Thursday, September 22, 2016

J Is For...

My personal alphabet of artists, from A to Z. 

Joe Jackson / "So You Say"

Just to prove that I do listen to new releases -- a devastating track from my longtime musical love Joe Jackson's 2015 album Fast Forward. Which, y'know, if you don't have, you should. Because this guy is one of those who just keep on getting better and better.

I saw Joe at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem this past July. I was transported: every song he sang was gold.

First of all -- a tango!  Who does tangoes anymore? But it's a brilliant choice, because the tautly circumscribed sexuality of the tango is just what this song is about.

We Joe-ites know this territory well, from tracks like "Blue Flame" and "Not Here, Not Now." Joe Jackson excels at scenarios where love is NOT easy, where inhibitions cramp desire. "So you say," he begins, launching us into the middle of a conversation that's probably been torturously waging for a while. "And I agree," he replies, but then adds -- zing! -- "You're a prize, but / Not for me." I love the confidential curl of that next melodic phrase: "There'll be no more lies now / So you say."

Oh, he'll take the passive aggressive route: "I'm a fool / You're a sage / Yes, I'll try to / Act my age." (Cue the Joe-ite footnote to "Awkward Age.")

But because this is Joe Jackson, the bridge unleashes a higher-register burst of emotion: "And I thought I knew what went on in my heart / Till you taught me I would never have been smart / Enough to leave you." Oh, that crafty turn at the end of the phrase.

Because this guy has reached his limit. "Tell me once / Not again / Take a breath and / Count to ten / Time to say goodbye now / So you say." WAIT! Wha-?

So who's doing the leaving?

And there's our reality check: How often do lovers get so inside their own heads, they think they're driving the course of the affair? When in fact...

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

I Is For...

26 days, 26 artists, from A to Z....

The Impressions / 
"Woman's Got Soul"

Of course I know who Curtis Mayfield is. He did the soundtrack for Superfly, right? "This cat from the slum / Had a mind, wasn't dumb" -- yeah, that song has a whole backstory for me. (When I write the book...)

But in 1965, when this single was getting tons of airplay in Indianapolis, I didn't know who Curtis Mayfield was. I knew the title track from the album even better -- "People Get Ready," one of the civil rights movement' iconic tracks, along with Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." Still, I doubt I had any idea who the Impressions were, and I certainly didn't know that Curtis Mayfield was their lead singer.

Mayfield, full of restless talent, was probably already moving past the suave Impressions sound. They'd started out in 1958 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but when Chicagoans Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield joined the band, their doo-wop and gospel sound got a serious overhaul. This number, like their previous Mayfield-penned hits "It's All Right" and "Keep on Pushing," were full-on Chicago soul, with a distinctive swagger and a boatload of horns. (By this time, the trio consisted of original member Sam Gooden, Mayfield, and Butler's replacement Fred Cash, who came on board in 1960.) On one level, this song doesn't have the social consciousness of a track like "People Get Ready." But underneath the plush sound, there's plenty of consciousness-raising going on.

I can't help hearing this song as a soul version of Rodgers and Hart's "The Lady Is a Tramp." Listen to that first verse: "She may not be the best lookin' woman / I ever did see / Nor have the charms of the ladies / Of high society." Yeah, that high-falutin' stuff's not for him -- "I don't need a Cadillac car / Or diamonds and such."

Yet there's also a Black Pride subtext here, as he swings into the lilting chorus: "But the woman that I hold / She's got to have soul / And then I'm richer than the richest gold / If the woman's got soul." In 1965, "soul" was a loaded and coded term. You either had it or you didn't, and if you didn't, you wanted it.

And he's skeptical of phony notions like "class" ("Because class in a woman / Don't mean she's gonna last."). What really matters is, well, you know, the sexy basics: "I need a kind of woman / That when I hold, she fits up tight, yeah / Oh, and when she throws it on me / I give in without a fight." Mayfield works that melody for all it's worth, teasing out all sorts of innuendoes.

Maybe this track was insurance for the Impressions. Just in case some listeners weren't ready for the "People Get Ready" message, they could relax here. Lord, how this track swings; those pillowy back-up harmonies keep everything in lush mode, and the horn section moves confidently from uptown to downtown  and back again. This is not a song for the civil rights battlefront, but whoa, it warms the home fires like nobody's business.

Monday, September 19, 2016

H Is For...

My challenge to myself: write about 26 different artists, A to Z, in 26 days. (Well, maybe not consecutive days...)

Hall & Oates / 
"I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)"

Of course it was always Hall for me, rather than Oates -- and I know I wasn't the only music fan who harbored a crush on Daryl, judging from how the camera dwelled on his tall rangy figure and blond shag in the 1980s videos that made these guys stars. But honestly, it was his voice that did it for me, not his good looks. Really, really, I swear.

I'd been a fan since the early 1970s -- and now I had to suck it up and watch Daryl and John hit the big time with a new sound that ran perilously close to disco. Yet those scatting, soulful vocals kept Hall & Oates from being dragged under by the layers of synths and glossy production values of the times.

Let me do you a favor and post something besides the original official video, just so you won't be distracted by all the backlighting and dry-ice mists and big-shouldered suits that stamp this 1981 hit as a sign of its times.

Given the soft-focus R&B sweetness of H&O's earlier stuff -- songs like "When the Morning Comes," "She's Gone," and "Sara Smile" -- the 80s stuff had a lot more edge. ("Maneater." anyone?) This song, too, is not all that flattering to women, with lines like "You've got the body / Now you want the soul." But now I'm thinking that this push-pull may have been what made it interesting.

The brooding intro runs for nearly a full minute, mostly pugnacious drums, overlaid with ripples of minor-key descending keyboard riffs. Anxious tension runs through the verses, with their jerky rhythm and tinny vocal reverb: "Easy, ready, willing, overtime / Where does it stop? / Where do you dare me / To draw the line?" This is clearly a man who's getting tired of making nice.

But then it blooms into lush soulfulness for the bridge -- "I, I-I, I'll do anything / That you want me to do, / Yeah I, I-I,  I'll do most anything ' That you want me to, ooh, yeah." Hall's supple vocals caress the long legato phrases, swooping around them, stroking the vowels. We're in happy major key territory, with the background singers chiming in, scattering rose petals in his path. He's in full-on Lover Boy mode.

And then he turns on a dime. "But I can't go for that, / Nooo, / No can do / I can't go for that, / Nooo, / No can do."  That refrain's staccato words are spit out with venom; the tempo is like a wagging finger. And of course, the mind boggles: What is it she wants him to do that's so beyond the pale?

It could be anything, of course.  Going to dinner's at her folks' house; taking her shopping; having a baby; signing a pre-nup.  Yet the song's slinky, sexy underpinnings trip me up, making me picture other kinds of requests indeed. Dirty deeds. Kinky things. It's completely against my nature, but there it is.

It's a cryptic song, after all, and unsettling.  It almost doesn't hang together, the melting "I'll do anythings" pitted against those scolding "No can do's.** But something about the jam just jells.

And then, of course, the musicians themselves puncture the balloon by telling interviewers that it's not about a couple at all, but about the music business -- how they're willing to cooperate with their label, touring, doing press (appearing in back-lit videos with dry-ice smoke) -- but only up to a point. No matter how hungry they are for stardom (and I'm betting these guys were hungry as hell for it), there were certain things they wouldn't do.

Well, that clears up that mystery.  But I think I liked the song better when I thought it was about a girl.

In fact, I loved the song when I thought it was about a girl -- so I'm just going to go on hearing it that way.

BONUS: Here's a link to an episode of Daryl's House, where Cee Lo Green joins the band for an extra funky version of this song. Love how Daryl and Cee Lo keep raising the bar for each other, verse after verse.

**This song alone thrust "no can do" -- originally an obscure (and racist) phrase of pidgin Chinese -- into common usage. Who knew?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

G Is For...

Songs A to Z

My 26-day challenge to myself -- write about a different band every day, working from A to Z. 

The Grass Roots / 
"I'd Wait A Million Years"

Yeah, this gets complicated.

The Grass Roots were not what we purists might call a real band. It basically started as a construct by songwriters P.F Sloan and Steve Barri, along with famed producer Lou Adler. The legendary LA studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew played most of the tracks, with lesser musicians recruited to tour the albums. Their clever blend of Brit backbeat, R&B, and folk-rock was a calculated marketing strategy, and the actual band members -- a rotating cast that included Creed Bratton, who later resurfaced as Creed on the American TV series "The Office" -- were given very little role in the songwriting and recording. The only constant was front man/vocalist Rob Grill, who until his death in 2011 continued to flog the brand on the oldies circuit.

And yet I can't deny that they produced some genuinely fine pop music. This 1969 single was a follow-up to their big hits "Let's Live For Today" (1967) and "Midnight Confessions" (1968) appearing on their LP Leaving It All Behind. Let's be honest: when those iconic hits blast out of a jukebox, do you not spring out of your chair and shout "I love this song"?

This song -- written by the songwriting team of Mitchell Bottler and Gary Sekley, who also wrote the Grass Roots' 1971 hit "Sooner or Later" -- starts out all baroque rock, with synth harpsichords, but it doesn't take long to blast out with a horn section and all. (Just to put things in perspective, this is the same year in which the Chicago Transit Authority, later known just as Chicago, released their first horn-drenched album.)

The arrangements are monumental, even if the lyrics are fairly jejeune: "All of the lonely nights / Waiting for you to come / Longing to hold you tight." Yadda yadda yadda, The chorus is fairly standard hyperbole: "But I'd wait a million years / Walk a million miles / Cry a million tears." Not enough? Let's go for even more cliched declarations: "I'd swim the deepest sea / Climb the highest hill / Just to have you near me." Ain't no mountain high enough, apparently.

Well, it was 1969, so fuzzy-headed philosophy was only to be expected: "As life is reality / When you are near to me / I am in ecstasy." But beyond that, it's really just reiterations of that millions theme. "I would wait for you (a million miles) / Baby, I would be true (a million miles) / I would follow you (a million years) / If you want me to."

The production is just slick enough to put me on my guard. Honestly, hold this up beside a sincere track like the Proclaimers' "500 Miles" and there's no contest. (Granted, walking 500 miles is a whole lot more feasible....)

And yet, at the eleventh hour --- damn, I just can't hate this song. It's so tight, so ferociously driven. Who am I complain that it was recorded by the Wrecking Crew? The Wrecking Crew were awesome.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

F Is For...

Songs A to Z

My 26-day challenge to myself -- write about a different band every day, working from A to Z. And just to prove that I do sometimes listen to 21st-century music...

The Fratellis / "Babydoll"

Three reasons to love this band:

1. Their 2006 debut album was called Costello Music, which they say was named after a studio they used to rent in Glasgow, but I stubbornly persist in believing is a tribute to Elvis Costello.

2. All three band members claim that their last name is Fratelli, just like the Ramones claimed that they were all named Ramone.

3.  They're from Glasgow, and every person I've ever met from Glasgow is cool as s**t.

So herewith, this adorable track's from 2007's Here We Stand. (That was the year that they won the Brit Award for Best British Breakthrough Act.) Since then they've followed that up with We Need Medicine (2013) and Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied (2016).

The big single hits off this album were the infectious "Mistress Mabel" and "Look Out Sunshine," but something about the earnest backbeat groove of this peppy little track appeals to me more.

With self-deprecating charm, front man Jon Fratelli said in 2008, "I'ts not the strongest thing I ever wrote lyrically, but the melody sticks. I had it in my head for a long time, so finally gave into it. I thought it must be good if I can't shake it."

Well, he's not wrong about that. Sometimes it IS all about the hooks. 

On the other hand, the lyrics do have a poignant quality. For me, the title is drenched in references to Elia Kazan's Southern Gothic 1956 film Baby Doll, starring Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, and Eli Wallach. (Jon Fratelli slips a similar old movie reference into another track on this album, "Stragglers Moon," with the refrain "can't help it / The girl can't help it.") This girl's innocence, too, is quite clearly up for grabs: "Baby doll / Do you believe they'll catch you when you fall . . . Don't forget / Your minor keys, your half-lit / Cigarette." (I won't bore you now with English-majory things about line breaks and enjambment, but trust me, it's got 'em.) 

The yearning melodic lift of the chorus begs us to believe in her virtue, but the chromatic snarls of the verses point instead to her, um, shall we say pliant nature ("Well, they said you was long gone / I just laughed and said alright/ Bring her home tonight / And I heard you was graciously put on / I just laughed and said good night / Guess it's alright.") What I love is how he keeps on loyally believing in her. "Well they said you burned out, I just laughed / And said come on / She's not burned / She's just gone."

Up until the very end, when he admits: "Everybody knows you well / Except for me, can't you tell." A loss of innocence. 

But how wrong is that, to love and believe? Especially when it's got a good beat and you can dance to it...

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

E Is For...

Songs A to Z

My 26-day challenge to myself -- write about a different band every day, working from A to Z. So while we're in Stiff Records mode...this could go under E, G, or W, but what the hell, I needed an E for today. And I love this record.

Wreckless Eric / 
"Whole Wide World"

One of the most lovable tracks that Stiff Records ever released (right up there with Elvis Costello's "Alison" and Ian Dury's "Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll,") this 1977 single was Eric Goulden's debut, and it was auspicious indeed. Oddly enough, it never made the charts, but it's since been covered by everybody from the Monkees to Paul Westerberg to Will Ferrell. It's one of those songs that, even if you don't know it, you know it.

Despite Stiff's reputation for outrageous stunts and proto-punk agression, this song is wonderfully tender, even in the loud and growly parts. What it does share with the Stiff aesthetic is that stripped-down punk simplicity -- only two chords, strummed over and over, in dogged 4/4 time -- and the deliberately raw production quality. Apparently Stiff's house producer, Nick Lowe, played not only the bass but most other instruments on this track, while Steve Goulding of the Rumour sits in on the drums. (The same sort of wistful melancholy runs through Graham Parker & the Rumour's "Watch the Moon Come Down" from their Stick to Me album, also from 1977, also produced by Nick Lowe, also with Steve Goulding on the drums. But that's another story.)

This is an undying-love song, but with a twist -- undying love for a girl he hasn't met yet (think Paul McCartney's "I Will" from The White Album, which BTW he wrote specifically for me). That accounts for the undertow of loneliness; no wonder he's sounding desperate and frantic by the last verse. "When I was a young boy / My mama said to me," he begins, a classic folk-music opener -- but then it goes south: "'There's only one girl in the world for you / And she probably lives in Tahiti." That flash of deprecating Cockney humor -- that's another Stiff hallmark, but it's also authentically Wreckless Eric, as he's gone on to prove in song after song.

But you've gotta admire the kid's determination: "I'd go the whole wide world / I'd go the whole wide world / Just to find her." Now there's a romantic soul. The woebegone quality of Eric's voice is just perfect; the lad's got a pure heart, even if he is a bit thick. (I love how Wreckless Eric stops just this side of making this character the butt of his humor.)

On Eric's website, he jokes that he's never checked out the geography for fear he got it wrong all those years ago. Don't worry, Eric, you're close enough. "Or maybe she's in the Bahamas / Where the Caribbean sea is blue / Weeping in a tropical moonlit night / Because nobody's told her 'bout you." There's a nice touch, the idea that the girl's lonely and longing too.

And as the buzzy guitars and smackdown drums kick in, Eric's getting a leetle paranoid; he changes up the refrain, "I'd go the whole wide world / Find out where they hide her."

Verse three and four are particularly fun -- he portrays himself "hanging around in the rain out here / Trying to pick up a girl" compared to his Ms. Right "lying on a tropical beach somewhere / Underneath the tropical sun / Pining away in a heatwave there." That juxtaposition is a stroke of something very near genius -- shades of the Beatles' "Sitting in an English garden / Waiting for the sun / If the sun you don't come you get a tan from standing in the English rain."

He caps it off in verse five, imagining himself "lying on that sun-soaked beach with her / Caressing her warm brown skin / And then in a year or maybe not quite / We'll be sharing the same next of kin." He manages to deliver a happy ending without getting sappy, without breaking character (and I do love that "skin/kin" rhyme"). By the time he gets here, I'm yearning too for him to get what he wants.

It was a great start to what's turned out to be an interesting career. Eric's still performing, still recording, but he's also painting and writing and doing radio shows and . . . well, check it out here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

D Is For...

Songs A to Z

My 26-day challenge  to myself -- write about a different band every day, working from A to Z. 

Ian Dury & the Blockheads / 
"Reasons to Be Cheerful (Part 3)"

So yeah, there's no Part 1 or Part 2. Already we're in art school high-concept territory. But the thing I gotta love about Ian Dury and the Blockheads: For all their New Wave cabaret cleverness, they were still a kick-ass jazz-groove band,

Will Birch's inestimable biography Ian Dury tells us that this song was written in 1979 after one of the band's roadies was nearly electrocuted while setting up for a show in Rome; when the shows were cancelled, Ian and his co-writer Chaz Jankel bashed it out in a hotel room. It certainly has that late-night stream-of-consciousness quality. They ran right out and recorded it in Rome, and promptly released it as a single -- which ended up being their second-highest-charting single ever (after "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick"). 

Basically, it's a catalog song. It's also been called the first rap record, although to be fair, even Ian Dury himself would tell you he was indebted to James Brown's pioneering rap style. The lads lay down a seductive disco groove, above which Mr. Dury spins any number of cultural references: "Some of Buddy Holly, the working folly / Good Golly Miss Molly, and boats [thunk -- what?] / Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet  [high-low, mix it all up] / Jump back in the alley, add nanny goats." Wait --wha? Nanny goats?

But Ian goes indefatigably on and on, in a deliciously random style. ("All other mammals plus equal votes / Seeing Piccadilly, Fanny Smith and Willy [you don't want to know] / Being rather silly, and porridge oats,"). 

Because this is the secret message of "Reasons to Be Cheerful" -- whatever you get off on, mate. "The juice of a carrot, / The smile of the parrot, / A little drop of claret, / Anything that rocks."  And now that Ian's in the zone, he'll reference everyone from runner Steven Biko to the Marx Brothers and Woody Allen. We have to be in the zone with him, letting that groove play itself out.

Even when it's crap: "Health service glasses, / Gigolos and brassies, / Round or skinny bottoms," Hit that groove and all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

So goeth the gospel according to Ian Dury.