Saturday, July 8, 2017

Grace Notes

I’ve been traveling, ostensibly vacationing, but not immune to a few random musical observations about songs that have shuffled themselves forward up on the old iPod in the leisure hours. A sampling:

“Many a New Day” Good Lord, what a great song. I’ve always loved it, tucked neatly in the middle of a score not short on lovable tunes. It's a perfect iteration of the kiss-off-for-now song (later varied but not improved by the likes of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and “I’m Not at All in Love”), with a melody that’s somehow both flirtatiously trilly as well as broad-shouldered and matter-of-fact--both feminine and feminist, if you will. (I’ve also always adored the characteristically Hammerstein-ian bluntness and specificity of “I’ll scrub my neck and I’ll brush my hair.”)

But my ears perked up anew on a recent listen at the key trick of its lyric--“trick” might be too strong a word, as it’s laying there in plain sight, in the song’s title. The sleight of hand all these go-away-but-not-too-far songs have to pull off--much like their cousin, the I’m-not-in-love-with-you-yet song (“I’ll Know,” “If I Loved You,” or this score's “People Will Say We’re in Love”)--is to have it both ways, to give us the satisfaction of a breakup and the anticipation of a reunion (and, in this paradox, the pleasure of secret knowledge, something we know that the characters don't quite). And that’s where “Many a New Day” handily aces the form: While Laurie uses “never” all too freely (“Never have I once looked back to sigh,” “Never gonna think that the man I love/Is the only man among men”), her thesis statement blunts that finality: “Many a new day will dawn before I do,” i.e., weep over a man to come back. So it’s just a matter of time, then? We’re happy to wait, Laurey.

“On a Night Like This” I’d always liked this spirited Dylan pop number, but hearing it again today it hit me why: With its sprightly zydeco beat and a lyric so tender, convincingly joyous, and deceptively simple, so perfectly set and framed--each rhyme of “this” is teed up beautifully, as the scene-setting builds verse by verse, and he pulls off that old-school move of starting and ending the chorus with the title--it’s a bracing reminder that dammit, Dylan can be as good a light-music tunesmith as anyone ever when he wants to be.

“Lying” Sometimes one note can make a song. Case in point: In this sly bit of double-negative shade for pop-culture happy talk, Sam Phillips (and her producer, then-husband T-Bone Burnett) get many things right (including having their pal Elvis Costello play his guitar with pencils), but none more so than the last note of each chorus line, where she lets the “ing” of the title slip from the reassuring root note of its underlying chord into a memorably jarring major-7th interval (in this case, a C# over a D chord). This insistent little fly in the ointment, this crack in the facade, nicely undercuts any trace elements of preachiness (much as a similar major-7th on the last note of the chorus of Lily Allen’s “Smile,” come to think of it, lightly defuses that song’s gleeful effrontery).

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