Thursday, July 29, 2010

7/29/10 - Songs of the Summer, #33-34: "Lean On Me" and "Bad Bad Leroy Brown"

The Master List

Top Song of 1972: "Lean On Me" by Bill Withers

What makes a standard? What separates the songs that exist in the ephemeral pop present, with its surface pleasures and easy discardibility, from those that find their place in the foundation of a culture? Is it the intent of the writer/performer? That's a cynical interpretation, holding that the hitmaker is somehow more craven and less worthy of respect than the artists out to make a Statement, when in reality the songs that become standards are often just as driven by crass commercialism as the hitmakers. Nobody creates art to stuff it in a drawer - art is, after all, meant for an audience.

Nonetheless, sometimes you get songs like "the Macarena", or "Red Rubber Ball", which disappear as soon as they hit their expiration date, and sometimes you get songs like "Lean On Me", which get called up to the majors and gets added to the cultural songbook, subject to endless revisions, recollections, and re-interpretations:

Part of it, surely, is the universality of the sentiment. The altruistic message of "Lean on me" is just on the right side of preachy, and captures, along with the gospel trappings, the aching feeling of wanting to help someone that might not be inclined to accept it. It's a touching acknowledgment of the kind of basic human vulnerability that usually finds its expression in weepy singer-songwriter ballads, not warm, funky, inviting songs like this one.

Bill Withers has a great voice for the song, too - this is a song that can easily get oversung, and frequently does; perversely, that has the effect of making the sentiment at the heart of the song seem false, more Hallmark greeting card then an impulse toward tender human connection. Withers sings it clear and without histrionics, getting right to the heart of the song's message and inviting listeners in. It's the difference between a neon sign on a flashy bar at night and a friendly neighbor on the front porch serving lemonade in the summertime.

Top Song of 1973: "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce

First of all, watch that clip, even if just for a second. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a mustache of the highest order. I've got a pro-Croce bias, due to my parents listening to him a whole lot around the house while I was growing up. So "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" is one of the backing tracks of my childhood, which means I'm already predisposed to by nostalgia at the very least to like it.

What stands out, listening to it in retrospect, is how the whole song is entirely dependent on the songwriting. Although this is a live version, it's true for the recorded version as well. Croce's voice is pleasant enough, but not distinctive. His backing band does an adequate job fleshing out the song, with the basic catchy piano riff anchoring the whole thing, and the women echoing the "Bad!" "Bad!" lines during the chorus, which is really where the song sticks in the brain, but overall this is very, very basic pop-rock.

This isn't a knock: it points to the power that good songwriting can have in the pop-rock idiom. The song is flawlessly constructed: the chorus is the catchiest part, and fun to sing along with. The verses tell a clear, coherent story, creating a vivid character, and delivering him to his fate with a refreshing moral clarity. The barroom piano gives it energy, the acoustic guitar fleshes out the sonic palette, and the whole song hangs together with exemplary economy. It's harder than it looks to write a song like this, but when someone does they usually have a hit on their hands, as Croce did.

(Plus, the mustache can't hurt).


ariyele said...

firstly, when i think of bill withers, lean on the me is not the first song that leaps to mind, though it's perhaps the first song of his that i actually knew. and that was precisely because of the place it holds in the cultural songbook as you call it.
however, his voice is so yummy--it's like a waffle breakfast on a sunday morning.

in term so of the croce-song---it is good song writing, something i might not have consciously realized. and yet, it had its expiration date like many other hit songs on these lists, unable to stand the test of time. not bc it isn't a good solid song, but because it isn't the perfect cocktail of instrumentation, vocals, melody, and sentiment that lean on me is.
i had never heard of jim croce until you introduced me to them. and i didn't know jim croce was so ugy.

Croz said...

Croce's mustache will not stand for your slander. I would watch out for it in dark alleys.