Monday, November 10, 2014

A Veterans Day Eve Shuffle

[that has nothing to do with Veteran's Day...]

TIP: Click on the title to see a video of the song, if there is one.

1. "Tell Me More and More and Then Some" / Nina Simone
From Pastel Blues (1965)
Lordy, lordy, lordy. That husky contralto with just a quaver of emotion -- that languid tempo, the growly piano and persistent counterpoint of harmonica -- I don't know the Billie Holliday original but I can't imagine she captured the raw sexual longing of this song any better than this.  

2. "Modern Love" / David Bowie
From Let's Dance (1983)
Ah. One of the classics, as I rhapsodize here.

3. "We Were Both Wrong" / Dave Edmunds
From Repeat When Necessary (1979)
Dave Edmunds and his back-up band Rockpile charge through this number by guitarist Billy Bremner (credited to his pseudonym Billy Murray) with their characteristic finger-snapping sexiness, all straight-legged jeans and a cigarette pack in the rolled-up shirtsleeves. How, when all the other kids on the block were going all jangly and New-Wave-y, did Dave E convince his pals to commit so totally to rockabilly? That swaggering retro guitar intro sounds so Nashville, it's amazing it came out of London.

4. "One (Blake's Got A New Face)" / Vampire Weekend
From Vampire Weekend (2008)
Mmm-hmn.  Now, that I mention it, there's something jangly and New Wave-y about this song, 30 years later though it may be. Stitching together musical styles in a world-music montage, this song weaves a cryptic spell.  But mostly I love how Ezra Koenig yelps "Blake!" in the hypnotic refrain. Sometimes that's all it takes.

5. "Working in a Coal Mine" / Lee Dorsey
From The New Lee Dorsey, 1966
And here's another yelp that makes the song. It's that hooky refrain, the monotonous "working in a coal mine, / going down down down / working in a coal mine / Whoop! about to slip down" that's forever branded on my musical memory. Dig the sound effect of pick axes hitting metal, too. Written by Allen Toussaint, memorably covered by Devo -- it's one of the great pop songs about physical labor, a worthy companion to Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang."

6. "Shoplifters of the World Unite" / The Smiths
From Louder Than Bombs (1987)
No monotony here, just Morrissey's campy enervated vocals -- but it's about oppression, all the same. (Or is it? I never know with the Smiths...)

7. "Don't B Movie Me" / Georgie Fame
From Georgie Fame 1973
Two minutes into his teen-idol career, Georgie Fame was already shrugging off the pop shackles to became the jazz keyboardist he'd always really been, borrowing happily from ska and blues as well. I'm sorry I couldn't find a video for this one; you may not even be able to find a video link. (My version was lifted from vinyl -- it would not be an exaggeration to say that I invested in a turntable and software mostly just to capture my old Georgie Fame LPs). Sigh. Sometimes I wonder if Elvis Costello knew this song when he wrote "B Movie" on Get Happy!  Any other artists, I'd say it was a coincidence, but you never know with Elvis...

8. "Just A Thought" / Gnarls Barkley
From St. Elsewhere (2006)
No trouble finding a video for this one. I promise you, I had this song on my iTunes long before I discovered Cee Lo Green as a judge on The Voice.  Glad to see he was always a musical chameleon -- what is this song?  It's not hip-hop, it's not R&B, it's not indie pop (not with all those grating musical effects).  Weird song, sublime vocal. Sometimes I think this guy is from Mars.

9. "I Pray Now" / Fred Eaglesmith
From Tinderbox (2008)
And while we're at it, what label would you slap on Fred Eaglesmith?  He's like the Canadian heir to Pete Seeger's populist folk mantle, but only if you throw in crunchy Tom Waits guitar effects and dead-eye Neil Young political commentary. "I pray now / I pray now / I didn't use to pray" -- it's prayer on the edge of desperation, and you have to fear whatever drove this man to his knees.

10. "For Debbie Reynolds" / Robyn Hitchcock
From Shadow Cat (2007)
Ah, a perfect confection to end on, from the master label-eluder Robyn Hitchcock.  I imagine Robyn dashed this song off at 4 am after watching Singing in the Rain on TV -- which doesn't mean it's not profound, not by a long shot. "It's all about success," he croons, "What are you doing this time tomorrow, baby?" And all I can see is Debbie Reynolds' scrubbed face and ponytail as she tap danced her way into Gene Kelly's arms -- oh, if only the fairy tale ended there. Robyn, of course, knows it doesn't, and sadly so do I.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Save Me" / Aimee Mann

"Pretending" / Michael Penn

And here's the scary thing: These people are married to each other.

Rabbit hole exegesis:  I just wrote about Aimee's version of Harry Nilsson's heartbreaker "One" and somehow that led me to binge-listen to her soul-shivering "Save Me" from the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia.  Not exactly an upbeat tune, this; in fact, I have it on my iPod in a playlist called "Moody," which is a euphemism for "totally depressive: handle with care."

The title reminds me of Fontella Bass's classic "Rescue Me" -- all appetite and sassy demands -- but "Save Me" is an entirely different sort of song. It's not about physical desire so much as the head games we ladies play with ourselves, way too often. Against that loungy-yet-ominous tempo, it starts oh-so innocuously -- "You look like a perfect fit." But against that downward-loping chord sequence, how swiftly she re-adjusts this, typing herself as "The girl in need of a tourniquet." 
And then the chorus cycles in, diving to the crux of the matter. "Can you save me / Come on and /  Save me. / If you could save me / From the ranks / Of the freaks / Who suspect /  They could never love anyone." A-HA! There we are. Raise your hand if you have EVER counted yourself in that not-so-exclusive club. Every time that chorus repeats, I feel tagged.
Note that she doesn't say the expected "freaks who suspect they will never be loved." Sure, there are legions of those, too. But those "who will never love anyone"? That's an even sadder and lonelier bunch, trapped between their own inadequacy and their crippling consciousness of it.  And in a later verse, as she references sufragettes ("the long farewell of the hunger strike"), we find ourselves clinging to our split desire to be independent and yet beloved.
 As the bridge puts it, "You struck me down / Like radium [Marie Curie alert for us smart girls!] / Like Peter Pan / or Superman / You will come...."   We've all been programmed to believe in heroes who will swoop in and save us.  How hard it is to give up that faith. But here we are, still hoping....
And what do I follow it up with on that same playlist?  What else but her husband Michael Penn's equally disturbing "Pretending"?  Hello! We don't even need to change keys between these songs. (What is it that made me re-visit Wikipedia to make sure that these two are still married?  Note that I do not use the phrase "happily married....")


From Penn's 2005 album Mr. Hollywood Jr., this winsome track puts the hunt for love into a different context: It's a quest for affirmation that never stops. In halting rhythms he announces: "Let's say that was then / Here we go again /  All our friends are filling the room, / It's like a play / And the words that I'll say are not for you." Even after these two misfits have found each other, the wearying need to affirm each other never stops.

And does it work?  Penn's chorus is sadly pessimistic: "It's on a happy ending / But baby, I'm pretending." He HAS to be honest with her; he's a decent guy, after all. And I sense that he does love here, as much as he is capable of loving anyone. But there's the rub: the only kind of guy she could be happy is also exactly the kind of guy who can't make anyone really happy. He thinks too much, he feels too much, he's unable to live in the moment. And he is brutally honest -- an absolute prerequisite from her standpoint, and yet the fatal flaw in the whole set-up.

The delicate acoustic setting of this song underlies how fragile this state of mind is, a structure of diminished and suspended chords, sung in Penn's sweet yet underemotive tenor. "Baby, I'm pretending / Even though I know better / But I can't refuse 'cause, / Although on a ruse / You've come to me depending,  / Baby, I'm pretending..."  He genuinely wants to be there for her, he knows how much she needs him, but he's hyper-aware of his own weakness.

This song is such a gut punch. He knows she needs him to provide "anything sure that's attached and secure," "a lifeline," "something to show / That I really do know." And -- Lord, he wishes it weren't so -- that's exactly what he cannot provide.

Music for Grown-Ups, indeed. And sometimes I wish I weren't a grown-up.  

Friday, October 24, 2014


Harry Nilsson / Al Kooper / Three Dog Night / Aimee Mann

Don't you just hate it / love it / go CRAZY when you find out that a song you know like the back of your hand is really another song by another artist who has even more of a claim to it?

Well, this particular tune keeps upping the ante for me.  First of all, like everybody else in my generation, I knew the Three Dog Night mega-hit from 1969.

What a great song, I thought. It may be the only Three Dog Night song I ever really liked -- no, wait, that's not fair.  I also liked "Eli's Coming" (until I discovered the Laura Nyro original).  In later years I'd also find out that "Try a Little Tenderness" was infinitely better when Sam Cooke sang it, and that "Mama Told Me Not To Come" should only have ever been sung by its original author, the incomparable Randy Newman. Sigh.

But I digress. The Three Dog Night "One" hit the charts in 1969 and it seemed so cool, those opening lines with their intriguing circular logic: "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do / Two can be as bad as one / It's the loneliest number since the number one." Heavy, man, like a Zen koan. But then  three years later when I hit my Al Kooper phase (a short but not negligible chapter of my fangirl story), I fell in love with Al's baroque and haunting 1968 version. It forever wiped the 3DNite single from my memory.

Now is that a thing of beauty or is it not?  I love those sawing strings, the sweet clarinet (or is it an oboe?) weaving in and out, the triple-tracked overlapped vocals -- even the (at the time not yet hokey) rainfall and thunder effects at the end.  For a song that's all about loneliness and disconnection, this elaborately concocted studio montage layers on the borderline schizophrenia, doesn't it?  Stay alone for too long and you too will go stark staring mad.


So anyway...the years pass, and DECADES later I encounter this existential version by the way-too-underrated Aimee Mann, used in the soundtrack of the seriously disturbing 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia.

(There are other YouTube versions. I picked this one because I still need to see images of Philip Seymour Hoffman whenever I can. RIP PSH, you genius.)

If Al Kooper's highly-wrought version was haunting, Aimee Mann's stripped-down version is equally haunting. Every bar of this song expresses existential loneliness.  How relentless is that electric piano, tapping out the repeated chords? And I love how Aimee's affectless yet melismatic voice curls knowingly around the phrase ends. Oh, yes, she is a lady in pain, and IT IS OUR COMMON PAIN TO WITNESS.

Now, we need to fast-forward just a few years to, okay, 2013.  Here I am, blogging away, and I dig up a tribute album called For the Love of Harry  -- the very same album for which Aimee Mann's "One" was originally recorded. For me, this album becomes a rabbit hole worthy of Alice in Wonderland, wherein I at last truly discover Harry Nilsson -- an artist of whom I had always been aware, through a handful of hit records and the fact that he was with John Lennon and May Pang on the Kotex Night. But now I REALLY discover Harry Nilsson, he of the glorious God-given voice and a songwriting sensibility that marries Beatlesque pop with Summer of Love California Dreaming and the American standard playbook.

A genius, pure and simple. And yet I NEVER BEFORE REALLY REGISTERED THAT HE WROTE "ONE."

And yet here it is, the one and only original "One," from Nilsson's 1968 album Aerial Ballet.

The story goes that Harry wrote this after phoning someone and getting a busy signal -- remember the obnoxious beep-beep-beep of a busy signal, back in the days before answer machines and call waiting and cell phones?  The whole song is underlaid with that off-putting busy signal, counterpointed with a yearning cello line that speaks volumes about the human desire for connection. But more than anything, it's Harry's pure and sincere vocal that sells this song.  I am here alone, it says, trying so hard to make a connection, and the technology won't let me in. And his heart is hurting -- "it's just no good anymore since you went away / Now I spend my time / Just making rhymes / Of yesterday." Major and minor and suspended chords overlap, and this poor schmuck is wading through it all, heartsore and hapless.

Is this a killer song or what?

So what's a girl to do? I'm willing to throw Three Dog Night under the bus, but how can I betray my decades-long loyalty to Al and my sister bond with Aimee?  But oh, Harry, my lost dark prince, how could I not love your original best?

I know, I know -- we don't have to choose, we can simply love them all. But for me, loving them all entails being hyper-aware of how Al and Aimee were nested in Harry's original.  A great song -- a truly great song -- enables great cover versions. So be it if my personal history ran through the cover versions first. Harry, you were worth waiting for.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"You Don't Own Me" / Dusty Springfield

How did I never know this song was originally recorded by Lesley Gore?

Wait -- it was 1963. It hit #2 on the charts. Where was I? (Okay, yes, deep in a Beatlemania haze, but STILL...)

Then it swung by me again in 1964, on Dusty Springfield's debut album (in the US) Stay Awhile/I Only Want to Be With You.  Was it released as a single in the States?  I have no idea.

Nevertheless, I remain firmly convinced that I never heard Lesley Gore's version at the time and that Dusty's is hardwired deep in my girl-group DNA. And, yeah, you know I am a Lesley Gore fan, but hey, Dusty is on my shortlist of Golden Girls. This song means the world to me because of how Dusty sang it.

One thing Lesley and Dusty had in common -- a very, VERY complicated sense of wanting autonomy and yet craving love. Dusty tended more towards the victim end of the spectrum, which to me made it all the more affirming to hear her declare: "You don't own me / I'm not just one of your many toys." (Ah, that well-placed word "many," and what a special shiver of disgust Dusty gave it.)

The demands pile up from there on, escalated with key changes: "Don't say I can't go with other boys," "Don't tell me what to do/ Don't tell me what to say,"  "Don't put me on display," "Don't try to change me," "Don't tie me down" -- yikes!! But the weary doggedness with which Dusty sings it tells me that she's make these requests before and they've fallen on deaf ears.

In both Lesley's and Dusty's versions, the requisite pop strings and horns undergird her (putative)declaration of freedom:  She doesn't tell him how to live his life, so surely he should understand that she is "free / And I love to be free / To live my life the way I want / To say and do whatever I please." So why do I sense that this cry of independence is not being heard by the man in question?

Wow. This is 1963/64, long before Helen Reddy's 1975 "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar." Feminism was still just a glimmer of an idea; if anything, it was nothing but Helen Gurley Brown and Sex and the Single Girl (a 1962 book quickly subverted by the 1964 Natalie Wood movie.)

Sure, both Lesley and Dusty would eventually be identified as bisexuals/lesbians. Did that give this proto-feminist anthem a special oomph? Maybe so from their perspective; but for me, that is totally irrelevant.

Because, yes, do I still snarl this under my breath when a domineering man tries to push me around?

You betcha.

Monday, August 25, 2014


...but alas, the other passengers in the car needed to sleep, make phone calls and work on their laptops while we drove. So I spent eight hours in the car AND DID NOT GET TO LISTEN TO MY IPOD PLAYLISTS AS I HAD PLANNED!!

Needless to say I am pouting about this, big time. Because I am JUST THAT PETTY, when provoked.

So all I had were the tunes in my head, which for whatever reason produced this random playlist.

OneRepublic / "Counting Stars"

Look, I'm not saying I like this song. But as current pop earworms go, it's pretty earwormy. My 19-year-old daughter (whom we just took back to college -- hence the long drive) makes me listen to pop stations when we ride in the car together, as we did earlier this week.  I find this song much less offensive than others. (How's that for damning with faint praise?)

Jenny Lewis / "Rise Up With Fists!"

The leap from OneRepublic to Indie It Girl Jenny Lewis makes sense only in some convoluted fold of my gray matter. (Probably because 3 weeks ago I was reading that she released a new album, The Voyager, and I'm still dithering about whether or not to buy it). I guess my problem is that I keep wanting her to be Jill Sobule and she just isn't as loveable as Jill. But then, who is?

John Hiatt / "She Loves the Jerk"

Maybe in the car I was beginning to think too much about the fact that I have this new John Hiatt album on that iPod, which I haven't yet been able to listen to properly. But out of nowhere, this early Hiatt gem planted itself in my cerebral cortex, and it lodged there for at least 150 miles. Which is a good thing in my book.

The deep, deep songcraft here slays me every time. Simple plot: Guy loves girl, who loves another guy, but spends hours on the phone confiding in the first guy, who we can all see is better for her . . . yadda yadda yadda. But seriously, how could you not love lines like, "'Well you married the wrong guy,' is all I ever say / But she'll never let him go /He's a no-good so-and-so, / Though she knows it will never work, she loves the jerk." And so the dance goes on.

Jill Sobule / "The Guy Who Doesn't Get It"


And then, because of Jenny, it did eventually come back to Jill.  And if things landed on this song in particular -- well, remember, it was a long drive and OTHER PEOPLE IN THE CAR WOULDN'T LET ME LISTEN TO MY IPOD. In such situations, I find my girlfriend Jill to be a great comforter.

This is the first song that hooked me on her incredible body of work, for which I shall forever be grateful, as I explain here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- Genius Class

Okay, over the rules One More Time. Not the The Best Opening Riffs-- too many songs, too little time -- but 25 Favorite Opening Riffs, in five 5-riff installments. The arbitrary rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. Doesn't have to be a guitar riff, but vocals don't count. 3. Has to be a true opener -- the very first notes of the song, proclaiming this song's distinctive DNA. 

Remember how, back in the day, AM radio DJs used to gab during song intros, trying to sneak a few more words of banter/announcements/advertising messages?. That used to drive me crazy. Transistor held up to my ear, I wanted to prove my pop savvy by being the first in the room to shout "I love this song!"

I know I said I was leading off with the "no-brainers." But some of you may have noticed -- and, if you're anything like the music fans I think you are, been distressed by -- the absence on that list of the REAL no-brainers. Which are, forthwith and henceforth...

Sunshine of Your Love / Cream

Sheer genius here, to double the bass riff with the electric guitar -- a particularly fuzzy guitar as well, with a wah-wah pedal and Marshall amps. The great bassist Jack Bruce wrote that commanding riff and it dominates the song -- those first four notes (LISTEN HERE!) sliding seductively into a dark downward spiral, over and over. Every bassist I know has learned this riff -- but it just doesn't sound the same without that scratchy guitar on top.
NOTE: Invoking the "one riff per band" rule, I decided on this rather than "Layla," even though they're by two different Clapton bands.  Sorry, Slowhand, but the competition was fierce.

Satisfaction / The Rolling Stones

Oh, the one-riff-per-band thing made this very tough. So many great Stones riffs -- but in the end, how could I have picked anything else? Talk about fuzzy guitars -- Keith Richards added a fuzzbox to his Gibson to get this snarling, snarky tone just right. It's only three notes, up and down a tiny minor-key scale, but how perfectly does it encapsulate the song's theme of pent-up frustration -- up and down, over and over, never breaking out of that narrow range.  It makes me want to smash things -- which is, presumably, the point.

You Really Got Me / The Kinks

Oh, why did I impose that one-riff rule?  Well, basically, because otherwise this entire list of 25 might well have been nothing but Stones, Kinks and Queen riffs, with a Beatles tune here and there. But of all the great Kinks openers (and yes, I AM prejudiced in this matter), how can we deny the riff that started it all for them?  As with the previous two songs, the distinctive tone of the guitar makes all the difference; in this case, the mutilated amplifier of Dave Davies, turning his electric guitar into an angry buzzsaw. Ricocheting between two notes, with just enough syncopation to sound erratic and dangerous, it's an aggressive cry of sexual frustration that will not be denied.

Summer in the City / The Lovin' Spoonful

How long does it take the Lovin' Spoonful to claim your eardrums? Two notes plus one drum-whack. True, the notes are ominous, swelling organ tones and the drum-whack is punitive to say the least. But oh, for sheer economy of effect, this gritty urban anthem of seizing conditional pleasure scores BIG-TIME.  Considering that everything else this band had released was mellow jug-band stuff -- "Daydream," "Do You Believe in Magic" and "Younger Girl" -- this hard-hitting 1966 urban song reminds us that the Lovin' Spoonful were originally a New York City band. And their reward for working so hard?  Their only #1 hit.

Hard Day's Night / The Beatles


Okay, I too resist the idea that the Beatles get to win all the prizes. Even though I was a true Beatlemaniac back in the day and still adore my Chosen Beatle (Paul McCartney), I would love to spread the accolades around. But let's face it: with one discordant guitar chord, the Fabs announced that their hit record was going to be better than your hit record, and they were right. They win for sheer economy of effect; they win for the streamlined drive of the track that followed. This song is a relentless, exhilarating ride into the heart of pop and out again. It was the title track of the first LP I ever owned (note: the American version, really a film soundtrack, but I so loved that movie) and I would love to be objective.

But I can't.

But really: One chord and you KNOW what song this is.

And isn't that the definition of a great opening riff?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- Jazzing It Up

Next installment of 5 in my 25 Favorite Opening Riffs. The parameters: 1. One riff per band. 2. No vocals. 3. Must occur right at the beginning of the record. This is all totally subjective, folks, and they're in no particular order. Enjoy!

So far we've been talking rock riffs, mostly, but here are a few that venture into jazz territory -- and announce those intentions right off the bat.

Moondance / Van Morrison

Two backbeat piano chords, repeated. A few light brushes on the drums. And then That Voice, slipping in like butter. "Oh, it's a marvelous night for a moon dance...."  Talk about Less Is More.  Eventually we'll get a divine jazz solo, plus Van's jazz-freak vocal swoops and scats (it's as if he becomes the saxophone himself); pianist Jeff Labes really gets to fly with his piano improv in the middle eight. But it's those first chords -- cool, laidback, effortlessly syncopated -- that set the whole swinging thing in motion. Sometimes you only need two measures....

Undun / The Guess Who

What? No Canadians so far?  I'm sure that violates broadcasting protocols north of the border, so let's slip in this 1969 gem. It's like "Moondance"'s minor-key cousin, with a little more Latino beat.  Guitarist Randy Bachman, later of Bachman-Turner Overdrive (a best riff runner-up for "Taking Care of Business") has said he based this song around some new jazz guitar chords he'd just learned; it sure doesn't sound like any other Guess Who song. That opener is quick and crafty: Three guitar chords, syncopated, with a few smacks of offbeat drums, and a percussive vocal choo-pah! on the backbeat. (We'll soon see where they got THAT idea...)

Build Me Up Buttercup / The Foundations

Stairstep guitar strums, underlaid with tambourine -- and yes, bongos! -- it's so simple, and it's all about the syncopation. (Do you sense a theme here?)  Soon enough we get the second motif, layered on in counterpoint by a percussive electric piano; it's upbeat, happy pop, and just jazzy enough to make you snap your fingers and bounce in your chair. Oh, give in to it; just get up and dance, folks; you know you want to. And the singer hasn't even started yet!

Time of the Season / The Zombies

Start to finish, this is one magnificent song (read here my full take).

But today, let's focus on that brilliantly crafted intro. Like the opening of "Under Pressure," it's pure percussion, but put together like a Swiss cuckoo clock. As I dissect it, it's two beats on a tom-tom, one thump on the bass drum, then a hand clap, then a block, then a vocal gasp. All in rapid succession, intricately syncopated; it takes a downbeat plus two beats, no time at all. Repeat three more times, and it's what, eight seconds? But by the time Colin Blunstone starts singing, we're already spooked out. Brilliant.

House of the Rising Sun / The Animals

Hilton Valentine's unspooling guitar lick, hung on stairstep notes from Chas Chandler's bass, sets the whole song up, as if he's casting a fishing line and deftly reeling us in. Minor-key glissandos, rising ominously upwards, will soon be handed over to Alan Price's prophesying organ. (Which will eventually blow things into another stratosphere in the middle eight.)  I suppose this isn't technically jazz: It's more like mission revival meets the blues. But oh, is it dark, and OH is it compelling.  Still sends shivers up my spine, every time.