Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Craig Finn Knows a Lot of Big Words

Jay Farrar has gone through a curious evolution as a songwriter. His earliest songs dealt with the bleak, mundane existence of a blue-collar life in a small town and the desperation to escape it:

What has life for 50 years in this town done for you, except to earn your name a place on a barstool ... there was a time you could put it out of your behind, leave it all behind, that time is gone ... now it's life in some kind of trap looking for a way out.

...inebriated in doubt, still aware of everything life carries on without. There's one too many faces with dollar sign smiles/gotta find the shortest path to the bar for a while. ... There's a trouble around, it's never far away/The same trouble has been around for a life and a day. I can't forget the sound cause it's here to stay: the sound of people chasing money, and money getting away.

On his last two records, Okemah and the Melody of Riot and The Search, he's returned as a lyricist to the directness that marked his early Tupelo work. But in between, his lyrics got more poetic ... and obtuse. (Not that there wasn't poetry in his earlier work: check out "Still Be Around" or "Whiskey Bottle" or "Graveyard Shift" for proof.)

Farrar is certainly worthy of an essay of his own, but it is this penchant for "big words" in his middle period (roughly Anodyne through Terrior Blues) that caught my ear a few years ago. I started to notice it on Sebastopol, his solo debut. Phrases like "pell-mell from the committee of welcoming" have such a rhythmic bounce; the "ell" sound and the "uhm" sound ricochet off each other brilliantly.

Even that brief phrase (from "Voodoo Candle") contains two three-syllable words. Now there's nothing magical about three-syllable words, other than they don't show up too often in daily English. Hell, even the Gettysburg Address, one of the most respected pieces of oratory in our great country's history (or should that be our GREAT country's GREAT history?), was composed mostly of short, one and two syllable words. The three-syllable word is basically a cutoff point to separate the ordinary words in English from the ones that have a little pizazz...the ones you need to have a modicum of intelligence to employ.

(And too many big words can drag down your prose. In eighth grade, Mrs. Conrad--I can't believe I just plucked that name out of thin air--gave us a writing test to measure our vocabulary. Except she told us in advance that the whole point was a vocab count. So Sean Ellars wrote this paper called "Nero's Den" about swim practice, filled with painfully large words. He got a high vocab count score, but it was like reading George Will write about Marcel Proust if Proust were a baseball player, except 1000 times less enjoyable.)

Does this look like a guy who writes lyrically complex songs? Yyyeaah, I thought not.

And longer words show up even less frequently in pop-rock lyrics. Go ahead, name me a favorite song from your teen years, and count up how many "big words" are in there. Maybe one or two...certainly not 17.

As much as I admire and enjoy the vocabulary-building efforts of Farrar, there's a new bigshot in the pantheon of literary rockers, and his name is Craig Finn. Anybody who knows me shouldn't be surprised that this essay:

a) started out by talking about Jay Farrar and ends with the Dixie Chicks is about neither
b) is actually about The Hold Steady.

Finn, lead singer/shouter and lyricist for Brooklyn-based The Hold Steady, must be the most well-read rock musician you'd want to have a beer with (thus excluding boring, stuffy indie/arty types and London School of Economics-educated bazillionaires). His love of literature shows through in artfully constructed songs (ironically about NON-literary characters who spend all day getting drunk and high) and the occasional cultural reference that you don't even notice til the tenth listen.

Recently I was listening to Boys and Girls in America, Steady's wicked good 2006 album that dominated the Best of MPF list last year. I realized that Farrar certainly has company in the "wordy rock star" club. After singing/shouting along to Hold Steady songs for a couple years now, I sat down to find out: exactly how many big words does Craig Finn put into his songs?

The answer: a lot, cause I didn't even make it past track one. "Stuck Between Stations," a rollicking tale of author (more literary stuff!) John Berryman, contained enough fancy words to make a fifth-grade teacher proud.

Stuck Between Stations (17)

together (x2)
dehydration (x2)
Berryman (x2)

Yeah, he's got a couple proper nouns in there. But it's not his fault for knowing people with longer names. (You should count the "Minneapolis" and "Mississippi River" citations in his oeuvre.) When you're done reading this essay, watch the tremendously entertaining video for "Stuck Between Stations" here.

Compare that prodigious output to the breakthrough album from the Dixie Chicks, 1998's Wide Open Spaces. I remember listening to that record when it came out and thinking, yeah, they're good singers, and yeah, they're good looking, but man this material is dumb. The songs were uninteresting, the lyrics flat and basically pop drivel. There are some great songwriters here, including Maria McKee, Bonnie Raitt, and honorary Eagle J.D. Souther. And Susan Gibson, whoever she is, knows how to write a beautiful song.

Now, I've got nothing against the Dixie Chicks. They burst on the scene as yet another good looking country group with slick packaging, and have reinvented themselves as musical artists, writing their own songs and exploring more authentic musicality on subsequent releases. Plus they have the guts to announce the obvious (the current president is a dumbass, no matter what state he's from), suffer the consequences and come back stronger than ever. (And the president is still a dumbass.)

But honestly, have you ever read or listened to the lyrics of Wide Open Spaces? Well I have, so you don't have to. In the course of 45 minutes and 12 songs, they generate about as many big words as Craig Finn in one song.

Wide Open Spaces (the whole album) (19)

I Can Love You Better (Kostas & Pamela Brown Hayes)

Wide Open Spaces (Susan Gibson)

Loving Arms (Tom Jans)

There's Your Trouble (Tia Stillers and Mark Selby)

You Were Mine (Emily Erwin, Martie Seidel)

Never Say Die (Radney Foster and George Ducas)

Tonight The Heartache's On Me (Mary W. Francis, Johnny Macrae & Bob Morrison)

Let 'Er Rip (Billy Crain & Sandy Ramos)

Once You've Loved Somebody (Bruce Miller & Thom McHugh)
somebody (x8)
everything (x2)

I'll Take Care Of You (John David Souther)

Am I The Only One (Who's Ever Felt This Way) (Maria McKee)

Give It Up Or Let Me Go (Bonnie Raitt)
another (x3)
sacrifice (x2)

Easy on the eyes. Also easy on the left frontal lobe.

So, what are you saying here, MPF, that big words makes you a rock god and little words makes you a dope?

No, of course not. In fact, there may not be any link whatsoever. I'll leave that to bored university professors to dissect...I'm merely an amateur. Suffice it to say that Craig Finn has a large vocabulary, and he's not afraid to use it.

University researchers have determined that listening to The Hold Steady may actually make you smarter.


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