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Track Marks is a regular feature on SportsAlcohol.com where a writer highlights a single a single song. Yes, we’re really calling it that.

TRACK MARKS: “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” by God Help the Girl

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God Help the Girl is not quite Belle and Sebastian, not least because it’s not quite an actual band. It resides in the more nebulous region of “project” and qualifies for any number of typical project modifiers — side, pet, dream, or all of the above. It shares with Belle a chief stakeholder in the person of one Mr. Stuart Murdoch, primary (though not only) singer and songwriter in the band and more benevolent Svengali (is that a thing?) of Girl/Girl/”Girl.” The first publicly available incarnation was an album released in 2009, featuring songs written or (in the case of a few that first appeared on the 2006 Belle and Sebastian album The Life Pursuit) reproduced for female vocalists of the girl-group style, which would become an even more prevalent indie-rock flashpoint over the next couple of years. Murdoch made no secret of his ambition that this album eventually become the soundtrack to a musical film, and after several more EPs and singles and another Belle and Sebastian record and some touring and Kickstarting, lo, the film itself did appear, one of those things that seems as if by magic to viewers, and probably seemed more like an arduous, shoestring-budgeted undertaking to those who actually worked on it.

In some ways, the songs of God Help the Girl are a lot like Belle and Sebastian: wistful, retro, witty, melodic. But switching from the occasional third-person female point of view (sung by Stuart) or the implied first-person female point of view (sung by others in the band, and/or Carey Mulligan) to mostly female narration does change the alchemy of the band (much of B&S did play on the original 2009 album) in interesting ways. The most immediate of the God Help the Girl songs is probably “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie,” which told a clear story long before the sequence was filmed for one of the best moments of God Help the Girl: The Feature Motion Picture. The narrator wants to dance, and the various boys around her and her friend Cassie aren’t up to the task. It makes sense that Murdoch wrote this in 2009, as Belle and Sebastian continued to get peppier and dancier. “Cassie” combines their newfound verve with the character-driven point of view Murdoch perfected early in their career; it’s an even more compatible combination of the two aesthetics than recent-ish up-tempo numbers like “Sukie in the Graveyard,” maybe because the first-person female narration brings us closer to the action than Murdoch’s empathetic but slightly more distanced portrait of Sukie, or maybe because it expresses such a heedless sentiment in such a wry, Belle and Sebastian-y way.

Though the God Help the Girl soundtrack album that accompanies the film features many of the same tracks as the original 2009 record, the songs, including “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie,” got makeovers for the occasion, re-sung by the movie’s stars (in this case, Emily Browning — backed by some of the original band’s singers). There’s something more electric about the soundtrack version, and that goes double for seeing it in the movie itself: like the film’s other numbers, the scene looks handmade while mainlining the bold joyfulness of classic movie musicals. Emily Browning and Hannah Murray (Cassie here, Cassie on Skins, Cassie forever) and Murdoch (directing them) all bring the song, the whole Belle and Sebastian thing, to vibrant life. The original version is good, but the movie, like the best musicals, further elevates its songs. It’s the original 2009 version in the YouTube audio below; the musical number as it appears in the film is actually on YouTube somewhere, but it’s in a squished aspect ratio and suboptimal audio mix and anyway, you should see it in the context of the movie for maximum delight.

TRACK MARKS: “Love U Forever” by Jenny Lewis

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

I get impatient with songs about how things are going great. So many sad, ambivalent, or complex songs already use upbeat melodies or a fast pace to make themselves sound more rousing than they would be based only on lyrical content that so many fully upbeat songs — like, say, Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” if one wanted to continue picking on a catchy and harmless decade-only song that one might still kind of loathe — sound like empty overkill. It takes a deceptive amount of skill to write a song about something happy that doesn’t sound kind of insufferable or empty-headed. That goes double if the happy thing is something beyond the heedless rush of love or triumph that informs say, early Beatles songs, or Japandroids. That goes triple, at least sometimes, if an artist used to sing about heavy-duty angst, then got happier as he or she aged, and wants us all to know how serene, centered, and balanced his or her life is now.

Jenny Lewis used to sing about heavy-duty angst, with Rilo Kiley and on her solo records. She still does, on her latest and possibly greatest record, The Voyager. But her songs have taken on a rueful, sometimes slightly detached quality that in no way diminishes their storytelling emotional pull. She also manages to let some light in, both musically and, on “Love U Forever,” lyrically.

“Love U Forever” is a song about being in love. Even the title is spelled out something like a yearbook inscription. In the verses of the song, Lewis sings about stuff that might sound, if not inane, perhaps not material rich in poetic potential: easily identifiable, relatable stuff like getting together with her girlfriends, drinking burgundy wine, getting “a little high” and reminiscing.

Beyond a bouncy intro guitar riff that promises impending rollicking, what makes this song work so surprisingly well are the nuances J-Lew brings to her narrator’s happiness. At the end of her list of things to do, she keeps adding: “I can’t believe I’m getting married in May” — and we might assume her disbelief is wistful, but it’s hard to say for sure. Then, in the chorus: “I could love you forever.” The key word here is could. This is in no way a break-up song; it’s not (as far as I can tell) about the narrator realizing she’s about to make a huge mistake or leaving her intended at the altar, or wanting to change him just a little bit. She gives no directives for how “could” might become “will.” But there is a sweet tentativeness in turning her love hypothetical. The narrator is engaged to be married, and she’s still saying: this could be it. The final verse adds even more ambiguity, observing: “But there are some things money cannot say, like the feeling of hell in a hallway.” So many love songs sound like fantasy; “Love U Forever” sounds like the act of fantasizing.

If it sounds like I’m saying this upbeat love song is great because it’s secretly not all that upbeat, well, I might be kinda-sorta saying that. I’m also saying, though, that this upbeat love song is great because it finds notes and subtleties beyond YES! and YAY! It’s not vital that Lewis express doubt or ambiguity so much as it is that she make this experience sound more specific than just a rush of excitement over seeing old friends and talking about a wedding. It reminds me of Liz Phair’s “What Makes You Happy,” which also approaches being in love from such a specific angle, with such a clear authorial voice, that it makes some old sentiments seem brand new. That’s what listening to Lewis is like these days: hearing an old, familiar friend rephrase and reposition herself as she continues to grow up.

TRACK MARKS: “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.
Sara

Song of the Week is a feature where SportsAlcohol editors, staffers, friends, and other assorted experts write a bit about a particular song that they love or hate or respect. Sara kicks this feature off with a song to cap off the real bad August our country has just experienced.

“The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam’,” Nina Simone says at the start. “And I mean every word of it.” It’s a sentiment that must have startled the largely white crowds who came to see her perform in 1964. The previous year had seen the murder of Medgar Evers and the deaths of four girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Race relations across the country were roiling and many feared a long road ahead for both sides of the divide. Simone, though, was never afraid to be confrontational, even explosive, with her listeners and the live recordings of “Mississippi Goddam” have a righteous urgency, punctuated by uncomfortable audience laughter, that is still impossible to brush off even fifty years on.

Simone wrote the song in an hour but it contains decades of suppressed anger. The bouncy piano melody she chose provides an ironic underline to the caustic lyrics of pain and strife. After name-checking the Southern states that were the sites of major oppression and violence, she devotes several lines to mocking the legacy of black subservience. “You lied to me all these years,” she fumes, “Told me to wash and clean my ears. And talk real fine just like a lady. And you’ll stop calling me Sister Sadie.” It builds to a call and response with her singers as she rattles off the demands of the movement (“Mass participation/Desegregation”) and they shout back, “Too slow!” — inciting action over caution. She performed it both for the civil rights marchers at Selma and in concert at Carnegie Hall. While many protest songs of the era aimed for uplift, Simone’s remains arresting for its undeniable fury. She isn’t blowing in the wind; she’s the wind itself.

To listen to “Mississippi Goddam” now, in the wake of the clashes in Ferguson, among countless other injustices, is to face simultaneously how far we’ve come and how much work is still left. “You don’t have to live next to me,” Simone proclaims at the song’s end. “Just give me my equality.” Now that the latter has been won, it’s up to us to do the rest.

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