pedro the lion, "of minor prophets and their prostitute wives" [buy]
This is looking farther back than most of the other literary-based songs in my collection; the title refers explicitly to the book of Hosea, and the song modernizes the constant call of the original work quite nicely. Its persistent beat and minor key make it sound a bit bleak, but Bazan carries it off nicely.
"I taught Ephraim to walk,
Taking them by their arms;
But they did not know that I healed them.
I drew them with gentle cords,
With bands of love,
And I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck.
I stooped and fed them....
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?"
--Hosea 11:3-4, 8
john vanderslice, "pale horse" [buy]
Oh, that fiery Percy Shelley. Vanderslice based this song on Shelley's long poem "Mask of Anarchy," one of his most fiercely political pieces written after the Peterloo Massacre; here it's given a good driving beat to spur on the poem's call to revolution.
'Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;
'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.'
--Percy Bysshe Shelley, "The Mask of Anarchy"
kris delmhorst, "galuppi baldassare" [buy]
Taken quite closely from Robert Browning's poem on the Italian composer, and yet it sounds completely natural in Delmhorst's country-tinged style, holding Browning's nostalgic melancholy and her own warm exuberance together deftly, and grants the poem a more hopeful ending than the original held out.
"What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,
Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions--"Must we die?"
Those commiserating sevenths--"Life might last! we can but try!"
--Robert Browning, "A Toccata of Galuppi's"
the divine comedy, "absent friends" [buy]
The literary connection is a bit more tenuous on this song, but it won me over for its closing verse on Oscar Wilde. The sweeping tone and references to numerous other icons (Steve McQueen and Oscar Wilde in the same song? Awesome.) make it plenty of fun.
I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
--Oscar Wilde, "Ballad of Reading Gaol"
speakers, "mountain tomb" [buy]
carla bruni, "those dancing days are gone" [buy]
Both of these songs are based on poems by W.B. Yeats; I'd recommend the former in no small part for its very beautiful, stately opening of brass instruments, leading into a hushed ballad rendition of the poem. (The album itself is called Yeats Is Greats, to give you a hint as to the general bent of the material.) The latter comes off as a bit more sprightly and sly, and Bruni's distinctive husky voice is well-matched to the arrangement.
Pull down the blinds, bring fiddle and clarionet
That there be no foot silent in the room
Nor mouth from kissing, nor from wine unwet;
Our Father Rosicross is in his tomb.
--W.B. Yeats, "The Mountain Tomb"
nightingale, "hills/mulqueens" [buy]
Arthur Guiterman is not a well-known poet, and overall is not terribly remarkable, but this folk song arrangement of his poem "Hills," celebrating the rolling countryside he called home, is deeply lovely. If it doesn't make you yearn to go for a hike, then I don't know what to do with you.
I want my hills! -- the trail
That scorns the hollow.--
Up, up the ragged shale
Where few will follow...
--Arthur Guiterman, "Hills"
sarah slean, "eliot" [buy]
east river pipe, "what does t.s. eliot know about you?" [buy]
Slean's track is slinky and alluring, just like those faintly sordid city streets that she's singing, and which Eliot depicted in several of his poems. As for the East River Pipe song, it's grumpy and cantakerous--how can a living person fail to be more appealing than some dead poet?
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
--T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"
tori amos, "jamaica inn" [buy]
I have a sneaking fondness for Daphne du Maurier, so I was doomed to be a sucker for this song that references both Jamaica Inn and Rebecca. It's one of Amos' more accessible and singable tunes, a little wistful and longing, which makes it rather lighter in feeling than the novels it harkens to, though it certainly hints at trouble ahead.
Last night I dreamed of Manderley again...
--Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
the weakerthans, "our retired explorer (dines with michel foucault in paris, 1961)" [buy]
Well, this one is mostly just for kicks, because a good, upbeat alternative rock piece is necessary by this point. And any student of literary theory should be able to sympathize with the opening lines: Just one more drink and then I should be on my way home / I'm not entirely sure what you're talking about...
bravecaptain, "all watched over by machines of loving grace" [buy]
This quirky little track suits the Richard Brautigan original nicely, and Bravecaptain add their own lyrics in quite nicely. It's nice and glitchy, with plenty of good electronic sound, as befits a song about technology.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
--Richard Brautigan, "All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace"
neko case, "christmas card from a hooker in minneapolis" [buy]
Beautiful, poignant cover of Tom Waits' adaptation of a Bukowski poem. That's a nice set of filters for a piece to be run through, really. Case's voice does all the heavy lifting here, and does it beautifully.
kathryn mostow, "the giving tree" [buy]
And to end things off on a tender, sweeter note, here's Kathryn Mostow's lilting, waltz-tempo ballad about desiring to be to the world as Shel Silverstein's giving tree was to the little boy in the story.
And the tree was happy.
But the boy stayed away for a long time.
And when he came back, the tree was so happy she could hardly speak.
"Come, Boy," she whispered, "come and play."
"I am too old and sad to play," said the boy.
"I want a boat that will take me far away from here. Can you give me a boat?"
--Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree