Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Eleanor Friedberger, “I Am the Past,” from Personal Record (Merge Records). The song doesn’t just get under your skin, it seems to emerge from under your skin, a memory lost a lifetime ago, but somehow now speaking in its own, full voice. On her second solo album, Friedberger is bright, light, taking pleasure from the softly bouncing melody, the muted trombone, the skipping flute, letting the darker shadows of her character—alluring, beckoning, irresistible, unnameable and unknowable—rise up and disappear. Is the sprite really singing only a nursery rhyme, as she says before she turns into something else? You could play this song all day long and not get to the bottom of “I am the past…You have no idea what happened before me”—of the way Friedberger floats through the words, turning them into a wave goodbye, Audrey Hepburn, her hair in a scarf, in a skiff, smiling as she slips over the horizon.

(2) Jo Jackson, lettering; Chris Johanson, pictures; cover art for Last Kind Words 1926–1953 (Mississippi Records, 2006). This collection of blues and gospel, an out-of-print LP from a few years ago, is named for and leads off with Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 “Last Kind Words Blues,” a song that carries the singer from a man’s death to her own, and takes the uncanny as a walk down the street. The sleeve shows the walk down the street. It’s a colorful folk-art grid of a pleasant, sunny, orderly American place, and all the people going from here to there, looking out the window, sitting on the pavement, and what they’re saying, what they’re thinking. Back cover, in a neighborhood of apartment houses: “I am like some kind of a log rolling.” “That’s ok is it a fish I don’t know what the hells going on anymore.” “It is hard to leave you.” “Death is only a dream.” “Ding dong.” “It was so careless so very careless.” “I’m going.” “I see you.” Front cover, downtown: “That is no way to get along don’t now.” “Don’t let nobody turn you round.” “Money can’t buy your soul.” “Salvation.” “No kind words nowhere.” “Death is only a dream.” It’s a portrait of nearly complete isolation (a woman on the phone saying, “I called you this morning” might be talking to an actual person, or leaving a message), each phrase its own kind of last word, with no sense that anyone is listening, and most of the music—from Blind Willie and Kate McTell, the Mississippi Moaner, Robert Wilkins, Lulu Jackson, Cannon’s Jug Stompers—falls just short.

(3) Lightning Dust, Fantasy (Jagjaguwar). On a third album, Amber Webber and Josh Wells let their music float just off the ground, the sometimes-harsh consonants or quick shifts in tone from Lightning Dust (2007) and Infinite Light (2009) falling away like clothes. What’s left is a kind of séance. Webber’s voice—bigger than that of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, less self-regarding than Lana Del Rey’s, the closest analogue maybe Brit Marling’s demeanor as the quietly terrifying cult leader in Sound of My Voice—hovers somewhere between life and death. It’s not limbo, it’s a country to explore. What happens there? People think they recognize each other as they pass in the air, but names arrive only in the mind after the other person has disappeared. How do people talk there? In incomplete sentences, with a tone that’s unstable, that threatens to evaporate as you listen. With Cris Derksen’s cello giving the music muscle and bone, it all comes to a head with “Agatha.” It’s just over four minutes long; depending on your mood, it can feel like nine, it can feel like two. It won’t hold its shape, it won’t hold still.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, and The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, and other books. His column, Real Life Rock Top Ten, runs monthly in the Believer.

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