Songs We Know – behind the scenes

What were we thinking???

Whenever I listen to an album, I have all sorts of questions about the songs – why were those chosen?  What’s the story behind the tune?  Who came up with the arrangement?  With that in mind, I thought I’d write up some thoughts on the tunes found on Songs We Know.

Stardust: Like most young women in the early 90s, watching Tom Hanks’s character remembering his wife in Sleepless in Seattle while Nat King Cole crooned about “when our love was new” was enough to send me into my own deep meloncholia.  The song has haunted me ever since, and I love the openness of this arrangement that allows the mournful lyrics to shine through.  My favorite lyrical moment is the space hanging between “And each kiss, an inspiration,” and “But that was long ago…”  Musically, I love the gentle fullness when the rest of the band enters at Frank’s solo. 

Forever For Now: I love how playful Harry Connick, Jr. can be in his original tunes like this one, and I also love how Frank’s first chord lends an etheral quality while keeping the playfulness in hand – almost like a cat jumped expertly on the upper keys of the piano.  I picture this in black and white, with fedoras and trench coats and dark, glossy lips and patent stilettos; a lite-fare film noir, if there is such a thing…

Berimbau: I first heard this on an Astrud Gilberto album, sung in Portuguese.  Not yet having mastered that foreign tongue, my brain instead began seeing the story being told by the tune and the feel.  It was not something I came up with; rather the lyrics sauntered up and introduced themselves to me.  After enough of the Spanish wine, I couldn’t resist.

God Bless the Child: I have to be honest, I first learned this song from Blood, Sweat and Tears’ version, not the celebrated songbird’s original.  It’s that classic rock influence that one might hear on our version, infused with perhaps a gentler tone than David Clayton-Thomas, but with all of his blues and heart. 

All or Nothing at All: Do I dare reveal how simply it all happened?  Like many other tunes, I liked this one and brought it to the band with what I thought was a somewhat innovative approach (think “Talking ‘Bout My Generation,” or better yet, don’t).  And then Frank said, “Let’s do it in 5,” and suddenly the right arrangement was born.  Doing this song in 5/4 time has been great fun for me as the vocalist; as usual, I feel like I have the easiest job, and I get to float on top of the driving tempo with whatever rhythm I’m feeling.  Mysteriously, this arrangement revealed to me the yearning in the lyrics more than any other I’ve heard, and it’s one where I can really get into character and explore.  In fact, as I think about most of the tunes on this album, they’re often character-driven, and because I’m the one singing the words, I’m getting to play each character.  It’s quite self-indulgent, really…

Another Grey Morning – Another of my all time favorite artists is James Taylor, and this is one of his lesser known songs.  It haunted me from the moment I first heard it, as the lyrics were so reminiscent of life in the Pacific Northwest.  I know this woman; from time to time, I have been this woman.  I love the arrangement the fellas put this song to – there is a tension between when the chords land and the rhythm of the lyrics.  And like the other pop tunes on this album, I love that they’ve never limited me to the standard songbook, but will foray into these territories and create something new in the landscape.

It’s All Right with Me – As with Stardust, this arrangement features the bare bass line and vocals.  In this song, I like to imagine the character is building her case along with the building of the instrumentation; by the end she’s fully convinced.  This is one the most fun songs for me to sing, playing with the words, such as adding a touch of breathy Marilyn Monroe to “dreamy smile,” and going from the inner voice to the shout out.

Better Than Anything – This is a Bob Dorough tune, which I learned when Portland drummer Larry Bard recommended an album to me.  First, I’m a foodie, so of course the early lyrics appeal to me (except that I did change “gastronomic” to “culinary”).  Second, I enjoy the mystery of whatever it is that is better than anything except being in love.  And finally, again, the lyrics are so fun to play with – “rides on the midway,” “balancing on a wire,” etc.  The fellas play the tune against these delightful lyrics, making the whole thing tasty, tasty, tasty.

Comes Love – I’m starting to repeat myself… fun lyrics to play with, swinging, toe-tapping groove, blah blah blah… 

Until – Okay, so you’re probably going to see a Meg Ryan movie pattern here.  I first heard this song over the closing credits of the film Kate and Leopold, and fell in love with it (as I have with most songs by Sting).  After sharing it with Stevie B., he found an instrumental version featuring vibes, and although we never played it with vibes before this recording, we knew that was going to be the plan all along.  It couldn’t be more right – Dennis’s masterful playing adds exactly the warmth and ethereal quality we were imagining.  My favorite part of this song is, perhaps oddly, the ending as the waltz culminates in a light, lilting, graceful twirl.  Très romantique!

I’m Beginning to See the Light – I learned that the on-beat strumming of the guitar is called (at least by us) “Freddy Green style,” and that’s just what I wanted.  An earlier arrangement of this song had a somewhat stripper ending – cut time, bawdy – but over time it evolved to this simpler, old-timey feel, even to the point of the vocals being more nasal and somewhat Bostony, like a tinny old 45.  I just tried not to be too obnoxious…

Gee Baby – When Ella and Louie do this song, their playfulness is light and witty.  Recognizing there’s no way to successfully imitate them, I wouldn’t dare try; instead, we took it down a sultry notch or two.  This is one whose original lyrics are perhaps lost to the winds of multiple iterations, which gave me the freedom to play with new ideas (golf clubs and Porche 911s are decidedly not part of the traditional version).  I picture after-work cocktails, loosened ties and lipstick on collars.  Nice.

Nature Boy – This arrangement – with its extra measures, latin vibe, and melodramatic ending – has been our favorite closer at our gigs.  What I love most about this song is obvious – its life lesson, proclaimed in all its bohemian glory: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”  What more need be said?

Overs – When my high school classmates were listening to OPP (yeah you know me), Cobain and the B-52s, I was spinning my parents’ Simon and Garfunkel vinyls, learning about Punky’s Dilemma and how it’s all happening At The Zoo.  But this song especially moved me; like so many of S & G’s timeless love songs and we-should-break-up-but-we-can’t-songs (see The Dangling Conversation), the lyrics are so concisely poignant and so painfully, truthfully human that I’m drawn in over and over.  The combination of vocals, guitar and vibes felt magical, and I’m enthralled every time I hear the pulsing echo of the final chord of the vibes. I just love the simplicity of the song contrasted with the richness of the instruments – I hope you do too!

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3 Responses to “Songs We Know – behind the scenes”

  1. Thea’s wonderful comments leave little for us guys to say because she says it so well!

    Contrary to her introduction, we have not added our own take because she did not give us a chance; she gave us a chance, but she was faster out of the gate than we were!

    I’ll put in my initial deux ducats worth about the art to putting together a line-up of songs. Putting together a set of songs for a CD is already different from what it was on an LP, because you no longer had to worry about what to have at the end of Side 1, and the top of Side 2.

    In some ways since all of the material was so strong “putting things in the right order” was both easy and hard. Easy because even random order had lots of appeal, hard because each suggested order could work pretty darn well, but how does one choose between many very very good options.

    Frank came up with the essential order of the songs, and there was discussion and dissent. After living with it for some time, I think this order is very very good and here are some observations about WHY it works:

    Open interesting. The first song needs to be a grabber — not a too-big song. Something that catches the ear and has a different sort of outlook. Thea’s version of Stardust is just perfect!

    The first “hit” should be second or third. You’ve got them listening, but you don’t want them to give up on you. Tease them in but deliver the goods early. This is where you complete the sale. All of our lists had “Forever For Now” high in the order, and we liked “Berimbau”as a change of pace. Both of these songs deliver the goods!

    After the first “big” songs, slow down. You’ve impressed them, now show them your sensitive or intellectual side. As you can see, we sort of alternate with “God Bless the Child” on the sensitive side and the 5/4 “All or Nothing at All” is both sensitive and intellectual (1,2,3,4…5!!!)

    Sensitive and intellectual also apply to “Another Grey Morning” (an intellectually based harmonic and rhythmic rearrangement that has killer emotional impact), “It’s All right with Me” “Better than Anything”, “Comes Love”, and “Until”

    Bump again about 2/3 in. And right on cue up come “I’m Beginning to See the Light”, and “Gee, Baby” ( sort of a bluesy bump and grind).

    Closing songs should be some of your best. Well, “Nature Boy” is definitely one of our best, and there is a lot of power in this version of “Overs”!

    So, a couple of ducats for you to consider while listening!!

  2. Emre says:

    We love you!!! Kendall is 7 years old and sings PEMDAS all the time! My husband, an ennegeir was also impressed! And last but not least but My Father-in-law the High School Science teacher was also impressed! Keep up the excellent work and keep the videos coming!

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