Today usually finds me in a pretty lovey-dovey place. I tour less during winter and use the extra time to write new songs. By New Years, I’ve settled into a routine. By late January, I’ve got some songs on the hopper. By February 14, I (hopefully) have many songs in different stages of completion–some done, some begging to be. And because I’m one of those singer/songwriter types, they tend to be love songs.
So, Valentine’s Day usually finds me thinking about–and probably writing about–love. Take this song, written on February 14, 2010. The upside is that Love can be a nice place to live. The downside is that, if you’re like me, sometimes you need to break out.
And that’s when I listen to Amy LaVere.
Song of the Week: Amy LaVere, “You Can’t Keep Me“
“You Can’t Keep Me” is a ballsy declaration: it’s what would happen if a hostage suddenly began making demands. The song’s foundation–Dave Cousar’s sturdy, infectious guitar hook–sets an oddly cheerful tone. LaVere’s pitch-perfect vocals (holding steady while the other instruments build) balance nonchalance, defiance, humor, and urgency. When upbeat, emphatic drumming punctuates the refrain (“I’m stomping out of here/I hope the dishes rattle”), it sounds fun more than angry. The gorgeous horn counter-melodies (1:45, 2:42) are the icing on the cake, a well-earned catharsis, a sonic equivalent of breaking free into a great wide open. LaVere doesn’t negotiate her freedom–she takes it. From its first note, this song isn’t anticipating brighter days; it’s already celebrating them.
My brother and I recently revisited Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Best/Biggest Songs Since 2001. We noticed that the list is roughly divided into two categories: escapist and realist. For example, “dance your cares away” party songs (“In Da Club”) vs “cry your cares out” bedroom anthems (“The Scientist”). Songs that ignore the day-to-day (“Work It”); songs struggling to deal with it (“My City Of Ruins”); and the rare gems that are the latter disguised as the former (“Ms. Jackson,” “Time To Pretend”). New extremes in synthetic music (auto-tuning, drum machines, midi instruments) vs resurrected interest in organic music (a neo-Americana revival, an uptick in “live” recording techniques). Songs in the air (or balcony, with bottle service) vs songs on the ground (or under covers, with empty-bottle service). Simple unreality vs complicated hyper-reality. “MP3 people” vs “vinyl people.”
To be clear, I like songs from both sides of that aisle. I love pop music, period–writing it, singing it, listening to it, talking about it. But here’s the downside to every escapist Saturday night anthem: sooner or later, it’s Sunday morning. Drink up, but the hangover’s coming.
And the downside to many sober, reflective, Sunday morning anthems is that they’re (almost by definition) recipients of outside forces. The light of day reveals our problems in higher relief. We wake up overwhelmed. We don’t know where to begin. Some songs try to out-think it. Some try to out-cool it. Some indulge in a good cry. But most songs that tackle reality either receive it (“Since U Been Gone,” “Breakable,” “Someone Like You”), define it by negation (“Not Ready To Make Nice”) or both (“Maps,” “Back To Black”).
And that’s all fine. But in Amy LaVere’s songs, there are no passive recipients of a cruel Cupid or the callous Fates. There is no escapist fantasy or cloying melodrama. No cheap thrills. No cries for help.
There are no victims, just different breeds of criminal.
Some songs are easy, and some are hard. Some are empty calories; some are medicine you have to take. Some run away, some curl up in a ball, some play dead, and some hide. But “You Can’t Keep Me” is my favorite kind of song: fun and substantial. It’s smart without being overwrought. It’s accessible but challenging. There are no villains or heroes, only humans. There are no wide-eyed innocents, only adults. There are no victims, only criminals. Small, big, vengeful, reformed, bumbling, resourceful, lazy, hard-working, accountable, deluded, lying, honest, ugly, beautiful, complicated criminals. Like the world around us, LaVere’s music is full of them.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. Call someone you love; hold someone you hate. Live it up. Sleep it off. Give your heart. Watch your wallet.