Monday, October 24, 2016

Z Is For...

The last of our 26 artists, A to Z -- and who else could it be but the band who recorded the first single I ever bought, back in 1964?

The Zombies / "I Love You"

I love the Zombies.  Love them, love them, love them.  Loved them then, love them now.

In August 1965, this track, written by bassist-songwriter Chris White, was the B-side of "Whenever You're Ready." A measure of how good the Zombies were in their all-too-brief 1960s career is how often this B-side has been covered since then.

Meanwhile, this video has led me down a whole 'nother rabbit hole. The images star the brilliant Rita Tushingham, whose performances in such seminal 1960s British films as A Taste of Honey, Girl With Green Eyes, and The Knack...And How to Get It were linchpins in that cinematic revolution. (If there's anything I love more than British pop of the mid-1960s, it's British cinema of the mid-1960s.) I've watched this video over and over, trying to pinpoint which film these clips are from. And finally I've had to come to terms with the fact that no one else is as obsessive as I am when it comes to Brit Nouvelle Vague circa 1965 and I had better just move on to the topic at hand. Which is, after all, THE ZOMBIES.

The Zombies had two extraordinary things going for them -- Colin Blunstone's incredibly ethereal voice, and Rod Argent's keyboard wizardry. What Chris White concocted in this song is a jazz-soaked number that gave both those assets a chance to shine.

The formula is devastatingly simple. Over and over, the singers repeat "I love you," numbly, dumbly. When you're hog-tied by infatuation, that's all you can do. Then the combo snaps into a crashing halt, to let the lead singer urgently emote: "And I don't know what to say!"

He's so sunk in desire, he can scarcely think. "My words should explain / But the words won't come." And the chords -- mostly minor key -- shift into conditional mode as he laments: "I should tell you just how I feel / And I keep tryin' / But something holds me back when / I try to tell you."

Tied up in knots? Anyone who's ever been an anguished adolescent (and that's just about all of us) can relate to that.

But finding a musical expression of that is something else. The Zombies were always the earnest, anguished suburban boys of the BritBeat scene. In this devastatingly perfect number, they forever lay their claim to that territory. Which is as good a note as any upon which to end this serendipitous series of posts.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Y Is For...

26 artists, A to Z.

The Yardbirds / "Heart Full of Soul"

I was too young to "get" this band; I only know them from my older brother Holt's LPs. They were darker and more complex than the Beatles, the gods of my 1965 musical universe. But given time...

The most arresting element hits you right from the start: that spacey-sounding guitar. I’d never heard a sitar before – remember, this was five months before George Harrison’s sitar on “Norwegian Wood”; the Stones’ “Paint It Black” wouldn’t come out until the next year. But Jeff Beck didn't need a sitar; he got the same exotic effect just using a fuzz box on his guitar. It sounded creepy, and psychedelic, and I don’t know what else.

It’s a pretty tortured set of lyrics too: “Sick at heart and lonely, / Deep in dark despair/ [oh-oh-oh-oh oh] / Thinking one thought only / Where is she, tell me where / [oh-oh-oh-oh-oh].” I love how those back-up oh’s stagger up the minor scale and then seemingly spiral off into space. Keith Relf’s lead vocal sounds so haggard, like he’s been up late smoking and drinking, nursing his wounded heart. In 1965, most bands perpetuated the fiction that love would make us happy; quite the opposite here.

Apparently the girl’s lost interest in him, but he’s not giving up, as he insists in the chorus: “And I know / if she had me back again / Well I would never make her sad.”

All those shifting uneasy chords, and then he lays out his most important credential: “I've got a heart full of soul.” The back-up harmonies modulate mystically through no less than six chords on “heart”; his heart is just full to bursting, isn’t it? In one stroke, he turns my pity into dizzy attraction. A guy who’s this full of passion deserves to get the girl.

Well, love isn't that easy; half a beat after “soul,” that hypnotic guitar line slices through like a scimitar, drawing us into the next verse, and more pain: “She's been gone such a long time / Longer than I can bear / [oh-oh-oh-oh-oh] / But if she says she wants me / Tell her that I'll be there / [oh-oh-o] / And if she says to you / She don’t love me/ [oh-oh-oh-oh-oh] / Just give her my message / Tell her of my plea.”

By the end of the song, nothing’s been resolved; he’s still aching, still miserable. But me, I’ve got shivers running up my spine. No wonder I avoided this when I was 11. But now that I'm a grown-up? I like it just fine.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

X Is For . . .

26 artists, A to Z.

XTC / "Stupidly Happy"

Yes, I really was that clueless. For years, whenever I heard the name of this band, I thought they were rappers. Y'know, like Run DMC or N.W.A. Never mind that they were English and started recording under that name in 1977, way before the rap era. I guess I have an excuse -- they were never that big in the States, and after 1982 they stopped touring due to Andy Partridge's crippling stage fright. They kept recording, but became increasingly a cult taste. Well, that wouldn't have been a problem for me; there's nothing I like better than a cult band. (I am, after all, a lifelong Kinks fan.) Still, if no one I knew was listening to these guys...

But thanks to my Kinkette friend Julie, I became enlightened in 2007 or so, and XTC is now firmly ensconced in my regular rotation. Quirky, British, literate, funny, more than a little off-kilter musically -- well, that's the sort of stuff I just eat up.   

This is from their 2000 album WaspStar -- which is really the second half of their 1999 album Apple Venus. By then, the band had shrunk to just Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, plus session musicians.  (No need for a full band if you never perform live.) 

As I recall, this was the first of their songs I ever heard, the one that convinced me to listen to more. Sneaky little number, this.

Those crunchy buzzsaw guitars set us up for some real rock 'n' roll, y'know, innit? But Andy Partridge's almost fey vocals float over the top, as he marvels, "I'm stupidly happy / Everything's fine / I'm stupidly happy / My heart's pumping wine."  He describes his "idiot grin," says he's "coming unscrewed," and offers the final proof of being unhinged -- "The world's making sense." 

So maybe it's stupid to be so happy? I wonder. Is that the subtext behind the grating guitar riffs? Is he like a Benny Hill video halfwit, a dim Monty Python gumby with his handkerchief knotted around his head? 

But then -- that free-wheeling swooping melody wins me over, especially in those lyrically sinuous bridges. First he tunes into the natural world: "All the birds of the air call your name / As they land on my kitchen roof / All the fish in the lake do the same / Should you need extra proof."

And in the second bridge, the ties to his music are even clearer: "All the lights of the cars in the town / Form the strings of a big guitar / I'm a giant to play you a tune / For wherever you are." 

He's like Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels, a giant striding the world, He's feeling strong enough to take on the Devil; he's invincible.  Ah, yes, it's love -- her love -- that makes him so happy that's he's almost stupid. (Which is a very different thing from feeling happy only because he is stupid.) 

The final word comes from Andy Partridge himself:  "The dumbest but happiest song I ever wrote. I found the one riff that Keith Richard hadn't. Hopefully says in music what the singer (me) experiences. I'm in love and in a happy groove."

That clinches it for me.  I'll vote for happy.

Monday, October 17, 2016

W Is For . . .

26 artists, A to Z. Coming into the home stretch...

The Wood Brothers / "Sing About It"

There's something about the double-bass that I've always loved. (Remember that scene from the classic movie Some Like It Hot?

Any track that starts with a lone stand-up bass is a good track in my book. Herewith, this funk-grooved track from the Wood Brothers'  2013 album The Muse. 

Steeped in roots music throughout their Colorado childhood, for a while Chris and Oliver Wood took very different paths -- bassist Chris went off to conservatory and founded the avant-garde jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, while Oliver headed to Atlanta and became the guitarist/lead singer in the R&B/funk/country band King Johnson. But some sort of gravity brought them back together in 2006, and they've been recording as a trio with the very talented multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix. I love how these guys, now based in Nashville (because why not?), meld all their influences -- jazz, bluegrass, gospel, folk, the whole damn American songbook bag -- into a souffle of soulful joy. 

Once the bass has laid down that groove, the other sounds layer in, yet there's a simple clarity to this song. It's gospel call-and-response, with a range of questions -- "If you get worried," "If you get lost," "If you get broken" -- to which the only answer is, over and over, "What you ought to do is sing."

Amen to that. If you love music, singing your heart out IS the key to everything.

In the bridge, Oliver's raspy Americana voice flings itself on the altar, declaring, "Sing about joy / Sing about love and hopin' it lasts / Sing about your trouble / And it just might pass." But what really makes it work? The other guys chiming in, their harmonies lifting each phrase, resolving the chords into a corduroyed sort of richness. Because none of us do this alone.

This trio has such musical chops, but what makes them special is something else, something that can't be faked: They've got heart. Please please please PLEASE check out more of their music. It's crazy good.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

V Is For...

26 artists, A to Z.

Vampire Weekend / "Unbelievers"

I dig these kids. I'm sad that they're currently on hiatus, now that multi-instrumental whiz Bastam Batmanglij has left to pursue solo projects (though he says he's still going to collaborate on the songwriting.) While we await new material, here's a gem from their third album, 2013's Modern Vampires of the City.

There's such a great pop groove underlying this track, the tempo ticking along, the arrangement bright and major key upbeat. Yes, it's a disquisition on religious faith (c'mon, Vampire Weekend met at Columbia University; let's just assume they have done their homework), but it's also a celebration of being open-minded and curious. While it rejects dogma -- "Girl, you and I will die unbelievers / Bound to the tracks of the train" -- it also acknowledges the need for something, because "The world is a cold, cold place to be."

Like most of his generation, the singer -- who is and isn't frontman Ezra Koenig -- is not 100% convinced: "If I'm born again [such a loaded term] / I know that the world will disagree / Want a little grace, but who's gonna say a little grace for me." In point of fact he's longing for a taste of redemption: "What holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?"

Well, we all have our paths to forge. I myself am a committed Christian, and I detect a hunger here for something transcendent, something that will make sense of the whole shebang. At the same time, I can sympathize with the singer's skepticism: "Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?" As Ezra explained in an interview with NME: "It doesn't matter how fervently you believe in your faith, there's always going to be another faith that calls you an unbeliever." You're literally damned if you do and damned if you don't.

And in our multi-cultural world, it just could be the unbelievers that have the key to it all.

Friday, October 14, 2016

U Is For....

26 artists, A to Z. 

Unit 4 + 2 /  "Concrete and Clay"

Ever heard of this band? Possibly not, but you might recognize the track – it hit Number One in the UK for one week in 1965 (and a respectable #28 in the US). If not an underground hit, this was at least an offshore hit, one of the first of many otherwise obscure singles vaulted onto the charts by the pirate radio stations that anchored in offshore British waters to defy the BBC’s stranglehold. (If you haven't seen the movie Pirate Radio, you must.)

Originally a quartet called Unit Four, they became Unit Four + 2 when two more guys joined the group. (Duh.) After their first two singles bombed, they hired two ringers – guitarist Russ Ballard and drummer Bob Henrit, who'd played in earlier bands with 4+2 founder Brian Parker and guitarist Buster Meikle. (Ballard and Henrit were Zeligs of British rock; they were later in Argent, with Zombies organist Rod Argent, and Henrit was also in the mid-80s Kinks.) That was a brilliant move, for it was their contributions that made this song.

Dig that syncopated intro, just a cowbell and triangle, like footsteps ringing along a pavement. Henrit's percussion proceeds to lay down a distinctive, twitchy bossa nova rhythm; then a guitar jumps in, skittering up and down the scale with Spanish-style fingering -- Russ Ballard’s handiwork. Four measures and I’m dancing already.

There's a nifty sort of call-and-response thing going on too, as the verse alternates between the lead singer and the back-ups,  their punchy baritones punctuated by his sweet legato tenor: “You to me / Are sweet as roses in the morning / You to me / Are soft as summer rain at dawn / In love we share / That something rare.” How sappy that love poem imagery would sound, if it weren’t for that catchy beat.

The chorus is standard folk music stuff, with swelling Seekers-like harmonies and the usual imagery (urban v. nature, close-up v. panorama, the transient v. the eternal): “The sidewalk in the street / The concrete and the clay beneath my feet / Begins to crumble / But love will never die / Because we’ll see the mountains tumble / Before we say goodbye.” Then it morphs into a tender Bobby Vinton vein -- “My love and I / Will be / in love eternally” -- with the back-ups’ swooning ooohs. But that chunky rhythm saves it, yoking together all these different musical modes, infusing them with that happy, irresistible beat.

Unfortunately, lightning never struck again. Their follow-up single, “You’ve Never Been In Love Like This Before,” barely charted in the U.S.; the mountains are still standing, but Unit 4 + 2 vanished into the mists of time. They’ve left this footprint, though, and it’s a gem.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

T Is For...

26 artists, A to Z. Could be anybody, right? But when push comes to shove...

 Talking Heads / "Once in a Lifetime"

These are the questions I ask myself every day.

By the time this track came out -- it was the lead-off track of Side 2 on 1980's Remain in Light LP -- the Talking Heads had evolved from the herky-jerky nerds I first saw a year earlier at the Mudd Club and Central Park. Yes, the lyrics were still cryptic and not a little weird; yes, the production values were still stripped-down. But a world-music polyphonic groove had been added to the mix, and David Byrne's half-strangulated vocals now floated over a quite serious groove.

What makes this a great track -- and it is a truly great track -- is how these brainy New Wavers captured the seismic generational shift going on. Byrne, in an almost robotic monotone, marvels "And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile / And you may find yourself in a beautiful house / With a beautiful wife." Yeah, for an earlier generation that was the dream, but for our generation that was so explicitly NOT the dream. And yet and yet and yet...

"And you may ask yourself / did I get here?" HOW INDEED?

In contrast the choruses are legato, deeply grooved, and copasetic. He's "letting the days go by," with water flowing underground, erasing all contradictions. That sinuous rhythm ticks on, lifting everything, like the water dissolving whatever stands in its path. Overlapping motifs interweave, keeping it all blessedly fluid.

But questions and conflicts remain. In verse 2 he's still stressed out, questioning "How do I work this?" and denying the very existence of his supposed assets -- that beautiful house, that beautiful wife.

There we were, my generation, committed to doing things differently and yet now seduced by the trappings of material comfort. It wasn't a choice we could easily resolve, which is why the song rattles on and on, the water flowing underground. But in the long run, the line that hammers home is "Same as it ever was / Same as it ever was / Same as it ever was..." Because we baby boomers thought we'd changed the world, and yet -- did we?

And here were these art-school nerds, calling our bluff.