What Makes a Song Great? Frankie Cosmos and “The Moment”

Hutch Harris of the Thermals just needs a few seconds to fall in love.

It’s not easy for me to pin down what makes me fall in love with a song. It’s a lot like falling in love with a person; it can be hard to put your finger on what it is that drives you to abandon all rational thought and let yourself fall for someone. It’s just something you know when you feel it, and there’s no need to argue. New York’s Frankie Cosmos has helped me pinpoint what often makes me fall in love with a song: one magical moment, something that usually only lasts a few seconds.

Frankie Cosmos’s latest LP, Next Thing, is a great record with many great songs. Next Thing has one amazing song, though: “If I Had a Dog.” It is fast, catchy and concise. The guitars are barely distorted, but shiny and crisp. The band is tight without being uptight, and the song is well produced without sounding sterile. Cosmos (née Greta Kline) has been described as an indie-pop miniaturist, and “If I Had a Dog” proves it. The sound is small and the song is short. “If I Had a Dog” clocks in at a streamlined one minute and twenty-eight seconds.

Many musicians have a tendency to overwrite or over-repeat; when they find that undeniable earworm, the goal becomes shoving it down the listener’s throat. With “If I Had a Dog,” Cosmos offers only what is truly needed — there isn’t one wasted note or breath. Despite being an incredibly short song and not following a traditional verse/chorus format, “If I Had a Dog” doesn’t feel abbreviated to me. Nothing is missing. (On a side note, the lyrics really speak to me. I haven’t had a dog since I was a kid. I would love to have a dog again, but a career that requires constant travel has convinced me that I don’t have the time and attention for one. One day soon I hope to leave touring behind and welcome a dog back into my life.)

I’ve listed many reasons why I love this song. But the reasons I’ve listed could easily describe many other songs I love as well. The Descendents’ “Myage” (Milo Goes to College, 1982), Elastica’s “Stutter” (Elastica, 1995) and the Jam’s “In the City” (In the City, 1977) are all good examples of great songwriting that incorporates brevity and efficiency without sacrificing passion. What makes “If I Had a Dog” special, to me, comes down to just fourteen seconds (0:54-01:08). At the end of the second verse, the band drops out for just a few seconds before blasting (but in a very chill way) back in. There are no vocals save for some soft “oohs.” The feeling that it gives me is very abstract, but very real and very powerful. It is “the moment.” The point in a song when I am truly hooked, when I know that I will love the song for the rest of my life.

When Frankie Cosmos delivers me that moment, I feel like my whole life has been leading up to that point and that great things are about to happen for me.

There is no denying the moment for me. When I am truly affected by the moment in a song, it is not only an emotional reaction, but a physical one as well. My eyes may well up with tears or the hair on my arms or the back of my neck might stand up. It’s when I am being truly manipulated by a song that I am most grateful for it. The feeling I get from the moment in “If I Had a Dog” is one of overwhelming excitement for the future. When Frankie Cosmos delivers me that moment, I feel like my whole life has been leading up to that point and that great things are about to happen for me. Again, “the moment” can be similar to the moment when you know you have fallen in love with someone, the point in a relationship when you know you are truly hooked. The difference is that a song can’t break up with you.

Throughout my life, I have been lucky enough to discover the moment in many songs. Radiohead’s “In Limbo” (Kid A, 2000) instantly comes to mind. The moment actually comes at the start of the song, the setup being “Optimistic,” the song that comes before it. (The sequence of Kid A is impeccable — everything in its right place, indeed.) The almost jazzy outro of “Optimistic” drops into some kind of dark, sparse alien transmission before the whole band kicks back in. It’s a near-perfect segue on a totally perfect album.

Sometimes the moment will come at the very end of a song: see the Breeders’ “New Year,” the opening track on Last Splash (1993). The song is short, dirty and right to the point, the tone established for the whole album to come. This is a new band with a new sound — in a new year. When Kim Deal sings, “It’s true,” you know it is.

Sometimes “the moment” can last for a while — like in Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane” (Dirty, 1992). The band restates its gooey opening riff at 2:48, then noisily pounds it into the ground until 3:46. It’s a druggy dream that lasts only a minute but feels like a lifetime. “Sugar Kane” is an exception; I find most magical moments in music come and go quickly, as they do in life.

Many artists have written great records; even more have written great songs. Very few, in my un-humble opinion, have produced a moment like Frankie Cosmos’ “If I Had a Dog.” Moments like these are what I live for as a listener and strive for as an artist. Many songs come close, but a small percentage of them actually achieve it. If I had a magic wand, I would wave it over every song that is almost perfect but not quite there to give it “the moment.” If I had a time machine, I would go back and rewrite every song I’ve ever recorded, even if it killed me, in pursuit of the same perfection. And if I had a dog, I’d take a picture every day.

(Photo credit: Landon Speers)

Hutch Harris was born in New York City, raised in Silicon Valley and has resided in Portland, Oregon for the past twenty years.  Harris founded and was the lead singer/songwriter of the Thermals. He is currently working on his first solo LP. Follow Harris on Twitter here.

(Photo Credit: Westin Glass)