Sunday, January 29, 2012

January 29: The Vaselines, "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam"

Artist: The Vaselines
Song: "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam"
Album: Dying For It (EP)
Year: 1988

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Though it is one of the most difficult and outright rare occurrences within the entire history of recorded music, when nothing more than the mention of a song title can bring to mind a very specific moment in history, it is clear that the song in question holds a place that defies description.  When this occurs, and it is due to the efforts of a band that did not write the song, one must delve deeper into the realities surrounding the recording to properly understand just how the song attained such a status.  While many cover songs have outshone their original versions, there are a number of cases where the original is superior, and yet due to the rather fickle nature of the world of music, it remains comparatively unknown.  This has rarely been more obvious than in the case of the Scottish quartet known as The Vaselines, as their rather unique musical approach garnered them the adoration of a somewhat unlikely music icon.  During the late 1980's, The Vaselines released a handful of EP's, highlighting their unique approach to the post-punk sound, as they gave far more concentration to melody and atmosphere than almost any other band at the time, and the group consistently create some of the most wonderfully sublime moods found anywhere.  While there is not a song in their catalog that is not worth hearing, there may be no better representation of the group as a whole than The Vaselines' 1988 song, "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam."

The fact that "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam" is supposedly based around the childrens' hymn, "I'll Be A Sunbeam" is quickly apparent, as there is a rather large presence to the orchestration of the song.  Within the comparatively quiet tone, there is a great deal of energy and emotion, and it is the balance between these that makes the song so quickly captivating.  Much of this comes from the viola of Sophie Pragnell, as the inclusion of her instrument gives the song a somber drone that sways strangely with the rest of the band.  The way that the guitars from Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee create a rhythm all their own is in many ways the most clear precursor to the entire "alternative" sound that would explode a few years later.  It is also the way that bassist James Seenan and drummer Charlie Kelly bring a somewhat buried, rather dry sound to the song, and it is the placement of the drums within the overall mix that makes "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam" sound completely unlike anything else being done at the time.  When one looks deeper into the music that The Vaselines create here, there are clear elements of everything from psychedelic to punk to the odd blend found in the works of groups like Joy Division and The Jesus And Mary Chain; yet at the same time, there is no question that their overall approach is completely unique.

Along with creating this rather distinctive sound, the vocals of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee pull the listener even deeper into the song.  For a majority of "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam," it is Kelly that handles the leads, and yet when McKee offers small harmonies, it adds a level of depth that is far beyond what is expected by the listener.  However, it is also the fact that Kelly takes such a straightforward, almost detached vocal approach that makes the track so intriguing, as while there is no question that he can sing quite well, he seems rather disinterested in it during the verses.  Truth be told, one can hear influences from this approach across a wide range of later bands, and yet few do it as naturally and authentically as one finds here.  However, while the singing on "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam" cannot be overlooked, it is the absolutely stunning lyrics to the song that easily remain the most enduring aspect.  Though many artists have attempted to paint pictures of alienation from life and religion, there is something particularly moving about these words, and though short, there may not be another lyric with a similar power to the opening lines of, "...Jesus don't want me for a sunbeam, 'cause sunbeams are not made like me..."  On many levels, one can see these lines as the embodiment of disillusioned youth, and it is largely due to the blunt nature of the lyrics that the song has been able to endure over the years without losing any of its impact.

However, one would be remiss to ignore the fact that both the song and The Vaselines in general were not all that well known until the unexpected presence of their songs within the catalog of Nirvana.  Truth be told, Kurt Cobain often cited the Dying For It EP as one of this all-time favorite records, and both this song and "Molly's Lips" were often covered by the band at live shows.  Yet nothing could have prepared the world for the rendition of "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam" that occurred during Nirvana's now-infamous "Unplugged In New York" performance in 1993, though both the television network and Geffen Records incorrectly titled the song, "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam."  Regardless of the error in titling, when Cobain mentioned the origins of the song, it led to a number of people seeking out the original, and in the process, The Vaselines were given a rather unexpected surge in popularity.  While the rendition Nirvana brought at that performance was certainly moving for a number of reasons, it was lifted almost verbatim from the original, and after experiencing the recording from The Vaselines, one can properly understand the pain and frustration that the song should evoke within the listener.  To this day, few songs have been able to so accurately capture these feelings, and that fact, combined with the moving orchestration that accompanies it, is what makes The Vaselines 1988 song, "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam," one of the most uniquely fantastic recordings in all of music history.

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