Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Under the Boardwalk...

February 1st and recovering from six weeks underground in the basement studio working on a set of new songs....I'd descend in the morning and reappear in the early evening realizing I'd just missed daylight... But today I sang through 19 songs for a small invited crowd and I got the thumbs up for 14, a question mark for 4, and a thumbs down for only one... which I think is pretty good.

I've been trying to find some new ways into old songs. Swopping back and forth between a mic and recording and arranging software... trying new sounds, new tempos, new orchestrations...singing them, playing with them, trying to make them work.... I'm not sure if I can say I've found new ways, maybe I've found my own way into them. Standards. What a strange name for a set of extraordinary songs. Standard.

from Websters:

CRITERION, GAUGE, YARDSTICK, TOUCHSTONE ; a means of determining what a thing should be. STANDARD applies to any definite rule, principle, or measure established by authority <standards of behavior>: something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example :

but if you go the etymology it makes a bit of sense:
Etymology: Middle English, from Old French estandard rallying point, standard, of Germanic origin; akin to Old English standan to stand and to Old English ord point -- more at ODD
1 : a conspicuous object (as a banner) formerly carried at the top of a pole and used to mark a rallying point especially in battle or to serve as an emblem

They are 'rallying points': where the army gathers their forces and says 'we stand here' in support of this belief, this king, this faith. Then, for me, the word works better... as I see it: sheet music was the money maker in the first part of the 20th Century, and songs and ditties - comical/ballad/dance numbers/ethnic/'race' songs etc etc etc - were churned out by the thousands and thousands.... people like Gershwin got their start sitting in music shops and playing through the new compositions: they were called song pluggers.... and so we have this incredible legacy of smart, sad, funny, witty, good, terrible songs and somehow, after years of winnowing, we've all reached some kind of concensus that these one hundred, or five hundred or one thousand songs have something more, something worth re-interpreting time and time again... so they're standards... they're places we've decided are worth revisiting and redefending time and again..

The funny thing about singing these songs is that I'm realizing how hard it is 'do your own thing' with them. These songs are tough. They were made to withstand a battered piano and a tone deaf singer in small town America in 1932.... in some way, they know what they want, and they know how they're supposed to be sung. You kind of have to sneak up on them, and take a word or a phrase by surprise to see if you can pull some new sense out of the song... and then they realize what you've done and push you back to singing them they way they want to be sung... they way they're 'supposed to be sung'...

I'm trying to discover what my 'standards' are. I'm singing the Chemical Brothers side by side with Gershwin, and Ron Sexsmith beside Cole Porter... and I'm not sure what defines one from the other. There's a harmonic depth that the older songs have that is totally lacking from the basic chords of a pop song. The older songs are filled with puns and double entendres and complicated rhythmic grammer that is a joy to decipher... But, nevertheless, a great pop song can have a totally different power that the early standards don't. Sometimes, great pop lyrics have the beauty that is the flatness of everyday speech put to music... a sort of joyous, cynical lack of art..... and the hook... the sweet pleasure of the hook of a pop song, that blend of slurs of speech with a simple melodic jab that can pull your heart out of your chest.... whether it's Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Drifters or Brittany Spears... There is something magically powerful and beautiful and empty about great, great pop songs...

"Pop is a means to perfect liberation from meaning...anyone who believed differently, who believed that rock n’ roll could support concepts more complex than yes or no, or tell stories more intricate than ‘I want’ or ‘leave me alone’ would be destroyed by the form itself -- punished for betraying it. You might get a hit, he said, and then take the response to the sound you made as proof you had something to say, but it isn’t true. and anyone who believed otherwise would end up as a shabby old man with a a tin whistle standing in the rain trying to make himself heard, to get someone to listen, to get one more hit."

from the great book: Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, by Greil Marcus