Friday, June 24, 2016

"Shangri-La" / The Kinks

In the wake of the Brexit vote...

I'm a Kinks fan, and will be until the day I die. So when the Davies brothers' country does something so weird, so inexplicable, I can't help but turn to their vast catalog of songs to figure it all out. 

And this gem, from September 1969, leapt into my mind this morning, as soon as I learned of the Brexit result. Because how else can we understand the middle-class-(or-aspiring) Englishman whose home is his castle? 

These late 1960s Kinks satires of English life -- these were the songs, much more than the power chord hits ("You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night") that made a Kinks fan of me. From the barbed comedy of "Well-Respected Man" (1965) to the ambivalently sympathetic "Autumn Almanac" (1967), singer/songwriter Ray Davies saw all too well how England's class system was playing out in real time. 

And if you look at the map of who voted to stay in the European Union, and who voted to leave -- well, it pretty much plays along class lines.

Granted, I'm not sure that "Shangri-La" -- from the enormously underrated concept album Arthur -- even qualifies as satire. The melancholy minor-key melody sets us up for something entirely different. That first verse is unbearably poignant: "Now that you've found your paradise / This is your kingdom to command / You can go outside and polish your car / Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-La." This isn't just some snide put-down of middle-class complacency -- though there's surely a strain of that in there -- it's also an epiphany about the moment when one's dreams ring hollow. "Here's your reward for working so hard / Gone are the lavatories in the back yard / Gone are the days when you dreamed of that car / You just want to sit in your Shangri-La." I love that detail about the lavatories -- talk about fixing a cultural reference in one sharp stroke.

And I think of young pop star Ray Davies, living with his wife and kids in a mansionette in North London, inextricably severed from his working-class roots and still not feeling ready to join the upper class that he'd been taught since childhood to abhor. (Never mind that his posho managers hadn't managed to get him his fair share of songwriting royalties -- forcing him to file a lawsuit that's apparently still a landmark case in British law.)

Oh, the satire comes stealing in in the later verses, as Ray describes the "little man" catching his commuter train and fretting over his mortgage; it's a pathetic trade-off, on a time-installment plan: "Got a TV set and a radio / For seven shillings a week." Then Ray pans out, almost cinematically, for the wide-angle view:  "And all the houses in the street have got a name / 'Cos all the houses in the street they look the same ' Same chimney pots, same little cars, same window panes" -- that's such a resonant observation, about the English penchant for giving their houses cutesy names, even in a cookie-cutter development. It's details like that that make Ray Davies one of our greatest living songwriters.

Eventually Ray does dismiss the character as "Too scared to think about how insecure you are / Life ain't so happy in your little Shangri-La." But I don't know -- I still think he's identifying with him, and more than a little bit. Because it's the poignancy of the first verses that stays with me, in the end.

And here's the Brexit paradox: People who aren't happy with their tiny slice of the pie honestly do think that by building a wall they can make their pie bigger. 

Which, alas -- those of us who have studied economics know -- is just not the case. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Summer Shuffle June 2016

First of all, I'm freaked out that it's 2016. But I'm moving past that, truly. And offering a panoply of tunes to make your June celebratory to the nth degree. 

1. I'm On an Island / The Kinks
From Kink Kontroversy (1965)
Oh, my man Ray Davies, the presiding genius behind the Kinks. And here, even as early as 1965, he was sectioning off the experiences.  I've heard that he will only ever sing this song on Iceland, the island for which he wrote this tune. Damn, I have a whole cabinet of Icelandic experiences, but Lord if I don't want to go to Iceland ONLY to hear Ray sing it.

2. Wake Up / Alan Price
From Rising Sun (1980)
Alan, you'll never know how much of my life was devoted to chasing you down, But here's a taste -- and a pretty good tune to connect to your iPhone alarm.

3. Man in the Bottom of the Well / Bill Kirchen with Elvis Costello
From Word to the Wise (2010)
Elvis, Nick, Bill. Need I say more? I cannot help but dig those majestic riffs, climbing out of the depths of whatevs..

4. Mondays / Killer Tuesday / Black Uhuru
From Liberation: The Island Anthology (1993)
I do love the random logic of the shuffle. Because how else would we get this exTREMEly copasetic track, which does go on and on, but hey, what else did you have to do with your time?

5. I Swear I Saw Christopher Reeve / Jill Sobule   
From Dottie's Charms (2014)
A Midwestern interlude, courtesy of my girl Jill. Who seriously I just. I've never been there but I know the place like the back of my hand. Check it out.

6. Staten Island Baby / Black 47
How much do we love Larry Kirwan's celebration of the Irish-American  experience?

7. Islands in the Stream /Bonnie Raitt and Nick Lowe
Oh, Bonnie my girl. I so love you. And yet -- you sang this with Nick? I can't even.

8. Birds in Perspex Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
Quirky -- yeah, that's the RH thing.

9. Fire Island / Fountains of Wayne
How much do I love this deeply resonant, yet laidback track? This sums up summer to me.

10. House of the Rising Sun / The Animals
Lord. So much began here. Honor paid to Eric Burdon's iconic voice, but also to the rest of the Animals (including oh yes my hero Alan Price.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

RIP Guy Clark 1941-2016

"Mud" / Guy Clark

Honestly, I'm so distressed by the number of obituary posts I've have to put up this year, I couldn't make myself do another one, not even for Guy Clark. But I do/did love Guy Clark. In the end, I just had write something.

When I drove out to the depths of Long Island that winter night in 2006, I had no idea who Guy Clark was.  I was there to see John Hiatt; the other guys in the Songwriter's Circle were unknown quantities to me. (Well, I knew who Lyle Lovett was, but only because of his oddball acting role in The Player.)  A massive snowstorm had all but shut down the Long Island Expressway. I'm still not sure why I persevered and drove out there.

But man, am I glad I did.

Hiatt was fabulous, of course, as always.  Lyle Lovett was a downright revelation (more on that another time.)  Joe Ely was a find indeed.  But mostly, as I left, I was simply astonished that I'd never known Guy Clark's music -- and I needed to hear more of it.

And of all the songs he sang that night, this one transfixed me most.

Yeah, it seems simple. But it's deceptively so, like most of Guy Clark's songs. For in fact these are songs that traffic in the profound; these are songs about Life with a capital L. (It's no surprise that so many of his country/folk/Texas peers felt moved to contribute to the tribute album This One's for Him.)

Like the best magicians, he's all about misdirection. Oh, yes, he oh-so-casually gives us the river mud, waylaying us with specific details: green-backed herons, water moccasins, the way water dapples between reeds. He focuses us on the here and now, the way mud squishes up between your toes. (Can't you just feel that?)

And in the chorus, he hauls up a host of simplistic mud-based cliches -- "mud pie, mud in your eye." Oh, sure, it's all just about getting a little dirty. "Take a little rain, take a little dirt / Make a little mud, get it on your shirt."

But in the third verse, he deftly cuts a chink into metaphor territory: "Now when I die please bury me down by the this old muddy creek / Let the crawfish have their way / It's mud to mud and that's okay." Technically, the liturgical language isn't "mud to mud" but "ashes to ashes" -- but it's close enoughAnd for good measure--just in case theology isn't your thing--he throws all of us good Darwinians a bone: "We all just crawled out of the mud." 

The key to this song isn't the lines Guy sings, it's the lines he song-speaks. At the end of verse one, "Life and death just dancin' around in the mud." Verse two: "You got to get it between your toes, the mud." And at the end of the song: "We're all just sloggin' through the mud."

Because here's the Gospel According to Guy Clark: Life is about engaging with people, engaging with sorrow, engaging with failure, engaging with reality. Taking a hit, taking a loss. It ain't pretty, but it's real. And if you're not wading into it, you're not fully alive.

Amen, Guy. And godspeed.

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!