Monday, February 13, 2012

Six Song Six-Pack - The Valentine's Day Edition

Does anyone actually LIKE Valentine's Day? Someone has to, right? Every year it approaches followed closely by groans and eye rolling, yet there it is on every TV show and coating every Walgreens candy aisle, seemingly stronger with with each iteration. How does that happen?

Some would say that it's merely the inexorable machinations of a capitalist system that demands seasonal grist for it's consumerist mill and they wouldn't be wrong, but I suspect there's more to it than that. February is a rough month, especially here in Chicago. It's cold, it's grey, the Bears are done and the Sox are not yet playing in Arizona. Given that the next holiday on the horizon is followed by forty days of fasting, it's fair to say that we could use a little psychic sustenance to pull us through. And what's better than l'amour to give succor to those suffering in the cold? Romantics get to gush over flowers, cynics get to look forward to some guarenteed lovin' and everyone else gets to mock it from afar.

That's why Valentine's Day survives, why we participate in its rituals even as we look down on them - we want something to celebrate in February, so we make the best of it. We buy the silly gifts and make restaurant reservations and put on our game faces and mark the occasion in one way or another. And if  there's an occasion to mark, you can bet your ass there's music to go with it. I'll spare you the generic love songs (aka, 95% of all popular music ever written) and focus on those specifically related to this mid-February fête in hopes that it makes your holiday even funkier (or more tolerable, depending on your perspective). 

1. Happy Valentine's Day - OutKast  Buy Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Indeed, if there ever were a song to prove the need for Valentine's Day music, then this would be it. André 3000 finally let his neo-Prince freak flag fly on his half of OutKast's 2003 double album, The Love Below and "Happy Valentine's Day" was one of the strongest results he produced. He starts the song off "I just wanna begin by saying 'Happy Valentine's Day'" as a thudding beat and funky electric guitar line come in behind him and he starts spinning perhaps the most badass love song ever written. You see Dré doesn't just want you to buy some of those chalky hearts and a box of Disney cards. He demands nothing less than your total acknowledgement of the awesome power of love. 3000 makes his case that the holiday of love should trump any Christmas or Easter silliness and, by the end of it, you're inclinded to agree with him. Cupid is his enforcer and you'd better believe he's packing heat. No player can outrun his amorous assassinship and will eventually be brought down - you know, by love.  

2. Valentine's Day - Bruce Springsteen  Buy Tunnel Of Love
Bruce Springsteen has many sides, but it's nice to know that for every commercial smash like Born In The U.S.A., he cranks out he's also got a challenging, heartfelt document like Tunnel Of Love close behind. A sometimes-jumbled document of the pains of super stardom and his collapsing marriage, it made people scratch their head upon its release in 1987 and has been underrated ever since. Despite its (justified) reputation as his breakup album, the closing song, "Valentine's Day" is as sweet and earned a love song as he ever wrote. It's a soft, swaying folk pop song about a relationship that's perhaps seen better days but is nonetheless strong and meaningful. Bruce is driving his car through the February blackness to get back to his woman. His friend just had a kid and it got him thinking about life and loneliness and what's really important. So he sings to his love about his hopes and fears as his car stirs up dead leaves by the roadside and he makes his way back to what he realizes is the only thing keeping him going.

3. Valentine, NE - Rachel Ries  Buy For You Only
Given that this is my third post featuring a song from Rachel Ries' For You Only, it's no secret that I'm a little infatuated with both her and this album. "Valentine, NE" highlights her love of the Midwestern prairie and need to escape the city for rural simplicity. Indeed, in this song she's leaving her "old Valentine" in Chicago for a new one, the Nebraska town to which she's singing.  Built around some cheery banjo strumming, simple drums and plain but affecting two-person harmonizing, the music itself seems to radiate rustic charm. Ries sings to Nebraska as if it were a person. She asks the town how its been and it does the same. She admits that "there's a man down Chicago way / thinking I'll be home by supper time / but he's no prairie, he ain't got no sky" so instead she flees the "concrete palace" for her home. Although you'll find no greater Chicago booster than Your Narrator, Ries' vision of country life is so charming and uplifting that it almost makes me want to make a road trip and give Nebraska another chance (almost). Whatever your feelings on city v. country living, you can't deny the appeal of this unconventional Valentine to a place that's just as important as any person in the singer's heart.

4. My Funny Valentine - Frank Sinatra  Buy Songs For Young Lovers
Call me old-fashioned, but I just can't imagine Valentine's songs without the corny humor and sweet crooning of Sinatra doing "My Funny Valentine". Sadly, this is a song that you'll never be able to actually play for your beloved  based on its lyrical content (unless perhaps you're doing it as a joke in reference to yourself, but even then it's iffy - come on, it's Valentine's Day, put your best foot forward!) but that doesn't mean you can't spin it on your own. It was written for the Broadway musical Babes In Arms (which also gave us Sinatra favorites "I Wish I Were In Love Again" and "The Lady Is A Tramp") and wasn't about the holiday, but was sung by Billie Smith to her beau, Val "Valentine" Lamar. Regardless of the origin, it has become a favorite hymn for all those whose love might not be a Platonic ideal but wins their hearts anyway. Sinatra's version is from his 1954 album Songs For Young Lovers, which was his first collaboration with Nelson Riddle and the two shine. It was one of the first "concept" albums and Riddle's orchestration punches up the song's romance with swelling strings and the occasional well-placed horn. Recorded bliss.

5. Valentine - The Replacements  Buy Pleased To Meet Me
Leave it to rock's anti-heroes to write the great Valentine's anti-love song. No one else captures the feeling of slogging through an unfulfilling love life in the midst of a cruel Midwestern winter quite like the 'Mats in this Pleased To Meet Me winner. Aping Billy Bragg's famous "wish on a space hardware" line from "A New England", Westerberg opens the song with the immortal prelude "when you wish upon a star / that turns into a plane..." He goes on to paint the picture of a girl he's longing for, out there in the wilds of dating looking (unsuccessfully) for love with anyone but him. Of course, the heartbroken but not-quite-defeated, romantic in Paul won't quite let him give up so instead he dreams. "If you were a pill, I'd take a handful at my will" he sings to her "and knock you back with something sweet and strong". It may not be "a rose by any other name" but as romantic statements go, its drunken honesty and directness can't be beat. A perfect antidote to syrupy love songs for February 14th.

6. Cupid [Sam Cooke] - Colin Meloy  Buy Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke
Now normally when given the choice between a good cover or a classic original, I'll take the classic every time. This time however, I'm going with the cover. Sam Cooke's "Cupid" was part of a string of monster pop singles that he released between his mainstream breakout in 1957 and his tragically premature death in 1964. I know that I grew up with these songs being in constant rotation on my parent's car tapes or Oldies 104.3 such that they were akin to sonic wallpaper to me - nice but rarely noticed. However, Cooke's fusion of early radio pop, soul and R&B was so masterful that it demands more than lip service. On his 2008 solo tour, Decemberists front-man Colin Meloy sold an EP featuring him covering five of Cooke's songs. "Cupid" perhaps is best-served by Meloy's acoustic-guitar treatment. By stripping away the zippy strings and sound effects, the pure beauty of the melody is allowed to shine through. Meloy sings as if he's chewing each word like a piece of rare steak and this treatment accentuates the easily-overlooked tenderness and depth of sentiment in the lyrics. Laura Graham's backing also lend the words sweetness lacking in Meloy's less-than-dulcet vocals. It's a loving reworking of a classic that brings out the orginal's genius and reminds us that Benjamin André can never go anywhere that Sam Cooke didn't first lead the way to. 

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