All That I Can Do

I begin this week’s entry with another reference to Bob Marley, which is weird because I don’t usually think about him, and yet somehow in the context of this blog, I do. A few weeks ago, I wrote that, if I had to cover one Bob Marley hit, it would be “Redemption Song.” Well, the first half of this week’s track, “All That I Can Do“, is based largely on my memory of what “Redemption Song” sounds like. (I don’t have a copy of it, so I can neither confirm nor disconfirm, as Brandt might say.) The vocal melody, the guitar tone, and the Rhodes piano entrance all summon that track for me.

The second half of the track, however, is all Allen Toussaint — one of my personal heroes. Specifically, the very funky meter of the bass line, which I could never come up with on my own, is from “Last Train”, an incredible Toussaint song I could listen to over and over. I should also note that my friend Bobby Conn used this same rhythmic strategy on “When the Money’s Gone” from his recent album “King for a Day.” Worked for him, and I hope it works here.

Lyrically, we’re firmly in the realm of the cuckold, who knows he’s getting cheated upon and that he’s being retained only for his comic abilities. Nevertheless, he’s made peace with the arrangement. He wishes it could be otherwise, but he takes the deal because it lets him stay close to his beloved.

I return to this cuckold/clown character often when I write lyrics. It may take the services of a psychiatrist to analyze the reasons fully, but my theory is that this lyrical perspective manages to link two of my favorite genres, classic soul and indie rock. In soul music, there’s a long tradition of a lead singer clowning his way into his beloved’s psyche (see “What Can I Do?” by Bobby Marchan or “I Wanna Know Your Name” by the Intruders). In indie rock, there’s considerably less clowning, and more of an abject realization that things aren’t ever going to work out (this can be traced from Big Star’s majestic “What’s Going Ahn” down through Elliott Smith’s “I Didn’t Understand” and beyond).

Once you put this song into your iTunes, type “all that i can do” into your seach window, and hit play. If you’re lucky, it will segue directly from this song into “I Can’t Go For That” by Hall and Oates…. a lovely transition!

4 Responses to “All That I Can Do”
  1. will says:

    ugh. i’ve been away for 8 songs. i’ll blame dr. hoffman and his wonderful lsd…and these high days of summer. i love your impressionistic take on “redemption song” to me it reveals the essence of good songwriting & art in general… finding inspiration within the colletive mass of memories that makes us who we are. well, enough. the theme is heartbreaking! oh! what a thought…we’ve all been there—or if not, will be (unrequited love) within the thematic context, the melody takes on a very stark feel. the second half does pick up rather nicely with some fabulous synth sounds. it’s an interesting contrast to have the music put a smile on my face while the lyrics bring tears to my eyes. p.s., great shows recently (schubas/westfest) like the addition of “let it roll”—jims bass line is great!

  2. Abraham says:

    will: good to have you back! thanks for the thoughtful comment too. yeah the last few shows have been lots of fun. I’m glad the heartbreaking part of this song didn’t get lost under the clowning. it’s hard when the clown wants to be serious, even as he knows it’s not his strong suit…. it’s funny, but tragic even more I think.

  3. Judah says:

    I really like this one, immediately a favorite. A “naked” song — it doesn’t hide behind anything, in either the music or the lyrics, and says everything it needs to say very honestly, simply and beautifully. I’ve referenced our shared touchstone, Elvis Costello, in most of my postings; again, this is up there with some of those excellent, short-but-just-right EP tracks on his records (talk about someone who has gotten some great mileage from the cuckold’s point of view!).

    Speaking of the song’s brevity, on the 2nd or 3rd listen, I started wondering if “All That I Can Do” could stand another verse (or solo, or bridge), but I’m pretty much convinced it’s just right, and perfectly in keeping with the title/subject. I love the way the lyric spills over into admiration towards the end, both tragic and strangely triumphant. Even the messing around is somehow seductive, and/or there’s no choice but to appreciate it.

    I like the resonance with “Redemption Song;” I also hear something of one of my very favorite Marley songs, the doo-wop number “How Many Times,” which also has the “joyful sadness” vibe Will mentions above. More props to Will for articulating nicely this idea of art as an act of remembering (or not-quite remembering) other art that we know and love (ditto his point about the joy/sadness of the music/lyrics). You didn’t listen to “Redemption Song” because you didn’t have it; I often deliberately avoid some music when I’m in the middle of writing, being well aware of its influence, but wanting to stick with my more personal “mis-hearing” of it.

    Hall and Oates weren’t up next in the queue, but the song flowed perfectly — bear with me on this one — into “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles.

  4. Abraham says:

    oooh! yes, eternal flame would work just as well.

    thanks, judah…. I’ve always wanted to write my own “hoover factory”. and thanks for a great read on the lyrics.

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