You Know What The Problem Is, Brucie? We Used To Make Dreams Out Of Things In This Country — Now We Just Dangle Prepositions Like It's Totally Obvious What Anyone Is Talking About

The other great thing about the Yankees' ALCS collapse is that we're basically in the clear from having to hear "Empire State of Mind" any time soon.

You know the song — it's the one where Jay-Z talks about all the cool stuff he remembers or patronizes in New York: Tribeca, Yankee Stadium, some McDonalds near Broadway, a "stash spot" at 560 State Street. And then of course there's that "feat. Alicia Keys" part. You know which part that is:

In New York!
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of!
There's nothing you can't do!
Now you're in New York!
These streets will make you feel brand new!
The lights will inspire you!
Let's hear it for New York! New York! New York!

It didn't take long for me to start parading around the apartment belting out this song, and it took even less time for Jen to demand that I stop, not only because it sounds terrible when I try to sing like Alicia Keys but also because she was disturbed that I would never actually tell her of what dreams were made.

"What do you mean?" I stop and ask her.

"Dreams are made of what?"

"It's just 'where dreams are made of' . . ."

"Of what though?"

It goes on like this for a while until I finally Google the lyrics — because lyric sites on the Internet are 100 percent accurate — and confirm it: "Concrete jungle where dreams are made of." (We've had this trouble with Googled lyrics before — one time, in the course of arguing the world's most important questions, I for some reason got stuck on the idea that "this sex is on fire" was way worse than "your sex is on fire" — something about the inherent arrogance of calling "this" sex flammable like you're some kind of coital arsonist; can't really remember the details beyond which to say that we eventually discovered that it happened to be a hotly debated topic; of course in the end everyone agrees the lyric is bad, regardless of whether a possessive or a demonstrative adjective is being used.)

"But made of what?" she demands. "Dreams need to be made of something . . ."

Now I suppose it's possible that Alicia Keys sings "Where dreams are made oh," but even if it is, it's a flawed line — the phrasing demands another vowel-ish syllable to play off the "do" in the following line (to make it sound like "aah" and "ooh"), and it's too lazy to use "oh" to fill it in. Besides, even if it is "oh," our ears want to hear "of" because that's linked to "made." That's how stuff like spoken language works.

I always loved these "feat. [blank]" parts of songs because they're always the most inspired parts of songs. You can see someone off on their own — maybe in the shower, maybe on a run somewhere, maybe waiting on a cold subway platform — sort of humming some line. Maybe it's accidentally stolen from somewhere, in part or in full, but it's always really inspired. And then they get into the studio and the magic happens.

I always picture that scene in Hustle & Flow where Terrence Howard is hassling Taraji P. Henson about singing with more feeling when she is laying down the "feat." line for "It's Hard Out There For A Pimp." I want to think that Jay-Z had to do the same thing with Alicia Keys, and when Alicia Keys let that "of" slip, maybe Jay-Z kind of shrugged and reasoned that the track still sounded good — even if it would make Philip B. Corbett cry.

But that part of the song still sticks out for me. It used to be that dreams were made of something. Actually, dreams were made on something, as in: "We are such stuff/As dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep." (Apparently Humphrey Bogart made dreams of something in The Maltese Falcon — ever since then, dreams seem to be made of stuff.)

The Human League made dreams of stuff — love and adventure, cash to spend, love and affection, two or three friends. Carly Simon made dreams of stuff — slow and steady fires, your heart and soul's desire. Hillary Duff made dreams of stuff — somewhere she belongs and somebody to love. Even Eurythmics at least made dreams of "this," but at least "this" was something. And then we get to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, who are content to just let dreams hang there waiting for someone to ask "of what?"

The "feat. Alicia Keys" portion actually reminds me of a middle-school acrostic:

New York!
Everybody's favorite concrete jungle!
Where dreams are made of! There's nothing
You can't do!
Oh, now you're in New York!
Running these streets will make you feel brand new!
Krazy lights will inspire you — let's hear it for New York!

So as you settle into the sofa on Wednesday night to watch that big Cliff Lee-Tim Lincecum matchup (no sarcasm, either — that's a great matchup) you can rest easy knowing that Fox won't have to hit Jay-Z's tip jar one more time for one of those panoramic blimp shots of Yankee Stadium.

In New York — tiny things you can be happy of! The Yankees won't be there! No baseball in New York! New York! New York!

Posted: October 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Jukebox, Songwriting | Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Gift Down Below

Slightest pal The Threshold passed along this link about the latest Kings of Leon album "dropping" ("dropping" being a term long associated with the band) that contains this bombastic nugget:

"I hate fucking hipsters. Everyone talks about indie this and indie that, but would you really want to be one of those indie bands that makes two albums and disappears? That's just sad . . . When we signed on with our manager, we all said we wanted to have a box-set career. We'll gladly be the next generation of bands that aren't going anywhere."

Set aside the snipe at "hipsters" for a minute — because if hipsters didn't exist, entities like Kings of Leon would have to invent them. What really stuck out is the Clinton-esque "place in history" notion of a box-set career. Maybe I'm being too Andy Rooney here, but since when did "rock bands" look forward to a box-set career? Maybe it's Rolling Stone's fault. Maybe it's LeBron's fault. Maybe it's a lot of things' fault that don't immediately and conveniently roll off the tongue, but the notion of a band positioning itself in advance to look forward to its induction into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame seems a little . . . unseemly.

That's all OK though — we all like to dream. Who hasn't hit the game-winning free throw in his or her driveway? Who hasn't already composed his or her own Oscar acceptance speech? But if the Kings of Leon ever put out a box set, I hope they call it "Gift Down Below: Best Of KoL, 1999-2014" (2014 seems like a pretty good time to go out on top, no?).

Why "Gift Down Below"?

Threshold is an inveterate KoL fan. Maybe it's the soaring hooks. Maybe it's the ruggedly good looks. Maybe it's just the skinny jeans. But one song on the band's 2008 album Only by the Night stuck out like a sore thumb for her, and it wasn't the absurdly dopey "Sex on Fire" (incidentally, also one of Jayson Werth's walk-up songs last season). It's "I Want You," track 9 — one of those box-set omissions that sort of fill up the last quarter of an album.

Threshold noticed some strange lyrics about two-thirds of the way through the song, and upon further review, determined that these were the lines:

Homeboy's so proud — he finally got the video proof
The night vision shows she was only ducking the truth
It's heavy I know — black guy with a gift down below
A choke and a gag — she spit up and came back for more

Well, OK then! This verse fueled a long car-ride parsing the possible meaning. First we wanted to know who actually writes that kind of lyric. Some of us allowed that maybe he was a storyteller kind of, you know, creating a character or something and eventually we reached a sort of consensus — "I Want You" was a small-town tale of thwarted teenage love, sort of Norman Rockwell meets Cheaters.

And yet. And yet. There's still that lyric.

Now YouTube is good for many things, not least of which being Kings of Leon covers played by enthusiastic amateurs. A year ago I found a bunch of covers "I Want You," including one by a young woman who could barely bring herself to sing that last verse. She has since taken down the video. Another, however — sung by a duo for whom English does not appear to be their first language — persists online (the verse comes in at about 2:30):

This is the band itself playing the song live in 2008 (again, the verse comes in at about 2:30):

Like I said, weird. Weird that lead singer Caleb Followill doesn't really flinch when he sings those lines.

So, "place in history" — the confounding thing about worrying about one's place in history — especially in pop music — is that people are so often wrong about it. Yes, there have been some wonderful reappreciations of bands over the years, but the kind of stuff that would make the Hall of Fame seems kind of catch-as-catch-can.

One of my favorite examples is Bob Seger, or at least New York Times critic John Rockwell's perceptions of Bob Seger way back when. Today, Seger is probably best known for single-handedly, self-consciously jumpstarting the classic rock genre — "Old Time Rock and Roll" is as curmudgeonly as it gets, and it's 1978 release year seems a little premature (Caleb Followill, just so you know, was born in 1982) to be perseverating on existential threats to the genre.

Anyway, Rockwell, who last served at the Times as its dance critic, acknowledged in his December 26, 1976 year-end rock music wrapup (.pdf at the link) that "[t]he most interesting of all the trends one could discern was the growing, world-wide interest in 'punk rock.'" And while there were some examples he picks out that turned out to look fairly good in retrospect, he kind of misses the boat in general:

New York's punk-rockers tend to be mixed up with a self-conscious conceptual artiness (Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Ramones) which has its genuine charms but which sometimes takes the music and the image rather far from punk primitivism. Closer really to the true punk-rock spirit are such midwestern perennials as Bob Seger, who himself made an appealing bid for a nationwide appreciation with a fine live album and an even finer studio album in 1976.

The Future Of The Kingdom

So where does that leave us? Brother Michael insists that Kings of Leon are the Eddie Money of this generation. I appreciate that but I think that they're really more like .38 Special (think "Hold On Loosely"). This may sound like nitpicking, but I'm less interested in bands that work with talented producers than I am fascinated by bands that have their own unique take on their sound — perhaps you could sneer at the latter with a slur like "indie".

Let's investigate "Use Somebody," the band's best-known hit. It's well crafted in the way that Hillary Duff's "Come Clean" is well crafted, but there's something that leaves me cold about the song — that and the concept of "using someone like you" reminds me of George Peppard assembling the A-Team.

Threshold also recently passed along this compendium of "Use Somebody" covers, some of which are just astonishing. The Paramore cover snowed many smart people but the best of the bunch seems to be the Nickelback version:

Chad Kroeger turns the gain up so much on the three stories of amplifiers — dig that chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk! guitar sound — that it sucks any "subtlety" right out of the song — he does yeoman's work in splitting the thing open and exposing it for the fluff it is . . .

Don't get me wrong, I'll gladly purchase the future Kings of Leon box set for all manner of loved ones — but just as long as their producers comply with my title request, and just as long as "I Want You" is the first track on disc three.

Posted: October 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: FW: Link | Tags: , ,