Friday, January 25, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: The Rake's Song

In rock-n-roll, the subject matter is not always clean and lovely. Of course it isn’t.

Because for all of the lovey-dovey splendor of, say, “Love Me Tender” or “Peggy Sue” or “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “God Only Knows,” there is always the grittier, less pleasant underside that is so prevalent and so powerful on rock’s landscape it’s impossible to fully tell the story without it.

Hence “Gimme Shelter” and “For What It’s Worth” and “Revolution” and “Freddie’s Dead.” And “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Living For the City” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And so on.

And there’s love and the darkness it brings with it. Jealousy. Obsession. Sickness. Rage. Maybe even…MURDER???? (cue scary music)

But seriously. In even the prettiest rock-n-roll people get stalked (“Every Breath You Take.”) In rock-n-roll people are beset with blind fits of jealousy that leads them to madness (“Alison” comes to mind, to name just one). And in rock-n-roll, people sometimes even die. And not cleanly and wussily like “Seasons in the Sun.” No, I’m talking rage-filled death like in “Hey Joe.” Or cold, detached murder like “Nebraska.”

Rock-n-roll. An American Killer! (cue music again…no, Scott, not the Benny Hill theme…fine, forget it!)

This happy topic leads us to this week’s installment of Favorite Song Friday.

The Decembrists – “The Rake’s Song”

If you don’t know the song, I implore you to listen to it and to admire its power and the sheer virtuosity of one of the most talented American bands to come along in years.

And I apologize for making you listen to a song about infanticide.

(Oh, and the video, I just noticed, is also the stuff of nightmares. Win-win!)

Not unlike (coincidentally, I swear) the choice of “Cannonball”  in the first installement of Favorite Song Friday, “The Rake’s Song” is propelled along by a thunderous bassline that dominates the entire song, this time courtesy of Nate Query. Colin Meloy’s acoustic guitar sits neatly on top of it as it pulsates three notes at a time, again not at all unlike the way Kim Deal does in "Cannonball."

The similarities end there.

Where “Cannonball” was, as discussed, an exercise in restraint, “The Rake’s Song” is a gorgefest of sinful malevolence. Everything about the song is violent.

Colin Maloy's nasal sneer has never sounded more sinister and downright sadistic as he does in spitting out the story of the evil and unrepentant rake, who feels burdened by his three kids after his wife dies so he decides to dispatch all three with brutal haste. Jenny Conlee’s Hammond Organ roars in at each chorus and cloaks the bass and guitar chords in evil grandiosity, the kind of sound you expect to hear when entering a haunted house. And John Moen, while remarkably restrained on drums at first, eventually hits them so hard I think you actually hear the snare say “ow” at the 2:02 mark.

The lyrics, of course, are all Colin, and represent the Decembrists at their high-English, hyper-literate best, telling the tale of a man who simply wants to live “easy and free” and is never bothered by his decision to snuff out his entire family. A sampling:

One can one do when one is a widower?
Shamefully saddled with three little pests?
All I wanted was the freedom of a new life
So my burden I began to divest.

Charlotte I buried after feeding her foxglove,
Dawn was easy, she was drowned in the bath
Isaiah fought but was easily bested
Burned his body for incurring my wrath.

Yikes. Someone has anger issues. And commitment issues. Despite his lovely taste in flowers.

None of this would work, of course, if “The Rake’s Song” weren’t so meticulously and exquisitely crafted as a standalone rock-n-roll song. It’s downright catchy, from the thumpity bass to the “All right, all right, all right!” chorus to the power chord-driven mania of it all. If it weren’t for the high-test rock opera that surrounded it on their wondrous 2009 The Hazards of Love album (something about a forest and a queen and bad people doing bad things…trust me, it works) you could easily see something like this falling into one of the Ramones' sets. Or Lou Reed’s.

It’s brutal and it’s ugly and its subject matter caused the band to be lambasted and vilified by the self-righteous faux moralist crowd who denounce the evils of rock-n-roll and Hollywood while doing things like cheering on American wartime violence in their next hypocritic breath. Fine. Good for them. Yawn.

But it works, truly. It works in the sanguine, subversive spirit in which rock-n-roll was founded—getting into those bad, nasty areas we don’t really like to talk about, but damned if we can’t sing about them. “The Rake’s Song” not only embraces bad behavior, it practically throws it a graduation party.

No comments:

Post a Comment