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30 Days of Songs: Day 8

May 30, 2011

day 08 – a song that you know all the words to: The New Pornographers: “These Are the Fables”

I have been having a lot of trouble with today’s topic. How can I choose for this one song? I know a lot of songs. I mean A LOT. AJ is always asking me how I know all the words for everything I hear. The secret is that I rarely forget the words to a song once I learn it. I can sing things from memory that I haven’t sung in decades. I can sing entire operas in languages I don’t understand very well (I cannot sing them well). I can sing a medley of show tunes I learned in the seventh grade. Memory retention is one of the chief benefits of singing over speech. It’s why most people I know learned the Preamble to the Constitution by singing Schoolhouse Rock:

The problem, though, is that often if I want to recall the text, I need to sing it again. I know dozens of Mass settings that I can sing from memory, but if I want to speak the text of the Mass in Latin, I’m going to have to sing along, at least in my head. This isn’t always practical. But it’s fun. At least when it’s not embarrassing.

Playing guitar seems to help me memorize songs even more quickly than singing alone. It’s the addition of physical motion to singing, I guess. But it’s also, I think, because my fingers still need some help. Sometimes instead of the music helping me memorize the words, the words end up help me memorize the music. I’ve discovered this through one piece in particular that I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks: “These Are the Fables” by The New Pornographers.

The New Pornographers is one of my favorite bands. Their songs tend to be really interesting musically, often challenging prevailing rock traditions like maintaining a meter throughout a song or using conventional chord structures. The first of their songs I fell in love with was “The Electric Version,” which won me over through its persistent refusal to use a leading tone at cadences. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the gist of it: the leading tone is a pitch that points your ear to the key the piece is in and defines the hierarchy that is the key. When the leading tone is lowered, as it is here, it unmoors the songs harmonies and creates a sort of existential crisis: What key am I in? The leading tone doesn’t turn up until the end of the piece and then only through vocal sliding that sounds almost like the singers were having trouble not singing it. Add to that a melody line that swoops and leaps and refuses to behave in an orderly stepwise fashion, and you’ve got some pretty interesting listening.

Interestingly, when I went in search of guitar tab for this song, I found that transcriptions generally erroneously transcribe the seventh scale degree as a leading tone, not flat-seven. It’s a convention that is so deeply rooted in Western music that I think some people don’t even hear that the seventh degree of the scale is lowered.

Then there are the lyrics. The lyrics of New Pornographers songs are frequently elliptical and sometimes downright surreal. I’d put “Electric Version” in the former category, but “These Are the Fables” is in the latter. Here’s the first verse

In coral and gray, in submarine chambers
One day it swam for the light
The jewels that lit, the cities that float there,
Cities in circles drawn perfect, complete
Holding the secrets on my street.

And that’s just the first verse. Memorizing text like this is always challenging. It’s almost like memorizing a song in a language you don’t speak. Meaning aids memory, but when the words don’t make a lot of sense, sometimes it helps to have memory aids. In this case, my fingers helped me learn the words.

The reason I picked up this song in the first place is because I love the chord changes. They’re interesting and quirky. And the strum rhythms are varied quite a bit throughout the song. This is also atypical of rock music, where a song tends to do more or less one thing over and over. By comparison, New Pornographers songs are like little symphonies. Memorizing the chord patterns took some doing, because they don’t look like chord patterns normally do in the rock or folk songs I’ve been playing. But I discovered that by locking the words to the chords, I can remember both elements better.

I was hoping to bore you with my version of this song as a way of proving my abilities to sing along. However, there have been a few too many things going on around here for me to record it, and that’s not likely to change in the next few days. I’ll try to get to it soon, however. It’s probably for the best that I not have to put myself into a side-by-side comparison with Neko Case.

What songs do you know by heart?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2011 12:27 am

    Istanbul was Constantinople

  2. May 31, 2011 1:24 am

    That was a very interesting explanation of the New Pornographers — also one of my favorite bands. I know all the words to several of their songs, but I think my favorite is Adventures in Solitude. Or Challengers.

    I also learned the preamble to the Constitution via Schoolhouse Rock. It is highly fun to sing.

  3. May 31, 2011 7:27 am

    I know a lot of songs by heart as well, but I recently surprised myself by singing along to the entirety of Jim Croce’s Greatest Hits on a ride back from Annapolis. I hadn’t really listened to the album in years.

    Joni Mitchell’s “Jungle Line” (from The Hissing of Summer Lawns) has no leading tone either. It drove me crazy until I took my LP of it to my high school music teacher and played it for him (I was deep in the throes of AP Harmony at the time) and said, “I’m going to play this for you and I think I know what the deal is with it, but I want to see if you come to the same conclusion I have about it.” He did. I felt ridiculously vindicated.

  4. freshhell permalink
    May 31, 2011 7:50 am

    Lots and lots. And more. Esp Bowie songs – I listened to his albums pretty much every waking moment in high school. Also, a couple of Clash albums. And, well, gee, a million more. I don’t even understand this question unless you’d lived most of your life NOT enmeshed in music like we are in this culture.

  5. May 31, 2011 9:43 am

    One of the nicest compliments anyone has ever given me came from you. I was in the Mikado as a teenager, and then jumped into the production you did ten years later. After the first practice you came up to me and said, “wow! You really do remember all of this music!”

  6. May 31, 2011 10:39 am

    It really annoys me when a song ends (that is, doesn’t fade out) on a chord that is obviously not the tonic. I can’t think of one right now, but, grrr!

  7. May 31, 2011 11:30 am

    Harriet, speaking as someone who understand next to nothing about music (at least not in the sense that you do) I have to say I’m totally fascinated with your take on these things. I find myself very much looking forward to your post in this meme every day. I feel like I learn something every day, even when I don’t totally understand it.

  8. May 31, 2011 1:13 pm

    I love Adventures in Solitude, Violet. One of my favorites as well. I’m not sure I’ve heard Challengers. I will check it out. Jill, I love Joni Mitchell, but I don’t know that album very well. I’ll check it out. Freshhell, I felt kind of the same way about the question. Lemming, I’d forgotten you were in that Mikado! Hugh, I kind of like it when that happens, but I’m a little perverse that way. And it definitely depends on context. Dave, thanks so much. I’m trying not to get too technical — I restrained myself from a detailed chordal analysis of this song, which I’m pretty sure nobody but me would be interested in. I’m loving reading everyone’s versions of this meme. It gives me a sense of just how much we privilege the property of personal expression in the music we listen to and share with others.

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