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“Oh Miriam… that’s a pretty name.” [Norah Jones - Miriam]

August 2nd, 2012 by | Tags: ,

One of my favorite things comes from an anecdote Richard Pryor told about Jim Brown on his Wanted album. (Apparently you can’t buy that album in MP3 form, which is a crime. I found the vinyl in a record shop for $1.99, and please believe I bought it just because. If you see it, cop it. There’s at least three all-time classic bits on there, if not more.) Here’s a quick sample:

I had a friend, he was gon’ have a fight with Jim. Another big nigga, ’bout six-five. You know, he said eight dudes was holding his ass, he was gonna get in, just, “Motherfuck Jim let me go motherfucker motherFUCK a Jim Brown!”

And he said Jim said something that just chilled his shit. All right, he said, Jim said, “Gentlemen, I think if you let the man go, he could express hisself a little better.”

Motherfucker said he started whispering to the motherfuckers that was holding him, he was saying, “Any of you niggas let go of me, I’ll kill any motherfucker that take erry finger off my body. Now just ease my ass out the door, that’s right, don’t start no shit.”

That’s cold, Jack. I love Pryor’s Jim Brown stories, because Brown comes off as this real indomitable, unmovable force of nature. “Gentleman, I think if you let the man go, he could express hisself a little better” is the most confident thing in the entire world. It’s so cold-blooded that you can’t help but love it. More than that, though, it’s just good writing. It’s evocative and real, totally believable and alluring, to an extent. You want to see Jim Brown whup this dude just because you knows he can and he knows he can.

This sort of thing is why I enjoy crime fiction and action movies so much. There’s always that point where someone gets to say something and it just infects your brain. “Hey, you” in King of New York, “You probably heard we ain’t in the prisoner-takin’ business; we in the killin’ Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin’,” from Inglourious Basterds, “We gotta kill every last rat-bastard one of them,” from Sin City: The Big Fat Kill. “No AC, but the heater work — MURRRRK!” off Schoolboy Q’s “Nightmare on Figg St.” (great music video for that one, too, love that intro) from Habits & Contradictions. And, of course, “I’ve punished him from ear to ear, now I’ve saved the best for you,” from Norah Jones’s “Miriam” is a stellar example of murda muzik.

Murda muzik is a term I stole from Mobb Deep, but it’s basically exactly what it sounds like: songs about doing people in. The more creative or technically proficient the better, right? I feel similarly about crime novels and action flicks. You have to wow me. I’m not looking for comfort food, I’m looking for something nuts. So imagine my surprise when one of the top 3 best examples of murda muzik thus far was made by an R&B singer who I don’t usually associate with people getting done in. (The other is Spaceghostpurrp’s “Get Ya Head Bust” off that Mysterious Phonk, and the third is variable because I always forget good ones.) The video is perfect for the song, as far as I’m concerned:

I can’t believe the blood on the oar. Astounding.

This is the second video for Little Broken Hearts that features someone getting killed over love. The album is about heartbreak, obviously, and “Miriam” is my favorite song on the album. It’s low key and stripped down, with not a lot of majestic production on anything but Jones’s voice. Her delivery is a little… not raspy exactly, but rougher than I expect from her.

“Miriam” is about heartbreak, but it’s really about revenge. Miriam slept with Jones’s man in her own house, Jones found out, and now somebody’s got to die. The man is already gone, and now it’s Miriam’s turn.

“I’ve punished him from ear to ear, now I’ve saved the best for you” rocked my world when I first heard it. I thought I heard it wrong, honestly. I tend to have my first listen of albums while I’m out and about and traveling, so I’m not always listening. Words and lines sometimes reach out from the background radiation of the music to grab me, and that’s exactly what happened here.

“I’ve punished him from ear to ear” is such a strange phrase, but it’s not hard to understand at all. You just have to work for it, just the tiniest bit. It’s delivered in such a flat and matter of fact tone. I could see someone quietly confessing to it, or screaming about it as a threat, but Jones’s delivery feels even more menacing. It feels like a foregone conclusion. It sounds inevitable. Hopeless. Like she’s telling Miriam this, with an empty smile on her face and her head slightly cocked. “This is going to happen. You deserve this.”

“Oh Miriam, that’s such a pretty name.” That’s the most cold-blooded thing of all, the way Jones approaches this murder like it’s just a conversation that needs to be had. It’s a responsibility. It’s fate, justice, and right. She’s being sincere, but it doesn’t matter. You’re going to the bottom of the lake. She just wanted to let you know.

I love this stuff. It’s not just about one liners. I’m generally not big on those. (“Stick around” is an exception, of course.) It’s about the intent and malice and sheer cold-bloodedness. Just a complete and utter unwillingness to accept the fact that another human being is an actual person, instead of an object. It’s hard to explain without sounding like a monster, but as an example of escapism, as a fan of revenge tales, as a dude who will read or watch almost anything where people smoke cigarettes and shoot each other, it’s great. I’ve fetishized stylish murder, I guess.

Norah Jones performed the song live on Letterman at some point. I missed it until today, but check it out:

I like how the different instrumentation changes the flavor of the song just a little bit. The addition of that warbly guitar solo and the more prominent drumming… I dig it. I like that she has a backup singer on a few lines, too.

Little Broken Hearts is 3 bucks on Amazon today, and I think eight or nine any other day. I’ve bought a lot of albums this year, but this is one of my favorites.

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10 comments to ““Oh Miriam… that’s a pretty name.” [Norah Jones - Miriam]”

  1. They go into the water at the end!?! Damn. I’ll be making this purchase.


  2. 1:58 to 2:13 is very Twin Peaks. Actually the whole thing is very Laura Palmer to me, or at least it calls that to mind. It immediately conjures this haunted feeling, like I could hear this drifting down a long hallway, slightly distorted by the echo of the hall and the cracks in the radio speakers.


  3. @Morgan Jeske: You know I’ve never watched Twin Peaks? True story. But I like that description of the haunted feeling. It puts me in mind of Silent Hill, where the scratches on the radio are reflected in the decayed architecture. Horror music!


  4. @david brothers : The first season and half of the second are pretty great.It’s Lynch doing this bizarre soap opera murder mystery. There genuinely terrifying moments in a few instances. Thanks for the post by the way, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gotten to this record.


  5. as always, great article by David, Norah Jones AND Richard Pryor ?

    I came here to learn about comics and instead…

    greetings from italy


  6. @david brothers:

    not exactly connected to this specific post, but as I have been enjoying your pieces about music(not to mention most all of your work here and on CA), I’ve been curious for awhile.

    to wit, do you listen to Talking Heads any? That’s some fine pop-craft(esp. the first couple albums) and whole days pass without my being able to get, say, “The Big Country” or “Love—Building on Fire” unstuck from my head. wouldn’t mind seeing a post on the Heads’ work by you. even if it doesn’t click for you, I’d be highly interested in knowing why.

    thanks in advance for any feedback on this, in addition to the no-doubt continued excellence of future postings.


  7. I don’t really listen to Norah Jones, I should give her stuff a shot. One song though that she sings on that knocked me on my ass is off Danger Mouse’s album, Rome.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3bbp4bRYeM

    It was the last ep of Season 4 of Breaking Bad that introduced me to it.


  8. On that note, Harvey Danger’s “Underground”, from King James Version (2000). Maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t, but it fits the bill.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQmu3ScmjnU

    Please ignore any lyrics to the song that you find on the Internet. They are all wrong, as far as I can tell.


  9. Some murda muzik for you:

    Amigo the Devil’s “Perfect Wife”


  10. I loved the first season of Twin Peaks – the pilot was especially good, with the music he chose and the way he could make utterly mundane things just crawl under the skin around your brain and haunt you (seriously, he made a static shot of a spinning ceiling fan scary). And I’ll second what Morgan said about the Miriam video having a heavy Twin Peaks vibe. Thanks for posting the video – I wouldn’t have known how badly I needed to own the album if you hadn’t.

    Scotland and Ireland have a long tradition of “murder ballads”, songs about how somebody has got to go, and how the singer has taken it upon him- or herself to be the vengeful hand that does the job. My favorite is one called “high Jeannie High”, about a woman who was married off as a young girl to a man more than 50 years older than her, and how she decides that she’s not putting up with that.