Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"Foolproof" / Ron Sexsmith

I love it when following one rock artist leads to another, and another...Elvis Costello led me to Nick Lowe, who led me to John Hiatt, who led me to Dave Alvin and Guy Clark and Joe Ely and Lyle Lovett...there's serendipity at work, and you've got to surrender to it. Like with Ron Sexsmith. I know I'd never heard of him before this year (that isn't a name you'd forget); then all at once, within a fortnight, I found a track he contributed to a Kinks tribute album (a lovable version of "This Is Where I Belong"), then heard Nick Lowe cover "Secret Heart" on a concert bootleg, and then saw a thread about Ron on the Elvis Costello fan website. It was like a big finger pointing down out of the sky saying You Must Check Out This Artist. So I did.

I love finding a great new singer/songwriter. Every Ron Sexsmith song I've downloaded so far I find myself humming two days later, and smiling to myself as I do so. Sexsmith has a disarming voice, with a reedy, nasal tenor that perfectly matches his baby-faced looks; it's an ideal folk music voice, though the proper label would probably be alt/folk/pop, and on this laidback track from his 2001 album Blue Boy he goes for a downright jazzy sound, with a muted trumpet and piano and brushes on the drums. The older I get, the more I hate loud overblown rock anthems, and the more I dig modest, melodic numbers like this, with a wry lived-in wisdom.

It gets off to an ambling start, fiddling around with the rhythms like you'd fiddle with a plastic cocktail stirrer while nursing a drink, waiting for your date to show up: "Foolproof . . . that's what my heart's become /And I challenge anyone to break in / Challenge anyone to make me open up the door / 'Cause I've been fooled before / And now I'm foolproof." But while this could come off as cynical boasting, Sexsmith sings it with a self-deprecating shrug that clues you in: he's nowhere near as tough as he claims.

In fact, he's just enough of a hapless romantic to let himself fall in love all over again -- "'Cause I've been around the block a few times / Been around enough to know I'm / Coming back for more / 'Cause I believe that your / Heart is pure / And 'cause I'm . . . foolproof." He's fiddling with the rhymes too, as if hoping to make the stars align this time, and shoot, anybody can see this guy is gonna open that door again after all. Sigh.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"I Close My Eyes and Count To Ten" / Dusty Springfield

Here I was, doing my grocery shopping this afternoon, and what should I hear on the usually-obnoxious Food City muzak but this 1968 Dusty Springfield number. I had to stand there in the aisle with my trolley for a moment, marveling. Dusty! -- my favorite girl singer ever.

I got the best of both worlds with Dusty Springfield: she was English with a blond beehive and heavily mascaraed eyes -- absolutely required for me in the 1960s -- but she sang like an R&B goddess; she could hold her own against Aretha or Gladys Knight or Irma Thomas and could whup Diana Ross's skinny little Motown butt.

Actually, the singer I most often equate with Dusty is Patsy Cline -- our two great interpreters of frustrated female desire. Nothing ever turns out right in a Dusty Springfield love affair: the guy doesn't even notice you ("Wishin' and Hopin'"), or it means more to you than to him ("You Don't Have To Say You Love Me", "Stay Awhile"), or he's treating you wrong "(You Don't Own Me"), or he's gone and left you ("I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," "Everyday I Have To Cry Some", and countless others). Men are shits, but desire triumphs over good judgment every time, and the girl takes it on the chin because she's a weak-kneed fool for love ("Son of a Preacher Man"). I'm sure that Dusty's romantic view of life warped me permanently...but man could she sing.

This track begins with just a pounding, insistent piano, but more and more gets layered in as the song builds -- strings, a horn section, echo-chamber vocals -- sliding in and out of major and minor keys, trading on and off between straightforward pop and something jazzier, almost Brechtian. That incredible voice swoops and dives through all the dense arrangements with a blend of breathy fragility and steely vitality; hoarse when it needs to be, spine-shivering powerful when it really counts.

Maybe no song ever has replicated the torment of insecure love like this one. "We were strangers a moment ago /With a few dreams but nothing to show / The world was a place with a frown on its face / And tomorrow was just, I don't know..." Dusty's timing here is impeccable, the way she lags ever so slightly behind the beat, as if stumbling in doubt; then when she finds her way into the chorus, she hits every beat confidently and you begin to hope this time happiness might actually stick -- "But the way you make me feel / The moment I am close to you / Makes today seem so unreal / Somehow I can't believe it's true..."

Nor can we, and we find ourselves getting tangled up in diminished and seventh chords and nothing seems certain -- "But what is happening to me is only a dream" -- and Earth to Dusty! You just met this guy! Don't count on it...but Dusty is too far gone to hold back now. And isn't that what we love about her?
"Nobody Knows Me" / Lyle Lovett

Growing up in Indianapolis, I was hard-wired to hate country music -- it seemed all HeeHaw and Midwestern Hayride to me, just Not The Thing My People Listen To. Between that, and his extra-terrestrial appearances in Robert Altman films (not to mention that inexplicable marriage to Julia Roberts), Lyle Lovett had no chance of getting onto my playlist. But then I saw him live, doing an accoustic songwriter show with John Hiatt and Guy Clark and Joe Ely, and whoo boy, the scales fell from my eyes.

For one thing, I realized Lyle Lovett is NOT a country artist. He is a Western singer, and unapologetically so. Sure, there's folk in there, and blues, and tent-revival gospel, and dance-hall swing -- all Good Stuff. What he doesn't have are those corny cliches, reactionary pieties, and trumped-up drawls that ruin country music for me; apparently he has spent his entire career, 20-some years now, tactfully bucking the country-music stereotype and inventing his own genre.

In this particular song, for example, as he spins a description of a lazy weekend morning -- "I like cream in my coffee, I like to sleep late on Sundays...I like eggs over easy, with a flour tortilla" -- I just have to picture it in Texas, from that acoustic guitar, the tinny piano, the wheeze underneath that could be a cello but could just as easily be a squeeze-box -- and yet the folky tenderness of it, the jazz-like counterpoint, you'd never expect on a country-music station. And of course I want to be waking up in that sun-drenched house, smelling that coffee, frying those eggs for this man.

Surprise No. 2: That unhurried, mellow voice of his is a much more marvelous instrument than I'd expected; as effortless as his singing seemed, he overpowered those other three guys on the stage that night. In this song, on the repeated line "Nobody knows me like my baby," I love the way his voice soars hopefully on the long o's of "nobody" and "knows", gives a protective flutter over "like my," then cracks wistfully on "my baby." I don't really care whether he's thought this all out or just intuited how to deliver the song; it's just about perfect.

Revelation Three: Lyle Lovett in person is one of the most magnetic individuals I've ever seen. His odd, off-kilter manner simply reads as shyness, reinforced by a refreshing politeness -- gentlemanly to a fault. The long square jaw, the deep grooves either side of his mouth, the taut watchful eyes, even that improbable mass of curly hair on top his head -- in a photo he looks straight out of one of those James Agee WPA photos, but in person he is dead sexy. Just take my word for it.

So this has become The Thing I Listen To now; I play these songs over and over again. I like having Lyle Lovett in my head...I like it A LOT.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

"Whole 'Nother Thang" / Keb' Mo'

I can't even remember how I first got turned onto Kevin Moore, who records under the name of Keb' Mo' -- I reckon the abbreviation is meant to suggest an old-timey bluesman, and yes, the blues are alive and well with this guy. But what gets me about Keb' is his sly sense of humor, totally 2006 -- he'll refer to logging onto the internet or skydiving or investing in the stock market or driving an Escalade, all the while with a langorous hip-shifting groove that's part Delta and part Chicago and one-hundred-percent intoxicating.

I saw him last summer in Central Park opening for Bonnie Raitt; most of the crowd was there for Bonnie, but man, I was there for Keb', and he did not let me down. Skinny as a whippet and black as night, hat perched at a lazy angle on the back of his head, he has this great complicit grin that pulls you right in. He puts himself across as a man who really LIKES women, likes them for being smart and sassy and natural and full of juice, and I for one find it damn easy to imagine having a fine time with him.

This track is from his new album, Suitcase, a pretty irresistible CD if I do say so. The premise of this song is simple: he runs through a list of vices that he doesn't have..."but women? that's a whole 'nuther thang." Now, ladies, which one of us doesn't want to be a man's only weakness? And believe me, every one of us is included: "I like 'em big tall short fat thin and in between / I like 'em when they're gentle and I like 'em when they're mean / I like them when they whisper but I love them when they scream -- " Yee-OW!!

His guitar line strolls along confidently, punctuated with a brassy horn section and a wailing sax, and there's a sort of a wink in Keb's supple voice that brings you in on the joke, no matter how suggestive it is -- we're all adults here, right? As Keb' puts it in the next verse, "Only one thing makes me throw my money away: That's a little TLC and a little [ba-da-boom] T & A." In a world that seems to celebrate only skinny blond sexpots, the rest of us -- and that's most of us -- have this man to appreciate us. It's genuinely sexy -- and ain't that what the blues is all about?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"Thanksgiving Day" / Ray Davies

Christmas songs are a dime a dozen, but I can think of only two pop songs written about Thanksgiving. One of them, of course, is Arlo Guthrie's goofy rambling talk-song "Alice's Restaurant," which will be played non-stop on Sirius Radio tomorrow; the other is this 2005 song by Ray Davies, the presiding genius behind the Kinks. Only time will tell if it will become a holiday classic (given the baffling luck of the Kinks, it may not, anymore than their 1978 single "Father Christmas" ever became a Yuletide staple). Still, I think it deserves to become Turkey Day's official anthem.

Trust an Englishman -- and a North Londoner at that -- to get the point of Thanksgiving. A churchlike organ sounds at the beginning and a gospel choir joins in later, but those feel a bit like overkill on what is basically a loose-jointed soul groove sketching a series of vignettes, linked with the seductively repeated hook "come on over, come on over, come on over...."

First off we see a traditional family, gathering from far and near -- "the gathering of generations." As Ray says, "every year it's the same routine" -- yet far from being boring, on this one day it's reassuring to do the same-old same-old, especially when we learn that the father's thinking wistfully of his dead wife. (And for a moment, the chorus of "all overs" has another, sadder meaning.) Things turn even more bittersweet in later verses, about a spinster wishing for "kisses / All over, all over, all over her American face" or an ex-con sitting in a truck stop.

Ray Davies, of course, would never offer us unblemished happiness; melancholy losers and damaged souls have always been his cast of characters. Yet that's why I love this song -- it doesn't make any false promises. Going home on Thanksgiving Day isn't really going to solve anybody's life, but with a touching sort of optimism we Americans keep trying, year after year. Maybe it takes a Brit to show us how beautiful that is.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Has She Got a Friend?" / Nick Lowe

All right, I'll come clean -- most of the time the song in my head is by Nick Lowe. I think about this man morning, noon, and night, and it's been like that for well over a year now. I'm sure there's something I could take for it; but I don't want to be cured. Why give up the joy of thinking about Nick Lowe?

Yes, the same Nick Lowe who founded pub rock with Brinsley Schwartz and midwived the birth of punk as a producer at Stiff Records and played with Dave Edmunds in that high-energy band Rockpile. Me, I like every era of his music, even the relatively mellow country-tinged sound he's been doing lately. This lanky guy with the baggy-eyed smile and unruly thatch of hair (prematurely white for years now) is about the least pretentious rock musician there ever was. His music has a sort of irrepressible passion and joy, as if somehow Nick has preserved access to the adolescent inside him. Plus it just makes me happy to listen to it.

Even though he never has seemed to take himself too seriously, one thing Nick Lowe is serious about: The integrity of writing a Pop Song. Give him two minutes and fifty seconds and he'll knock out a short story in three verses and a bridge, complete with plot twist and punch line; rhymes will rhyme cleverly, cliches will be turned inside out, and somehow some gem of insight into human frailty will be dropped into it somewhere.

This song, for instance, from his 2001 album The Convincer. (And by the way, Nick -- 2001? Could you hurry up the new one, please? I'm dying here, waiting). Anyways, the set-up is two men in a bar, one of them rambling on about his new girlfriend. As the song snaps along cheerfully, with a fill of twanging country guitars, our hero listens with mounting impatience -- "I contrive a tear of joy / For your empty nights now at an end / But what I really want to know / Is -- has she got a friend?" I love hearing that men yearn for love the same way we women do; it's the human condition, after all.

This guy is a lonely loser -- Nick specializes in those guys -- and yet his warm, wry voice catches every once in awhile with genuine desire and hope that redeems the whole deal. "I'm in wonderment and awe / As you tell it all anew / But I've got one eye on the door / Praying someone will walk through..." We've all sat in that bar putting up with that bore, haven't we? But I can tell you one thing; if Nick Lowe is on that barstool waiting, I want to be the next woman who walks in that door.

Monday, November 20, 2006

"Ain't Gonna Come 'Til I'm Ready" / World Party

With Tower Records going out of business, I went down to the Lincoln Center store and hauled off a ton of CDs -- at 30 percent off, I could replace a lot of vinyl, or check out recent discoveries. World Party is a new find for me, though I now realize I'd seen this album, Goodbye Jumbo, in many friends' record collections -- who could miss that photo of a man in a gas mask with huge leathery black elephant ears? (It always took me a second to realize it wasn't Elvis Costello's Armed Forces.) But I saw them perform this fall downtown at Irving Plaza, and it was such a great live show that I immediately bought their new CD, Dumbing Up. Now's as good a time as any to fill in the missing albums.

When I say "they", I really mean "he", songwriter/singer Karl Wallinger; the rest of World Party changes every album. He's an impish curly-haired Welshman with infectious pop energy coming out of every pore, who'll go for an electronica disco beat one minute, a folky acoustic ballad the next, peppered with riffs and motifs lifted from the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan and the Who. In concert, Karl was completely irresistible, grinning from ear to ear, getting a kick out of the other musicians on stage, and repeating his hook lines over and over until you couldn't help but sing along, even if you didn't know the songs before. The records can't quite reproduce that delirious in-the-flesh charm, but they are certainly fine mood-enhancers.

I haven't decided yet whether I want "Ain't Gonna Come 'Til I'm Ready" to take up permanent residence in my brain, but I suspect the die is already cast. The title line is hypmotically repeated over and over and OVER, and there's really no question what kind of "coming" he's talking about, not with that languid beat and the vibrating string section and an electric guitar snaking around the horns as it builds up to climax point.

It's loaded with delicious sexual tension -- "I can see what you're all about / You make us keep it in /When we should let it out..." But when Barry White did this sort of thing, his suggestive deep voice was always a little threatening; Karl's high-pitched quavery yelp just makes all the heavy breathing fun. It sure puts the party in World Party.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

"Somedays" / Paul McCartney

Sometimes you don't take the CD out of the player for a few days -- that's how it's been with Paul McCartney ever since I wrote that last post. Circumstances have conspired to keep me in a Macca mindset. I was lucky enough to behold him in the flesh on Monday, signing CDs at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square (I didn't get any CDs signed -- didn't have the stamina to camp out on the sidewalk overnight) and then got to see him AGAIN the next night at Carnegie Hall at the US premiere of his new classical piece, Ecce Cor Meum. I'll admit I was rendered helpless and giddy by the tractor beam of his...well, his Paulness. I make no apologies for this: Part of the deal with being a female rock fan is that you also get to fall in love with the rock star of your choice. Just because.

At Carnegie Hall, the first half of the program included several of Paul's songs arranged for string quintet and classical singers. Okay, I stifled a giggle at hearing "My love does it good" sung ponderously by an operatic soprano, but this arrangement made perfect sense when a tenor got up to sing "Somedays"; Paul's own recording of it, on the album Flaming Pie, already has a string quartet and a harpsichord. (He's mined that vein successfully ever since "Eleanor Rigby"; remember how radical it was back then for a rock band to use a string quartet?).

This is a hauntingly beautiful song, shifting in and out of major and minor keys; I think it's one of Paul's most mature lyrics, all about two partners stumbling through life, clinging to each other through the ebb and flow of a long-term relationship. "Sometimes I laugh, I laugh to think how young we were / Some times it's hard, it's hard to know which way to turn...." Paul's voice is so sincere, with that eloquent little warble at the end of a line, that you find yourself buying it totally. Nobody can outdo this man at the top of his game.

Ecce Cor Meum
is not exactly a perfect work (and even I could see that it's a bit of a classical mash-up), but those soaring melodies, the yearning harmonies -- only Paul could get away with this. It's all about love being the greatest thing in the world, and music being the pure expression of the soul, and it struck me the other night that Paul McCartney actually believes that love is all you need. Well, God bless him for it. Maybe he's right.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

"Bluebird" / Paul McCartney

I'm tired of apologizing for loving Paul McCartney. After 40-odd years, you think I'm gonna give him up? He was the first musical love of my life, after all. But it hasn't been easy. Memo to Paul: Your perverse choice of songs to release as singles baffles me. "Hands Across the Water"? "Ebony and Ivory"? "SILLY LOVE SONGS"? How is a serious music lover supposed to defend being a Paul McCartney fan when most of the listening public only knows those songs?

Go only a little deeper into McCartney's solo work and you find a totally different picture. For example, there's the song on my mental mix-tape lately -- "Bluebird." No, not "Blackbird,' that folky acoustic track from the white album, though this one seems like its separated-at-birth twin. It's a relatively minor track from Band on the Run (possibly Paul's best post-Beatles album), a lilting samba with just guitar, a Latin percussion section, and back-up singers, plus a smoky sax solo in the bridge. I generally resented hearing Linda McCartney sing back-up on Wings records (hey, that was my job), but I love the way these breathy harmonies sigh in and out like gusts of breeeze, with the percussion rolling like surf underneath.

"Bluebird" has the same message about "flying away" and "being free" as the Beatle-era song, but it's this one that really soars like a bird. The way the chorus repeats "You're a bluebird," falling on different beats each time, is just magical. While "Blackbird" seemed metaphorical and political, this song is just unutterably sexy -- I mean, "Touch your lips with a magic kiss and you'll be a bluebird too..."). Please, yes, Sir Paul.

I was always a Paul girl. In the grip of early Beatlemania, nothing much mattered except Paul's cheeky choirboy good looks -- really folks, no other man on earth ever was or will be as cute as Paul McCartney was in 1964; I'm sure it's a scientifically proven fact.

But as time passed I also realized that all my favorite songs were Paul's -- I'd always pick "And I Love Her" over "If I Fell"; "Penny Lane" over "Strawberry Fields"; "Get Back" over "Come Together." While John favored chromatic melody lines, Paul's bounced and skipped all over the scale. John tended to use a draggy, insistent beat; Paul was drawn to syncopation and off-accent beats (only natural for a bassist, after all). Paul couldn't resist a pun or alliteration, while John went for imagery.

Both truly great songwriters -- but my ear and my heart always went for Paul's sheer musicality over John's haunting poetry. Lots of people -- Bob Dylan, for example -- write image-laden poetry. Nobody else I can think of quite has Paul McCartney's inexhaustible melodic gift. And in this miserable world of ours, that's no small thing.

Friday, November 03, 2006

"Witchy Woman" / The Eagles

Sometimes you don't want that song in your head. I heard this one on Sirius' Classic Vinyl station on Halloween and I have not been able to get rid of it since then. And I hate the song. I hate the Eagles.

Why? Partly because there was a period in the 1970s when they were played nonstop on American radio stations -- that'll ruin just about any song. And back then all I could think about was British musicians; all I wanted was the Kinks and Traffic and the Who and every party I went to was playing Jackson Browne, Boz Scaggs, and the Eagles. To me, this wasn't rock music; this had already descended into easy listening. It had no politics, as far as I could see (maybe a little hazy save-the-planet pap), very little instrumental virtuosity, and no wit whatsoever.

Listening the other day, I realized that this particular song -- and come to think of it, most of the Eagles' songs -- seems to be all chorus. Honestly, can you even think of how the verse on "Witchy Woman" goes? All I can hear in my brain is those harmonized "Oooooh-ooh-hoo's" over and over and over and OVER again. If it hadn't been for Crosby, Stills & Nash singing their close harmonies, I doubt the Eagles would have had ANY musical ideas at all.

And really, what is this song about? Does it matter? Does it matter what any of the Eagles' songs are about? "Peaceful Easy Feeling" is about...a peaceful easy feeling. "The Best of My Love" is about...the best of my love. "Take It To the Limit" is, taking it to the limit. And "One of These Nights" is about...well, you get the idea. The only Eagles song that even tries to say anything is "Hotel California", but that's a fake -- you think all those cryptic images will add up to something, but THEY DON'T. Play it loud with dense production values and no one will notice.

"Desperado" is the only Eagles song I don't despise -- and even "Desperado" I like better when Linda Ronstadt sings it. These guys are so bad that Linda Ronstadt's version is better. They are the only artists of whom that can be said.

Maybe I should get over it by now. This whole genre known as <shiver of disgust>"Classic Rock" is beloved by legions of baby boomers. It's a little bit country, a little bit folk, and a little bit (a very little bit) rock, so you never have to commit yourself. The singers have beautiful voices and sound extremely sincere; the echo chambers are working and the wall of sound is hair-gelled into place.

And best of all, when you play these songs half of America (or at least half of AARP's membership) can hum along to the chorus -- not because the songs are catchy but because you couldn't escape them throughout the late 1970s. That's not taste, that's psychological conditioning. Bleah.