Saturday, May 06, 2017

50 Years Young

"Waterloo Sunset" / The Kinks

Released as a single 50 years ago, on May 5, 1967 (it's also on the classic album Something Else By the Kinks), "Waterloo Sunset" may be one of the Kinks best-known songs. But no matter how many times I listen to it, it always devastates me -- and I always find something beautiful and new in it.

Even as he was writing it, the Kinks' resident genius Ray Davies suspected this might be his masterpiece. It was so important to him that, after Kinks producer Shel Talmy had finished mixing the song, Ray stole back into the studio with the other Kinks and recorded it all over again, until it was just the way he wanted it.

Bingo.

video

It starts off majestically, with those martial bass thrums marching down the scale, but then that twangy guitar riff slips in, laying on a jazzy, modern sound. One of the things I've always loved about Ray Davies' music is his deft mix-and-match of musical styles. In just this one track you've got the 40s-style background oohs (Ray's wife Rasa singing an octave above his brother Dave), 60s girl-group sha-la-la's in the bridge, and the overlapping repeats of "Waterloo Sunset's fine," a nod to Brian Wilson's genius 1966 recordings "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations."

And then there's that ineffable melody, sets of gently descending D-A-G chords, each short phrase making an arc until the final phrase dips below the horizon. (Just like a sunset -- hello!) Notice how each verse begins with a widescreen panorama -- the "dirty old river" flowing under the bridge, the lovers Terry and Julie meeting by the platform, crowds swarming "like flies" into the tube entrance.

But the balance is fragile, and Ray ruefully morphs into minor chords as he muses, "But I don't need no friends" or "But I don't feel afraid" (how long he hangs on those "don'ts," as if trying to convince himself). He's focused on himself, complaining how the crowds make him feel dizzy, and he's too lazy to leave home and meet friends. It's not just about London, it's really about his aching heart.

And then, and then -- the world outside his window revives him, and it resolves into the major D-A-G chords for that grand final line: "As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset / I am in paradise." It's a great life lesson: Let go of your petty personal concerns, and be subsumed into the big picture.

The tension between the lonely observer and the teeming metropolis is the bittersweet heart of this song. Listen closely and you realize that he never gets out of that room, as he admits in the bridge (all those wistful 7th chords): "Every day I look at the world from my window," a memory drawn from Ray's childhood, when he was confined by a long illness in St. Thomas hospital near Waterloo. His perspective is tinged with a fear of death -- "Chilly, chilly is the evening time" -- but for right now, nature uplifts him, and "Waterloo sunset's fine."

By verse three, notice, he finally shifts the story away from himself and over to his fictional lovers Terry and Julie. (And who in late sixties Brit cinema was cooler than Terence Stamp and Julie Christie?). But unlike loner Ray, the reason they don't need friends is because they have each other. They're in love, and we get our happy ending.

Or do we? The shadows haven't entirely been chased away -- as Terry and Julie "cross over the river," I recall old myths in which crossing a river means death (which gives the line "they are in paradise" an extra twist).

"Waterloo Sunset" is like a great landscape painting, worthy of Turner or Monet; it's also a cinematic piece, with its wide-angle shots, dissolves, close-ups, and long tracking shot. It's a lyric poem, and it's also an epic novel. To do all this with one pop song, in the space of three minutes and seventeen seconds -- and to do it with a simple four-piece band (no added strings, no horn sections) -- well, it's a wondrous achievement. If Ray Davies had done nothing else in his life, he'd be worthy of undying respect.

And of course, he has done more -- so much more....

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Shuffle 1,001

Yes, the number 1,000 is impressive, but so is 1,001, which has the added merit of being a numerical palindrome. How could I pass up the opportunity for a milestone Shuffle?

A Brave New World Shuffle

1. "Tango Till They're Sore" / Tom Waits
From Rain Dogs (1985)
My favorite Tom Waits album ever. Yes, all those songs from Down By Law; but Waits wrote it about NYC, an ode to the dispossessed. That sloppy late-night bar piano, the boozy horns, and the lyrics are just poetry -- "Fall out of the window with confetti in my hair / Deal out jacks or better on a blanket by the stairs / Tell you all my secrets but I lie about my past / Send me off to bed forever more." Amen.

2. "Walking on the Moon" / The Police
From Regatta de Blanc (1979)
Though this track lost a smackdown with Smashmouth a few years ago, I still find it haunting. Anyone else feel that the past couple of weeks have been like an out-of-body experience?

3. "Lua" / Connor Oberst and Gillian Welch
From Dark Was the Night: A Red Hot Compilation (2009)
The loping folky sound of this slacker anthem is oh-so-deceptive. Each verse comes back to the same dichotomy: "What's so easy in the evening, in the morning is such a drag." (Or variations thereof.) Earnest Connor Oberst (a.k.a. Bright Eyes) wrote this song for his 2004 LP I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning; for this charity effort for HIV and AIDS, he teamed up with alt-folk goddess Gillian Welch. It's a winner.

4. "Razor Blade Alley" / Madness
From One Step Beyond (1979)
Madness's debut album jumped on the ska bandwagon in a big way, and as a Specials fan, I was an early adapter. Another track about the dispossessed, it goes way beyond gentle alienation with a jittery beat and paranoid lyrics -- "this pain of pissing razors is cutting in" -- ouch!  Madness's front man Suggs is an avowed Ray Davies acolyte, so let's assume that the social satire is firmly in place.

5. "Bay City Rollers We Love You" / Nick Lowe and the Tartan Horde
Single 1975
Desperate to get fired from a UA record contract, Nick Lowe stuck it to his label by issuing this crappy pop single, a blatantly fake paean to the Bay City Rollers. Surprise!  It became a massive hit in Japan. Just to show how playing the media can backfire.

6. "It's Lonely at the Top" / Randy Newman
From Sail Away (1972)
This seems to be the Week of Randy. Strap on your irony detectors. A roadhouse ballad about the burden of stardom -- coming from Randy Newman, who in 1972 was anything but a household name -- eerily predicts the Nixonian and Trumpian existential condition.  

7. "Good Bait" / Dizzy Gillespie All Stars
From Bebop Spoken Here: Disorder at the Border (2000)
A palate cleanser, if you will -- some proper jazz for a change. (Bill Malley, where are you?)  Though given today's breaking news, disorder at the border may be more relevant than we'd like it to be.

8. "The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)" / They Might Be Giants
From Apollo 18 (1992)
You can never go wrong with The Johns. This snazzy repurposing of the 1961 Tokens hit (actually a Zulu song from 1939), updates the trope: "Hush my darling, be still my darling, the lion's on the phone." And -- zap! -- we're in the 21st century, with a silver spaceship and a whole lotta re-shaking going on.

9. "They Can't Take That Away From Me" /  Elvis Costello & Tony Bennett
From MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett (1994)
Love these two. Giving that Gershwin classic a classy spin, and Elvis -- the son of a big band singer, after all -- more than holds his own with Sir Tony Bennett. Well, I've got some things they can't take away from me, either -- including the rights to jump genres all I damn well please.

10. "If I Didn't Love You" / Squeeze
From Argybargy (1980)
Ah, vintage Difford and Tillbrook. Conflicted as all get-out (dig that almost stuttering refrain, "If I, if I, if I, if I...") it digs into the yin and yang of love.  "If I didn't love you I'd hate you" -- yep, that's about where it stands.  

Oh, my brothers and sisters, let us gird our loins.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

My 1,000th Post!

"I Think It's Going
To Rain Today" /
Randy Newman

Believe it or not, I started this blog a little more than 10 years ago -- my first post was on October 26, 2006, to be exact. (The song: "Learning How to Love You" by my hometown hero John Hiatt.) I had some high hopes that I could hit the 1,000-post mark on October 26, 2016, but life got in the way, as it so often does. 

I don't post as often now as I used to, but while the internet is littered with abandoned blogs, here I still am, writing about the artists I love.

Some of whom are no longer with us.  In the past year alone, we've said goodbye to David Bowie, Guy Clark, Allen Toussaint, Greg Trooper, and Beatles producer George Martin. You all were here with me to mourn when my older brother died, and when I went through my soul-shaking discovery of the late great Harry Nilsson.

I started this blog as a card-carrying Kinks and Beatles fan, but my Nick Lowe obsession happened right here, followed by my Robyn Hitchcock craze, my rediscovery of the Zombies, my reignited connection to the great Marshall Crenshaw, and -- perhaps most memorable of all -- the heads-over-heels epiphany that led me to become a Graham Parker fan for life.

Oh, and there were many others along the way -- fascinating artists whose names you can find in the sound cloud to the right. Old artists, new artists, women and men, of all genres -- I do love to mix it up.

For the 1,000th post, I wanted something momentous, a track I had never written about before, and something that perhaps sums up my outlook on life.  In the flurry of social media these days, with the increasingly bizarre turn of events in the United States at the moment, nothing superficial would do.

And then it came to me.


This is how good Randy Newman was right from the get-go -- it appears on his debut album, Randy Newman, released way back in 1968. The list of artists who've covered this song is simply mind-boggling -- Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Neil Diamond, Dave Van Ronk, Cass Elliot, Francoise Hardy, Ricky Nelson, Joe Cocker, Cleo Laine, Bette Midler, Barbara Streisand, UB40, Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Irma Thomas, Paul Carrack, Peter Gabriel, even Leonard Nimoy. I myself first heard it on Judy Collins' 1966 LP In My Life, back in my Earnest Folkie Phase -- that was the first I ever heard of Randy Newman. But it led me to buy his 1971 LP Randy Newman Live, and to see him in concert in 1974 in Northampton, Massachusetts (on a double bill with Ry Cooder, no less). And to become a Fan For Life.

For all the covers, Randy's own stripped-down, plangent, wistfully bemused rendering will forever be my favorite.

You want poetic imagery?  He's got it. He leads off verse one with evocative scene-setting: "Broken windows and empty hallways / A pale dead moon in the sky streaked with gray."  And in verse two, a rueful stroke of social satire: "Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles / With frozen smiles to chase love away."

But it's that refrain I keep coming back to -- that despairing, deeply ironic refrain: "Human kindness is overflowing /  And I think it's going to rain today." It's heartbreaking how the melodic line rises on "human kindness" and then wilts disappointedly downward on "overflowing," to move into the regretful cadence of "And I think it's going to rain today."

In verse three, he offers a fleeting glimpse of social action: "Bright before me the signs implore me /  To help the needy and show them the way." Oh, those do-gooders. But Randy doesn't place much faith in them; knee-jerk liberals can write a check one minute and forget the dispossessed the next. The rain will still fall.

The bridge is absolutely haunting: "Lonely, / Lonely. /  Tin can at my feet / Think I'll kick it down the street / That's the way to treat a friend." Those broken, almost disconnected phrases, the fatalistic shrug of "Think I'll kick it down the street" -- there's more than a shot of Leonard Cohen world-weariness there.

Whether or not this is explicitly about homelessness, or alienation, or -- who knows? -- refugees and  immigrants, I 'll leave to you to decide. In the 50 years since, I've pored over a lot of Randy Newman songs, and I know that his satire is complex and elusive. Every one of his songs is written from a character's viewpoint, and it's not always clear how much he means us to identify with the character. (Check out, for example, his devastating song "Political Science," which terrifyingly feels more true today than ever.)

But it's not just about the lyrics; it's also about the heart-breaking melody. It's no surprise to me that Randy Newman has blossomed into one of our great film composers; there's something in his melodic sense that hits all the emotional buttons.  Which is why I'd always rather hear Randy himself sing the songs, in his deceptively unshowy, croaky, real-guy voice.  No pyrotechnics; just the real thing.

And truer now than ever.

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 Prods 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."

Sigh.

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 islands in Ireland start with "innis," which, duh, means "isle" 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?