Monday, April 27, 2009

Heart, "Alone"

Song: "Alone"
Artist: Heart
Album: Bad Animals
Written by: Billy Steinberg/Tom Kelly
Year: 1987
Key: E♭m
Classification: SF1
Lyrical content: unspoken yearning; "Goodnight My Someone" with hairspray
Where used: chorus

Way back when, if you recall, there was an episode of Friends that featured the guys, having just watched Behind The Music for its snark potential, sitting on the Central Perk couch, sober, thoughtful and in full agreement as Joey says, "You forget how many great songs Heart had." It's a moment that's apropos of nothing in particular except, I suspect, the fact that one of the writers had the exact same realization, and with the exact same amount of surprise, not long before. Heart's catalogue might not be especially deep, but the many choice bits have stood up a lot better than most, and their stock has clearly risen over the past few years. Part of that might have something to do with American Idol. As has been noted by several of my associates, Heart is the sleeping giant on the show every year, the regular go-to for female contestants who wish to hang on to their "edge" (so punctuated because the songs most often performed come from the band's mid-1980s reinvention into a clean, heavily-produced, image-conscious pop group) while still showing off their vocal pyrotechnics.

None of this is meant to denigrate the songs themselves or the folks behind them. Most bands never manage to succeed at even one career; Heart managed to pull off two entirely separate careers a decade apart, which deserves a salute. "Alone" was the apex of second-wave Heart and, arguably, all 1980s power ballads. It was big, it was bombastic and it was yearning and melodramatic, making it perfectly suited to both Top 40 radio and prom. In keeping with Heart's roots as Zeppelin-loving rock chicks, "Alone" is essentially their "All My Love." As for the video, well, if you're looking for the ideal visual metaphor for a power ballad, then you won't find one better than an exploding piano.

SFCP-wise, this is kind of a weird one, in that the key of the song seems to shift dramatically between the verse (which is in B♭m but ultimately resolves on a D♭ major chord) and the chorus (E♭m). But in a way, that only helps to set up the SFCP for maximum impact: after a wandering, shifting verse that leaves listeners pleasantly discombobulated and trying to gather their bearings, the simplicity and straightforwardness of the chorus provided an easy-to-follow map out of the wilderness. As for the lyrics, it's interesting to note that Ann Wilson is singing to someone who can't hear her: her calls go unanswered, her secret remains unshared. And the agony of this is tearing her apart. It seems that Heart and the guys who responsible for "Like A Virgin" helped invent emo.

Full song: Heart, "Alone"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Nina Gordon, "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life"

Song: "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life"
Artist: Nina Gordon
Album: Tonight And The Rest Of My Life
Written by: Nina Gordon
Year: 2000
Key: Dm
Classification: SF1 and SF2
Lyrical content: schmoop: 10; gravity: 3
Where used: verse (SF2), chorus (SF1)

So, this song. As previously discussed, I'd certainly recognized the SFCP before, but Nina Gordon is the one responsible for it becoming A Thing. Seriously, what's going on here? Gordon used to lead Veruca Salt, who weren't exactly known for getting gooshy over gentleman callers. And while they weren't always roaring quite as ferociously as "All Hail Me" or, especially, "Volcano Girls," slower numbers like "Earthcrosser" and "New York Mining Disaster 1996" weren't exactly romantic ballads. Even "Loneliness Is Worse" had a bite to it (whether by itself or in the context of Eight Arms To Hold You) that staved off sappiness.

But even if you deem "Loneliness Is Worse" a straight-up love song (as opposed to, say, a spider luring its prey to be devoured), it still can't account for the cognitive dissonance generated by "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life." There's nothing about it that's recognizable as Gordon as she'd existed prior to the song's release: not the Sarah McLachlanish vocals, not the sweeping pop production, not the pantingly purple lyrics. (Whatever your impression of Gordon's songwriting skills prior to this, she never sang of the sky catching fire, shoreless seas and the universe resting in her arms and actually meant it... in a non-metal way, at least.) The video, above, clinches it, with Gordon glammed up to the hilt and frolicking in slow motion along a generic body of water that's clearly just a tank and some sand in a studio somewhere. The first time I encountered the video (which happened to be the first time I encountered the song), it's safe to say that I stood slack-jawed in disbelief for the next five minutes.

All of which makes "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life" something akin to the apotheosis of SFCP songs. It's about as blatant an exploitation of the chord progression as you'll find, grabbing onto the hits of McLachlan, Joan Osborne, Jewel, et al. with both hands in an effort to shed off her previous career and remold herself in their image. For her troubles, Gordon got an Adult Top 40 hit (#7!) and a high-profile placement in The Notebook, and the SFCP officially got its name.

Full song: Nina Gordon, "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song