Song #54: D. Smith – “The Ballad of Squeaky Fromme”

October 17, 2020
Song #54: D. Smith – “The Ballad of Squeaky Fromme”

A lot of the music that’s come out on Dromedary over the years, if it wasn’t originating from some tiny micro-indie label in New Jersey, sounds almost mainstream. I can’t help it; I love a good power pop song, and if someone writes a really good pop song and plays it for me, I’ll want to put it out.

I mean, I’m not going to race out and release 1910 Fruitgum Company records – it’s still got to have some kind of edge to it – but a common thread through a lot of the records we’ve done – Melting Hopefuls, Footstone, Cuppa Joe, Mommyheads, Stuyvesant, Shirk Circus, The 65’s, D. Smith, Joy Cleaner, Positive No, Sink Tapes, and Cathedral Ceilings – has been that they’re basically pop songs. A little edgy, a little weird, but pop songs.

Dan Smith does pop songs brilliantly. Even with his cover songs, there’s something to love in almost every one. Outwardly, he’s pretty modest about them – I remember asking him once about the time signature in this song, and his response was “What the fuck is a time signature?”

I know Dan Smith knows what a time signature is, but I don’t think Dan necessarily likes talking about himself. At least in this context.

“The Ballad of Squeaky Fromme” sounds like the theme to a television show. It’s on, like, the Lifetime Network, and the music is playing over the title sequence where there’s a happy family all dressed in white, the parents are holding hands, running in the surf, toothy white grins and sparkly eyes. Then it cuts to a funeral, maybe a photo of the dad on top of the casket, little kid crying. Then it cuts to the mom, super-frustrated, trying to make dinner and help with homework and she drops something on the floor and it breaks, and she’s got a tear in her eye. Then the mandolin starts playing, and she’s at a baseball game with the teenage daughter, sitting in the bleachers, and the little boy gets a hit, and suddenly they’re all dancing in the outfield.

Right? It sounds like that?

But then something fucked up happens in the song, and it blows me away every time I hear it.

Songs that start slow and then build to some sort of crescendo have existed since, well, since they invented the word “crescendo.” That’s precisely what that word describes.

Typically when that happens, there’s a huge payoff at the end. Think of how “Stairway to Heaven” (for lack of a better example) slowly adds instruments, from quiet guitar, then doubled electric guitar, then bass, then drums, then guitar solo, then screamy vocals. Then after the climax, it sort of falls off.

“The Ballad of Squeaky Fromme” starts like that. The first verse it’s just Dan, singing with an acoustic guitar. A second layer of guitar joins in the second verse. A third layer adds more texture in the first chorus, along with a harmony vocal. Coming into the next verse, we get sleigh bells for some rhythm, along with the layered guitars. Then in the second chorus, a mandolin joins in, playing an octave higher than the guitars. Then, at the end of the second chorus, drums and electric bass join in.

But then, instead of reaching some crashing climax, the song just ends. 43 beats of drums and bass, then a few strums on the mandolin, and that’s it. No more words, no fourth verse, no bridge, no solo, nothing. It just ends.

It’s like that family was dancing in the outfield, and they suddenly all got eaten by a bear.

Anyway, I always thought that was a brilliant device – build the song up, but no crescendo, like musical blue balls.

Today was “The Big Send,” the final day of a big campaign engineered by Swing Left to get people to send letters to unlikely voters in important states. Writing those letters all month and yammering about it made me feel great, like I was contributing to this giant effort to fix the country. Jesus, I hope it helps.

“On to the next thing,” as I like to say. Time to move on to the next thing, whatever that is going to be. Seventeen anxious, edge-of-my-seat days.

~ by Al on October 17, 2020.

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