's a simple song that seems to have a simple message: Each of these people had troubles and sorrows in life, and now they are all dead.
Fellow SMM author, boyhowdy, sent me the following story about Greg Brown via email:
I once had the opportunity to hang with him for a while, and out of idle curiosity, asked him what the strangest thing he ever autographed was. "A Breast", says he, in his wry basso. "That's not so weird", I said.
"Well", he said. "it was kind of jiggly, so I had to use my other hand to hold it down..."
I love "wry basso" as a description of his voice. It's true, his voice has a "wry" quality to it. Sort of a sardonic mocking quality, slightly cynical, but ultimately humorous. Weird mix, I know - but this is what I hear in his voice and his music.
Go buy One Night (see "purchase" link above). It's really an excellent performance and it made a great CD.
One last thing: This track was covered by Redbird. Check it out:
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
June Tabor and the Oyster Band: Dark Eyed Sailor
As long as sea-faring cultures have existed, boats and the sea have long been portrayed as both livelihood and life-stealer in our cultural narratives of love and loss; if the predominance of tempted lass tales among traditional folksong are any indicator, the long voyages which separated mate from mate were, indeed, once the biggest scapegoat for temptation an entire community could imagine, more even than beauty or fame.
Here, then, folksong as morality play: a lass responds to a propositioner (why do you roam?) by telling of her long lost love, for whom she waits, and how she wanders distracted with half a ring while the other half lies surely below the deeps; he responds by assuring her she will get over it eventually, but she will have none of it; finally, he reveals himself as her lost William, his proof the other half of the ring in question. Nothing subtle here: they marry, and the moral of the story is spelled out pretty baldly in the final verse as "so maids be loyal when your love's at sea".
You'd expect that, as a product of oral tradition, there would be plenty of different versions of this song out there in the wild. But according to the Digital Tradition Folk Music Database, the song is remarkable in that, while it has been collected from oral tradition hundreds of times throughout the UK and Ireland,
... all versions are virtually the same and can be traced back to one broadside printed in early 19th century. Therefore this song is sometimes cited as a proof for the damaging influence of the broadside on the variety of oral tradition.
Sure enough, this typical "broken token" English ballad has been recorded several essentially interchangeable times in recent history, predominantly by artists such as Christy Moore, Steeleye Span and others from the mid-seventies UK folk rock scene. Brit folk singer June Tabor and folk renegades Oyster Band both come from that tradition, but listening to this take on the song from their 1990 collaborative album Freedom and Rain, it's hard to believe that either of them were ever considered folk -- to me, this is pure upbeat post-Pogues post-punk mid-grunge-era rock, fiddle be damned, and its a surprisingly good fit for the lyric. My, how genre labels change, over time, even as song versions crystallize and turn to stone.
The Rainmakers: Downstream
This band I was in in high school, a cover band, played two songs from The Rainmakers' self-titled album. (Me and one of the guitarists were fairly ga-ga over The Rainmakers for awhile.) "Downstream" is the only song I distinctly remember performing, though. The other was maybe "Let My People Go-Go"? I honestly don't recall.
Here, in case you are unfamiliar with the band, are some snippets from their bio:
"Missouri has long boasted of being the home of two of America's greatest artists, Mark Twain and Chuck Berry. However, it wasn't until The Rainmakers thundered into the national music spotlight in 1986, had anyone combined the guitar power of Berry with the social wit of Twain into a unique brand of Missouri rock n' roll.
Heralded as "America's Great Next Band" by Newsday, The Rainmakers were soon drenched in critical acclaim. Feature articles in Newsweek, Rolling Stone, CMJ, USA Today and others poured in singing the praises of this hard working Midwest band who provided new life to a traditional rock format.
Critics particularly enjoyed the unique writing style of Bob Walkenhorst, whose talent for choosing unusual and sometimes controversial subjects provided an eye-opening perspective of life, sprinkled with sarcastic humor. The Rainmakers received notoriety for their songs' lyrical content, including Music Connection's award for Lyric Line of the Year: "The generation that would change the world is still looking for its car keys," and in the unlikely source of author Stephen King, who twice quoted lyrics from Rainmakers songs in his best seller 'The Tommyknockers,' and again in his 1991 novel 'Gerald's Game.'
In 1990, after 4 albums, 5 videos, 500,000+ records sold, and concert dates too numerous to count, The Rainmakers put band business on hold to allow time for their personal lives and agendas. In 1994, the band returned to the studio to record a new album, entitled "Flirting With The Universe" - an album which achieved GOLD certification in Norway within 2 months of release.
Overwhelmed by the response to "Flirting...," The Rainmakers reemerged from the studio in 1996 with "Skin." With this effort, Bob Walkenhorst has again proved that no subject matter is too controversial by taking aim at pornography and its societal impact, via his unique perspectives - a Rainmakers trademark. A release, which in true Rainmaker form, is designed to provoke.
The Rainmakers are: Bob Walkenhorst (Vocals, Guitar); Steve Phillips (Lead Guitar, Vocals); Michael Bliss (Bass, Vocals); Pat Tomek (Drums)"
Stompin' Tom Connors: The Coal Boat Song
(N.B. It says 'temporarily out of stock', but this is the only place I could find it!)
"I left Cape Breton on a coal boat
for St. John's, Newfoundland
And I met a little girl named Sally
And I took her by the little white hand.
She shook her little head and said no way, Fred.
I won't go along with your plan.
You've been workin' on the coal boat b'y
And yer nothin' but a dirty old man."
Don't worry, it all turns out alright. Sally, the woman with those "little white hands" decides she loves him dirty or not...in fact, the dirtier the better!
Many of the emotions here are implicit, but nevertheless powerful; for example, whilst working away on the coal barge, our protagonist receives a letter blaming him that his son, who he hardly knows due to being away doing his job, has also decided to take up the same line of work. This, in turn, reminds me of two other songs that mean something to me (but which, sadly, have nothing to do with boats, so a brief mention is all they get): Cat's in the Cradle by Harry Chapin and Another Man's Cause by The Levellers.
If you don't already know this song, just listen...I can almost guarantee that you will need to hear it again, or you won't be able to get it out of your head!
The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Sailor
If you can get past the mouthful-of-a-name, and the various icons it engenders, you can probably get into the music, too.
*Update* plasticsun notifies, via the comments: "This is actually a Cryan Shames cover - Sailing Ship"... anyone have that one?
David Bowie: Red Sails
Oh, c'mon! like you didn't see this one coming from about 40 feet away! (If not, let me provide four of you with 10 foot poles, and...)
Anyhum, it's a ship(ish) song. Too-hum, it's going to be my last posting from the Bowie box-set, I promise. At least for a good couple of whiles.
That is seeming the trouble, for me, with box-sets from artists who cast their song-nets far and wide (and deep)... It's easy to dip into them wells... "Hmm, I need an history song? Dylan! Something about anything? Bowie! Woman done me wrong? I bet Robert Johnson has something to say about that..."
And too, the sheer quality, depth, and bredth from fellow (in the non-gender-specific encompassing of the word "fellow") posters here on SMM is nearly enough to make me wanna hide my head under a rock, just peeking out to glimpse the quality. Jeepers! Brenden K., brw, ld, hell all y'all, make me want to step up my game... You (and all the others too) write so well!
OK, now it's out there... You make me want to write better. Now all's I gots to do is 'do'...
Lyle Lovett: If I Had A Boat (live, 2003)
If Lyle Lovett had a boat, he'd go out on the ocean. And if he had a pony, he'd ride it on his boat.
This "what if" song contains a few digs at the idea of freedom, it's true. But primarily, it is a simple ditty, a flight of fancy in which Lyle Lovett imagines himself in a holy host of heoric situations right out of the black-and-white world of fifties television serials, and perfectly suited to an artist whose catalog features a long stretch of greyscale, formal-dress album covers.
Who is this man who imagines so wildly, and what he is trying to escape, we cannot consider, for the idea of riding a pony on a boat is just so ridiculous, it's impossible to listen to this song and do anything more than smile. The lyrical inanity allows the song to be sly, but only transparently so, as in a child's voice. It corrupts and interrupts what might otherwise be concern for the narrator's deeper emotion; the fourth wall is broken.
If it weren't for Lyle Lovett's tendency to "go deep" only when tackling country song subjects like love and hard luck, given the way this words play out as music, it would be tempting to suggest that we are being asked to look through the words to the man underneath after all. But the lyrical hiccup of logic leaves us no choice: in the end, the point of this song can only be to ridicule, in Lovett's inimitably, deceivably harmless manner, the very nature of the exercise of "what if". Meanwhile, Lyle smiles right back, as his emotional character is consumed, wholesale, by his words.
Afterthought, with bonus tracks:
This 2003 version I've posted here, which was originally recorded and broadcast on Seattle radio and subsequently sold as part of a radio station compilation through Starbucks, is pretty true to the original 1987 recording off Pontiac, minus the slide guitar: slow, with a touch of weariness.
Elsewhere, the phenomenon I describe above is even more evident. For example, there's nothing even slightly so deep about the version from Lovett's 1999 album Live in Texas, where the smooth orchestral backdrop soothe even the earlier hint of narrative subtext.
The same thing happens in the hands of others, too. Folk group Eddie From Ohio offer a dubious origin story for the song's lyric, and a fun cover, sunny and just slightly wistful. And folk/gospel/bluesmen The Holmes Brothers take it even farther in the same lighthearted direction, delivering their cover in a jangly acoustic folkblues; though their breathless delivery and old-man rasped voices give their narrator an urgency of age and wisdom, it cannot give him any more questionable a history as a dreamer, nor any more bothersome reason to dream, than Lyle Lovett himself.
Lyle Lovett: If I Had A Boat (live, 1999)
Eddie From Ohio: If I Had A Boat [purchase]
The Holmes Brothers: If I Had A Boat [purchase]
Monday, June 2, 2008
Beach Boys: Sloop John B (vocals only)
Here's a great song about a boat. Contrary to rumors that Brian Wilson was forced to include it on Pet Sounds, the liner notes suggest he was fully behind its inclusion.
I'm glad because I like it.
If anybody has more to add, please do so in the comments. Thank you.
Courtesy of Divinyl, our newest SMM contributor, here is the original version that inspired the Beach Boys:
The Kingston Trio: Sloop John B [purchase].
And check the comments for a cover version by Barry “Eve Of Destruction” McGuire!
The Flaming Lips: Evil Will Prevail
When it comes to the Flaming Lips, I came very late to the game. I don't know how I missed them for so long, but it wasn't until about 3 years ago that my brother recommended Soft Bulletin to me. That album made me an instant fan. They are now what I would consider a "top tier" band in my library.
There is a lot of discussion online about the Flaming Lips "saving" rock and roll. I guess the idea is that nothing really interesting, or really unique, has happened since St. Pepper and that rock and roll has become predictable and boring since then. The Flaming Lips are supposed to be the exception to this rule.
This kind of thinking sounds to me more like bloggers who are infatuated with the band using hyperbole to express their undying love for them than it sounds like a real issue with the overall health of the art form. In the end, music should be about the tunes, not about exciting new sounds and technologies and there's nothing more boring than weirdness for its own sake.
But, The Flaming Lips don't do weirdness for it's own sake. This is a band with a real knack for using sounds to communicate in a precise way. They are a band that uses lyric not only to tell stories, but also to produce images and moods. And, most importantly, this is a band that takes melody seriously. Without melody, all of the weirdness, nonconformism, and avant-garde unconventionalism in the world are worthless to me.
So, while I don't think the Lips are saving rock and roll - or even necessarily that it needs saving - I do think that Wayne Coyne and the boys have done some very fine work. And even when they are singing about emotive robots or making four CD's that all have to be played at the same time or using sounds that you may not have heard before in popular music, they always remain substantive and ultimately "musical".
The featured track is a pretty straight-up tune, off of the excellent album Clouds Taste Metallic. The "Mother Ship" that is mentioned in the lyrics is probably a space ship, not a boat, but my thought is that the word "ship" qualifies the song for the week's theme. (And, I like this tune a little better than Abandoned Hospital Ship off the same album).
Sunday, June 1, 2008
Vashti Bunyan: Trawlerman's Song
There was a side-bar discussion recently among the SMM authors regarding the fact that very few female artists have been featured on this blog (until now I think Joni Mitchell and Natalie Merchant are the only ones). I don't think this is a big deal. For whatever reason, 85% of my own library is by male artists. I don't begrudge this, and I'm not at all interested in equal opportunity purchasing or listening. However, the discussion did introduce a challenge of sorts. Just for fun, I immediately started searching my iTunes library for a female who sang something about boats!
[Correction: We've posted a lot more females than I thought! See comments below.]
Vashti Bunyan is that female. Bunyan's story is actually quite interesting. She recorded a single album, Just Another Diamond Day, in 1970. It was received warmly at the time, but quickly fell out of the public eye and went out of print. Soon after, Bunyan retired from the music business and became a mother, a gardener, and animal keeper. However, during her retirement a quiet but steadily-growing interest began to develop for her work. Her album, difficult to come by for obvious reasons, eventually became a high-priced collectors item - one copy selling on eBay for $2000!
Finally, Just Another Diamond Day was re-released on CD and Vashti Bunyan's fame began to soar among folk and "freak-folk" artists and fans. Devendra Banhart is her most outspoken fan, naming her as one of his most direct influences.
Although she has now released a second CD, coming about 30 years after the first, I would recommend avoiding it and sticking with the original.
Just Another Diamond Day is one of the most melodic and bucolic albums that I own. It is less like listening to a CD and more like wandering through the countryside and happening on a woman sitting on a fence with a guitar singing for her own pleasure, or perhaps for children or her livestock. Every song is an intimate experience with the artist.
we will dance like tiny boats with cotton sails upon the tops of the seas,
That would pull us down to the depths and crush us flat if given half a chance.
Andy Partridge and co. take an imaginative summery jaunt through the imagery of the dangerously carefree self-in-love-as-boat. The lyrics speak in celebratory tones of the yacht as "real love," and heap scorn upon the ocean of those who never see its light, but it's tempting to dive deeper. Is the undertone of condemnation for those who might embrace such oblivious, disconnected lifestyle really there? Or has the idea of "yacht" only recently picked up the negative connotations of wealth to excess?
Perhaps it is all, or neither; Partridge is unusually oblique here. Regardless: the sound is percussive and crisp, bouncy and sparse, with more than a hint of the hornpipe; light enough on the surface, but the sirens call from the murky harmonies. One of my favorite XTC deep cuts, from the absolutely incredible 1982 doubledisk release English Settlement.