Friday, March 18, 2016

A St. Patrick's Shuffle

A day late. Ah, well, the Irish will forgive me. Click on the links to go to videos.

1. "Be Good Or Be Gone" / Fionn Regan
From End of History (2006)
Cool indie-folk acoustic. This young guy from Bray is quite a poet, with an especially winsome, tentative tenor. This debut album is still one of my faves. "I have become an aerial view / Of a coastal town / That you once knew."  Well, now that you put it that way...

2. "Ireland" / Greg Trooper
From Everywhere (1992)
It's not about the country, it's about a woman, a woman he loves. And yeah, so what, Greg Trooper isn't Irish (he's from New Jersey, via Nashville) and this song has his usual folk-country twang--but it's extra jiggy, with a delicious fiddle. "When I'm with you it feels so right, / My wallet's full on Friday night / My ship has docked, my kingdom's come / And my heart's on fire and over-run...."  Love this song.

3.  "Better Not Wake the Baby" / The Decemberists 
From What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World (2015)
Another of my "honorary" Irish tunes. Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy must have suckled on some Celtic teat in his Montana childhood, because most everything his band does has a half-demented tragi-folk quality, like as not loaded up with fiddle and squeezebox. This song is a tasty brew, half Brecht and half The Honeymooners, as a warring couple square off at each other. Another of the great Irish themes. 

4. "The Lowlands of Holland" / Natalie Merchant and the Chieftains
From Tears of Stone (1999)
Yes, that Natalie Merchant, from 10,000 Maniacs, but she sure sounds Irish, right down to the yelpy flutter in her voice, when backed by the Chieftains, the most Irishest band of all. It's one of those traditional songs that everyone's given a spin, but a poignant one, as a young solider's widow grieves his death fighting another country's war far away.  (Love, loss, and homesickness -- they say this song was originally British, but how could the Irish not have appropriated it?). Penny whistle and concertina and all,

5. "Mo Ghile Mear" / Sting and the Chieftains
From The Wide World Over (2002)
Sting sure does get all emotional about Celtic folk stuff -- he's even singing Gaelic in the chorus. ("My Gallant Darling" -- it's meant to be the goddess Eire grieving for Bonnie Prince Charlie.) It's easy to make fun of Sting, he takes himself so seriously, but I have to admit this is a pretty fine vocal. And of course the bodhrans help.

6. "Star of the County Down" / Van Morrison 
From Irish Heartbeat (1988)
Well, here's the real deal -- Sir Van Morrison of Belfast. It's another of those songs that everyone sings, but really, who ever could sing it better than Van the Man? The chorus to this runs through my head whenever I look at a map of Ireland: "From Bantry Bay up to Derry quay / And from Galway to Dublin town, /  Not a lass I've seen like a brown colleen that I met in the County Down."

7. "Living in America" / Black 47
From Fire of Freedom (1992)
Ah, Larry Kirwan -- the great transplanted Celtic rocker and bard of the pre-Celtic Tiger Irish immigrant experience.  The life he describes in this thrashing anthem (still with fiddles and penny whistles!) is just what I've heard from all the nannies and construction guys I know here in New York. "In the cold daylight, I feel like shite / And I can't remember last night's fun / Then the foreman says, "Come on now boys, / Stick your fingers down your throats and get to work" . . .  Oh mammy dear, we're all mad over here / Living in America."

8. "Erin Gra Mo Chroi" / Cherish the Ladies
From The Girls Won't Leave Boys Behind (2001)
That yelpy flutter Natalie Merchant had? This is what she was aiming for. Deidre Connally is the lead singer here, but all the women of Cherish the Ladies go for the most authentic Irish sound they can get (even though they're mostly Irish-Americans). And this is one of the homesickest songs you'll ever hear. "When St. Patrick's Day has come / My thoughts will carry me home / To that dear little isle so far away" -- well, it may sound mawkish, but that fiddle is irresistible. Go see the movie Brooklyn already.

9. "We Are Everywhere" / Pugwash
From Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends) (2015)
One of my great discoveries of this past year, this lovely power-pop band from Dublin. Here they get their psychedelic "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" thing on, all woozily melodic with shape-shifting chords. FYI: Recorded at the Kinks' Konk.

10. "Sayonara" / The Pogues
From Hell's Ditch (1990)
Dig Shane MacGowan's slurred vocals, perfect for this Celtic punk drunkard's lament, whether faked or real. (This was his last album with the band.) I think it's set in Asia, but those pennywhistles give it away -- that and the mournful sitting in a bar, looking across the sea, feeling sorry for himself.  One more Irish rover....

Monday, March 14, 2016

"You Solve Me" / Marti Jones
Just popped into my head. As songs inexplicably sometimes do.

What's not to love about this song?  There's that bossa nova beat, which I've loved ever since hearing the Beatles sing "And I Love Her" (actually this entire album, You're Not the Bossa Me, is bossa nova).

Then there's Marti Jones, 80s chanteuse and wife of Don Dixon; she's recorded tunes by so many of my faves, from John Hiatt to Elvis Costello to Graham Parker, not to mention touring with the ever-wonderful Amy Rigby in 2005.  How is she not my best friend?

And then, this particular track is written by songwriters Kelley Ryan and Bill Demain.  I don't know much about Kelley Ryan but Bill Demain is one of my songwriting heroes.

On a rainy early spring Monday, it's such a blessing to sink into the warmth of Marti Jone's contralto and the laidback Brazilian rhythms of this song. Yeah, life is stressful for her too -- "I'm all messed up and there you go" -- but love somehow makes the equation work: "But everything is easy 'cause you solve me."

Verse two is the one that gets me -- she compares herself to a jigsaw, a crossword, a Scrabble game, all of which I love to play. And isn't that what we all want in life -- someone to guess our clues and fill in the empty spaces?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

R.I.P. George Martin (1926-2016)

Just couldn't let this one pass without a few words, even if it's mostly cribbed from my own old post...

“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” / The Beatles

I didn’t know what to make of this song in 1967; it weirded me out a whole lot more than the psychedelic images of “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” or even the apocalyptic sorrow of “A Day In the Life.” I’m not sure I know what to make of it even now . . . but in some ways it’s my favorite song on this album. And with the news of George Martin's passing, it's a good time to listen again to see what that revolutionary record producer contributed to the brilliance of the Beatles.


Apparently John Lennon transcribed this song almost word for word from an old circus poster, with just a few tweaks to make things rhyme. That info makes this song at least a bit more comprehensible to me. Veering in and out of minor keys, Lennon's melody weaves a nightmare experience -- and the sinister sound effects added by George Martin were crucial.

There's that haunting barrel organ, the whirligig Wurlitzer fills, splashes of tinny harpsichord, the cacophony of triangles and backwards snippets of strings and who-knows-what-else at the end, as Mr. Kite tops the bill. (That part is practically like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.) And above all the stealthy bass line and relentless lockstep drums -- that foregrounded cymbal crash, over and over. It gives me the chills, every time.

The strange phrases filched from the poster only add to the creepy carnival atmosphere – the hogshead of real fire, Henry the Horse dancing the waltz, Mr. Henderson demonstrating ten somersaults on solid ground, it’s all surreal and discombobulated. Whatever the lyrics tell you, the music is telling you that this is dangerous territory – something akin to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, about an evil traveling show blowing into a small town. Mr. Kite could very well be Satan (Mr. K will challenge the world! Mr. K performs his tricks without a sound! And tonight Mr K is topping the bill!). No wonder it freaked me out when I was 13.

I assume that this tacky showbiz outfit has some parallel to the Beatles themselves, thrust into the spotlight and expected to perform like capering monkeys. The insane circus that surrounded the Beatles – something in this freakish daredevil act obviously spoke to John Lennon. And as Lennon tapped into his subconscious, George Martin was there at his elbow, like a good shrink in his proper English gentleman's suit and tie, feeding him all the aural threads to weave into the tapestry.

Pure genius.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

R.I.P Dan Hicks (1941-2016)

Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks / 
"Walkin' One and Only"

Sad news indeed.

As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I never heard of Dan Hicks. At college in New England, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band did float onto my musical radar -- a retro kind of folk-swing-jazz-vaudeville hybrid that was just weird enough for pot-smoking hippies to embrace it.

But I had to move to England before I discovered the Hot Licks. (Who'd a thunk?) There, huddled on a lumpy couch in a half-heated student flat, my friend Craig, who'd gone to college in the Bay Area, spun Hot Licks LPs for me late at night. I was homesick and hungering for a taste of America; who knew that Dan Hicks would so perfectly fit the bill?

Dan Hicks -- an army brat born in Arkansas, who moved to San Francisco when he was five -- formed the Hot Licks in 1967, when Kweskin's outfit was practically at the end of their run, so I suppose Hicks can't be credited with inventing the genre. Still, his offbeat humor quickly took it to new heights.

And as San Francisco briefly became the apogee of the music universe during the Summer of Love, there were the Hot Licks, fiddling and harmonizing and harking back to a between-the-wars sound that may have only existed in Hicks' fertile mind. Sid Page fiddled like Stephane Grappelli while Maryann Price and Naomi Eisenberg sang like the Andrews Sisters, and in the middle of it all was the wry figure of Dan Hicks.

Dig that peppy tempo, the gossipy close harmonies. that little touch of Django Reinhardt in the bridge. This cool dude is out on the town, strutting his stuff, and all the ladies are paying attention. He's more about style than substance -- which, at first glance, was the Dan Hicks thing as well.

But don't be so quick to jump to conclusions. Dan Hicks could plug into existential angst as well.
And that retro thing? Well, what were San Francisco hippies about if not escaping middle-class Eisenhower-Nixon-era values? (And pointing the way for the rest of us.) Dan Hicks served it up with a healthy blast from what was then the past -- and it was just too appealing to resist.

These songs are now, for better or worse, hot-wired into my musical DNA.  I'm incredibly sad that Dan Hicks the man is no more. But Dan Hicks the musical escapist?  His fantasy world lives on and on and on. 

PS: Dan Hicks with the amazing guitarist Bill Kirchen, from Bill's delicious 2010 album Word to the Wise.  This song makes me laugh out loud every time I listen to it. Enjoy!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Farewell David Bowie

"Under Pressure" /
Queen and David Bowie

So what if this song didn't drift into my consciousness until years after the fact.  It was released in 1981, well before "Modern Love." I was on some other planet, and not paying attention. But years later, my kids -- in their brief Queen phase -- found this song and wouldn't let it go. And now it's hard-wired into my soul.

Yeah, it's two masters of the Opening Riff, battling it out for diva top honors. But for me personally  -- what this song says about modern life is so freakin' insightful...

This well may be the best percussion opener ever: one cymbal brush, then those handclaps, punctuated with stabs of electric piano (the piano is a percussion instrument, may I remind you), all strung along by that exquisite two-note bass line. It truly is one of the great bass lines of all time, even if stolen by Vanilla Ice ("Ice, Ice, Baby").

Fun facts to know and tell: Queen bassist John Deacon improvised this riff in the Montreux studio where they threw this song together, and then they all went out for pizza. When they came back from the break, Deacon had forgotten the riff.  Luckily drummer Roger Taylor remembered it -- and the rest, as they say, was rock history.

Okay, so we're in pre-programmed follow-the-beat territory. But the lyrics bust us out; they're such a cry for help. As Bowie plangently sings, "It's the terror of knowing what the world is about / Watching some good friends screaming, 'Let me out.'" Bowie was always such a barometer for our 20th-century anxieties. (Which unfortunately haven't changed much in the 21st century.) How can we just follow the beat?

Because it's not just about me me me and my neuroses. It's about being part of a community, and registering the big picture. (Bowie was such a big-picture guy.) In the bridge -- which I attribute to Bowie, singing in his breathy falsetto -- "Turned away from it all like a blind man / Sat on a fence but it don't work / Keep comin' up with love, but it don't work..."  He may be a wounded soul, but he's also a seeker, on a quest.  

So here comes the answer, with Freddie Mercury's fling-it-all-out-there vocals: "Why don't we give love one more chance / Why don't we give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love...." We're an eon past the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love," with so many incidents to the contrary. Declaring faith in simple love seems radical again.

But maybe if you repeat it often enough -- it will happen.

It's a modern version of call-and-response, with wary, cynical David Bowie facing off against love-at-all-costs Freddie Mercury. And in the end, who wins?

Score one for the romantic. Because if we haven't got passion, the rest can all go to hell. And I like to think that Bowie was on board with that too. "This is our last dance," he proclaims magisterially in the final section, throwing down the gantlet.  "This is ourselves / Under pressure."

Grace under pressure. What it's all about. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Farewell David Bowie

"Modern Love" / David Bowie

So I come home to the United States.  I finally buy all those albums that ChangesOneBowie introduced me to. And then...well, life gets in the way. I live in D.C. for a year, then I move to New York City. I'm sucked into the New Wave thing. I forget that David Bowie exists, because Elvis Costello and David Byrne are blocking my view.

(As if either could have existed without Bowie's neurasthenic nerd art-school example...)

And then, MTV hits. If MTV hadn't already existed, they'd have had to invent it so that David Bowie could re-charge his career, with perplexing visuals further mystifying his already mystifying songs (kinda like Bertolt Brecht goes disco).

Oh, yes, I eventually bought the 1983 Let's Dance album. How could I not, when my aerobic dancing class (remember those?) had routines for both "Let's Dance" AND "China Girl"? But I'll confess: it was the MTV video for "Modern Love" that sucked me in.

This video is teasingly non-literal -- instead of acting out the song (too boring), it's a (staged) stage performance, shot in super-saturated colors. I keep trying to extract his "message" about the travails of modern love, from that plummy spoken word opening ("I know when to go out / I know when to stay in / Get things done") through the anguished yelp of the verses ("There's no sign of life / There's just the power to charm"). Then I give up; whatever modern love is, it's too discombobulated to pin down. And oh -- 30-odd years later -- maybe that is the point.

So what do I focus on? My favorite lines: "I catch the paper boy / But things don't really change / I'm standing in the wind / But I never wave bye-bye.." And there is the Thin White Duke himself, on screen, gaily waving bye-bye. Oh, Lord, what a groove, to watch David Bowie jiving around in his beautifully cut suit, darting mascaraed glances, his cheekbones as divine as ever.

As the second half of the song collapses into a call-and-response villanelle, Bowie free-associates against his back-up singers, "modern love" morphing into "church on time" into "god and man." It's going from Dionne Warwick to My Fair Lady to Milton to Sartre and back again. (And oh yes -- "Church on time / Makes me par-ty." Award for most teasing juxtaposition ever.).

And there's that irresistible rhythm line, courtesy of producer Nile Rodgers. The cut totally succeeds as a disco track. (Hello, Studio 54!) It totally succeeds as an ironic New Wave track. And it totally succeeds as a delicious bit of cabaret.

Am I back in the David Bowie camp? Oh, yes, my brothers and sisters -- more than ever.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Farewell David Bowie

"Young Americans" /
David Bowie

1976. I'm back in England, going to grad school. Living out of a suitcase, I'd had to reduce my record collection to home-made audiocassettes, played on a dinky tape deck. Every once in awhile, however, on trips to London I'd splurge on store-bought cassettes. ChangesOneBowie fairly leapt out of the bin at me. After all, I thought with some twisted logic, since I didn't own any of those great early 70s Bowie albums (Hunky Dory, Zigga Stardust, Aladdin Sane), wouldn't the greatest hits do as well?

Well -- as I have since learned -- the greatest hits never "do as well."  But for those two years abroad, separated from my LPs, I played the few tapes I owned to death, and ChangesOneBowie was no exception. In fact it was a downright revelation. There I was, on my pilgrimage to the land that spawned the British Invasion, and what track did I fall in love with?  The one where Mr. Glam Rock decided to transform himself into Soul Brother No. 33.

Recorded in Philly, with R&B luminaries like Luther Vandross aboard, "Young Americans" was Bowie's love letter to American soul music. (He had the good grace to describe his version as "plastic soul," or "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.") Unlike a straightforward Hit Factory song, though, the lyrics made absolutely no sense. It was like switching channels at random while watching late-night TV, a surreal montage of Life In These United States. I was hardly surprised when someone told me that Bowie wrote this after a 3-day coke binge. Of course!

But oh, the slick smooth hustle of that beat, underlaid with gospel choir back-up singers and David Sanborn's sizzling sax. I love the edge of hysteria in Bowie's vocal, all gulps and pants and yips of fevered ecstasy. Those random phrases still worm into my head at the strangest moments, and once they do, I'm on that soul train for days.

Phrases like: "They pulled in just behind the bri-idge, he la-ays her down, / He frowns, / 'Gee-ee my life's a funny thing, am I still too young?'" (Calling James Dean!) That sexy line "She took his ring, took his babies" in verse one; later on, "Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors / Blushing at all the Afro-Sheeners." I don't know what that really says about race relations in America, but I see it.

Bowie keeps shifting the ground under our feet. In the first chorus, he sighs, "All night /She wants the young American" but later it's "He wants the young American," and then it's "you" and finally it's "I." Or as he babbles in the drawn-out, chaotic ending, "You want it, I want you, you want I, I want you want" -- you'd never get this gender confusion in an American soul, but we expected no less from Bowie, the crown prince of androgyny.  

In the bridge, Bowie leans confiding into the mike for his own husky, half-spoken question: "Do you remember / Your President Nixon?" In 1976, that name still sent a chill through the room.

And that other haunting question, from verse three: "All the way from Washington [remember the March on Washington]? / Her bread-winner begs off the bathroom floor / 'We live for just these twenty years / Do we have to die for the fifty more?'" Ah, the American obsession with youth. It's a curious insight, coming from a man who himself cheated that equation, endlessly reinventing himself -- his own last fifty years were a remarkable second chapter, and third, and fourth . . . who'd ever have thought he'd find so many ways to remain artistically relevant?   

In the final section, a random series of unanswered questions tumble out:  "Ain't that close to love? /Well, ain't that poster love?" (I sing that to myself all the time, I swear.) And my favorite -- that dramatic moment when the instruments stop, the echo switches on, and Bowie drops to his knees to wail in his best James Brown voice: "Ain't there one damn song that can make me / Break down and cry?"

It's a glorious mishmash, hardly a major artistic statement. It didn't make me homesick for America. Satire? Homage?  I'm still not sure. But it didn't matter. There I was in grad school, writing paper after paper about what English literature "meant" -- but when I listened to "Young Americans," I didn't have to explain.  It just was. I listened to it and listened to it, and now every beat is etched in my brain. 

And I still love it.