Tiny Perfect Songs

hummingbird 4
my own photo

Every once in a while someone produces a song that is just a tiny perfect thing: Tight, poetic, with a flow, a clever story or message, no ‘lazy’ rhymes, a well-crafted melody, interesting harmonies and engaging instrumentation. Nothing clichéd. Nothing extraneous. Not a word or a note out of place.

These aren’t epic compositions or anthems. They probably will never appear on any GOAT best songs list. But they never get tired, because they’re so elegant and so smartly constructed. Even when there is repetition, there are slight variations to keep them fresh — an additional instrument introduced, a shift in key, a unique bridge, etc.

During my school years, I became a huge fan of Motown music. Much of it was formulaic, but much of its appeal to me was in the sheer professionalism and ‘tightness’ of these carefully-crafted songs. With a 3-minute maximum limit for radio play, your writing had to be spare.

I was a folk song fan, too, but I found a lot of folk music too repetitive and ‘three-chord banal’ — there just wasn’t enough ‘to’ most of it to keep you listening again and again. There were exceptions: The first ‘alt-folk’ song I can remember being entranced by was Kathy’s Song, by Simon and Garfunkel. It had all the elements of a ‘Tiny Perfect Song’ as defined above, and, as for many boomers, it became the first song I learned to play on the guitar.

Over the years there have been lots of others. It seems that women singer-songwriters, long held to a much higher standard than men before their music would be recorded and promoted, are particularly adept at producing Tiny Perfect Songs.

Here, as illustration, is a baker’s dozen of such songs, of the genre I have come to call World-Weary Women Singer-Songwriter (WWWSS) songs. I think they are all Tiny Perfect Songs. They can, each of them, show you something you may have never noticed before, something that can change the way you see the world, and your way of being in it.

Who Will Save Your Soul — 1995 — Jewel Kilcher
Unbreakable Heart — 1996 — Amy Sky
Understanding — 1991 — Everything But the Girl (Tracey Thorn)
Long Way — 2009 — Antje Duvekot
Rain — 2002 — Patty Griffin
So It Goes — 2006 — Chris Pureka
The Kind of Love You Never Recover From — 1990 — Christine Lavin
Broken Things — 2001 — Lucy Kaplansky
Almost — 1993 — Cheryl Wheeler
Untitled — 1997 — Wyrd Sisters
Alberta (is Her Name) — 2019 — Small Glories (Cara Luft)
The Sweater — 2019 — Shari Ulrich
Hummingbird — 2003 — Kris Delmhorst (I just discovered this amazing song this year, from an Apple Recommendations list; AI is good for something.)

If you’re interested in a video playlist of these songs, it’s here. Hope there’s an undiscovered gem in the list for you. It doesn’t get any better than this.

I am honoured to have been able to meet and befriend Shari Ulrich, who knows several of these amazing musicians and writers, and who selflessly organizes house and small-venue tours by singer-songwriters like these, as a labour of love.

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1 Response to Tiny Perfect Songs

  1. Mike Day says:

    Thanks for the post Dave. I live in the smallish community of Rocky Mtn. House, Alberta. In the early ’80’s I was lucky enough to be introduced to Shari Ulrich when she accompanied a Valdy performance. I was lucky to catch her again in another performance in Rocky. Followed her through her time with UHF and most recently we caught her in Comox BC with her daughter Julia Graff. I’ve always been struck by her virtuosity and her easy and personal connection with audiences in concert. Thanks for the reminiscences and I’ll check out The Sweater.

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