Fairly articulate mammal

Saturday, August 15, 2020

I Know I Need a Small Vacation, but it Don’t Look Like Rain

 My current crush band, Black Pumas, recently released a cover of “Wichita Lineman.” I really like it. I’ve heard the song a zillion times, of course. The iconic Glen Campbell version is the first and maybe best, but Dwight Yoakam does a great version as well. Also there’s a very good version by a New Orleans funk band called The Meters. 

The song was written by Jimmy Webb, who wrote many hit songs recorded by The Supremes, The Fifth Dimension, Waylon Jennings, Isaac Hayes, and others. Webb’s songs are probably most famously associated with Glen Campbell’s string of hits in the mid-to-late 60s. 

Anyhow, in one of those kismet moments, while I’ve been enjoying the new recording of an old song by a current favorite band, an old grad school friend posted about the song on Facebook. He wrote that while he likes the song pretty well, can see that it has merits, sure, he doesn’t get why it’s SO beloved by so many people. He asked if anybody wanted to try to articulate why “Wichita Lineman” isn’t just a good song, but a great one. I thought I might be the right person for the job. 

So I just now listened a few times, trying to do so with fresh ears, to the degree that’s possible. 

To me, it’s the synergy among three elements that makes the song not just good, but great. Those elements are the lyrics, the arrangement, and the melody. 

(1) Lyrics: There are very good lines, and the best is probably “I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time.”  I also admire the double meaning of "still on the line" to mean both "having another long damn day at work" and "still in love, still thinking about you." But the whole thing is very strong, from the images to the way the words sound to the balance of concrete details (“if it snows, that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain”) to the speaker’s lost-in-thought flights of fancy. Just as important to the lyrical excellence of the song is what there isn’t: there isn’t much. The song is spare. And that minimalist approach reinforces the themes of empty space and loneliness. The song doesn’t get in its own way by being over-written. 

(2) Arrangement-wise — and here I’m specifically referencing the Glen Campbell version that made the song famous — there is a cool high/low tension thing going on with the lofty violins versus Glenn’s down-to-earth singing and his rich baritone guitar solo. I also like the staccato section, the instrumentation that comes in just under and after the lyric “still on the liiiine.” In the Black Pumas version, the song starts with that. It sounds a little like an electric beeping signal or something. To my ear, it goes with the idea of an electric signal, or the pulsing energy that the lines carry. Anyway, all my reactions to the playing and the arrangement don’t need to make easily paraphrasable sense. There is plenty for my ear to do, and these elements of instrumentation sound good AND sound good together AND are theme-reinforcing. 

3. But the MAIN thing among the elements, the aspect that is the strongest by far, is the melody. For decades, most pop songwriting has had just-okay melodies. Some writers, though — Paul Simon comes to mind — still labor to craft artful, beautiful, instantly memorable melodies that evoke a lot of emotion and could stand alone as instrumentals. 

This comes and goes as a matter of artistic fashion, just like attention to visual detail versus big sweeps of color in painting, or the relative importance of clean lines versus  ornamental detail in architecture. Melody is and has been at a low ebb for a while. In the music I grew up with, this was already true, but the trend is on steroids now. Hum to yourself part of a big hit from the 70s and forward, and chances are pretty good that it is simple. Maybe not a lot of range. Maybe not a lot of variety in how long the notes stretch. Maybe derived from some other song. 

Whatever song you're thinking of, there's a decent chance that the song’s appeal lies elsewhere. It might be a forceful vocal delivery and presentation of persona, or it might be rhythmic complexity, a killer beat, or something about the storytelling. Maybe it is the virtuosity of a guitar solo, or the way the harmonies lift the song’s energy going from the verse into the chorus. With rock, with lots of radio pop, and with hip-hop, melody has steadily lost position in the ranking of how important each musical element is. 

But not so for Jimmy Webb. He’s like one of those old school Brill Building or Great American Songbook writers, where the melody matters more than anything else. 

And this one soars. As it relates to this character, the melody is the channel by which a beautiful and romantic longing bursts out of the prosaic details in his blue collar life. The melody elevates his thoughts. It lifts him from his ordinary dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of reality to something aspirational: true love. 

The way those three things work together — the spare but vivid lyric, the interplay of the production/arrangement details, and a melody that somehow communicates a yearning beyond words — make 1+1+1 equal a thousand. That’s why so many artists are drawn to it. That’s why it’s great. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Around the Block

I am really good about getting a lot of steps per day. Over 11,000 almost every day for a few years. And I make sure some of that involves stairs or going up a hill. However, when it came to the more strenuous exercise, really getting out of breath and getting my heart rate up, I knew I needed to up my game.

So, last November 27, I decided to start doing a timed short run most weekdays. Around my block is just under a quarter-mile. I decided that would do. The first few times I did it, I couldn’t maintain a run for even that short distance. Too much rust.

I had some guilt about how I hadn’t maintained my fitness level from my younger years. At my peak, I could run 3 miles in 21 minutes, and I just didn’t do the work to maintain it.

But, as anyone who exercises can testify, gains happen fast when you’re first starting (or starting back). So, in November, I started at a little over three minutes, part of it walking. In short order, I could run the whole way around and could get around the block in just over two minutes.

The day after Christmas, I finally broke the two-minute mark with my new late-middle-aged record of 1:56. By January 11, my NEW-new record was 1:42. And then I coasted a while and was less consistent.

However, when we began our quarantine in March, I got back into it more seriously. And I nudged Harrison to join me. Being young and in decent shape, he was pretty quick to match my best times, or get pretty close.

I finally broke another new record in April ... 1:38! 

Harrison was stuck at 1:40. And on we went, most every weekday morning, through May and June.    

Then, at the very end of July,  Harrison shattered the around-the-block record with a time of 1:34! He’s been under 1:40 several times since then. I can still get in the 1:30s, too, but haven’t (yet) matched his (temporary) record.

It’s now been over five months that we’ve been doing this. The ritual is that we walk the dog around the block, then one of us holds the leash and times the other one’s run around the block. We switch, and then we all three take another spin around the block. Bella loves it. A lot of days, H and I also take a longer early-morning walk, the Sun not yet up, two miles or so. 

Sometimes we’re silent for long stretches. Sometimes we just bullshit about this or that, songs we like, whatever show we’re watching, and so on. Other times we talk about life in a deeper way. I like it a lot.

This is such a difficult time we are all living through, but I am really grateful for this sweet part of it.