Friday, December 7, 2007

The Wooden Finger Album: The 20 Greatest Songs in the History of the Known Universe (For Now)

In his short story ‘Wilkie Fahnstock, The Boxed Set’, Rick Moody sets out a fictional ten-cassette track list of the songs that have most influenced his protagonist’s life. These songs provide ‘the tale… of a confused, contemporary young person, a young man overlooked by the public, a person of meager accomplishment, a person of bad temperament, but a guy who nonetheless has a very large collection of compact discs!’

Ouch. At the risk of doing a Fahnstock, here are the twenty greatest songs as I see them:

Winter – Tori Amos
Little Earthquakes (1992)

I’m not sure how Tori Amos avoids breaking down every time she plays this stunner, which consists of a very moving set of wintry images based around her father. It’s the musical equivalent of a snow globe shattering to pieces, with only the memory of a fairytale world remaining behind. As great as it is, it’s probably not the song to play if you are in a deep funk.

Best part: The part in the last chorus when Tori cries ‘Cause things are going to change so fast’ like her heart has just been ripped apart.

Tomorrow Never Knows – The Beatles
Revolver (1966)

What separates this from the plethora of other psychedelic tracks? One main reason is because the Beatles were not creating new sounds for the hell of it, but were using those sounds as new instruments in the overall piece. Another is that John Lennon’s lyrics actually seem like they mean something. Supposedly John wanted a choir of five hundred or so monks backing him up on this song; it’s a great shame that logistics got in the way.

Best part: The bridge between the first and second verses, in which the Beatles (and producer George Martin) try out all their new toys.

The Golden Age – Beck
Sea Change (2002)

The opening track to Beck’s ‘break-up’ album Sea Change, The Golden Age is a beautiful, solemn piece about how one feels when they have just had their heart stomped on. Beck effectively uses a long desert road to symbolize his sense of loss and desolation. Much of the song is narrated in second person, almost as if a guardian angel version of Beck is trying to soothe his frailer other self. However, if you take the song’s title literally, perhaps he has decided that it is all for the best.

Best part: The lines ‘Let the window down/ Feel the moonlight on your skin’, which show how one can still find beauty in the world even if you are not on the best of terms with it.

‘Heroes’ – David Bowie
‘Heroes’ (1977)

This is an intense piece of work about doomed love, even if it lives off the opening guitar sound for the first three minutes. Bowie had moved to Berlin at this point, and the lines about ‘Standing by the wall/ And the guns/ Shot above our heads’ appear to be influenced by the environment at the time. Many advertisements and sports shows have tried to make this song their own, but it’s just eccentric enough to elude their grasp.

Best part: Bowie yelling, ‘I… I will be king/ And you… you will be queen/ Though nothing will drive them away/ We could be heroes just for one day’. Apparently a number of microphones had been placed at various intervals from where he stood in the studio, and they only came into full effect when he reached this volume.

Last Goodbye – Jeff Buckley
Grace (1994)

Quite poppy by Jeff Buckley’s standards, Last Goodbye still showcases his gift of being able to craft a song structure to suit a particular feeling. In this case, after Jeff has finished proclaiming in the first two verses that ‘it’s over’ the tune lifts up a notch and you realize that no relationship ever really has its end. This song came around when I was 14 years old and may have saved me from being either a head-banging rock pig or a mindless receptacle for doof-doof sounds. I continued being a wuss boy instead, but I’m OK with that…

Best part: The whole middle section, in which Jeff begins by pleading for his lover to ‘Kiss me’, and ends with the declaration that ‘I’ll only make you cry’.

Hurt – Johnny Cash
American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)

The greatest cover version ever. In the twilight of his life, Johnny Cash re-imagines Nine Inch Nails’ angst-ridden anthem as a quiet lamentation on loss and regret. As Tom Reynolds said, ‘you can not listen to it without your heart coming out of your mouth… the drug theme is transformed into a nostalgic reflection of a life that touched so many others yet leaves the man himself questioning whether he meant anything at all. He did.’

Best part: Cash’s booming baritone proclaiming ‘If I could start again/ A million miles away’ as the piano tolls out its final notes.

Solsbury Hill – Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel (1977)

This song is a strong reminder that change is sometimes good for the soul, and one I often play whenever I’m feeling excited (or relieved) about a shift in environment. The imagery refers to Peter Gabriel’s departure from Genesis, but he keeps it vague and expansive enough for it to apply to anyone who is opening up a new chapter in their life. It is not a bitter song, which is probably the best way to leave things behind. He also gets points for using the words ‘pirouette’, ‘silhouettes’ and ‘etiquette’ in the same verse.

Best part: The ‘voice’ telling Peter Gabriel to ‘Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home’, with the drums providing the punctuation mark on his resolve to move on.

Hard To Beat – Hard-Fi
Stars of CCTV (2006)

Boy picks up girl, boy asks girl to dance, girl wants to take him home instead… no wonder Richard Archer thinks she is ‘hard to beat’. Frankly, this song would make your great-great grandfather want to get up and dance, down a dozen beers, and snog the most wonderful chick in the room (though probably not in that order). It has flashing guitars, a bouncing bass, ‘Daft Punk’-like keyboards, and a cool and joyous vocal track. The song my iPod was built for.

Best part: Everything. Real life can not possibly measure up to this.

Transmission – Joy Division
Transmission (1979)

A slow burner of a tune; Peter Hook’s bass is the spark, and by the end of it, the whole joint has gone up in flames. In keeping with the title, Ian Curtis delivers the lyrics as if he’s indeed transmitting them… from another planet. Listen to it at home alone with the lights off, the blinds down, and the stereo at full pelt to get the full spine-chilling effect.

Best part: Ian Curtis shouting ‘DAAAAAAAAAAAAAANCE!’ like his whole existence depends upon it.

Goddess on a Hi-Way – Mercury Rev
Deserters’ Songs (1998)

A song that I loved instantly from the time I saw the moody videoclip. Even now it reminds me of open roads, large pine trees, clear waters, and bugs on the windscreen. The rock-solid bass and drum parts combine with piano, harmonica and some funny instrument in the middle for one amazing track.

Best part: Jonathan Donahue singing wistfully yet emphatically, ‘And I know it ain’t gonna last’. Fatalism at its prettiest.

Float On – Modest Mouse
Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004)

The mighty Float On plays like a bunch of voices and sounds bundled together for three and a half minutes that will all fall apart once the song ends. Isaac Brock’s half-strangled vocals and the ringing guitar tracks are the twin motors propelling this tune forward. Basically it’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ if it had been written by a group of pirates and lumberjacks.

Best part: Towards the end, when what seems like half a dozen burly drunken men are singing ‘Alright, already, we’ll all float on…’

Live Forever – Oasis
Definitely Maybe (1994)

Before Noel Gallagher lost his mojo, Oasis was the coolest band in the world. Liam’s delivery of ‘Maybe I don’t really want to know/ How your garden grows’ encapsulates the attractive, can’t-give-a-damn way they were making music at this stage. ‘Live Forever’ is the ‘Imagine’ of the ‘90s generation, except with the added advantage that you haven’t heard it 10,000 times. And Noel’s guitar solo is still a joy to hear.

Best part: Liam going a bit beyond his normal register to sing ‘You and I are gonna live forever’.

Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
Wish You Were Here (1975)

I haven’t actually sat down and figured out which notes and chords are the most pleasant to my ear, but I have a feeling that Wish You Were Here hits all of them. It’s a roots-tinged ode to how life does not work out as planned, but the tune and lyrics are so pretty that you actually end up feeling better about the whole mess anyway. Given the rest of Pink Floyd’s catalogue, this is a great example of how (sometimes) less is more.

Best part: The entire chorus, even if Phil Collins did rip it off years later.

Sulk – Radiohead
The Bends (1995)

For years, I considered Fake Plastic Trees to be the best Radiohead track, but Sulk has a better payoff and, unlike FPT, does not sound like a dirge for two-thirds of the way through. Thom Yorke’s standard soaring vocals are fine enough, however, the real clincher is the part just after the second chorus when the guitars suddenly take off and the resulting wall of noise is sustained well into the chorus’ third run-through. (John Cale’s violin on The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ is a worthy match, but lacks the variation of Jonny Greenwood’s – or Ed O’Brien’s, I can’t tell - atomic jackhammer.) A great song for proving that you are sensitive and masculine at the same time.

Best part: See above.

I Am The Resurrection – The Stone Roses
The Stone Roses (1989)

The best proof that Stone Roses’ guitarist John Squire is the greatest waste of musical talent the world has ever known. In the five-minute jam that ends this track, Squire unleashes an astonishing array of riffs, breaks and runs, while the rhythm section, Mani and Reni, pound away like hell. And as for Ian Brown, well, he does deliver the excellent line ‘I couldn’t ever bring myself to hate you as I like’ before fading into the background.

Best part: Hard to pick, but I’ll go with the chopping guitar chords and bashing drums in the final minute or so.

You Only Live Once – The Strokes
First Impressions of Earth (2006)

The Strokes take their usual air of resignation and place it beneath pattering drums and a swaggering guitar riff. I have little idea what Julian Casablancas in rambling on about, but I still feel that it relates to my life somehow. The second song my iPod was built for.

Best part: Julian Casablancas growling ‘Sit me down/ Shut me up’ as if he’s wanting to be pushed over and kicked in the head.

One – U2
Achtung Baby (1991)

Looking through this list, there is a fair share of songs that start off softly and gradually build to an anthemic end. Well, One is the perfect example of this phenomenon. In fact, I suspect if you graphed the intensity of the song against time elapsed it would form a perfect upward-sloping line. I would desperately love to play it at my wedding if only, you know, it wasn’t about two people who can’t stand each other.

Best part: The part in the videoclip when Bono, sitting in a darkened bar, stops moving his mouth and his voice sings ‘Love is a temple/ Love the higher law’.

History – The Verve
A Northern Soul (1995)

When Jeff Buckley wakes up in a strange woman’s apartment and wonders where his life is heading, he croons gently with his guitar in his sweet, poetic tongue. When Richard Ashcroft of the Verve does the same thing, he spouts gibberish. But put that gibberish over a bulging string section, an open guitar sound, and Noel Gallagher’s handclaps, and you could swear that you were hearing the words of the ancient sages. (‘One and one is two/ But three is company…’ – damn straight!) Even four minutes in, when the string section starts to grow bored and Richie appears to be making up lyrics, it’s still strangely compelling.

Best part: Richard’s vocals in the opening two lines, ‘I wander lonely streets/ Behind where the old Thames does flow’, which sound like they are echoing up the alleyways, over the building tops, and into the sky and sea.

Get Free – The Vines
Highly Evolved (2002)

Most songs, I find, have one or two major payoffs, but Get Free has six of them: the opening guitar riff, Craig shouting ‘I’m gonna get free’, the chanting of ‘Come here come here come here’, Craig’s screech after the first chorus, the sustained yell of ‘mind awaaaaaaaaay’, and the final insane drawl of ‘Californiiiaaaaa!!’ Some may see it as Nirvana-lite, but Kurt Cobain never packed as much madness into just over two minutes as this. Regrettably, Craig Nicholls would also lose his mojo, and the songs started sounding better in his head than they did in reality.

Best part: I’ll go with the part where the drums speed up over the opening guitar riff.

C’mon C’mon – The Von Bondies
Pawn Shoppe Heart (2004)

Jack White may have by far the better band, but Detroit rival Jason Stollsteimer of The Von Bondies beat him out on this killer track. A personal note: within a few months of taking my first regular job in Sydney, this song cut through the drudgery of work, loneliness and the rest of the Von Bondies album. The frenetic, yet spacious drum-playing lifts the vocals high up into the skies, from where they come down like lightning on the mountain-top. The only problem with the song is that it’s far too short, although I suppose that beats the alternative.

Best part: The backing vocals of ‘C’mon c’mon’, which is up there with ‘Yeah yeah’ and ‘Hey hey’ for phrases you don’t really need to hear again, but which seems perfectly appropriate here.

And that’s it for the year, folks. Having cleared my head of all my obsessions, I’m off to rethink what I’m going to do with this blog to keep (or make) it interesting. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Strange Allure of Star Wars: Episode III

Of all the six Star Wars movies, the one that I find myself watching over and over again is Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. As far as multi-million dollar blockbusters go, it’s a relatively unassuming film, both a link and a post script to the over-hyped Episodes I and II and the almost sacred original movies. So why then is it the episode that I keep returning to?

One reason may be that it is the most visually accomplished of the Star Wars movies. The war scenes are spectacularly dense, from the layers of battleships in the chaotic opening scenes, to the montage of world-wide conflicts in which the various Jedi meet their ends. Elsewhere, we have snapshots of a grand and beautiful, but ultimately sterile, civilization in the last throes of its ascendancy, such as the expanse of buildings beyond the Skywalkers’ balcony and the chilling, darkened theatre in which Palpatine tries to seduce Anakin to the Dark Side of the Force. And of course there is the raging, fiery landscape of the lava planet Mustafar, in which Obi-Wan and Anakin carry out their emotion-charged battle.

Second, there is the story, which is a complete reversal of all of the other movies in the series (The Empire Strikes Back being the exception). In Episode IV the Empire was in total control, and we were given flickers of hope until victory arrived in the form of the exploding Death Star. In Episode III, it is the flames of menace that are flickering, and it is a shock to see things suddenly go off the rails and our heroes end the day in abject defeat. Yet because we already know before the movie starts that the Dark Side will take control, there is a similar sense of inevitability about the Jedi’s fall as there usually is in their triumph. And defeat, like victory, hangs on a single action; in this case, whether Anakin chooses to let Mace Windu kill Palpatine or save the Chancellor, thereby letting his schemes come to fruition. From there Anakin grows into the role of villainous Sith Lord as his son Luke will one day gradually become a selfless Jedi. The story is essentially a tragedy, with Anakin’s human frailties irrevocably leading to disaster for all that he cares for. But tragedies are not common in the realm of the popcorn-guzzling blockbuster.

Finally, while Anakin is the protagonist of the piece, there are two characters that are more compelling in their reactions to the turn of events. Chancellor Palpatine (aka Darth Sidius) is unseemly but reserved throughout the first third of the film, but reveals himself in a shattering burst of power when we get to the movie’s centre. (‘Un-liiimited POWER!’ he bellows madly as he dispatches Windu.) He becomes then the embodiment of hate, with the pretense of compassion no longer required. On the flipside, we have Obi-Wan Kenobi who, despite his occasional cynical quips, remains accepting of all things, retaining his faith and fondness in Anakin even to the end. Obi-Wan hopes for the best, but he is always prepared for the worst. His response to the rise of the Dark Side is one of disappointment and sadness, but never one of fear; he will deal with whatever the universe throws at him. Obi-Wan shows that a hero is not defined by victory of defeat, which is a point that his protégé is unwilling to accept.

Not everything proceeds smoothly in Revenge of the Sith – the love scenes still make one long for the whirr of a Tie Fighter and the transformation of the boyish Anakin into the dark-suited, deep-throated Darth Vader is a bit jarring. However, it is, I think, the most atmospheric of all the Star Wars movies, and the one in which the scenes, the backdrops and the characters are the most directed towards a particular end. Does it outdo then the swagger and banter of Luke, Han, Leia and company? Maybe, maybe not, but it is the chapter that most invites contemplation about the nature of good and evil, life and death, the light and the dark.

For a review of Revenge of the Sith that I don't agree with, but is still kind of amusing to read (especially for you Jedi haters), check out this link.