Marc Cohn @ The City Winery, 2012 Jan 26

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{This has apparently been sitting in my Drafts folder for four years.  Oops.  I never finished it, so it ends abruptly. -=-BLG}

It’s been a while (a real long while) since I’ve gotten to a Marc Cohn show, but this one was worth it.  He played the City Winery, which is an odd hybrid of concert space, fine dining, boutique winery, and microbrewery.  I ordered my ticket early and got a really good seat at the last row of tables on the floor, just before the risers to a second tier.  And I snagged one that faced the stage (as about half of them face away), saving myself a tremendous crick in my neck.

I arrived well early so as to get dinner ordered and done before the show.  The food selection is a bit limited though it seemed like there was lots of good stuff on the menu.  I got a flatbread pizza and finished with an order of house-made pretzels that somehow or another are made from the house wine.  I don’t really get how that works.  The pretzels were fine (crunchy and mostly unsalted, which actually is what I wanted).   Since I don’t drink, I can’t speak to the wines.

Marc Cohn and guests at the City Winery : 2013 Feb 14

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I’ve sort of blown the deadline on my 30 Days of Marc Cohn, but I can at least offer up this playlist. 🙂

  1. “From the Station”
  2. “Ghost Train”
  3. “Perfect Love”
  4. “The Letter” with Jon Leventhal
  5. “29 Ways”
  6. “Listening to Levon” with Dave Mansfield
  7. “Healing Hands” with Rebecca Pidgeon
  8. “Witness” with Rebecca Pidgeon
  9. “Silver Thunderbird”
  10. “Walking in Memphis”
  11. “Only Living Boy in New York”
  12. “Into the Mystic”
  13. “True Companion”
  14. “The Things We’ve Handed Down”
  15. “One Safe Place”

Rest for the Weary (30 Days of Marc Cohn – Day 19)

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Rest for the Weary
The Rainy Season

One of the things I like about Marc Cohn is that his songs aren’t all about finding, having, and losing the girl. Every album includes very personal songs that nonetheless seem to be universal. I’m also struck by how well his songs, without generally being all that upbeat, convey a certain subtle, almost unreasonable, hopefulness. More than optimism, it’s faith that, despite all appearances, there is something wonderful in even the most mundane times.

For a while this song was a touchstone in my life. It doesn’t really reflect any details of my personal history but I was very moved by the thought that someday, there will be rest for the weary. I think it’s both telling and fantastic that he passes by “love for the lonely” so quickly and dwells on “rest for the weary”. A lot of the time, that’s what we hope for: Not a surplus of joy but a cessation of struggle — just quiet time to enjoy life and life’s blessings.

I hope there was some laughter
Cause I know there were some tears

That is just an amazing line. It captures the whole arc of a family’s life. It’s also genuinely sad, in that he knows there were tears but he is unsure of the laughter.

Now I’m just another traveler
On another winding road
I’m trying to walk some kind of line
I’m trying to pull some kind of load
Now sometimes I move real easy
Sometimes I can’t catch my breath
Sometimes I see my father’s footsteps
And man it scares me half to death

These are the lines that made the song resonate with me. No child of suicide can ever think about his parent’s death without wondering, at least once, if there’s any difference — if the same siren song will call out. You try to understand but at the same time, you fear understanding. You don’t want to think the choice was senseless, but you don’t want it to make sense, either. And you always worry, in some corner of your mind, that you might have made the same choice, that you might still. For me, it’s never been a strong urge but I know that I shy away from thinking about my father’s death in part for this reason.

Although it probably wasn’t written that way, this is why the song is hopeful, for me: It gives voice to a hope I have, which is that after everything, my father found peace and rest.

“Girl of Mysterious Sorrow” (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 17)

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Girl of Mysterious Sorrow
Burning the Daze

I’ll make a confession.  I did not get, at first, that this song was about graveside remembrance.  In fact I felt quite clever to figure it out.  Listening to it again, it now seems pretty obvious and I was just dense the first time around.  There is cleverness in the song, in that he never comes out and says he’s at a graveside, but it really isn’t as subtle as I had thought. In any event, it seems clear now that this is a part of his Missing Mother triptych (along with “Ghost Train” and “Momma’s in the Moon”). It would be trite to comment that losing one’s mother, especially when young, will be a formative experience that naturally influences everything else that comes in life.  It’s no surprise that he’s moved repeatedly to engage with that loss on every album.  Here he tackles head-on the lack of answers to questions he never had the chance to ask.

I’m coming to see you, tomorrow sometime
Gonna bring you some roses, gonna tear off the vines
Gonna talk to the wind that blows through the trees
Kiss you like always from down on my knees
Gonna ask you some questions, get no replies
Wipe all the tears, falling down from my eyes
‘Cause the one that I wanted, I never could know

I think I was misled because I was still in my literal stage of lyric comprehension.  I probably should have remembered that roses grow in bushes, not on vines, and thus the second line is about clearing a tombstone.  The first of many heartbreaks comes with “Gonna ask you some questions and get no replies”.

Gonna park in the street, gonna open the gate
Walk to the spot where you always wait
I’ll be shaking my head like I usually do
‘Cause the name and the dates tell me nothing about you

Here we see why he keeps coming back:  He has the facts of his mother’s life but not the truth of it.  She died when he was very young, before he could know her as a person at all.  One imagines he’s had family stories (although most likely people have been circumspect even in those), but he has nothing to connect them to.  He’s looking for meaning, for a connection that was broken far too soon, and this patch of ground is the only place he has to look for it.

But I’ll sit in the shadows and let you explain
All of the sadness and all of the pain
Did it all seem so hopeless you just had to let go?

This is odd at first.  How can he wait for her to explain?  She’s dead.  But that’s the point: He’s spent his whole life waiting for understanding that simply isn’t going to come.  There’s also the first hint of something even darker here.  I have no knowledge of the circumstance under which Marc Cohn’s mother died but this line makes me think it might have been suicide.  If not that, then the end of a long drawn-out illness.  People who die suddenly, unexpectedly, usually wouldn’t be described as having “let go”.

Yeah I’m coming to see you but I really can’t stay
There’s just a few things I needed to say
Like why were you hiding so much of yourself?
Why were you living for somebody else?

The lyric site I consulted has this as “but I really can’t wait”, but that’s pretty clearly wrong.  First, why would he be eager to visit?  The rest of the song sounds resigned and reluctant.  Second, of course, is the deeper meaning.  His life, unlike hers, moves on.  He can visit her in the past but he can’t linger there.

It might be putting too much import on a word choice probably motivated by rhyme scheme, but I think it’s significant that he doesn’t ask the questions; he says them.  He isn’t really expecting to understand.  He’s just expressing bemusement and confusion.  He might not even believe there is an answer.

Well I know that I’ve always been looking for you
But lately it’s not such a hard thing to do
‘Cause it seems like inside every woman I know
There’s a girl of mysterious sorrow

A bit of self-analysis for Cohn, here.  He knows that his mother’s death has cast a shadow over everything he’s done, even when he wasn’t conscious of it.  Her death informs his life, all the choices and desires and hopes and fears.  He’s been searching his whole life for the connection he can never make.  And then he’s explicit:  He’s been looking for his mother in all the women he’s known.  He senses there’s something universal to her story, to her plight (which is one reason why I believe it might have been a suicide).  The “mysterious sorrow” is that unbridgeable ineffable something that he can’t quite puzzle out but which he sees reflected around him.

This song speaks to me on two levels.  First, I recently lost my mother in a car accident.  Although I haven’t visited a grave yet, and though I had the joy of knowing her throughout my life, I can’t hear Cohn’s plaintive loss without feeling an echo resonate in that empty place that has erupted in my heart.  There’s something primal about losing one’s mother, something universal and personal all at once.

Second, I did lose a parent to suicide, though it was my father and not my mother.  I was closer in age to when Cohn lost his mother, too, right on the edge of teendom and looking for answers and guidance as I grew into a man.  It took me four years to even begin asking the questions, much less finding the answers, and like Cohn, I really can only say them, not genuinely ask them.  There is the same unbridgeable gap between what I feel and whatever my father felt.  Part of me worries I will never understand.  Part of me is terrified that someday I will.

More on my father and I when this compilation hits “Rest for the Weary”.


Strangers in a Car (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 16)

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Strangers in a Car
Marc Cohn

Now we reach the final song of the “car trilogy” (after “Listening to Levon” and “Silver Thunderbird“).  It certainly wasn’t planned to make automobiles the pivot point of my 30-day exploration of Marc Cohn, but it’s worked out nicely.  “Listening to Levon” is Cohn thinking back about a relationship about to end in a car; “Strangers in a Car” might well be that same encounter about to happen.

There’s a stranger in a car
Driving down your street
Acts like he knows who you are
Slaps his hand on the empty seat and says
“Are you gonna get in
Or are you gonna stay out?”
Just a stranger in a car
Might be the one they told you about

This is an unusual second-person song.  We assume that this is not literal truth — that the narrator isn’t watching someone get into a car with someone they don’t know.  The strangers are more metaphorical, of the “Does anybody ever really know anybody?” type.  The driver acts like he knows who she is — he should know.  Indeed, the action is casually intimate:  A car pulls up, a boyfriend gestures for his girlfriend to hop in.  The question is so wonderfully ambiguous.  It could be a friendly welcome, but it seems to contain just the hint of menace.  The driver is forcing her hand, leading her to a choice she might not be ready to make — elsewise, why would she have been hesitating once the car pulls up?  It’s probably no coincidence that, whenever I find myself humming this song, I think the line is “Might be the one they warned you about” (which carries a darker connotation than the actual line).

Well you never were one for cautiousness
You open the door
He gives you a tender kiss
And you can’t even hear them no more

I’ve always heard the line as “Can’t even hear him no more”, though admittedly it’s hard to pick out from the vocals. Although the lyric as found online links up to the “All the voices of choices”, I prefer my (mis)-hearing. It underlines the gulf between the driver and his passenger. It’s an almost-cliche moment in a dying relationship, when both parties are going through the motions but aren’t really invested.

All the voices of choices
Now only one road remains
And strangers in a car
Two hearts
Two souls
Two lanes

I absolutely love this sequence.  Things escalate so smoothy and so naturally.  Now it’s not just the driver whom she can’t hear.  She’s lost the voices of her inner angels, the whisper telling her it can be better, or at least, what it all means.  All her options have come down to the choice she’s made before getting into the car, and now she’s just along for the ride.  The repetition of twoness divides them and makes them separate.  And of course, on a two-lane road, all traffic is headed in different directions.

You don’t know where you’re goin’
You don’t know what you’re doin’
Hell it might be the highway to heaven
And it might be the road to ruin

The theme of dichotomy remains, all the futures laid out bare, but the fact of choice mocked:  She doesn’t know where she’s headed, she doesn’t know what she’ll find there.  All she has left is the ride, and when it ends, much ends with it.

But this is a song
For strangers in a car
Baby maybe that’s all
We really are

This has always struck me as full of the odd hope and wistful resignation that runs through many of Cohn’s songs.  It’s as if he acknowledges the ending on the way but he absolves her of it.  The song isn’t about the destination; it’s about the ride.

Listening to Levon (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 14)

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Listening to Levon
Join the Parade

This was the pop song leading off Join the Parade, the first studio album from Marc Cohn in a long time — and the first after he was shot.  This gave it some emotional oomph beyond the song. It’s a warm nostalgic tune which probably helped inspire (or at least reinforce) his desire to visit the songs of his youth in Listening Booth: 1970.

There are some flourishes I like.  The use of detail — his dad’s “blue Valiant”, his insistent remembrance of Mary’s hair and skin — give it verisimilitude.  The listener totally believes this is Marc remembering and sharing this fond memory of his youth.  Except, we learn later that key details are just made up:

I changed her name
To protect the innocent
I might have even lied
About the car

That has got to be one of my favorite lines in music.  It’s so playful and mischievous.  You can just see him grinning a wide smirk at us as he admits up-front the song is a sham.  I even love that he “might” have lied about the car.  We’ll never know.  That line struck me when I first heard it because I had been spending the early part of the song thinking — I kid you not — “I thought his dad had a silver Thunderbird”.  So part of me thought “Ah, that explains it” (as if a person only ever owns one car in his life).

As is typical, there’s more going on here than just reminiscence.  This month-long exploration of Marc Cohn’s songs has made me aware how very many of them involve relationships past their sell-by dates.  Cohn obviously didn’t stay with “Mary” — he doesn’t even know where she is now.  This courtship ended, and one gets the impression not too long after the rainy night in the car.  Apparently Mary felt his lack of attention.  Now, from the vantage of many years, he’s looking back and feeling regret — not that the relationship went no further, but that the ending of it hurt her, that he hurt her, and probably through accidental indifference more than fiery explosion.

The whole song is sweet but bittersweet.  Cohn is more than distracted — he’s “lost”.  His willingness to own up to his oblivious mistreatment of Mary (even if it has to be done via a broadcast with little hope of reaching its intended recipient) might be evidence that he has finally found himself, or at least made peace with what he did in his youth.  He wryly notes the best possible revenge Mary could have on a singer-songwriter:

It serves me right if
You can’t even hear me singing
If you tuned me out a long time ago
And it serves me right
If you already changed the station
And you’re listening right now to that old boy on the radio

One hopes that, maybe, Mary did hear the song, and forgave him at last.

Walk Through the World (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 13)

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“Walk Through the World”
The Rainy Season

This song holds a special place for me.  Marc Cohn was a transformative album for me — heck, I even considered attending grad school at the University of Tennessee just so I could be “Walking in Memphis” — and so I looked forward with eager anticipation to Cohn’s sophomore effort.  This was both the first single and the first track on the album, so it burst upon me as the first new Marc Cohn I’d heard since the tremendous debut.  It had a high bar to clear.

The Rainy Season suffered in public estimation from being the followup to an album that won its artist the Best New Artist Grammy.  It had a different style and a different vibe from Marc Cohn, and it didn’t capture the public in the same way.  That’s a shame, because it’s really a strong album with many different nooks and crannies in which to find beauty.

“Walk Through the World” seems like an upbeat and cheery opener to the album, and maybe the dissonance this causes with the later, darker tunes helped undermine the popular appeal.  In any event, “Walk…” is catchy enough.  It’s a little unusual for Marc Cohn, in that it appears to be about a relationship that’s actually working.  There’s all the pop and hum of a couple in the middle stages of love, past the awkwardness, not yet pulling away.  There’s longing

I’m sitting in a lonely room without a view,
Wishing I was there with you instead

driven by a physical separation

I’m writing you this letter from some old hotel
I can feel the distance between us
From the Spanish Steps to the Liberty Bell
I know the angels have seen us…

But there isn’t yet the wistfulness of, say, “If I Were An Angel” or “Shadow“.

More interestingly, if The Rainy Season is a concept album (and I don’t think it is, but roll with me here), then this is the prologue/overture.  And that’s very intriguing indeed.  For while the song is peppy and the vibe hopeful, there are some dark clouds gathering.  First, although the singer sounds full of love, he has to implore his lover to walk through the world with him; they’re not doing it already.  There’s physical separation that, all too easily, could become emotional distance.    He’s writing not just from “some old hotel” room, but from a “lonely” one “without a view” — maybe the same one where things will fall apart in “Paper Walls”.  He’s wandered all over the world — from Rome (the Spanish Steps) to Philadelphia (the Liberty Bell) — but she’s stuck in New York (where I choose to believe Seventh Avenue lies).  Perhaps most importantly, she is just “hanging by a thread” — that phrase never means anything good.

Even though he’s in a room without a view, he’s “staring out across the rooftops”.  This means the room has a literal window but metaphorically he’s having trouble seeing — perhaps trouble seeing a future together.  Instead he sees the “writing on the wall” (another phrase whose common usage is ominous). And in what may the most brillant connection, he “hears a little bit of thunder” — a rolling tumult that presages the coming Rainy Season.

In the end, like many another pop-sounding song (say, “Every Breath You Take” or “Luca”), things are much darker underneath the brightly-speckled breezy chords.  “Walk Through the World” is less a paean to a flowering love than it is a self-consciously desperate attempt to will one into being.  Things are slipping away, and he doesn’t know what more to do but to earnestly exhort his lover to take the next step with him… knowing it likely won’t be enough.

Review: Tron Uprising (Soundtrack)

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Tron: Uprising (soundtrack)
Joseph Trapanese

This is not Daft Punk.  This is not Daft Punk’s soundtrack for Tron: Legacy.

Neither of those are bad things.  I really enjoyed Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack and thought it evoked the movie’s themes flawlessly.  But Uprising is its own show and should have its own music.  The needle to be threaded was very tight: The show’s sound had to be compatible with the movie but distinct in its own right.  Joseph Trapanese, who collaborated with Daft Punk on the movie soundtrack, does a great job resolving that tension.

It doesn’t take long in the first episode to notice that the music was going to stand on its own.  “Beck’s Theme” opens sounding thematically similar to “The Grid”, with synthesized strings that sound almost like wind chimes and then a driving beat underlying a motion motif.  Trapanese’s music is a bit faster, a bit more insistent, which it has to be if only because the format is so much more compressed — 22 minutes versus 127.  The Beck/Tron leitmotif is a bit more open-ended than the Legacy one, a little less resolved.

There is a progression throughout the first (only?) season of Tron: Uprising.  The music begins as distinct from Daft Punk, almost aggressively so, but hints and flavors begin to bleed through.  As Trapanese can be more confident that he’s carved out his own musical landscape, he can afford to allow more and more elements of the Legacy soundtrack to come through.  This makes a sort of meta-sense, as Uprising is a prequel to Legacy — as the season progresses, we are moving closer in time to the film (even if it’s not really clear how they’ll get from here to there).

Nearly a third of this album is made up of music from one episode, “Scars”.  In a Joss Whedon show, “Scars” would be the so-called WHAM episode … the one when everything changes and what you thought you knew is no longer true and never has been.  A two-parter, “Scars” revisits scenes from the flashback in Legacy:  It fills in details and adds new texture to Clu 2’s rebellion and shades Tron in a bit more fully.  In fact, this episode gives Tron more screen time and depth than the entire Legacy movie.  It’s also a masterful use of the surprise reveal, when we learn that what Legacy implied — that Tron is defeated by Clu 2 and then becomes Rinzler — does not happen immediately.  We even get a cameo of Kevin Flynn (who only appears one other time in the season).

Fitting for such an important episode, the middle tracks comprise an epic “Scars Suite”.  It has all the major themes and a grand sensibility to it.  There are a lot of issues wrapped up in the story — trust and betrayal, fall and redemption — and the music is comparably complex.  It is really here, in the “Scars Suite”, that Trapanese rises to the level of his material.  In other places the soundtrack can veer from the grandiose to the merely bombastic, but the suite is sparse and deep.

Overall, it’s a very satisfying soundtrack to a very ambitious series.  Trapanese does a masterful job connecting to what came before without being overshadowed by it.  One of the reasons to wish fervently that Disney sees the light and renews Tron: Uprising is that we might see further development of the musical themes.



True Companion (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 12)

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True Companion
Marc Cohn

I’ll admit it — I was very on the fence about including this song.  It’s always struck me as somewhat mushy and it so clearly is “the wedding song”.  It seemed a bit trite to add it to my list, especially in the year when I got married.

But then I listened to it again and thought about it and realized that there’s a reason it’s so many couples’ wedding song:  It’s a great song for a marriage — and not just because of his “vision of a  girl in white” whose veil inspires trembling fingers.  It’s just so thoroughly earnest about the deep abiding love that the singer expresses.  Annie didn’t even have a veil but I definitely had the trembling.  It wasn’t nerves, exactly.  It was more like I was bottling up the vast energy of all the years to come, the untold sweep of love and all the potential paths we’re going to walk together, all the limitless worlds stretching out from that day.

OK, so it’s mushy.  But I guess I am too, in this case.

And maybe what really catches me is what comes after:

When the years have done irreparable harm 
I can see us walking slowly arm in arm 
Just like the couple on the corner do 
‘Cause girl I will always be in love with you 
And when I look in your eyes 
I’ll still see that spark 
Until the shadows fall 
Until the room grows dark 
Then when I leave this Earth 
I’ll be with the angels standin’ 
I’ll be out there waiting for my true companion

I generally don’t like to quote at length but that just about sums it up, doesn’t it?  That‘s what I’m looking forward; that’s what I’ve been seeking and I’ve been so blessed to find.


Perfect Love (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 10)

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Perfect Love
Marc Cohn

This is another gentle song.  It’s incredibly an incredibly sweet tale.  I have to wonder if a real couple served as a model and if so, who?  It’s not his parents (since we know Marc’s mom died when he was young) and it’s not him (because he would have been 5 years old when “they worked one summer together at the ’64 World’s Fair” and he didn’t marry until 1999.

By the way, we should take a moment to appreciate the writing in “They met Bobby Kennedy there … it was just before the fall”.  There’s the literal meeting, of course — RFK visited the Fair in late summer and they met him.   But there’s always something bittersweet about the Kennedys in American pop culture, and 1964 is not too long before 1968 and RFK’s assassination … which is a more metaphorical fall.

It’s also impressive how he sums up a pair of lives across many years using just a bridge and a few lines of verse.  You can see their lives play out like on a home movie — the jobs, the kids, the struggles, the quiet triumphs — and it’s all caught up in “Well, they had their share of hard times too / But whatever they were, they never let it get them down.”

Then the song ends with its gentle evocation of what, maybe, everyone wants: Their quiet comfort together, holding hands, probably not saying much because they’ve said it all before many times.  This is the “one safe place” he’s longing for — not a where but a who.