Laura: Frank Sinatra vs. Billy Joel vs. Scissor Sisters vs. Flogging Molly vs. Girls vs. Bat For Lashes
For my Laura’s birthday I wanted to do a relevant title bout. But once I realized how many artists have used her name as a song title, it turned into more than just a one-on-one match. Welcome to Title Royale.
Let’s start this mixed bag off with a classic. This is not actually a Sinatra original, as it was penned a decade previously for the movie Laura. But I know that my lady likes this particular version. It’s a slow tale of lost love, bringing to mind regretful stares at lonely train stations. The woman of the title has “a laugh that floats on the summer night” but “she’s only a dream.” The expected lounge instrumentation provides the rise and flow background for the crooner to do his work, who makes the song sweet and just a little sappy. I’ve yet to see the movie, but I could see how this might accompany a wider story.
The second contestant rips us out of a dreamy phase and into a piano-driven rocker with some seriously sharp corners. The narrator sings of his “careless fingers” getting “caught in her vice ’til they’re bleeding on my coffee table.” Billy Joel uses an approachable singing style for only certain verses, before launching into an aggressive growl (“why does she push her poison on me?”) followed by Beatles-esque whoas. This is a stark portrait of a jagged relationship, where Laura is slamming doors and “can punch all they keys…can push any button I was programmed through.” It’s hard to tell if the narrator or the woman is the problem person in the situation, but the result is uncomfortably fascinating. I don’t know a lot of Billy Joel, but this song and its album leave a lot to chew on.
Let’s see if the next entry takes us emotionally higher or lower. After an opening that sounds like it’s about to call up “Mr. Blue Sky,” the Scissor Sisters launch into a rhythmic dance-glam number. The protagonist is trying to prove “the man that I know I am” to Laura (and inexplicably wants her to “tell Cincinnati”). There are some nifty guitar riffs in the breakdowns, and overall it’s a good time. Unlike Joel’s song, this is a clearer picture: one person clearly wants the other person, wondering where the love is, and if it’s not forthcoming then “this’ll be the last time I ever do your hair.” I don’t know the Scissor Sisters catalog at all, but this is a fun jam.
The songs have been all keys up until now. Flogging Molly picks up an acoustic guitar to introduce Laura through their standard Irish-jiggery. After a simple intro, things speed up pretty quickly for the rest of the lament. The song proclaims “no woman alive could touch who you were” but “after this song, her spirit lives on.” There’s no direct evidence this person was a lover, but she was clearly a close friend. There is regret in “I could have danced on the sun, but my world came undone.” And although there is sadness in some of the strings and the repeated “bye bye Laura,” overall it’s a farewell tune that strives to be celebratory. A wake instead of a funeral.
The band Girls puts us back into breakup mode. Slacker vocals overlay a straightforward chord progression while the singer takes notes on past wrongdoings and begs “reach out and touch me, I’m right here.” It’s a fun enough little apology song with a bit of humor, though I don’t think the lyrics can carry an almost five-minute running length. The background vocal support is kind of cool on the “Laura” of the chorus and the breakdown has some warbly guitar work, but this one kind of struggles to keep my attention. It’s pleasing enough for a summer day though.
That’s it for the rockers. We started off with a smooth, thoughtful tune, and now we end with one. Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes also uses what must be the majority instrument for Laura, the piano. The opening lines draw the listener right in with images of a dying party and the mournful question, “Can we dance upon the tables again?” There is a slow steady build to the chorus which drops into its minor chords while offering some positive yet aching lyrics: “You’re the train that crashed my heart/ You’re the glitter in the dark/ Ooo Laura, you’re more than a superstar.” The relationship does not seem romantic to me, but incredibly important. This Laura is a tragic figure and the song gives her shape and color (a deep evening blue, I think). For a ballad, it’s memorably melodic and deserves repeat listening.
Winner: Have we come across any general patterns to how musicians interpret Laura? There are two slow songs and the other four are all pretty lively. Similarly, four out of six feature piano or keyboard as the main driver. They tend to center on a romantic relationship, though not exclusively. Strangely, there’s some intriguing symmetry going on with track placement on the respective albums. The first and last artists, Frank Sinatra and Bat For Lashes, used “Laura” in the #5 spot on their albums. The next ones from the top and bottom of the list, Billy Joel and Girls, both have it as #2 on their records. Finally, Scissors Sisters and Flogging Molly thought their versions of “Laura” were strong enough to be the opening track of their respective releases. It seems like everyone wrote a “Laura” that deserved a spot in the first half of their album, and most toward the very beginning. All four of the modern artists went as far as making music videos for their songs.
Is there an objective “Laura” to judge the lyrics and moods against? It’s a powerful name to wrap a song around. I don’t think any of them quite fit my wife, although they each have some colorful parts. Is one song just plainly better than the others? Not that I could tell, though I’m rather partial to the Bat For Lashes track. As for the songs I hadn’t heard before this exercise, the Scissor Sisters one is cool.
I think I’m going to cheat and pass the buck. Laura, would you be willing to judge the bout? Which song do you like best?
Happy birthday, my love. You’re more than a superstar.
Drawing by Katie Charlton.