Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" So wonders protagonist Rob Gordon, recently-dumped thirtyish record store owner, in Nick Hornby's snarky comic novel High Fidelity, a genuinely incisive tour de force of music geekery that stabs a stylus through the tender heart of anyone who's pathologically stacked records and retained mostly useless facts about music, the trading and debating of which are great activities to fill empty evenings when you're not dating someone. Or are you not dating someone because you're spending evenings ensconced with useless facts about music? Wait.
In any case, "romantic music" is a huge and egregious fallacy. Probably more than three-quarters -- being generous -- of popular songs about love aren't actually about love per se, with hearts and stars and flowers. They're far and away more often about the accompanying loss, heartbreak, pain, misery, pain, rejection and more pain that go with love the way strawberries go with champagne. In fact, it's astonishing that anyone who spends a significant amount of time listening to pop music is at all datable -- and let's not even get into the people who write it. This being New Orleans, though, we have plenty of both. New Orleans songwriters and artists have come up with some of the most gorgeous, passionate, lump-in-the-throat love and heartache songs in the genre -- Irma Thomas' "Ruler of My Heart," for example, or Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love."
We can also lay claim to dozens of writers of love songs that are both sick and wrong -- or sometimes just nontraditional. From Dr. John's "Such a Night," a love song about stealing your best friend's girlfriend to the henpecked husband in Ernie K-Doe's "I'm The Boss" up to the new soul-licious murder ballads the Morning 40 Federation recently wrote and recorded with famously nasty Andre Williams ("If you leave me baby, I'm gonna cry/ but if you leave me baby, you're gonna die!"), love in New Orleans -- at least in song -- is never easy. Or normal.
Probably the most consistently depressing local writer of love songs is Happy Talk Band frontman and songwriter Luke Allen, who must be the New Orleans, if not regional Southeastern, champion of heartbreak and misery. Each song comes out like a cross between a wrenching sob and a muttering snarl. The track "Forget-Me-Not," is told from the point of view of a delirious inpatient at Charity Hospital's third-floor psychiatric wing: we glean that, after having his marriage proposal rejected, he murdered his girlfriend so horribly -- with a ball peen hammer -- that he's blacked out the whole incident and pines for her visit, calling out her name while struggling at his restraints. And though he's currently recording a new album, it doesn't seem like he's cheered up much -- possibly because he's working with the less-than-sunshiny influence of singer-songwriter Alex McMurray, who's been doling out a weekly dose of hard-shelled bitterness at the Circle Bar now for many months. His general cynicism and vitriol is directed at almost everything, but when it comes to love, his rusty scalpel cuts the truest -- at least when it comes to the just plain creepy. His song "Wedding Day" is told from the point of view of a widower who, his children long taken away, drinks himself to sleep each night while obsessively watching his wedding video over and over again. (See the Happy Talk Band 10 p.m. Thu., Feb. 15, Hi-Ho Lounge, 2239 St. Claude Ave.; Alex McMurray plays at 10 p.m. Tue., Feb. 14, Circle Bar, 1032 St. Charles Ave.)
But perhaps we're being too cynical. New Orleans native and Fat Possum Records recording artist Little Freddie King has had blues so real, no showmanship is required; just raw, scratchy, gut-bucket country blues. Sure, hanging out with Buddy Guy and Slim Harpo and touring Europe with Bo Diddley may have helped his mood. But special Valentine resonance is garnered by the fact that he was shot not once but twice by the same wife, to whom he remained married after both incidents. That's real love, and his gig this week at d.b.a. goes to No. 1 on our list -- with a bullet. (Little Freddie King plays at 10 p.m. Sun., Feb. 18, d.b.a., 618 Frenchmen St.)
But maybe Cupid has treated you so poorly that you're ready to swear off romantic love with your preferred gender of your own species. Local artist MC Trachiotomy isn't a show for a Valentine date in the early stages of any relationship, mind you. Still, the love in the song "Pablo," an elegiac number about a dog who recently passed on, is so strong it manages to reach out of the sound stew and make itself known. Trachiotomy raps and gurgles over haunted, funereal and vaguely European chanting with occasional dog noises, it still comes through as a tender -- if slightly thuggish -- eulogy to a beloved friend and brother-in-arms.
- The Happy Talk Band's Luke Allen croons about the carnage of love gone wrong.