Friday, May 30, 2008

Music for the ADD generation?

The Eames Era--"Let Me Spin" (mp3)
The Sheds--"Smoke Me Tonight" (mp3)
Billy Bragg and Wilco--"Ingrid Bergman" (mp3)
The Capstan Shafts--"Hip To The Sweet Blue World Again" (mp3)

I loved Elvis Costello's Get Happy when it came out, and though I rarely listen to Elvis anymore, it remains my favorite of his albums to this day. It just has so many damn songs on it, and they keep coming at you like waves when you're in the water at high tide. You barely catch your breath and another one smacks into you.

I have a weakness for a really short song.

Pop music in miniature is such a beautiful thing because of the restrictions it puts on the artist. No intro, no fat, no pomposity, no extended solo, no repetition of the chorus over and over. Classic "shorties" range all the way from Springsteen's "Candy's Room" to Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" to the Monkee's "Steppin' Stone." But because these are radio-friendly hits, they push almost to the upper boundary.

A really short song, a genre I am creating right here right now, must clock in at less than (but not equal to) 2 and 1/2 minutes, though it preferably takes less than 2 minutes to "get r done." This may seem a bit long, but I have so many favorites that sneak over two minutes, that I wanted to allow a little leeway. But more than 149 seconds feels too long to me. So here are my criteria, however subjective they may seem:

1. the song lasts less than 2 and 1/2 minutes.

2. the song is a stand-alone song, not a transitional song in a rock opera or other thematic setting. For example, the Who's "Do You Think It's Alright" or Pink Floyd's "Goodbye, Cruel World" both qualify in terms of their brevity, but they lose both meaning and appeal out of context. Personally, though, because it tells the whole story, I think "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" qualifies.

3. the song must feel like a complete song, not an incomplete idea, not a snippet of something longer, not a reprise version of another song.

4. ideally, if #3 is accomplished, when you listen to the song, you don't realize how short it really is because it has done so much in so little time.

5. the song has vocals. As a lover of bluegrass and other guitar music, I could pull out numerous breakdowns, rags, and other instrumentals that are smart enough to only repeat their melodies three or four times to keep from getting boring, but these don't really fit the spirit of really short songs.

Some of the real genius efforts of the genre even stay under the one minute mark. Two of the songs above, Capstan Shafts' "Hip To The Sweet Blue World Again" and the Eames Era's "Let Me Spin" are particularly fine examples. Imagine that. A whole song. Less than a minute. Sixty seconds into "Stairway To Heaven," for example, we are only beginning to find out that "there's a lady who's sure all that glitters in gold."

If you think about it, there are bands who have mined really short song gold for virtually their whole oeuvre. Seminal underground punk band The Minutemen (hence the name) and surf rockers the Ventures, of "Walk Don't Run" fame both come to mind. And Elvis C. does like the short song.

It would be easy to think of the really short song as a novelty. I disagree. I see it as a perfect example of form fitting function. You say what you need to say and get out. Imagine if Joseph Conrad had tried to turn his masterful novella Heart of Darkness into a full-blown novel three or four times its length. Was it really necessary for Tommy James and the Shondells to repeat "Crimson and Clover/Over and Over" as many times as they did? I don't know. Maybe it added emotional weight to the song, if I knew what crimson and clover actually meant.

But I do know that sometimes less is more, and maybe music is the ideal medium to demonstrate that. If you have a favorite really short song, I'd appreciate knowing about it. I'm always looking to add to my Ipod playlist of really short songs.

The Eames Era, Billy Bragg and Wilco, and the Capstan Shafts are all available at Itunes. The Sheds are the best unsigned band in America.


Billy said...

I had no idea just how many songs I had in my iTunes that fit your description and kick butt. Might have to throw a few of my faves out there in support or something.

Bob said...

Post 'em, baby. Share the musical wealth.

John said...

Frank's Wild Years by Tom Waits is a gem, as well.

Bob said...

Forgot about old Waits:

"His wife was a used piece of spent jet trash, made a pretty good Bloody Mary, and generally kept her mouth shut."

--Tom Waits, "Frank's Wild Years"