Old 97’s “Graveyard Whistling”

I remember the first time I saw the Old 97’s live. It must have been around 2009, 2010, down at South Street Seaport for some god-awful summer festival. Usually, the acts they get are subpar to subzero, but I was impressed by the Old 97’s. Following the show, the first song I downloaded was “Question,” a saccharine story of engagement. As the owner of many Rhett Miller solo and Old 97’s albums, I now know “Question” was more a “Rhett Miller” song than an “Old 97’s” song. If you’ve studied Rhett and the band as I have, you know what I mean.

Their new album, Graveyard Whistling, came out late last week, and it’s worth a listen if not a purchase. Anyone who loves Too Far to Care, a 1997 release that plays like a greatest hits album, will fall in love with Graveyard Whistling from the very first note.

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Old 97’s, Brooklyn, 2016

The album kicks off with a shimmering cymbal and a Texan guitar’s narrative in “I Don’t Wanna Die in This Town.” Rhett Miller’s vocals layer in, a perfect timber, “How did I get here? / Where was I headed? / You know I can’t recall.” At the chorus, the song picks up with a giddy-up drum beat, staccato and brief, as the song hurtles toward the next stanza, omitting the drums altogether: “I’ll entertain you / But I can’t save you / Although I’m doing the best I can / I’m just a singer in a rock ‘n roll band.” I’ll pause for a moment on this note. (No pun intended.) The Old 97’s are frequently cited as the darling of alt-country, but I don’t get it. Sure, I can hear country-inflected guitar solos and the drum beat–albeit played faster–of a many country song before. But this is a rock ‘n roll band. Listen to the singer.

While we’re here, I’ll note that most of the songs are written by the Old 97’s, but a few feature additional contributors. “Bad Luck Charm,” track two, is one of them. Co-written by Caitlin Rose–daughter of the legendary Liz Rose, aka co-writer of “White Horse” by the beloved Lady Swift–“Bad Luck Charm” focuses yet again on Rhett’s outsider/underdog status. He sings in the chorus, “If you cross your fingers, you can hang me on your arm / Baby I’m a bad luck charm.” This isn’t new material. That less-than status permeates his music. Think of “Four Leaf Clover” (“I’m still a drunk, I’m still a loser / Living in a lousy neighborhood”) or even “Wish the Worst” (“I guess I’m a loser, but I like being miserable / Swimming in sin”). He’s either a cynic or he doesn’t own a mirror. Could be both. I digress.

It’s challenging to select just a few standout hits, when I truly love so many of the tracks on Graveyard Whistling. The album’s namesake crops up in “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls” in which Rhett sings, “I never was good at talkin’ / Graveyard whistlin’s more my thing / I got 96 tears and only one wedding ring.” This song takes up the “99 Problems” idea from Jay-Z with a twist and sets it to a fast beat and a fiddle on the backdrop: “I got 99 problems to be thankful for / But a half a clue ain’t one.”

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Rhett Miller, Portland, OR, 2015

If I had to pick two favorites, “All Who Wander” and “She Hates Everybody” may top the list, although “Jesus Loves You” is up there, too. The Old 97’s have been tourin’ talk shows playing “All Who Wander,” and it’s no wonder. It’s a moody, quiet, and sentimental tune with a catchy chorus: “All who wander are not lost / Just me / Just me / Signals and wires both get crossed / Remember back when you got lost with me.” Here’s Rhett once again positioning himself as second to the rest, as being “lost.” In “She Hates Everybody,” Rhett sings about a girl who’s a “misanthrope”–that he and his co-writers were able to work this word into a song deserves all the stars, in my opinion. It’s a clever tune about someone I know (maybe me, but who’s counting: “It was so hard to win her heart / It’s hard as a rock except for one little part.”). “Jesus Loves You” feels like a song by Alex Battles (“Jesus Wore Flip Flops”), my favorite local songwriter. Neither song necessarily undermines Jesus, but both consider the similarities (and differences) man has to the Son of God. In the Old 97’s song, Rhett sings, “You can talk to him all night / But I’m right here / He makes wine from water / But I just bought you a beer.” In another stanza, the song goes, “I’m not discountin’ the sermon on the mount an’ / Oh when I was little you know they dunked me in the fountain.” Very funny.

Rhett’s voice sounds better than ever across the entire album. His penchant for vibrato is on full display, and his ability to transform his voice from mellow crooning to an impassioned expression within just a few lines continues to impress. The band isn’t too shabby either. Ken’s guitar playing is fantastic, while Philip on drums and Murry on bass (and his own song, “Nobody”–very good) are excellent.

In my opinion, Graveyard Whistling is the best Old 97’s album in 10 years. I liked Most Messed Up, and The Grand Theatre (Volume 1 and Volume 2) albums were pretty good. These three albums had a handful of good songs apiece, but Graveyard Whistling is solid from beginning to end. And, when I put my Old 97’s music on shuffle, the new Graveyard Whistling songs fit right in alongside “Doreen” and “Barrier Reef.”

If you haven’t caught the band on TV yet, have a listen to the new album. Even just a minute or so will convince you this one’s worth buying.

 

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She’s Just a Dime Store Cowgirl, but It’s Not All She’ll Ever Be

Kacey Musgraves has experienced a meteoric rise–not just in country music, but contemporary music as we know it. She’s toured with Willie Nelson and Allison Krauss; she’s been to a ton of festivals, exposing her music to new audiences across America; and on her current press tour for Pageant Material, her latest record that dropped last week, she’s hit up the likes of NPR and even Pitchfork has reviewed the singular album.

Before Pageant Material came out, I anticipated a great record–and it’s far better than “great”–but part of me wondered if Musgraves would have enough of her “signature” material to draw from to top Same Trailer Different Park, her beyond-outstanding album that earned her a few Grammys. If she’s been out on the road all this time, would she still have the ability to incisively critique small-town living in the South that made Same Trailer so incredible? The answer is a resounding yes.

The first two songs quell that anxiety. “High Time,” the opening track, sets the musical tone for the entire record: throw-back country sounds like pedal steel, whistling, strings, and even some hand-clapping. The artful lyrics reassure us that she’s back to who she is at the core:

Been missing my roots
I’m getting rid of the flash
Nobody needs a thousand-dollar suit just to take out the trash

“Dime Store Cowgirl,” a standout on the record, chronicles the emblems of success she’s achieved with her trademark wink-wink-nudge-nudge elocution (“I’ve had my picture made with Willie Nelson/Stayed in a hotel with a pool”). Yet the heart of the song reminds us that she’s grounded, despite her achievements, and the bridge punctuates this idea: “I’m happy with what I got, cause what I got is all I need/Just cause it don’t cost a lot, don’t cost a lot, don’t mean it’s cheap.”

Overall, the record is about the human condition–you could probably this say about a lot of music–but there’s something special about Musgraves’ perspective. She takes the platitudes we’ve all come to know (“You can take me out of the country/But you can’t take the country out of me”) and even shares with us some of her own (“Life ain’t always roses and pantyhose”). Some may call this approach simplistic, but I call it brilliant. Musgraves writes lyrics that roll off the tongue and lodge themselves in your brain because they’re made up of completely natural language. They’re rife with detail and imagery and convey big ideas. She’s probably one of the best lyricists out there today.

“Pageant Material” and “This Town” are two examples of Musgraves’ masterful writing and powerful commentary. From the first verse, you may think that “Pageant Material” is a self-deprecating tune about Musgraves’ inability to live up to Southern beauty standards (“I ain’t pageant material”), but it’s actually a critique of the ridiculousness of pageants:

God bless the girls who smile and hug
When they’re called out as a runner up on TV
I wish I could, but I just can’t
Wear a smile when a smile ain’t what I’m feelin’
And who’s to say I’m a 9.5
Or a 4.0 if you don’t even know me

She ends the song with a punch: “I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.” In a way, the title “Pageant Material” refers both to what Musgraves isn’t (the first-level meaning of the song) and the stuff that gave her inspiration to write her critique: literal material about pageants and what they represent to and perpetuate in Southern society.

At face value, “This Town” sounds like a paean to deep South small-town ways–and maybe that’s what it mostly is–but, on the flip side, it reveals Musgraves’ highly evolved point of view:

We finally got a flashing light, they put it in last year
And everybody got real happy when the grocery store got beer

I don’t know many country songwriters today who are able to simultaneously describe something in detail and stand back to critique it. My favorite lyric in the song does just that, as well: “What goes around comes back around by Friday’s football game.”

The thoughtful “Somebody to Love” could have gone by a different title because it isn’t a love song; it gets at that human condition theme that runs through the record. “Die Fun” lends insight into Musgraves’ “live in the moment” mantra. “Family Is Family” is a hilarious and very pointed tune that moves along at a clip (“Family is family, in church or in prison/You get what you get, and you don’t get to pick ’em”). And “Biscuits” feels like a “Follow Your Arrow”/”Trailer Song” redux.

The last song I’ll mention is “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” which some publications have suggested contains a dig at Taylor Swift. I’d like to correct and clear up this misperception. If you listen to any of the lyrics to this song, it’s abundantly clear that it’s about the Country Music Establishment, and even conservative life and politics at large:

I don’t need a membership to validate
The hard work I put in and the dues I paid
Never been to good at just goin’ along
I guess I’ve always kind of been for the underdog

Favors for friends will get you in and get you far
Shouldn’t be about who it is you know
But about how good you are

The irony of the song is its thorough country feel. A slight back beat of the drum, an acoustic guitar that strums along, and a pedal steel cutting up a line behind the vocals.

I think some of these idiot reviewers are latching onto the line “another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me.” Big Machine is Taylor’s record company, but since when is Taylor part of the “good ol’ boys club”? “Big machine” more likely refers to the idea of living up to certain standards to become accepted–in country music and by Southern ideals. Anyway, don’t listen to the haters! Musgraves has admitted there’s a bit of dig embedded within this song, but surely it’s not toward Taylor Swift.

If you liked Same Trailer and Kacey Musgraves’ witty observations, you’ll enjoy Pageant Material. If you’ve never heard of her, you should definitely give this record a listen anyway.

Even better things are on the horizon for Kacey Musgraves. She may feel like she’s a dime store cowgirl, and I do believe she’ll always stick to her roots, but she’ll always be much more than that to me.

Sleater-Kinney at Terminal 5

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The venue was dark when the band entered from stage right. The energy at Terminal 5 was rising, and I could feel it seeping through the floorboards of the second tier where MDP and I were standing. One spectator commented that more than 1,000 people must have been present for the second night of a sold-out two-night appearance by the band that vanished into thin air eight years ago.

Sleater-Kinney is easily one of my favorite bands. Two guitars and a drum set comprise this trio, which could be one of the more unique aspects of the band if they weren’t also so exceptional in so many other ways. I once read that they tune the lower E of their guitars to C sharp, which, as a burgeoning guitar player, simply blows my mind. Don’t the chords sound different? I wondered, trying to comprehend how it must be writing with such a different sound.

Their feminist roots in the riot grrrl movement of the ’90s runs through their tunes, but their lyrics are much more sophisticated and thinkworthy than your run-of-the-mill Bikini Kill. And, of course, this is not an insult to BK as much as it’s a compliment to SK.

Last night, on February 27, the band took the stage and played through their catalog, album by album, speeding up certain songs and adding flourishes here and there in time-honored Sleater-Kinney standards, such as “Words + Guitar” and “One Beat,” a song that contains some of my favorite lyrics EVER:

Should I come outside and run your cars?
Should I run your rockets to the stars?
Could you invent a world for me?
I need to hear a symphony
If I’m to run the future,
You’ve got to let the old world go, oh oh

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More known for her appearances on Portlandia these days than for her guitar playing, Carrie Brownstein danced across the stage, kicking her long, lanky legs up toward the ceiling as she ripped through lines that only expert guitarists could dream of playing. Corin Tucker belted out number after number with her unique voice, penetrating even the most insulating ear plugs worn by novice SK attendees. And Janet Weiss, on the drums, back up vocals and harmonica, kept the beat plugging along with adroit playing.

The crowd was filled with three types of people, as far as I could tell: the long-suffering Sleater-Kinney fans who have been behind them since their noteworthy album Call the Doctor dropped (I’m in this group); the newbies who know No Cities to Love, their new record, with a sound that demonstrates the nearly 10 years of music that’s occurred since the band last wrote together; and the people who like Portlandia.

Although she’s the most famous band member today, Carrie didn’t ham it up by making funny remarks here and there. She kept it low-key and largely allowed Corin to speak to and rev up the crowd.

Their experience as seasoned musicians shone through on just about every song. Carrie’s masterful guitar lines exploded on songs like “Youth Decay,” which was way more uptempo than the album rendition, and “Dig Me Out” with its clarion call of punk-infused indie rock. Corin’s voice reverberated to the highest tiers of the massive venue, and sounded gorgeous on classic tracks like “Good Things,” a fan favorite.

I was reminded of the brilliance of their songwriting when Carrie began singing “Entertain” off their 2006 album The Woods:

So you wanna be en-en-tertained?
Please look away, don’t look away
We’re not here ’cause we want to entertain
Go away, don’t go away

In this song, Sleater-Kinney cuts right through to the heart of the matter when it comes to fame–could it be about their struggle with becoming a renowned rock band? Or even Carrie’s place on Rolling Stone’s list of “most underrated guitarists of all time”? Could be both these things, but they’re also talking more generally about society on a whole. That’s what I mean about Sleater-Kinney’s sophisticated lyrics–they’re incisive, bold, and brilliant. And don’t even get me started on the aural aesthetic of this song: Carrie’s muted, round articulation of the lyrics paired with Corin’s fiery vocals, and a militant drumbeat banging in the background plus the intricate guitar lines–it’s all spectacular!

The show was one of the best I’ve been to in a long time, but the band only played an hour-long set, which surprised me. I guess the ladies of Sleater-Kinney know how to end on a high note, leaving their fans from all walks of life “always wanting more,” as they sing in “I Wanna Be Yr Joey Ramone.”

So, you thought I only wrote about Taylor Swift and food on this blog. And I understand why you’d get that impression, given the header and the name. But, as stated in Taylor Ham’s tagline, this blog is about all kinds of music.

Below is a taste of what happened at the show. Enjoy!

1989 by Taylor Swift

IMG_0040After my initial listen of 1989, I realized why Taylor Swift released “Shake It Off” as the first single off the album. On its own, “Shake It Off” signals a shift in her priorities and sound, and can be categorized as the “Mean” of 2014. When heard in its context, the song represents the melodic center of the album. The other songs radiate out from “Shake It Off” in various shapes and gradients of the pure pop sound imbued in the track. With this at its center, 1989 is not only a departure from her supposed country roots, but also serves as a revolution in pop music as we know it.

The album begins with a surrealist, synth pop number called “Welcome to New York.” The rhythmic sway of the song makes it ideal for walking down any avenue in Manhattan, and the inspiring, optimistic lyrics warm any jaded New Yorker’s heart (let’s not comment on her NYC ambassador appointment). “Welcome to New York” sets the tone—both lyrically and melodically—for the rest of the album. When she sings, “The lights are so bright but they never blind me,” it suggests that she is perhaps less star struck by this city than we (read: the media) like to believe.

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On 1989, Taylor experiments with form. The second track, “Blank Space,” is a brilliant piece of commentary on the media’s portrayal of her so-called boy-obsessed public image. She sings in the chorus,

Got a long list of ex-lovers

They’ll tell you I’m insane

‘Cause you know I love the players

And you love the game

Jessica Valenti has already picked up on the sheer intelligence of this song, which you can read here, and the masterpiece of a video is below. However, one of the things that struck me the most about this song is the extremely long chorus. The above passage is the first part of the chorus, with a second part that follows. On the third track, “Style,” a paean to a past lover whose name shall remain undisclosed, she includes a similarly long chorus, composed of two parts, and doesn’t even have a real bridge. As she did with “All Too Well” from Red, which did not have a chorus yet told an elegant story, Taylor has masterfully played with the structure of her songs and has transformed what we may have considered possible for a pop song.

In another genius move, Taylor includes a song called “Bad Blood,” which sounds like it’s straight off a Katy Perry album. And, interestingly enough, the song is rumored to be about the sexy songstress. Its deep beats and clever lyrics make it feel applicable to anyone who may have done you wrong in your life.

One of my personal favorites is “I Know Places,” which seems appropriate for the new Hunger Games film, as other reviewers have suggested. The fact that “I Know Places,” a superb track, lands at number 12 on this album truly demonstrates the tremendous caliber of the finished product. The final song, “Clean,” is an excellent bookend, as she sings about letting go of past hurt and finally breathing (living) again and its sound slightly contrasts to the opening song, which shows the progression of this work of art.

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On the deluxe edition, she offers three additional tracks with a handful of voice memos that reveal her songwriting process and prowess. “New Romantics” is the clear winner of the deluxe tracks, with its incisive commentary on society, and the voice memos are fascinating.

If you’re not one of the more than one million people who bought her album last week, become one of the next million this week. 1989 is Taylor’s best album to date, and I can’t wait to see her continue to evolve.

“x” Marks the Spot

Fingers sliding across guitar strings and a simple note or two begin Ed Sheeran’s latest album, x, on the song “The One.” The regret-tinged love tune sets the tone for Sheeran’s tour de force. You see, in Sheeran’s latest album, he raps, sings in falsetto and gets you moving in your seat with tracks like “Sing” but, by and large, the material he covers centers on his struggle to maintain a romantic relationship while pursuing his dreams.

In the April 2013 Vanity Fair cover story, Taylor Swift addresses the double standard when it comes to writing songs that are often about love.

For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated—a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way—that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.

Swift hit it on the head when she called it sexist. Case in point: Ed Sheeran. His songs are nearly solely devoted to love and his experience with it, and nobody remarks about his penchant for writing about his “feelings.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s clear that Sheeran appreciates women, when he writes lyrics like “You look so wonderful in your dress/ I love your hair like that/ The way it falls on the side of your neck/ Down your shoulders and back” in the lovey-dovey “Tenerife Sea.” But, overwhelmingly, he draws inspiration from his feelings, too.

taylor swift and ed sheeran

taylor swift and ed sheeran

Though the subject matter may be similar, x is a departure from his debut, +, in terms of influences and tones. Justin Timberlake and John Mayer, to name two well-known artists, are all over this record in spirit. And Sheeran owes a lot to hip hop, as he brings together folk-pop and rap on every other song. His chart-topping single “Sing” is right for the club, due to its dance-inducing rhythm and sway, yet features acoustic guitar strums all over the track. With this song alone, Sheeran has single-handedly transformed a genre.

And some may be surprised that Sheeran veers on the adult matters of sex, drugs and alcohol, but I’m not. The beginnings of these subjects were all over + and, though he may have toured with squeaky-clean Taylor Swift, that has no bearing whatsoever on his freedom to write about his reality.

For listeners who are familiar with +, “Take It Back” resonates as a new manifesto that picks up where “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” left off. Ever aware of his unique physique, Sheeran begins the third verse with:

I take it back now

Now I don’t ever want to be perfect,

Cause I’m a singer that you

Never want to see shirtless

And I accept the fact that someone’s gotta win worst-dressed,

Taking my first steps into the scene,

Giving me focus

In his rap, he reminds us he’s still on the rise—and, judging by his quick ascent, he’s surely onto something. The second song on the album, “I’m a Mess,” features a repetitive swell as the outro, much like “Give Me Love” did on +. In my opinion, the rise and fall of these outros makes for successful, memorable and rhythmically clever songs.

For me, the first 13 songs are winners, but the final three could have been omitted. x is a long album, and Sheeran may have benefited from using the final tracks as bonus ones, rather than cobbling them in with the rest of the very strong, very incisive songs that precede them.

All in all, x is definitely a success for Sheeran. Recently, Taylor Swift encouraged her followers to buy Sheeran’s new album with a photo of him snuggling with her cat, Meredith, on Instagram. Swift exposed the softer side of Sheeran with that post, but it’s something any listener of x will also witness through his poignant songs.

I Just Found Kacey Musgraves and I Love Her

“Woke up on the wrong side of rock bottom/ you’re all outta pennies and the well it done run dry” begins Kacey Musgraves’ album Same Trailer Different Park, in the song “Silver Lining.” With this cute aphorism, she had me hooked. Same Trailer is an engaging country album, replete with songs that serve as a corrective of Southern culture.

Musgraves has written or co-written all of the songs on the record, and her lyrics are strongest (and most incisive) when they’re critiquing the way things are. “If you ain’t got two kids by 21/ you’re probably gonna die alone/ least that’s what tradition told you,” she sings on the dark and inspired “Merry Go ‘Round.” In this number, Musgraves uses a play on “merry,” “marry” and “Mary” with known phrases (“Jack and Jill went up a hill” and “Mary, mary, quite contrary”) to convey the silly, yet all too familiar conventions of the South. By tapping into our collective unconscious with the delicate banjo strums and the rhythm and rhymes of the song, Musgraves skillfully uncovers the assumptions and prejudices of the behaviors she sings about.

Though her voice isn’t quite as strong as singers such as Miranda Lambert (whose voice is often compared to Musgraves’), she works it to its utmost potential, using background vocalists to enhance and texturize her lyrics. In this fan’s (and liberal scene’s) favorite “Follow Your Arrow,” a male background singer accompanies Musgraves on the chorus, singing

Make lots of noise

Kiss lots of boys

Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into

When the straight and narrow

Gets a little too straight

Roll up a joint, or don’t

Just follow your arrow wherever it points

(She had the nerve to sing this song at the Country Music Awards, surely to a wholly negative reception.) According to Wikipedia, “Follow Your Arrow” only hit the mid-twenties on the Billboard “hot country songs” chart and the upper-forties on the Billboard “country airplay” chart. Yet it peaked at number four on the Billboard “bubbling under hot singles” chart. Country radio is a funny thing. When singers lament not having a gun or nurse a broken heart over chords, it’s all the rage. But when a young woman sings about girls kissing girls and uses a pedal steel to slide between verses, it simply won’t achieve Shelton status.

Everything comes together seamlessly on “Stupid,” in which the slithering of fingers on the guitar and banjo presents a jaunty undercurrent to the brace-yourself-for-this song. A minor-inflected first verse is followed by the blaring chorus: “Stupid love is stupid/ don’t know why we always do it/ finally find it just to lose it/ always find us looking stupid/ stupid.” The plucking of the banjo takes center stage after the bridge, and then she launches back into the densely packed chorus.

The only two songs I find myself skipping are “Dandelion” and “Back on the Map,” but this doesn’t take away from the merit and strength of the album for me. There are a handful of Taylor Swift songs I don’t care for, after all.

I, for one, am a fan of Kacey Musgraves, and believe she’s brilliant. I’d love to see her live, but I think she already toured the New York area. Young, smart, hip, savvy – oh, and she whistles darn good, too. Kacey Musgrave is the complete package and I can’t wait to see what’s next for the young country sure-to-be superstar.

Background Vocals and Intricate Instrumentals on “Red”

taylor swiftI’ve exercised restraint in posting about Taylor Swift’s new album, Red. Truth be told, it’s one of my favorite albums–ever. The lyrics are intriguing, the music is upbeat and … swift. And the songs just make me want to sing along, all day long.

In my many listens, I’ve noticed that Taylor Swift creatively uses background vocals to enhance the richness of certain songs. On her previous albums, Taylor begins and ends the songs with the same elements throughout–the same vocals, the same instruments, the same chorus. On Red, she ventures into a more complex world of music, rewarding the listener for sticking with her for the entire song.

Case in point: the opening track, “State of Grace,” begins with a drum, a guitar, a bass, and Taylor’s beautiful voice lilting lyrics over the pounding beats. As if the song weren’t intense enough already, she throws in background vocals singing “oh oh oh oh whoa” in the second instance of the chorus, thus making the song pop even more.

In “All Too Well,” possibly my favorite song on the album, Taylor begins the song with an acoustic guitar playing chords and an electric guitar chiming in with a melody. After the first verse, the patter of a snare drum comes in. What’s unique about this song is that Taylor does not use a traditional chorus throughout. Rather, each verse is followed by the same chords for a “chordsus” but not a true “chorus” since the lyrics aren’t the same each time around.

For example, the first instance of the chordsus goes:

Cause there we are again on that little town street

You almost ran the red cause you were lookin’ over at me

Wind in my hair, I was there, I remember it all too well

In the second chordsus, suddenly an influx of music overwhelms the listener–a male background vocalist sings harmony to Taylor’s melody, with the following lyrics:

Cause here we are again in the middle of the night

We dance around the kitchen in the refrigerator light

Down the stairs, I was there, I remember it all too well

From there, the electric guitar really moves and the whole song seems to explode at the bridge. Her vocals elevate in the next verse and, what the listener gets as he or she continues to listen to the song is an exhilarating experience.

On “Holy Ground,” she does something similar as she did on “State of Grace”–building into the song with interesting background vocals. “Holy Ground” has a fast clip and once the listener gets to the second verse, we hear female singers in the background, enhancing the spirit of the song.

A fan favorite, “Everything Has Changed” that features vocals by Ed Sheeran, also rewards the listener. Undeniably catchy and rhythmically beautiful, “Everything Has Changed” features Sheeran’s harmony to Taylor’s melody on the first chorus. Already filled with background vocals from Sheeran’s charming harmony, the song takes on a new dimension in the second chorus with a guitar playing underneath the chorus refrain, doing its own little pretty thing.

Taylor Swift never did this before–this strategic use of background vocals and intricate instrumentals. After a close listen to her previous albums, I realized that the only other time she may have nearly used background vocals in this way was on the song “Enchanted” from Speak Now. “Enchanted” undoubtedly builds and reaches a climax at each chorus, but it’s the same build over and over throughout the song. It isn’t strategic the way Red plays.

This is just an observation I had about this album that clearly demonstrates a new sense of maturity about Taylor Swift.

Burning “Red” is Right

Superbly written at every turn, Taylor Swift’s latest single, “Red” (which is also the title track of her forthcoming new album), will blow you away. It’s a combination of country and rock and pop, and the ping of the banjo is undeniably relentless. “Red” will have you tapping your foot and dancing in your seat. And, if you listen closely, you’ll find an entire English lesson’s worth of similes and metaphors to mine.

Though different from “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” her first single off Red, “Red” shares the same forward-moving rhythm that makes “We Are Never…” so catchy. The banjo plucking at the beginning is ghosted by what sounds like a synthesizer sounding fake strings, as My Dining Partner observed. A departure from the true country hit “Begin Again,” her second single from Red, “Red” has a country feel that’s updated to Taylor’s new pop-rock sound.

Now, how great is this song’s lyrics, you ask? So great. So so great.

The opening stanza grabs you like a punch in the stomach:

Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street

Faster than wind, passionate as sin, ended so suddenly

Loving him is like trying to change your mind

Once you’re already flying through the free fall

Like the colors in autumn

So bright just before they lose it all

Taylor Swift infuses a true country-pop song with such golden word-nuggets. Imagine driving an old Maserati down a dead end street–the thrill of it would end so suddenly, as she sings. What I love best about this stanza is the bit about autumn leaves. This sentiment–that they’re so bright right before they lose their color–is especially poignant because it paints a highly articulate picture of what loving him is like. That is, a splash of greatness followed by a fall or emptiness.

And the chorus is outstanding;

Losing him was blue like I’d never known

Missing him was dark grey all alone

Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you’ve never met

But loving him was red

Loving him was red

How true is her portrayal of what these colors feel like? How aptly conveyed are their emotional colors?  Blue = feeling a loss, feeling down. Dark grey = all alone. Red = intense passion that spouts like lava from a volcano. That’s what her love for this individual was like–fiery, impassioned, red. And it’s brilliant.

The rest of the song continues with these ingenious similes and metaphors, explaining the many facets of her love for this person. Now, as alluded to in my review of “Ronan,” songwriting like this makes you wonder what Taylor could do with non-love-story content. Like, what if she wanted to write about lofty subjects like world peace and war? And the human condition? Well, as for the latter, we know she can write beautifully about that (see “Ronan” and “Eyes Open”).

Think of the evolution of the Beatles. They started out writing about love and ended up writing about metaphysics. I’m betting Taylor’s subjects will, over time, evolve, as well. You may think I’m crazy for comparing the Beatles to Taylor Swift, but I truly believe her songwriting ability is of that high caliber. She can do it. I know she can.

I look forward to October 22, the release date of Red. Are you going to download it or buy it in the store? I’m going to Best Buy on my lunch break to get the album, but I’m tempted to download it to my iPhone. Decisions!

Keep Your Ey-eyes Open for Taylor Swift’s New M.O.

Taylor Swift’s staunchest critics deride her for singing sweet love melodies and nothing more. First of all, this isn’t true. Many of her songs actually relate to real life experiences, other than those about love. Take “Mean” for a great example. But in the smash hit “Eyes Open,” from the Hunger Games soundtrack, Taylor Swift obliterates her detractors’ criticisms by showing the breadth of her songwriting ability and underscoring her capacity to understand the human condition.

“Eyes Open” captures the brutal underdog mentality that pervades many adolescents’ and even adults’ consciousnesses. She starts out singing about how life once was as an innocent child:

The tricky thing is yesterday we were just children
Playing soldiers, just pretending
Dreaming dreams with happy endings
In backyards, winning battles with our wooden swords

She captures the simplicity and naivete of childhood. Then, the song shifts (both tonally and melodically) to talk about the harsh reality of now: “But now we’ve stepped into a cruel world, where everybody stands and keeps score.” This isn’t a song about love, by any measure.

The chorus, which speaks to the struggles faced by the protagonist of the Hunger Games, resonates with all of us:

Everybody’s waiting for you to breakdown
Everybody’s watching to see the fallout
Even when you’re sleeping, sleeping
Keep your ey-eyes open

When she says, “keep your eyes open,” she’s not just saying be on guard and defend yourself, but also, keep your head up. When life gives you lemons, don’t just make lemonade–use those lemons to your advantage.

In the following verse, Taylor Swift dives deeper into the world of the oppressed. She reminds the subject of the song, “But you’ve got something they don’t. You’ve got something they don’t”–alluding to an intrinsic quality that we all have to persevere through tough situations.

One way of interpreting the song is by imagining that she’s singing to her critics, as she did in “Mean.” But I think she’s done something much better and more complex–she’s stepped inside the world of someone else and has truly seen the world through their eyes. She’s singing from her heart, but not about it.

This song is deep–and a true departure from her older material (think the joyful Fearless album), but I think the new tone suits her well. I look forward to her next record which will, no doubt, feature a more-adult perspective. “Eyes Open” serves as a bridge from Speak Now to the rest of her future material, and, based upon the awesome reception she’s received for “Eyes Open,” her next record will undoubtedly be another record-breaking hit.

Oh My My “Mine”

Utterance on an upbeat and a low-key guitar swings in. Whose voice is this? you wonder. Her smooth inflection jogs your memory: this is Taylor Swift. On “Mine,” the first single from Speak Now, Taylor’s maturity shines through—as songwriter, singer, and, well, Swift.

If you aren’t one of the scores who’s already downloaded “Mine,” you can hear it here.

"Teardrops on My Guitar" on 5/15/10

At first listen, it’s clear that “Mine” has broken from the standard Taylor mold. It involves romance and a guy—elements of many of her songs—but beyond that, it tackles uncharted territory. The music feels laidback, bereft of anger or urgency; her vocals are enhanced by background singers (mostly male); the protagonist is pragmatic, collaborative, and without vengeance. Yeah, that’s new Taylor alright.

A relatable story about a more-adult relationship and how one person,
“the best thing that’s ever been mine,” can make a real, stable relationship feel possible, no matter how emotionally vulnerable you are. One of my favorite lyrics is, “Do you remember all the city lights on the water?/ You saw me start to believe for the first time.” There’s a quiet intimacy in this line; a revelation that feels more mature than the less nuanced declarations of love as found in earlier songs.

"Love Story"

Where the fabled “Love Story” concedes that “this love is difficult but it’s real/ Don’t be afraid we’ll make it out of this mess/ It’s a love story, baby, just say yes,” “Mine” tells us how and why it’s difficult, and exposes her vulnerability. After “flashing forward” to her adult relationship with the “Mine” guy, she admits, “But we got bills to pay/ We got nothing figured out/ When it was hard to take/ Yes, Yes/ This is what I thought about” and returns to the chorus where she focuses on what’s good about her relationship. She sings, “Every time I look at you it’s like the first time.” Truth in power of positive thinking? Sure. Instant therapy? Absolutely.

In the bridge, she rethinks a defining line from “The Other Side of the Door,” a landmark track on Fearless Platinum about a frustrating distance between two people who aren’t communicating their true feelings to each other.

And I remember the slammin’ door,

And all the things that I misread.

So babe if you know everything

Tell me why you couldn’t see

That when I left I wanted you to

Chase after me?

“Mine” takes a different approach:

And I remember that fight, two-thirty AM

You said everything was slipping right out of our hands

I ran out, crying, and you followed me out into the street

From “Door” to “Mine” Taylor has made some progress. The guy in “Door” obviously doesn’t and cannot know what she wants because she’s afraid to reveal her true emotion (“I said leave but all I really want is you”), but in “Mine,” her partner understands her vulnerability because she’s revealed herself to him. I can’t say whether Taylor Swift (the real person) has personally changed—I suspect she’s been “Mine”-mature all along—but her perceptive ability as written into this song is brilliant.

She doesn’t need that white horse—because it wasn’t the horse (or the guy with the horse) who could turn her life into fairy tale. Now, she’s found an adult relationship (as further evidenced by the line, “And there’s a drawer of my things at your place”) and is proud of it. “Mine” shows Taylor’s embarked on crafting a new narrative for herself—a story more tangible to most of us.

Speak Now will be available October 25.