The song, like so much else, has become hyper-commoditized. As profit margins shrink and the imperative becomes maximizing return on investment, style supersedes substance, and any manner of whiz-bang gimmickry, caricature and sensationalism is employed to put the figurative asses in the seats. For all of contemporary pop’s impressive ability to capture our attention, I’d argue that the last 10 years in particular failed to bestow many indelible songs to the pop cannon. We now remember the sideshow more often than the main event, and though I’d never suggest pop has ever been anything but an exercise in consumption, I do believe we’ve by and large lost the element that gave pop its ennobling significance. The timeless nature of a pop song is in its ability to transcend the specific meaning of its conception and assume a new, highly personal meaning to the listener, and so true universality. In this regard, Songs For A Friend, a decades-old, casually recorded collection of pop standards sung by a rumor of girl named Linda Bruner, is a rousing success, finding the potential of the song completely realized in a staggeringly human fashion.
Bruner would not resemble much in the way of what you’d call a singer. A teenager growing up in the late ’60s far removed from the nerve centers of the world in Loves Park, Ill., she cut a lone 7-inch under her own name to be released (and bungled) by a local label and sang on a few tracks for Pisces, a psych-pop band based in nearby Rockford (whose own work would go largely unreleased until 2009 saw the Numero Group release A Lovely Sight). The material on Songs For A Friend was recorded in the back of a music store with only Pisces’ Jim Krein accompanying on acoustic guitar and who knows what purpose in mind. In this haphazard circumstance her troubled past, her prospectless surroundings, a growing detachment from music (or life, or for that matter anything else that the listener can speculate) take ownership of familiar tunes.
Though not particularly gifted with any natural singing ability, Bruner makes of herself a devastating vocalist by combining an aptitude for worrying an economy of notes and a distinct personality (ever a requirement of our pop) that these rough-hewn recording captures in all its vitality. The record opens with the descriptively titled “Song Linda Wrote Herself” and a brief bit of banter in which we can hear the spark of life half-buried in Bruner’s affected drawl as she ribs Krein. The song itself is coated with sadness despite the nominally happy contentedness of its lyrics, but the truly remarkable doesn’t occur until the opening line of Glen Campbell’s contemporary hit “Wichita Lineman” comes sadly tearing from her throat. Isolation was no abstract concept to Linda Bruner, and her own desperation fixes into that of the song’s narrator like a key to a tumbler, releasing the song’s capacity to encompass all facets of human loneliness.
Bruner accomplishes this subtle alchemy with each pop standard on Songs For A Friend. The Derek and The Dominos tune “Thorn Tree In The Garden,” already a disquieting meditation on regret, becomes harrowing in Bruner’s hands; when she sings of the lover on the street you wonder if she’s really speaking about herself, and the ambiguity more wholly embraces the conflicted nature of remorse. Her reading of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” is similarly freighted with uncertainty; Bruner sings with the conviction of a kid given completely to love for the first time, but each refrain of “Don’t let me down” carries with it a mournful recognition of disappointment’s inevitability. All throughout, Jim Krein’s tasteful guitar strums and figures never break the spell cast by Bruner’s vocals, the occasional muted string and muffed note intermittently recalling the humble conditions where the only imperative was that of the song.
These are great songs, given great performances by a great talent, the kind that leave impressions which attach themselves to our recollection; a rainy day now calls to my mind Bruner’s somber intonation of “It feels like it’s raining all over the world,” and few things now conjure the nourishing virtue of a happy memory like her reading of “Georgia On My Mind.” This is the rare confluence of qualities that define the great pop songs, captured behind a storefront sometime around 1970 in Rockford, Ill. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that past eras were halcyon days for popcraft as consumer good; if that were so then we wouldn’t need labels like the Numero Group to excavate the lost gems, forgotten gem-smiths, and undiscovered jewel mines which sustain the faith of true believers.
At a mere six songs and 20 minutes in length, Numero’s typically lavish treatment of so slight an album may seem unreasonably extravagant. For some record-buyers it undoubtedly is. But for anyone who lives for the rare moment a pop song transcends itself, Songs for a Friend follows the pattern set by Niela Miller‘s Songs Of Leaving, the first release on Numero’s vinyl-only boutique label Numerophon. Brief but revelatory, the weightiness of its fleeting songs more than meriting the 150 gram heaviness of the vinyl’s grooves.