A Valentine's Mix Tape
    Regular viewers of Friends will note that our relationship reached a new level when Jessica gave me a mix tape for Valentine's Day. I thought I'd take a quick spin through her selections, just for kicks.
    But I would like to say that the best part of the whole package was the liner notes, which I would like to quote in full:

"On the occasion of Valentine's Day 2002, I would like to express and define to you my feelings for you. You see, when two people make a commitment much like ours they should really be able to speak the emotions they are feeling inside. And, I would like to take this opportunity to do just that because I can't fight this feeling any more. In fact, I've forgotten what I started fighting for! But, I digress. What I'm really trying to say is that you fill up my senses, like a night in the forest. Not one of those creepy forests in a Stephen King novel… but, you know… one that's romantic and stuff. Anyway, my point is that you're extremely special to me. And you're always on my mind. I'd like you to know that just because you're a city boy, born and raised near south Detroit and I'm a small town girl, living in a lonely world it doesn't mean that we can't take it to the limit one more time. Shoot… Everyone knows having children is tough and they drive you to the point of taking a midnight train to Georgia (whoo-whoo)… hmmm?… well, in any case the bottom line is that we have fun together and that's all that matters. And giving yourself to me can never be wrong if the love is true. So, in conclusion, let me say that you are a great person, with many talents and a lot of passion for that thing you do. And if I know you you're doing that thing you do. Finally, you can tell everybody that this is your tape. It's quite simple, now that it's done. I hope you don't mind that I put into words that my heart will go on and on. Peace."
Now, if this isn't the writing of my soulmate, what is? Anyway, on to the music. Some of the tunes I've discussed in previous album reviews, but I'll try to put a new spin on 'em here.

"Suzie Q" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
    When I first heard this coming on, it made me smile, 'cause it's the sort of goofy song we like to sing to Abe and each other while doing chores. But its charm fades quickly. This may be the most underwritten song to ever grace the top forty. Even "State of Shock" had a second verse! And, I must say, CCR goes on and on and on in this rendition. By about minute six I was ready to hit the seek button, but I stuck with it to the end, because that's how much I love Jessica.
"Something So Strong" by Crowded House
    Cheapskate that I am, I never upgraded my scratchy old record of this to CD, so I got the special "Sir Pops-a-Lot" remix. Anyway, what was left of the song is a beautiful composition, surging on an almost inaudible electric guitar riff surrounded by shimmering acoustic licks (particularly after the hook). With the exception of that "How Bizarre" group, New Zealand's last great pop success.
"More Than a Feeling" by Boston
    As much as I like "Louie Louie" I like this rewrite (check out the riff in the chorus) a lot better. Brad Delp has one of the great arena-rock voices, with a huge range that he shows off in the high notes of the chorus but a smooth tone in the verses. I am utterly clueless about the meaning of the lyrics, but everything else about this song is rock and roll glory.
"Help Me Rhonda" by the Beach Boys
    Although I still don't know why owls would be puking in his bed, Al Jardine delivers a fabulous vocal here, sounded utterly lost and unconfident. I suspect that's his natural singing style, but it still works great with these lyrics. Brian Wilson was not the Wagnerian genius his proponents like to claim he is, but for a few years in the early sixties he was writing some of the smartest rock music around, and this tune is a great example. The verse covers about an octave, but the accents all fall on different notes in the melody that outline the key signature, then the chorus hammers on the tonic with every "Help" while some odd bassoon or early synthesizer (perhaps a baritone sax) drones away underneath. I find the ending irritating with its teasing fade out/back in/back out, but otherwise this song can't be beat.
"Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye
    I wish some of the slow jam crooners working today would pay more attention to this, the source from which all such crooning comes. Not content to simply ride one of the great grooves of all time (in E-flat of all keys!), Gaye adds something new at every turn. The drummer throws in some utterly unexpected licks, like when he doubles up on the snare fill, suddenly stops, and open the hi-hat, or a stuttering tom fill. The strings play a subtle variation on the previous line each time a verse comes around, the saxes chime in here and there unpredictably, and of course, the vocal never quits pushing. Once the melody is established, he's swooping around it with falsetto leaps, hums, and all manner of expostulation (but never grunts). Not that he's showing off, he's just really excited about this song. I never get tired of hearing this.
"The Night Time is the Right Time" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
    I love this song in Ray Charles' rendition. It's a soulful, swinging, lusty masterpiece of vocal control. Unfortunately, I don't have that record, so Jessica had to settle for CCR. They do OK, delivering the melody intact, but miss out on everything subtle, particularly the rhythms, that make Charles' version so much fun. And John Fogerty's backwoods holler is about as far removed from Ray Charles' gospel stylings as you can get.
"In My Life" by the Beatles
    A few years ago, some poll of songwriters ruled this to be the post pop song ever written, and I have to say they may be right. This is clearly Paul's melody, with its slowly ascending via ever higher up-down intervals, and that guitar figure is also something similar to what he used to come up with, and they're both just beautiful. When you couple it with one of John's most humane lyrics, full of the plain truth about love, it's a composition that will stand for centuries. Jessica thinks Bette Midler does a better rendition, and she may be right. There's something a bit off-putting about John's double-tracked vocal, but the falsetto break at the end always gives me shivers. This kind of songwriting is the reason the Beatles are the most popular band ever.
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by The Band
    This is a fascinating juxtaposition; Lennon at his most insightful was a master of illuminating the human heart, and Robbie Robertson at his best describes the universal soul. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is more than a historical story song; it encapsulates something special about the American experience. Why is it that Serbians still remember battles that took place in the 1400's, while America's two halves, who were trying desperately to destroy each other a little more than a century ago, have mostly buried the hatchet? There's something in this song - and in the performance, particularly in the faint martial strains wafting from Garth Hudson's organ and in Levon Helm's been-there-too-many-times vocal - that says: one disastrous generation was enough; principle matters less than peace. Every day I count my blessings that Lincoln and King, not Skanderbeg and Princip, are the spirits who inspire our national course.
    (By the way, I had an odd epiphany of sorts the other day. I happened to be thinking about the Gettysburg Address, and I suddenly understood. I mean, I had long admired it for its eloquence, but I never had figured out why Lincoln would say the war was testing whether a democratic government can endure, because, even if the south had seceded, the north would still be a democracy, right? But my realization was this: Lincoln meant that, if the forces of secession achieved their aims, then democracy as a vehicle for settling disputes, in the confidence that the next election might bring about a turn of events, would be destroyed as the aggrieved parties would simply opt out of the national debate. The genius of politics is that you get your way about half the time, and it makes putting up with the other guys worthwhile. It's taken me fifteen years of frequent pondering to understand that point; perhaps this says something about the credibility of my political comments. Anyway, back to the music.)
"Danny's Song" by Loggins and Messina
    I've expounded about this song on the Loggins and Messina page, so let me just add my praises for the arrangement. In order to keep things interested, Messina adds a little extra touch every verse. The piano is terrific, playing what seem to be chords without their thirds, as the guitar part leaves the tonality unclear, and cascading down in the best "Theme from Peanuts" fashion. The violin is a nice touch, too. I don't care for the chorale, as it detracts from what is an intimate, personal song, but it's all OK in the end.
"Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson
   This is a masterpiece in so many ways that I don't know where to begin, so I'll just lay out a few of the little things that impress me so much. The rhythm guitar player is incredible, creating a whole range of dynamics just with the edge of his right hand. The drums have absolutely no decay, except when the sound changes in the chorus. Dig how the bass fills in a lick between the guitar phrases. I'm simply blown away by this recording.
"Kodachrome" by Paul Simon
   The best thing Paul Simon ever did was ditch Art Garfunkel, which freed him up to pursue the funky byways that are too narrow for two-part harmonies to squeeze through. Can you just imagine Art's perfect tenor singing "all the crap I learned in high school"? I love the drumming on this song, with its odd front-loaded cross-stick pattern, and I find myself, as I age, identifying more and more with the lyric. I never understood it when I was a teenager, but now my own jumbled memories and Paul's fractured point-of-view seem to be lining up.
"Sweet Child o' Mine" by Guns n' Roses
   Although it's been played into the ground, and rendered anodyne by Sheryl Crow's toothless version, this song is still awfully powerful. There's certain Baroque timelessness in the introduction with its formally structured motif balanced by a melodic bass, and the lead guitar throughout the song, especially in the first solo, keeps tunefulness ahead of flash. Axl's delivery of some rather odd lyrics is one of the rare instances in his career when he actually sounds introspective rather than self-absorbed, and the imagery of the verses evokes that romantic rush of first love, when it seems that the whole world is on your case but that one special person will save you. All this mushiness is offset, though, by powerful drumming, especially in the syncopated kick drum pattern, and Izzy's crunchy rhythm licks in the coda. For a few years when I was a teenager I thought this might be the best song ever written. I was wrong, but it's still a moving way to spend six minutes.
"I Can't Help Myself" by the Four Tops
   Dave Barry describes a move known as the "butt dance", when you're listening to music in the car and can't help but wiggle a little behind the wheel. This is the ultimate "butt dance" song.
"Hungry Heart" by Bruce Springsteen
   I'm a sucker for the baritone sax, I'll admit it, and Bruce gives me lots of it to relish here. Add in the organ/piano combo (for once Roy Bittan plays a line that isn't just overblown arpeggios), one of the world's great drum intros, and a lush chord progression, and you've got the greatest 60's pastiche to hit the charts a decade later. I don't know what to say about the lyrics: Bruce seems to be taking his fascination with the romantic loser to an extreme here, but you can't say the narrator doesn't regret his life. Yet the tune is so catchy I can't help singing along: everybody now, "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack / I went out for a ride and I never went back…"
"Returning a Gift" by Bob Newhart
   I don't want to spoil any gags here, but, God, this man is funny.
"The Rainbow Connection" by Kermit the Frog
   Jim Henson was very shrewd in hiring Paul Williams, the man behind a number of the Carpenters' hits, to score The Muppet Movie. Williams has a flair for finding that core of loneliness inside each of us, and exposing it to the brighter light of human connection. The halting phrases of the initial verse open up into a swaying, easily sung chorus suitable for all singers (I remember doing it in grade school) that's made to put a smile on your face and make you feel better about your fellow man. I think the lyric is just being self-deprecating when it claims "someday we'll find" the connection; the connection is built right into the song. And, I must say, Kermit's just the frog to sing it, with his just slightly bewildered but ever hopeful voice. And he's a far better banjo player than I would have imagined.
"I'm Stone in Love with You" by The Stylistics
   And when you're feeling all warm inside from Kermit, along comes Linda Creed with another lyric about the link between aspiration and inspiration. It's rare that you read about Wall Street big wheels who did it all for love, but what a world it would be if that were the case. Russell Thompkins is one of the great romantic singers, and the gentle caress he delivers to the lyrics is a wonder to hear.
"Good Lovin'" by the Rascals
   Someone said this song is the epitome of rock and roll, and he might be right. Felix absolutely slays this vocal, injecting humor, lust and raw power, and his organ break is one of those solos that leaves any other organ players bereft of options: it simply can't be bettered. Gene's guitar smoothly glides on this riff, and everything gels around Dino's fills into the choruses. Mind-blowingly powerful music.
"My Generation" by The Who
   For all the dumb posturing in the lyric, the group manages to deliver a good performance, especially the stinging bass. And Jessica used the version on The Kids Are Alright so I get to hear Keith Moon setting off the bomb that destroyed Pete Townshend's hearing. A moment of blithe disregard for his fellow human beings, captured on tape forever.

So there it is, my true love's gift to me. I thoroughly enjoyed almost every moment, and what can I say but she knows me well?

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