Aug 212008

Intro: Sorry it’s late again this week, folks. In future weeks, I’ll try to get these up on the Monday prior so that Wednesday meetings don’t futz with the schedule. I’m going to try and front-load the happier stuff before I get to the sad passing of Ronnie Drew. Let’s get to it, shall we?

Listening: Okay, so why have I been listening to Weezer’s “Heartsongs” all week? Can someone please tell me? Once you get past the musical in-jokes, it’s almost everything I dislike about Rivers Cuomo’s songwriting rolled into one package. It’s self-gratifying, the rhymes are forced, and the message is so heavy-handed that I’m pretty sure it’s leaving bruises. But that acoustic guitar hook, the vocal rhythms, and the snappy syncopation in the drums… It just gets under my skin. It’s the very definition of a love-hate song relationship.

Upcoming: As I mentioned last week, this next Tuesday is going to be old home week with new albums from Blues Traveler, BB King, Slipknot and a bunch of other venerable names. There’s also a Michael Jackson compilation entitled King of Pop coming out soon. I question the title, but it’s there if anyone wants it. Early September sees releases by Joan Baez, Okkervil River, Jessica Simpson, Joan Osbourne, and Gym Class Heroes.

If none of those artists ring your bell, you could always catch one of your favorite bands on tour. Fall is the prime time for tours, and many top acts are making the rounds. Conor Oberst is doing a world tour, but seems to be shafting us Yankees: what few shows he’s playing Stateside are mostly in the South. Wilco are doing shows around the country including one tonight (Thursday, 2008.8.21) here in Spokane. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to go. I can’t really justify spending any more funds for concerts this month (I’ll be making two trips to Seattle and back for shows by this time next month.) A super lame excuse, I know, but fear not: rumor has it that my good friends Ann and Paul will be going and while they don’t know it yet, I hope to harass one or both of them to writing something up about the show. I also hope to get them to kidnap Jeff Tweedy for me so that I can make him sing “Hummingbird” on command, but that might be aiming a bit high.

The inimitable Beck is also out on the loose this fall, and he’s playing the Bumbershoot festival on the 30th. Speaking of which: Bumbershoot. If you can make it, go. It’s an awesome festival and the lineup this year is tops. Again, I suck and won’t be able to make it (I’ll be working so that I can take part of that week off for my buddy Matt’s wedding), but despite my absence it’s still gonna be a great show.

News: So Ronnie Drew passed away this last week. He was easily one of the most powerful influences in music in the past 100 years. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Irish folk and Irish-influenced music is successful today because of Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners. But more than that, he was simply a brilliant musician and an amazing singer and songwriter. Requiescat in pace.

Here he is, singing “In the Rare Old Times”. Sorry for the random documentary-ish bit at the end, but this is the only version of this song I could find, and it’s too good not to share:

Thinking: There’s an interesting article in this month’s Under the Radar about political music. The article itself is actually kind of unimpressive, but it features pictures of various artists holding up signs with slogans painted on them. It’s amazing how much you can tell about an artist’s songwriting by seeing what they come up with when present with nothing but a blank piece of poster board and some grease paint. The sentiments range from simple cliches to stunningly succinct and evocative commentary. (They even pass by the [I think] unintentionally ironic with the very Caucasian Britt Daniel of Spoon holding up a sign which reads “Viva La Raza!”)

My personal favorite shot, however, is Michael Stipe calmly staring down the camera, holding a sign which reads “gutless Puff Adder Journalists”. Say what you will about Stipe, the man has a way with words. Close seconds are Wayne Coyne, hamming it up for the camera and showing off his “JUST BE A NICE PERSON wayne” sign and Fleet Foxes’ sign, which reads “CAPITALISM I$ UNETHICAL (AND WE’RE HYPOCRITES)”.

Compare those to the stale “END THIS WAR NOW” (Sharon Jones), “WAR IS OVERRATED” (St. Vincent), and “USE YOUR VOTE” (Elbow). (This is not to mention My Morning Jacket’s sign, which reads “Lack of Funding for the Arts/Art Education” and includes a drawing of a crocodile. Needless to say, even WITH the crocodile, it’s not even a complete sentence, much less a compelling political statement.)

Now, all these are fine and good sentiments and are important to express. But the point behind political music is not simply to state a platform or an ideal. If it were, we could put policy papers to a back beat and they’d be the best political songs ever. This points to one of the key things which separates great political tunes from boring, heavy-handed drivel. “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)” was a brilliant protest song, because it ultimately was a catchy tune, with powerful ideas expressed in an intellectually and emotionally engaging fashion. In this same way, “Gutless Puff Adder Journalists” is effective political sloganeering because it’s not simply a statement of opinion. It definitely does that, but first and foremost it’s engaging.

At any rate, the article’s got me thinking about what it is that separates good political and protest music, from bad. Just why, for instance, Jarvis Cocker’s “Cunts Are Still Running the World” can be a seeming recipe for bad protest rock, and yet still turn out to be brilliant. A big part of it, certainly, is that message is not enough. It has to engage people on a level other than the political, in order for it to even work on the political level at all. That’s why “Cunts Are Still Running the World” works. It’s a clear statement, but the song itself also makes great use of Jarvis Cocker’s wonderfully snarky wit. This need for engagement beyond the politics is why, for example, “Ain’t No Rag” (Charlie Daniels) is eye-rollingly cliche crap and “Hoist That Rag” (Tom Waits) is an effective, thought-provoking political analogy.

That much, I think, is clear. But beyond that I’m at a bit of a loss for what separates great political satire and commentary from dreck. Though a lot of protest tunes are subtle, subtlety’s not enough, nor is it really even necessary. Being clever is undoubtedly good, but can be overdone. I’m almost inclined to say that it comes down primarily to lyrical novelty and resonance. If the way in which the message itself is phrased can either force the listener to think (novelty) and/or connect to some aspect of their experience (resonance) that that’s a huge first step.

I think this week’s Song of the Week is a good indication of that. It’s not subtle, nor particularly clever. Its use of reference to “Waltzing Matilda” is extremely effective, certainly. There’s something very poignant about the national anthem being played repeatedly throughout one man’s horrible experience in service to his country. But all in all, the song’s not particularly deep. And yet, I don’t think there’s a person alive who can be unaffected or unsympathetic when the narrator realizes that “to hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs”.

This is definitely something I’ll have to keep thinking about. I’d be interested in your folks’ thoughts. What makes good political or protest music? Which tunes would land in your Top 5 political or protest songs and why? On the flipside: which are the worst and what makes them suck?

Song of the Week: To close out, here’s one more in memory of Ronnie Drew. This is “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” I first heard Drew’s version of it almost a decade ago and to this day it breaks my heart every time I listen to it. Tonight more than most:

Goodbye, Mr. Drew, and thank you.