Commentary

Start making sense

Updated: August 21, 2009, 11:36 PM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

When people talk about the music they like, they are fond of using some derivative of, "I like [insert musician] because [insert correct pronoun] really gets me." That's not true, of course. Few of Eddie Vedder's conversations with fans have been so deep that he directed Pearl Jam's next album at them.

Frightened Rabbit
Frightened Rabbit's "The Midnight Organ Fight" is full of songs about ex-girlfriends, heartbreak and loss.

Neither is it true that the fan in question "gets" the artist. Thom Yorke has only exposed as much of himself as he'd like. Radiohead song lyrics say nothing of Yorke's affection for French wine, Lhasa Apsos and scatological humor.*

(*Supposition. I do not know Thom Yorke well enough (at all) to pin down his taste in beverages, dogs or poop jokes.)

What is true is that music listeners are able to see the world through the eyes of our favorite musicians. Imagine it like this: When I listen to a Cat Power song, it's like I'm at a diner, sitting at a booth with Chan Marshall. We don't sit across from each other, like normal humans trying to get to know each other. Instead, we're on the same side of the booth. Think white-trash lovers on a fourth date. Cat Power and I have a great date if we share a viewpoint on the world outside our booth.

Which gives us a glimpse of the profundity of music. If our only hope, while listening to a piece of music, were that by doing so we could understand the artist a little better, our love of any song would be short-lived. But if, as is actually the case, a piece of music gives us a better lens through which we can see the world, it is worth our time, money and emotional investment.

Today, I'm going to tell three stories about girls. Each story is linked to an album I've recently discovered. For some reason, each of these albums helped me make sense of a particular situation. I can't guarantee that they'll do the same for you, but they're all worth a try.

First up, "Midnight Organ Fight" by Frightened Rabbit.

For an accompanying listen, go to the band's lala.com page and choose track 12, "Poke."

Fair warning, this is a sad song.

Several weeks ago, I was out with friends in Kansas City's semi-trendy, mostly contrived nightlife zone, which we natives call Power & Light. It was late, and my people and I had found our way into one of the less pretentious establishments in the area. I spied across the bar a pretty blonde girl who looked friendly. After I walked over and said hello, we talked/yelled over the music for 20 minutes, during which time she laughed at every lame joke I forced upon her. I learned of her career in nursing and her life in St. Louis and that she was often in Kansas City to see friends.

Then, from nowhere, a flailing man was dragged across our field of vision by a mountain-shaped bouncer. My new friend's eyes went wide. "That's one of my friends," she said. I thought fast. As she made to leave in pursuit, I said, as so many males have done before me, "Maybe you should give me your number, and next time you're in town, we can get together."

She looked at me. She waited a few seconds …

"I don't give out my number," she said. I gave her a quizzical look and then asked her to explain. My brain was prepared for: "OK" or "Sorry, I have a boyfriend" or "You have an oddly shaped right ear, and I'm not interested." But everyone gives out his or her number at some point. Telephones would have little purpose if we didn't tell other people our phone numbers, at least once in a while.

I, of course, did not express this gamut of confused neural firings. I said only, "How's that?"

She said she just doesn't give out her phone number. And then she exited the bar in pursuit of her violent friend.

The rejection was abrupt and final and, really, nothing particularly out of the ordinary. I've been cut down by pretty girls' bullets before, and I will be again. But for some reason, it hit a nerve -- one that was still exposed and raw, thanks to the recent heart-stomping at the hands of a beautiful European girl. I was done for the night.

When I got home, I put on "Midnight Organ Fight" and, even though it was 2:30 in the morning, listened to the album twice.

I've written (briefly) about Frightened Rabbit before. I'm glad I get to do so again. Lead singer Scott Hutchison's faint Scottish singing accent (by which he comes naturally; he's Scottish) is fragile, confident and heart-wrenching, all at the same time. As I laid on my bed and absorbed lyrics about ex-girlfriends, heartbreak and loss, I felt better. Not because I understood anything more about the strange girl from the bar, or because I had been granted a revelation about my ex-girlfriend. I felt better because someone else was seeing things a little like I was.

Next up: Manchester Orchestra's "Mean Everything to Nothing."

Find "Shake it Out" on the band's lala.com page.

I mentioned the Orchestra in my Lollapalooza coverage, but I've never given their latest album the column time it deserves. I thought about their brand of alt-punk Southern Gothic rock after an encounter with a girl at, of all places, Lollapalooza.

I had just sent a text bemoaning the lack of dream girls I'd seen in Grant Park when I actually saw one. She was tall, blonde, tan, gorgeous and about 30 feet away from my position in front of Miike Snow's performance. She and a friend left the area for a trip to the unglam Porta-potties, leaving me time to consider my move. When they came back, it was as if my body had been taken over like Reggie Jackson's in the "Naked Gun." I marched over, introduced myself, and hoped for the best. The beautiful one told me a little of her story, I told her a little of mine, and things were progressing better than I could have imagined. She was laughing a lot, seemed interested in what I was saying, and kept touching my chest, which, thankfully, was covered by a shirt, unlike the next night.

Then, potential disaster: a tall, attractive male presence stopped by to say hello. When he left, I asked if he was either girl's boyfriend. The pretty girl said, "Well, we're sort of here together, but he's not my boyfriend." Ever the faux-gentleman, I said: "Well, I don't want to get between anything. Perhaps I should leave." She said, with a smile, "If I wanted you to leave, would I still be talking to you?" Touché, I thought.

When unidentified male returned, the four of us walked across the park to watch Atmosphere. It was a fantastically awkward situation, but all participants handled themselves admirably. I assumed that I was around only to keep the other guy on edge and slightly jealous, but I hadn't yet figured out an exit strategy. During Atmosphere's set, the beautiful one divided her time between other guy and me. Eventually, while he was entranced by the rapping, I told her that I needed to meet my cousin in another section of the park. This was half true; really, I wanted to leave with some dignity remaining.

I told her I would write my e-mail address on a piece of paper and then discreetly stow it in her daybag. If she ever got out of whatever she was in, she could send me a note and maybe we'd see one another again someday. She seemed offended. "No," she said, "I want you to have my number. And I want yours." She turned her back to the guy in question and typed her number into my phone. Unchivalrous, perhaps, but in my defense, she had stated that he wasn't her boyfriend.

She made me call her so she would have my number and mouthed, "Text me later today," and I walked away. A few hours later, I composed a message.

Manchester Orchestra
John Shearer/WireImageManchester Orchestra's Andy Hull displays a wiser-than-his-years quality in his singing.

No response.

I waited until Sunday and tried again.

Same response: nothing.

I'm sure I'll never hear from her again.

Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull sings about life as if he's lived it for 40 years. In actuality, he's only in his 20s. His band's songs often swing wildly in tempo, as if to reflect the mood changes that might inspire them. Most importantly, the band pours itself into its music, trying mightily to make sense of a world filled with so much unpredictability.

Even though Hull probably has never dealt with a situation exactly like mine with the girl at Lollapalooza, it seems to me that he probably would have viewed the aftermath as I did -- with a strong dose of confusion, a pinch of apathy and a trace of anger. And so, even though I don't know Andy Hull, I think we would get along.

Last, Dead Weather, "Horehound."

I suggest a listen to "3 Birds" from the Dead Weather page.

On a different evening, I was out in Kansas City with a slightly modified set of friends in a slightly modified scenario: We had opted for an older, hipster-friendly section of town called Westport. Early in the evening, I had half-jokingly told those friends that my next girlfriend is going to have sleeve tattoos and several piercings; I thought I needed to erase the memory of the last girlfriend's classic beauty with something more alt.

A few hours later, the very girl I had described was doing everything she could to make eye contact with me. I was taken aback -- my look, for better or worse, is fairly Republican. But there was no mistaking it -- she was interested in something about me. Eventually, she walked past my group. I stopped her and told her that I had noticed all the eye contact we were making, but that I'd also noticed that she was in the bar with two guys, which made any approach a difficult one.

"It's complicated," she said.

I asked why.

"Well, I'm married."

That prompted an eye-widening from me, followed by, "That's not that complicated … unless you mean you're separated, or something."

"No, not separated. Totally together. But there's room for one more."

My eyes found a new gear of wideness. But I recovered quickly.

"That is complicated. The wrong-way threesome is a tough sell."

She shrugged and said, "Sometimes. But we liked the looks of you, so, you know, we'll be around." And then she walked away.

Dead Weather
Frazer Harrison/Getty ImagesJack White's side project Dead Weather is dirty, bluesy and a little ugly.

Dead Weather is a semi-supergroup, semi-side project by Jack White -- he of so many bands -- and Alison Mosshart -- she of The Kills and my dreams. Their first album, "Horehound," was released to heavy expectations, as is most anything with which White is associated.

My first few listens to "Horehound" were disappointing ones. Eventually, though, I found the record's vibe. It's dirty, bluesy and a little ugly. Imagine Janis Joplin mixed with Muddy Waters mixed with Blind Melon. Mostly, for corn-fed Kansas boys like me, it's kinda scary -- the brash sexuality of the guitars and vocals is almost too much for my Protestant upbringing. A little like a married woman asking me whether I wanted to join her overpopulated bed.

Maybe Jack and Alison would have jumped at the chance that I refused. When I listen to "Horehound," though, I hear only an awareness of human sexuality. I don't necessarily hear a need to stomp all over its norms. That awareness of temptation plays heavily in "Horehound." Because it's in there, I feel like the three of us could sit on the same side of the diner booth, watching the girl with the tattoos proposition tall guys in bars. We could have marveled at her chutzpah, without ever really having to join in.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.

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