Oh and Mrs MM? If you manage to get back to the civilised south and within reach of a decent internet connection, send yours. There’s nothing to stop us carrying an addendum into March….
“At the risk of sounding a bit laddish, I’m a lyrics’ man me.
Oh yes indeed, lyrics through and through. Give me a nice juicy rhyming couplet to get my teeth into and I’m happy.
Brilliant lyrics can elevate a song from the mundane to the sublime while the opposite can make hitherto decent melodies and rhythms cringingly unlistenable in one fell swoop (I’m looking at you Human League for a start).
Maybe it is my particular penchant for story songs that make lyrics so important, but there is something special about an opening line that effortlessly draws you in hook line and sinker: “I am the boy your mother wanted you to meet” sing Deer Tick or “Alex Kona was twelve feet tall, his mother was killed by a bowling ball” offer Strand of Oaks. “She left me here with breakfast in bed, oatmeal with sugar and a hardboiled egg” is the opening to the Low Anthem’s haunting This God Damn House – all damn near perfect in their own way.
And then there is the line that stops you dead in your tracks halfway through a song and makes you mentally back up and listen again – a whoa, what just happened there – moment. Perhaps something like “you crucified my daughter so I butchered your son’ which Tom Williams spits without a fragment of regret in Get Older.
In fact it was the line “I have done wrong, I will do wrong, there’s nothing wrong in doing wrong” from Joe Pug’s Hymn 35 at the End of the Road Festival that made me realise he was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill singer songwriter, but an outstanding modern troubadour.
And indeed what about a killer climax “I expect you think I should really be haunted, but it never really bothers me” says the father who has deliberately killed all his children as the multiple drums pound in the Decemberists tour de force, The Rakes Song.
Undoubtedly, it is the lyrics that emphasise the raw emotions of a song, that make something sung become so irrefutably real. We all know about the heartbreak and the lost loves, but what about the unparalleled poignancy of Springsteen’s Used Cars, “as we pull up in our brand new used car, we should just hit the gas and let out a cry, tell ‘em all they can kiss our asses goodbye” or the resigned desperation of Nightjar “I’m not a bad man, just a poor man’s son, so give me the money, and nobody gets hurt”. Perhaps best of all is the cracked, fragile croak of Matthew Houck singing “Mama there’s wolves in the house, Mama they won’t let me out” – simply unforgettable.
But it is probably the world of folk and country that I love the most for their dusty tales of bandits, outlaws, bar-room brawlers, junkies, dopers and ne-er do wells. People on the way up, the way down and at rock bottom, the desperate still throwing dice they know are loaded one last time.
Take Brown Bird’s sublime tale of gambling and bad debts, “And late last night a bad man came, screaming curses ‘gainst your daddy’s name, you woke screaming to a frightening sound, and your mama laying on the ground, a bad man running down the back door stairs, blame it all on the wrong black mare”.
Elsewhere Wooden Wand gives us the tale of Ragtop Ruby, “I guess you met a man there, he’d just enough rope in his trunk to make you uneasy”…Jesus Christ!
Howling Owls were my favourite new discovery of 2010 and it is their tales of everyday, effortlessly wrapped in a cloak of unease and disquiet that sets them apart and is as good a place as any to finish. “Does anyone out there fear what I fear? Does anyone out there hear the voices I hear”: the anxiety and loneliness are palpable. Marvellous stuff.
Ah yes, I’m a lyrics’ man me.
Want a playlist? Try this starter for ten (or even twenty), you won’t be disappointed. Some of them are even still up on Mad Mackerel as free downloads!
Bobbie Gentry – Ode to Billie Joe
The Decemberists – The Rake’s Song
Strand of Oaks – Alex Kona
Wooden Wand – Ragtop Ruby
Nightjar – Poor Man’s Son
Loch Lomond – Bird And A Bear (I Am A Bird)
Howling Owls – Family Tree
Bruce Springsteen – Used Cars (or try the Strand of Oaks cover)
Tom Williams & The Boat – Get Older
Deer Tick – Ashamed
Brown Bird – Wrong Black Mare
Joe Pug – Hymn 35
Johnny Cash – Sunday Morning Coming Down
Phosphorescent – Wolves
Mary Gauthier – Camelot Motel (download from the boxnet below!)
Johnny Dowd – No Woman’s Flesh But Hers
The Handsome Family – After We Shot The Grizzly
The Clash – Straight To Hell
The Low Anthem – This God Damn House
The Roadside Graves – Jesus Is A Friend Of The Family