Single-Song Obsessions: Life Without Buildings — “The Leanover”

Photo by Alan Dimmick
Photo by Alan Dimmick

One of the biggest things I’m always looking for is art that actually stays with you after you read it, look at it, or listen to it. As an English major, my favorite stories and poems that I read were always the rare gems that had some degree of ambiguity that made me keep thinking about them over and over, even days after I studied them. In music, that feeling is even more rare: most bands write lyrics that are either too on-the-nose with their intent or are completely nonsensical and stupid.

I’ve already written too much about how I’m obsessed with Life Without Buildings. I imagine when I share the link to this post on Facebook, most people will glance over it and say “oh my god he’s seriously going on about that stupid Life Without Buildings band again.” But a huge part of why I’m totally fixated with this band is that they pulled off the whole ambiguous, thought-provoking art thing better than any band I’ve heard, and they were able to do it in with a style that was accessible and endearing. And it’s worth singling out “The Leanover” because, even on the basically perfect Any Other City album, it’s a song that rises above the rest, perfecting the band’s one-of-a-kind aesthetic and achieving a sort of rarefied air that makes you wonder how such a song could even be thought of and conceived by humans.

Any discussion about Life Without Buildings has to begin with their singer, Sue Tompkins. Her sound-artist, high-pitched talk-singing style is on every song of theirs, but “The Leanover” is her most virtuosic performance. Starting the song a capella, she whispers “If I lose ya” repeatedly (many pointed out that during the Iraq war that this sounded like “In Fallujah” due to her accent), and for the next five-and-a-half minutes she manically cycles through various phrases, creating a sound collage of personal memories, pop culture references (“M-B-V!”), and seemingly randomly shouted lines and observations.

If you just look at the lyrics of “The Leanover” independent of the music, you’ll probably be like “what the hell is this?” (Listening to the song, I suppose you might think the same thing.) But when combined with Robert Johnston’s beautiful guitar-work and the strong rhythm section, somehow it all seems to come together — to an extent. The actual “meaning” of the song remains largely impenetrable, but in a way where I think I can still figure it out if I listen one more time. At least that was my mindset early on after I discovered the song, but then I realized that knowing exactly what it meant would ruin the charms that make it so endlessly replayable to begin with.

The lyrics understandably get singled out by writers, but the extra facet of this song’s greatness is simply in its delivery. In the post-Radiohead era, I sometimes feel like the “hip” thing to be in indie these days is dour and gloomy, singing in an oppressively sad tone about some serious topic or another. I’m already a boring person — I don’t need to compound that by listening to boring music. Contrast that to “The Leanover”, which is pure joy. Even without really understanding the lyrics, Tompkins’ sheer exuberance and enthusiasm make the song worth listening to. As the song’s sound grows, especially in the final couple of minutes, I dare you not to smile. The fact that those qualities come along with such a thought-provoking and interesting lyrical style is just icing on the cake.

A lot of the best qualities of “The Leanover” come out even more on the live version, which appears on the band’s Live at the Annandale Hotel album. Hearing Tompkins perform this song in a live setting is incredible, as she somehow has enough breath to get through all of its words and is able to stay on just the right beat. The studio version has a spontaneous sort of sound to begin with, which the live performance accentuates. It’s obviously worth seeking out if you’re half as into this band as I am.

As of right now, “The Leanover” is probably my favorite song. “Obsession” doesn’t really go far enough — I want to live inside of this song. If I was stranded on a desert island with just “The Leanover”, I could probably be okay, because it’s one of the few songs I listen to that makes my day better whenever I hear it.

Single-Song Obsessions: Kate Bush — “Misty”

In our current age of ADD, I’ve been somewhat blessed with an extremely long attention span. Unfortunately, I don’t really use it to do anything productive, but it has given me a special love for long songs — really long songs. Whenever I see an album with a song over ten minutes long, I get really excited.

Long songs are special little nuggets in the music world, especially these days when most bands are focused on trying to create the next great three-minute pop single that can be added to someone’s “workin’ out” playlist on their iPod shuffle. They allow so many more possibilities for storytelling and showcases of musical skill. Of course, they also require a lot of ambition and are difficult to pull off effectively, which is why most bands steer clear of them.

My favorite recent use of long songs is easily Kate Bush’s late-2011 album 50 Words for Snow (which I stupidly left off my “best albums of 2011” list, something that still eats at me even though nobody else cares). It’s a delight for long song aficionados, with just seven songs that add up to a 65-minute run time — the shortest song is album closer “Among Angels” which is 6:49. The longest is “Misty”, which is 13:32.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also my favorite song on the album. In fact, it could be said that I am somewhat obsessed with “Misty” — not just the song itself, but all of the artistic qualities it represents. After the album came out, I excitedly told everyone about how it had a “13-minute song about falling in love with a snowman.” Because who makes a 13-minute song about falling in love with a snowman? Why would anyone do that? And how could it possibly be good?

Perhaps the only person in the world who could do it or would do it is Kate Bush, who in her 30+ year career has consistently pushed the boundaries of art and has an affinity for oddball subject matter. A very underrated trait among great artists, especially ones I admire, is the willingness to go through with ideas that seem insane on the surface. As someone who has a lot of half-finished posts sitting in my drafts folder on this blog, I feel a lot of respect towards Bush, who sat down at her piano and hammered this song out because she knew it would be good. I imagine her picking up the phone during the writing process and having to tell whoever called “I can’t speak right now. I’m working on my song about loving a snowman.” She probably put off other real-life responsibilities while writing her snowman song, confident that people would want to listen to it when it was finished. To me, that is pretty much the definition of an artist.

Now, when you read that the song is about falling in love with a snowman, you probably figured “oh, it’s a metaphor for being with a cold, distant lover or something.” Nope. Another reason why this song is great is that Bush attacks the subject matter head-on instead of using bland, figurative language. Above a recurring piano figure, she recounts building the snowman, then how the snowman ends up in her bed.

Unfortunately, like all one-night affairs with snowmen, Bush’s tryst was doomed to end in heartbreak. “I can feel him melting in my hand,” she laments, knowing that you only have a limited amount of time to be with a snowman. At about the 8-minute mark, a guitar and some light strings join the piano as the song picks up in tempo. “I can’t find him… the sheets are soaking,” Bush sings, her voice full of very real yearning. The seriousness with which Bush sings the song is just another way that I think she’s in on the “joke” and is aware of the song’s dark comedy and absurdity.

But even though this song is absurd, it has a genuine emotional impact. Once you let the initial concept sink in (and since the song is so long, it will if you have the patience), it becomes a pretty stirring tale of two star-crossed lovers who obviously can never have a future. She was the good girl from the high-class family who wanted the best things in life. He was three balls of snow stacked on top of each other with a mouth full of dead leaves. You can see why it would never work out.

“Misty” is probably not a song that everyone will enjoy — you have to have patience and a tolerance for some weirdness. But when it comes to unabashed love songs, I’ll take this one over just about anything from the last few years, especially the little three-minute radio songs. It’s an absolutely unique song by an artist who clearly doesn’t think like everyone else.

Tig Notaro — “Live”

In addition to being a big dork about music, I’m also significantly dorky about comedy. I fit nicely into that stereotype of the person who “takes comedy seriously”: I’m the guy who explains jokes from The Simpsons, tries to explain to you why Family Guy sucks, and spends too much time writing and analyzing his own jokes that aren’t even all that good. And my views on comedy aren’t that dissimilar from my views on music: I think the best, most enduring stand-up comedy comes out of some sort of personal fear or despair, and at its best it will make you think in addition to enjoying it on a basic level.

Comedian Tig Notaro performed her set that comprises Live (the title is the verb, as in living) a couple months ago at The Largo, a club in Los Angeles. Word spread of it pretty quickly among comedy-types on Twitter and elsewhere: Louis C.K. described it as one of the few masterful standup sets he’d ever seen, and fellow performers Ed Helms and Bill Burr both expressed their awe of Notaro’s performance. Louis liked it so much that he decided the world needed to hear it, and he’s currently selling it at his website for five dollars.

So what’s so special about this performance? Notaro performed it just hours after being diagnosed with cancer in both of her breasts, and just weeks after her mother died in a freak accident, her long-term partner broke up with her, and she suffered from a life-threatening bacteria in her intestines that caused her to lose 20 pounds. In the face of that mind-blowing adversity, Notaro remains calm and good-humored, even starting the show by greeting her audience with “Hello! How are you? I have cancer! How are you?”

Notaro’s comedic voice is very wry and calm, which in some ways makes her a perfect fit for subject matter that sometimes goes to the darkest places imaginable. At first her audience is stunned and not sure how to react to her brazen material about potentially being near death — frequently during the show she has to assure them that “it’s going to be okay,” before adding “well, you’re going to be okay. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.” A lot of what makes Live such a unique and incredible document is how the classic relationship with stand-up and audience unfolds over the course of the 30-minute set, as eventually the awkward silence gives way to laughter (and, according to people who were at the show, tears). Near the end, Notaro decides maybe she should go back to performing some of her old material, at which point a man with a booming voice in the audience yells “NO! NO. THIS IS FUCKING INCREDIBLE.”

Live resembles a typical comedy set even less than Tig’s usual stuff, which has always favored longer comedic storytelling over “jokes.” For the most part it’s just her talking about all the crazy things that have happened to her with a baffled sense of resignation. On paper it may not sound too funny, but Notaro is remarkably able to wring tons of laughs out of the most morbid subject matter. One of the funniest parts of the show comes when Notaro wonders if God is looking over her and saying “I think she can take a little more.” Notaro never is angry or blames anyone for what has happened to her, but instead is just nonplussed at the litany of horrible things that life has thrown at her for no reason.

So, even though it’s not music, Live is maybe the best thing I’ve listened to this year. If Tig was a musician it could be a classic, moving album, and if she was a writer it could be a touching, heartfelt memoir. (Notaro actually did land a book deal after this whole ordeal.) Like the best comedy, it’s funny and thought-provoking, but it is also incredibly inspiring to hear someone who has been through hell just go on stage and make people laugh about it for 30 minutes. And while most comedy albums are rehearsed endlessly, there’s a spontaneity to Live that makes it unique beyond just the rare and frank subject matter.

Notaro is apparently doing better since Live was recorded. She appeared on Conan saying she has received a double mastectomy and is currently cancer-free. I urge basically anyone to go to Louis C.K.’s website and download the special. Four dollars from each purchase will go to Tig herself, and she plans to donate some of the money to breast cancer research. I highly doubt you’ll find a better way to spend five dollars this year.