Some Songs Set Their Own Standards
To describe a song as “cool” is not the same as describing it as “good”. There are plenty of “good” songs out there. But a cool song rises above and sets itself apart from the collective “good”. It doesn’t just highlight some elusive intangible. It defines it. And it’s often that very element that gives these cool gems life beyond their first fifteen minutes of fame.
Cool songs are all atmosphere and panache, like Dick Dale’s 1962 cover of “Miserlou” (though this one has certainly suffered from over-exposure – and no amount of cool can save a song from the ravages of that effect). And, while The Pixies created something cool on just about every song on their Dolittle album, “This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven” rises above the rest with its insistent drive and stunning lyrics. David Byrne and Brian Eno put together a collection of cool in the early 80’s called My Life In the Bush of Ghosts. And, though a lot of it sounds dated now, I found that particular album devastingly beautiful at the time. While we’re on the subject of the 80’s, Laurie Anderson’s work with the Beat writer William S. Burroughs on “Sharkey’s Night” is still gripping and incredibly life-like.
In recent years, a number of cool songs have slipped into the mainstream and, luckily, just past it. Moby’s “Extreme Ways” (another song destined for over-exposure) has a techno-pop-groove that grabs the listener at the first screech and doesn’t let go until the after-thought guitar lick at the end; Modest Mouse’s “World At Large” has a vibe that is almost off-handed as it clips along unrelentingly to its morbid conclusion; Portishead’s “Nobody Loves Me” takes their electronic sound to a new level with a synthetic hammered dulcimer sound and a lyric that completes itself, nearly sotto voce, on the exhale; Amy Winehouse’s remix version of “I’m No Good” – the one with a guest appearance by Ghostface Killah – has Ghostface rapping a bridge part that tears the song apart and pushes it right past its own crescendo. Come to think of it, it’s this bridge that makes this version such
a cool song; “Deep Red Bells” by Neko Case has Case singing the words of the title low and long and stripped to their essentials. And then, as though that’s not enough, she asks “Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag?” and you realize how lucky you are to have heard this one; and The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” with its single-minded catchy phrasing and near-avoidance of a chorus (this one may have already crossed the over-exposure line. It certainly has been walking a mainstream path for some time) are just a few that I still have in my iTunes rotation and that have that certain je nais se quoi that is at the very heart of cool.
Here is a local artist with a recent release who has managed to place himself squarely in the category of cool as well:
Reisenauer is the frontman for Madison’s Pale Young Gentlemen. They have released two recordings in the past three years. Last year’s Black Forest (Tra La La) was recorded at Madison’s Science of Sound studios. The stand-out piece on this CD is “The Crook Of My Good Arm”, a recording that is every bit as good as anything I’ve heard in recent years. The song opens with a rhythmic, moving cello/bass line that sets the stage for Reisenauer’s exceptional lyrics and his dry delivery:
You start to worry about your health / As you reach a certain age /
So in a careful tongue / I have chosen one /
That I believe is safe / In the crook of my good arm
And with the completion of the title phrase in the lyrics, the strings come back in and the instrumentation takes off, drops off slightly for his next verse, then stays right there with him as he delivers the energy-packed chorus:
Run, run through the thicket and the barley /
Run, run for the sake of your good name /
Run, run for the puzzle of it all /
For the child in your heart /
That’s taking all the blame
Reisenauer delivers the third verse and then moves slightly left for a brief instrumental break. He never leaves the instruments on their own though, as he yelps and shouts on the accents as though he is hearing it all for the first time and can’t quite contain himself. It’s a perfect delivery and is one of several elements that push this song right over the edge for me.
“It’s about someone on the verge of who knows. The main character is flawed, and perceives himself as so,” Reisenauer told me. For me, in this case, it really doesn’t matter what it’s about – it’s just such a joy to listen to. Charlie Mingus once said “In my music I’m trying to play the truth of what I am.” If this song is the truth of what Michael Reisenauer is, Madison is lucky to have him and his Pale Young Gentlemen.
You can find the Pale Young Gentlemen here: www.paleyounggentlemen.com.
Send me your songs
If you have something you want featured here, send it in. I listen to everything I get, and I’m looking for local music, in particular.
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; what it means to your dog/cat/significant other; how you feel as though you’re diving headfirst through your guitar and into your own navel every time you sing it; how it fills your head with rainbows and unicorns – even when you’re sober; how you got the idea for the lyrics from a scrap of paper you found in a trainyard as you were hitch-hiking through Bozeman, Montana on your way home after being fired from your job as camp cook because you weren’t a coffee drinker and couldn’t tell a decent cup of coffee from mud and how it brings that painful memory up but that you sing it anyway even though you nearly burst into tears every time you do; anything, really… 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 still not a bad offer.
Here’s the address:
Local Sounds Magazine
c/o Wish I’d Written That
PO Box 7695
Madison, WI 53707