James McMurtry’s “Childish Things” from Ben Fisher’s Point of View

About a month ago, I put out an APB for any songwriter willing to write a little piece about their favorite album and Ben Fisher beckoned to the call. Now, y’all know I love Ben Fisher. He’s the hardest-busking busker in Seattle and I feel privileged that he took the time to write a guest post for CFM. So, without further interruption, here is James McMurtry’s Childish Things from Ben Fisher’s point of view…

If, during your formative years your dad is a novelist, your mom is an English professor, and Charles Bukowski stays at your house when he come through town, you’re likely going to do one of two things. You’re either going to rebel and decide you’ve had enough of the English language and become a gym teacher or insurance salesman, or you’re going to embrace your literary upbringing and do something with it. Luckily for me and many of his other fans, James McMurtry decided to be a songwriter.

My favorite album of his is 2005’s “Childish Things,” which I found one day in my dad’s car. It features some of his best songwriting and storytelling and is a wonderful collection of songs about small town America, about family gatherings and the exodus that occurs afterwards, and about the holidays we celebrate as a nation.

The man is a genius with a pen and one of my friends calls his music the “pinnacle of intelligentsia-rock.” For example, he’s got the uncanny ability to give you a perfect picture of a person in just a sentence. Take the title track of “Childish Things”; the first line is “Aunt Clara kept her Bible right next to the phone in case she needed a quote while she talked to someone”.

Clara probably wears floral print dresses, definitely spends her Sunday mornings in church and is more than likely a little judgmental. McMurtry’s ability to give so much of a backstory with one lyric is something other songwriters would kill for. He could stop there, fill the rest of the song with mediocre lines and I’d still consider it a success, but he continues to showcase his talent in the song’s refrain, which expands on Aunt Clara. “She says I’ll grow up big if I eat all my roast, I’ll still believe in heaven but I won’t believe in ghosts anymore.” Throughout the song he traces images of his childhood (“visions of freeze tag dance in my head”), and by the time he’s grown, he sings “I’m 47 years old now and man I don’t care. All I want now is a comfortable chair, and to sell all my stock and live on the coast. I don’t believe in heaven but I still believe in ghosts.” It’s a beautiful song with a literary progression that recalls his father’s profession.

Also on the album is McMurtry’s biggest hit and what I consider to be the finest protest song written in the 21st century, “We Can’t Make It Here.” Each line punches you in the gut harder than the last, and makes you wonder how on earth this song about social inequality is even more relevant today than it was when it was written 6 years ago.

When McMurtry comes to town, he plays the Tractor Tavern, where up and coming local folk singers play gigs as well, and inexplicably, he doesn’t fill it. He rides in a van from town to town, hauling his gear into rooms that will become half full at best that night. He takes pictures and fishes along the way. It would be a horribly depressing existence if his music wasn’t so damn good. And because it is, I think it’s a noble undertaking. His mildly monotone voice may put some people off, but if given the chance, go see this man live. He’ll probably play a few tracks off his 2005 release that I’ve listened to countless times. I think you’ll enjoy them.
James McMurtry performing “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” on the web TV show “Corporate Country Sucks”

Ben Fisher’s Bandcamp, Twitter, Facebook
James McMurtry’s Website, Twitter, Facebook
Purchase Childish Things

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Moondance from a Songwriter’s Point of View

Andrew Smentkowski continues Common Folk Music’s series on songwriters talking about their favorite albums.

If you grew up in the 70s, your main portal for new music was likely an AM radio. Forget whatever you heard about the golden days of radio (just pray that they’re still to come) because even back then, radio was repetitive and bland. Consequently, many of us from that era grew up with an unwarranted prejudice towards many great songwriters: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and of course, Van Morrison with that godforsaken played-at-every-wedding-reception-throughout-time song, “Brown Eyed Girl.”

It wasn’t until the early 90’s that I began to give those AM radio musicians a second chance, thanks to a girl with much better musical tastes than my own. She started me out on a steady diet of Neil Young and then introduced me to Van Morrison’s Moondance.

I thought about choosing Neil Young’s Harvest for this feature. It really is one of my favorite albums. But Harvest is like the crowning jewel of what country, folk, and rock can be. To me, it is perfection and writing about perfection is just too hard. You’re better off just listening to the album itself.

Moondance, on the other hand, was a first. Recorded in 1969 and released in February of 1970, it was the kind of conglomeration that was still permissible in the late 60’s. With its mix of styles — folk, country, jazz, soul, rock, etc. — it felt more like an opening for future bands to pass through rather than a bar to jump over.

When I first heard Moondance in its entirety, it made me feel different than anything else I was listening to at the time. Christ, it even made me feel good. Not just that “Let’s party!” kind of good but the kind of good that comes after a long time of not feeling good at all. Perhaps it was too many adolescent years of listening to The Smiths, but this was balm for my sadsack soul, right from the opening track, “And It Stoned Me.”

Then the rain let up and the sun came up
And we were gettin’ dry
Almost let a pick-up truck nearly pass us by
So we jumped right in and the driver grinned
And he dropped us up the road
We looked at the swim and we jumped right in
Not to mention fishing poles

Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Let it run all over me

Song number two is the title track, “Moondance,” with its jazzy 50’s sound and sexy lyrics that are delivered in a style somewhere between Dean Martin and Allen Ginsberg. Next, “Crazy Love” comes on with Motown-style backup singers oh-ohing over folky guitar lines. “Caravan,” is where the album really starts to build, adding in more soul elements like horns and the James Brown-style shout outs: “If you would, turn it up. Turn it up. Little bit higher. Radio. Turn it up. Turn it up. So you know, radio.”

Before I discuss the last track on Side One, “Into The Mystic,” I want to back up a decade. Prior to the 60’s, country music was able to do many things well. It was an expert at conveying loneliness, heartbreak and even humor. One thing that didn’t come naturally to country, however, was conveying the ecstatic. Perhaps there just weren’t many mystics back when country music was taking hold of humanity. Or, maybe life was just too harsh in America to dream that big.

Then came the hippies: Jefferson Airplane, The Holy Modal Rounders, The Fugs, Country Joe and The Fish, The Byrds, and so many more. Those folks did a lot for country music. They dressed it up in paisley, stuck a paper tab on its tongue, populated it with a bunch of weirdos, and have been giggling about it ever since. Good for them. Country needed it.

“Into The Mystic,” though, was a step above and beyond what other psych-folk bands had achieved due to Van Morrison’s infusion of soul into the country genre. Before soul met country, singers were only allowed to be emotional if they were victims of some misfortune. You could cry, but only in your beer. And you could feel love, but only if it had no chance of budding. Van Morrison blew past those confines, liberating a new realm of the human experience. More importantly, he made it okay for country music to create new possibilities, not just react to life. Country music no longer had to be real to be authentic. And nothing is more unreal and authentic than “Into The Mystic.”

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailor’s cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic

And when the fog horn blows I will be coming home
And when the fog horn blows I want to hear it
I don’t have to fear it
I want to rock your gypsy soul
Just like in the days of old
Then magnificently we will float into the mystic

Side Two of Moondance is great too. But after “Into The Mystic,” it just seems kind of postcoital. And that may be the downfall of the album: it crested too early. At the same time, I’m thankful for that. The pinnacle of country ecstasy is still waiting to be made.

“Yeah,” Spoon is “Alright”: Gimme Fiction from a Songwriter’s Point of View

So, I asked local songwriter and friend, John Radcliff, to contribute a piece on his favorite artist/songwriter and one of their albums, and this is what he wrote…

I was asked to write about my favorite artist/songwriter. To take my favorite album by that artist and examine it from a songwriter’s point of view. Like a lot of people (I think), favorites are always a shifting target. But having said that, I keep coming back to Spoon. They first appeared on my radar about the time Series of Sneaks came out. There was just something about their sound that I gravitated to immediately. So like any good music lover, I dove in head first to listen to everything I could get my hands on. And as the years passed, it was the one band I KNEW exactly when their next recording was coming out. I had my order placed before the release date so I wouldn’t have to go one second longer than necessary before hearing it.

The funny thing to me is that I haven’t liked any of the albums by Spoon on the first listen since I started doing this. I think it’s because none of their albums have matched the raw grittiness of Telephono or Series of Sneaks. (A little background) After Series came out, Spoon was dropped by Electra almost immediately. I guess it signaled to them that they needed to go in another direction. Subsequently, their sound became more Lo-Fi and less guitar driven. Like I said above, I was not a fan of this new direction. Not immediately, anyway. But the more I listened to each new album the more I loved each one.

The best example of this, and my favorite album by Spoon that I want to examine is Gimme Fiction. Because just like you’d expect, given what I said above, I hated this one the most on the first listen. I really was beside myself thinking this was the end of me and Spoon. I couldn’t even listen to one song all the way through. But just like every other one, I eventually got over not hearing a wall of guitars and I found that I really liked these songs. And the more I came to really appreciate Britt Daniel as a songwriter.

What I like about Britt Daniel is that he crafts songs that are simple in origin but so complex in delivery. What I mean by that is that the chord progressions aren’t anything mind blowing by themselves. But they require a discipline to undersell themselves until it’s time to deliver the hook. As a songwriter, you are told time and time again to get to the hook or a hook by the first minute of a song. That is, if you want the song to be easily accepted. Britt doesn’t introduce the hook until the 2:30 mark of the opening song, “The Beast and Dragon, Adored.” I’m left with this feeling of anticipation through the first 2:30 of the song. Waiting, almost begging for a resolution that ties everything together. When it hits, and then seamlessly slips back into the verse but with an added offset vocal pattern, I just have to throw my hands up and surrender to the uniqueness of my favorite songwriter.

What I like and what I do as a songwriter are two completely different things. I guess my goal has always been to remind you of a lot of artist, but no one artist in particular. But there are things Britt does that have found their way into my songwriting process. He uses the word “alright” in seemingly every song. It’s not that he finds a way to work it into every song, but he uses it as a space filler or segue. The way he uses it, the word doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just a means to get to the next thing. My uninspired, but still very useful word is, “yeah.” I suppose a lot of artist have their “it” word that they use. But it’s something I’m not always conscious of. It just happens.

Lyrically, I write a lot of songs from the perspective of always being on the outside looking in. More because of a personal sense of frustration with communicating with most people, rather than from just being an observer. It’s also an underlying theme of Britt’s songs. Particularly on this album. I’d love to sit down with him and compare where our sense of being on the outside comes from.

A couple of quick examples:

From the “Delicate Place”:

“I got nothing you got something.

I feel out of place.

Looking through your window into that delicate place.”

From “Sister Jack”:

“Always on the outside always looking in”

From “They Never Got You”:

“You, when you were coming up

did you think everyone knew

something unclear to you

and when you were thrown in a crowd

could you believe yourself

cause no one would hear

and just say it again

cause they never got you and you never got them”

Songwriting for me starts with the guitar. Every once in a while the words come first. But most of the time it’s about a chord or a riff that awakens my muse. It’s not so much words that come next as it is a vocal pattern. Britt occasionally plays the keys, but he’s mostly a guitar player. When I watch this video for “I Summon You,” I can almost see him doing that. Just humming along the vocal pattern with that chord progression.

Weight of the world. We all feel that sometimes. Don’t we?

I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about all the time when I listen to “Sister Jack.” But I feel it. I remember writing a song with almost the same chord structure and tempo shortly after this song came out. But mine was about a crazy neighbor and how he would suck the life out of you just by being there. I don’t ever purposely steal anyone’s music, but when it happened I started to realize where these things come from and what it meant to be influenced. It was totally by osmosis. I was always kind of proud of that even though I’m not proud of the song I wrote. It had it’s moments, but I haven’t played it in years. Anyway, this one seemed to stick pretty good.

The more I write on this and watch videos, I really start to hate the guy. Hehehe! Not really, just admire what he does. I’m also very motivated to try to do some songs like these. Just in the sense that I would have one that drug on. But that so much was going, you really don’t care because it keeps your interest. “They Never Go You” is a good example. He just gives himself a long time to sing through the verses. Lots of little quirky things on the album version that you don’t hear here. But, keeping you in anticipation of the chorus and the release of all that energy and the advise that goes against everything he talks about in the verse.

I’ve found myself doing that before and since I started listening to Spoon. Just something to remind myself that there’s another side to that coin. That’s what I think he’s doing here. Talking to himself. In his case, he’s telling how to build up a wall to keep people or a person from hurting him. As he switches to the first person, it’s kind of his way of saying , I’ve been there.

I’m not really sure I’ve convinced you of this album’s greatness as much as I’ve told you how it speaks to me. If you really need convincing, take this song and put it in your car stereo and turn it up to eleven. It helps to be on a straight stretch of country highway when it kicks in. Trust me.

— John Radcliff

Spoon’s Website

Purchase Gimme Fiction