She'll Sing For You, part 2: the Heart Fiercer

This is a post about Marian Call, and especially about her lyrics and her new double album Something Fierce.  The second in a series, it follows this one: Take a moment to read that one if you'd like this one to make more sense!

If you come to Popehat because you think that it is a law blog, you are sorely mistaken. Popehat is a geek blog, and it's a matter of mere happenstance that most of the bloggers here are law geeks.  Some, such as Ken and Patrick and Charles, have carried their preoccupation to absurd extremes by becoming papered practitioners. Others of us, a set possibly including only me, are Con Law amateurs/fanbois who would never presume to compete with the pros, but who swoon before the charms of a well wrought SCOTUS opinion. And a few of us (I'm looking at you, Derrick and Grandy) couldn't give a pomme frite about the way of the intercepting coif as long as They don't take our games away.

In fact, at least two of us are software developers and are therefore ineluctably geeky. Plus, we now have a dentist / gun nut (one way or another, he'll put a cap in you!) with whom we're moderately sympathetic not so much for his open carry advocacy and general Browncoterie as for the decidedly tech-geeky way he goes about these things.

This background is key, you see, for it was not law but a nerdish love of games that brought us together, we happy few. Indeed, on the eve of our founding there was debate over whether we would become Popehat rather than Bring A Cleric. ("Plutôt le D20 que la tiare!" went the Byzantine cry of the losing faction….) Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Ken is a D&D nerd, a Rogueliker, a Zeldaphile.  And he's not alone in this. (We're there for you, buddy.) In offering our group complaint about Law, Liberty, and Leisure, our bias toward the latter is clear.

It was by way of gaming that I became aware of Marian Call. You see, a particular Friend of Popehat™ known to us through the gaming community was one of the many fans who collaborated with Marian in her successful attempt to tour all 50 states on a shoestring within the 2010 calendar year (blogged here). He uploaded a snippet o' vid from that backyard concert. I reckoned it a kindness. Watching, I felt an unanticipated simple happiness, a light delight, and I wasn't sure why. A few minutes of MC had sparked my art-sense.

Sure, there's something instantly and explicably appealing about a songstress who stands in a backyard percussing heartily on an Underwood typewriter, punctuating her riffs with a rainstick, and waxing rhapsodic about Aragorn and YoSaffBridge and Worf and HAL and Han. But that idiosyncratic blend wasn't it. Or rather, it was that but more than that.

The delight had deeper roots, and I decided to try to figure it out by listening to more of her stuff. The more I heard, the more I liked, and the more I liked, the more I grokked why. I don't know, gentle reader, whether you'll enjoy what I enjoy, but I hope that you'll like what you like, and that a bit of close reading through my eyes will give you an opportunity to reflect afresh, artwise, on what you see and whom and why and how. So here's why I like Marian Call's creations.

Marian Call writes novelty songs

She does more than this, but she does this a lot, and I have a weakness for pastiche, a soft spot for satire, a bent for Dementedness. Marian cites Weird Al as one of many influences, and she does not cite Tom Lehrer, but I think her work is more like Tom's than Al's. She doesn't indulge political passions the way Lehrer does, but she ventures deep into the offbeat.

Consider some of her subjects: A bouncy "Dear Marian" letter wherein she nearly dumps Marian over her many foibles. Her seething hatred for Windows and Facebook annoyances and customer service automations. The "highly entitled Princess" type. An ecstatically appealing beer (this one). Stereotypical but endearing Alaskan Girls (not to be confused with zombie cheerleaders). Or maybe waking up on the Space Shuttle and discovering, like an angst-free Gregor Samsa, that you've somehow become a muppet. Or howzabout Marian's favorite segment of the interstate highway system. Or Jane Austen's flirtapestry. Or Karaoke!

In fact, let's take a few minutes to ponder that last one in living color and high res:

Now, that's quite a quirky repertory, and it stands in favorable comparison to Tom's: the periodic table, plagiarism, pollution, the new math, the Vatican II conference, and of course the silent letter 'e'.  And the similarity isn't just in considering any and every topic a potential spark. Like Lehrer, Marian Call enjoys the ironic contrast of a musical style to its lyric. For example, her rant against inhumane user interfaces, Press or Say Three, is a gently throbbing bossa nova that calls to mind Lehrer's Masochism Tango. Here's a bit of her lyric:

It sounds nice on your planet; I'll visit sometime.
Rolling waves, pretty sunsets — I'll visit sometime.
I'll pack all my problems — I'll leave them with you
And when I get home, with a tan, scrubbed in sand,
No more blood on my hands, I'll know just what to do.

Darling I hate you
And I thought that you should know….

Similarly, she responds to an obnoxious, presumptuous, deluded, gropey "fan" not (or not only) with a deft bit of Shaolin ultraviolence at the moment of the offense, but also by means of a gently sassy declaration of independence delivered in gloriously sultry tones that would set the Ink Spots' hearts a-flutter. Though the music is quite different, the conceit is like Lehrer's use of boogie woogie to tell the rather grim tale of Oedipus Rex.

Marian also shares with Lehrer an appreciation of the incongruous. In Call's obligatory murder ballad, Vera Flew the Coop, the anti-heroine is not only a ferocious rogue and miscreant, but also an eternally polite, perfectly sincere, unwavering teller of truth. The contrast is not far afield of Lehrer's Irish Ballad, in which the lead confesses to a series of atrocities because "lying, she knew, was a sin".

Quirky subject matter, deliberately inapt melodies and rhythms, incongruous characterization– these are the meat and potatoes of the novelty song, and Marian knows how to dish. In a final respect, she and Tom are kindred spirits: they're both inclined to Gilbertian rhymes (e.g., "noises / says cuz /choices" for her, "to Harvard / discovered" for him), internal rhymes, end-wrapped rhymes, and ancillary alliteration and assonance. He lays it on much more thickly, most memorably in lines such as "That I missed her depressed her young sister named Esther. This mister to pester she tried. Now a pestering sister's a festering blister. You're best to resist her, say I!" or perhaps "While we're attacking frontally, watch Brinkley and Huntley describing contrapuntally the cities we have lost" or "everybody say his own kyrie eleison". In Call's Got To Fly, the effect is more subtle:

I don't know how you got the stomach for reality when
You could go circle the stars. You wouldn't believe where I've been!
Just this week I've made some freakishly fabulous finds.
My corpse has been here, but my mind's covered miles.

I’ve seen such things — you wouldn't believe it —
I've been hearing shadows and smelling noises
And you can’t clip my wings — the metaphor says, cuz
I can imagine a reality where all my choices
Are meaningful, beautiful and bold
And it makes the waking world look so dead cold….

In her Dear Mister Darcy, the tangle of alliteration and wrapped rhymes appears to be a metaphor for the oxymoronic semi-smooth awkwardness that constitutes the social fabric of a girl's audaciously flirtatious, solipsistically risky world:

They drank all the pilsner and ate all the oranges
And she thought as the rotten and rusty door hinges
Squealed as he left, how remarkably deftly,
How utterly thoroughly, he’d failed to confess.
He’d evaded the point and eluded the mood
She meant to convey when she laid out the food.
Even put up her hair, but the boy wouldn’t bite
And it was almost sexy, but not quite.

So Marian Call, as a creator of novelty songs, achieves many of the things that Tom Lehrer achieves. I like Lehrer, so by the Transitive Property of Geekosity, I like Call. Even so, there are the crucial differences between them.

No song of Lehrer's (at least in his widely circulated oeuvre) will ever be taken as anything other than a novelty song; dorky pun-filled humor is his shtick, and he's happy there. Call, on the other hand, reaches beyond novelty and niche. With roots in medieval and early modern music and mad skillz in choral composition (and a taste for Joni Mitchell), Call's ambitions and capabilities overflow the edges of the novelty- and franchise-based boxes that might otherwise contain and define her. Here's another key diff: Lehrer is misanthropic, cynical, sarcastic, and knowing; Call recognizes that humans are deeply defective, but she sort of likes us all anyhow and sort of holds out hope.

Marian Call is metrically astute

And that's not just because she uses Wolfram Alpha. Discussions of synaesthesia typically address the interplay of sight and sound.  You know– "What color is Tuesday?" and that sort of thing. But any mix of senses can prove interesting. Folks who are sensitive to poetic factors often report feeling how words fit together, appreciating the shape and interplay of language tokens. To a poet, the mouthfeel of every transition from word to word and the weight of successive phrases may seem immediately apparent. This is not calculated so much as intuited in a moment.

I don't know whether Marian feels the shape of verses and can taste the contours of language, but I know that she writes as if she experiences poetry in this multimodal way. While declining (as part of her artistry) to adhere too strictly to metrical prescriptions, she indulges in a sort of sprung rhythm, where every line pays its way in beats but the number of intervening syllables is left to expression and discretion. Consider these two morsels, the first from Shakespeare and the second from Beowulf, and watch the accented syllables:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before
(Bard, Sonnet 60)

Shield was still thriving | when his time came,
And he crossed over | into the Lord's keeping.
His warrior band | did what he bade them
(Anonymous Saxon Dude channeled by Heaney)

Shakespeare's iambic pentameter is rigorous; he even carries through on the inverted stress of the first foot in each line. In contrast, the Germanic poet varies the number of syllables quite a bit while ensuring that every line features four beats, a medial pause, and consonantal harmony.

By craft or instinct, Marian Call plays these games.  For example, in Got to Fly, the first verse establishes a structure:

Thank you for calling, leamme a message please
Tell me what day and what month and what year it is
‘Cause I’m not here, no baby, I’m not home
The lights are on for sure but maybe the occupants have flown

Later in the song, the verse returns with a polysyllabic vengeance:

Thank you for calling, leamme a detailed message please
Tell me what day and what month and what year it is
I’m gonna bring you back the goblet and the sword and the flower
I’m gonna mount a rescue, love, I’m gonna lay siege to the tower

By including more and more secondary syllables, Marian dilates each line. Since the song's tempo is unaltered, the words must be uttered ever more quickly if they're to fit. This prosody generates a sense of energy, urgency, and excitement that marries the melodic and lyrical themes through a trick of rhythm. Later in the song, she achieves a rhythmic tour de force (roll the videotape! again!) by similar means:

I gotta trip I gotta take I gotta call I gotta make I gotta run I gotta do I gotta follow up

I gotta clean I gotta send I gotta file I gotta get I gotta give I gotta go through that pile

I got a list, I got a note, I got a job, I gotta vote I gotta read I gotta write I gotta get more sleep tonight

I gotta go, I got a goal, I gotta trim,
I gotta be, I gotta buy, I gotta try and hit the gym and
I gotta pray, I gotta think, I gotta God I need a drink
I gotta learn, I gotta plan, I gotta squeeze you in
I gotta million miles to go, I got an endless row to hoe,
So when I got time to blow I gotta gotta got to fly.

A riff like that would make Lori Cotler smile! The only poetic and prosodic analog who comes to mind in contemporary mainstream music is Jason Mraz in a song like The Remedy, but Call, it seems to me, is better at it.

The most well-crafted example of prosodic and metrical control among her works is Temporal Dominoes, a song from Call's new album:

Culling their half-baked assumptions / paradigms toppling untried
Demolishing decades-old hunches / with their eyes all unraveled and wide
At the top of the tide / and nowhere to hide

And the stars will keep spinning if nobody sees them
And the moon will keep drawing the ocean apart
If you’re smothered in cities of fragile agreement
Then pack your bags yesterday yesterday yesterday

Here, traditional dactylic meter ("Culling their half-baked assumptions", "Temporal Dominoes") stands, arms akimbo, with anapestic on one side ("And the stars will keep spinning if nobody sees them", "If you're smothered in cities of fragile agreement") and a metrically liberated wise primal cry on the other. (I won't transcribe it. Listen to the song!) It's a tale not of war and peace, but of negotiations on the way to mutual understanding, factual understanding, and serenity that passes understanding.

Marian is a wordsmith and like any artisan, she exercises her choices and skills in dialog with the raw material she's working. She also weighs the endeavor itself.

Marian Call goes meta!

At an Ignite Anchorage workshop, Marian laid out a five-minute sketch of creativity in which the free-spirited muse and rationally constrained, educated critic conspire to delight. The muse throws a wild and whimsical array of ideas on the table, and the critic brings discipline, order, and decision. She advises that you should "educate your muse and frolic with your critic" if you want to optimize creativity and create interest. The great variety in her own work is a demonstration of how, and how well, she pushes herself neither to settle for whim nor to prohibit whimsy.

In this respect, she follows Wordsworth in finding that artmaking is dialectical, if not paradoxical: it's a spontaneous overflow, but one recollected in tranquility:

Not that I always began to write with a distinct purpose formerly conceived; but habits of meditation have, I trust, so prompted and regulated my feelings, that my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose. If this opinion be erroneous, I can have little right to the name of a Poet. For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. (William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads)

I'd like to know more than her five minutes permitted her to say about how she creates her music, lyrics, and albums. But this much is clear: Apollo and Dionysus, Muse and Maenad.

Marian Call is broken but hopeful, sometimes discouraged but often encouraging

The most intriguing aspect of Marian Call's work is that she touches on the parts of life that are sites of both hope and despair, both aspiration and humiliation, both vulnerability and defense. As I noted in my prior post about her, Marian has a knack for recognizing paradoxes or antinomies in human experience and distilling them to heart- and mind-moving simplicity without pretending to resolve them. In this she ranges well beyond novelty and niche into universal human experience, which she renders with charming or agonizing accessibility.

Her self-awareness and carefully tempered self-criticism color much of her work:

Oh, when you kiss me goodnight, I wonder
If you could ever mean as much to me as I do to you
I fret ‘n’ fumble with my thoughts; I want you
But only on my terms and on my time, I want it perfect and easy….

I think instead of feel, but if that’s okay with you
I will be your dearest friend — I’ll be your lover too
And I will never ever leave if you will have me now
But dear, the trouble is with love — trouble is with love –
I’m not sure if my heart will ever know how

You might say that Marian's her own worst critic. In The Volvo Song, she carries the melody in full voice, but an overlaid track offers a casual, playfully skeptical descant of critical commentary on her faults, which are already on display in the main part:

Oooh my darling, when you bounced that check
Why didn’t you think the gorram fees would set you so far back?
And oh my darling sugar pie, why did you stay up all that night
And put off your packing and eat too much and nearly miss your flight?
You knew you’d be miserable after that white lie,
So now why did you why did you why did you why did you why?

This Gollum-like duality proposes a model of human nature: on the one hand, we know what we want, what we should do, how the world ought to be, and perhaps how to help make it thus; on the other hand, we tend to be self-indulgent, lazy, complacent, inefficient, and willfully obtuse. Or, as Marian puts is,

If seeing were caring what a different line we’d take
If knowing were doing what a different world we’d make
What we want and what we need we very very seldom do
I want a smaller waist.  I want donuts too.

Her self-criticism is tempered now, but it was not always so. As a child, she suffered the social plight of many brainy introverts: feeling, and being made to feel, that it isn't ok to be smart or eccentric or intense. The result of crushing rejection on a heart that longs for acceptance is a feeling that you just can't win. No matter how you aspire, try, and even succeed, soaring to any height still feels like some species of failure. She revisits this formative context in Flying Feels Like Falling:

Every child knows how and why they’re hated.
I hid my papers from the class, and I tore up my tests
‘Til unfulfilled potential was my very own pet monster
And it beat me when I failed and when I didn’t care
And when I did my best
To turn this rubbish into rhyme.
Every time you travel
It takes so much courage, oh, and so much time.

Flying feels like falling, flying feels like falling
When I close my eyes…

Fear not! She doesn't settle for pointing out how life can be enigmatic and soul-sapping. Instead, she holds out hope for mustering strength and overcoming the insecurity, uncertainty, and awkwardness of aiming to fit in:

Oh it takes a little effort to keep your head on straight
To laugh and really mean it, to whistle while you wait.
It takes a little effort to sometimes plug your ears
To play without pretensions, but also without fear.

Because some of us will never quite feel the thrill of being safe in our own skin.
When it’s your first time around you might flounder a bit ’til you fit in
And although I do heartily admire
Folks whose natural graces seem inspired
I expect the truly confident are fewer
Than I am generally inclined to think
And it’s worth a little effort to look ‘em in the eye
To whistle while you’re waiting, to flutter ’til you fly
Oh, it’s worth a little effort and a lot of honesty
It’s worth some work believing
It takes a little practice to learn to be.

This spirit of encouragement turns up in other pieces as well. Her Southside Open Mic, like Billy Joel's Piano Man but less egoistic, is all about generosity and grace extended to those who muster the courage to try to create for others — a useful counterpoint to the hilariously brutal mockery of Call's Love and Harmony. (She's laughing with you, darling.)

Of course, it's not just social acceptance in general but romance in particular that poses a challenge for inhabitants of the strongly individual, highly private mindscape. The song Dear Mister Darcy anticipates a bold exposure of the heart; Charlie Brown finally tells the little red-haired girl. Catching the flipside, as she is wont to do, Marian also expresses the anguish that comes with finally daring to dare and then seeing the whole thing blow up in one's face. All New (Heart Shut Tight), possibly her best song, is a masterfully agonizing lament about the regret of having stepped out of the comfort zone for naught. Anyone who knows the territory will cry alongside her:

I thought I’d dream of being dreamed of
Thought I’d pine — for a time

But I woke up in New Mexico, running with my palms wide open
And my heart shut tight, my heart shut tight
I woke up over Joshua Tree, stars all poking fun of me
And my heart shut tight, my heart shut tight — my heart she tried

Never you mind
You are the ditch I tumbled into running blind
Dropped my caution, stopped my watching, and for what?
I slept right through the truth of us
So don’t you fret, you bear no fault, I just slipped up — just tripped up

And it’s hell to pay
I’m bound for Concord and I’m conquered, I’m betrayed
I’ll point my bleeding nose back north where I belong
Rocky Mountains, point me home
I really hate my coming late by what you knew all along –
It’s in every damn love song –

Oh, my heart she tried so hard to do like humans do
To fall a little fall, to dream a dream or two
I’ll fly back across the plains again and perch a humbled spell
And come back for the Maritimes when I have learned my lessons well

You guard your own — you stay awake
The house makes the rules — the house wins the game.

So, so sad. But she always rides the current of the paradox. Marian can drink bitter, but she can't stay bitter. As she declares in Ina Flew the Coop,

Oh if ever joy surrounds you, you have to let it, have to let it
Oh if ever love astounds you, you have to let it, have to let it

So here I am
With this torch
With this flame
With my thoughts
With your name
No regrets
No offense
Damage done
What else could I have –

After all, we're not in the mood to miss miracles.

There are many messages running through Marian's work, but one stands out: life has its ups and downs, and all too painfully often they turn out to be the same thing seen differently. However, in the concrete, the local, the real, the human — in the touch of a hand, the act of kindness, or the convergence of true friends, and most especially in creating rather than destroying — we can be at peace even with the turbulence:

This is my ghost, this is my home — millions of miles my mind can’t own
No one’s seen it all;  no one will
But I want to memorize it, every inch, want to remember where I’ve been
I bless these waves, I bless this wind, bless this grace & all my sins

Marian Call is Troubadorable

So that's what I have learned so far about why I found delight in the music of Marian Call. She writes pieces replete with geek lore (win!), but she does oh so much more. She flexes her metrical muscle. She theorizes about what she's up to and why and how. She extracts art from her issues but avoids the maudlin, the mawkish. She introspects, but also gets outside herself and empathizes. She wants not only to make stuff, but also to inspire and teach other artists, to build her community, and to help the needy beyond her reach. She's too busy bringing things into the world to dwell too long on any one obstacle. She may be shy and retiring, but she's on a mission and — step aside! — she's coming through.

The unique problem that all singer-songwriters now face, and that she wants to face down, is the fact that in the Internet has made a massive oversupply of infinitely replicable audio available with trivial ease:

I'm an artist, so I trade on spiritual value. That gives me a complicated relationship with what I do…. The current market value of my product is zero dollars…. The way that I fight this is by having to bring up intentionally and repeatedly the spiritual value of what I do. I'm basically on an educational mission in order to get paid, because I'm having to let people know they don't have to pay me for what I do any more. They can get it for free. But it has a value that is unrelated to its market value, and that's its spiritual value. And if I can communicate to an audience that that matters to them, and that that is a part of the community that they need to see alive, then they may be willing to pay for voluntarily what they don't have to pay for, to access it, anymore.

I like that Marian Call is making her way, and I like her way of making. If you also like what you've seen here, or what you see that I can't see or haven't seen, I hope you'll join me in supporting her work. You see, I'm irretrievably addicted to good art, and that's what she's creating.

Last 5 posts by David Byron


  1. Matt says

    I wasn't convinced before. I am now. Even though I'm reading this from a network where access to YouTube is blocked, and thus pretty much every link in this post I'm interested in clicking leads to a page saying, essentially, "you can't get there from here". Nevertheless, from your text, with only the statements you make and the examples you transcribe into textual form, I'm convinced that it is a moral imperative for me to check this girl out once I get home and onto an unfiltered internet connection, and then spread the good news far and wide to everyone I know, and hopefully everyone they know too.

    Have you considered a career in PR? :) [ducks to avoid the inevitable rain of thrown bricks]

  2. James C says

    After your initial post on Marian Call, I followed a couple of links, listened to a song or two, and just had to get all of her albums–an early birthday present to me–and I've been enjoying them ever since. Here's hoping she makes it to Kansas sometime in the near future, or I make it to Alaska…

  3. gbasden says

    What a spectacular writeup. I've read it twice, and I think I still have more to mine from it. Thank you!

  4. Rich Rostrom says

    I have WFMT (Chicago) on in the background (a local singer performing a concert of British songs). Just as I came to the reference to Gilbertian rhymes, I heard "Our great Mikado, virtuous man…."

    I love serendipitous synchrony.

  5. tarylcabot says

    The title song is the best track, so thanks for introducing me to a new artist that i will enjoy – for the record, i was/am more in the mood to read this post than Patrick's on bullets to the head.

  6. ngvrnd says

    Ms. Call's pretty excellent alright. You might also check out Regina Spektor — different subject matter, but her voice and style are strong in the same kind of way as Marion Call's.