Friday, January 11, 2013

Favorite Song Friday

A new weekly feature here at Reason to Believe, at least for this week (no, I haven’t cleared this with the site’s co-founder, though I sense he’s watching me and quietly smoldering right…about…now…) will be “Favorite Song Friday,” where I (or we…or I) pick a favorite song every week and write about it. Simple, right?

And we’ll (or I’ll) try to make them less than obvious choices, just so we’re not always writing about, say, “Born to Run” or “A Day in the Life” or “Radio Free Europe” or “Fernando.” (Hee. I kid. Just making sure you’re paying attention).

This week, up first, one of my absolute lock-down rock-solid favorite songs of the 1990s.

The Breeders - “Cannonball”

In Almost Famous, in a deleted scene that ranks as one of the great cutting room floor scenes in movie history, lifelong friends and Stillwater bandmates Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and Jeff Beebe (Jason Lee) have a discussion that could have been a movie unto itself—they talk about the how the greatness of rock-n-roll, and all that we love about it, can be found in the subtleties. Or, as Russell puts it, “It’s not what you put into it. It’s what you leave out….That’s what you remember. That’s rock-n-roll. What you leave out.”

Hence "Cannonball" by The Breeders.

“Cannonball” is an unbearably catchy song, so utterly pop in form and sound. It propels along like a joyride on Josephine Wiggs' jaunty and unforgettable bassline and some awesome little fishhook guitar notes that the Deal sisters bend over the rhythm lines, with cryptically distorted vocals that would have made 1984 Michael Stipe proud.

But “Cannonball” is also brilliant example of what a song doesn’t need to succeed. What it leaves out.

Like guitar solos. There isn't one in sight. Just those great little hooks they occasionally drip in over the crunchy rhythm line, though even those are used sparingly, sometimes showing up and sometimes not.

And drums fills, which barely exist. (Only once, I think).

Or a bridge. Which doesn’t exist.

Or, really, much in the way of lyrics. As best I can tell there are four lines in the song, not including the megaphone-induced chorus so delightfully embeds itself into the listeners’ minds. Though even the sparse words contains a gem like "I'll be your whatever you want." And multiple references to someone being a "little libertine."

And there’s even more (less) in the form of some awesomely unique touches. Like the way Wiggs teases us with two five-note-intro basslines, only then stops and resumes and establishes the song's tempo in a different key. I don’t recall this happening that often in pop songs, if at all, and the result is so jarring and so irresistible that it adds one more delectable layer to the song.

There's also what happens after the 2nd “verse,” which ends with the line, “The bong in this reggae song.” At that moment the music drops out completely, leaving only Kim and Kelley to sweetly harmonize before a fuzzed up runaway guitar explosion snaps us full speed into the chorus again. Only this time, the chorus starts with its second section first (“Hey now – in the shade, in the shade”) before finally immersing itself in the full glow of the chorus (“Want you, coocoo, Cannonball”). It’s a subtle changeup, but it’s there, and it adds a level of anticipation that the best of pop-rock always has to offer.

A third verse repeats pieces of the first and second, followed one final time by the chorus, which only comes once before the bass takes back over and the song ends, abruptly, on the off-beat. And that’s “Cannonball.” Three and a half minutes of strange and slightly unconventional pop that works to an absolute tee.

The Breeders probably didn't have the prime they deserved. Initially an early 90s supergroup where Kim Deal from the Pixies and Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses joined forces (along with Kim’s twin sister Kelley, Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim MacPherson), but by the time Last Splash and “Cannonball” came out in 1993, Donnelly was gone, leaving the Deal sisters to do their thing. And after this song, which was huge on 90s alt-radio and huge on MTV, The Breeders never really landed a second punch quite like the first glorious blow of “Cannonball.”

But man. For at least one moment, they put out a song that was sheer perfection in pop structure, playfulness and, more than anything, restraint. And the result is just a great, great song.

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