Local songwriters talk about the best songs for love—and the best for losing it | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Local songwriters talk about the best songs for love—and the best for losing it 

The Independent asked past and present participants in the Love Hangover, Raleigh's annual day-after-Valentine's hair-of-the-dog fest, to share their favorite love and anti-love songs. The findings suggest that love hurts and stinks (although no one cited those two specific songs), but it can be a splendorous thing, too.

click to enlarge Richard Alwyn
  • Richard Alwyn

Richard Alwyn (2000-2003 in Raleigh, 2005-2009 in NYC)

FAVORITE LOVE SONG: "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. All the religious imagery makes you think of the old songs where you were never sure if they were singing of the love of God or the lover who makes you say "Oh my god, oh my god." And this is also such a great love song, with the opening lines about the secret (sacred) chord, the major lift, reminding us that probably the only thing that's truly holy in our lives is love. But if there's anything close, it's music.

FAVORITE ANTI-LOVE SONG: I think I'm going to have to go with "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. Intertwined with all the beauty are all the people withholding and outdrawing each other, broken, bereft and baffled. And again, from the first stanza, the line that explains everything that is, ever has been and always will be wrong with this relationship: "But you don't really care for music, do you?"

click to enlarge Sara Bell
  • Sara Bell

Sara Bell (2000, 2001, 2003)

Since love songs make up the bricks of time, and it would therefore be impossible to come up with only two favorites to wax on about, I will pick two that I chose to do at Love Hangovers past.

I love "Drug I Need" by the magnificent Poster Children. I guess it doesn't exactly qualify as a happy or a sad song; it's more a meditation on tongue-tied obsession, but with the last line—"I'm living for the day when we first meet"—you could maybe categorize it as hopeful. Anyway, it nails it! And it rocks with a bounty of lovelorn tension.

"The Ballad of a Runaway Horse" by Leonard Cohen knocks the wind out of me every time. It also qualifies as neither happy nor sad, or rather, it's both—because it shepherds you through the entire experience of a love in a dozen verses—all its doubt, jubilance, complication and hope. The original version of it is called "The Ballad of the Absent Mare" and appears on the amazing Leonard Cohen record Recent Songs, but he retooled the lyrics to fit a "cowgirl's" perspective for Jennifer Warnes. It's a perfect song, so it's become kind of a standard, proving endurable enough to weather lyrical and arrangement alterations. But to hear her sing it on Rob Wasserman's Duets CD is nothing short of arresting. Anyway, I couldn't possibly say anything better about it than Jennifer Warnes herself does so beautifully in this letter on her Web site, so go read that, and then listen to the song.

click to enlarge Caitlin Cary
  • Caitlin Cary

Caitlin Cary (2001-2003, 2007, 2009)

"What Would I Do Without You," by Ray Charles, is simultaneously one of the greatest love songs and also one of the most potent anti-love/ love-sucks songs of all time. It's that way musically, even in the first two bars, with an interplay between the bluest, most aching piano and the brightest of optimistic "in love" horns. And it's so there in the lyrics, not to mention in the wrench of Ray's voice: "Don't deceive me, please don't leave me. What would I do without you to see me through? Say, I want to know, what would I do? Where would I go?" Anyone who has ever been in love knows that some evil force in the universe always makes you contemplate the end of the love you're in, and, for a while, you live in this kind of crazy fear. I distinctly remember that I could lay down on the bed and cry for an hour if I even thought about the boy I first loved leaving me. And I'll be goddamned if I didn't think about it all the time. Where would I go?

Jeff Crawford (2009 rookie)

A FAVORITE LOVE SONG: "Beautiful Change" by the Innocence Mission on Befriended. Simple and sincere, you believe what Karen Peris is saying. The melody, lyrics and vocals are full of hope, and a little desperation to boot. Nothing fancy, but well done.

A FAVORITE ANTI-LOVE SONG: "I'll Just Call You Darling" by Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb on Mr. and Mrs. Used To Be. A lot of anti-love songs on this record, but this one blends a bit of humor and sincerity. "I'll just call you darling, and I'll call you the same/ And if we ever cry out in the night, we won't call each others' names." Also love "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage" by Smokey Robinson.

Lynda Dawson (2001, 2006, 2009)

MY FAVORITE LOVE SONG: Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You." Love is all-consuming, especially when it's new, and at its best when both intoxicating and invigorating at the same time. It's hard to capture that feeling, but Joni figured out how to bottle it in this song. All I have to do is put Blue on the stereo, sit back and sink into that moment.

MY FAVORITE ANTI-LOVE SONG: Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." I love the stark, contrasting reality of these lyrics over the sparse, moving-on roll of the guitar. Hurt, sarcastic, cool and collected: "Hey, sometimes it just doesn't work out." I can only strive to be so honest.

click to enlarge Matthew Douglas
  • Matthew Douglas

Matthew Douglas (2009 rookie)

MY FAVORITE LOVE SONG might be "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" by Stevie Wonder. Years wasted, living in a hollow shell, cold, empty, and then ... love. And just when all hearts are warmed and a good fade should start, the funkiest soundtrack to your sad life kicks in, and you have to ask the question, "Don't you wanna fall in love?" Who doesn't want to fall in love? And does anyone else appreciate the ridiculousness of the cover art on Talking Book? Who sits on the beach wearing a red velvet muumuu staring at the ground? Someone in love, I guess.

MY FAVORITE BREAK-UP SONG (or song that I shamefully listen to after a break-up) has to be "Sour Times" by Portishead. I can't explain why, so just break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend and try it on for size. Really satisfying.

click to enlarge Peter Holsapple
  • Peter Holsapple

Peter Holsapple (2007)

LOVE SONG: "Love Story" by Randy Newman. What a sweet vignette. By the end of the song, you have stepped through the courtship, the wedding, the life that follows and its conclusion. You and me, baby.

ANTI-LOVE SONG: "Positively 4th Street" by Bob Dylan. One of the finest, most savage put-downs ever committed to recording tape. If there was a single recipient of Dylan's harangue, they must still be withering when they hear it.

Bille Karel (2007, 2009)

FAVORITE LOVE SONG: Dar Williams' "In Love But Not at Peace," because her lyrics on the subject are such poetry: mundane and extraordinary at the same time.

FAVORITE HEARTBREAK SONG: It's a tie between Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings' "My Man is a Mean Man" and Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart." The first for being so righteously liberating, and the second for being so deliciously ridiculous. That's kind of how heartbreak is, you know?

Caroline Mamoulides (2000-2005, 2007, 2009)

LOVE: "Every Time We Say Goodbye" as performed by Annie Lennox on Red, Hot + Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter. Hauntingly beautiful and bittersweet. The accordion brings to mind a snowy day stranded in Paris.

ANTI-LOVE: "You And Your Sister" from Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos. Exposes the anguish and ecstasy in wanting so badly to be with the one you love. It is uncertain if he gets the girl. He certainly got me.

Scott Phillips (2000, 2002-2005, 2007, 2009)

A FAVORITE LOVE SONG: "A Slow Song" by Joe Jackson. One man's soaring plea for just a little tenderness in the middle of our ear-splitting, breakneck lives. Joe is an overlooked genius, and this is one of his best, in my honest opinion.

A FAVORITE BREAK-UP SONG: "You Are All I Have" by Hayden. The certainty that he/she got over you way quicker than you will ever get over her/him, made manifest in simple, steady, aching songcraft.

SONG THAT MAKES ME CRY THE MOST: "Transatlanticism" by Death Cab For Cutie.

click to enlarge Christy Smith (on right)
  • Christy Smith (on right)

Christy Smith (2009 rookie)

It's hard to sing about loving someone without seeming silly or like you're gloating. People don't generally sing or seek out songs about love when they're actually in it. It's usually when our heart's been stomped on that we seek out lost-love songs. Which is why my pick for favorite love song isn't a totally straightforward one: "When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge. This song gets you because you're not sure how to feel. He's singing about this hypothetical love, how strong it is, how it's gripped him. This woman's got him good. ... He'd give up his riches. He'd turn his back on his best friend for her. And you hear it and feel elated and sort of achy at the same time because this is a love song which hints at all the murkiness beneath the surface of that love. It's so joyous to be in love, but it's also a tremendous leap of faith. He loves that woman something fierce, but if she does him wrong, he's done for. Because she's got that much control over him. And it's that tension that makes the song so damn good. I remember thinking as a little girl, listening to this number on my family's turntable, that I really hoped I'd someday find a guy who'd sleep out in the rain for me.

And as for flat-out sad and broken hearted songs: "Fool From the Start" by Sarah Siskind. It is one of the most deliciously doleful songs I've ever heard. Sarah's a North Carolina native who now lives in Nashville, Tenn. She sings the song over a lonely guitar riff. "I was the fool from the very start," she warbles. "Always extending the edges of my heart." And you can guess that from there, things don't go well. She's alone, broken-hearted and wishing for the olden days. 'Cause she hurt and walked away from the only person who ever loved her. And now there's no turning back. It's such a beautiful dirge for lost love that you hold your breath through the whole thing.

Steve Storms (2009 rookie)

FAVORITE LOVE SONG? How about most influential? After much thought—about 14 nanoseconds—I select "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" by those four British guys. Without that song and those guys, I believe that the Love Hangover show would not exist. I know for sure I would not be participating for the first time if not for that song, because I never would have picked up a guitar and learned to play.

ANTI-LOVE SONG: I could wrack my brain forever, so I'm going with the first one that came to mind: "Your Cheating Heart" by Hank Williams. Says it all in three simple chords and an aching vocal.

The 10th annual Love Hangover happens Sunday, Feb. 15, at The Pour House at 8 p.m. Tickets are $7, and the performing pairs include Caitlin Cary & Matt Douglas, Christy Smith & Jeff Crawford, Lynda Wittig Dawson & Scott Phillips, Caroline Mamoulides & Steve Storms, and Billie Karel & Joey Fralin.

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