: Harmonies (song reviews)

Dash 7 vs. Do the Lovers Still Meet at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial?

February 5th, 2008

When I started up this site a couple years ago, my “gimmick” was gonna be that I would like to share my musical tastes via song-to-song comparisons. Hence I have a section of this website called “Harmonies” that hasn’t been updated in eons. But I have maintained a list of songs to write about, and that list has become extraordinarily lengthy. Here in 2008 I think I’ll try to cut into my backlog.

Tonight I am in a strange mood, wide awake for no obvious reason at 12:30 a.m. after little sleep the past few days. It makes me want to share some music with others, and tonight I think I’ll share a pair of songs from the much-missed 1990s (missed in a musical sense NOT a political sense), one from a band that has practically become a household name, the other very nearly forgotten. These are songs about looking backwards, and they are by Wilco and The Van Pelt.

“Dash 7” · Wilco · A.M., 1995

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    Dash 7 in the air
    Dropped to the sun alone
    Jets hum
    I wish that I was still there
    Props, not a jet, alone
    Where the sun doesn’t come down
    Because I’ve found the way those engines sound
    Will make you kiss the ground
    When you touch down
    Dash 7 pointed down
    The captain’s announcement
    Doesn’t make a sound
    Because I’ve found the way those engines sound
    Will make you kiss the ground
    I found the way those engines sound
    Will make it kiss the ground
    When you touch down
  • Wilco info @ wikipedia

Wilco have been around for ages now. I was aware of them almost from their beginnings (I used to read Spin and Spin wrote about them a lot) but I wasn’t all that interested in Wilco until I picked up a free promo cassette (or CD?) at a record store; it had “I’m Always in Love” on it and I put it on a mix tape. This would have been around early 1999. I loved that song from the start, and still do. Summerteeth is a gorgeous pop album and I have enjoyed most of their work since. Lately I have grown a little tired of them — they put on a great show but they don’t fire me up much anymore; it’s a matter of fatigue and the shifting of my personal musical interests. But still, this is a band I love.

That said, their earliest work doesn’t do too much for me. A lot of Wilco fans are crazy about their 1996 double album Being There, but honestly, I have owned it for about seven or eight years and rarely listened to it. Those songs have never grabbed me.

For a few months though, I guess around the turn of the millennium, I listened a lot to their first album, 1995’s A.M. It’s a strange album and I don’t even like all of it, but it has some hidden gems. One secret song from A.M. that I really admire is “Dash 7.” (The other one is “Should’ve Been in Love” but I’ll save it for some other time.)

“Dash 7” is about jets, I guess. And about regret. And that sweet line: “I’ve found the way those engines sound will make you kiss the ground when you touch down.”

And more than that, “Dash 7” is about the beauty of a simple acoustic guitar part backed with perfect pedal steel guitar. John Peel once said that, if God played an instrument, it would be steel guitar. Listen carefully to this song and you will hear how right he was.

“Dash 7” seems to be pretty much overlooked. Youtube has no videos for it. The ridiculous database of all Wilco’s performances has just seven entries. lists 31,000 plays (compared to 534,750 for “Jesus, Etc.” or 405,530 for “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”). Of course Wilco is so widely beloved that I am sure there are a lot of other “Dash 7” fans out there.

But I love that “Dash 7” is still kind of a secret, even as Wilco exploded towards mainstream popularity. I love the simplicity of “Dash 7”, its effortless air of mourning and tragedy. It’s a straightforward song that avoids the gimmickry of either being too countrified or too self-consciously experimental. It’s Jeff Tweedy at his best, turning to his guitar for comfort in a world where the captain’s announcement doesn’t make sense.

“Do the Lovers Still Meet at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial?” · The Van Pelt · Sultans of Sentiment, 1997

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    Where’s that San Miguel when you need one?
    Where’s the empty dance floor?
    We own those Tuesday nights
    I raise my glass for a cheer
    This time only tears came out
    But you know what I think
    About the jealous mystiques
    Seeing you and they killed long ago
    I’m in
    I’m the sleepover pal you never had
    I’m in
    Don’t let this year and all its cycles get you down
    Where are those suburban nights?
    We want a raft to fit us both just right
    Where are those weekend trips?
    In the van it was bound to fight
    Stars forgot our deal
    On the east side we made it clear
    And the clouds got in the way that night
    Tonight it’s coming out
    It took one beer to throw these scars out
    Tonight I’m coming down
    From the nights under the general’s house
  • (Minimal) Van Pelt info @ wikipedia
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There is no pedal steel on any of the Van Pelt’s records, but there is plenty of beauty. I listened to this band incessantly around 1997 and 1998, and have sporadically since. I made a tape of their two albums, Stealing from our Favorite Thieves and Sultans of Sentiment, and listened to it on my walkman while wandering the streets of DC in the summer of 1997. I had just turned twenty and was living for the first time independently of family or college, at least until the fall came. I lived with friends and worked and had fun and walked around a lot, and listened to a lot of music.

Just as my life experiences were opening up, my musical world was expanding rapidly. While I never abandoned my love of hard rock and grunge, Queenrÿche and Alice in Chains, I was pulled towards punk and ’90s indie and ’80s underground stuff that I had missed out on as a kid. DC had a thriving underground post-punk scene — what we would have called “post-hardcore” — and it seemed like there were Fugazi shows every other month. It was a good time to be young and figuring out life.

To some extent, over the past decade, I have stopped associating the music I listened to at twenty with the life I lived then. But maybe sometimes, the music that mattered to you at twenty will always take you back. Especially when you listen to a band like The Van Pelt, who could only have existed at that exact time period.

I didn’t quite know what to make of the Van Pelt when I first heard them, but I definitely liked it. I had already been exposed to some historical underground music, and to some of the Dischord bands, and also to fairly popular indie bands like Pavement. But I really didn’t know anything about things like the hardcore scene, and the burgeoning emo scene of the mid-’90s that grew out of it.

I would never have thought of the Van Pelt as punk or hardcore or emo at the time. They just sounded to me like indie rock. And they were. But they were also part of a scene that I had stumbled upon, a secret kind of scene, one where people shared records and mix tapes with each other. This was basically pre-internet, so it was spread by word of mouth, by going to shows, by reading zines. It was like a whole new world of underground, secret connections, popping up all over like Vietnamese tunnels, a world occupied by skaters and bike messengers and baristas with shoulder bags.

I never really ended up a part of that post-hardcore world; I lived on the fringes of it for years (and still do, in a way) but never committed myself to it. I didn’t necessarily want to be part of it anyway — to self-identify as part of “the scene” seemed awfully cultish. And yet it had a massive impact on me, on my politics, on my personal philosophies (hello vegetarianism), on my understanding of the world. A lot of punk rubbed off on me and I am surely a better person for it.

I can’t separate out The Van Pelt from that complicated social context, but I can remember that I preferred their first album, since it was a bit more rocking. Sultans of Sentiment was a bit more obscure, serene, and emotional, and I am not sure that is a good thing. But I really do like “Do the Lovers Still Meet at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial?”

I like the pounding drums, the strange guitar part that sounds like a cat purring or something, Chris Leo’s mysterious lyrics and title. Wikipedia tells me that there is a real Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, and I am curious about the circumstances the song describes (it sounds like a break-up to me, and by the way, I am not sure if those lyrics I put in here are quite correct). But my curiosity about the lyrics is muted because, ultimately, I don’t really care what the song meant to the writer(s) a decade ago.

I am more interested in what the song meant to me in 1997, and what it means to me now. And I guess I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I find it to be a strangely inspirational song. “Don’t let this year and all its cycles get you down.”

I like the way the song swells and grows, almost orchestral but without needing any un-punk instruments. I like the passion and determination that closes the song and the album. I like that is looks simultaneously backwards and forwards.

I think it’s what I needed tonight. Yikes — it’s 2:30 and I’m still up. Where’s that San Miguel when you need one?


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