Mason Jennings, Mason Jennings, 1997
If there's one thing 35+ years of listening, playing and (trying to) write music has taught me, it's that almost everyone who takes the time to learn an instrument to the point of competency has at least one great song or performance in him or her. I've seen so many bands where I've thought their set was totally forgettable, and then the last song is terrific: tight, tuneful, instantly memorable. The pod is filled with hundreds of these songs-- a band's magic four minutes. It's one of the reasons I spend so much time and energy checking new groups out-- these songs make me really happy.
That said, the vast majority of people don't have more than that. In the mid-90s, I did the sensitive ponytail man acoustic guitar troubadour thing for about a year, and wrote about 50 songs. Three of them, I'd say, are quite good. The rest are so forgettable that I can't remember them, and I'm the author. They deserve to be forgotten.
Because of the "one song" phenomenon, every artist has at least one big fan, a champion. And usually it's that one song that made it happen. There was a guy who came to every show I did in 1995-- he was more excited about them than I was. It was because he'd flipped for two of my songs. And we all have friends who push obscure bands on us. My advice? When they tell you that you "HAVE" to check something out, ask them what the one song you have to hear is; that'll tell you everything you need to know.
In 1995, however, two songs and one superfan did squat for you. We were at the height of the time of the Album. With the advent of CDs, the length of an album had bloated out from 35 to 65 minutes in length, and a band couldn't put out an album until it had 15-20 songs. Every band needed to make a Big Statement. Even pop icons like Janet Jackson put out long, long records. Sometimes, that was a great thing-- Tom Petty's Wildflowers, for example. Other bands are not in any way meant to be listened to an hour at a time (every Red Hot Chili Peppers album, for example, starts off with me thinking "I love these guys-- why don't I listen to them more often?" and ends with me thinking "Kill me. Please. Just kill me.")
Of course, in 1965, two songs was a career. If you had a great song, you could put out a single. If you had a follow-up single, then you were a major artist. What we gained in the age of the album (which was quite a lot-- no one loves albums more than I do) we lost in terms of the legitimate, deserved one hit wonder. People use that phrase One Hit Wonder like an insult-- however, writing, recording and communicating a perfect song to millions of people? That's a miracle, as far as I'm concerned.
Now, in the time of the digital download, the great single track is back, and the one superfan can use the internet to create enough buzz to put a band into the general consciousness. The single is once again King of the Castle. No one is really buying albums anymore-- but they are buying single tracks-- tens of millions of them. I'm sad that the album is fading as an art form to some extent, but I'm really happy that hundreds of artists with one great song can record them at home and stick them up on iTunes. That's a great development-- we have the chance to relive the pop explosion of the 1960s, when there were ten new bands with a great song every week.
It also means that we have the chance to go back and rediscover the hundreds of great tracks that were lost in the 90s because they were tied to boring albums and consequently forgotten (there were no singles in the 90s, remember? It was either plunk down the fifteen bucks, or hear nothing). This track is one of my favorite examples. I don't think much of Mason Jennings-- he's fine, but basically unremarkable. That said, here it is-- his one perfect song.
Will's pre-school teacher Tika turned me on to this track-- she put it on a mix that she made for friends, and I listened to this tune nonstop for a week. I love everything about it. First, the production-- I love the tremolo guitar that sounds like it was recorded in a hallway. I love the grumbly bass line. I love the hilariously loud, live drums. The arrangement is fantastic as well-- for such a simple song, it crackles with energy. It reminds me of a cleaned-up, poppy lost Violent Femmes track. Most of all, though, the vocal performance is perfect. The slacker, barely trying voice that sings the verse (with maybe the best use of the f-word in a rock song) gives way to that effortless, glissando "Butterflyyyyyy" that introduces the chorus. It's one of the most fun songs to sing along to on my iPod.
"Butterfly" won't change the world, and it doesn't justify a career, but it's 2 1/2 minutes of perfect pop music, and it's made my life better, and the digital age gives it just the right place for it to exist.
Hell, maybe I'll dust off a few of my own demos. Maybe.