Saturday, December 06, 2008

Stay down, champion.

"Tall Saint"
The National

It's a truism that Bonus Tracks aren't necessarily worth your time or money. The songs left over from the recording of an album that turn up on EPs and Special Editions a year after the original album makes a critical or commercial splash. Obviously, if you're a fan you have to buy them, and everybody involved knows that--but those songs got left out for a reason, and everybody knows that too.

The National's Virginia EP is a nice cut above average, in this respect. Took me a while to give it the attention it deserved, but now I'm really happy it's out there. Some live leftovers and unfinished fragments, but a few songs that stand proudly next to the real, known stuff--to "Mistaken For Strangers," and "Secret Meeting," and the rest. When you make a moment-capturing masterpiece like Boxer, you'll have some good stuff to spare. ("Blank Slate" is another dark/funny x-ray of the universal Matt Berninger character--"gonna jump out of a cake with my heart on a string." Full of questionable notions, but luckily too scared to carry them out. I sympathize.)

And "Tall Saint" is terrific--officially a "demo," but it sounds perfectly fine. Got its string part in place and everything. And it's an example of one of the Unacknowledged Secret Genres: the Lost Title Track. It's clear, if you're looking, that "Tall Saint" was meant to make it onto Boxer. It's certainly about the same sort of person, again, and those of us who actually have the physical CD have the textual evidence. No lyric sheet for Boxer, naturally--we have a distant B&W shot of the band apparently frolicking in a meadow. (Perhaps they've returned to Ohio for a Lost Afternoon. We can hope.) Printed, we've just got two cryptic lyric fragments: "Let them all have your neck," from "Ada," and, across from it, the sardonic anononymous advice that the speaker of "Pale Saint" hears as he lies stunned on the pavement. Stay down, champion, stay down. So, really, this guy is the "boxer" of the title, the stand-in for the rest of these haunted losers and for Berninger himself. Taking punishment for a living and getting back up when he probably shouldn't.

(No less a record than OK Computer is my Secret Genre-defining example. That awkward, cryptic title comes from outtake "Palo Alto," which eventually showed up on the Airbag/How's My Driving EP. Not a bad tune, but sounds too much like The Bends--and Radiohead having a song about Silicon Valley is just too literal-minded somehow. Like if Springsteen had a song about Chrysler.)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Say Yes to Michigan.

I haven't written much, but here's a song. Maybe this is the way to go for a while--I have unlimited numbers of things to say about unlimited numbers of songs. And I found a place to host the files with minimum hassle. (You can't just right-click, I don't think. You have to go through a download page, so they can show you ads. But it's free. Pop-up Blockers On!) No pretentions to Randomness, here--that was supposed to be a fun exercise, but even the shuffle setting on iTunes was just putting Too Much Pressure on your poor, beleaguered Lieutenant. I'll write about the songs I pick.

"For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti."
Sufjan Stevens

You must love Sufjan, even if you are rolling your eyes as you do it. He's ours, after all. Midwestern, sad and sincere. Unapologetic mystic and unapologetic banjo-ist. Sort of arbitrarily elevated to Hip Pantheon four years ago by people who would probably be uncomfortable if a man wearing wings (!) came up to him on the street talking about the various things Sufjan likes to sing about. Saul Bellow and serial killers and the God of Abraham, etc.

This is an early song, from the first of his records to get wide attention. So it's comparatively sparse. Banjo, piano, trumpet, delicate vocal harmonies...wait, did I say sparse? But it's nice. And, naturally, it seems to be sung from God's point of view. Sufjan knows just how He feels.

And place names are their own poetry, of course, and Mr. Stevens knows that as deeply as I do. Even if he were wearing the wings, I know that I could just say Ypsilanti and we both would smile. Wouldn't be awkward at all. Ypsilanti is a frail, mysterious sort of name for a sad and weary sort of place. And I walked there, once. It took a day. I was young and excitable. I pretend to be different now. A long and silly story that is nonetheless so useful that I'm saving it.