Saturday, September 09, 2017

First Song on the Shuffle

"How Can I Be Sure" /
Shelby Lynne

Complicated history here. Felix Cavaliere's the Young Rascals (or at this point had they conceded that they should just be called The Rascals?) released this song in 1967, as a teaser for their album Groovin'. I heard the single on the radio all right--WIFE Good Guys radio in Indianapolis--and I'm pretty sure my older brother Holt owned the album. (Even now it's probably mouldering away in a cardboard box in some ex-girlfriend's garage.) I preferred the lazy psychedelia of the title track, with its flower-child bird tweets and bursts of lush harmony, but the minor-key waltz of "How Can I Be Sure?" was a close second. Yes, it had corny strings and even a Parisian-cafe accordion, but there was a haunting sense of emotional limbo at the end of every verse. (And that plinking electric piano, like a neurotic tap on the shoulder . . . )

Dial things forward, and we get the next charting of this song, in the UK in September 1970 for my girl Dusty Springfield. It's a perfect song for Dusty, with her contralto throbbing with vulnerability. In her hands, Cavaliere's cry of adolescent uncertainty became a weary anthem of a heart that had been broken too many times already. Yeah, teen idol David Cassidy finally boosted this song to #1 in the charts with his cover version in 1972. (Disclaimer: I spent a good 6 months of my life in love with David Cassidy. Never you mind when that was.)  But Cassidy just copied Cavaliere's take. Dusty's was something richer, and deeper.

So it's no surprise that the gifted singer/songwriter Shelby Lynne would have included this on her 2008 homage to Dusty Springfield, Just a Little Lovin' . And hand it to Shelby -- her "How Can I Be Sure" is even more tortured than Dusty's take. Lynne goes Dusty one better -- she's not just about love anymore. When she punches out the phrase "In a world / That's constantly changing," it becomes a politically charged signal for a world gone off the rails.

This is the album that turned me on to Shelby Lynne, who I personally think is one of the great singer/songwriters of our time. Okay, anybody who'd dedicate an entire album to Dusty Springfield would already have my vote, but everything else I've heard from her, I've loved. She's got darkness, she's got sincerity, she's got brains. She started out country, where she never got the love she should have; she went more pop and the wider audience gave her at least some of the respect she deserves.

Her voice is twangier than Dusty's, but still in that same musky contralto range, and like Dusty she conveys an undertone of tragedy. (In Shelby's case, that's a no-brainer -- she and her sister Alison Moorer as teenagers saw their abusive father shoot their mother to death -- so, yeah, whiners, top that.) Like Dusty, she screens an ambiguous sexuality behind an intensely private persona.

Yeah, it's a song about unstable mental states. ("Whenever I--I am away / From you / I wanna die. . . ." Trust is in short supply -- "How do I know? / Maybe you're trying to use me / Flying too high can confuse me" -- and the singer is pleading for mercy ("Touch me / But don't bring me down.")  And like Dusty, Shelby flings her hearts into those phrases, opting for the downward curl of pessimism.

Back in 1967, "don't bring me down" was no doubt a drug reference. In 2008, it's all about not being disheartened for the brave fight ahead.

Either way, the song builds to that last wonderfully inarticulate verse: "How can I be sure? / I really really really wanna know / I really really really wanna know..." Felix Cavaliere and David Cassidy were asking a girlfriend to commit. Dusty was asking a lover to offer safe haven.

Shelby Lynne? She's throwing down a gauntlet. Account for yourself, people.

Monday, September 04, 2017

R.I.P. Walter Becker

"Turn That Heartbeat
Over Again" / Steely Dan

Jeez. I really did not expect this one to hit me so hard.

I've loved Steely Dan's music since 1972, my sophomore year in college, when I first heard the rocking syncopations of "Do It Again" on the local Springfield, Massachusetts, radio station; their snarky follow-up single, "Reelin' in the Years," only confirmed my faith. (How could I resist lyrics like "The weekends at the college never turned out like you planned / The things that pass for knowledge I can't understand")?

And I kinda hung in there for years and years, even when people whose opinion I respected dissed them as soft rockers. (Excuse me, Steely Dan were never soft rockers -- they were way too subversive and sophisticated for that.) I bought their 1972 debut album Can't Buy a Thrill, but I never saw them in concert, telling myself that they were principally a studio band and I didn't need to see them live. And for many of their peak years -- 1975 through 1977 -- I was living in England, divorced from my LP collection, being seduced by pub rock and punk rock.

We kept missing each other. After I moved back to the States in 1977 I bought Aja and loved its lush swinging groove, even though by then I was mainly into the neuroticisms of the Talking Heads and the B-52s and Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. So many bands, so little time. Steely Dan disappeared from the scene throughout the 80s (read the Becker obits to find out why), and in the 90s, when they started touring again, I was Otherwise Engaged.

I suppose things would have been different if I'd ever lucked into a Steely Dan fan base, the way I connected with fans of the Kinks, Graham Parker, Marshall Crenshaw, and Nick Lowe. But that never happened. And so here I am in 2017, regretting Walter Becker's death at age 67, and also feeling guilty as hell that I never paid this band as much love as I felt for them.

I'm a fan of cryptic crosswords, and for me, every Steely Dan song is a cryptic crossword. "Turn That Heartbeat" starts out sounding like a heist caper ("With stocking face / I bought a gun") but the chorus lays on explicit religious references ("Oh Jesus / Oh Michael") and protestations of innocence ("You know my reputation / For playing a good clean game").  Suddenly we're in a barroom, with Casablanca references -- "My poison's named, you know my brand /  So please make mine a double, Sam." And what are we supposed to do with a lyric like "This highway runs from Paraguay"? Drugs, politics, and all sorts of nefarious doings are on the line.

And who the hell is William Wright, whose corpse appears in verse three? Google it and you'll only be more confused. But don't get hung up on that -- the thing is, he's dead, and "zombie see and zombie do."

But here's the thing. This is a track of undeniable richness, with fat vocal harmonies, disturbing chord progressions, teasing Fagan keyboard fills, and a niggling sense of there being more behind the lyrics. In this era, rock music was all about the albums, not the singles (though Steely Dan subversively co-opted enough pop hooks to hit the singles charts with regularity). We were supposed to be sitting in our dorm rooms, puzzling over the references. And we did.

So what echoes in my brain pan about this song, which I've been listening to for 45 years? With my Massachusetts frame of reference, I can't help but love the verse 1 line "And they closed the package store." But as time goes by, I'm drawn to the chorus line "Turn the light off / Keep your shirt on / Cry a jag on me." How seductive is that, highlighted by the inverted grammar around "crying jag"?

And sometimes, my heart of hearts simply cries out "Oh Jesus / Oh Michael!" Can't explain that. It just is.

I have no vested interest in solving these songs for you folks. Hey, Steely Dan was always about more than the sum of its parts. But in honor of Walter Becker, I implore you to surf around and listen to more of their astonishingly brilliant tracks. And maybe begin to fathom the subversive power of their music . . . .

Monday, August 21, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"Live in Shadows" /
Graham Parker & the Rumour

Well, darlings, I'm on the road, chasing the eclipse, and I don't have time -- or reliable enough Wi-Fi -- to write a proper blog post. But I for one am looking forward to the moment after the eclipse, when sunlight begins to reappear and we're all reassured that the world isn't ending after all.

So while there are many Graham Park tunes on my personal eclipse road trip playlist, I thought this one would be the most fitting for the end of our journey together.

It's from the delicious 2012 album Three Chords Good, whereupon Graham Parker reunites with his original backing band The Rumour after thirty-plus solo years. (Here's my earlier post about why this album is so amazing.)  Listen to how this song swings, a little jazzy, a little swampy road-house rock, but always coming back to that insistent guitar lick. Like the philosopher king he is, GP dispenses worldly advice: "You don't have to / Live in shadows / You don't have to / Lock yourself up in the dark."

Whomever he's talking to, it's someone who's let the world get the worst of him/her. I don't know about you, but these days I feel like the whole world is tending that way. Belligerence, suspicion, anger, and hate are boiling over.

And honestly, there's no point in living that way.  Give yourself a break. Take this opportunity to make a new start. Snap your fingers and let the beat lift your spirits. It's your choice to make.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"It's The End of the World
As We Know It" / R.E.M.

Suppose you hadn't read a dozen newspaper articles about the solar eclipse, or heard about it 22 times on TV, or seen endless Facebook and Twitter references. Suppose you'd never studied basic astronomy in school.  If you looked up in the sky one day and saw the sun disappearing behind a black disc, wouldn't you freak out?

On Monday, when that happens, birds and animals and insects -- who haven't read all those articles -- are going to go a little haywire.  Centuries ago, solar eclipses threw people into apocalyptic panic.

Mostly we imagine the apocalypse in terms of fire and fury. But what if it's just a meaningless scrum of off-kilter details? That's how R.E.M. offers up apocalypse in this track from their 1987 LP Document, released as a single nearly 30 years ago in November 1987.

It's anxiety-riddled, with that hectic tempo, the ping-ponging melody, the frenzied stream of consciousness patter. Michael Stipe's vocal lunges at us, almost breathlessly rattling off a weird checklist of disconnected images. It's full of sound and fury, signifying nothing -- and that's the point. It seems to spit out the flotsam and jetsam of our pathetic culture, projecting a hopelessly splintered reality.

Guitarist Peter Buck has said in interviews that this song is in the tradition of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and yes, I can see it in the churning instrumentals, the flurry of internal rhymes. If anything, "The End of the World As We Know It" goes way beyond Dylan's social satire. Right from that first line -- "That's great! It starts with an earthquake" -- it's stuffed with natural disaster and cataclysm. There's a hurricane in there, a combat site, and "the furies breathing down your neck." Planes seem about to crash into buildings, a TV tower bursts into flame, cars blow up, books are burned. In the third verse, I swear I see goose-stepping soliders ("Watch a heel crush, crush"), and in the fourth verse, mountains seem to topple.

By the end of the song, it's like a fun-house full of mirrors, populated by an oddball assortment of cultural icons -- "Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs" -- who share nothing but the same initials. (Michael Stipe claims these people all appeared in a dream he had.) By that point, everything seems ominous and evil, even "Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly beans, boom!"

And what's the ultimate irony? That while humanity is going down in flames, the singer isn't all that concerned -- as the chorus insists, "It's the end of the world as we know it, / And I feel fine." Is it because he feels helpless to stop it? Or because things have already become so rotten, it's not worth saving? 

And yet, there's something curiously buoyant about this song. It's full of pumped-up energy, as if bungee-jumping over the chasm -- and there's something exhilarating about that, isn't there?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"Ain't No Sunshine When
She's Gone" / Bill Withers

So when the moon takes away our sunshine on Monday, here's another song that would be fitting accompaniment.

It's another 1971 number -- another of those songs that haunted my senior year in high school/freshman year in college. It was Withers third single, but his first hit, climbing to #3 on the US charts (a year later he'd #1 with "Lean On Me"). Having grown up on Motown, I could tell this was something else -- that pulsing R&B tempo, the undertow of weariness and despair.

The creased and weathered quality of Withers' voice was so different from the mellifluencies of Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson. And it also felt more of an affinity to rock music -- though this song was produced by Stax mainstay Booker T (released on Sussex Records), the personnel also included Steven Stills on guitar and Jim Keltner on drums.

Even more important, "Ain't No Sunshine" had a restless, provocative bite -- those morose verses, with their glum plodding bassline (Donald "Duck" Dunn?) and repeated melody -- "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone / It's not warm when she's away / Ain't no sunshine when she's gone / And she's always gone too long, anytime she goes away."

Who knows why she's away -- did they have a fight? is she cheating on him? or is she just a free spirit? (After all, this was an era of free spirits and feminists.)  But he's so down in the dumps, he can't even tell us. The grief-stricken swell of those minor-key strings speaks volumes.

And of course, the best part: "Well I know I know I know I know I know" repeated 27 times, sung with shifting syncopation on one loooooong breath that finally peters into a croak. Apparently Withers -- who, when he recorded this, was still working a day job in a toilet-seat factory -- sang it this way in the studio as a placekeeper, intending to write a "proper" chorus, Holland-Dozier-Holland-style. Thank god Booker T was there to stop him.

I remember riding in the back of a car with my friends, singing along with the "I knows," every time. You'd nearly asphyxiate, trying not to draw a breath, letting your voice crack and croak along with Withers'. It lasts for nearly 15 seconds and seems even longer. It's so damn cathartic.

Just like an eclipse.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"Total Eclipse of the Heart" / Bonnie Tyler

The only song in my iTunes library with "eclipse" in the title -- but I couldn't resist.

Shame on you, Stevie Nicks. Once Fleetwood Mac's Rumours went platinum, it was inevitable that a new breed of Stevie-wannabe rock chicks would start yelping all over the airwaves in the 1980s:  Pat Benatar, Laura Branigan, Irene Cara, and Welsh rocker Bonnie Tyler. Long before the term "diva" was co-opted to mean any female singer with a big voice, these babes were tearing out their vocal cords on every speaker within earshot. At the dawn of the 1980s, as working girls in power suits were striving to shatter corporate glass ceilings, the women of rock set out to kick the asses of their wimpy soft rock male counterparts.

All these babes cultivated the hard edges of their voices -- no soft-focus girly sopranos here. Bonnie Tyler distinctively husky voice was  equal parts grit and sob, perfectly calculated to sing about desperation and desire. Interesting footnote: after an operation for nodules on her vocal cords, Tyler violated doctor's orders and started singing too song after the operation. At first she thought that huskiness was the end of her singing career. She was wrong.


Tyler's megahit 1983 album Faster Than the Speed of Night was also beholden to the no-holds-barred arrangements of her producer, Jim Steinman, the guy who made Meat Loaf a star. The album version of this song clocked in at 6:58 -- nearly seven minutes -- though the radio cut was truncated to four-and-a-half minutes.

Building a song to a bombastic climax was de rigueur in the 1980s. Steinman, however, was crafty enough to know that a song couldn't sustain that level of intensity for seven minutes; the song keeps retreating to wistful interludes where it's just Bonnie and her piano (well, really Roy Bittan's piano), before rolling back in with the Rick Derringer guitar licks, a tsunami of synths, a thunderstorm of percussion (hi there, Max Weinberg!).

How could this song fail to be a hit? It's got not one but three addictive hooks. The first is the call-and-response duet with Rory Dodd, as she babbles about her emotions ("Every now and then I get a little bit helpless till I'm lying like a child in your arms") while his distant voice nobly exhorts her, "Turn around, bright eyes!" Ah, there are those strong, understanding arms she can collapse into. I read somewhere that Steinman was inspired by the Heathcliff-Cathy romance in Wuthering Heights. Oh, yeah, Emily Bronte was totally thinking of this song when she wrote that book.

Next Bonnie launches into a Meat Loaf-style voice rip, declaiming "And I need you now tonight / And I need you more than ever /And if you only hold me tight / We'll be holding on forever." Yes, "hold me tight" -- wink wink, pop-speak for "screw my brains out." Then (the Steinman touch) things suddenly hush up as she ruefully sings, "Once upon a time I was falling in love / Now I'm only falling apart / There 's nothing I can do / A total eclipse of the heart." Wipe a tear away and start it all over again -- you've got four more minutes to fill up.

And yes, there are a few vague references to the eclipse metaphor -- "your love is like a shadow on me all of the time / I don't know what to do and I'm lost in the dark," "once upon a time there was light in my life / Now there's only love in the dark," and I suppose the repeated "turn around" could just maybe be a reference to the world's rotation and the moon and sun's orbits.  But it's flimsy -- and honestly, who cares?.

The lyrics paint her as a needy, pathetic mess, but those bulldozer vocals send the opposite message. If I were a guy, I'd be terrified of this chick.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"Moondance" / Van Morrison

When I left Indianapolis to go to college in New England in 1971, I'd never heard of Van Morrison. Sure, there was that song "Brown-Eyed Girl" by the Irish band Them, but I had no idea who their lead singer was. But in the early 70s Van Morrrison, now a solo act, was huge in the Boston area, and everybody from the Northeast seemed to know the title cut from his 1970 LP Moondance.  It was played endlessly in the dorms, almost as much as Carole King's Tapestry (and if you were around back then, you'll know that's saying something).

In that album-oriented age, it didn't matter that it had never been released as a single -- that wouldn't happen until November 1977, when the record company, stymied by Van's three-year writer's block, finally packaged "Moondance" as a single.

I had just moved back to the States after two years in England, and hearing this song on the radio was welcome indeed, especially since the airwaves were otherwise infested with Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel, not to mention the Bee Gees, Barry Manilow, and (shudder!) the Eagles. In that context, no wonder Van's eight-year-old record sounded timelessly great, its Celtic soul sound distilled with laidback cool jazz.

Listen to that saxophone part -- it's like honey (Van, a saxophonist himself, composed the melody first, working it out on a sax). Even better is that nimble Jeff Labes piano solo in the middle eight. And best of all is the sinuous prowl of Van's singing -- leaping for the high notes, snuggling with the lows, flirting outrageously with the syncopated beat. Towards the end, Van just gives up and becomes a saxophone.

Okay, so it's not about a solar eclipse -- this is definitely a nighttime song.  "A fantabulous night to make romance," indeed. Still, that dance of the moon is cataclysmic in its own way. "And every tiiime I touch you, you just / Tremble inside / And I know how much you want me,  / That you can't hide  . . . " Unh-HUNH.       

"Moonshadow" / Cat Stevens

Sure, the titles are similar -- but this 1971 track from Teaser and the Firecat is something very different from "Moondance." Forget the sexy soul and jazz; Cat Stevens' stock in trade was folky charm, all wrapped up in faux hippie wisdom. It's very much a song of its era, but a splendid one nonetheless.

Stevens has said in interviews that this song was inspired by a visit to Spain, where one night he stood by the sea under moonshine so strong that he could see his own shadow. All right, not technically an eclipse, but since the whole thing about the solar eclipse is the moon's shadow blotting out the sun . . .

Like a nursery rhyme, it begins with its chorus: "I'm being followed by a moonshadow, / Moonshadow, moonshadow, / Leaping and hopping on a moonshadow, / Moonshadow, moonshadow." All that repetition is almost like an incantation. Then come the verses, which follow a neat pattern -- "If I ever lose my hands [eyes /legs /mouth] . . . I won't have to work [cry /walk /talk] no more." It's an old folk song device; the fun lies in predicting how the singer will complete the pattern each time.

Sure, there's an undertone of melancholy -- all those physical losses, teetering on the edge of tragedy (it's just a whisper away from the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, taunting his adversary while his limbs are hacked off one by one. ["Come back here and I'll bite your legs off!"]). But verse after verse, he somehow finds a way to blithely sidestep despair. The song is suffused with a glorious optimism -- the lighthearted skipping rhythm, the dancing melody, that nimble, delicate acoustic guitar.

Ever since Cat Stevens turned into Yusuf Islam, listeners have been looking for coded religious messages in his songs. There is something cryptic about that bridge: "Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light. / Did it take long to find me? and are you gonna stay the night?" But get over it, folks -- this is the sort of anthropomorphic stuff you'll find in hundreds of children's picture books, and Stevens didn't convert to Islam until 1977, long after he wrote "Moonshadow."

 Nearly 50 years later, this song's fey charm survives intact. And if this is the song that pops into my head while watching the sun disappear on Monday, I'll be cool with that.