Saturday, February 9, 2013

Winter: Winter Kills

Yaz: Winter Kills


I was a true child of the eighties alternative movements, absorbing everything from Depeche Mode and early U2 to the proto-grunge movement on my path towards adulthood. And as with so many generational moments, the canon was clear: though I wouldn't have known to call it British synthpop, Upstairs At Eric's - the debut album from short-lived but highly influential UK duo Yazoo, known as Yaz in the US - was a staple of my earliest collection, as it was for every friend I had, and the snow-white cassette traveled everywhere with me, through jamband and folkphases, until its presence in my life became first anachronistic and then, finally, ironic, right before the tape disintegrated, and its songs became just one more part of the history of us.

There's many, many songs in my collection about winter, truly. Some masquerade as parts of the holiday canon, whether or not they mention Christmas, but most use the still season as both metaphor and setting: of death, and the suffering of stasis which snow and ice bring. And of these, there are easily a hundred or more which better reflect the way I listen now: Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson's Winter Song, for example, or Patty Griffin's Icicles - a terribly underrated deep cut from 2004 album Impossible Dream - or any number of covers of Gordon Lightfoot's Song For A Winter's Night.

Too, most of the Yaz songs which made them famous are bouncy and playful; it's easy to see how, too, when you remember that primary songwriter and synth-player Vince Clarke, who represents one half of the Yaz duo, came from Depeche Mode to Yaz, and would move on to found Erasure just a few years later. But there may be no better song in my archives which better paints us into the quiet desperation of winter the way I experience it today, writing these words in a bubble, in a state where the Governor has outlawed driving, and the drifts cover the doorways like fog and smoke. Listen, as the slow, muted pulse of snowed-in thunder, the tinkling of icicle piano fragments, and the gutsy, soaring vocals of trapped and snowblind contralto Alison Moyet put you in your rightful place - in a world where hubris is anathema to the human condition, and mother nature wins all draws.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Winter: River


This week’s theme gives me the chance to deal with a pet peeve. River is not a Christmas song. It is a winter song. Specifically, it is a transplanted Canadian, living in southern California where winter is unknown, explaining what winter means to her. Christmas, in the song, belongs to this place where “it stays petty green”. It is a place where a romance has gone horribly wrong. Winter, on the other hand, equals childhood, a time in her life before she even thought of romance. That frozen river is a place of innocence for Joni Mitchell. She wants to skate away from that hurting adult she has become.

I live in New Jersey, where winter exists, but our rivers do not freeze over. We think of winter as a harsh season, and it is all to easy to misunderstand the emotions of this classic song. But Canadians are different. Their feelings about winter are perhaps best explained by noting that ice hockey is far more popular there than baseball or basketball. I would argue that River is one of Joni Mitchell’s most Canadian songs for this reason.

In searching for a video for this song, I had thought to find Joni performing it, and I might have found that if I had looked longer. But this fan-made slide show by sherrylynn70 perfectly embodies the combination of the emotions of the song and Americans‘ misunderstanding of them. Some of the Christmas scenes here are too bright, and the winter scenes sometimes have too many people in them. But there are also some starkly beautiful winter images here that fit perfectly.


And while I was at it, I couldn’t resist including this cover, by Herbie Hancock with Corinne Bailey Rae. Of course, this comes from Hancock’s album of Mitchell covers, called River. The album was made with Mitchell’s blessing; she even sings on one track, The Tea Leaf Prophecy. Rae’s performance of River is quite different from Joni’s. Mitchell makes the song a raw wound, while Rae places the turbulent emotions of the text under a sheet of ice. It would be easy to hear the sweetness in Rae’s voice, and say that she misses the emotion of the song altogether, and I believe some critics did say this. But listen to the way Rae turns the opening phrase. All the hurt of text is there, but she is trying to swallow it whole. It almost, but not quite, works, and the result has all of the emotional power the song deserves. This is clearly what Herbie Hancock was after, judging by the musical setting he and his band have created for the song.

I hope you will forgive me for not sharing a third video here. There is a performance of River on YouTube by Herbie Hancock with Joni Mitchell doing the vocals. It has its own beauty. The performance is from 2008, and Mitchell’s voice no longer does what it did when she was younger. The events in the song are now a hurtful memory instead of a fresh wound. The video is worth seeking out for completists, but I think the two versions I have presented here say what I wanted to say.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Winter: North Dakota

Chris Knight: North Dakota (demo)


Since New England is about to get hit with "Snowmageddon," or whatever they are calling it now, I figure it's time to get back to posting on Star Maker Machine, especially with a timely theme like "winter." As a northerner, winter, cold, and snow is part of my heritage and is in my blood. Sledding, downhill and cross country skiing, snow days, ice skating, curling, snow forts, and even ice fishing were all a part of my upbringing. I have 243 tracks in my mp3 collection that contain either "winter," "cold," or "snow" in their title. So I selected a track to write about that contains none of these words in its title.

Chris Knight is one of the most underrated songwriters in America. In this track he describes the utter bleakness of a US northern plains blizzard while at the same time telling a heart-wrenching story. In the song it is snowing so hard that the narrator can't see the horse stable from his cabin. He returns home during the blizzard and is unable to find his female companion (friend, wife, girlfriend? doesn't matter). It isn't until much later, when the rain washes the snow away, that he finds out what happened to her.

"North Dakota" is from Knight's stellar 2001 album A Pretty Good Guy. The version posted here is an acoustic demo, which to me adds to the starkness of the song. This song was my introduction to Knight, and the first time I heard it I teared up. Knight was born, raised, and still resides in Kentucky, and I have no idea if he spent any time in the North Dakota winter. But that's what great songwriters and storytellers do; they are able to put you in foreign situations and make you feel like you are there. Does anyone else feel the need to throw another log on the fire or put on a sweater and drink hot coco after hearing this song?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Winter: Valley Winter Song

Fountains of Wayne: Valley Winter Song

Last week, in writing about Dough, I compared them to Fountains of Wayne, who are, in my opinion, among the best writers of intelligent pop songs. As a non-musician, the ability to write songs is, to me, a nearly miraculous talent, and the ability to write a perfect pop song makes me genuflect.

“Valley Winter Song” was written by Chris Collingwood, one of the two principal songwriters of Fountains of Wayne, and it is a gentle ballad that he wrote for his wife about the winters in Western Massachusetts, being stuck in the house and suffering from seasonal affective disorder. I do love living in the northeast, but sometimes during the winter I question my sanity. Nevertheless, when the snow is falling down, and you can stay in your house, or go out and cavort in the white powder, or just stay on the couch drinking hot cocoa, it is actually kind of nice.

In the song, Collingwood refers to “our New England town,” and some quick research uncovers that he lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, one of the more interesting and tolerant communities around. It is also the home of Smith College, an amazing place that also happens to be the alma mater of my wife, and where my daughter currently attends college. Since my daughter has been in Northampton, she has been pretty lucky—the weather hasn’t been brutally cold, and the snow has come only in isolated spurts. They did get nailed pretty badly during the northeaster (I’m not a pirate, so I refuse to use “nor’easter”) on Halloween 2011 and lost power for a while. Of course, they are now calling for a pretty bad storm this weekend, so we shall see. It’s all probably a result of climate change, which has resulted in warmer winters and more violent storms in our part of the world. One of the great things about being at college during a storm like that is that you have the infrastructure and resources available to mitigate the hardships, and you are surrounded by friends. And you don’t have to shovel.

Last Sunday, I woke up in New York with a dusting of snow on the ground, which didn’t stop me and my wife from driving the two plus hours up to Northampton for the Silver Chord Bowl, an a cappella concert held on Smith’s campus. It sold out the 2,000 seat hall, and we were on line an hour early to get good seats. Although my musical tastes are pretty varied, I’ve never been a fan of a cappella music—I made it through 4 years at Princeton, which has a long and proud tradition of such music basically avoiding it, except when the singers blocked an archway I needed to get through (I apologize now to my friends who were in any of the singing groups that I callously ignored—I think I have grown a little in the past 35 years).

Of course, the apparently omnipotent gods of harmony singing have had their revenge—my son’s college percussion group performed each parent’s weekend in a long showcase show featuring many, many a cappella groups, and he is now dating an a cappella singer. My daughter is a member of the Smithereens, the fourth oldest women’s group in the country (not the more recently formed and excellent rock band of the same name) who performed in the Silver Chord Bowl, thus explaining why I left my cozy house on a snowy winter day to sit through what turned out to be a very entertaining show. Oh, and it was Super Bowl Sunday, a winter ritual that transcends the game itself (my daughter said that a friend asked why they were playing football at a Beyoncé concert). It is only because I am just that good a father that I would miss the first quarter of the big game (not to mention the commercials) to see her perform. The Smithereens were great, by the way.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Winter: Song of Winter

Bob Dylan wrote a poem about her. Blur asked her to sing with them. And Jacques Dutronc married her. But it's taken having a song prominently featured in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom to clue in the hipsters about the elegant, silky voiced Francoise Hardy. That song, "Tout Les Garcons Et Les Filles", hit the UK Top 40 in 1962 despite the language barrier.

For the album One Nine Seven Zero, Hardy sang "Song of Winter" which takes more credit for a cold spell than any TV weatherman ever has:

I'm the song of winter, I'm the falling snow
Can't you hear me calling you whenever the north wind blows
I'm the cool of evening, I'm the velvet sky
Can't you hear me calling you whenever the breeze passes.

The tune comes from British songwriters Tommy Brown and Micky Jones. After a stint with Spooky Tooth, Jones would form Foreigner whose celebration of frigid women, "Cold As Ice", was a US Top 10 hit in 1977.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Winter: Winter

Rolling Stones: Winter
[Purchase @ Amazon]

“Winter”, from Goat’s Head Soup – the ’73 Rolling Stones release – got this review from Bill Janovitz (one of my favorites): “ Here they were in sunny Jamaica, and the Rolling Stones were writing and recording an entirely convincing and evocative picture of a Northern Hemisphere winter. Perhaps they were so happy to be escaping the season they felt that starting the sessions with "Winter" could transition them out of the old and into the new climate. Though it bemoans many of the negatives of the season [in the] lyrics... "Winter" seems to simultaneously celebrate the season as something inherently beautiful, with other evocations of holiday scenes and wanting to wrap a coat and keep a lover warm…”
Wikipedia says the song was probably a product of Jagger and Taylor, but that Taylor didn’t get much credit for his efforts (seems to be a common thread about his role in the Stones). Apparently, Keith Richards had nothing to do with this oevre.
From my own perspective, Goats Head Soup – and “Winter” in particular – carry poignant memories. I was a high school senior and the year was ’73 (Probably you had to be there to relate, but it was a seminal place and time). Of course, this was following on “Exile on Main Street”. Like the years (’73 is a distant memory), seasons also come and go, but classics songs (like “Winter”) go on and on and ….
Back to Janovitzs’s remarks (and the current condition of Star Maker Machine): winter comes and goes. The wind blows cold, and then warm. Music is at heart a celebration: musicians feel something, and as a result produce music. That’s the idea that has driven Star Maker bloggers so far, too.