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30 More songs, Day 6: a song you can’t listen to just once (Great Lake Swimmers: Your Rocky Spine)

February 1, 2012

I’ve been dawdling over this subject too. Because when I can’t listen to something just once it’s usually not so much about the song as about the timing. At any given moment, there is only one song that makes me feel compelled to listen to over and over again in rapid succession, and it’s always a song that’s new to me, one that when I heard it for the first time was exactly the right song for that moment. The last one like that was Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice,” for which I posted the video a few days ago. Now it wasn’t actually the first time I heard the song last week, but it was the first time in many years. And it turned out to be the perfect song for stomping through Manhattan to work. The secret for a morning commute through busy streets where no one is paying any attention to you is to pump your ears with music that makes you feel like a superhero.

But yesterday, when I sat down at my desk with my mandolin and a pair of headphones looking for something new to play, I realized that there are other songs, songs with more longevity, that I listen to over and over again. And those are the ones that I need to play myself.

Yesterday’s song was “Your Rocky Spine” by Great Lake Swimmers, one of an increasing number of indie bands that attract me with their folky string sections. “Your Rocky Spine” isn’t actually written for mando. It’s played on the banjo, as you can see in the video below. But it’s in G minor, which lays nicely on the mando (better than on the banjo, actually — banjo needs a capo or an alternate tuning setup) and allows for some nicely resonant open strings. It also has a mix of melodic runs and chordal accompaniment in the banjo/mando part, which is perfect for someone like me who is using the mandolin to fuse guitar and fiddle skills.

Some of the banjo part, though, is a little hard to hear. And some of it is pretty frilly. So rather than just sitting down and trying to play along with the recording, as I sometimes do (Decemberists with all your two- and three-chord songs, I’m looking at you), I decided I needed to transcribe this one. The chordal structure is simple enough, but I wanted to better understand exactly how the banjo player was ornamenting the melody with each repetition of the tune. And I wanted to get a better sense of how the transitions between the melodic role and the harmonic/rhythmic role worked. I’m used to doing one or the other, but not both at once. For me each shift involves rethinking my point of view on the music. And I find that I like it.

First, so you can maybe hear the difference, here is one of those three-chord Decemberist songs, The Crane Wife 3. I play it on both mando and guitar, but it sounds much better on guitar.

Interestingly, the song has the exact same changes as The Replacements, “Here Comes a Regular” (they capo up, but it’s played exactly the same way):

Okay, that was gratuitous. Back to Great Lake Swimmers:

So you can hear in the first part (the A section — intro and verses), the mando has the tune for the first part, and kind of dissolves into chords at the end. The B section — that little instrumental interlude that breaks up the verses– is purely melodic. The chorus, however, is mostly accompaniment with occasional fragments of melody sandwiched between the chords. I find it a little challenging to play — and definitely challenging to play while I sing — but it’s not actually all that hard. By which I mean, the actual notes and chords are easy to grasp, which makes it possible to concentrate on doing that thing that makes mandolin different from guitar or fiddle. When I’m teaching myself technical stuff, I play — and listen — to songs over and over and over again. I need to pick songs that can take it, that have enough there that I can stand the over-exposure. For me, this is one of those songs. I’m never sorry when it cycles up on my ipod, even when I listened to it three dozen times the night before. And when it’s over, I might even play it again. Just in case I missed something.

What song can’t you listen to just once.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 9:55 am

    We like to play The Proclaimers “I would walk ten thousand miles” every time we change out the CD of our audiobook on a long trip. I guess as technology continues to improve our tradition will change…but we’ll still listen to that song more than once a trip. We do two and two on the high “Da da DA da” part.

  2. February 4, 2012 12:30 pm

    I was excited to see one of my favorites here. I am guilty of playing the same songs on repeat, and this one makes the rotation often. I would love to hear your rendition, you should post it. Or come over and lullabye my baby. (Lullabye or not, please invite yourself over when you’re around next. I’m not doing well with other people’s calendars, but I am very good at saying yes or no.)

  3. February 4, 2012 2:48 pm

    I’m pretty sure that you, Julia, are the one who introduced me to this song – maybe sent it on a mix? I’m still pretty bad at it, wrestling with the strum technique for the double courses of mandolin and also trying to get the angle of the fingers so I’m not leaning on the frets. But I will definitely invite myself over! I’m traveling more or less constantly for most of the next three weeks, though, with only a day or two at home. By then she’ll be a whole different person! But I look forward to meeting her and seeing you. Jeanne, that song is one of the most insidious earworms of all time, but it would be worth it if you had the option for counterpoint.

  4. February 4, 2012 3:50 pm

    I do the same thing with new songs, play them repeatedly. Biffy Clyro’s “Many of Horror” is one. “Adventures in Solitude” is another — I’m pretty predictable, I guess. And then there’s the relatively obscure “If I Ever Get to Saginaw Again” by the Monkees. I’m so taken with Mike Nesmith’s impeccable, seemingly effortless phrasing that I sometimes listen to it a couple of times in a row, and wonder how he did it.

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