Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"What's Shakin' On The Hill" /
Nick Lowe

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, NICK LOWE!

Ah, Nick Lowe . . . one of the great musical loves of my life.

Much is made of Nick Lowe's comeback "trilogy" (they've actually been repackaged as a box set called The Brentford Trilogy), which includes The Impossible Bird (1994), Dig My Mood (1998), and The Convincer (2004). But in my humble opinion, the comeback really began with 1989's Party of One, where he first began to move into the more subtle, wry, laidback groove that's been his territory ever since.

It's hard for me to believe that "What's Shakin' On the Hill" was written 20 years ago. Nick still sings it in concert (along with the priceless "All Men Are Liars," also from this album), and it doesn't sound one bit dated -- although truth to tell it never sounded like an 80s song to begin with. That simple opening riff -- a series of descending thirds, falling lazily just behind the beat -- eases us into the song like a stroll down a country road.


He invites us into a pastoral scene -- "There's a cool wind blowin' in the sound of happy people" (that internal rhyme of "wind" and "blowin' in" swings us along). Curious, we move toward that sound, already picturing the venue: "At a party given for the gay and debonair." He adds more details, in shorter scraps of lines: "There's an organ blowing in the breeze / For the dancers hid behind the trees" -- just offstage, so tantalizing. But then comes the cruel reality, as the last two lines descend with a sort of sigh, resolving the melody: "And I ain't never gonna see / What's shakin' on the hill."

So why not? I'm dying to know. He's brought us so close, only to snatch it away. In verse two he explains himself, ruefully: "That I someday may be joining in / Is just wishful thinking / Cause admission's only guaranteed / To favored few." And Nick, apparently -- in his classic role as the wistful loser -- isn't on that guest list.

In the bridge, he owns up to the truth: "I'm too blue to be played with / And I get heartaches / So they tell me, 'No dice'." (The casual cruelty of that "no dice" -- what a slap in the face!) If he were younger, he might blame a girl, but he's old enough by now to admit it's his own melancholy temperament at fault. (Music for Grown-Ups alert!) Like Ray Davies in "Waterloo Sunset," he's forever on the outside, a mere observer of life.

With a defensive shrug, he notes, "It isn't allowed / In that carefree crowd / To be seen with tears in your eyes." Well, as soon as Nick tells me that, I realize I don't want to be with that carefree crowd either. Bunch of shallow hedonists. The "gay and debonair" -- HA! No, I want to be outside with Nick, "Kicking cans 'round / While that happy sound / Keeps cracking on." That image of the lonely kid kicking cans around -- how that wrings my heart.

But self-pity's not on the agenda tonight. Stuck outside in the shadows, he confesses, "Though I long so strong to be inside / With the blues is where I do reside," letting the melody crest upwards on "where I do reside." And after the instrumental break and one last go of the chorus, he peters out, muttering "what's shakin'" over and over. He can't quite tear himself away, no matter how resigned he is to his fate.

He doesn't need a lot of details to conjure up the scene -- golden lights gleaming through the trees, shadows pooled around parked cars, an empty roadway gleaming pale in the moonlight. The far-off clink of glasses and ripples of disembodied laughter. And somehow, we know that it's not just a party he's missing -- that hill could represent social acceptance, career success, critical acclaim, domestic happiness, religious faith, whatever.

What kills me is the light touch of this song -- the liting jazzy tempo, the major key, the skipalong melody. (It's really at its best sung solo and acoustic.) He's not slamming against that barred door, nor curdled with bitterness, nor drowning in woe. He's accepted his place on the sidelines of life, though he still feels twinges of envy and regret. It's goddamn Keatsian, that's what it is, delicately maintaining a fragile equipoise between love and loss, between sorrow and acceptance, between now and then and someday.

Or maybe it's just a pop song, you daft fangirl you. Well, that too.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Sad news today of the death of Michael Brown, songwriter for the brilliant 1960s band The Left Banke.  A good time to repost this piece . . . .
 
“Walk Away Renee” /
The Left Banke
I’ve really been poking around in my mental music vault a lot lately – I don’t know why – and I keep coming back to this 1966 single by the shoulda-been-bigger band The Left Banke. (Extra letters tacked onto words in a band name are a sure marker of the 60s.) I owned this 45 years ago, and played it to death. It was just the sort of song that an adolescent girl would moon over, a classic expression of tremulous young love.

Now I find out that the song was written by the band’s keyboard player, Michael Brown, who was only 16 at the time – and it was written about the bassist’s girlfriend, Renée, on whom Brown had a giant unrequited crush. So that’s why it captures so perfectly the whiny anguish of love lost! Brown apparently also wrote my other favorite Left Banke number, “Pretty Ballerina,” about Renée. (I guess we can assume that the bassist knew Brown longed to cut in on his girl.) The story goes that Brown was about to record his harpsichord part when Renée herself walked into the studio, and his hands shook so badly, he couldn’t play. I love that story.


Using a girl’s name in the title was no doubt inspired by the Beatles’ similarly yearning hit, “Michelle,” just as the classical touches in the arrangement came out of “Yesterday” (though the flute in the middle also reminds me of “California Dreamin’,” another recent hit record at the time). It’s very much a song of its time – and yet it’s timeless, too, all that angsty emotion. It still chokes me up.

The odd thing, when you realize it, is that the singer isn’t begging her to come back – in the chorus, he’s not saying “Don’t walk away, Renée,” he’s saying “Just walk away, Renée / You won’t see me follow you back home.” This unrequited love is too much for him to bear, and he needs out of it -- there’s passion for you. Without any details, these lines somehow summon up a vivid scene; I can just see the girl’s back as she walks away. We’ve all watched someone we love walk away like that. We know how it rips your heart out.

But for a 16-year-old, Brown pretty shrewdly pinned down the life-altering power of this emotion: “And when I see the sign / It points one way / The life we used to lead / Everyday.” There’s no going back, is there? “The empty sidewalks on my block / They're not the same” (though he does cut her a break, adding “You're not to blame”). Here’s my favorite verse: “Your name and mine inside / A heart on a wall / Still finds a way to haunt me / Though they're so small.” Was there ever a sweeter lyric about lover’s graffiti?

So we leave poor Mike Brown, fumbling blindly on his harpsichord, “Now as the rain beats down / Upon my weary eyes / For me I cry.” Yeah, that’s it, that’s the perfect note of self-pity. You nailed it, man.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Living in America" / Black 47

I'm feeling the St. Paddy's Day love.  I've been swamped with editing the very excellent Frommer's guide to Ireland non-stop (deadlines, deadlines) and my daughter just flew over to Dublin to visit some friends (who convinced her that the iconic St-Patricks-Day-in-Dublin experience was best viewed on TV, to avoid the crowds. Hunh?). This summer we'll all be going over to Cork when she does another summer program over there. Erin go bragh!

But for the moment, all I have is the estimable Larry Kirwan and his Celtic rock/bar band Black 47, who distill it all through the perspective of the Irish diaspora living in New York.  I think of all the Irish nannies and firefighters I've known through the years, and this is about as astute a piece of social commentary as you'll ever hear.


 
Granted, this song came out in 1993 (on their Fire of Freedom album) before the Celtic Tiger years lured so many ex-pat Paddies back to the emerald isle. And then it all went south in 2008, and . . . well, the Irish have always had a knack for surviving hardship. They've done it before and they'll do it again.
 
"And it's mammy, dear / We're all mad over here" -- how perfectly Kirwan catches the tone of desperation and crazy humor. Background: Kirwan is from County Wexford, though the band's co-founder Chris Byrne is from Brooklyn. Formed in 1989, the band is now officially disbanded, but their smart, politically engaged, totally danceable music will live on and on.
 
May the road rise under your feet et cetera.....
 
 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

So I Got to Thinking About This Album . . .

Bridge Over Troubled Water /
Simon and Garfunkel

Sometimes late at night this is the album I most want to hear.  Because when it first came out, in 1970, I was just getting old enough not to have a set bedtime; I could sit in my darkened bedroom next to my fold-up stereo listening intently to this record after midnight.  I'd been an S&G fan since Wednesday Morning 3 AM  and knew every note of edgy, arty Bookends by heart.  Bridge Over Troubled Water was pushing the envelope a bit -- what was with those panflutes on "El Condor Pasa"? -- but it seemed a no-brainer to me to study this record until I mastered its intricacies.

Turns out, the key to the whole thing was something I couldn't have known in 1970 -- that this was going to be their last record.

Only now do I realize that the whole thing was a break-up record.  No, not a romantic break-up record, but the break-up of a musical partnership/friendship that had begun when these guys were in sixth grade.  Sixth grade, fer chrissakes.  That's way longer than most marriages.

I started to reflect on this several months ago when I first wrote about "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" after the death of my brother, the original Simon & Garfunkel fan in our family.  Ever since then, I've brooded over other tracks on the LP on long solo car trips (nowadays my best listening time, since the fold-up stereo has been replaced by an iPod).  Now, I figure, it's time to do the track-by-track analysis this magnificent album deserves.

SIDE ONE

1. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" You start out with one of your greatest songs ever, not just because it's the album title track, but because . . . well, because you know the rest of the album is strong enough to follow it up.  Eventually it gets big, anthemic, with all sorts of strings and horns and crashing cymbals.  But it starts out gentle and tender AND THEN dials back down to that level a couple of times. (Ahem, Mr. Springsteen -- once you're at 11 you don't have to stay at 11.) 

Paul Simon had been listening to a lot of gospel music when he wrote this, and it shows. There's a hymnlike benevolence in that modest first verse -- "When you're weary / Feeling small / When tears are in your eyes / I will dry them all." But already the chords are modulating, and the bridge to the chorus begins to rove all over the scale, escalating the drama -- "I'm on your side / When times get tough / And friends just can't be found." That desperate-sounding last line was custom-tailored for Garfunkel's voice, seguing straight into a chorus that would deliver his greatest vocal opportunity ever.

Story is that Simon wrote the first two verses, and then in the studio Garfunkel insisted they needed a third verse. Simon grudging supplied one, which he never really liked. "Sail on, silver girl / Sail on by / Your time has come to shine / All your dreams are on their way." There's been endless speculation about who the silver girl was -- but just note how the stuff about shining and dreams is later echoed in "The Only Living Boy in New York."  I maintain that Paul Simon knew this majestic song was his parting gift to Art Garfunkel -- and a better gift he could never have given.

2. "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" A taste of Paul Simon's soon-to-come passion for world music, this one sounded so weird to us in 1970. In fact Simon just supplied English lyrics to an existing Peruvian song (okay, he didn't know it was under copyright and later had to pay the composer royalties) and it's got an almost naïve, folksong-like simplicity ("I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail" et cetera), considering that they guys really hadn't been folksingers anymore for years. But what's it about? "Away, I'd rather sail away" -- a desire for escape, which Garfunkel sings in a yearning voice pure and clear as the mountain air of the Andes. It's effably wistful; it still sends a chill up my spine, panflutes and all.

3.  "Cecilia"  A simple chugging retro-rocker, you say?  "Cecilia / You're breaking my heart / You're shaking my confidence / Daily." (You know what a sucker I am for internal rhymes.) The girl's two-timing him, and he loves her, and he wants her back. Hmmm. And Art Garfunkel was off in Mexico, in the set of Catch-22, pursuing his acting career  ("when I come back to bed / Someone's taken my place.....")

4. "Keep the Customer Satisfied" I hardly ever think of this song, and now I'm listening to it and it is so good.  Though he disguises it as a traveling salesman's lament, being hassled by the local law ("Deputy Sheriff said to me / Tell me what you came here for, boy"), it's obviously about Simon's weariness with life on the road as a musician. "Gee but it's great to be back home," he starts out, in a descending line as if he's collapsing on the couch. And in the chorus, a rising line of semi-hysteria: "Everywhere I go / I get slandered / Libeled / I hear words I never heard in the Bible / And I'm one step ahead of the shoe shine / Two steps ahead of the county line / Just trying to keep my customers satisfied / Satisfied." These are lyrics that still run my head in the oddest situations.

5. "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright"  A song about an architect? Think again -- how about a farewell to a partner who had been studying to be an architect when their career took off? And yet (mirrors within mirrors) it's Art singing the farewell words, as if to Wright/Simon. That lagging syncopation -- "So / long / Frank Lloyd Wright / I can't believe your song is gone so soon" -- sounds dazed by the realization -- he's still scrambling to catch up. "I barely learned the tune / So soon / So soon..."  But the verse that really comes home for me is the next one: "So long / Frank Lloyd Wright / All of the nights we'd harmonize till dawn / I never laughed so long / So long / So long." (You know me and word play; that "so long / so long" never fails to delight.) I think of all the late night conversations I've had with people I truly loved -- my brother, my college friends, fellow writers, music buddies -- laughing, jumping from subject to subject with lightning flashes of irrelevant relevance. And I'm suddenly overwhelmed by nostalgia for it, and envisioning the late nights Paul and Art must have spent together, sharing their lives for so long. "When I run dry / I stop awhile and think of you" -- what a beautiful statement about how we need other people, the partners in our life work that feed our wellsprings. "Architects may come and / Architects may go and / Never change your point of view," Art gently remarks in the bridge. The implied message? People who change your point of view are the only people worth messing with. AMEN.

What a beautiful sentiment. And yet . . . . it's a valedictory sentiment, a magnificent farewell gesture. But a farewell all the same.

SIDE TWO

6. "The Boxer"  Okay, this one was written much earlier, in 1968, and was released as a single in 1969, so technically it doesn't have to fit the break-up theme.  But while it's ostensibly about a prize fighter, it's really a musician's road song.  He complains about leaving his home, about being in the company of strangers, about railway stations -- it's "Homeward Bound" redux. And that battle-scarred figure in the clearing, isn't that weary, self-pitying Paul Simon?

7. "Baby Driver"  Another earlier song, the B-side of the "The Boxer." But lo and behold, even though it's in many ways a throwaway retro rock-n-roller, what's that refrain about "hit the road and I'm gone"?  It's about a sheltered kid longing to break out, restless for adventure -- sounds like somebody's jonesing for a solo career.

8. "The Only Living Boy in New York" Perhaps the most poignant song on a album jam-packed with poignancy, which is why it crops up still in movie soundtracks (Garden State, The Normal Heart).  It's addressed to someone called Tom (Simon & Garfunkel were originally a duo called Tom and Jerry) who's flying down to Mexico, which is where Garfunkel was filming Catch-22. ("I know your part'll go fine . . ."). And there's Simon shuffling around his apartment, watching TV, feeling existential.  Wanting his friend to succeed ("I know that you've been eager to shine") and at the same time consumed by jealousy and loneliness and urban neurosis.  If this isn't the last straw in their relationship, it's pretty damn close.

9. "Why Don't You Write Me"  Another uptempo throw-away? Maybe. But it IS about broken communication and loneliness and an edge of despair. "Why don't you write me / A letter would brighten my loneliest evening / Mail it today / If it's only to say / That you're leaving me." Break-up Alert!!!

10.  "Bye Bye Love"  Not even an original song, but an old Everly Brothers chestnut. But hey, it's probably something they sang in their early Tom and Jerry gigs, and what's it about?  A break-up.  The singer has been betrayed by his girl ("There goes my baby with someone new / She sure looks happy / I sure am blue") and he's saying goodbye -- not to her (she's toast) but to the happiness of being in a relationship.

Which reminds me -- I recently read an interview with Simon in which he admitted that he's addicted to vocal harmonies, that he still hears harmonies whenever he writes a new song. Is this because he spent his formative years in a vocal duo, or is that why he stayed in that vocal duo for so long?  Because, let's be honest, even in 1970 we S&G fans were aware that Paul Simon was bringing most of the talent to the partnership. And yet, and yet . . . the one thing Garfunkel added was something so special, so ethereal, that Simon can be forgiven for not wanting to jettison it. I do not believe he stuck with Art Garfunkel out of habit or fear, but because he was hooked on the beauty of those harmonies. And really -- who wouldn't be?

11. "A Song for the Asking"  Listening to this song, I'm bowled over, all over again. What a beautiful valedictory coda, delicately sung by Simon.  We always think that the sweetness all came from Art, but no, Paul brought it too.  He's laying this tender little tune at his friend's feet, and with a touching humility:  "Thinking it over, I've been sad / Thinking it over I'd be more than glad / To change my ways / For the asking / Ask me and I will play / All the love that I hold inside."  Okay, yeah, sure, Paul may have written this for his first wife Peggy, whom he'd only recently met.  But this mood of vulnerability and anxiety must have also been due to his faltering partnership with Art.  Putting it at the end of the album, of course, makes it a bookend to the anthemic majesty of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," signaling a new direction. And hey, to end this Simon and Garfunkel album with what is, to all intents and purposes, a Paul Simon solo song?   Hasta la vista, brother.
  

Monday, February 16, 2015

"I Was Made to Love Her" / Stevie Wonder

Ah, that harmonica.  Who else but Stevie Wonder?

I had been thinking about Stevie and the harmonica lately -- something I heard on the grocery store musak, although I couldn't swear it was a Stevie tune. But that sweet, swinging harmonica made me suddenly hunger to listen to Stevie Wonder.

And then, by serendipity, in an email thread I learned this morning that some dear buddies from my first New York City job were all also having Stevie Wonder marathons to combat the cabin fever of being snowbound.

But of course! 




It's early, granted -- 1967, when Stevie was just sixteen years old, before he really took the reins of his own career. Though he co-wrote this song, his mother, Motown songwriting headmistress Sylvia Moy, and his producer Henry Cosby had a hand in it as well. (Moy was from Arkansas, which is why it begins with the baffling line "I was born in Little Rock," whereas Stevie originally hailed from Saginaw, Michigan.)

But he claims it was autobiographical, about the first girl he ever fell in love with, and the pure joy of first-time love runs through it like a shot of adrenaline.  He's already trying out his own version of talking-blues-soul -- "You know my papa disapproved it / My mama boohooed it" (can't you just imagine Bob Dylan crooning that?).

On the invaluable website Song Facts, I read that Henry Cosby took Stevie to a Baptist church in Detroit to show him how a gospel preacher might sing this. He also dragged people off the street into the studio so that Stevie could sing it to an audience -- Stevie always sang better with an audience. Now there's a brilliant producer for you. Whatever he did to coax the magic into being, it worked.

Maybe it was the older songwriters who pushed this song into a celebration of long-standing love ("That's why we made it through the years"). Stevie had probably been with that girl for weeks, months if he was lucky, not "years." But he sells it with such confidence, I never questioned it.

What really sticks with me, though, is the images of those kids -- "I was high-top shoes and shirt tails / Suzy was in pigtails," and in the last verse, "I was knee-high to a chicken when that love bug hit me."  Seven years later, Stevie would start out "I Wish" (on his masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life) "Looking back on when I / Was a little nappy-headed boy."  What a journey he'd traveled between this song and that one.

But it was a huge, I mean HUGE hit in 1967, preventing from hitting Number 1 on the charts only by the massive megahit "Light My Fire" by the Doors.  (Think of those two songs emerging at the same moment in time.)  That commanding bass (James Jamerson?), that sassy guitar line, crisp horns held back in the mix, and above all the soaring exuberance of Stevie's harmonica.  An instant classic, it was. And it sounds as fresh today as it did 48 years ago.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014

The Voyager / Jenny Lewis

Maybe it's a girl thing, but I drag my feet when it comes to Jenny Lewis.  (Note that this is the LAST post in my Favorite Albums of 2014.) She's like the cool girl that everyone else in school adores -- not the homecoming queen, but the smart pretty one with quirky fashion sense. (If this were Heathers, she'd be Winona Ryder.)  And, face it, I'm jealous of her indie It Girl status.

And yet, when I finally sit down and listen to her albums, her songs get stuck in my head, and the lyrics eerily reflect my own outlook on life.  She spins a world in which everything is tentative, provisional, unreliable, a worldview perfectly reflected by her wary, waifish voice.

I might as well give into it. This is her third album, and I've liked every single one of them.  Who am I kidding?


 From what I can tell, Jenny Lewis is not the kind of chick that men ignore. Yet here she is, clinging to a relationship in which she does NOT have the upper hand ("bet you tell her I'm crazy") and slowly coming to the realization that the Other Woman's strength is precisely that she is not quite such as handful as our girl Jenny.

"She's not me / She's easy" -- maybe for you guys, that's an easy equation to work out.  But for me and my (intentionally or not ) complicated female friends, watching this play out is HARD. I've been there; I've done that. But in the long run....

I love how the harmonies bloom on significant syllables, how the sophisticated guitar line weaves in and out like a watchful friend.  It's a world of maybes, couldas, possiblies, and the song has just the right amount of doubt hanging it all out to show.

One of the reasons I hate year-end "best of" lists is that, sometimes, it takes a while for a song or an album to worm into your brain. This Jenny Lewis album is like that.  The more I listen, the more I . . . well, like isn't the word. Absorb, maybe, or eventually click into the mindset of it.

Unfortunately, we live in a crowded musical universe where everybody's jostling for clicks, hits, downloads. Jenny Lewis's Indie It Girl profile may help her here; I'm willing to bet that there are another three or four unheralded singer-songwriters that I'll never know about that I would have loved, whose work will never percolate to the top.

But that's no reason not to finally admit it:  Okay, Jenny Lewis. You're now officially one of My Girls.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Counterfeit Blues / Corb Lund

My favorite Albertan. (I would say my favorite Canadian musician, but that would be unfair to Ron Sexsmith, Neil Young and Dan Bryk.)

I'll give my good friend Nick S. credit for turning me on to Corb Lund, although to tell you the truth he only planted a seed -- it was 2012's Cabin Fever, stumbled upon in a year-end frenzy, that really leapfrogged him into my roots-rock pantheon. Oh, hell, let's admit it, he's a country singer. And me, who grew up vowing that I hated country music -- well, let's just say I know what I like and I like this.

Though I'm tempted to focus on the haunting "Truth Comes Out,"  I'm just too in love with this track -- "Gonna Shine Up My Boots" -- to pass it up. And -- bonus points! -- the video is a total hoot.

 
 
 
While this album starts out with a Dylan-esque talking blues track called "Counterfeiter's Blues," note that the album itself is called Counterfeit Blues -- and I'm guessing that's because Corb Lund has too sunny a personality to do more than fake the blues.  That must be why these smarty-pants comic songs of his are so infectious. 
 
But really, it's a tightly crafted little song.  Our cowboy hero has such a simple agenda:  "I'm gonna shine up my boots / I'm gonna go into town / I'm gonna scrape up twenty dollars / I'm gonna throw it around."  (Love how each line of that refrain move up a triad, with the escalation of hope.)
 
Of course, it never stays simple. Next thing he knows, he's bought a dance, and met a girl, and in order to win her hand he's got into a card game. And when he wins, he buys a ranch, and then -- well, I won't give away the ending, but you can see where this is going. 
 
The repeated chorus, with its parallel phrases, helps anchor us in this shaggy-dog time-telescoping tale. (It makes me think of that wickedly wise John Mellencamp song "Love At First Sight.")  But it's worth noting that the cowboy himself is no fool -- he's the one telling us where all this is going. And in the last verse (wait for it), he resolves everything with a down-to-earth shot of wry wisdom.
 
This song makes me smile every time I hear it come on.  And hey, that's no small thing.