Saturday, July 26, 2008

Imagined Albums: Getting Lost

Pondering albums that could never be, The Babe suggested one this morning: Chet Baker Sings Death Cab For Cutie. At first I laughed at the joke, imagining a clash of styles not unlike that famous piece David Sedaris did for NPR, where he imagined Billie Holiday singing the Coke jingle: "I'd liiike to buuuy the worrrrld...a cooooke..." he cooed, in perfect and hilarious imitation of Holiday's bluesy phrasing.

The more I thought about it, though, the more perfectly serendipitous the match seemed. It's not hard to hear Baker's unmistakeable quiver applied to lyrics like these, which echo the melancholy of the standards he favored:

I've got a hunger
Twisting my stomach into knots
That my tongue has tied off

My brain's repeating
"If you've got an impulse, let it out"
But they never make it past my mouth

I'd love to hear the chorus of "The Sound of Settling"-- or better yet, "A Lack of Color"-- graced by Baker's rueful trumpet, a sensation I imagine would be similar to the one evoked by Baker's expert phrasing on Elvis Costello's "Shipbuilding." Had he lived, I imagine Baker might enjoy the witty, self-aware emo of Death Cab; after all, his own singing always balanced on the line between aching sincerity and deadpan parody, a recognition that humor and hurt are not opposites, but the intertwined melody and harmony of any good love song.

Friday, July 11, 2008

I-Pod Shuffle: "Letitgo"

Replacing his usual lasciviousness with an almost mournful introspection, Prince's "Letitgo" was as unlikely a Top 40 pop hit as one might have heard in 1994. Released one year after he changed his given name to an unpronounceable hermaphroditic symbol (its parent album, Come, sported the credit "Prince, 1958-1994") and shortly before he started scrawling "Slave" on his face in public appearances, its autobiographical lyric was a boldly anti-commercial move in a moment when his public reputation was taking its biggest beating. Musically, the song displays Prince's usual inventiveness, building its melody around Eric Leeds' repeated four-note flute figure and Kathleen Bradford's yearning backing vocals, complementing these elements with banks of gentle keyboards and a drum machine rhythm whose fish-slapping-on-the-sand insistence almost makes it the song's lead instrument. This offbeat arrangement frames a tale of public love lost, found, and ultimately rejected:

All my life I've kept my feelings deep inside
Never was a reason 2 let somebody know
Lover here, lover there - Who cried? Who cared? Foolish pride
Never was a good seat at any of this man's shows

Until now all I wanted 2 do is…
Do, do, do what I do and…
Bang, bang, bang on the drummer and love so-and-so
But now I gotta let it go (Letitgo)
Lay back and let the vibe just flow
I wanna just let it go (Letitgo)
Lay back and let my feelings show

I'm ready 4 the real
Give me something I can feel

Prince being Prince, all of this gels into a sustained, midtempo moment of pop grace-- precisely because his vocal and instrumentation feels so relaxed and unforced, his rare invitation into his innermost hopes and fears is alluring. The simplicity of the melody means that, even at 5 minutes and 33 seconds, the song feels too short: we want more of the groove, not less.

Prince would follow "Letitgo" up with The Gold Experience (1995), an underrated pop gem that remains one of his strongest efforts, and record "Dinner With Delores," a kind-of companion piece to "Letitgo," in 1996 (the former's trippy folk-rock guitars carry lyrics with opaque references to sex and "doorbells broken since 1984," the year of Prince's greatest commercial triumph, Purple Rain). After hanging underground for nearly a decade, he would roar back in 2004 with a number one album, Musicology, an acclaimed Super Bowl show, and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As a fan, I'm glad to see goodwill coming his way again, but part of me still treasures the almost-forgotten "Letitgo" a little more: after all, how many times do we get to glimpse the scared soul of a musical genius-- and how many musical geniuses could make that glimpse so danceable?