- Some thoughts on the songs on our wedding CD.
On 30 October 2004, Emily Owens and I are going to be married in Radnor, Pennsylvania. At our reception – at Columbia Station in Phoenixville – we’re giving out a CD as a party favor to all of our guests. What follows is the text of the CD booklet, followed by some expanded thoughts on the songs on the CD.
BORING! EMBARRASSING! EXCRUCIATING! That’s what we think of most love songs. If you’re anything like us, you do, too. This collection is our little gift to you.
It’s hard enough to avoid tacky ballads in our daily lives – have you stood in line at the supermarket lately? Weddings make it that much harder. From the cocktail hour to the couple’s final dance, a wedding is a veritable avalanche of cheese.
Then, after you’ve endured a full day of the Diane Warren songbook, some couples want you to take home a CD filled with more tired ballads. Well, it was a nice thought…
The thing is, we like our share of love songs. We don’t care for most of the overwrought torch devotionals on the radio, but occasionally a newfound classic will catch our ear. What’s more, we consider ourselves modern people – we’re not the kind who think you have to go back to the days before Elvis Presley – or Elvis Costello – to hear a good love song.
So, here we offer you romance, Emily-and-Chris style. The tempos are not always slow. Indeed, some of our love songs bounce; a few even thrash. The guitars are not always gentle, the lyrics not always serious – we’re both goofballs by nature, and the first song we called ours was a wacky ode to our city by They Might Be Giants. There are huge hits here and total obscurities; some artists you know, singing songs you don’t. There’s opera here, but it’s not from Carmen. There’s a movie song, but it’s not from Love Story. The selections range across the last half-century of rock and pop – oh, yeah: plus one song in Russian from 1878.
We really love these songs, and we thank you for indulging our quirky, eclectic tastes. Hopefully, you’ll find a few gems among our favorites here. More important, we thank you for being a part of this day and hope these tunes make you think back fondly on it.
With love, Emily and Chris
- R.E.M., “Be Mine” – Those of you who know the story of our engagement may recall that this is the song I gave Emily to listen to while she was taking the bus to meet me at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. From the Athens, Ga. band’s 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi, “Be Mine” is, to me, one of the most underrated ballads of the last decade. It has a nice, fuzzy electric-guitar sound instead of the heavy orchestration common to most ballads. It sounds like a song you could have composed on the spot in your garage.
- They Might Be Giants, “New York City” – Two songs in, and we’re bouncing already! The perfect complement to “Be Mine,” this is a song that Emily gave to me – on a mix she made the first year we were dating. TMBG, a duo that have been making geeky, bouncy rock for nearly two decades, are based in Brooklyn – so when they sing about the city, it comes from pure, unironic affection. Emily gave this song to me for one key lyric: “The best part about New York City is/You and me.”
- Mitch & Mickey, “When You’re Next to Me” – If you’ve seen Christopher Guest’s folk-music mockumentary A Mighty Wind, you know Mitch and Mickey are actually comedic actors Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, who do a brilliant, loving parody of ’60s folkie couples like Ian and Silvia (or, say, Peter, Paul and Mary without Paul) – complete with original songs! The most attention-getting song in the film is the duo’s “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” which is the catalyst for a major plot twist; the song was even nominated for a real-life Oscar. But “Kiss” is a little cloying and silly, while Emily and I actually prefer the less-noted M&M tune “When You’re Next to Me,” which manages to be romantic and pretty without taking itself too seriously.
- The Postal Service, “Such Great Heights” – This is the newest song on this CD and a shoulda-been hit, from a synth-rock duo’s 2003 debut album. The Postal Service is not even a formal band; it’s a side project of Ben Gibbard, leader of the beloved indie-rock band Death Cab for Cutie. Ironically, the Postal Service’s album has become a bigger seller than anything Death Cab has ever released – and almost entirely through word of mouth, as none of the PS’s songs have appeared on the radio. Gorgeous, soaring, with what turn out to be deeply romantic lyrics, “Such Great Heights” has been on our personal hit parade for the last year and a half.
- Nirvana, “About a Girl” – I guess this was a must to include; after all, I did write a book about Kurt Cobain. But it’s not easy to find a Nirvana song worthy of a love songs CD, even an un-sappy one like ours. Cobain wrote dark, cynical, acerbic lyrics on his best days. Nonetheless, “About a Girl” is the closest Cobain ever came to writing a straight love song, even if it’s on his terms: “I need an easy friend/I do, with an ear to lend…I’ll take advantage while/You hang me out to dry.” Kurt wrote this for his first girlfriend. To my knowledge, he never wrote anything quite this romantic for Courtney Love.
- Mary J. Blige, “Everything” – A sort of hip-hop ballad, this minor hit by Blige from 1996 borrows from rap the idea of sampling and reinterpreting: it’s a rethink of the Sylistics’ ’70s slow jam, “You Are Everything.” But there’s an entirely new set of lyrics, and the Stylistics’ melody has been interpolated. Blige withholds the original song’s main hook – “You are everything, and everything is you” – until the end of her chorus, which is otherwise totally new. The song is beautiful, and an original composition in its own right. It plays with your vague memories of an elevator-music staple and then rewards you. Blige has had plenty of hit ballads, but this is possibly her most underrated.
- The Beatles, “Here, There and Everywhere” – It was a given that I would include a Beatles song. But this isn’t even my favorite Beatles ballad – I could probably name a half-dozen I like better, including “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “Julia.” Still, “Here, There and Everywhere” is sort of undeniably and purely romantic, and it sounded right here. Also, it has a bit of special resonance, as I learned to play it on the viola in fifth grade. (Terribly, for the record.)
- Tchaikovsky, “Kak shchastliv, kak shchastliv ya!” – Possibly the happiest song from the heart-wrenchingly tragic Eugene Onegin, Emily’s all-time favorite opera, this romantic ballad is sung here by her all-time favorite tenor, Neil Shicoff. Over the three-plus years we’ve been together, Emily the opera fan has done an admirable job broadening her Philistine beau’s horizons, taking me to a dozen operas at the Met. I’ve never included opera in a mix before, but I promised Emily we would make room for some on the wedding CD. Done! And after the Beatles, it fits rather nicely.
- Buddy Holly, “Well…All Right” – What sort of blows my mind about this peppy ballad is how contemplative it is – it’s as if Holly is anticipating the ’60s folk movement a half-decade in advance. Holly’s catalog is filled with romance, from “Words of Love” to “Everyday”; but “Well…All Right” has always been my favorite of his songs, “Peggy Sue” notwithstanding.
- The Cure, “Just Like Heaven” – One of the greatest singles of the last 20 years, “Just Like Heaven” has become an alternative-rock staple – it is to goth kids what “Stairway to Heaven” is to metalheads. Of course, Emily and I are not exactly goth kids. But we have danced to this song at least three times – at the Yale Club’s annual ’80s celebration, the Safety Dance. This is where we met in 2001, and we’ve been going back every year. “Just Like Heaven” is probably the best, most romantic song regularly played at the Safety Dance. So that’s why it’s here. That, and the fact that it’s just so perfect.
- Elliott Smith, “Say Yes” – Like Kurt Cobain, late alternative-folkie Elliott Smith had a hard time writing a purely happy lyric. Which makes “Say Yes,” occasional expletive and all, sort of amazing: adorable, bright, even a bit sappy, it’s about how a love affair can blind you to whatever ails you, even “situations [that] get f***ed up.” Smith got his big break in 1997 when a bunch of his songs were featured in the film Good Will Hunting, this one included. It’s not his greatest song by a long shot, but it is a wonderful anomaly in Smith’s unremittingly dark catalog. In other words, Smith is our kind of balladeer.
[End of “Side” One. Start of “Side” Two.]
- The Dixie Chicks, “White Trash Wedding” – Speaking of dark: We were surprised to discover that the Dixie Chicks – Emily’s favorite country act and seeming purveyors of fun, lighthearted country-pop – actually sing a surfeit of sad songs. I mean, we knew country was full of heartbreak songs, but the Chicks, musically, don’t sound like a tear-in-my-beer kind of act. Still, even the Chicks’ jauntiest tunes seem to have an undercurrent of sorrow. Which is why we went with “White Trash Wedding,” which isn’t exactly lyrically uplifting – knocked-up gal scolds good-for-nothing groom, live from the altar – but sure is funny.
- Ben Folds Five, “Kate” – We are both huge fans of “punk rock for sissies” pianist Ben Folds, but here again is an act with a plethora of sad songs in his catalog (Ben Folds Five’s biggest radio hit, “Brick,” was a tale of a young couple falling apart over a failed pregnancy). But “Kate” is as happy as they come, and it’s been one of Emily’s favorite Folds songs for a long time. She loves the line about how the singer doesn’t just love his friend Kate or admire Kate – he wants “to be Kate.” It’s hard to write a love song that’s actually more of an admiration song (and not make it sound like “Wind Beneath My Wings”), but Folds sort of pulls it off here.
- The Four Tops, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” – We promised you both hits and obscruities. Probably the most recognizable song here for pretty much everybody, this is the happiest song by Emily’s favorite Motown group. Her favorite Tops song is actually “It’s the Same Old Song,” but that song’s peppy melody masks pained lyrics. So we went with “I Can’t Help Myself” for its sheer joyfulness. By the way, if you ever bump into Emily’s Dad, ask him about the time he nearly sat in with the Four Tops. No, seriously. It’s a good story.
- Rufus and Chaka Khan, “Sweet Thing” – A mid-’70s slow jam from Chaka Khan, I was reintroduced to this song over the summer at a Prince concert. Apparently his Royal Badness holds this song in such high esteem that he includes it in an acoustic medley of his own songs – and the whole audience sings along. “Sweet Thing” was a massive R&B hit and a pretty big pop hit back in the day, but, a bit like Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” or Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” it’s a good ’70s song that sounds more like a classic 30 years after the fact. Anyway, I felt we needed this kind of gently funky grooviness at this point on the CD.
- Shania Twain, “You’re Still the One” – Emily and I sheepishly confessed our love of this song to each other only after we’d been dating for months; “You’re Still the One” is such a radio staple, saying it’s one of your favorite songs is rather like admitting you love “Mandy.” This, of course, was a massive hit, and we should be sick of it by now. But I would argue that “You’re Still the One” is a true exception in Twain’s catalog of ballads (especially dinstinct from her insufferable smash “From This Moment On”). Its cascading melody foils any attempt at histrionics – you can’t belt this song, you can only croon it, like a lullaby – and that’s its genius. The lyric is also fairly brilliant: in essence, No one understands why we put up with each other, but screw ‘em, here we are. By the way, my edit of the song removes the silly part at the beginning where Twain talks in a whisper, which kind of embarrasses us.
- Talking Heads, “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” – The idea of David Byrne doing a straight-up love song is sort of laughable. And “This Must Be the Place” isn’t exactly straight – Byrne always sings like he’s freaking himself out, and lyrics like, “I feel numb - born with a weak heart/Guess I must be having fun” are in keeping with his style. Also, the song, with its blippy beat, doesn’t really have the rhythm or cadence of a love song, and I had to play it for Emily a couple of times before she could hear the romantic lyrics. But it’s the most beautiful thing Talking Heads ever released, and I love the fact that it compares your loved one to the feeling of “home.”
- The Magnetic Fields, “The Book of Love” – Not to be confused with the ’50s chestnut; the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt doesn’t wonder who wrote the book of love, he knows. In 1999, the group – commanded by singer/writer/producer Merritt – released a three-disc set of original material called 69 Love Songs. It’s a brilliant set full of great songs, but the bulk of it is Noel Coward– or Oscar Wilde–like in its sardonic take on romance. This song is pretty sardonic, too: “The book of love is long and boring/No one can lift the damned thing.” But it’s also beautiful and not at all cynical, despite its tone.
- Foo Fighters, “Everlong” – Emily and I had a long debate about this one, the loudest, thrashiest song we’ve included. I love it as much as she does, but I wasn’t sure it was either romantic enough or in keeping with the tone. Of course, she won me over, and a close listen to Dave Grohl’s lyrics reveal they are actually hopelessly romantic, in a breathless, first-love, high-schoolers-getting-into-trouble sort of way. For the record, Emily’s favorite fun fact about “Everlong”: When David Letterman returned to his show after heart surgery, he personally requested that Foo Fighters perform this song on his show, because he said it’s his favorite song. Ol’ Dave – such good taste.
- Prince, “Forever in My Life” – Prince is second only to the Beatles in my list of all-time greatest rock acts, but I went with something lesser-known by him. This song is from the Sign ‘O’ the Times album, which contains several Prince hits, and one slow jam, “Adore,” that’s an all-time favorite of his female fans. But I blew all of those songs off for “Forever in My Life,” which is basically a pure let’s-get-married song – with the strangest beat any such song could have. You couldn’t exactly march up the aisle to this, or slow-dance to it, or even make love to it. But put it on a quirky love-songs CD? Sure, why not…
- Stevie Wonder, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” – This, in fact, is our first dance song, and boy do I hope we pull it off. Wanna hear the touching, deeply romantic story of how we picked it? This past summer, we were standing around at a backyard barbecue hosted by our friends Trip and Jenni. A Stevie Wonder CD was playing, and Emily said, “Oh, this is that song from High Fidelity. I would dance to this one!” This after we’d been trying and failing to pick a first-dance song for months. “Sold!” I said. We both love High Fidelity and really love this song, but we picked it before realizing that its tempo shifts make it a little tough to slow-dance to – to say nothing of the incongruous funk break at the end. But we will soldier on. And I imagine that at this point in our wedding day, on the dance floor in front of 160 of our friends and family, I’ll be too floaty and dreamy to care too much what we look like.
What a lovely, romantic way to end, right? Yeah, well, we couldn’t leave it at that – there’s an unnamed (and extremely short) bonus song. Extra points to anyone who can identify the singer; double points if you know his first and last names.
See you when we’re back from Italy….