Monday, May 29, 2006

Working titles

The Smiths

What makes a great song title? Maybe this sounds like a no-brainer. Most titles draw from the song's lyrics, so if the lyrics are good it stands to reason the title is too. But as the number of limp, thoughtless titles appended to otherwise decent tracks attest, this isn't always the case; there's art in the selection.

Some titles get by on sheer cleverness. Almost everything on McLusky's The Difference Between Me and You Is That I'm Not On Fire, for example, qualifies ("Without MSG I Am Nothing," "Your Children Are Waiting For You To Die") as do many of Grandaddy's ("The 'Go' In The Go For It," "Broken Household Appliance National Forest") and Liars' (more than I could list). Other effective titles are extremely simple, but evocative; they mark a song's mood, foretell its effect. Here I'm thinking Massive Attack's intensely physical "Teardop," or Low's alliterative "Weight of Water," which is, in fact, both heavy and fluid.

But what always gets me--and maybe it's my literature background--are titles that imply an unfolding narrative. They're long, conversational, have a direct address and seem to mark the middle of a scene. Instead of saying "this song is about x," they loosely sketch some characters, then invite you to do the work.

These are more random than exhaustive. Feel free to add.

Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before -The Smiths
There's so much interpretive space here. The speaker's the clown in every crowd, the tiresome bore, even the shy girl who has to put a disclaimer in front of everything she says. Then there's the meta aspect, the fact that you have heard this before and because it's such a fantastic song--one of the Smiths' best--you'll hear it many, many times again.

Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything - Superchunk
It's the exasperated end of an argument that's going nowhere and never will. It follows lines like "How many times do I have to tell you?" and "I thought we already decided..."

I Don't Know What I Can Save You From - Kings of Convenience
A guy with a savior complex and his desperate, needy girlfriend. But he's reached his limit. Finally. And she can't believe her ears.

Trying To Tell You I Don't Know - Freedy Johnston
One of the saddest titles of one of the saddest songs (about, as the lyrics go, selling the family farm to feed the band). Suggests profound resignation: wishing you had the answers and could make things right, knowing you're always letting other people down but not being able to do anything about it.

Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone - The Walkmen
A dramatic masterpiece of adolescent self pity. Said just prior to moving to Brooklyn and forming a band.

Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl - The Barbarians
More ha ha than anything, but there's historical context. Spoken by a scandalized suburbanite in 1965 to his long-haired, Beatles-mad son. Anticipates decades of even greater gender confusion.

Strangeways, Here We Come, The Smiths (US, UK)
Foolish, Superchunk (US, UK)
Quiet Is the New Loud, Kings of Convenience (US, UK)
Can You Fly, Freedy Johnston (US, UK)
Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Dead, The Walkmen (US, UK)
Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era (US)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right Amy... too many to list. Here are a few from a quick scan of my iTunes playlist:

We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful -- Morrissey (at his most Schadenfreude)

Some Days Are Better Than Others -- U2 (Bono at his most understated?? :)

The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore -- PJ Harvey

I've Been Waitin' For Tomorrow (All Of My Life) -- The The

Pulling Mussels (From The Shell) -- Squeeze

Take the Skinheads Bowling -- Camper Van Beethoven

Shake Dog Shake / Jumping Someone Else's Train -- The Cure

Mama Said Knock You Out -- LL Cool J

Woo Hoo -- Blur

-- jc

2:21 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

I remember being totally intrigued by the titles on Slanted and Enchanted. What in the hell would a song called "Loretta's Scars" actually sound like, especially on the same album with a somethng called "Zurich is Stained"? And "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" comes ever so close to too clever, but scurries back from the ledge at the last minute.

Song content increases my affection for the below:

"Mannequin" - Wire

"Shit From an Old Notebook" - The Minutemen (actually, they are even more packed than the Liars with good stuff in my opinion)

And, while recent records have taken the bloom off of the rose a little bit, you'll never convince me that this song and title isn't one for the ages:

"The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret" - Queens of the Stone Age

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mine are...

'You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push The River', Van Morrison

'Night Is Most Uncertain', The Anomoanon

...difficult to choose just one Zappa, but...

'The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution', Frank Zappa (actually not as pretentious as it sounds)

'Ringing Pavlov's Bell Until The Dog Dehydrates', SJ Esau (I hope that is the title of the song; it might just be the refrain...)

'When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy', Capt. Beefheart


10:47 AM  

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