29 September 2005

jimmy webb - "simile" (from the letters lp, out of print.)

in brief : joni mitchell sings harmony. (i want you to listen and, to a casual listener, that'd be it's strongest selling point.)

a pattern is being set: the nighttime, it would seem, is when i get to be self-indulgent and post whatever i want. (only the nighttime, you say?)

in my experience, i find that songs generally fall into three categories: songs i instantly love or i know i will eventually; songs i don't and never will; and songs that captivate me for reasons that go far beyond reason. this last category is roughly equivalent to receiving *** from rolling stone or, better still, a **1/2 movie. the payoff is going to be markedly greater than a *** film or infinitely worse than a ** film. (try it some, if you happen to have digital television, and are prone to restiveness.)

jimmy webb's "simile" falls into this category. i've been grappling w/ it for a long time and i've at long last reaped the rewards of my protracted struggle. it has ... atmosphere--it could be just the chords or the way the melody to the third verse of each stanza doesn't seem to follow what came before. the opening piano lures you in, rippling like the tide does as night changes its colors. i've tried to follow the piano and the melody but just as i near it, like the tide, it pulls away. others might pack up their blanket and head home, but i've tarried down by the surf.

joni mitchell, a good friend of webb's, contributes harmony vocals on the pre-chorus and, in the process, gives a difficult song a much harder shape to trace. the song is about a letter that webb had written to mitchell, a letter that had gotten lost behind her couch for months. webb doesn't give many clues about the contents of the letter, but he declares that the song is its reply. it seems to be about some artistic quandary, about, as the chorus proclaims, likening "things to other things trying to describe other things"; i suppose artists write about these things all the time to each other, or i like to think they do or did. (i hate to sound like a codger, but i don't know too many songwriters nowadays who write pop songs as harmonically complex as mitchell and webb did. but i'd like to.)

perhaps all of this is the reason why webb's career as a singer/songwriter never really took off, especially when there was a james taylor around, w/ his dulcet tones, never upsetting all those folks out there, having kids, buying houses, trying to forget that the 60's happened and their own roles in it. he wrote music that couldn't help but be defined as adult contemporary, but it's nothing like that; the problem for webb in trying to get something like "simile" aired is that it was quite unlike anything else on the radio at the time. it is a song that is chaste w/ its quality, refusing to surrender it quite so easily. thirty years later, it remains quite unlike anything else.

(alas, though, like a fine wine, its price has only gone up since its original release; the lowest price at amazon is $118.)

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