Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sisters: You And Your Sister


Chris Bell: You And Your Sister


When I first posted the original version of You And Your Sister here way back in 2010, I described it as a song that "offers raw redemption, with Chris Bell's broken delivery and slightly off-tune bass holding it together until the highly orchestral, swirling atmospheric bridge kicks in and all is lost to summery teen angst - just as the heavy-hearted homosexual, heroin addict, and struggling Christian himself was lost to a late night car crash in '78, the same year the song was first released as a non-album single."

What I didn't mention was that one of the most powerful choices Bell made in releasing this b-side was the use of a totally minor character - that of the sister who claims that the narrator is "no good", but is otherwise absent in the lyrics - in the song's title. Doing so forces us to enter the song as a companionate outsider, removed that much farther from the otherwise intimate performance and first-person narrative; the resulting experience of listening invites us to share both the desperate distance the narrator feels for his subject, and the inherent cultural disapproval that the titular sibling represents - itself a common theme in Bell's work, as evidenced most obviously by the parental role in Big Star's Thirteen.

Bonus track: the production on this recent cover from cinematic art-pop duo O + S, which appears on the award-winning indie-slash-dreampop 2010 lullaby covers album Sing Me To Sleep, uses plinking acoustic tones, chamberfolk strings, and lush, echoey, doubled vocals to add new atmospheric layers to the song, trebling the distance and desperation even as it calms the slumbering soul.

O+S: You And Your Sister


Friday, October 11, 2013

Sisters: Babylon Sisters

Steely Dan: Babylon Sisters


Babylon Sisters comes from the album Gaucho, which would be the last album from the original run of Steely Dan. After Gaucho, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen would split up. Fagen initially pursued a solo career, while Becker moved to Hawaii and kicked his drug habit, before eventually reemerging as a producer and solo artist himself. When Steely Dan finally went back in the studio as a group, they were without longtime producer Gary Katz.

Gaucho was the album from that original run that Becker and Fagen found the most difficult to make. In fact, there exists as a bootleg an entire album worth of material that would have been a very different album than the one we know. That one is called, alternately, The Lost Gaucho or The Second Arrangement. It has an alternate version of Third World Man with entirely different lyrics, an instrumental version of Gaucho, and a bunch of songs that were scrapped. To my ear, the “official” album, Gaucho, was well worth the effort it took to make. Compared to the previous album, Aja, the sound is somewhat simplified. The band is a large as before, and the background singers are still here, but the songs on Gaucho are shorter, and have less complex structures and harmonies. Aja is a great album too, but there are times when this Steely Dan lite, if you will, is just what I am in the mood for. The songs here have lyrics that are as opaque as always, but the musical directness gives these songs the unique feel of well crafted short stories, where Aja is more like a collection of finely wrought novellas. Babylon Sisters is a fine example of what I mean. Compared to the epic sweep of Home at Last, or even the storytelling of Don’t Take Me Alive, from the Royal Scam album, Babylon Sisters is a moment in time and a mood piece, and a very fine one.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Sisters: Don't Let Me Down

Pernilla Andersson: "Don't Let Me Down"

Pernilla Andersson: "Don't Let Me Down" (Twisted Sister cover)

In choosing a song to post about for the Sisters theme, I kept getting distracted by this cover of Twisted Sister's "Don't Let Me Down." Pernilla Andersson's subdued vocals coast over shimmering, fingered acoustic guitar and relentless shaker into a chorus accentuated by droning cello drags, stabbing mandolin yelps, and wandering piano notes that fall like stones into a bottomless pond. The orchestrated result is a dark mirror held to the 80s makeup metallers, perhaps with a tease and a taunt: anything you can do, I can do better.

Andersson ditches the overt loudness, speed, and tone in lieu of subtler approaches. Elements of the song's original characteristics all remain present, yet refined. A true application of the art of the cover, this interpretation targets the mood and message of its subject and strips out the pomp. I love this song on its own, but knowing where it comes from adds a lot to it for me. I found little to no value in the original but now have a reason to appreciate it as the base for Andersson's superior emulation.

Twisted Sister: "Don't Let Me Down"

Sisters: Sister Seagull

Be Bop Deluxe: Sister Seagull

I don’t know if it is because I’ve been writing for another blog that wants third-person analysis, or just that I’m running out of music related personal stories, but I seem to be writing more here about bands that I want people to listen to and less about me, my family and friends. Which may be a good thing, or not, but that’s sort of the way things go on a blog that requires you to react to a prompt. Either there is a personal story there, or there isn’t. But there is almost always a song to write about.

I do, however, have a sister—a wonderful sister—but music has never been something that we spent much time sharing. I never got the sense that she cared about it as much as I did (most people don’t, to be fair), and the irony is that now she is with a guy who drags her to concerts.

So, I did sort of bring in the personal a bit. Now, on to the feature—Be Bop Deluxe’s “Sister Seagull,” from 1975, a time when bands could legitimately be considered blues rock, glam rock and prog rock at the same time, without causing a meltdown of the structure of the universe. I suspect that I was vaguely aware of these guys before I went to college—it would not surprise me to find out that WNEW-FM played them occasionally, but I know that when I was digging through the stacks at WPRB, I found myself listening to and playing them. Despite the fact that they were generally considered to be more prog than not, the current wisdom is that they were also precursors and influences on new wave music. And as someone who was playing music on the radio as new wave was emerging, maybe I sensed that too.

OK—I brought in the personal again. Let’s talk about Be Bop Deluxe. They were, essentially, an instrument of Bill Nelson, one of the unsung guitar heroes of the era. His songs often had sci fi imagery, but also reflected on modern society and relationships. This song was from the band’s second album, Futurama, the first with the lineup that would essentially be the classic configuration. Despite what Allmusic thinks, it is a pretty good album, with a few great songs, notably “Sister Seagull” and the thrilling “Maid in Heaven.” “Seagull,” is a mellower song, with some fascinating guitar riffs. The album, though, was not particularly successful, although their later albums, most notably Modern Music, did have some success in the U.K., and even sniffed at the U.S. charts. The band’s final album, Drastic Plastic, began to showcase a bit more of a new wave sound, and because he wanted to try new things, Nelson disbanded Be Bop Deluxe, ending its short run. Thereafter, Nelson’s career turned into one of constant experimentation and collaboration, but limited commercial success. Here’s a video of the band performing the song on the BBC’s legendary show Old Grey Whistle Test.

I strongly suggest checking out this band’s limited output. Although certainly imperfect, each of their albums contains a number of now forgotten gems.