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Five Great Love Songs of 2009 (so far)

We pause in the midst of this summer heat wave for the caress of some of the greater love songs of the year by Bill Callahan, Camera Obscura, the Moore Brothers, the Horse's Ha and Stuart Murdoch. And not all of them are about masturbating.

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by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: July, 2009
If there is a better song about a failed masturbation session released this year, I haven't heard it.

We pause in the midst of this summer heat wave for the caress of some of the greater love songs of the year by Bill Callahan, Camera Obscura, the Moore Brothers, the Horse's Ha and Stuart Murdoch. And not all of them are about masturbating.

Bill Callahan - "Two Many Birds"
from Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle
(Drag City)

This song starts innocently enough, a breakup song repeating the line "too many birds in one tree" over a slowly unfolding piano and drum kit in the back of the song. Slowly, though, the song is like that tree, probably like the relationship as well, fills up with birds: "O black bird over black rain burn among them," looking for a rest in this saturated tree that continues to chirp and rustle with their presence becoming one with the general sense of a tree.  That is when we step back from the tree to notice a single bird, then the first and a second, then those two and a third and so on until we are bewildered with the wholeness of trees and birds.  If you listen to the last minute of the song as its real soul message gets revealed word by word: "If/If you/If you could/If you could only..." -and it's worth checking out to see what the final message is - you  will understand.

Camera Obscura - "French Navy"
from My Maudlin Career

I have listened to all of My Maudlin Career but my mind cannot get past the first song "French Navy." It is a naked aping of Phil Spector's girl group glamour, opening with a drum crack as loud as an unexpected kiss. Tracyanne Campbell, chanteuse for this charming Glaswegian combo, swoons momentarily suspended in the air by this drum crack "Spent a week in a dusty library, waiting for some words to jump at me" and jump they do, out of the air like a giggling lover into your arms.  This is star struck girl—mooning-about-a boyfriend music for the discerning listener; details like dietary restrictions compete with silvery lakes as Traceyanne tries to wrap her brain around this sailor boy she adores.  "I wanted to control it/ But love, I couldn't hold it" she offers in shrugging defense in the chorus as strings swoop around her like birds tying up Cinderella's ball gown. She knows love and all it entails is a foregone conclusion. "You make me go, ooooo/with the things that you do" she confesses to her sailor, and Ms. Campbell, I feel exactly the same way about your song.

The Horse's Ha - "Left Hand"
from Of the Cathmawr Yards
(Hidden Agenda)

Two of my favorite sulking songbirds, Freakwater's Janet Bean and the Zincs' Jim Elkington, supposedly started this band as a comfortable acoustic lounge group with which they could capitalize on gentrified Chicago's wine bar scene, singing Sinatra and Peggy Lee songs perhaps for young besuited investment bankers shedding their punk pasts and trying to get their Mad Men on. There is a marked clink of fine crystal to this song, but look close into the prism of a cocktail glass once it's drained, you can see the real darkness, which happens to be the specialty of both of these songwriters. The protagonist languidy seeks solace at the end of the day in a moment alone from the rat race unable to find satisfaction in even the most tried and true manner revisiting "(his) back history, like a child endures bloodless play," only to be "let down by my own left hand." A sigh of Tom Scott lounge jazz offers his some comfort, but his own dissatisfaction persists everything. I'd suggest the poor fella try his right, but some people, you can't tell them anything. If there is a better song about a failed masturbation session released this year, I haven't heard it.

Stuart Murdoch - "Funny Little Frog"
from God Help the Girl

I happen to think Belle & Sebastian to be one of my favorite bands, so band mastermind Stuart Murdoch's little project of writing songs for girls to sing, amplifying his girl-crazy mind through the lens of actual girls excited me so much I told everybody about it immediately. Unfortunately the project doesn't bear the weight of such enthusiasm. As a whole, the album is too stylized, trying too hard to be something but just doesn't have the will to pull it off. The one bright spot I continually revisit, however, is the recasting of "funny Little Frog" off B&S's stellar The Life Pursuit as a slow burn disco ballad. Even this song has its faults - I want full disco onslaught, bongos, jazz flute. Bring it, Stuart! But the way Brittany Stallings curls around "you're my picture in my wall, you're the vision in my hall" gives me a shiver; the diva stops during "I had a conversation with you last night, it was a little one sided but that's alright" -ok, maybe there was another great masturbation song on this list—simply kills.  It takes the sweet and the sexual of the original and gives it a cocktail shake, something that should have happened with the whole album.

The Moore Brothers - "Daughter Feather"
from Aptos
(American Dust)

The opening to Aptos is the sort of Simon and Garfunkel gone difficult tune the Moore brothers tend to produce; wired little staccato stutters interrupt the flow and the boys are forced to bend their words around wire sculpture of the tune, which seems an overly complicated way to go about things, but when they finish, your are left with something marvelous and unique, a thing that reveals its making while soaring above it. The song is about people who aren't here, or people who will be gone any day now, leaving you for people who will themselves soon be gone. "Tom's a policeman when he fires his gun, holds all sort of power over everyone" but he too is predicted to be plucked from the mortal coil "without a helmet in some offal place, but his haircut looks great today." The narrator offers nothing by way of solace for this knowledge which like the pace of the song, is hard to follow at times, but ultimately draws you closer to the people you love while they are here.

 Photo of the Horse's Ha from their MySpace page. Drink up.

see more stories from outsideleft's Music archive »»

Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com

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