Saturday, August 22, 2009

#37 Song of the Decade- "Distortions"

#37- Clinic- "Distortions"

Internal Wrangler, the 2000 debut of Liverpool four-piece Clinic, is an accomplished album, but it lacks identity as a whole. The band shifts between moods like a petulant child, and songs are over before they really even make an impression. The songwriting tends to hide behind characters like Evil Bill and C.Q., even though those characters don't have much organic payoff. Originally, Clinic's gimmick was that all four members wore surgical masks on stage; sometimes it sounds as if they follow suit in their music. It's a bit antiseptic and anonymous.

So it comes as that much more of a surprise when a song as emotionally bare as "Distortions" shows up buried as track nine. On a pretty polyphonic album, it's the first time things scale back, the only accompaniment being a drum machine and a Philips Philicorda, one of the '60s transistor keyboards the band experimented with. While the reverb on the keys' sustained chords is haunting, they're nothing when compared with Ade Blackburn's delicate vocal.

The song's speaker is at the crossroads of a relationship. He explains: "It's eerie and so scary/I don't know who to marry/Your sister came to bait me." Most singers wouldn't get away with selling those lines as anything other than treacly emo pablum. Blackburn--partly because he sounds as if the mic is really far away from him--performs them with a willowy, disaffected whisper. This is a song about the need for resolution, but he purrs every line as if he's afraid of answers he might get.

Every guy has said of women: "You can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em," and it's a cliche for a reason. Loving someone isn't easy. It's parasitic. A part of you is gone when you commit yourself to someone else, and it's an idea that's never adequately expressed in pop music. This song comes close because it creates a space in which the line "I've pictured you in coffins" still sounds romantic. That conflicted set of emotions is basically what the song is about, and it's achieved almost completely through the understated vocals.

However, no discussion of "Distortions" would be complete without mentioning "I love it when you blink your eyes," which is the best line this side of Lil' Wayne. On the surface, it expresses the speaker's happiness that his lover is alive, that she's blinking her eyes at all. But it's simultaneously the most specific and general detail possible. Blinking your eyes is something we all do, so it stands in for every little quirk you could like about someone. At the same time though, if you remember the way someone blinks her eyes--an action we see hundreds of times a day but normally disregard--that's a very personal detail. It's the most meaningful songwriting shrug I've ever heard. (Well, maybe not. I listen to a lot of Bob Dylan.)

By the last third, the song's tempo builds, but it doesn't matter much. If we're anything like the speaker of the song, we still have our backs firmly against the wall.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Brett Favre Finally Meets Tavaris Jackson, as Told by JD Salinger

It's an honor for TANBR to present JD Salinger's account of today's events:

"A monk asked Dongshan Shouchu, 'What is Buddha?' Dongshan said, 'Three pounds of flax.'"
- a Zen Koan

It was a little after three o'clock on an Indian summer afternoon in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. For three straight Tuesdays, Tavaris Jackson, a tawny, humorless man of twenty-six, had been pacing up and down the picaresque field with fifty-three other bulky footballers, all of whom he considered drips. He lit a cigarette as he approached one of the more distinguishable drips, Sage Rosenfels of the Iowa Rosenfels, lately of the Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins.

"Goddamn it," he said. "Where is he? Didn't they say he would be here by now?"

Rosenfels said that he didn't know, although he had heard similar information about their expectant guest the night before. He had sat by the phone all day, even stretching the cord underneath the bathroom door for his evening soak. He told Tavaris to take it easy, that, after all, they had waited this long. "Jesus," he told Tavaris. "Look--he's probably in a cab by now on his way down here. The thing is--what do you care anyway? All it means is that you're out of a job, for chrissakes."

"Forget it. Forget it, now. Pretend I didn't say it." Tavaris stomped his cigarette out on the fifty-yard line.

"Oh, now you want me to forget it. Why did you ask in the first place then?"

It was then that Favre, the man they were expecting, made his appearance. He was clutching a football in his rough (but slender) hands with a certain esprit de corps, and he was followed by Seymour Glass of New York's Glass family, who had recently become his advisor in what Favre called "all issues related to spiritual advancement."

Tavaris began to compose a letter to his own analyst in his head. He--without noticing--shot Favre a desultory glance. "Nice to finally meet you guys. Real nice," Favre said in a tone that returned Tavaris's cold, but not ice-cold, attitude. He took a gulp from his highball and turned up the collar on his camel's-hair coat. (He had bought it the previous winter at Lord & Taylor's on sale.)

Ladies and gentlemen, the most Brett Favre picture of all time. I would do the whole thing in which I act as if this is the picture for the word in a dictionary, but I'm not sure what part of speech "Brett Favre" is. For a lot of people, it's become an interjection.

With no wherewithal for such niceties, and with sizable resentment for the fact that Favre was earning a salary of twelve million a year, Tavaris said, "Hey--I'm not saying that I'm mad at you exactly. I'm not exactly mad. But I want to be upfront--can I be upfront with you?"

Favre said yes. He looked at Seymour and then at his watch, mindful that he was running late for his theatre date.

"I was told," Tavaris said with his arms akimbo, "That I could compete for the starting job. Now granted, this was months ago, but still. That's what I was told. And now you come in here and I'll be lucky if I get a damned snap."

Favre ran his hands through his hair. "Jesus, don't be such a snob. You're acting like a snob, Tavaris. Honestly. You sound terrible, really terrible." He turned his back to the wind. "It's not like I gave your girl the time. I'm just here to do my job for God's sake. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the most gregarious person in the city, but you're being downright standoffish."

Tavaris tucked in his T shirt and extended his hand to the competition reluctantly. "My apologies," he said. "I'm being silly. I wish--you know what? Best of luck to you. Welcome aboard as they say. Now if you don't mind, I really need to make some phone calls."

Then Tavaris went over and sat down on the unoccupied bench, looked at Favre, aimed his pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.

Thanks again, Mr. Salinger.