Here’s to that deepest, most fleeting of pleasures – the Vermont fall. Yesterday there was that first September chill in the air. It’s inevitable in New England – the only question is when, not if, it will come. It always sends my thoughts back to childhood – playing soccer, carving pumpkins… all the real and imagined nostalgia the limbic system can conjure. Here are some tracks, old and new, I thought of during that first crisp breeze:
The last song on Bon Iver’s recently released self-titled album, “Beth / Rest,” was often cited by fans as the least effective track on the LP. While I didn’t detest it quite as much as others did, I’ll admit to finding it a bit too Billy Joel, in his “River Of Dreams” days, for my taste. The play count on that one is significantly lower than the others. Thankfully, Vernon seemed to hear the fansphere’s prayers, and released a solo piano version on NPR’s excellent World Cafe program. Both the song and the broadcast are excellent – I have it bookmarked – and once I get the new “Beth / Rest” into my library, it’s going to replace the electronic version.
Then you have M83′s “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire,” off their recently released LP, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. The whole “little tyke’s voice saying stereotypically childlike sound bytes” is a dangerous bet – it doesn’t entirely work here – but the dreamy electronic music in the background, and the fact that it’s just not corny enough to turn me off make the song actually appealing.
I can’t imagine making a list of nostalgic fall songs without including the Grateful Dead’s “Jack Straw.” From the iconic, two voice harmony beginning vocal line, “We can share the women, we can share the wine,” to the sweeping strummed guitar, it’s a true classic in a quintessentially American sense. I can’t imagine this song being written about anything other than crossing from one end of the US to another, lost and drifting. And there’s the sense that this song is as much about the imagery our memories conjure – conveyed perhaps more effectively here than any of their other ballads.
Leavin’ Texas, fourth day of July,
Sun so hot, the clouds so low, the eagles filled the sky.
Catch the detroit lightnin out of sante fe,
The great northern out of cheyenne, from sea to shining sea.
The version off Europe ’72 is the best one – that album, as a matter of fact, is their best one as well. I won’t entertain any conflicting arguments.
In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was as much a fount of must-listen Americana and blues as it was an entertaining film, Chris Thomas King’s character – the man who sells his soul to the devil for the ability to play the guitar, well, like the devil – sits by a campfire and plays this song with the three main characters. If I could pick it as well as King could, I might do the very same thing by an October bonfire, which seems to be the most appropriate setting for this haunting, meditative blues ballad.
Van Morrison’s “Who Was That Masked Man” is off perhaps his bleakest, rawest album, Veedon Fleece. He wrote the songs just after his divorce from ex-wife Janet Rigsbee, when he went back to his native Ireland for inspiration. It’s got a more acoustic, traditionally Celtic feel – much more similar to Astral Weeks than Tupelo Honey or Moondance, both in tone and in orchestration. It’s a stripped-down, personal LP – one that he wrote entirely during the three weeks he spent in Ireland. Though Van Morrison did not often refer to it as one of his favorite works, it has been heralded by biographer Brian Hinton in Celtic Crossroads as a “forgotten masterpiece.”
I’ll end with one of Gilberto Gil’s most personal songs, “A Rua.” (“The Road”) Off his first album, Louvacão, “A Rua” recounts stories and vignettes from his childhood in the Bahian city of Salvador. Though most of the song lingers, there are several moments in which the tempo – and tone of the lyrics – shift, from soft to spirited and joyous. It’s a masterpiece of songwriting and one of my favorite Gilberto Gil songs. I don’t know if he’s ever been to Vermont, but this song very well could have been written about it. (Special thanks to Sabato of Sabatobox for the translation.)
Toda rua tem seu curso / Tem seu leito de água clara / Por onde passa a memória / Lembrando histórias de um tempo / Que não acaba
Every road has its course / Its bed of clear water / Where memories pass by / Remembering histories of a time / That never ends