Thursday, October 26, 2006

song of the week: rattlesnakes

Eva Marie Saint in On The Waterfront

The first time I ever heard Rattlesnakes, it wasn’t performed by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, but by Tori Amos on her Strange Little Girls covers compilation. It instantly became my favourite song on the album, despite being one of the few tracks where I didn’t know the original. It is a rather melancholy, introspective, downbeat affair, and perhaps most significantly, it takes its time. This is because Tori Amos’s cover of Rattlesnakes is sung from the perspective of somebody analysing its protagonist, Jodie.

So when I first heard the original Lloyd Cole and the Commotions number I hated it. Where was all the pathos, the stillness and reflection in the Tori Amos song? The original was so fast it sounded like it was being played at the wrong speed.

That was in June (how could I have got to 23 and not acquainted myself with Lloyd Cole?). Over July and August I got used to the original and grew to like its apparent exuberance and jingle-jangle poppiness, but it still didn’t affect me like the Tori Amos cover.

And then suddenly this week, I realised why the Tori Amos cover is so affecting. If her understated reworking takes the point of view of an observer of Jodie, then the Commotions’ version is Jodie.

Jodie wears a hat although it hasn't rained for six days
She says a girl needs a gun these days
Hey on account of those rattlesnakes

She looks like Eve Marie Saint
In On the Waterfront
She reads Simone de Beauvoir
in her American circumstance

She's less than sure if her heart has come to stay in San Jose
And her neverborn child still haunts her
As she speeds down the freeway
As she tries her luck with the traffic police
Out of boredom more than spite
She never finds no trouble, she tries too hard
She's obvious despite herself

She looks like Eve Marie Saint
In On the Waterfront, she says
All she needs is therapy
Yeah, all you need is, love is all you need

Jodie never sleeps because there are always needles in the hay
She says that a girl needs a gun these days
Hey on account of all the rattlesnakes

She looks like Eve Marie Saint In On the Waterfront
As she reads Simone de Beauvoir
In her American circumstance
Her heart's, heart’s like crazy paving
Upside down and back to front, she says
Oh, it's so hard to love when
Love was your great disappointment

Rattlesnakes opens with a desert boots guitar twang, is joined by a typically early ‘80s dance-inducing drum beat with string accompaniment, and perfected by Lloyd Cole’s deliciously unstable, whiney voice (hated it first time I heard it, adore him now – Miles Hunt et al acknowledge your maker) as he sails into the verse. And I mean sails – part speaking, part singing and literally tripping over words to reach the chorus. The introduction, which anticipates the chorus, lasts a full 20 seconds. The first verse, really half a verse, lasts ten seconds. Before you know it, we are in and out of the first nod to the chorus within 55 seconds. Speedy or what?

Rattlesnakes breezes along with this restless nervous energy, always teetering on the brink between anxiety and joy. There are none of the thoughtful reflections that Tori Amos enjoys in her cover. Instead, the band literally steamroll you through the song as if they are desperate to finish it. Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions is Jodie: this poignant basket-case of a girl, perpetually looking over her clearly beautiful shoulders, self-conscious, scared and neurotic, yet lacking any self-awareness.

Like Jodie, Lloyd Cole’s Rattlesnakes begins life at the wrong speed, hurtling with a giddy manic energy, full of fevered strings and impatiently squeaking guitars. This dizzy car-crash of a song is littered with hints that, further back on the freeway, cruises a slow-moving, melancholy little song – discarded by Rattlesnakes’s paranoid mania - but bound to catch up with its faster counterpart, which will inevitably steer itself off the road. If those skipping strings were given the space and time to soar, Rattlesnakes’s frenzied chorus could become a big expansive sing-a-long hug of a song, but instead we speed on to the bitter end, ignoring all the beautiful little touches that Tori Amos graciously rescues in her cover.

Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions is perhaps one of the finest portraits of mania in indie-pop, and Tori Amos’s cover one of the most tender lullabies to a depressive I have heard. Of course, Lloyd Cole never intended for Tori Amos to create a companion piece to his big breakthrough hit, but all the same, I think each song enriches the other, which is surely the ultimate aim of any serious cover version.

On balance, I now prefer Lloyd Cole’s version, if only because the breathless peak of mania is always more fun than the slow emergence from depression. And, for all the reverse-snobbery against Lloyd Cole’s occasionally pretentious lyrics, the line, ‘She looks like Eve Marie Saint/ In ‘On the Waterfront’ manages to be an incredibly evocative, although admittedly, lazy description, with a nifty little half-rhyme that's highly rewarding to sing-along with. Yeah, I know it should be Eva Marie Saint, but the fact it’s inaccurate makes it a tiny bit daft, and therefore strangely better– plus it’s the only line where the music and vocals suggest that Jodie might just let go of the wheel any moment now….

All together now…

She looks like Eve Marie Saint
In On the Waterfront
She reads Simone de Beauvoir
in her American circumstance....


At 26 October, 2006 18:52 , Anonymous Sash again said...

You're amazing! not only do you know who did the original - something that's bothered me for years - but you can come out with a perfect critique og both songs! I miss you. *sigh* Damn oxford. So much work, so much stress, so little time...

At 27 October, 2006 20:33 , Blogger paddington said...

Hear hear - I can spiel off a few obscure facts about bands or records, but I find it so difficult to get to the essence (or, being pop, should that been surface?) of music when writing. You do it beautifully.

At 29 October, 2006 16:56 , Blogger darling vicarage said...

aww shucks, thanks.

shame i don't have slightly better taste in music or considerably more motivation to write something substantial.

At 19 December, 2006 15:41 , Blogger DavisMcDavis said...

Lovely analysis! I'm only familiar with the Tori Amos version, so it's interesting to hear about the original. I was wondering why Tori said "Eve" Marie Saint, but I guess that was in the original song. From what I can hear (and perhaps I'm hearing it wrong) in the Tori version I notice at least a line that is different from the lyrics you have here:
"She's oblivious despite herself"
She's definitely saying "oblivious" and not "obvious."

I always heard:

"All she needs is therapy
Yeah, 'all you need' is always all you need"

Now that I listened repeatedly I realize your lyrics here are correct: "love is all you need" - I've been mishearing that lyric as being more cynical than it actually is - ha ha.

At 11 November, 2008 11:45 , Anonymous Matt Taylor said...


I happened upon your entry on Rattlesnakes, (one of my favourite songs).

I can't help thinking you're doing a slight disservice to Lloyd Cole's original version of the song. In common with a lot of his work from the time, he is being rather critical of the new (at that time) feminist lifestyles. Hence the uptempo, slightly aggressive delivery.

In my opinion, he is one of the most incisive, and cutting lyricists in popular music - this, for example is from "Four flights up", on the Rattlesnakes album.

"Oh must you tell me all your secrets, when it's hard enough to love you knowing nothing"

That line always gives me a chuckle - he was (and still is) a wonderful lyricist - but rather nastier than you give him credit.

At 24 June, 2013 02:17 , Anonymous rebeccca said...

Davis : One of Tori Amos skills is to sing- say a word in a way that it could actually sound like something else and give a lyric another dimension. I love to listen to her music, and lator go back and read the lyrics, and get another layer of meaning. This is a gorgeous cover, and one of my favourites from this album.


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