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Shark Smile - Big Thief




The phrase "in the old days" more and more means "in the time before the internet". Times when, even if a musician commented on the meaning behind his or her lyrics, the chances of ordinary punters getting to hear what they said was minimal at best. And, further back, before the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper" album set the trend for reproducing song lyrics on album covers or inner sleeves in 1967, it was easy to get them wrong in your head. Leave alone the meanings.


For years I thought the chorus of "Angel if the Morning" contained the line "Just touch my feet before you leave", revealing rather too much about how the thirteen year old me saw the swinging sixties.


For years I remembered and not infrequently quoted the wonderful Thomas Hardy poem "A Countenance" wrongly, so much so that I am convinced my memory is better. Try reading my version and then substitute the word "smile" with the word "laugh" and see which you prefer. (with apologies to Thomas Hardy):


"Her smile was not in the middle of her face quite,

As a gay smile springs,

It was plain she was anxious about some things

I could not trace quite.

Her curls were like fir-cones — piled up, brown —

Or rather like tight-tied sheaves:

It seemed they could never be taken down. . . .


And her lips were too full, some might say:

I did not think so. Anyway,

The shadow her lower one would cast

Was green in hue whenever she passed

Bright sun on midsummer leaves.

Alas, I knew not much of her,

And lost all sight and touch of her!


If otherwise, should I have minded

The shy smile not in the middle of her mouth quite,

And would my kisses have died of drouth quite

As love became unblinded?"


When I first heard "Shark Smile" I was mesmerised. The track opened like a Flannery O'Connor short story, although I never worked out what the story was. I was always along for the ride, knowing that the two women wind up embracing, with the speeding car ride as metaphor for their so-physical, passionate love:


"She was a shark smile in a yellow van.

She came around and I stole a glance in my youth.

A vampire,

Evelyn shown quiet as roses sting.

It came over me at a bad time

but who wouldn't ride on a moonlit line?

Had her in my eye, 85 down the road of a dead end gleam.


and she said woo

baby, take me

and I said woo

baby, take me too.


It came over her at a bad time,

riding through Winona down the dotted line,

held us gunning out,

ninety miles down the road of a dead end dream.

She looked over with a part smile,

caught up in the twinkle, it could take awhile

and the money pile on the dashboard fluttering


as she said woo

baby, take me

and I said woo

baby, take me too


Evelyn's kiss was oxygen.

I leaned over to take it in

as we went howling through the edge of south Des Moines.

It came over me at a bad time.

She burned over the double line.

She impaled as I reached my hand for the guardrail

ooh, the guardrail

ooh, the guardrail


and she said woo

baby, take me......"


so when I was foolish enough to go on line and find out that the song was (apparently) a Bruce Springsteen-style tale of a fatal car crash, the haunting beauty of Adrienne Lenker's singing seemed almost irrelevant in the face of such commonplace tragedy. But then, whichever way you take the impalement, the oxygen kiss, the guardrail, it's the under-your-skin sultriness of Lenker's vocals, Buck Meek's uneasy guitar moans, the driving beat and the dangerous allure of that "shark smile" that infuse your blood, and it doesn't matter what it means.


Like a swift oyster with a dash of Tabasco and lemon, snatched and necked like a Roman expresso in the street on the way home, this is pure exhilaration, no need for stories. Woof woof!


Just touch my feet before you leave.


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