Wednesday, January 11, 2012

1. Chills, "Song for Randy Newman, Etc." (1992)


I like how Chills songwriter and mainstay Martin Phillipps tries so hard to make this as particular to a concrete place as he can, to bucolic New Zealand. "In New Zealand our volcanoes and towns / Rest together in peace, keep their roots in the ground," he nonchalantly leads with on one verse. New Zealand, yeah, right. This song contains one of the most plain universal themes I've ever heard, laid out and rendered flat and bland and stripped down to the essentials of a singer and keyboards, masking itself in them, charting the dark night of the creative soul behind private choices and pains. All of us are implicated one way or another. Even the desperate name-checking—Randy Newman in the title only the most obvious, perhaps because those are his piano licks providing accompaniment. But there's another handful or so of usual suspects lurking and darting about the passageways of this deceptive little three-minute ballad ("Wilson, Barrett, Walker, Drake," Phillipps reels them off at one point). It's so full of humility and yet so arrogant and so certain of what it knows and resigned to it that it transcends and leaves behind the downer vibe it carries like a cross. I seem to keep saying things like that a lot, making excuses perhaps for a bunch of downbeat songs picked by a gloomy man. Looking over the last 15 or 20 on this list, oh hell the whole thing, I can see it fits a pattern. There's self-pity here (as there is in "Nightime" and "Somebody to Lay Down Beside Me" and down the line). Certainly self-obsession. But all of them, from Martin Phillipps to Alex Chilton to Jonathan Richman and all the others, also make a case, simply by doing what they do, for dignity and for cheer too, for staying engaged with the best of all things, however one may find them, and whatever pains they bring with them. Because the one thing we know is that there will be pain. Martin Phillipps makes that point here, but he also describes as poignantly as anywhere I know the rewards, with his elegant description of a songwriter's powers: "Can you hear sounds forming in your head / Do they say more than you've ever said." The answer is yes, I have heard them, hundreds of times, here and a thousand places. I can hear them still and they still say that much.

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