learning love songs

est. 2008


March 2015


I am of the opinion that everything Andy Hull does that *isn’t* Manchester Orchestra is remarkably better than anything Manchester has done since 2009. Maybe it has something to do with how he chooses to create and collaborate – the Right Away, Great Captain! side project seems very song-driven, and Bad Books has the insights and playing prowess of the remarkable, seemingly indestructible Kevin Devine. Here, I love his repetition (what a useful little tool that is) and his very stark, undressed playing. As always with his lyrics, I love how deep he cuts into himself to find the messy, sloppy fears and failings and pulls them out.

I played more guitar and worked on songs more in the past 36 hours than I have in years. Never before have I been more cognizant of the difficulty of precision in recording, and getting a take that sounds right. Recording a song like this – purely solo – allows a little more flexibility on that front, letting the decisions overall sound and style and pitch to be up to the singleton. Collaboration is much more difficult, especially as styles and influences start to mesh. A player must connect with the words and feel of their collaborator, or else they won’t be able to find the right fitting style. How many band breakup stories does the world need to prove this, of such-and-such walking out of the studio because so-and-so wasn’t giving on their stance on a part or phrase or production quality? Given Andy Hull’s long run with Manchester, I can see why these solo projects are a focused effort to produce and perform, separate from the highly detailed task of creating with others in full band form. But that doesn’t mean solo is the only way for a songwriter to go – as with any such effort, the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

“It must have been a month since you last loved me,
And I haven’t slept a wink I hope you care.
And I went to hell and back for half an hour,
And started a staring contest with your man.

And I was a cage, I was a cafe, I was a cage
A cage to you.

And it has to been a year since I was sober,
And I made a point to pinch my skin again.
It’s any minute now that I will wake you,
Watching a woman sleep can get you scared

But I am a cage, I am a cage, I am cage
Surrounding you.
But I am afraid, I am afraid, god I’m afraid.
Of the truth inside of you.

I could use a friend to say they love me
But I’m gonna make a sound you cant forget.
And afterwards I swore that I would haunt you,
Now I’m way too tired to give a shit.

Cause I was a wave, I was a wave, I was a wave,
Collapsing you,
Yeah I was a wave
Collapsing you.

I am away, I am away, I am away
Coming up to you
Well I was away.”

~I Was A Cage
Right Away, Great Captain!, The Eventually Home 


I’ll admit Brian Fallon could play the alphabet acoustic and I’d think it was a brilliant expression of heartache and passion worth replaying a dozen times in a row. But this recent performance of “Red Lights,” from his side project creation Molly and the Zombies, is absolutely exemplary of everything he is good at. Like many songwriters, Fallon has a sweet spot of favorite chords. These Gs and Cm9s are his. He has this way of setting scene to emotional wreckage that is classic and real and sad-sad-sad, so fucking sad, lyrically and also performance-wise. The way he says, “burned before” has so many years behind it, the way he lets his voice drift down at the end of the chorus suggests the fragility of honest expression. I love the pace of this little song, and its moment-by-moment perspective, its reminder of taking advantage of the little calms in the constant, claustrophobic pressure of emotional-ridden storms

“In all good faith and sentiment
I can’t believe somehow
that I haven’t died of grief or something.
Since you left this town.

I’m all undecorated cigarettes,
and standard white apartment walls.

At 3 A.M. and 4 A.M.,
it’s impossible to sleep,

I’d do anything to hold you,
and feel you next to me.
But I’m all sore eyes and beasts
at my backdoor, pulling out their claws.

So yes I will take those,
whatever else they give me.
If it stops the nightmares,
it probably won’t kill me.
and if I slow it down I’ll end up on my accusers’ knives,
so I only stop to tell her that I love her at the red lights.

And all in all I’m wrecked you see
From years of piping down
and piping up about the things,
that never mattered anyhow
When you change too much you lose yourself
and some times you just can’t get them back.

And you might be an angel, or devil I don’t know
but if in fact you are now love
Well I’ve been there before.
I’ve fallen on my face
and I’ve been burned so near to death I probably won’t live through it

So yes I will take those
whatever else they give me.
If it stops the nightmares
it probably won’t kill me.

and if I slow it down I’ll end up on my accusers’ knives
so I only stop to tell her that I love her at the red lights.”

~Red Lights 
Molly and the Zombies

(Edit: Once, in a live performance, Fallon tacked on “Pictures of You” to “Ladykiller.” Just serendipitous, when chords & songs mesh perfectly.)


Think I found my first jawdrop discovery in awhile when I clicked upon Hidden Hospitals today

What the hell is this! Jesus. Thank you. Pre-order on its way. 
Prog-driven and artfully heavy, their debut LP “Surface Tension” gripped me instantly with its precise rhythms, heavy drops, mini-breakdowns and soothing, smooth harmonies. It is a dark album, full of warm reverb and cold regret, but the often airy-driven vocals keep the overall sound from being too harsh, highlighting the eclectic rhythm choices underneath. Some of these lyrics and hooks and choruses are spot-on heartbreaking and equally loud, like on “Wounded Sirens,” but I hear so much more than emphatic noise. Hidden Hospitals displays restraint, but not too much to quell their angst and drive and I like it. 
Something about it reminds me of a lighter Mt.Helium,and a heavier MuteMath. I vaguely remember hearing about Damiera, the band some of these guys used to play in. I think they were well-regarded? Whatever they did, they’re doing something awesome now. I love the straightforward above-the-scene sound here. I love how interesting – SO interesting – their guitar parts are.Vocally, I am kind of amazed at the delicacy followed up with power, and the careful melody choices. 
I didn’t have plans this Friday. Now I do – listen to this, learn this, feel this, understand this, because records like this don’t come along every day and after all, music is the best distraction. 
“I could only get out of the way of it once, listening, 
learned to stop breaking locks sweep it under the rug 
listening, listening.”
Hidden Hospitals, Surface Tension


My copy of “Left and Leaving” is getting a lot of needle action lately. I can’t stop playing The Weakerthans on shuffle in my car. Maybe it’s the ice finally melting from the hilltop pavement, maybe it’s the cyclical trappings of the years, but I love love love how this album, somehow, always sounds new again. John K.Sampson is better than most. His lyrical metaphor, his anthropomorphism, his meter, and his blunt dictation of sorrow provide honesty at this literary level so difficult to accomplish in any words, let alone in the format of a song.

To think I discovered this band more than 10 years ago, when the depths of relationships with other humans, flawed and fragile as me, felt so dark and intriguing and winding. Now, how innocent those emotions seem. How much deeper and meaningful and layered these words feel, on this side of time: “I’m so glad that you exist.” 

You take them for granted when you are young, all those full and inspiring and vibrant people around you. We lose it, sometimes, somehow, as we age.

I’m a lucky person, to have had so many wonderful people in my life. People who have taught me about music, about words, about art and life and strength, in fleeting, accidental moments that stick in my memory, or subliminal, extended lessons interwoven with the respect and admiration and sheer fun of friendship. Whether they are in my life now or never again is secondary to their sheer import; we felt, and we feel, we connected and always will, and for this, I am grateful. With each passing year, my appreciation and acknowledgment grows, as I hold tighter and tighter to the imprints left behind.

“How I don’t know how to sing,
I can barely play this thing,
But you never seem to mind,
And you tell me to fuck off,
When I need somebody to,
How you make me laugh so hard,

How whole years refuse to stay,
Where we told them to, bad dog,
Locked up whining in a word,
Or a misplaced souvenir,
How the past chews on your shoes,
And these memories lick my ear.

I know,
You might roll your eyes at this,
But I’m so,
Glad that you exist.

How we waste our precious time,
Marching in the picket line,
That surround those striking hearts,

And the time is never now,
And we know who we should love,
But we’re never certain how.

I know,
You might roll your eyes at this,
But I’m so,
Glad that you exist.”
~The Reasons
The Weakerthans, Reconstruction Site


This is my new favorite performance to watch,and rewatch and rewatch….

Everything about it is pretty much perfect, and that is a word I do not like to use, but from the depth of the song, to this particular staging, to the absolute angel throat of Clare Bowen, this performance is stunning and captivating on every possible level. Last night, after listening to it probably a dozen times throughout the day, I showed it to a friend who, like me, has a deep love and reverence for artistry. “You will love this,” I said. I handed her my phone and she watched it speechless.

“Wow,” she said, and I nodded. “Yeah, I know.”

So this is from “Nashville,” a show I watch partly because I get to hear Clare Bowen’s superb voice and also because it’s a great hour-long reminder to pick up the guitar. I also love the idea of a show that creates its own original songs, because it’s given talented songwriters like Lucy Schwartz a chance to shine. Some of them are really country, really dumb or really country and dumb but some – like “Black Roses” – cut to the quick in the most sophisticated,contemporary kind of way. What a razor-tongued ballad, what a difficult dynamic to strike. To write a song about someone hurting you isn’t exactly unique – in fact, it’s pretty much the key ingredient – but there is a resiliency here  that adds a twist. Metaphors are tricky things, because they could become cliche, and roses of all things are overused. But they’ve been overused so much that using them right feels original and comfortable somehow – can’t you just feel the falling petals? The spell, cast and broken, the love, given and forsaken, these are real feelings and familiar tales to anyone whose heart has felt the magnetic pull of someone else’s only to have to tear themselves away. The battlefield, the knife, the burning bridges, – the first verse into the pre-chorus are six lines that immediately draw the listener into this really visible, danger-filled place. That’s arguably the strongest part of the whole, some context and wordplay in the second verse deepen the narrative before a powerful finale.

The recorded version of this is striking, adorned with military drums, but this live version is something else. Bowen’s expressions are not over-dramatic in the pop star sense, and on the demure side for her, but she is still so, so expressive, from the tops of her eyes to the joints of her fingers down to her apparently bare feet. I love how delicate her voice can be while still commanding so much sound and fullness and breath. Other than the sheer beauty of this staging (Those lights! Those gowns! Those crowd shots!), the intimacy of songwriter and performer here is such an interesting interplay to observe. There’s Schwartz, playing her song and watching her words and feeling come to life, she is laser-focused and half-smiling before the final verse and those just-high-enough-to-be-hard notes of the song, and I wonder if it pride or nerves for her, for Bowen, or simply sheer anticipation. The final chorus swells, the final grace notes and chords diminish with sadness and solemnity and poise, and then, the crowd is on its feet. Just perfect. Replay.

“I can see your eyes staring into mine,
But it’s a battlefield and you’re on the other side.
You can throw your words, sharper than a knife,
And leave me cold in another house on fire.

I lay low, lay low and watch the bridges burn
I lay low, lay low. What more could I have done?

Now you only bring me black roses,
And they crumble into dust when they’re held
Now you only bring me black roses,
Under your spell.

She told me twice all her good advice,
But I couldn’t see I was clouded by your lies.
Up in smoke, a vision she foretold,
She said, ‘Stay away ’cause that boy’s a warning sign.’

I lay low, lay low and watch the bridges burn.

And I’m done trying to be the one picking up the broken pieces,
And I’m done trying to be the one who says, ‘I love you dear but I’m leaving.’

Now you only bring me black roses
And they crumble into dust when they’re held
Now you only bring me black roses
But I’m not under your spell,

I’m not under your spell, 

I’m not under your spell,
I’m not under your spell,
I’m not under your spell.”
~Black Roses, 
Clare Bowen/Lucy Schwartz, Nashville On the Record


“Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

Another day, another discovered “Hallelujah” cover. Hearing Brandi Carlise’s version for the first time today led to me seek out a compiled list of its best versions; little did I know this was a timely search. The first performance of the familiar, timeless ballad turned 30 last month.

 I think the first version I ever heard was Jeff Buckley’s. The iconic one. The most broken one, with the crying guitar. It is sadder than the John Cale version that perhaps is considered the standard beyond Leonard Cohen’s initial creation, even though I agree that the uninitiated listener might assume the song is Buckley’s own. He is in it. He is it.
Interesting with how many versions there are, this song retains mystery, in its haunting structure and veiled innuendo. Among covers, it is one of the most (obviously) common to tackle,but it is also a challenge. This song isn’t easy to sing, especially at as slow a tempo as most wind up choosing, and how do you make someone hear the same story and make it sound like new?


One could argue the world doesn’t need more covers of the same song, but I would counter that with the importance of the capacity to adapt and authenticate. Six years ago, I felt differently. But here, after I’ve taken time to explore and understand my own creative impulses, I see why you would want to honor the work you are inspired by, and pour yourself into it. The best of the best make it work, by the choices they make – an arpeggio here, a breath or gasp there. Acoustic or full band, head voice or soft whispers on the high notes? Choices large and small, in music as in life, make all the difference to success of the whole. Take Brandi’s version – completely her own, in her own strong and emotive style. Her voice soars past the octave effortlessly, and fully. The feminine take is not to be ignored. Not to mention the fact I’m a sucker for brilliant singer-songwriters playing with symphonies. Is there a more glorious, holy sound in the world than peaking strings and subtle woodwinds backing up a familiar melody?

The minor fall, and the major lift.

“So maybe there’s a god above
But all I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.

It’s not a cry that you hear at night,
it’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

Leonard Cohen, Various Positions
Brandi Carlise,Live at Benaroya Hall
Jeff Buckley, Grace

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