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Three Songs That Expose Frayed Nerves And Yearning


This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, usually reviews new albums. But today, he wants to talk about three songs by three different artists - Elvis Costello, Lana Del Rey and Eleanor Friedberger.


ELVIS COSTELLO: Thank you. "I Can't Turn It Off ," take one.

(Singing) Basement babies strangling saxophones. They got twisted motives. They got eyes of stone. And it's a terminal condition that is tattooed on their shoes. It's not that they don't need you. They're too mixed up to choose.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I have three songs to play for you - three songs very dissimilar, yet converging in a fundamental way. The first is "I Can't Turn It Off," an Elvis Costello song that led off this review. It was recorded in 1975 - a solo performance cut before his first album and never officially released until now, as part of a two-disc set of Costello's music issued to coincide with his new autobiography, "Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink." You can hear Costello in his early 20s pouring out words, that unstoppable flow of twisted aphorisms, puns and emotion that characterize so much of his initial work. The guitar hook in the opening line, basement babies strangling saxophones, suggests that Costello had been listening to the work of an American word-drunk performer, Bruce Springsteen. But the chorus is pure Costello.


COSTELLO: (Singing) Sometimes I think that I have had enough. Sometimes I scare myself by giving up. Oh, you know that I can't turn it off. Young girl rehearses all her blackmail faces. She's looking for the love that lasts. She'd never break the hearts of any aces, but she's learning pretty fast. I've seen those clowns...

TUCKER: In a way that's different from Costello, Lana Del Rey also can't turn it off. Her new album, "Honeymoon," is the first one I can't quite connect with. Always fearless about her own self-absorption, Del Rey has hunkered down inside her private mythology on this album. It's like she's put up a wall to keep you out. But, once, the wall crumbles. Significantly, it's on the song that closes out the album and is its only cover song, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," recorded most memorably by Nina Simone in 1964 and the Animals in 1965. Lana Del Rey seizes that song and turns it into an instant summary of her career to date. She trades on being misunderstood, even as she professes to plead for understanding. This gives her version a deep tension.


LANA DEL REY: (Singing) Baby, do you understand me now, if sometimes you see that I'm mad? Don't you know no one alive can always be an angel? When everything goes wrong, you see some bad. But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.

TUCKER: Finally, I want to play a bit of a new song by Eleanor Friedberger, best known as half of the excellent brother-sister team, the Fiery Furnaces. There's no new Fiery Furnaces or solo Friedberger album in the near future that I'm aware of, but she has written this superb song, "False Alphabet City," for a film directed by the artist Sara Magenheimer.


ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER: (Singing) Everyone's sutured to the wrong letter in the false Alphabet City. Everyone's sutured to the wrong letter in the false Alphabet City. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H. I've got tons of letters, but I always needed yours. Yeah, I always needed yours. From the city so nice they named it twice, in the city so nice they named it twice, there are so many words.

TUCKER: Playing off the pun of a section of Lower Manhattan named Alphabet City, Friedberger sings about everyone searching for the words to express what they feel about themselves and how they feel about others. The song becomes a kind of communal, citywide love song. Like the Costello and Del Rey performances, Friedberger is intent on burrowing beneath the surface of the words being sung, exposing frayed nerves and yearning while sounding in complete control.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. If you'd like to catch up on recent FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Gloria Steinem, Carrie Brownstein of the band Sleater-Kinney and the TV comedy series "Portlandia," and Dr. Vincent DeVita, who's a pioneer in the field of chemotherapy and former head of the National Cancer Institute, you can listen on our podcast. You'll find lots of other FRESH AIR interviews there, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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