Sunday, June 28, 2015

"Questions for the Angels" /
Paul Simon

I've been simply haunted by this beautiful song for the past couple days. 

Paul Simon's gone through all the changes: folk music, folk rock, protest rock, world music. Thanks to my beloved older brother, I was an early Simon & Garfunkel fan, bought a guitar so I could play their songs, and clung to them through the 60s. But after 1986's Graceland he somehow slipped off my radar; even if I had been listening to the radio anymore (which I wasn't, for one reason or another), his new songs weren't getting airplay.  
But along came Sirius radio, which has so many channels it can afford to dig deeper, and one day, out of the blue, I was gobsmacked by this dreamy acoustic track from Simon's 2011 album So Beautiful and So What. 
It's mostly just Paul and his guitar (though dig the harp riff before the angel chorus), and really more art song than folk song. I love the tentative tone of Simon's world view, the mature I-don't-want-to-force-this-on-you approach. How lightly he leads us to it. "Pilgrim on a pilgrimage / Walked across the Brooklyn Bridge / Sneakers torn."  He shows us the homeless on their "cardboard blankets" -- all very PC. There's that evocative bit about "if you shout for love in a bargain store / You get what you bargained for" and the self-referential moment as he describes "an empty train in a railroad station / Calls you to its destination" -- those of us who grew up with "Homeward Bound" cannot fail to flag that reference to "I'm sitting in a railroad station / Got a ticket to my destination."
For good measure, he throws in an up-to-date reference in the bridge, with a vision of a Jay-Z billboard, acknowledging modern consumer culture (Paul Simon has always had an ear to the ground). This does not work if it is not poised in counterpoint to the real world. 
Plenty of unanswered questions float through this song, from the homeless man's "Who am I in this lonely world?" to the last verse's "If every human on the planet / And all the buildings in it / Should disappear / Would a zebra grazing in the African savannah / Shed one zebra tear?"
But the part that really gets me is that ethereal chorus. It's so understated -- a few plucked harp notes, a halting tempo, a shift to a higher key -- and yet musically arresting. Following that chromatic melody with its restlessly changing keys is like watching the angels dance on the head of a pin. 
(I can't help but wish that I could hear Art Garfunkel sing this; after all these years, it seems that that's still the angelic voice Paul Simon hears in his head.)  
The first time around, he poses the question "Who believes in angels?" and answers it "fools do / Fools and pilgrims all over the world." But the second time around, he admits "I do." Ranking himself with the fools and the dreamers, yes, okay, and casting his lot in with the believers in something beyond ourselves. It's a powerful message of spiritual questing, but conveyed with such finesse.
Yeah, I've got questions for the angels, too. I'm not one-hundred-percent sure they even exist. But the music urges me to explore further.  Letting me know that it's not all settled, that there are still issues up in the air. 
Because there are more things in heaven and earth, yo dog, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Friday, June 19, 2015

"Flying Into London" /
Graham Parker and the Rumour

Selfish thing that I am, I've been hoarding to myself this incredible new album Mystery Glue.  I should have written about it weeks ago, I know.  But then, one thing I've learned about being a Graham Parker fan:  Give the songs time to marinate and you'll discover they're even better than you thought at first listen.

I did try, honest. I have half-written posts on so many songs from this rich album -- "Pub Crawl," "I've Done Bad Things," "Fast Crowd," the deliciously self-deprecating "My Life In Movieland," the deft media satire "Slow News Day" (which, I read in an interview, Graham identifies as his "Ray Davies song, more like the Kinks than the Beatles" -- oh, yes.)

And then I went to see Graham and the Rumour last Friday night at the Tarrytown Music Hall and I had to go back to square one.  Seeing GP on stage reunited with his original backing band kicks the whole thing up a notch. As good as Parker's solo stuff has been (and seriously, I'll fight anyone who claims there's a better album than Struck By Lightning), watching him being re-energized by his old bandmates is such a thrill. They were fantastic on their first reunion album, Three Chords Good, but lordy, lordy, lordy -- they are totally swinging in that groove now.

And, as I was dancing in the side aisle with my international band of GP peeps (because, yes, I AM that kind of fangirl), this was the song that completely bowled me over.


So what was it that so struck me last week about this song? I suddenly realized that Graham, who has for years been such an insightful outsider-observer of the American cultural scene, has now had to confront returning to his homeland, England, with all the baggage that entails. Yes, it's where he's from, and where several (not all) of his reconnected bandmates still live. But that doesn't mean going home is simple.

Those opening riffs, both the guitar and the organ lines, sound almost defiantly country & western to me, and the whole song has a relaxed, soul-infused swing that is anything but BritPop.  "Flying Into London" isn't exactly a talking blues song, but it does pack in the lyrics (echoes of Dylan?), as if nattering away will help keep his anxiety at bay.

There's a wariness to this song -- "It's just one long back road in my soul tonight" -- he knows that he's not returning to the same place he left (""I might as well be landing on Mars"). He can even feel it physically -- "My mind gets loose and my heart gets tight." GP is a master of the cleverly inverted cliché, but this one seems especially apt -- I know just what that feels like, don't you?

There's no faked-up drama here -- not with that strolling tempo and major key -- it's just life, throwing another curve ball. You get the sense that, like a cat, he'll land on his feet, but he's registering every nuance in the meantime.  In verse two, he underlines this: "This internal geography just drives the stress / And you don't get a road map or a GPS" -- that's homecomings for you. Anybody gone to a college reunion lately? I have, and this song nails it.

In true poetic fashion (because I do believe that this man is a poet worthy of taking his place alongside Keats and Shelley), he works all the metaphors, the turbulence and the clouds and "the warning lights were on all this time." There's an element of regret as well, for the beloved left behind "cleaning up my mess" and  "I didn't see the tears baby, pooling in your eye." Because every homecoming is also a leave-taking.

And that's where Graham, bless him, leaves us -- struggling with the emotions of connection, here, there, and everywhere. "Yeah I've left it, left it all behind," he claims, but we know it's not that easy. And here are his old pals, singing (very far forward in the mix) a cheery "Whoa-oh-oh whoa-oh-oh [beat beat, chord change] whoa oh-oh-oh." How much do I love those up-front-and-personal Rumour backing vocals?  In my humble opinion they are the soul of this extraordinary album. Where the genius Graham Parker happily lets his bandmates stand and deliver.

Is there a better singer/songwriter working today? I seriously doubt it. But where you're this good, why not let your supremely talented bandmates have a piece of the action?

I have to say, I love this whole band. I adore Brinsley Schwarz's and Martin Belmont's inventive guitar riffs, Andrew Bodnar's snaky bass lines, Steve Goulding's funky drum tracks, Bob Andrew's soulful roadhouse groove on the keyboards. It all works so gloriously together. But then it all comes back to Graham Parker. Who wrote the songs. Who sings the songs.

And the man is a freaking genius, so . . . I don't know. Once I sign onto an artist who truly moves me, I'm in for life. And this guy?  I am so in his camp.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

"Wouldn't It Be Nice" /
"God Only Knows"
The Beach Boys

If you haven't seen the Brian Wilson bio-pic Love & Mercy, I beg of you, PLEASE don't miss it. I just saw it last night, and it's sending me into a weekend of Beach Boys nostalgia.

Two brilliant actors -- Paul Dano and John Cusack -- play Brian Wilson at different periods of his life, and both deliver performances of exquisite subtlety, intelligence, and heart-breaking empathy. But what's even more rare about this film is how it gets the magic of musical creation, with scene after scene of Brian in the studio creating Pet Sounds. It geeks out on the "how did they make that sound" details, and somehow even captures the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of Brian's artistic genius.

And in the throes of this Beach Boy weekend, I'm happy to see that post I wrote a couple years ago about these two landmark songs basically already says everything I want to say. 
I won't lie, Beatlemania was the reigning passion of my adolescence, but there was an interlude -- think of it as my Lost Weekend -- in the summer of 1966, when my family took a train trip west to Southern California. Our West Coast sojourn was one golden blur of Disneyland, malls, Baskin-Robbins ice cream, and trips to the beach, preferably in the company of my one-year-older cousin Jeff, who had black hair and ice-blue eyes and a strong jaw -- possibly the dreamiest male I had ever met in the flesh. This SoCal infatuation lasted well into the fall -- as I recall, that was also the year the Monkees debuted on TV -- until who knows what Beatles song jarred it loose.

And right in the heart of that Golden Summer came this double-sided hit from the Beach Boys. These guys had always been the sound of summer for me -- even in the Midwest, with a turquoise cement-rimmed swimming pool standing in for the LaJolla cove. (Hey, in the Midwest we needed the Beach Boys even more, to create the illusion of summer.) The Beach Boys brand was a dependable sun-kissed commodity. But in the summer of '66, with these two songs, Brian Wilson leaped light-years into the future, leaving even the Beatles in his dust (presumably that was Brian's goal). Even as a kid, I could instantly tell this was something special and new. Really, listen to these two melodies -- was anything EVER this gorgeous?

"Wouldn't It Be Nice" was the ultimate Good Kids Waiting For Sex song, which hit me right in my adolescent sweet spot -- though I didn't yet have a boyfriend (my hunky cousin being off limits) I yearned and burned in principle. The Beatles were all about sex, but now here were the Beach Boys making chastity sound romantic and cool. Listen to how that plinky electric piano riff at the beginning gets suddenly smacked down with a treMENdous drum whack. This whole song is about trembling on the verge of intercourse, yet the rock-bottom assumption was abstinence. "Wouldn't it be nice if we were older / Then we wouldn't have to wait so long" -- we all knew what they were waiting for.

Cynicism was never the Beach Boys' game, but this song is remarkably earnest even for them. Hand it to Brian Wilson, arrested adolescent par excellence, for dwelling whole-heartedly in this pre-lapsarian scenario. In verse two, he does get a little hungry as he projects into the future: "Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up / In the morning when the day is new / And after having spent the day together / Hold each other close the whole night through." And yet STILL so innocent -- just holding each other, that's all, really! (I love how it slows down, almost groaning with desire, as he sings, "You know it seems the more we talk about it / It only makes it worse to live without it..."). Naturally they will be married ("we could be married") which equals being happy ("then we'd be happy"), and OH, wouldn't it be nice? And then the whole thing dissolves into a masturbatory swirl of overlapping phrases and echoes and harmonies, as never-ending as that passionate long kiss.

Believe me, I spent hours agonizing over which was my favorite side of this single (bought, oh so eagerly, with my hard-earned babysitting money). The B side, though, eventually came up the winner, for one simple reason:  The glorious lead vocal of the most underrated Wilson brother, Carl. I had no idea it was him singing -- if you'd asked me, the only Wilson I was interested in was the beautiful Dennis -- but something about Carl's voice dove straight into my heart.

This song has no dramatic tension at all. It's just a straight-shooting expression of devotion, and nobody could do sincere like Carl. But even more important was his exquisite ear -- who else could have steered that tune through its morphing key changes, vertiginous swoops up and down the scale, the surging swells of volume? The vocal had to be strong to stand up against the densely layered instrumentation of strings, woodwinds, synthesizers, and whatever else obsessive Brian had hauled into the studio. It expresses passion on an operatic scale, and for once pop music had musical tools worthy of that passion.

That opening is so damn noble, like an opera overture, with marching electric piano chords and a French horn fanfare. Enter our white knight, Sir Carl, singing humbly, "I may not always love you" -- hunh? but no, it's a rhetorical trick, as the next line resolves. "But long as there are stars above you / You never need to doubt it / I'll make you so sure about it." The way he throws his voice into that top note "sure" is equaled only by the poignance of the same line in verse two, as he imagines her leaving him and protests -- "So what good would livin' do me?" What good indeed, I ask myself.

That's about it as far as lyrics go -- from there on it's just repeats of "God only knows what I'd be without you," sung as a round, then as a madrigal, then amplified into full orchestral counterpoint, until you're lost in the dizzying tapestry of aural textures. I find myself singing along with one voice, then another; sometimes the wave breaks on "what," other times on "without," but it never resolves, never ends, a continuous spiral of sound. He's fighting through a wilderness, with only his steadfast love to guide him. It's amazing how ego-less this is -- he's not bragging about his passion, simply stating, over and over, with dogged humility, that he'd be nothing without her. Simple as that.

Raised on songs like this, is it any wonder that we who were girls in 1966 found real-world adult love baffling?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

"Witchi Tai To" / Brewer & Shipley

Cleaning out my brother's LP collection a year ago, the folk-rock duo Brewer & Shipley's Weeds was one of the few scarred 1960s LPs I made sure to squirrel away. (That and his autographed copy of Biff Rose's The Thorn in Mrs. Rose's Side, a record that I never expect to make a fortune with on eBay.)  I can't say that anybody fought me for it, but that's cool.

Brewer & Shipley's biggest hit, "One Toke Over the Line" (heh heh, heh heh) wouldn't come along until their next album, 1970's Tarkio.  But Holt Hughes was ahead on the curve most of the time on this sort of stuff. I have vivid memories of listening to this album with him (another important cut: their cover of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower") in our home in the Indianapolis suburbs and feeling totally plugged into the counterculture zeitgeist. Which, when you think about it, is quite a feat.

Brewer & Shipley didn't write this song; it was written by Jim Pepper, a Native American jazz saxophonist, who incorporated elements of his Creek and Kaw ancestors' peyote songs. So at one stroke, B & S were able to proclaim their solidarity with the oppressed Native American peoples AND with hallucinogenic drugs.  Talk about a win-win.

According to Michael Brewer, the duo kept hearing Pepper's recording of this song on Midwest radio stations (remember when radio was local?) while they were touring. Two sons of the heartland -- Brewer from Oklahoma and Tom Shipley from Ohio -- these guys simply fell in love this song,
beamed at them out of the Midwestern airwaves. 

Jim Pepper being a jazz guy and all, it's no surprise that the percussion track of this song is addictive. Water drums, bongos, congas, whatever they used, this is a track that from start to finish is all about the rhythm. No wonder it's bored itself into my brain lately.

 Equally seductive are the half-chanted lyrics, most of them what I've been assuming for a half-century or more are legit Native American poetry:  "Witchi tai tai, kimarah / Womanika, womanika / Hey-ney, hey-ney, no-wah."  Okay, so there's a few English words at the beginning: "What a spirit spring is bringing round my head / Makes me feel glad that I'm not dead." But let's be honest: That's not a whole lot more comprehensible than the Native American lyrics. Let's just submit ourselves to the incantatory flow and go with it.

Remember that 1971 TV ad about pollution with the crying Indian? (Turns out the actor was Italian-American, but that's 20th-century hucksterism in a nutshell). That was all part of the counterculture mythology, the solidarity with Native Americans. Granted, that was before a handful of tribes struck gold with casino wealth, but as a child of the 60s, hey, I'm not gonna begrudge them that. We befouled their continent, who are we to judge?

Give yourself into this song, and it could just as easily be a sitar-laden raga from the other kind of Indian music. Kind of a cool thing in 1969 to realize that we didn't need no maharishis -- we could groove on our own home-grown transcendent culture.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

"Sweetheart" / Maria Muldaur

Big hit?  Maybe not. But whenever this song dials up on my shuffle, I feel as if an old girlfriend has just phoned me for a good dish session.

I came to this record well after it was released (on the 1974 album Waitress in a Donut Shop). In my New England college days I certainly knew Maria Muldaur's voice from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (theater profs, groovy young arty types, turned me on), and her hit song "Midnight at the Oasis," also from 1974, I heard over and over again on the local radio station. 

But then I went to live in England for a couple of years, where everything got mixed up.  One of my best American pals there was a West Coaster and therefore a Dan Hicks fan; belatedly I appreciated that the Jim Kweskin folks had serendipitously been doing the same stuff. In those pre-Internet days when regional music scenes still had distinct identities, it really meant something to have my own New England chanteuse holding the fort (though Dan Hicks's Mary Ann Price had already jumped ship to sing back-up for the Kinks, a job I've wanted most of my life....)

In those austerity years I had only a cassette player, so somewhere I acquired a cassette of Waitress in a Donut Shop. I didn't have many cassettes; the few I owned got played over and over.  And so this album bored into my brain..

But, oh, how lovely that was.

You know me, I love storytelling songs. And the scenario here is smartly laid out.  She's a waitress in a donut shop (hence the album's title), and he's a regular customer.  She waits every day for him to show up; she's invested a whole lot more in his daily appearance than he probably has in his routine morning stop.

But oh, the yearning she pours into this daily encounter, and the constant consciousness of how futile it is. "Sweet heart / But it doesn't beat for me." Already I'm on board, loving how she deconstructs the word "sweetheart" into its constituent components.

She knows who she is and where she stands. "I'm a waitress in a donut shop. /  I see him on his morning stop. / He talks of love, but he's talking about his sweetheart / She gives him a rough time / He gives me his dime / And then parts." There's an edge of class consciousness there -- the tiniest scintilla -- just enough to trigger all of us 1970s-era hippies into siding with this working girl.

What a sneaky little populist love story this is. And, in the retro jug band tradition, it's all gussied up with road-house piano trills and a horn section. Here we are in the mid-1970s -- punk and the New Wave waiting just around the corner -- and the snazzy mood of this throwback track is deliciously out of sync.

Maria Muldaur's voice was never for the mainstream; her clear bell-like tones, her supple melismas, were completely out of fashion as the yelping 1970s progressed. But then, I've never been one for fashion.  And those devoted nights spent with this cassette on my portable player -- well, as the old song says, they can't take that away from me.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Whip It" / Devo
Back in 1980, a new cable channel called MTV desperately needed music videos -- that's how a crudely produced film snippet by this oddball Cleveland-area cult band got such heavy airtime. That Marlboro Man rancher, lashing the clothes off of his frontier wife -- was that kinky or what?

Some folks would say that MTV "made" Devo's career; on the contrary, I think Devo was responsible for making a whole generation want our MTV. You absolutely HAD to get wired for cable, because where else on 80's TV could you see stuff like this?

Normally I don't go for high-concept bands, but I bought Devo's package one hundred percent. Devo stood for "de-evolution," synonymous with mindless conformity, which we Devo fans were supposed to combat by being free-thinking individuals. How hard is it to get 20-somethings to buy into an agenda like that?

And Devo carried it off in perfect deadpan style, dressed in hazmat coveralls with industrial goggles and inverted flowerpots strapped to their heads. Their robotic stage movements matched those jerky synthesized arrangements (only Devo could cover "Satisfaction" and "Working In A Coal Mine" with all the blues drained out of them). Everything, down to the album covers, was executed with retro flair. Devo was post-modern long before it became a hipster cliche.

At the time, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale were happy to let their audiences think "Whip It" was all about S&M (either that or whacking off).  Casale now says he wrote those lyrics to imitate the parody poems Thomas Pynchon scattered throughout Gravity's Rainbow. And it's true, the song is packed with a rousing Horatio Alger/Dale Carnegie can-do spirit -- "Now whip it / Into shape / Shape it up / Get straight / Go forward / Move ahead / Try to detect it / It's not too late / To whip it / Whip it good." Yessirree!

This track's got an absolutely driven drumbeat, an obsessive-compulsive guitar riff, and a completely daffy synth motif; it's so tight, so uptempo, it sounds just like it came off an assembly line -- and that's the point. "Crack! That! Whip!" is followed by slapping whip cracks, calibrated precisely to a millisecond behind the beat. And I love those lock-step twinned vocals, finishing each other's sentences in the verses: "Step on a crack / Break your momma's back" or "When a problem comes along / You must whip it" or "No one gets away / Until you whip it."

Irony?  Satire?  Tongue-in-cheek?  So old hat. Devo was way ahead of the curve, daring you to suggest that they were anything other than the factory-produced artifacts they claimed to be. Next to them, the Talking Heads looked like art-school posers and the B-52s were simply a party band. Best of all, they were unabashedly American in an era when the U.K. seemed to OWN New Wave music. I adored all those British acts, but I was glad we had at least one band from our side of the ocean, and a lunatic bunch of Midwestern nerds at that.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Time Has Come Today" /
The Chambers Brothers

File these guys in the No Easy Category category -- gospel singers (and really brothers) from Mississippi who got into the folk circuit, went electric with Bob Dylan, and brought a distinctive soul emphasis to their 1968 psychedelic hit "Time Has Come Today."

We've heard snippets of this mesmerizing song on movie soundtracks for years (I mean, c'mon, who has the patience to sit through the entire eleven minutes of this song?). But road-tripping this weekend (between my son's graduation and my own college reunion, I logged 764 miles), listening to Sirius Radio's 60s station, I finally sat through the whole thing, and you know what? It blew my mind.

Okay, let's address the elephant in the room. There is one white guy in this band -- drummer Brian Keenan, an English guy who started out playing with Manfred Mann. And I have to say, this brilliant track is totally anchored by the eerie tempo-shifting drumming.

The rest of the band, the four Chambers Brothers from Mississippi, had already signaled their intentions to move beyond the gospel circuit by moving to L.A. in the early 1960s, where they played at the Ash Grove and, with a little push from Pete Seeger, played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The next stop was probably inevitable: moving to New York City, which is round about when Keenan joined the band.

1968: That was a great year for rewriting all the rules. Sandwiched between the Summer of Love and Woodstock, 1968 found everybody scrambling out of those genre boxes, mixing folk and rock and soul and blues and gospel and jazz and whatever else you had to play. Our ears were open and our sensibilities were remarkably eclectic.  

In my (admittedly fuzzy) memories of this track from the time, I don't think I had any idea whether the musicians were black or white. Why would it matter?  It's not a song you should think about too deeply -- it's all about submitting to the experience, to the tempo changes, to the echo-chambered background vocals, to the Hendrix-like half-sung testifying of the verses. When it came on the radio, you just knew you were in for a spacey few minutes.

But put this up against other long-form singles of the time, like "Inna Gadda Da Vida" or the folky "Alice's Restaurant," and I think the Chambers Brothers more than hold their own. It's mesmerizing without being boring; the instrumental solos don't seem endless and repetitive; and, I don't know about you, but I feel pleasantly on the edge of my seat waiting for that timekeeper drummer to slow down or speed up.  There's an edge of spookiness, but it doesn't belabor the mind-blowing factor. Just submit to the (live, human, totally not drum-machined) beat, and go where it takes you.

Because, hey, wow man, why not?