Thursday, February 28, 2008

Anyone who had a heart

I'd been looking forward to Shelby Lynne's album of Dusty Springfield covers for months, and I'm happy to say it's a good album. After hearing it, part of me still wants to ask, Why make a Dusty Springfield cover album? (My mom will almost certainly ask that question... I made her watch Joss Stone do a mediocre impersonation of Dusty--albeit in a thigh-skimming baby-doll dress that Dusty would have no-noed--on some televised awards show a few years ago, and we were both just as horrified as the audience at seeing the sexed version of an already sexy, but restrained song such as "Son of a Preacher Man." You know, sometimes when I have little else to do, I worry about the careers of Joss Stone and Amy Lee, two singers with big voices whose music I absolutely hate. I want more for these big-voiced female singers, more than B-level R&B or synth-goth rock, more than their bad enunciation and cheesy videos can currently give them. And those moments are wasted moments...)

Here's why Shelby Lynne was an intriguing choice for such an endeavor: "Your Lies," the first song from her Grammy-winning album I Am Shelby Lynne, literally took my breath away when I first heard it. Just extraordinary. So I looked forward to these interpretations, which are as no-frills as possible and have very little of the glorious instrumentation that the originals have. Dusty in Memphis is a landmark album, so Shelby Lynne doesn't try to re-do it. Hers is actually a schizoid interpretation: a huge endeavor to cover such songs, but a modest means of doing it. I guess I'm still ambivalent about whether I want to hear no-frills Dusty Springfield...

If no-frills Dusty isn't your thing, then revel in this amazing essay from the NYRB a few years ago about the nostalgia trip of listening to Burt Bacharach's catalog. It's a wonderful explanation of how nostalgia, especially nostalgia for late 60s-early 70s frills works:
The song's impact has a great deal to do with its emphatic deployment of the word "now": the eternal imperatives of lyric warmth are being enlisted into a program of worldwide empathy under the momentary leadership of Jackie DeShannon, whose stunning promotional photograph is a sort of poster for youth itself as imagined in 1965, the perfect Southern California flower girl, with her miniskirt and straight blond hair, radiating sincerity and spontaneity and the dissolution of hidebound social forms. Yet the defiantly fragile sentiment embodied in her singing exists at the center of the most sophisticated imaginable orchestral setting, in a harmonious wedding of feeling and production machinery. No question of counterculture: the culture itself appears to be changing at its core. In the space of under three minutes you construct a story about the way the world is going, even if your outward registration of this experience may be only to venture the knowing opinion that "this record is going to be huge." Every subsequent playback plays back as well a compressed version of the original circumstances; and that was only one such record out of thousands.

The age of recording is necessarily an age of nostalgia—when was the past so hauntingly accessible?—but its bitterest insight is the incapacity of even the most perfectly captured sound to restore the moment of its first inscribing. That world is no longer there—on closer listening, probably never was for longer than the instant during which unfamiliar music ripped open spaces equally and drastically unfamiliar. The listener seeking more such encounters may resort to wide-ranging searches for the unheard, anything from Uzbeki wedding music to unreleased garage bands of southern Wisconsin, anything that might spring the unimaginable surprise. Yet the laboriously sought musical epiphany can never compare to the unsought, even unwanted tune whose ambush is violent and sudden: the song the cab driver was tuned to, the song rumbling from the speaker wedged against the fire-escape railing, the song tingling from the transistor on the beach blanket. To locate those songs again can become, with age, something like a religious quest, as suggested by the frequent use of the phrase "Holy Grail" to describe hard-to-find tracks. The collector is haunted by the knowledge that somewhere on the planet an intact chunk of his past still exists, uncorrupted by time or circumstance.

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Anonymous kate on Mon Mar 03, 12:42:00 PM:
Hey I had my own little Shelby Lynne youtube festival over the weekend thanks to this post. I'm reading art critic Dave Hicky's book Air Guitar. I don't love it, except when I do. This post of yours inspired me to share this passages from it:

[Talking about Velvet Underground And Little Feat in an essay about Chet Baker]

These bands operated on Baker's premise: that the song plays the music and the music plays the player and that, consequently, the song, as played, is not a showcase for the player's originality, but a momentary acoustic community in which the players breathe and think together in real time, adding to the song's history, without detracting from its integrity, leaving it intact to be played again. "The thing you learn," Lou Reed told me in an interview, "is that popular music is easy. The song will play itself. So all you need to do is make it sing a little, make it human, and not fuck it up."