Keeping Track: 10 Overqualified B-Sides, Part One
by Chad Jewett
Welcome to our new column, Keeping Track, a space for us to indulge our inner music nerds with the kinds of pop culture lists we all love to make and the pop culture debates we all love to have. Today’s list: 10 Overqualified B-Sides, Part Three. Also check out Parts One and Two.
Brand New – “Fork and Knife”
Given that “Fork and Knife,” in embryonic form, was among the seven demo tracks leaked as Brand New worked on their follow-up to the breakthrough (and now classic) 2003 album Deja Entendu, it’s hard to blame Brand New for leaving it off of the eventual album, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. Indeed, given that The Devil and God is quickly amassing a cult status that might even overtake the lofty reputation of Deja, it’s even a bit contrary to find any fault with its final tracklist, a gloomy, coiled dozen songs of desperate post-hardcore mood music. But given the album’s at-times almost unbearable tension, The Devil and God might have benefited from the relative calm of “Fork and Knife,” a quiet murmur of a pop song, built around an almost boom-bap drum beat and a gently-loping major-key piano. Jesse Lacy finds a gorgeous descending melody amongst the song’s spare groove, a dark romanticist rumination on the past (“The closest thing we had to royalty / A chance to break our parents’ pattern / We chose to keep our teenage tragedy / In lieu of their romantic palette”). Given how anxious the rest of the album is, the gentle ennui of “Fork and Knife” would have come as a relief. Instead, released as a stand-alone single, “Fork and Knife” remains one of Brand New’s most hauntingly beautiful songs, a glimpse of wary sunlight from an especially bleak era.
Blink-182 – “Not Now”
Given that the two songs relegated to B-Side/bonus status on their 2001 album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (“Time To Break Up” and “Don’t Tell Me It’s Over”) would have been a definite upgrade over dire material like “Give Me One Good Reason,” fans were at least able to hear those songs. “Not Now,” a song confusingly left off the band’s 2003 self-titled record, and frankly better than most of that album (which is nevertheless underrated), only saw the light of day on a post-breakup greatest hits album. Combining the new wave spaciousness of album highlights “Aesthenia” and “Feeling This” (the breathy organ in the song’s verses is especially lovely) with the kind of sharp, octave chord-laced pop fizz that defined Dude Ranch, “Not Now” arrived as a bittersweet, post-facto reminder of Blink at their best, when it could have been the most compelling example of Blink finding new ways of growing their signature sound.
Modest Mouse – “Here It Comes”
Left off of 2000’s landmark The Moon & Antarctica and buried on the back half of the EP-and-extra’s compilation Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks, “Here It Comes” is the definition of a hidden gem. Given that it only really consists of one chord and about forty-odd lyrics, it’d be easy to shrug “Here it Comes” off as a last-minute extra if it weren’t for the fact that the song carries one of Isaac Brock’s most effortlessly striking melodies, one of the band’s most infectiously curling guitar motifs, one of Jeremiah Green’s most gently insistent stomps. Before, Brock’s narratives sounded like panicked cataclysms; on “Here It Comes” they sound like a charming vignette, Brock having a chuckle instead of a freak-out or an interstellar reverie. Little more than a quiet slice-of-life set to a major-key sing song (“Walk to your house on my lunch break / Here it cooomes”), the song is nevertheless gorgeous in its simplicity, and a sign of things to come on the similarly rich, similarly everyday-poetic breakthroughs of 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News. In 2000 it may have been an outlier. In 2014, it sounds like a good omen.
Weezer – “Devotion”
Like The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me (in some ways, a strikingly similar case of a beloved band following up a breakthrough with knotted-up emo turmoil), there’s not much fault to find with Pinkerton in its current iteration. But that doesn’t make it any less unfortunate that a dramatic, doo-wop-inspired swoon like “Devotion” was relegated to single-filler B-Side status, accompanying the disheveled “El Scorcho.” If anything, Weezer’s next album, titled Weezer, but referred to as “The Green Album” could have used “Devotion” even more. Like “The Green Album,” “Devotion” is a formalist pop song, as structurally perfect and neatly-designed as Ikea furniture, as easily consumed as cotton candy. Solos that follow main melodies? Check. Anodyne love-song lyrics (“You’ll always be my giiiirlfrieeeend”) that serve mainly to carry ultra-classicist skating-rink melodies? You bet. But there are darker stretches too, more interesting instrumentation (a buzzy organ carries the main riff), a playfulness that is largely theoretical on the slightly stiff “Green Album.” Looking back, you can see why the romanticism of “Devotion” made it a tough fit for the bilious, ultra-specific diary screeds of Pinkerton, but it’s nevertheless a damn good pop song, an exercise in punk sweetness with a last few oblique angles that Rivers and company would soon sand away.
Rainer Maria – “Automatic”
Closing out Ears Ring, a teaser EP (remember when that used to happen?) released in anticipation of Rainer Maria’s greatest album, 2003’s Long Knives Drawn, “Automatic” was oddly buried for a song that stands as one of the band’s most nimble pop songs. Given that Long Knives Drawn was Rainer Maria’s darkest, most intricate album — a record defined by expanded song lengths, haunting minor keys, and intense ruminations on interpersonal politics – there was arguably room for the relative brightness of “Automatic,” a holdover of the energetic major key emo of the band’s previous album, A Better Version Of Me. Of course, as was almost always the way with Rainer Maria – a band who doggedly embraced the complexity of direct melodies and difficult themes – the sheer melody of “Automatic” belies the deceiving simplicity of the song’s lyrics, an ode to an unnamed girl: “I can see you have automatic beauty /it takes our breath away.” Given the album’s interrogation of domesticity, gender roles, and appearance versus reality, it’s hard to know whether the song is an earnest ode or an ironic provocation; which of course means it’s right at home with the fraught crossed-wires of Long Knives Drawn.
Saves The Day – “Sell My Old Clothes, I’m Off To Heaven”
In a previous edition of what will probably end up being a never-ending list of B-Sides that deserved better, I deemed 2001’s “Ups and Downs,” criminally left of Saves The Day’s finest album, Stay What You Are, as the band’s greatest B-Side. I stand by the choice, but of course Saves The Day famously had three left-over tracks that were all defined by baffling greatness, becoming easily found-downloaded-and-mix-taped extra glimpses at one of emo’s great winning streaks. “Sell My Old Clothes, I’m Off To Heaven” is likely the one that graced the most hand-labeled CD-Rs. Originally released as part of a Vagrant compilation, and recording around the same time as the band’s beloved sophomore album, Through Being Cool, “Sell My Old Clothes” constitutes the absolute apex of Saves The Day’s early, breathless dark romanticism. Combining lyrics of near-cartoonish self-immolation (“So come at me with your moon and burn me in the stars / ‘Cause nothing matters anymore” (thankfully avoiding Chris Conley’s occasional predilection for turning that violent Morrissey-speak on others)) with a thick, churning stretch of pop-emo that seems to constantly ratchet up its own mid-tempo burn, “Sell My Old Clothes” now stands as an almost absolute example of emo’s third wave at its youthful best – tense, frustrated, dripping with melody – pocket symphonies under the stars.
Drake – “Dreams Money Can Buy”
Drake has made a habit out of long run-ups to hotly anticipated albums, sometimes leaking new tracks quietly, at other times releasing them accompanied by star-studded, high-end videos. “Dreams Money Can Buy,” a song culled from the sessions for his greatest album, 2011’s Take Care was an example of the former, as if Drake knew damn well the self-contained power of the song’s avant-garde sonics and its exquisitely crafted self-amplification. Combining swirling vocal samples, a sizzling, phase-shifting boom-bap, and little else, “Dreams Money Can Buy” took the minimalism of Take Care – shaped by Drake’s partner, Noah “40” Shebib”, and largely deployed toward the moodiness of late-night introspection – and instead used it to shaped a svelte, sharp theme song. As the release of Take Care drew nigh, there was rampant internet speculation as to which of the several early listens would make the cut. “Marvin’s Room,” the album’s best moment, and likely Drake’s greatest achievement, landed; “Dreams Money Can Buy,” the MC’s most direct dispatch of anti-hero mood music did not. The song’s an outlier, so perhaps that outsider status suits it.
Tom Waits – “Never Let Go”
Orphans, Tom Waits’ 2006 three-disc compilation of B-Sides, leftovers, and rarities, (with each disc designated for a mode of Waits: “Brawlers” (his gut-bucket blues and punk numbers), “Bawlers” (his weepy, romanticist ballads), and “Bastards” (the really weird stuff), offers plenty of material that you can’t believe Waits didn’t stick on a proper album. The golden age Disney beauty of “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” would have only added to the uncanny of Alice; the apocalyptic “Fish In The Jailhouse” makes a world of sense for the blues-punk entropy of Bone Machine. But few tracks, album or otherwise, are as affecting, as poignant, as radiant in their scuffed beauty, as “Never Let Go,” a song buried on the soundtrack of the forgotten 1992 film, American Heart. Gleaning a heartbreaking love song out of Waits’ signature carnivalesque (at one point, the narrator seems to be playing a carnival game in an attempt to win his beloved a prize: “I’m lost on the midway, I’m reckless in your eyes / Just give me a couple more throws / I’ll dare you to dine with the cross-legged knight / Dare me to jump and I will.” There’s a playfulness to the song that both underlines and veils its devastating, waltzing beauty, it’s major key ache. Waits has repeatedly cloaked himself in modernism, in Dada, in the avant-garde, yet, because of all of those rusted-over layers, few artists connect so deeply when matters of the heart soak through: “I’ll fall from your grace / But I’ll never let go of your hand.”
Robyn – “Cry When You Get Older”
Originally housed on Body Talk Pt. 1, “Cry When You Get Older” is an absolutely thrilling confection of instinctual major-key sing-songs and ABBA-esque melodrama. So imagine the shock of not seeing it on the official Body Talk LP, which culled fifteen songs from the twenty-or-so available from the three “Body Talk” EPs. While the song’s similarity to “Dancing On My Own” (at least the melody, which is similarly built around n affecting, descending line) might have had something to do with its absence from the final album, there are few songs where Robyn nails her synthesis of Nordic pop, 70s disco, and modern R&B more adroitly, or more poignantly. Indeed, for an album that finds time for both high quality, extroverted body music and moving stretches of introspection, there can’t be a better metaphor for the Body Talk project than the central thesis of “Cry When You Get Older”: “You can cry when you get older.” Body Talk is still near-flawless, but imagine its perfection if graced with the late-youth pop symphony that is “Cry When You Get Older,” perhaps Robyn’s best capture of mixed-feelings on the dance floor, of the best years of our lives ticking away to a 4/4 sequencer.
Sufjan Stevens – “Adlai Stevenson”
The Avalanche, a compilation of songs left off of Sufjan Stevens’ second (and likely final) state ode, Come On Feel The Illinoise, is rife with songs too good to be “extras”. Indeed, the album’s title, evoking unstoppable overflow, says it all. But “Adlai Stevenson,” the third track on the compilation, is just too perfect an example of Stevens’ wheelhouse to not get a chance at being everyone’s favorite Illinoise track. The song, an ode to the social-democratic Illinois governor and eventual vice-president (and twice-defeated presidential candidate), perfectly encapsulates the FDR/New Deal progressivism that runs through Stevens works (after all, this is a songwriter who penned odes to public works (his BQE symphony) and collaborated with National Public Radio on a song about a rare North American woodpecker (“The Lord God Bird”). The song itself evokes the swirling pop march of Illinoise, all pristine major key melodies and bright, public orchestra brass. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect symbol for Sufjan Stevens’ exploration of hard-earned goodness, subtle grace (and Grace), and indefatigable human spirit than a brilliant man-of-the-people like Stevenson. The first line says it all: “Righteous men of the earth / Oh, have you been patient.”