Blood Ruby – The Night Tide

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It’s not exactly a love song, but I choose to interpret it that way, because the lyrics don’t tell you how to feel. It’s a quality I enjoy in lyrics, how there are spaces where the listener can inject thoughts and feelings, fill in the story, make it their own. Ambiguity.

The lyrics are somewhat mysterious, creating a sense of definite place and a woman whose existence ebbs and flows like the sea. There are sighs in the lyrics as well as the music which is constantly swaying, swelling, receding, creating ripples. Everything that we lose over the years, everything that we love or dislike, whatever enters our little spheres, it comes and goes. Listen to the sound of the waves as you walk by the seaside. This is where you live, even when you’re not by the sea.

I love the idea of the sea, its vastness, the constant soothing swooshing, the foam, the crashing waves on the cliffs. I’ve lived in inland regions for most of my life, but some time after discovering this song I actually moved to a place where I could see the sea. It’s so much bigger than humans, and when you see the blur of the horizon you understand better how small we are. The sea, space and time, eternity, and there I am, a little speck standing on the sand. There may be inherent loneliness in discovering it, seeing it as the human condition, but the sigh also disappears and blends with the voice of the sea.

I remember this song from a specific time in my life when I was still wondering what to do, how to live, how to be, close to graduating from the uni and still having no clue about whether to follow my own feelings or do what is sensible. I had spent most of my time at the university alone, and at some point I remember listening to this song each night before I went to bed. It’s peaceful, and there’s a dreamy quality.

The female character sounds nice, someone to dream about on lonely nights, thinking of living by the sea, discovering seashells together, touching the waves, exploring the sensations. This was important, nothing else. Sensing, living, being present. So even though the song creates a solitary character, it can be thought of as a companion. Just hearing about someone who’d also like to touch the sea is enough: it banishes loneliness, because in a world where everyone is busy hunting jobs and rushing from one reward to another, it’s important to hear of people who are doing something else, walking where you wish to be, sighing where you would sigh. Even if it’s only in a song, you know that there are others like you dreaming and swaying, having the same rhythm in their footsteps.
There is little information on the band Blood Ruby, but according to the singer Cynthia Conrad’s CV it existed from 2001 to 2010. Remnants of their activity are buried here and there on the internet, most stating that “at this time” (which I think might be around 2008) they were recording their first album and were looking for a label to release it. As far as I can tell, they never released an official album, so this is distributed as a demo. It’s really a pity; they had some nice songs which were a part of my youth, which by now is also buried under time, under all those countless waves, memories gradually drifting farther, taken away by the night tide.

Frank Sinatra – Polka Dots and Moonbeams

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When I first heard this song as a part of Sinatra’s 10 CD box set I didn’t know it was a jazz standard, nor that it was Sinatra’s first hit, recorded in 1940. But it was clearly a standout track. Quite a few Sinatra’s early records follow the same formula, the orchestra first playing the tune in full, followed by Sinatra’s crooning, the track ending pretty abruptly. No fade-outs back then, and I wonder when they became popular.

I much prefer Sinatra’s soft crooning style to his later songs which often sound like he’s straining much more, some tension always present. Here the vocals are smooth, and the saxophone on the track complements it very nicely to fit the romantic mood.

The story of a couple meeting at a country dance, but there’s some quirkiness to it, with some funny rhymes. I especially like “perplexed one – next one”. And of course the “pug-nosed dream,” implying that the woman in question has a strange feature but he still finds her dreamy. The social judgment is always present, as other dancers look at them askance.

Acknowledging such traits there’s a strange gray area where acceptance and a sense of superiority meet. On the one hand, you can say that it’s genuine love indeed, saying that he acknowledges her pug nose and even considers it endearing, not caring what everyone else things. On the other hand, the very fact that he keeps bringing up that feature sounds like he feels superior for his acceptance, wants to revel in it. Like it is not about the woman after all, but about the narrator’s need to feel great about himself, his admiration of something that others scoff at. It’s not a self-evident interpretation, but it’s not that far-fetched either, so that’s why I call it a gray area. Acceptance is fine, but when one starts to take such pride in the acceptance it’s not about the other person at all.

I liked playing this song in my early 20s, and looking at the sheet music now I notice that the tune has some really nice tensions in how the phrases avoid the tonic. Each phrase ends with 7th, flat 7th, 9th or 6th note of the scale, just skirting around the tonic note until the very end. While it’s a standard composition trick, I do think it’s a well-written tune creating a narrative with a clear beginning and an end even without the lyrics.

The song has been recorded by many artists, Bill Evans and Chet Baker among others. Baker’s version is pretty nice too, as his soft way of playing the trumpet fits this kind of ballad well.

J. J. Cale – Magnolia

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A song evocative of summer evenings, its laid-back tempo sets the tone that was present in a lot of Cale’s music afterwards, present already on his first album. The husky vocals approach a whisper, suggesting gentleness, as if the situation is too tender to state anything in a normal voice. Maybe it is very late or early in the morning, the singer is missing his beloved, and doesn’t want to disturb the neighbours, yet has to keep on singing.

The lyrics refer to gentle mornings, but the summer breeze and the sound of the music make me rather think of a warm evening. Instruments pop in for a moment, bursts of strummed guitars or bent guitar notes lingering like on a swaying branch. Little birds flapping their wings, these softly moaning notes. The guitar breathes, sings a slow line, then returns to silence, waiting, inhaling deeply.

The chords and melody are simple: for the most part the song uses just alternating tonic and subdominant chords. But simplicity doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. A simple song may approach universal feelings, like here the slight tension and release of the chord functions, but there’s always a risk of sounding trite, evoking impressions of children’s songs and musical clichés. The difficulty in these bluesy sounds is that one must make the song interesting with elements that have been used countless times before. Sometimes the differences are very subtle, which creates a challenge for the listener.

Here I think the song has such a unique style that it transcends the simplicity to create a mood that is at the same time universal and particular. The particularity comes from the sound that creates a sense of time and place, and that is enough to make it interesting. That’s why Cale was a good guitarist even if the lines aren’t fast or complex. However, I find that appreciating such music does require an already existing mood, or at least willingness to dive into this tranquil meditation on summer and the wistful, if happy, longing for a distant lover.

Last week I was picking bilberries in the evening (my freezer is now full, so the season is already over for me), and after listening to the radio I listened to music on shuffle, and this song came on just as I was walking home, still in the woods but close enough to the edge of the forest to see pine trees golden with light, everything turning orange as I slowly stepped toward the setting sun. No need to rush anywhere, just casually traipsing on the rocky path, avoiding roots and fallen trunks.

I don’t know what magnolia smells like, and my impressions of New Orleans or Tulsa, where Cale hailed from, are probably far from reality. But that’s one of the fascinating aspects of music: it can fit the occasion on the other side of the planet. Is the feeling exactly the same as understood in a forest full of bilberries and somewhere in the southern US? Probably not. It doesn’t really matter, and humans still have similar feelings, similar longing and ambitions, finding comfort resting in the summer breeze recalling happy morning greetings.

Frankie Valli – Can’t Take My Eyes Off You

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An impassioned confession if I ever heard one, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You sounds fresh and attractive when its lyrics make me wonder what is the difference between the universal and the banal. When it comes to emotions, the difference is highly subjective, which is in a way ironic: what we consider universal is still subjective. Certainly “I love you baby” isn’t the most original line, but in the song’s context it sounds heartfelt and genuine, thanks to Frankie Valli’s delivery and the sound of the orchestra.

In addition to vocals, the composition and arrangement play a huge part in making this a classic. There is constant tension created with the use of triplets and borrowed chords, namely inserting parallel minor chords after major. Also notable is the rhythm section, how it creates tension with the dotted notes in the bass and the well-placed snare hits in the verses. Even when the melody is staying in one place, these compositional tricks make the music interesting, particularly in the booming brass before the chorus.

And what about the lyrics? Well, there is another source of tension, that between the confidence of the chorus and the fragility in the verses, the certainty of one’s own feelings and the slight disbelief in the reality of the situation. It is appealing because love is the engine and the motivation for most people, yet seems rare. Among all the people we meet, only a few turn out to be compatible, and yet when love becomes real, it seems instinctive, flowing with ease. It is a sudden realization that seems like a miracle, too good to be true.

But of course the rarity of love is also just another perspective, a prejudice and the romantic notion that rejects the whole of humanity in the thought that this one person among all the people in the world is unique. Yet the differences that people have, especially among those growing up in the same culture, as actually very small. All guinea pigs are cute, but looking at our peers we see endless variations and emphasize small differences, discerning attractive and unattractive qualities, thereby determining who is supposedly compatible.

Meanwhile there is nothing else to do but wait, wait for the permission to stare, the permission to share all the pent-up feelings of affection and desire. When it actually does happen, let the horns play, let the drums boom, the chest swell with pride and passion. It is real, it always was, and that is the most exhilarating realization of all that transforms the whole world, the past and the future, this one moment in the present, a touch, a gaze. It’s quite alright.

Stevie Wonder – As

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For a song focused on love, it is surprisingly difficult to determine what type of love is described. I’ve previously mused on ambiguous songs that mix the sacred and the profane by presenting the object of love as divine, or which use religious language to describe an ordinary human being.

However, Wonder is presenting something rarer here. I’d say the song is about the Christian virtue of charity, or agape, as it was called in ancient Greece, something more universal, love of everything. It would probably be a stretch to imagine the narrator as a divine being, but at least the love described approaches the notion of divinity. The ambiguity comes from the use of images and assurances that are more common in very human romance.

Yet, the song isn’t usually considered to be gospel either, and even though concepts such as God and hell are used, it doesn’t refer to any particular denomination, nor does it propound faith as an ultimate solution. Rather, it’s all about defining true love, and the background which serves as a contrast is the idea of true love that has been presented in traditional love songs. Romantic love is shown as a beginning or a reference point, one that ultimately has to be transcended.

Transcendence and immanence are complex concepts that are sometimes seen as opposites, sometimes as overlapping. What is outside the human realm, and if we consider the realm of the senses, do we include the concept of the divine in it or restrict its use to the idea of the transcendent? Or is transcendence rather a movement, a permanent state of flux between two states? Etymologically the word comes from the idea of climbing over something. The transcendent may thus mean the abstract realm behind the wall of mundane experience, but it could also mean the act of climbing itself, the place where you have climbed on the wall and try to balance there, seeing both what the senses tell and what exists beyond, the idea of love profane and divine, words and their meanings.

In the context of this song such philosophical musings cease to matter, though the questions are still in the background. What matters is trying to live the best we can without making this world a hell for others, instead embracing this true love that stays certain, no matter what happens. This kind of love is at the same time worldly and divine, blurring the distinction between immanence and transcendence. Love itself becomes the definition of the divine, no matter what deity you might believe in.

But it has to be this love that asks for nothing and is steadfast through the ages. Even while staying very human, becoming unconditional, an ideal that may be difficult to reach, as the Louis Armstrong pastiche in the middle expresses, but which still should remain our goal, even when things look dark or meaningless. And that is still a good point. No matter whether the world has ultimate meaning or not, it is better for all of us to believe in some meaning, to have some goal of unity and charity, even if it were just a construct.

Jim Croce – Time in a Bottle

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The gentleness of this love song has been overshadowed by the events following its publication. It’s such a melancholy song about how fleeting life is, and how precious love is within the time we’re given, that it’s hard to not hear it in the context of Croce dying in a plane crash at the age of 30 only a year after this was released.

But even without intimations of mortality there is melancholy in the thought of how time passes, seasons change, fashions fade. It is sadness tinged with beauty, for awareness of how fleeting each moment is gives significance to each precious moment. It makes it possible to value the good times which otherwise would drown in the sea of eternity. The tragedy of immortality would be that eventually everything would become insignificant. No loss is really serious because new opportunities would keep coming, and no kiss would be unique after a few hundred years.

It is not specified what kind of times we would appreciate, but there is the implication of simplicity both in the lyrics and the arrangement. In the end it’s not the complex narratives and sophisticated symbols that matter the most, but simple gestures of intimacy and understanding: a fleeting smile in a crowd, a touch of hand at the moment of despair, an unexpected hug in the middle of chores. These become the pattern in the tapestry of time. They are not inevitable, but a matter of choice, which makes them all the more precious when you stay aware that two people are choosing the same pattern at the same time, choose to see and live life this way, together, sharing the same feeling, falling in love, falling inside these moments.

Such is the apparent contradiction in life: the more fleeting each moment is, the more we may find meaning in little things. And yet others may see it to be the opposite: if everything passes, everything is meaningless, an invitation to nihilism. Ultimately it’s a matter of choice, the perspective you find to be more pleasant. I do not even know which is better, since realizing that these two can be the same thing makes me think that the views can coexist in happiness. It is one way in which logic breaks, the opposites being true at the same time on the level of human experience. All because there’s the same foundation, the way we cannot control time, the stream of hours and our place in it like pieces of wood constantly adrift. And the appreciation of not having to go down the stream alone, at least not all the time.

Marlena Shaw – You

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Marlena Shaw’s 1975 album ‘Who Is This Bitch, Anyway?’ sounds defiant, and that’s how she looks in the cover picture as well. But the tracks themselves are surprisingly soft, soulful love songs, albeit with some that celebrate the sexual union and desire in a way that perhaps were pretty bold at the time. But in these songs there’s always gentleness and the idea that sex is a part of a greater feeling of unity with the loved one.

“You” touches on a spiritual dimension. Here love isn’t described with images of the sacred like in some other songs I’ve explored, but rather God is thanked for the existence of this love, this one person who was proved to be steadfast and faithful in a world where it may be hard to trust others.

It’s a feeling I can recognize even as an atheist: when after years of being on your own you find someone special, someone who returns your feelings, there’s a deep sense of gratitude without direction. There’s gratitude toward your lover, of course, for being the way she is, but also something greater, a recognition that we are all somewhat helpless. We try to choose who we are, try to be our best selves, and yet there is always so much that just happens, emotions that aren’t controlled, thoughts that emerge out of the complex interplay between unconscious impulses and sudden encounters. The more aware you are of how you can’t control exactly who you become, the more miraculous it seems that you find someone compatible, someone with similar dreams, the same wish to build a life together. Even if it is what most people want, it feels like this is something unique. Partly it may be the hormones, and partly the realization of how many ways there are to screw things up, and how precious it is to hold on to the same dream, even just for a moment.

And that brings us to the realm of the divine: this feeling that mutual love seems so unlikely in this world that it starts to seem like a miracle. And also the gratitude, discovering something so great that it feels like an enormous gift. We search for an intention, a purpose, and find it in the subtle acts of tenderness, the fleeting sensual pleasures, the overwhelming trust for the present and the future, and sometimes even the past is transformed: the wounds of yesterday no longer matter when you are intimate with someone. But it is not a gift in the sense of something being given away or sacrificed. It is endless sharing, this willingness to understand and be understood, to open up at the risk of being hurt, seeing that the trust was not misplaced, and discovering in that trust our real selves, free to explore the myriad possibilities our feelings and thoughts may take. Such an overwhelming feeling inevitably inspires gratitude without direction, because it doesn’t seem like there’s one choice behind it. We choose to be with each other every moment, through each caress and each conflict. Sometimes there is perhaps one moment that is remembered as more significant than others, when we realized that this is what we want, but love isn’t reduced to that one decision, that one “I do.”

The plurality of moments makes it complex, and the strength of feeling, the unity of desire, makes it simple. You want to thank the universe, or God, your lover, the wind and the woods, for everything seems more meaningful now, everything has led to this moment when you discover yourself and your capability to reach out, to be unselfish, to think of the greater good. You and I, and this cosmos, this order in chaos, the emotion that makes everything right again.

Buffy Sainte-Marie – Until It’s Time for You to Go

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A song of impermanence more sweet than bitter, a plea to keep loving as long as possible, realizing that coming from different worlds may be an insurmountable obstacle, but at least for a while it is possible to stand on that obstacle together, see what the world looks like on the top. To love, to stay together, to make a choice to try to make it work until it’s impossible.

The future doesn’t exist, and the past seems like a dream. Being infatuated both the future and the past are usually transformed. What used to be the main stumbling blocks in life suddenly is insubstantial, utterly changed. The power of bad memories disappears. Love is blind not only because we disregard the flaws or warning signs in each other, but also because we become blind to our own wounds. But such blindness can just as well be described as a moment of clarity: whatever is in the past can be left behind, and the only thing making past experiences powerful is how we keep clinging to them in the present. It’s all in the mind, these diaphanous thoughts and feelings through which we can see the light of the moon, a new infatuation that beckons us to cast away the gauze. “Don’t ask why / Don’t ask how”; these are the question related to the past. The answers would be explanations that would situate the attraction in a continuum of memories. But it is not necessary. Even the future is not necessary, only that we choose to love each other here and now.

And yet: “don’t ask forever”. There is a recognition that the future still exists, we must keep living on, and that there’s a limit to how long we can be together. The third verse is somewhat ambiguous, since you can interpret it to mean that the relationship is already ending. But it’s not a terrible stretch to hear it as a plea to stay in the moment, retaining this feeling, no matter when the ending comes. All we know is that the end exists, whether it is the death of feelings tomorrow or the death of a partner decades in the future.

What about this: “This love of mine had no beginning / it has no end”? It’s sometimes said as a joke that love does not end, only the object changes. The rather dark humour comes from the fact that usually it’s not love that has such an unchanging quality. Instead, it’s the need to be accepted. And people who are most damaged may hold on to that need as if it was something noble, jumping from one relationship to another in succession.

However, there is a truer meaning to this thought. It is possible to find in oneself love that persists, the feeling of happiness and joy in one’s own existence, gentleness toward oneself, acceptance of one’s flaws, rejoicing in simply being in the world, whatever we may encounter. That kind of love is strength instead of weakness, and once discovered, it does not have to end. It does not need to seek a new object of admiration because the world is wonderful enough to provide happiness. And it also means that if there would come a time for the loved one to go, however that happens, we are able to accept it. There is joy in the world, and joy in being able to share it.

Love remains a guiding feeling, a principle that brings colours into the world. Let us be good and gentle with each other, even if everything is impermanent. Let us travel through the shadows hand in hand, find significance in each other. Let us stay here, trusting in each other, making the choice to look one another in the eyes, truthfully, believing in good intentions. There are always endings, but they are not here yet, while there’s still time to smile, to touch, to keep on loving right now until all the smiles have faded, touches are no longer felt, and the now has disappeared into the murky waters of history, never to return.