No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
 |  Aleba Gartner and Phil Kline

Mussorgsky’s last great work is the four-song cycle Songs and Dances of Death, written in the years 1875-77, when he was in serious decline. He would be able to write only a few more songs (one of them the Chaliapin favorite “Song of the Flea”) before his death in 1881. Songs and Dances, like his other great cycle Sunless, were written to poems of Mussorgsky’s friend and distant cousin Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov. Each of the poems presents us with a realistic situation of individuals in extremis–an infant, a young woman, an old drunk lost in a snowstorm, soldiers on the battlefield–and adds death in human form as a charismatic and seductive catalyst.




 |  Aleba Gartner and Phil Kline

All the dark and stormy Sinead stories aside, her voice is something exquisite—and I think never more so than on the album Universal Mother. This was her fourth album, and she dedicated it to her son who was 6 or 7 at the time. The album as a whole hit me hard when it came out more than 20 years ago—it’s an almost painfully beautiful account of motherhood (I remember giving it to my own mother, who had it on rotation in her car for years). Sinead’s voice is at its most bare and exposed, her Irish accent on display with those breathy t’s and r’s (how can a “t” be breathy? with Sinead they are).




 |  Aleba Gartner and Phil Kline

Scott Walker became famous in the 1960s as the front man of the English pop band The Walker Brothers (biggest hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,”) none of whom were English, brothers, or named Walker. So it’s fitting that, long after the band’s demise, this relatively vanilla baritone crooner should reemerge as something more enigmatic, dark, and disturbing. As one critic said it was like “Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen.”




 |  Jamie Bernstein

Our final Fagen song this week is from his astonishing solo album Kamakiriad. It’s a concept album: a long, shaggy, sci-fi romp in a futuristic car. The songs have a loose, funky, jiggly joy that make this album perfect on a long car trip, or when you’re cleaning the house. I love it with an unseemly passion.




 |  Jamie Bernstein

This wasn’t the first cut on the Gaucho album to speak to me; it took me a while to warm up to it. It is, in fact, not exactly a warm song. But suddenly I couldn’t get enough of it. It’s understated, boppy, and subtle as hell. The lyrics, like so many of Fagen’s, sit like veritable pashas in their bed of melody:




 |  Jamie Bernstein

From the opening upbeat, we know we’re in a warm bath. That beautiful saxophone, that long-limbed tempo, the sweet unabashed major chords – pure sunlight. When I first heard it, I was driving at night through the oil fields of western Oklahoma, picking up some faraway station in that random way that happens at night. I felt I’d been transported to some new, glistening planet.




 |  Jamie Bernstein

I couldn’t resist including this truly odd song from Pretzel Logic. It’s very short. One of the reasons it’s so short is that each of the three verses is one line long. Why did Fagen do that?! It makes me laugh every time – as if he were really so very irritated with his friend Buzz that he doesn’t even have the patience to explain; he has to hurl himself back into that catchy chorus: he’s just so through with Buzz, goddammit!




 |  Jamie Bernstein

Steely Dan. The sound track of my 20’s. What a band. It’s really all about guitarist Walter Becker and keyboard/vocalist Donald Fagen. But if you push me against the wall, not terribly hard, I’ll say it’s really all about Donald Fagen. What a composer, what a lyricist. He was actually writing art songs all along: art songs disguised as West Coast rock, country western, low-down blues, smooth LA grooves, and funk funk funk.