Friday, January 20, 2017

"Oliver's Army" / Elvis Costello

This song just popped into my head around noonish today, Eastern Standard Time.  Seems as good a song to post as anything.

I was a huge Costello fan in 1979, when this song came out on EC's third album, Armed Forces. Well, I still am a huge Costello fan, but I was particularly keen in those years; I couldn't wait for this album to arrive. This track is still the biggest hit single Elvis ever had in the UK, though of course he wasn't primarily a singles artist. But you can see why it hit a nerve in Britain that year, in the dawn of the Thatcher years.

I originally assumed "Oliver" referred to Oliver Cromwell. In the Catholic schools young Declan/Elvis attended, Cromwell -- the harsh Puritan general who wrested power from the Catholic-favoring Stuart monarchy -- must have been painted as a villain.

However, I've later heard that Elvis also meant for Oliver to refer to Oliver Lyttelton, a Churchill crony who helped well-connected men avoid conscription in World War II because of their "usefulness to trade," thus throwing the burden of fighting onto poor unskilled men -- "the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne," all disadvantaged areas at the time.

Either way, it's an anti-war, anti-racism, anti-oppression anthem, inspired, Elvis says, by a visit to Belfast, where he saw in horror raw young boys patrolling the war-torn streets with automatic rifles on their shoulders.  "They always get a working-class boy to do the killing," as Elvis has put it. There's that startling line, "One more widow, one less white nigger" (a "white nigger" was a common term used by Belfast Prots to describe Belfast Catholics) and the couplet "But it's no laughing party / When you've been on the murder mile," Murder Mile being a slang term for a particular violent section of Falls Road in Belfast.

Of course, the song doesn't stop with Belfast.  That would be too particular. No, he wants us to see a bigger pattern, where this sort of thing also happens in Berlin, Korea, Hong Kong, Palestine, South Africa.  Mercenaries, gunfights, and retribution everywhere, while the politicians ordering the killing sit in their luxury office towers miles away, dictating memos and going out to steak lunches. Or, like Elvis and the Attractions in the video, on a tropical beach, being serving umbrella cocktails.

The genius stroke of it all?  Pairing these angry, cynical, allusion-crammed lyrics with a supremely catchy, jaunty radio-ready tune --a real ear-worm -- underlaid with Steve Nieve's sparkling keyboards, drenched in ABBA-like pop chords and arpeggios. You can't help singing along to a song like this -- and maybe shouting the lyrics a little more fiercely when you realize what it's all about. Speaking truth to power.

Today that refrain is haunting me: "And I would rather be anywhere else / Than here / Today."


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

R.I.P. Greg Trooper (1956-2017)

"Inisheer" / Greg Trooper

Sometimes, you see the hand of God working.

Way back in 2005, when I was new to iTunes, I did a search for a song titled "Innisfree," based on the Yeats poem of the same name. Along with a predictable number of Innisfree songs, the app pointed me to a song with nearly the same title (ignoring the fact that hundreds of lakes in Ireland start with "innis," which, duh, means "lake" in Gaelic).

That song was "Inisheer" by Greg Trooper. (From his 2013 album Floating.)

Well, the fates were surely working for me that day. Having heard this one sweet nuanced heartfelt number, I had to find more -- which is exactly what iTunes (at least in 2005) was best at.  It wasn't long before I had stacks of Greg Trooper CDs wending my way via Amazon.

And everything I heard I liked. No, scratch that -- loved.  This is a guy who had so much heart, was so tuned into the human condition, that every track of his was lovable. He could be sneaky funny, he could bring you to tears. It was all about his humanity.

And now we've lost him. And I'm feeling peculiarly bereft.

So I need to go back to my Square One and appreciate what there was in this first song that made me know this guy was a keeper.  

Normally I avoid posting videos of live performances, but in this case, the live footage is the best. How else could you catch the magic of seeing GT live?.

Okay, right off the bat: There's Troop's ineffably warm, textured voice, inviting: "If I asked, would you come with me dear, /To a place you've never been before?" It's all about trust. And who do you trust? A guy with a slightly gritty voice who nails those sincere line endings.

And then there's the plangent chorus: "So take my hand, my heart, my soul forever / Bring to me your burden and your fear / Let us wander through this world together / We will find our way to Inisheer." Yes, there's a little country-ish yodel lingering behind some of his melisma, but mostly Greg Trooper delivers a folk song with all the old country echoes that entails.

Images flash through the ensuing verses: "Streets of gold and pockets full of diamonds," "Rainbow eyes shining like the ocean" -- but we all know where we want to wind up: In the loving arms of this yearning singer.

A couple years later, I managed to snag an interview with Greg Trooper and came away feeling as if I'd made a friend. After that, I took a particular pleasure in going to his shows and having a chat afterwards. I'm kicking myself that I didn't do that more often, even after it became clear that time was of the essence.

Greg Trooper wrote so many fine songs -- often recorded by other artists (Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Billy Bragg). It was wistful to those of us who were his champions to see him plugging away at bars and house parties, when he deserved so much more exposure. His sizeable European fan base attests to how he connected with his fans. 

How could you not love Greg Trooper?

And how could I not be devastated that he's gone?

Friday, December 30, 2016

In Honour of Sir Ray Davies

A Kinks Shuffle

In honour of Sir Raymond Douglas Davies, frontman and principal songwriter for the seminal UK band The Kinks, on the occasion of his knighthood.

1. "What Are We Doing" / The Kinks
From UK Jive (1989)
A seriously underrated album, this. Here's Ray Davies, a star for 25 years or more, still befuddled by modern life. "What am I doing, acting identikit / When all I want to do is be the opposite." You may now be a knight, Ray, but we all know you are at heart a working-class hero.

2. "See My Friends" / The Kinks
From Kinda Kinks (1965)
Here's a window into Ray Davies' process. In this song, he's grieving his sister, feeding into the trend for Indian music, AND giving his brother Dave a chance to show off making a guitar sound perfectly like a sitar. And also sounding dreamily melancholy. And neurotic. Such a sensitive soul....

3. "The Informer" / The Kinks
From Phobia (1993)
The Kinks' last album, as it turned out. And how poignant. He's referencing the 1935 John Ford film (a beauty, if you haven't seen it) based on a 1925 novel by Liam O'Flaherty (also a knockout). But the subtext? I'm betting this is another of the many songs about Ray's tortured, tortuous, and loving relationship with his brother Dave.

4. "Strangers" / The Kinks
From Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround
Yes!  Let's get brother Dave weighing in.

5. "Two Sisters" / The Kinks
From Something Else (1967)
Yes, this is about two sisters. Right. Not about two brothers, one of them in North London with a wife and babies and the other a famous raver.

6. "Lost and Found" / The Kinks
From Think Visual (1986)
Yet another late track that totally hooked me.

7. "Supersonic Rocket Ship" / The Kinks
From Everybody's in Show Business (1972)
The steel band, the horns, the reggae beat -- musically so au courant for 1972, and yet it's just about escaping the daily scrum. Our Ray's perpetual theme -- and a beacon call for us neurasthenics everywhere.

8. "Do It Again" / The Kinks
From Word of Mouth (1984)
Okay, shuffle is delivering a fair amount of late Kinks. But I love the late Kinks. I love how they took on the sounds of the 80s and still delivered Ray's anti-establishment agenda in witty style. And this video sells their take, with the lads performing as subway buskers..

9. "Days" / The Kinks (1968)
Although it eventually appeared on 1972's Kinks Kronicles, this 1968 single is suffused with the dreamy folky flower people sound of that summer. Yet -- a subtle twist, Ray Davies' stock-in-trade -- between the lines it's really a break-up song, with more than a few digs. "You took my life / But then I knew that very soon you'd leave me" -- uh oh. And that wistful bridge, "I wish today could be tomorrow / The night is dark / It just brings sorrow, let it wait" -- hmm, methinks he's not as "moved on" as he says. . . .  

10. "Don't Forget to Dance" / The Kinks
From State of Confusion (1983)
Is it any surprise that one of Ray's most nostalgic albums should have been his gateway back into mass success? The record company powers-that-be tried to talk Ray out of this album about his British provincial roots. He stood his guns -- and it provided a significant boost to Ray's 1980s renaissance.

So yeah, this band is a whole lot more than "You Really Got Me."

The Queen is right to honor this guy.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

"Burning Down the House" /
Talking Heads

In my musical memory, this track was on Fear of Music, that astonishing 1979 album whereon the Talking Heads -- my beloved New Wave New York compadres -- suddenly went from jerky fringe geeks to political provocateurs. (Note: Brian Eno and Robert Fripp were now on board; they even got Gene Wilder, the essential geek artist savant, to play congas on "Life During Wartime.") Most memorable line from that album: "This ain't no party / This ain't no disco / This ain't no foolin' around."

Hunkered down in NYC (I lived on the rough Upper West Side but in my heart I was an East Village squatter), I was so tuned into with that album. As I was with its 1980 successor, Remain in Light (featuring the iconic track "Once in a Lifetime".

But in fact this burn-all-the-bridges song didn't come out until 1983, on the Heads' Speaking in Tongues album. Wikipedia describes this album as their "commercial breakthrough," thanks to the fact that this groovalicious song actually was a Top Ten hit. (Really? I was so divorced from Top 40 radio at the time . . . but really?)

Yeah, okay, I'll buy that. But let's remember where we were in 1983. By then, Ronald Reagan had become the U.S. President, with Margaret Thatcher in charge as the U.K. Prime Minister. So is it any surprise that the counterculture would respond with a track like this?  Or that 4 years after "Life During Wartime," the Talking Heads would feel the need to light up some torches?

From the very first line, we're in danger alert. "WATCH OUT / You might get what you're after." I love the ambivalence of this. Though our singer declares he's an ordinary guy, we already know that we are not in ordinary times. 
Everything's allusive, coded: "We're in for nasty weather," "The transportation is here," "You might need a raincoat," "Fightin' fire with fire." Look over your shoulder, my friend.
The rhythm section is tight (God bless Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth), the lead singer (David Byrne) tightly-wound.  (..."And you have not seen nothin' yet / Everything's stuck together / And I don't know what you expect / Staring into the TV set / Fighting fire with fire.") Which is actually the genius of this track -- the hard-driving inevitability of that beat, versus the neurotic protest of our protagonist. 
It's a brave new world, for sure, and all bets are off.
History repeating itself? 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

And the first song up is . . .

"Makin' Whoopee!" /
Harry Nilsson

Wow. WOW.

In my ongoing adult education class on the wonder that was Harry Nilsson, here's a delicious bit of the syllabus. It comes from an album called A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, which was released in 1973 and died a quiet death on the charts.

A lushly orchestrated album featuring the Great American Songbook?  We didn't even have the term "Great American Songbook" in 1973. (Top 3 songs in the Billboard charts that year?  "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" by Tony Orlando and Dawn; "Big Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce; and "Killing Me Softly" by Roberta Flack.)

But Harry Nilsson, a lonely misfit child, had grown up crooning these songs alongside the supportive adults in his fractured family, and they were dear to his heart. That's how he learned to sing (and oh, my lord, how this guy could sing); my heart goes out to him for choosing to resurrect these beautiful songs.

And this is a vintage one. First popularized in 1928 by Eddie Cantor (yes, the Jewish singer who went blackface in the milestone talkie The Al Jolson Story in 1927), it's a sly little number. If you hadn't already guessed, the "whoopee" of the title refers to sexual intercourse. Yes, oh my children, there was once a time when we couldn't even say "making love" in a pop song, let alone "fucking."  (I'm just old-school enough to regret the loss of tasteful euphemisms like this.)
The genius of this cautionary tale, however, is what happens after the aforementioned whoopee is made. Oh, it all starts off all lovey-dovey with a shower of rice and a love nest, but a year later there's diapers hanging on the radiators and both parties gathering evidence for their lawyers. ("She feels neglected / And he's suspected / Of makin' whoopee.")
And yet how tenderly Harry introduces these complications, lagging a hair behind the beat, lightening his dulcet tenor, caressing the syllables with his supple melisma.
It's such a cynical song, a Jazz Age riposte to the platitudes of love and marriage. In 1973 Harry himself had been through the divorce wringer already, and was heading for his second decree. So yeah, a snarky subtext was firmly in place.
But Harry Nilsson was too honest an artist to throw his ex-wives under the bus. While the brittle satire of the 1920s is respected in this song, I still hear groovy Woodstock-era regret shivering through this gorgeous track. I'm all about nuance, and this track has nuance up the wazoo.
Sometimes the shuffle delivers just the track you need.

Friday, November 25, 2016

"What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding" / Nick Lowe

Let's give the man credit: Elvis Costello may have brought this song to a wider audience on his 1979  US Armed Forces LP, but Nick Lowe wrote it, and first recorded it in 1974 with his ur-band Brinsley Schwarz.

At the time, Nick has said, he saw it as a sort of satire on the flower-power hippie movement. But as time has gone by, even Nick has admitted that the lyrics of this song have acquired a different meaning -- a new earnestness, as the world has shifted gears. Whereas EC's version was all punk snarl and power chord guitars, these days Nick tends to perform this song with a ruminative folkie strum.

And in 2016, to me it seems all too apropos.

Okay, this is one time when I say, let's just reproduce the lyrics. Because they say all I want to say.

As I walk through
This wicked world
Searching' for light
In the darkness of insanity
I ask myself 
Is all hope lost
Is there only pain and hatred
And misery?

And our friend -- Nick or Elvis or whomever you wish it to be -- comes through with a message of hope:

And each time I feel like this inside
There's one thing I want to know
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding.

He continues on his quest, his spirit "so downhearted sometimes," wondering "where are the strong . And who are the trusted?" Oh, I've been asking myself that for the past several days.

And to me, the answer lies in another question: "Where is the sweet harmony?"

Because that's where it all lies -- finding the harmony. We have to find a way to live with each other, after this bruising and divisive Presidential campaign. And for those of us who feel that there's no room for us at the table -- we have to find a legitimate way to make our voices heard.

We all hope for peace, and pray for love. But it's understanding that has to come first. And that requires an open heart.

So yeah, please give money to Jill Stein to underwrite a vote recount. But be prepared to move on if necessary -- and keep the faith in your hearts.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Kinks Cure in Times of Trouble

"Catch Me Now I'm Falling" /
The Kinks

Well, the votes have been cast and counted, victory and concession speeches made, and the president-elect is beginning to show his true colors by a steadily-growing list of political appointments. 

You can find all that news elsewhere on the web. Here, we talk about the Kinks.

1979. What a year.  We had the Iran hostage crisis, Three Mile Island, the Twinkie defense, the Unabomber, the Greensboro Massacre, the Chrysler bailout, and the rise of the Sandinistas.  (C'mon, folks, if you don't know, Google it.) Etan Patz disappeared, Mardi Gras was canceled, and a school shooter in San Diego said she did it because "I don't like Mondays." The economy was floundering, the energy crisis led to long lines at the gas pumps, and massive anti-nuclear and gay-rights marches filled the streets. It wasn't the end of civilization, but it kind of felt like it. And for me, returning to the US in 1978 after two years abroad, it was culture shock indeed. 
[Granted, it wasn't all bad. The Salt II agreement and the Egyptian-Israel Peace Treaty were signed. Michael Jackson released Off the Wall. The Susan B. Anthony dollar and the Happy Meal were introduced. for those.]
Never a man to shy from social commentary, Ray Davies filled the Kinks' 1979 LP Low Budget with pointed songs about the state of the world. This was their third album for Clive Davis' Arista label; the pressure was on to create anthem rock and disco-friendly tracks (methinks our Ray suffered many a sleepless night trying to satisfy those demands). But political satire was Ray Davies' home court, and Low Budget may be the Kinks' most political album, in a broad-stroke kinda way. He addresses inflation ("Low Budget"), UK health care ("National Health"), gas prices ("A Gallon of Gas"), the fitness craze ("Wish I Could Be Like Superman"). 
Still, it's a bit of a game-changer to find the ultra-Brit Ray Davies writing a song like this, addressing the rest of the world from an American standpoint. Remember, though, Ray had been living in New York for a while; Low Budget was recorded in New York. And so we can forgive him for writing a song that's totally in the American voice.

I happen to love this track. I am no fan of arena rock or disco; in fact, Low Budget was the album that at the time made me fall away from the Kinks. (Just Google what else was happening in music in 1979 before you judge me.) But now that I'm back in the fold, I recognize this track for what it is: What the French would call a crie de coeur, a cry from the heart.
Ray summons up the comic book hero Captain America -- and corny as he may be, the message is plangent. Yeah, the guy's a straight-arrow dork, and for years now we've been dissing straight-arrow dorks. But they're the ones we depend upon to hold the door and carry our bags for us. And when the chips are down....
All the power chord riffs are there, plus a hot sax solo in the middle eight (twice!). And there's the eerie call-and-response, where Ray sings "fallin'" and brother Dave chillingly echoes it an octave higher.
"I remember / When you were down / And you needed a helping hand / I came to feed you" -- hello, Marshall Plan.  I wasn't around then, but even as a child of the 1960s I knew that the US had bailed out its European allies in their post-war straits.
I'll admit, I have no idea whether the US actually applied to its European allies for help in the dark days of 1978-1979. So the line about "Now I call your office on the telephone / And your secretary tells me that she's sorry / But you've gone out of town" -- this could just be Ray Davies' imagination running wild.
Still -- those alliances should still matter. The fact that our President-elect has no idea how to navigate them is downright terrifying. And their economic systems depend upon ours more than ever. 
So hello, rest of the world. Anything you can do to give us a boost would be welcome. Several of us (most of us, really, as the popular vote would attest) feel like we're in free-fall mode. If anybody has a safety net to offer...