The Shortest Distance From A Point To A Line

shortest distanceThe Shortest Distance From A Point To A Line

Ask any songwriter and you will learn that most songs are not written the way they are ultimately performed.  Oftentimes the verses are constructed before the chorus, or vice versa.  Sometimes a musical hook comes first around which the lyrics are laid out.  Other times the lyrics are written then wrapped in a melody later. 

Songwriting like so many art forms is a typically non-linear process.  And yet, regardless of how they are put together, so many songs end up as straight-ahead start-to-finish narratives.  Nonetheless, there are plenty of songs with lyrics that don’t follow a linear storyline.  As a matter of fact, many songs don’t have any story at all.  Instead, they are lyrical impressions or emotions or abstractions without much, if any, concrete reference. The Talking Heads typically wrote songs that fell into this category of abstract, near-inscrutability. Laurie Anderson’s early albums did as well.  Neil Young still writes like this fairly regularly as do Bjork and Beck both.  Lupe Fiasco, as is the case with many hip hip artists, includes long passages of almost-scat vocals where the words roll out playfully as they work through a rhythm or a rhyme until the song rounds a corner and comes back to the storyline – if there is one.

The White Stripes have a song on their 2003 release, Elephant, called “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” that seems as though the verses are completely out of order.  When rearranged, they seem to follow each other more sequentially – but that is really a different issue and fodder for another column.  Needless to say, there are lots of ways to structure the lyrical content of a song. 

Regardless of how it’s done though, the freedoms that the songwriter gains by avoiding the narrative of the three-act play should not be taken at the expense of the listener.  The listener still wants the pay-off of being able to follow the piece from start to finish and have some commitment to the song’s resolution.  The songwriter, for his or her part, is best off not overindulging to the point where the purpose of the song is lost entirely to all but the composer.  The Beatles’ ‘Revolution 9’ fits squarely into this category – though that implies that it even qualifies as a song.  It seems to me that songs that are most successful in employing this non-linear lyrical approach are those that allow the listener room simultaneously to find meaning in the lyrics and spirit in the tune.

Beck once said, “Set your guitars and banjos on fire and before you write a song smoke a pack of whiskey and it`ll all take care of itself.”   Good advice.  And, with that, here are a few local artists who have put together pieces that are mostly lyrical impressions and abstractions; that bring the listener along each and every time; that aren’t over-indulgent; and that are particularly good songs.





Amy Curl

Amy Curl

Song Title: “In The Grass”




Words and Music: Amy Curl, Dan Kennedy, Sean Michael Dargan, Michael Brenneis

This almost meditative piece is on the recently released Curl/Kennedy EP entitled Sharing A Head.  It starts out with a slow, intro with bass, piano and cymbals laying the groundwork for Curl’s vocals to come in over the top of it all with the song’s iterative refrain.

My baby lying in the grass across the sea / Trace a straight path on the map/ To his body

These few lines are repeated over and over as the song rolls out.  The instrumentation lays back to let the lyrics define the song’s structure, to set the tone, and to create the backdrop against which Curl can delve for meaning in the vocals.  And that seems to be just what happens because, about halfway through, Curl begins to sound as though she is hearing some of this for the first time as she explores new direction in the melody.  She stretches out a bit as she repeats the lines and adds nuance and inflection towards the end of the phrases as the piece comes to a close.  But just before it does, Curl steps back and let’s Dan Kennedy’s guitar do all the talking. 

Kennedy lays down a gutsy electric guitar lead that is as airy as it is dense.  It’s tasteful, energetic, and soulful.  I’ve seen Kennedy play. He seems mindful always of leaving plenty of space in his phrasing and never overwhelms whatever piece he is trying to support.  This particular guitar break is Kennedy at his best.  He pushes “In The Grass” to its logical crescendo then pulls it right back from the edge and hands it back over to Curl to wrap it up. 

When I asked about the song, Kennedy told me, “Amy wrote this one looking out at the North Atlantic from a piano bench in an 800-year-old Abby on the isle of Iona in Scotland”.  This shifted my perspective completely.  I imagined the song to be about a sweetheart who was traveling abroad, or someone who had moved back to his native country. Instead, it’s the author who is displaced – and maybe even a little homesick. 

“It was a lot of fun to record and is my personal favorite on the disc”, Kennedy said.  Mine too.  You can find Amy Curl and Dan Kennedy here:


doc roddy nostalgiaSong Title: “Take Me To The River”

Words and Music: Doc Roddy


The Roddy’s second, and most recent CD, was called A Night Of Deep Nostalgia.  This 1999 recording included a song called “Take Me To The River”, which, when I first came across it, I assumed was just another cover of the popular Al Green song.  It was a delightful surprise to learn otherwise.  This original song is a fun, sprightly little number with a roots-y backbone and a calypso feel.  Perhaps because of all the history of the more famous song, Doc Roddy likes it by another name: “‘Wash My Soul’ is the title I prefer”, he told me. 

Its spare, all-rhythm-section instrumentation spreads out nicely behind Doc and Terre Roddy’s vocals.  There’s no story here for the listener to hang on to.  It’s all impression and repetition of the title line similar to so many songs with this type of folk pedigree (think “Iko Iko” or “Mary Mack”):

Take me to the river/ Take me to the river/ Take me to the river/ Take me to the river/ Gonna wash my soul in the depths of the water/Wash my soul

Gonna wash my soul in the depths of the water/ Wash my soul


When the lion get hungry/ And he got to eat/ When the lion get hungry/ And he got to eat/ Gonna wash my soul in the depths of the water/ Wash my soul

Gonna wash my soul in the depths of the water/ Wash my soul

My favorite verse comes at the end.  I’m not sure what I like so much about this one in particular, but I look forward to it each time.  I think it’s a combination of the image of a night in New York; a vision of the City’s famous bridge lit up like an aging monument; and the way The Roddy’s deliver it: 

Don’t the light look pretty on the Brooklyn Bridge/ Don’t the light look pretty on the Brooklyn Bridge/ Gonna wash my soul in the depths of the water/ Wash my soul

Gonna wash my soul in the depths of the water/ Wash my soul

There’s no tale in these lyrics.  No start and no end… and there doesn’t need to be.  It’s a just a great song with a World Music sensibility and a couple of fun hooks that make repeat listenings welcome and easy.  “Maybe we should record it again.” Doc Roddy told me. 

You may hear this song on the radio, for as Roddy said, “The last time I heard “Take me to the River/ Wash my Soul” was on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!” If not, you can find the Roddys here:


Send me your songs

If you are a local songwriter, have set your own instruments on fire in the creative process (figuratively or otherwise), and have a song that you think deserves to be in someone’s (or everyone’s) permanent iTunes rotation.  Send it to me.

If it’s on a CD with other songs, include a note that highlights the song you think is the standout piece along with some details… like how it came about; what you like most about it; how your mother, who always shouts when she has the headphones on, says “I can’t understand any of the words!”  at the very part of the song you particularly wanted her to hear so she misses it every time; how you are only ever comfortable performing this song naked, in the desert, after three days of fasting and a new tattoo; how it reminds you of how immature your inner child is; how you burned the tofu meatloaf while you were writing it because you were so engrossed in the creative process you couldn’t hear the timer so you ended up having to borrow a couple of eggs from your neighbor and that’s how you met the love of your life about whom the song is not, but he/she inspired it just the same; how the lyrics came about as you were skydiving and your chute wasn’t deploying and you suddenly felt connected to everything all at once as you thought “Whoa! People DO look like ants from way up here!”; something; anything, really.  Be sure to send some contact info too.  Email… phone… MyFace (either one or both)…

If you send it, I will listen to it all the way through and pay attention to it while I do, too.   And let’s face it, in this day and age of short attention spans and a saturated market that’s not a bad offer.  

Here’s the address:

Local Sounds Magazine   c/o Wish I’d Written That

PO Box 7695

Madison, WI  53707

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