28 October 2006

sometimes i am such a wuss

auto rock : mogwai
click here or on the image below to listen

Has a song ever made you cry, and not in a contemptuous smart-ass kind of way? In the wide range of human emotions, nothing is as confusing and unreal as shedding a tear over a song that has no sentimental meaning to you. I was standing at a bus stop the other day, staring at nothing, listening to my iPod as usual. The morning had been perfectly ordinary: a slice of bread, a swig of orange juice, fumbling for my keys, waiting for the elevator, a foggy distance, an old man walking his dog, a breath of autumn, missing the 8:40. I could have called for a cab but instead I decided to wait for the next bus. Alone at the shed, I crossed my arms by force of habit, and rested my back against the billboard. There was nothing in particular to occupy the mind. I focused on the music. What was this quiet intro? An 18-second soundtrack to the birth of the universe? And then came the piano, calling, heaving, a stirring succession of notes pulling me out of my early morning indifference. And before I knew it, an invisible lump had built up in my chest, pounding with every beat of the drums, growing larger as the volume rose, and finally forcing a tear from the corner of my eye. I looked down and pressed my lips against my fist. Another tear fell. I turned my back to wipe my cheek. The pounding only grew louder. Was this a never-ending crescendo? All I could do was wait for the song to end, and it did with little warning, a sudden break after a rush, like a rug pulled from under my feet, throwing me into a wall of questions that spelled the same: What the fuck just happened?

alone in kyoto : air
click here or on the image below to listen

I will never know, and I don't care enough to find out. All I know is that Auto Rock continues to haunt me, minus the tears. I can't connect the song to anything in my memory – unlike Alone In Kyoto, which comes from the soundtrack to the film Lost in Translation. I saw it shortly after it came out and really liked the score, especially the intro where Bill Murray was being driven from the airport to his hotel. I remember the part of the film where this song was used. Three scenes, in fact: a couple in kimono marching to their wedding holding hands, Scarlett Johansson tying a strip of white paper on a branch of a wishing tree, and again her character half-bouncing on a trail paved with round stones. The film succeeded in resonating the isolation and alientation of travelers. This song brings to me that kind of sentiment; it doesn't make me weep, but it sure isn't happy. Even without the memory of the film, the song actually stands on its own as a mild blow to the heart. If the trilling vocals don't release butterflies in your stomach, then congratulations for not being the wuss that I am.

12 October 2006

the most common song title ever

I have a point, I promise.

Okay. Having unpacked the last box in our new flat, I thought that now was the perfect time to post this. I've long been curious about what's the most frequently used song title ever – not the most frequently used word in a song title (in which case, it would probably be the pronoun "I"), but the most frequently used song title, period. And they have to be unique songs, not covers (in which case, Help! by The Beatles would be the hands-down winner). Unfortunately, I don't know of any authoritative source that keeps track of these things. The closest I could find is allmusic, which has a massive song database; you just have to know what you're looking for. One Googly afternoon, I found a web forum that discusses this very subject, and the list gathered by members looks like the following. (I've added their allmusic count for reference. I doubt that allmusic only counts unique songs, but what, pray tell, is the alternative?)
  • Hold On - 963
  • You - 885
  • Freedom - 742
  • Stay - 703
  • I Want You - 658
Not a bad sample. We can all think of songs with those titles. Hold On was actually the first thing that came to my mind; I first noticed how popular it is as a song title after Sarah McLachlan released her album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I compared the forum members' list with my iTunes library (at 15,646 songs as of today, this is larger than the average, but still small by collectors' standards), and then I ran the most frequently used song title in my library by the allmusic database. The result: Home, with 11 unique songs in my iTunes, and 971 mentions in allmusic. Here is one of them:

home : cary pierce
click here or on the image below to listen. 3m 46s

I was surprised by the result. How many Home songs do you know? How many Home hits have there been? Not much, I would wager. And yet, a lot of major artists have one, from Louis Armstrong to Alan Jackson to Depeche Mode to Sheryl Crow. But my point is that home is something we always think about, but not something we choose to bring out in the open. Who wants to broadcast every little dysfunctional thing about their family? Which brings me to my next point: that the concept of home is quite distinct from the family unit. Many of the Home songs you will hear are not about family relationships but the nostalgia of growing up, the comfort of the familiar, the return to proverbial innocence. Home as your personal world, as you choose to see it, as you want it to be. In this song, Cary Pierce calls home "the way things were," "a place where no one ever lets me down," and a place that he can come back to to keep his life on track. (Can you guess who the female back-up is? The answer at the bottom.)

this world is not my home : his name is alive
click here or on the image below to listen. 2m 40s

Not that I'm saying Home is the most common song title ever. To be sure, love is still the overriding theme in music, and at 1,150 songs, I Love You has more allmusic listings than Home. But I guess you can make a case that after love in all its dimensions, songwriting is ultimately drawn to the idea of home and all its permutations. Apart from what Pierce describes above, home is also a represenation of – cue orchestral music – our place in the larger world, including the spiritual. Here, Michigan indie group His Name Is Alive borrows two lines from the gospel staple written in 1936 by Albert Brumley: This world is not my home, I'm just passing through, And I can't live at home in this world anymore. (Am I the only one to think this is a bit suicidal?) HNIA sings this version with clinical numbness, unlike the acoustic version on their myspace page, which is quietly unsettling.

broken homes : tricky feat. pj harvey
click here or on the image below to listen. 3m 35s

For the most part, of course, love is what makes a home, and its absence or betrayal destroys it. In fact, this theme often brings about some of the best songs in pop music. My favorite? Burt Friggin' Bacharach's A House Is Not A Home. I'm not meant to live alone, Turn this house into a home. I get all weepy just playing Brooke Benton's version of it in my head. An absolute classic, in spite of Luther Vandross's beautiful but overproduced rendition. This song I'm posting is not exactly about broken homes in the clich├ęd tradition of most ballad songwriters, but being Tricky, this one is freaking tremendous. Enjoy.

Oh, and the answer is Lisa Loeb.