Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"Life During Wartime" / The Talking Heads

Are we having fun yet?

The other day in a grocery store, frantically trying to assemble a pantry of shelf-stable food for riding out whatever self-quarantine might be in the offing, I scooped three jars of peanut butter into my cart -- and I heard in the back of my mind, "I got some groceries / Some peanut butter / To last a couple of days." In these troubling times, I'm in no mood for either dirges or upbeat diversions -- but a little apocalyptic swamp funk is just the ticket. 
In 1979, I'd been a Talking Heads fan for a couple of years already, entranced by the spare art-school weirdness of their first two albums. The sound of Fear of Music, however, was a shock: a funky poly-rhythmic base overlaid with chanting call-and-response vocals, horns and percussion layering on levels of cacophony. On first listen, I was baffled. By the third or fourth listen, though, I was enraptured by it, and now it just might be my favorite Talking Heads album. (Note to kids streaming music: You can't always "get it" on the first listen.)
  
And from the first, this track stood out. David Byrne, the Talking Head's front man, said it was "inspired by living in Alphabet City" (the then-grubby, shell-shocked Lower East Side), and as a newly arrived New Yorker, I knew those scruffy clubs he name-checked ("This ain't no Mudd Club / Or CBGBs"). But beyond that, the song's undertow of domestic terrorism had to resonate with any of us who'd grown up in the turmoil of the late 60s and 70s: civil rights protests, antiwar riots, ugly waves of urban violence. The bleak dystopia of this song made perfect sense, as we howled that indelible refrain: "This ain't no party / This ain't no disco / This ain't no fooling around!"

Indeed, indeed.

Listening to it now, in these haunted pandemic days, it seems weirdly prophetic. It's a survivalist's bible ("Heard of a van / That's loaded with weapons / Packed up and ready to go") for a time where communications are breaking down ("Transmit the message / to the receiver / Hope for an answer") and paranoia runs rampant ("I got three passports / a couple of visas, / You don't even know my real name"). And for those of us who can't wean ourselves from the nightly news or Facebook, the drumbeat of crisis keeps us all too well informed of the disease's spread ("Heard about Houston? / Heard about Detroit? / Heard about Pittsburgh, P. A.?").

With all this disaster looming, what's the point in making any effort, in laying any plans? "Why stay in college? Why go to night school?" he asks, and even though I have those degrees already in hand, I'm pretty sure they mean nothing now. (A year later, the American Dream would be further eviscerated in the Talking Heads' song "Once in a Lifetime".) No, the enemy is among us and we are it. "We dress like students, / we dress like housewives, / Or in a suit and a tie / I changed my hairstyle, so many times now, / I don't know what I look like!" (That last line does make me laugh now, thinking of all the women in lockdown who will finally discover how gray their hair really is under all those years of salon color.)

"Burned all my notebooks, / what good are notebooks? / They won't help me survive," Byrne sings, riding the crest of that relentless yet hypnotic rhythm track. "My chest is aching, / Burns like a furnace, / The burning keeps me alive..."

 Yes, yes, and yes. Stay well, friends.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

"Let's Face the Music and Dance" / Nat King Cole


This track is haunting me everywhere -- in Amazon Prime grocery commercials, in an episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as the theme song for the UK mockumentary series Twenty Twelve (starring Hugh Bonneville, about a hapless team staging the 2012 London Olympics). And it resonates deep with me; when I was a kid, my mom was a huge Nat King Cole fan, and I'm betting we had this album (Let's Face the Music, released in 1964 but recorded in 1961).

It's originally an Irving Berlin song, featured in the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Follow the Fleet. Here's that version:


Schmaltzy, eh? But here's how Nat King Cole tweaked it:


The tempo's brisk, just this side of breathless, dancing in and out of minor and major keys, as if the singer is tap dancing to save his life. He knows all too well that he's on a knife edge ("There may be trouble ahead") but he's determined to steal what pleasure he can before things go down: "But while there's music and moonlight and love and romance / Let's face the music and dance." In Astaire's hands, that's a gallant romantic invitation, but from Cole, it feels like he's looking over his shoulder, snatching love before the cops close in (or the thug you owe money to, or the white-hooded racists, or the ICBMs with their lethal payloads). The warm snaggy intimacy of Cole's vocals pulls us in, makes us complicit in his quest to escape. The clock is ticking, and he's a man on fire.

Loss and retribution hang over this song like a sword of Damocles. The fiddlers may soon ask us to pay the bill, the moon may abscond and leave us with teardrops to shed. It puts the notion of carpe diem -- live for the moment -- in an entirely new and darker light. The verses are in minor key, yet the melodic lines climb upward, fighting for a chance. And though that bridge shifts into major key, its message is if anything more desperate  -- "soon, we'll be without the moon / Singing a different tune / And then..."

Berlin's song must have resonated differently in 1936, in the depths of the Depression, with escapism and denial the order of the day. Armed with a top hat and tails, Fred Astaire could valiantly ignore the Crash and savor a few more champagne cocktails. In 1961, however, when Cole reprised it, McCarthyism was only just in the rearview mirror, with the Cold War icing up and the great civil rights battle gathering steam. The "trouble ahead" haunts Cole's version way more than it did Astaire's, and dancing in the face of it is a brave, beautiful, but ultimately futile act.

The great songwriters always put more layers into their songs than they realized, and Nat King Cole's reinvention of Irving Berlin's 1930s dance number just may reveal Berlin's genius all the more. Maybe, the black artist who'd fought the music business's rigged system was the only person who could really dig into the darkness felt by an immigrant whose family had escaped Russian pogroms to find freedom in America.

And in a political moment where all our decisions seem freighted with fear --  this may not be the worst anthem for facing the future, whatever it may entail.

Monday, January 13, 2020

"(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" / Brinsley Schwarz

Shopping in Trader Joe's yesterday, I wasn't paying much attention to the muzak. Why should I? And when this song came on, I immediately assumed it was Elvis Costello's cover of this Nick-Lowe-penned tune on Elvis' 1979 album Armed Forces. After all, that's the version most people know.

But no, as I pushed my cart around, listening intently, it was clearly not Elvis singing. The tempo was a tick slower, the guitars a tad twangier. And listening to the phrasing and intonations, I was more and more certain: This was the Brinsleys' 1974 version.


I'm willing to bet that I was the only person in that crowded Trader Joe's who could tell the difference, or who cared. And, PS, I completely forget to get the avocados I meant to buy, I was so transported.

Quite possibly the muzak provider opted for the Brinsleys' version because it was cheaper. By the time Elvis covered this song, the Brinsleys were on their last legs, and anyway the band had never thought much of this number. (To be honest, Nick Lowe himself thought of it as a throwaway satire on hippie culture.) But EC's resurrection of the song proved prescient, and in the decades since then, the song has shown surprising legs as an anti-war anthem.

And -- in the who-laughs-last category -- Curtis Stigers' 1992 cover of this song for the movie The Bodyguard earned so many $$$ in royalties, Nick Lowe could go ahead and make any number of gorgeous albums he might not otherwise have made.

For this alone I am grateful.

So where are the strong? And who are the trusted? And where is the harmony (sweet harmony)?

Right here, my brothers and sisters...


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

"Thanksgiving Day"/ Ray Davies

I'd like to think that Ray Davies did this on purpose -- sat down and thought, "What holiday doesn't yet have too many songs written about it?" And when he realized how few Thanksgiving songs there are, he decided to write one, hoping for that late November airplay.

I'm not much of a radio listener, so I don't know whether his stratagem worked. But I do know that this has become my go-to song for the Thursday before Black Friday.


But trust Ray Davies not to slack off, to keep at it until that song had some meat on its bones. And of course, as he homed in on the holiday, he just couldn't help himself: Instead of going all sentimental, which would have been the obvious easy choice, instead he made it about loners and misfits -- the universe Ray understands best -- struggling to find their home against all odds.  The feast they find isn't Hallmark-perfect -- no Martha Stewart perfection, no Instagram fantasy -- but it's what they need.

If you want to know more, here's what I wrote about this song a few years ago.

But maybe it's enough just to listen. Having just come back from a four-day Kinks trip to London (of which more soon), for now I'm happy to let his songs simply melt into my consciousness.  

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

"Keep It To Yourself"

Amy Rigby/Marti Jones

Well, here's a tale. I was in the gym the other day, dialing up my Latin Groove playlist to accompany my stationary bike ride, when this song cycled up (no pun intended). I thought to myself, "Oh, hello, I never noticed before how sly this song is, pairing that langorous bossa nova beat with such deliciously nasty female snark. This just has to be Amy Rigby, right?" So I fumbled with the damn iPod holster, dropped it, accidentally fast-forwarded, yadda yadda yadda, only to finally read on the playlist that this was a track by the lovely Marti Jones, from her delectable 2014 album You're Not the Bossa Me. 

Which, by the way, I highly recommend.* 

But I digress. As it happens, I downloaded my version of You're Not the Bossa Me, and my music library therefore doesn't show composer info. (GRRRrrr....). No biggie, I guess, to the kids. But it kept nagging me. I knew that Marti's album came to my attention in the first place because the wonderful songwriter Bill DeMain had co-written some tracks on it, and I began to suspect he'd had a hand in this track, too. I just had to know.

And when I reached out to Bill, he confirmed that, yes, he'd co-written "Keep It to Yourself" . . . with none other than Amy Rigby. 

Go figure.



 Amy's version, a demo track, only appeared on her 2002 anthology album 18 Again -- and I'll confess, I have that album, I've got that track in my library, I should have recognized it immediately. Mea culpa. But the good news is that this made me appreciate this wicked little song all over again.

The premise is dead simple, laid down in verse one. She's got a new boyfriend -- a good one this time -- and, to prove his fealty, he's tilting at her windmills. "You say you'd like to kill the man who broke my heart," she starts out, sounding oh so modest, dismissing the idea. ("Me I'm trying so hard to forgive...")

But then comes the about face, the pivot point: Almost shyly (there's the gift of the bossa nova), she just kinda sorta mentions, "But here's his address / Here's his picture / Here's the make and model of his car." Nothing like fingering a perp. And she off-handedly supplies additional info, "He works until four-thirty / Then he hangs out at the topless bar." And with a rueful duck of the head, she adds, "With a girl on each arm / If he should come to harm -- "  The bossa beat kicks in for a pregnant pause pause, before she exhales, "Just keep it to yourself...."

I won't give away any more of the plot -- it unspools like Double Indemnity. It's a perfect storm of wit, snark, and musical style, and it makes me laugh every single time I hear it. No matter who sings it.

 * As you might be able to guess from that title, everything on this album has a bossa nova beat. Latin music 101: Bossa nova was a late 1950s-early1960s reinvention of samba, making things smoother, more chic, more palatable to PanAm sophisticates. It made samba ripe for crossover, and in the early 60s lots of UK and US artists tested the bossa nova waters -- see the Kinks "No Return" or the Beatles' version of "Till There Was You").

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Drive, She Said

"Undun" / Guess Who

Sometimes, you know, you're just in a car, styling down a highway, long trip, looking for an audio groove that'll match your driving groove. And then this thing dials up and it's such a trifecta of sounds: jazzy, mellow, yet anguished. And you tune in and think -- damn, that's one fine track.

She's Come Undun 

I realize that I have no sense of who Guess Who "is" -- Wikipedia confuses me with all the iterations of this band, with its constantly changing personnel. Some names I recognize -- Randy Bachman, who wrote this song (later to be part of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, not that I know their songs any better), and Burton Cummings, who was Guess Who's front man on this 1969 track. But after them it was a rotating cast that never seemed to add up to much.
 
And maybe because the talent was always changing, their sound was all over the place, at least from the few singles I knew. "These Eyes" sounds a bit like "Undun," but "American Woman"? "No Sugar Tonight"? Or how about their later semi-hit "Clap for the Wolfman"?

Not sure why this should matter -- shouldn't we admire bands with variety and range? But for this band, it feels as if the center doesn't hold.

Yet on this one track, all the stars must have been aligned. I love the flowing samba line of the verses, then how it pivots into something darker (almost a jazz tango) in the abrupt syncopations of the chorus: "It's too late/ She's gone too far/ She's lost the sun" -- hold it, hold it, that wicked pause . . . . and then, diving back into the verse, "She's come undun." Shout out, by the way, to the percussion, which underscores all this, tripping lightly in the verses, then laying down whiplashes in the chorus. And dig that flute solo in the break -- Cummings, apparently, who knew?

I like, too, how the verses deepen. At first, the girl seems reckless, shooting too high, going off course. But in verse three, we learn it's not her fault: "She wanted truth and all she got was lies." It's quite possible the songwriters just ran out of convenient tropes, but for me, that verse rescues the song. The girl's no longer at fault, the world is.

This song is full of questions, which is one of the things I love about it. Yeah, I know, that could just be sloppy songwriting, but as a listener I'm hooked. Who's singing this song, and what's his relation to the girl? (If he's a boyfriend, he's an ex, I imagine, regretting that he couldn't save her. It's just as likely a brother or a friend.) What is this "sun" she's lost? (Her sanity? Her faith? [Bachman was a Mormon].)

And most important, what does "undun" mean? As a spelling person, for years I was bugged by this song title (HOW HARD WOULD IT HAVE BEEN TO SPELL IT "UNDONE"?!) and I still can't quite buy into the deliberate misspelling. But that obscures the question: Is this about a runaway, a bad acid trip, a nervous breakdown, a suicide? The darkness of the choruses, plus Cummings' heartfelt wail on the last "She's come undun" makes me fear the worst.

I've been listening to this song for (on and off) 50 years and I still haven't solved it. Which is a good thing.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Juliet, Naked

Okay, I finally saw it. (Pay per view alert!) I can't even explain why it took me so long, considering how absolutely this film dovetails with everything I'm about. But a few thoughts:

1. Nick Hornsby is my favorite living writer. I'm not claiming he's the greatest literary talent or anything like that, but everything this man writes makes utter and perfect sense to me. This blog owes its existence to his book Song Book; I've read everything he's published. And of all his novels, Juliet, Naked is quite possibly my favorite. (Notice how I hedge my bets, because, jeez, I love everything he's done.) Nick, if by any chance this blog post surfaces on your feed -- please do let me know. I promise I won't get weird.

2. Kinks world lives.  Casually, walking through Waterloo Station, a snippet of dialogue -- a throwaway, really, if you didn't know better -- mentions that the station is a big deal if you're a Kinks fan (KAPOW).  Later, Ethan Hawke performs "Waterloo Sunset" at a local gig, and it's almost unbearably beautiful.

3. Chris O'Dowd is so underated. So many of us have connected via fan websites; O'Dowd plays a superfan we can all identify with. I love how his passion for the music, versus his cluelessness in life, is so delicately delineated. His face registers all the nuances of a response to music that is heartfelt and yet, hell, totally beside the point. Except okay, but whoa . . .

4. And the songs? If you're gonna do a movie about an elusive rock talent, you gotta line up some quirky folks to write his songs. Monsters of Folk's Conor Oberst and M. Ward, Robyn Hitchcock, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy-- I've written about them all over the years. Click on their links in the column to the right.  This film totally gets the music right, which buys it major cred.

5. Okay, now I get Ethan Hawke. He started out so young, and so beautiful (really, those cheekbones are so unfair), I never thought much of him. It wasn't until I saw Boyhood  a couple years back that I realized he is actually an actor of a very high degree. Here he's playing a grizzled, washed-up musician who dropped out of the biz and disappeared 30 years ago, inadvertently gaining a cult following. He's a mess of a human being, and Hawke plays it to the core, never making excuses for him. All right, Ethan, now I officially forgive you for Great Expectations.

6. Gotta stand and face it -- life is so complicated. One of the things I most love about Nick Hornsby's novels is that there are no pat solutions -- lost loves lead to new opportunities, and we all pick up our sorrows and move on. I love how this film doesn't settle for a cheesy plot resolution, but still leaves us encouraged for the next chapter. Viva life!