Saturday, May 14, 2011

Songs That Left Me Speechless Part 2 - "Launceston" by Ice Cream Hands

Aaah….unrequited love. Hands up out there if you’ve ever experienced it? That many, huh? I bet you have a song that you identify with in relation to your dilemma. Something where the songwriter had a turn of phrase coupled with a chord sequence that sounded so bittersweet. You took that song home and adopted it like a stray puppy.

It would hardly be overstating it to say that the pop catalogue is a wasteland of songs about love gone bad or love that never really was. It’s the only topic Roy Orbison and Chris Isaak ever sang about.  Some are brilliant in their execution like Richard Thompson’s beautifully sad “Waltzing For Dreamers”. Some of these songs also serve as great case studies into unhealthy obsession like “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”. Some songs are so awful, you think the songwriter (assuming he or she is writing biographically) had it coming – “All Out of Love”, anyone?

The Ice Cream Hands came onto the scene in Melbourne back into the 1990s, and sounded like they breathed the same air previously inhabited by The Beatles and Big Star, with a good dose of Beach Boys thrown in. These guys didn’t have songs with hooks – their songs had talons (thanks for the quote, A). Their gorgeous melodies and harmonies would set up camp in your head and (if you were lucky) could not be evicted – that is if you bothered to listen. Not too many members of the Australian general public did. Talk about unrequited love.

The Hands produced 5 albums of incredible “power” pop. Their swan-song was an album called “The Good China”. The whole album is worthy of an analysis, but I’m going to focus on one song called “Launceston”.

The story has our hero recalling a better time when the woman who broke his heart took him to her home in the northern Tasmanian town of Launceston. She's eventually is lured to London and makes a glib invitation for him to visit her, not expecting himto ever show up. Guess what? He shows up. Story-wise, it’s nothing new – it’s just unrequited love.

Aaah, but the real story is in the telling.

The song works in three parts:

1) The verses convey the first-person narrative of the trips to Launceston and London by the main character. He mistakes a one-night fling (in the mind of the woman) for something deeper. Musically, this is gently conveyed by a series of major descending chords.

2) Then we have the bridging lines between the verse and next verse, or verse and chorus. Musically, this gets a little more intense. A foreboding 3 note piano motif is repeatedly invoked. Lyrically, our hero (or obsessor depending on your perspective) is looking out the plane window at the idyllic fields of Tasmania upon his return journey from London. He’s also looking over his shoulder to a more idyllic past before the rejection.

3) The big chorus. It’s only one line that’s repeated, but what makes it interesting is which character is singing the line: “Stay, anything is possible tonight”.
a) Is it our lovelorn protagonist in London, sadly begging his heart's desire for reconsideration?
b) Is it indeed his beloved having an unexpected change of heart?
c) Or is he recalling her original invitation to him back from the perfect time in Launceston?

The chorus is musically intense, and when the Beach Boys harmonies kick in during the second round of the chorus, you feel an emotional kick in the guts. The first time I heard this, I couldn't comprehend something so sad was also so damn beautiful.

The song starts off cleverly. Right from the opening line, "Before the northern lights took her away from me", we already know, whatever comes next in the tale, the relationship is not going to end up happily ever after. (Or does it? Read possibility (b))

When the man pays her the visit in London, and Chuck sings,"she looked me up and then she....looked me down", his vocal delivery tells us more than the words actually do. We can hear her dismissiveness in those three words "looked me down".

Sweet memories mix with bitterness "before she fell for a guy from Fulham". In this guy's mind, Launceston is sung with the fondness usually reserved in song for cities like Paris. In the world if this song, London is just a tacky town with nothing going for it.

I defy you to remain unconvinced of this song's greatness over the last couple of minutes with the swelling harmonies. Any song that can make you care for its character's dilemma has achieved something, and the Ice Cream Hands have done here in five minutes what most Hollywood directors can't accomplish with the luxury of two hours. Listen to this song.Listen to it again.make sure you listen to it with someone you love - and hopefully who loves you in return.

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