This week’s Confessions column is a special edition. Special in that it has taken far too long to get a new installment written, and special in that there is a guest writer helping me with this week’s album. Boys and girls, say hello to Mark Saleski.
It is appropriate that Saleski join me in this week’s installment because he has welcomed me to be a part of his Friday Morning Listen and because he is directly responsible for my being in possession of the album we are going to discuss.
He wrote a magnificent review of “One Man Wrecking Machine,” the first single from Guster’s Ganging Up on the Sun. I loved the review and was intrigued by his description of the song. I was not the only one who noticed this review. An editor for American Songwriter noticed it and commissioned him to write a Guster article for the magazine (it’s in stores now, go buy 10 or 12 issues — it’s the one with Jewel on the cover).
Saleski is a man of many contacts, he is sneaky powerful, and managed to get me on the same mailing list he is on. Last Monday, a package containing two CDs arrived in the mail. One was Madonna’s new live CD/DVD. The other was Ganging Up on the Sun. I was clearly more interested in the Guster. I am pretty sure the same can be said for Saleski.
If I were a representative of Reprise records, Guster’s label, I would call a staff meeting and I would give them the Glengarry Glen Ross speech. I would tell every rep in the room I am going to kill and then punish if “One Man Wrecking Machine” is not a Top 10 single on every college rock station in America and if it does not reach the Top 40 on the Billboard pop charts.
That is how good this song is. That is how much I believe in this song. That is how much I want every person to be able to hear it. That is the great shame in the state of radio today. That is the maximum number of sentences I want to begin with the word “that.”
“One Man Wrecking Machine” combines a great story and a universal theme and bathes them in great songcraft to create a catchy song with something to say. It is sad we have lowered our expectations to the point where a song like this is the exception and not the rule. The kids would probably like it but this, sort of like the Glen Phillips record of the last installment, is pop music for grown ups. This song will minister to you if you are far enough removed from high school to have some insight as to what has gone right and, more importantly, wrong since then.
I cannot imagine a better lyric will be penned this year.
It’s true. I heard “One Man Wrecking Machine” and had one of those moments where it seemed like the rest of the world fell away for a time. Great music does that to me. It triggers a sort of unexplainable resonation.
When I spoke to Guster’s Ryan Miller, we tossed this idea around a little and came to a fairly decent description for this phenomenon: when you first hear a melody or chorus and that musical fragment seems both familiar and entirely new. It’s a weird thing. For me, the melody of “One Man Wrecking Machine” made absolutely perfect sense, as if it couldn’t have sounded any other way.
And here’s some even better news, the rest of this record contains many more “new classics.”
As much as I love “One Man Wrecking Machine,” I think the masterpiece of the album is “Ruby Falls.” I am still trying to figure out how this one got left off Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Maybe it is because Elton John and Bernie Taupin did not write it. They could have. They should have. What a terrific song.
Ryan Miller’s vocals soar the way Sir Elton’s used to in the ’70s when he was famous for his music.
Leave it to my filth-obsessed mind to turn the song’s structure into something sexual. When I listen to it, though, it does make sense. Gentle vocal and a slight, electric guitar figure is the clothed kissing. Some organ is added 30 seconds in — we’re getting a little more serious about this and the clothes are being flung at the cats to get them to leave the room. (Who can make love in front of their pets? Seriously.)
One minute in, the full ensemble is added in the form of bass, drum, and an electric guitar with a little more heft. Copulation has commenced. There is even some screeching guitar and keyboard along the way so it sounds like we are having a good time.
The song climaxes into a glorious eruption of harmonies and then it takes a deep breath. Playing the character of afterglow and the essential post-coital smoke is a wonderful muted trumpet. This use of trumpet is brilliant, giving the song a touch of Sinatra-like cool and class.
A lot more class than my description, I suppose. “Ruby Falls” is an amazing piece of songcraft and it probably deserves a classier description than what I just gave it. Help me out, Saleski. What do you think of “Ruby Falls?”
Not being a lyrics guy, I find the words to “Ruby Falls” to be somewhat opaque. Not an unusual thing for me, really. So what happens is that I end up experiencing things completely outside of the writer’s context, sort of like paging through a poetry anthology and reading random pairs of lines. What does “the afterlife is all in the end/the afterlife is ours in the end” mean inside of the song? I have no idea. It surely means something to me.
But…the meaning is secondary to the gorgeous music. Beginning slowly and pensively and then expanding out in an explosion of electric guitar, “Ruby Falls” rocks along but does not telegraph what’s to come. And what might that be? The section you describe as “post-coital” pulls in Guster’s love of both vocal harmony and inner detail, what with the backing voice of Melissa Mathes. When that sweet trumpet solo is winding the song down, it’s a little reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig In The Sky” pulled back a few notches.
This band’s focus on melody is what seems to grab me every time. I’m now thinking of the chorus to “Dear Valentine”. The melody is again instantly recognizable and the vocal layering turns the song into an instant anthem. You can just imagine it in concert as the set-closer.
Yes, excellent! I am only occasionally a lyrics guy. Over time, the words will seep into my head but “Ruby Falls” sounds so amazing I find myself not particularly interested in learning them straight away. You make a good point, too, about not telegraphing their moves. The unexpected nature of the sonic journey through “Ruby Falls” is stunning.
I am so happy you bring up “Dear Valentine.” That is perhaps my third favorite song on this album. The chorus reminds me of something you brought up when we were discussing “One Man Wrecking Machine.” These harmonies have always been here yet they still sound vital and new. “Dear Valentine” is pure pop and it is those harmonies that elevate this song to being something special. This is another one that, given the chance, could do well on radio. And again with the trumpet. A marvelous pop song.
What amazes me about all of these tunes, and I suppose Guster in general, is that the melodies drive the rest of the song construction. When asked which activity got the songwriting ball going, words or music, both Ryan and Adam replied “Music!” without hesitation. A melody, chord progression or other musical bit is fleshed out to a full song, then lyrics are written. The result seem effortless to me. Surely the words, phrases and sentences have their own musicality, but in the case of a well-crafted pop song the marriage of the two worlds, it would seem that there might be a chance for a collision. Not here.
So when I listen to a song like “The Captain”, I can’t imagine those words and that melody existing outside of the song. A neat trick, I think.
You make a good point. “The Captain” is one that had to grow on me and by that I mean I had to hear it a second time. The rockabilly music and the (I know this is getting repetitive) harmonies sold me on this one. Back to your point, I am often amazed by the way Radiohead treats Thom Yorke’s voice as just one more powerful instrument to use in the construction of a song and the lyrics just one more layer beyond that.
Take a song like “Manifest Destiny.” The whimsical, galloping piano just would not sound right with any other words even though the words were afterthoughts. Then, just when you think you have the song figured out, these beautiful, Beach Boys-esque harmonies erupt towards the end of the song. I swear I hear Carl Wilson when I listen to it.
People use the phrase “arts and crafts” like they are two separate things and I guess they sometimes can be. That said, and I know there are exceptions, art needs craftsmanship and craftsmanship is a lot more exciting when there is some artistry added to it. That is what Guster has done so well on Ganging Up on the Sun.
I can almost agree with your last sentiment. The one counterexample that comes to mind is more “blunt” (for lack of a better word) music like what The Ramones did. I don’t know what the origin of the following is, but it always makes me laugh: Fuck Art, Let’s Dance! What’s interesting is that for me, songs as completely different as “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “One Man Wrecking Machine” can draw out the same response in me…a kind of emotional swelling.
This all points to the fact that there’s something universal lurking in a great pop tune — and though we’ve been trying to describe it, I don’t know that we can really get there.
To your first point, The Ramones made compact, sturdy songs with catchy pop hooks — tell me that is not art and craft. They might not be in equal measure and no one says they must be. I contend both art and craft are present. They might not be highbrow or ornate but those are some well-crafted pop songs. I win!
It is not easy to bring this discussion to a close because it feels like there is still a lot to say — we have been yammering on for 1,700 words and have not even touched upon half of the album! Even if we did continue this long enough for me to tell you how much I like “Empire State” or that I think “C’mon” is a lot of fun or that “Satellite” was probably the first song that caught my attention when I listened to this album it would not be enough. If I did that I would have to stand aside for you to respond or to go off in another direction entirely which would cause me to go back and listen some more and then I would find something else and…
I would still feel like there is more to say.