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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Christmas at Sea/Sting

We are now on the cusp of the holiday season, and new offerings of seasonal music have been arriving for weeks. Among these is a collection from Sting called If On A Winter's Night.... It's not a holiday album in the usual sense, but a few of the songs specifically address Christmas, including a selection called Christmas At Sea. The lyrics are from a poem of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson, from his 1890 collection Ballads, and have been set to music attributed to Sting and harpist Mary Macmaster. Both poem and song tell of a sailor battling the elements aboard ship, within sight of the town where he was born--close enough to see the snow on the roofs and the smoke from the chimneys, and even smell the meals as they're prepared. The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer/For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)/This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn/And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born. "I was attracted to Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem 'Christmas at Sea' because it describes so well the powerful gravitational pull of home that Christmas exerts on the traveller," Sting writes in the liner notes. "When Mary Macmaster started to sing the Gaelic song 'Thograinn Thograinn', a women’s working song from the Isle of Skye, I thought the melody would make a perfect counterpoint for the longing of Stevenson’s sailor..." The song depicts the sailor's concern for his aging parents, sitting by their fire in the town above and worrying about the son who has gone to sea. However, once the ship is out of danger, the poem carries that theme through to a final, wistful stanza not included in the song: And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me/As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea/But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold/Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Frankenstein's Daughter/Elliott Murphy

I crossed the forest/With the daughter of Frankenstein, Elliott Murphy sings in Frankenstein's daughter, from his 2008 album Notes From The Underground. She was so pretty/And I could see/When your daddy's a monster/It's just not so easy. No doubt Murphy was inspired by Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein when he wrote the song, though it's possible that such cinematic incarnations as The Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Frankenstein's Daughter, and yes, even Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter may have crossed his mind. "That title was from a long line of Frankenstein's relatives," Murphy said in an interview with the web site Dave's On Tour. "The amazing thing about Frankenstein and Dracula is that the two legendary monster figures were created the same rainy night in a little chateau outside of Geneva, Switzerland. Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were there and the thought was for everybody to write a monster or horror book. Shelley's future wife Mary, who was his mistress at the time, wrote Frankenstein. A friend of Lord Byron's, physician John Polidori, was inspired by fragments of a story Lord Byron wrote about vampire legends. He wrote a book, called The Vampyre, although other vampire books written years later, including Bram Stoker's Dracula, became more famous. With my song, I tried to carry on a tradition that's worth following." The album takes its title from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1864 novel, and as Murphy's website reveals, he is himself the author of multiple short story collections, the most recent being Café Notes (Hachette), as well as two novels, Cold And Electric and the neo-western Poetic Justice (Hachette.) A new novel, Tramps, is expected in 2009.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Somewhere in England 1915/Al Stewart

November 11th is observed by many countries around the world--in the United States as Veterans Day, in the British Commonwealth as Remembrance Day, and in other countries as Armistice Day or the Day of Peace. Each of these holidays began as an observance of the armistice that ended the First World War, signed at 11:00 am on November 11, 1918--the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Al Stewart's song Somewhere In England 1915, from his 2005 album A Beach Full of Shells, takes us back to that conflict with a series of dream images that feature World War One British Poets. First up is Rupert Brooke, who served in the British Army during the war and died in 1915 (though not in combat). In his poem The Soldier, written at the beginning of the war, Brooke penned the familiar lines: If I should die, think only this of me:/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England. In the song, Stewart depicts a woman standing on a beach, watching a troop ship sail away. She is identified only as an English Prime Minister's daughter--a reference to Violet Asquith, daughter of British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, who bore an unrequited love for Brooke. She's there to see him off to war, and while Stewart doesn't identify Brooke by name, the allusion is clear: And she watches the ship disappear for the length of a sigh/And the maker of rhymes on the deck who is going to die/In the corner of some foreign field that will make him so famous. In the next sequence, Stewart depicts the horror of the battlefield and mentions two other poets, this time by name: And a skull in a trench gazes up open-mouthed at the moon/And the poets are now Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. While Brooke's poetry depicted the war as patriotic and a soldier's death as noble, the poetry of both Owen and Sassoon contrasted sharply in tone, depicting the stark, horrific realities of war. Like Brooke, both of these men served in the British Army. Sassoon survived the war; Owen was killed in action one week before the armistice.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Music From Kerouac's Big Sur/Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard

Jay Farrar of Sun Volt and Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie were asked to provide original songs for the film One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur, a documentary about Jack Kerouac and his 1962 autobiographical novel Big Sur. The book is based on several visits Kerouac made to a cabin in Big Sur, California, seeking time alone to deal with the stress of his fame and with his alcoholism. Farrar and Gibbard had never met before but enjoyed working together on the songs they created for the film and shared a mutual interest in Kerouac's work (Gibbard had even stayed in the same cabin Kerouac writes about in Big Sur when he was composing songs for Death Cab For Cutie's album Narrow Stairs). They decided to keep the collaboration going and expand it into an album-length project, One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Music From Kerouac's Big Sur, released last month. Farrar did the lion's share of the writing, taking the lyrics for all of the songs directly from Kerouac's novel. He also derived several songs (Low Life Kingdom, Sea Engines, The Void) from the poem "Sea: Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur," which was included at the end of the book.