Pop music is all froth and bubbles. It lightly comes and goes–and stays. For days, now two songs have been somewhere close to the surface in my mind. They have stayed awhile but when I think about them, I don’t exactly know why. Neither song lays any claim to greatness, either as a commercial success or as a piece of High Art, but I wouldn’t be without either. Listen to Mazzy Star sing Arthur Lee’s song ‘Five String Serenade’ and catch Crowded House with ‘Not the Girl You Think You Are’ now, before I take you any further. You’ll see:
Mazzy Star were a band that nineties’ ‘Indie Kids’ such as myself tended to regard with hazy affection. They were the kind of band whose records you put on at the end of a drunken evening. The stoned shoegazer could count on them for a lullaby. You have just listened to ‘Five String Serenade,’ but ‘Fade into You’ and the rest of their 1993 album ‘So That Tonight I May See’ lulled my generation into a slightly bleary 2am post-coital sadness. ‘Ahhhh’, the songs sigh. They are about fading and falling and breathing out. They use tambourines and cellos quite a lot, in a good way.
If ‘Five String’ is a bit of light late-night relief, the Crowded House song, ‘Not The Girl You Think You Are’ has even fewer claims to seriousness. The Kiwi Crowdies were and are an unashamed ‘sing-along-a’ pop band. A Crowded House gig was like Grandstand Karaoke: the audience knew the words twenty times better than the band did, and singing along was a blast:
‘Do you climb into spa–aaa–ace
To the world where you li—i—ve?’
Crowded House songs soar, more often than not, and they are jolly good fun to sing. Instantly memorable lyrics with the odd lyrical moment and addictively sweet, crafted melodies, often with a sour or sharp undertone (think Lemon Sherbets and you’ll have the right idea) all add up perfectly in your typical Crowdies song. Lemon-Sherbet, Candy Floss songs, they are sugar-laden hits, filled with empty calories–you would have thought.
Not entirely. Neil Finn, Crowded House’s singer and lyricist, should not be underestimated. His words aren’t poems in any real sense, but he has poetic phrases here and there. Take ‘Not the Girl You Think You Are.’ What a line. The tone is right: it could be gentle advice, possibly reassurance. Or maybe it’s the opposite, a case of saying ‘you were somebody and now you aren’t.’ Something has been taken away from you, girl, but ever so gently. ‘He won’t deceive you or tell you the truth’ is another great little moment, partly because of the pause or caesura in the melody after ‘deceive you.’ You drift into a certainty and…out of it again, thanks to the dreamy waltz-time of the song. Clever. Old-fashioned with that un-pop 3/3 time, ‘Not the Girl’ suggests long, slow disappointment. OK, so the song never gets to the duende, the deep song— it never gets beyond the slightly wistful–but it daydreams beautifully.
Mazzy Star’s ‘Five String Serenade’ meanders more sadly, repeating its brief message over and over, but we can’t help but listen to Hope Sandoval’s sweetly bombed rendition, even if the lyrics are a little rickety on account of their prepositions:
This is my five string serenade;
Beneath the water it played.
And while I’m playing for you,
It might be raining there too.
And on my easel I drew
While I was thinking of you.
And on the roof of my head,
in came my five string serenade.
‘Five String’ sings a sweet nothing several times, but the nothing is important. One idea is varied in the manner of a musical theme: ‘ I am thinking about you:’ Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse meets Arthur Lee. OK, so you don’t draw on an easel, you draw at it; and it would be nice to know how the serenade got from being on Lee’s head to in it, but the other ideas, if slight, are utterly lovely: singer Hope Sandoval’s rain connecting with the rain falling on her lover somewhere else; a tune arriving in the singer’s head, no matter how. It is a frail construction, made of straw, almost; but as an idle dream it works very well. Bubbles, straw and smoke: it’s perfect pop. Pop should burst on the tongue like this and take you nowhere for a minute or two. Duende ? Oh let the dark sounds come alright, but let them come later.
[Arthur Lee’s version of his song is included below]