Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Liverpool 8" / Ringo Starr

You've gotta love Ringo. Whatever psychodramas consumed the other Beatles, Ringo always was their rock. Still, I haven't followed Ringo's solo career too faithfully (I do have a vinyl copy of his 1973 album Ringo around here somewhere, and all the Thomas the Tank Engine videos where he played The Conductor). But there were an awful lot of Paul McCartney albums to buy instead, and anyway, let's be honest; Ringo Starr is neither a great songwriter nor a very good singer.

That's why I'm so happy to see that Ringo's got a new single we all can love. It's called "Liverpool 8," and just like the title suggests, it's a breezy snapshot of his own memorable life. Looking back on the Beatles, John Lennon wrote a vicious rant called "How Can You Sleep?" (so vicious that even he recanted it later), but when Ringo looks back on the Beatles, it's a sunny, genial picture--a real heartwarmer.

Ringo is a man who knows his limitations, and this song is as simple as possible. In the verses, the lines are short, the rhymes elementary, the rhythm punchy. "I was a sailor first / I sailed the sea [cue up a little nautical pipe] / Then I got a job / In a factory." But it hits all the buttons, fast-forwarding through his early career: "Played Butlins camp / With my friend Rory" (for the Beatle-ignorant among you, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes was Ringo's first band); "Went to Hamburg / The red lights were on / With George and Paul / And my friend John / We walked all night / We all looked tough / We didn't have much / But we had enough." (I told you the rhymes were basic.) True, Ringo wasn't in the Beatles when they played Hamburg, but Rory Storm was gigging there at the same time; when George Martin told Paul and John to fire drummer Pete Best if they wanted a record contract, they knew immediately who they wanted instead.

In the chorus, Ringo switches to a longer, more legato line, with strings added for sentimental value: "Liverpool I left you / Said goodbye to Madryn Street / I always followed my heart / And I never missed a beat" (excellent word play there -- good job, Richie!). "Destiny was calling / I just couldn't stick around / Liverpool I left you / But I never let you down." The third time around, Ringo changes Madryn Street, his early childhood home, to Admiral Grove, where the Starkeys later moved. You get the idea that those early years are still very present, that the poor kid from the Dingle was never lost in the scrum of fame.

A few other touches I love in this song: the way his voice slides up to the high note on "couldn't stick a-rowwwwnd" (Ringo never could reliably hit those intervals); the guitar riff at the end of the chorus, stolen from Manfred Mann's "Sha La La"; the crowd noise in the background of the verse about Shea Stadium; the Penny-Lane-like horns at the end, while Ringo and a chorus of mates repeats "Liverpool" like a football cheer. Priceless.

Usually, I'd feel sorry for a guy who's still harping on what he did 40 years ago--but what Ringo Starr did 40 years ago was so big, I don't mind. Besides, it's Ringo. There's not a single sour note here, no chip on his shoulder, no grandiose claims. "We were number one / Man, it was fun." That's how he remembers it, and I buy it. Now if I could just figure out why it's Liverpool 8, instead of Liverpool 4 or 5 or whatever . . .

Liverpool 8 sample

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Coupe de Ville" / Neil Young

I'll admit it, I came late to Neil Young. There was a time, in fact, back in high school, when I actually hated him. Of course, back then every kid who could strum a guitar had worked up a whiny version of "Rockin' in the Free World"; you couldn't get away from Neil Young, those days. Then about six years ago, I was listening to Harvest Moon one evening and, all in a flash, I finally GOT Neil Young. I could finally look past the torn jeans and straggly hair and realize the bone-deep sincerity of everything he's ever written. Shoot, I've even grown fond of his nasal strangled-cat yelp.

One of the cool things about coming late to an artist is that you get to plunge in and explore his whole body of work all at once. I missed This Note's For You in 1988 because that was when I still hated Neil Young. Besides, with its jazzy rhythms and horn section, it's not a "typical" Neil Young album--the enthusiasts (yes, the same Neilaholics who used to torment me) forget to mention it much. I only recently discovered This Note's For You; it's still a fresh thing on my Uncle Neil playlist. I have to say, I'm loving it.

This song takes melancholy to a whole new level; Neil's mournful voice has a surly edge of self-pity, totally appropriate for a song with the refrain "If I can't have you / I don't want nothing else." It's in the same vein as Nick Lowe's "Lately I've Let Things Slide," without the wry humor; it also reminds me of Marshall Crenshaw's "Where Home Used To Be," but not nearly so wistful. No, this is a guy who's still hung-up on the woman who's left him, and that plaintive sax counterpoint is like one more twist of the knife.

"I got a coupe de ville," he announces, chip firmly on shoulder; "I got a bed in the house / Where you once lived." The house is absolutely defined by her absence--that's misery for you. "I had a few cheap thrills," he admits, grudgingly, "But they cost me a lot more / Than I could give." He's admitting some guilt, vaguely, but I don't hear a whole lot of remorse in that edgy syncopation. "I got a right / In this crazy world /To live my life / Like anyone else," he insists, voice quavering. "How long can I/ Carry this monkey around/ All by myself?"

So what were those "few cheap thrills" that drove her away? At first I thought it was infidelity, but then there's the monkey on his back -- is it drugs? I picture this lonely, stubborn man shambling around his big house (a Coupe de Ville is a luxury car, after all, not what I'd imagine Neil Young driving), and the straggly hair, the torn jeans are part of the picture. He's still aching -- "Well I hit the wall /Woke up this morning / And I hit the wall," he confesses, still in shock. He's not coping very well.

I have no idea if she's ever coming back; that's almost beside the point. The raw hurt is the point. The horns sound so far off at times, the drums a shimmer of brush on cymbal, the guitar line loping like the dull throb of a hangover. This song just kills me. How could I not love a guy who can write a heart-breaker like this?

Monday, December 17, 2007

"Queen Elvis" / Robyn Hitchcock

I'm still trying to figure out why more people aren't into Robyn Hitchcock. He has at least half a dozen songs that deserve to be instant classics, with entrancing hooks and contagious melodies; his lyrics are arresting, poetic, often funny as hell. True, half the time I can't figure out what's happening in his songs, but hey, that's actually a selling point with me. I guess some people might be put off by his nasal vocals and broad English accent. Not that I am, but like I said, I'm trying to solve this mystery.

Consider, then, "Queen Elvis," from his 1990 album Eye. It's such a great title, changing Elvis's title from The King to The Queen; even before the song begins we know we're in the land of the sexually confused. And like Lou Reed's "Walk On the Wild Side," it's full of sympathy for outsider lifestyles. The melody is Lennon-esque, repeated notes vacillating within a narrow range; the lyrics are ambiguous, leaving you groping for the code. As a result, the song quivers with dynamic tension, throwing out lines and then reeling you in.

"People get what they deserve," Hitchcock begins (does he means "deserve" like a punishment or a reward?) followed by the cryptic observation "Time is round and space is curved." Two lines into the song and we're already getting surreal. Then he gently asks his song's protagonist, "Honey, have you got the nerve / To be Queen Elvis?" He knows there's pain involved in coming out ("It could break your mother's heart / It could break your sister's heart"); he says he's jealous, but he's also repelled -- hear the snide flourish in lines like "Justify your special ways" and the bridge "Oh and I'll sculpt you /So very hard" ("sculpt" makes me think of Michelangelo and Svengali and personal trainers all at once). While he's at it, he'll sneer at the nature of celebrity ("getting blowjobs from the press" and hangers-on "babbling beside the throne")--yep, it's all in here, swirling around in an edgy stew of feelings.

His voice sounds slightly strangled and lonely, over a dead simple acoustic strum--earnest and yet dodgy too. Does he identify with Queen Elvis, or is he attracted to Queen Elvis? It's neither and both; anyway, he's not giving anybody a straight answer. "Two mirrors make infinity," he muses later on, "In the mirror you and me / Find out just what love could be / Queen Elvis." Wha?

Usually I like my pop songs tightly crafted, and yet I'm dizzy in love with these surreal rambling Robyn Hitchcock concotions. Of course his slightly sinister, schoolboy-in-disgrace good looks help--I'm just mentioning that for you ladies, because we all know it's part of why we enjoy our rock and roll. He's got a whole pack of these absurd, allusive gems -- "Jewels for Sophia," "I Saw Nick Drake," "The Devil's Radio," "If You Know Time," "I Often Dream of Trains," "Madonna of the Wasps," "My Wife and My Dead Wife" -- all dredged up from some subterranean realm of mad genius. I'll take as much of it as I can get, thank you, and anyone else who wants to join me is welcome.

Queen Elvis sample

Saturday, December 08, 2007

"Watching the Wheels" / John Lennon

Twenty-seven years ago, and it still hurts. I lived just a few blocks uptown from the Dakota the night John was shot, and I remember walking there the morning after, taking my place among the crowds of hollow-eyed, stunned mourners gathering on the sidewalk across the street. No other rock 'n' roll death ever hit me so hard. Every year, this anniversary surprises me by how much I still miss him.

I wasn't much of a fan of the Double Fantasy album -- too many Yoko songs. (I actually don't dislike Yoko, not like some people do, but let's be honest, her songs were horrible.) This one track, though, redeemed the whole record for me. It's a delicious defense of John's house-husband years, those fallow years when he'd finally figured out how to stop being a Beatle and start being a person. But his music mattered so much to the world, the idea of him being a private citizen seemed perverse.

"People say I'm crazy / Doing what I'm doing ," he notes wryly. I'm sure Lennon heard it over and over again, how he was wasting his phenomenal talent by sitting around his apartment baking bread and playing with his little boy Sean. (My other favorite song on this album: "Beautiful Boy.") But it's like something I once heard Orson Welles say -- it's such a Puritan notion, that just because you have talent you have to use it.

"When I say that I'm okay, / Well they look at me kinda strange," John reports, with only a trace of that famous edge of his. "'Surely you're not happy now / You no longer play the game'?" But the thing is, John WAS happy just "watching shadows on the wall." He didn't miss "the big time," not at all. Here was a guy who'd been living in a whirlwind ever since he was 19 years old -- can you blame him for finally jumping off?

There's a hypnotic piano hook lacing it all together, a curling little riff that's the best thing about this whole song. In typical Lennon form, the melody slides around chromatically, the chords morph in and out of seventh and diminished modes, more interested in subtle incremental shifts than the bouncy tunes his partner Paul McCartney tended to write.

"I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round / I really love to watch them roll," he insists in the chorus. "No longer riding on the merry-go-row-ownd" -- jumping upwards for once, an exasperated falsetto howl. "I just had to let it go," he explains, and although this entire song is about being relaxed and contented, the way he punches out that line suggests that it didn't come easy.

I think it's significant that this song shows Lennon getting his syncopated groove back -- after all the primal scream of the Plastic Ono Band album, the woozy introspection of Imagine, and the political rants of Sometime in New York City, the Double Fantasy album found Lennon's creative juices in harmony again. The album came out in November 1980; a couple weeks later he was shot. Makes you think.

So, in honor of John Lennon, let's all draw a breath, step off, and watch the wheels for a while. Life's too short to ride that merry-go-round forever.

Watching the Wheels sample

Saturday, December 01, 2007

“Alone In A Room” / Marshall Crenshaw

I’ve had the hardest time trying to pick just one song to focus on from Marshall’s 2003 album What’s In The Bag? It’s an incredibly consistent album, with superbly crafted instrumentals and thought-provoking lyrics. I marvel at how well Marshall’s voice has held up, too – for a 50-year-old (well, maybe he was still 49 when he laid down these vocals), his steady, sweet-as-honey tenor sounds every bit as good as it did twenty years earlier.

But what really blows me away about this album is its melodies. Venturing beyond the standard chord progressions of retro pop, Marshall’s ear for an arresting hook has never served him better than it does here. You’ll hear it on the lonesome road song “Will We Ever?”, the rueful “Where Home used To Be,” the end-of-love song “The Spell Is Broken,” or the moody “Long and Complicated.” And then there’s the warm delicious thing “Alone In A Room,” which happens to be one of the sexiest songs MC’s ever done, in my humble opinion.

Here’s my theory: singer-songwriters tend (consciously or not) to write melodies that fit their vocal style. Like Paul McCartney, Marshall Crenshaw’s wide vocal range and great pitch set him free to skip all over the scale, with lots of interesting interval jumps. In this song, the verses climb upward like a jazz trumpet, each line an impressionistic detail – “The sunlight on a violet wall / The radio playing down the hall / The curtains moving with a gentle breeze / There’s nothing else in the world I need / Right now” -- only to drop in the chorus into his lower register, with just a hint of huskiness on that tantalizing line “Right now it’s all / About you and me alone in a room.” It’s confiding, intimate, and I find myself leaning closer, yearning to be in that room with him.

“Waiting for the light / As we made our way home late last night,” he muses in the bridge, in a freeform melodic line. “Standing there with your hand holding mine,” with an unexpected jump upward on “mine” that shivers to the bone. The laid-back poetry of the lyrics is nicely married to that sensual syncopation, the shimmering cymbals and vibraphone adding a whiff of cocktail-lounge coolness. “I wish that life could always feel this fine,” he exults, and then breaks into a guitar solo that’s like the same cry of happiness in a different language.

At this point in his songwriting life, Marshall Crenshaw really knows that less is more. Those significant pauses between phrases let us savor each moment, as if we had all the time in the world. After the solo, he murmurs appreciatively, “Your / favorite clothes / and perfume / Yeah, you / Make me dream / About you and me alone in a room.” And that’s it, that’s all the detail we’re going to get – let your imagination take it from there.

You know, Marshall Crenshaw just keeps on getting better. It’s a crying shame that now, when he’s doing his best work, he’s not on simply everybody’s playlist. Well, do yourself a favor -- put him on yours.

Alone In A Room sample

Friday, November 30, 2007

“Dime A Dozen Guy” / Marshall Crenshaw

Wait a minute – here I’m writing about all these upbeat Marshall Crenshaw songs, and you may be thinking the guy’s a sap. He most definitely is not, let me tell you. And just to prove it, here’s a crafty little number from his 1999 CD #447 (possibly my favorite MC album ever).

Marshall Crenshaw does jealousy and betrayal extremely well too (see here what I wrote a few months ago about “You Should’ve Been There”). This song’s another mini-drama along the same lines, a guy prowling around town in the wake of his girlfriend – only this time, he actually sees her in the company of her new flame. “I saw her Sunday / Down by the Breakers,” he opens his story, in brooding minor key, and later, “First they're at the Forum / Then they're at the drive-in.” I can just see her buzzing past like Tuesday Weld in a Chevy convertible, a satisfied smile plastered on her face by the wind. All those specific references make this so vivid. I remember doing the circuit around Indianapolis as a teenager, chasing the word on who was where with whom. “I asked my buddies / And they all said It's no lie / She's tearin' up the town / With that dime-a-dozen guy” – having this play out in public makes it smart even more.

Seething with jealousy, MC protests “He’s not good looking / At least I don't think so / I just can't figure / Any earthly reason why / A girl like her would choose / That dime-a-dozen guy.” His pride is stung most of all by the fact that he’s losing her to someone so ordinary. He’s so baffled by this, he doesn’t focus on the rest of the story, but in the bridge he drops a crucial bit of info, in a sort of stuttered atonal squawk: “Guess I was thoughtless, careless too / I disappeared on her it's true.” WHAT? Why didn’t you tell us that before?

Even though he declares, “Now I realize I / wasted something / That I cared about / That's why I'm blue,” those phrases stagger woefully down the scale, knowing all is lost. “Is there something about him / That my eyes aren’t seeing?” he moans. Well, YEAH – the new guy hasn’t ditched her like you did, you dope. Sure, our hero is paying for his sins – “Right now it’s feeling pretty grim / To hang my heart out on this limb” – but I really don’t expect her to come back. That’s life, my friend.

I love the fuzzy guitar licks here – guest guitarist Pat Buchanan lays down a retro jazz sound straight out of Peter Gunn or The Fugitive. Between growing up in Detroit and paying his dues in New York City, Marshall Crenshaw’s got an urban edge to his sound, under all its pop brightness; bongos slap like tires on pavement, the stand-up bass thrums like a V-8, guitar chords shift like a manual transmission (shades of Beach Boys car songs), as the singer cruises around town on his heartsick mission. It’s a droll, rueful little comedy, pulled off with style and assurance. And I guarantee if it suddenly came up on your car radio, you’d be MESMERIZED.

Dime A Dozen Guy sample

Thursday, November 29, 2007

“What Do You Dream Of?” / Marshall Crenshaw

By the time of 1996’s Miracle of Science, Marshall Crenshaw was no longer a major-label kind of artist. In the post-Nirvana musical landscape, “power pop” was a shopworn concept, and anyway, a guy in his 40s couldn’t sell it like a bunch of kids in skinny jeans (think Fountains of Wayne) could. But that just set Marshall Crenshaw free to relax into his own gifts -- like he does in "What Do You Dream Of?"

When you’re first in love with someone, you fixate on all the ways you’re alike -- two hearts beat as one, and all that. But years down the road, you run up against the inexorable truth: your two hearts are still beating separately. In fact, there’re things about this other person you will never understand. In a similar song, Ben Folds’ “Trusted,” the singer’s outraged that the lover he thought could read his mind was really just snooping through his diary. In Lyle Lovett’s “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind,” the singer anxiously wonders what his elusive girlfriend is planning next. These are painful songs, worn and wise and experienced.

“What Do You Dream Of?”, though, gives us the flip side of such experience. This lilting backbeat number kicks off with light, folky fingerpicking – low-key and intimate, just like two lovers who’ve been together a while. “Just last night when we were in bed,” he muses, “This thought came into my head / I would give anything, girl – “ and he hangs there for a moment, with a few extra discordant strums – “If I could steal a look into your secret world / What do you dream of?” Not that there’s anything in particular he wants to know – he just wants to understand her better.

“I’ll never know what really lies / Behind your sleeping eyes,” he admits, in stairstep modulations like little tugs of frustration, wavering from the major key of the verse. But where another writer might act jealous or possessive, MC is solicitous: “Can you leave your worldly cares behind / Or do they rule your mind?” He senses she’s struggling with life, and he’d like to help – “Close your eyes, you know it feels fine / To let yourself finally unwind / From fighting hard to stay in the game / For all your trouble and time, you're getting more of the same.” And if she needs some shelter from the storm, he's right there. Jeez, we all could use some of that.

Clearly, he’s crazy about her – that shimmers through the shifting, unresolved chords in the self-rhyming line “When I see you smile, / I've got a reason to smile.” For that fleeting moment, they do seem connected as one. But the next time around, that same modulation conveys nagging uncertainty, as he admits, “I'll never solve / All of your mysteries.” Sorry, honey.

Happy? Basically, yeah – it’s only once in awhile, he says, that this stuff puzzles him. With its gently rocking syncopation, its blithe melody, this song just radiates domestic contentment. On the surface, this may be a realistic song about the distance between two lovers – but what really hits me is how close they are. And how his heart soars, watching his wife sleep quietly beside him. She’s one lucky woman, that’s all I can say.

What Do You Dream Of? sample

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

“For Her Love” / Marshall Crenshaw

Then there’s this other side to Marshall Crenshaw – the unabashed romantic. Very few songwriters deliver such convincing happy-in-love songs as MC does (okay, Paul McCartney, but whom else can you think of?). For example, take “For Her Love,” on his 1983 album Field Day -- this thing just bowls me over. Instead of the stripped-down rock& roll of his earlier songs, here he deftly pulls off another classic pop sound: the wall of sound, with a dense production quality that buoys up his reverb guitar and boyish vocals on cresting waves of love.

I’m not talking glorified moon-in-June stuff – no, this feels like a real love between two real people, woven out of little moments and everyday details. “Laughing out loud to no one,” he starts out, “thinking ‘bout the things I’ve done / For her love / For her love / For her love.” The echo-chambered vocals here are a canny choice, because it’s internal dialogue, a guy musing to himself -- not just some stud making rash vows to lure a chick into bed. “Knowing how wrong I’ve been / And how I’d do it all again / For her love” – he admits he’s made mistakes, and that he’s flawed, but the sunny melody -- all broken major chords -- reassures him (and us) that it’s OKAY to be human. And those back-up singers, chiming in on the repeated “for her love’s” – they ratify everything he says.

There’s no swagger, no showing-off – and no sexual posing. As the melody blossoms in the bridge, we get only a discreet glimpse of their intimate moments: “I can’t compare anything I’ve known / To what I feel when we’re all alone.” Yes, of course the little throb in his voice on "all alone" tell us that he means "in bed," but it’s private, folks – we don’t need all the details of hungry lips and roving hands, do we? That’s where today’s girl singers get it wrong, IMO – explicit doesn’t necessarily equal sexy.

Instead, MC sounds simply over-the-moon, with that kind of tenderness you get in certain Ricky Nelson and Pat Boone songs, the best ones. (“April Love,” come on, that was a great pop song.) “And we’ll keep having our fun, wait and see,” he promises, “even if it makes demands on me.” Now there’s where my eyes bug out. This is NOT your typical rock sentiment, and frankly, as a woman, I find it the sexiest line in the whole song.

Then he goes cinematic – “I’m riding on a subway train / And running through the driving rain / For her love.” Maybe that verges on soft-focus Clairol-commercial montage (“We walk together on a summer night”, even more so), but sung in his earnest, straightforward voice, I buy it totally. “I close my eyes and I feel all right,” he adds, still not quite believing his good luck, “And we’ll keep having fun, heart to heart / Even if my whole world falls apart.” In other words, for richer, for poorer – the kind of love you build your life on.

When you think of what else we were listening to in 1983 – the cyncism of Blondie, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello, the deviant goofiness of Devo and the B-52s – the pop purity of this song is even more amazing. There isn’t a cloud of doubt or blame or despair spoiling it. He loves her, she apparently loves him, and they’ll be together for life. It seems so simple, but you have to be a true believer to pull it off without sounding sappy. Marshall Crenshaw’s a true believer -- God bless him for it.

For Her Love sample

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"The Usual Thing" / Marshall Crenshaw

Hey wait, what? I forgot Marshall Crenshaw's birthday? Damn. I was planning to dedicate a whole week of entries to him, just like I did for all my other musical heroes. Marshall's birthday was November 11th, which was Sunday this year, and also Julie's birthday (happy birthday again, Jools!), and somehow he got lost in the mix. But better late than never.

One of the great mysteries of rock and roll, to my mind, is why Marshall Crenshaw isn't absolutely a huge star. What's not to like? He's an appealing singer, great guitarist, and a severely underrated songwriter. Nobody does power pop better than MC, carrying on that noble tradition that goes back to Buddy Holly, Bobby Fuller, and the Everly Brothers. And yes, he's influenced by the Beatles, like all of us who were born in 1953 -- he even played John Lennon in a road company of Beatlemania in the early 80s. But through the years he's honed his craft and gone ever deeper into that classic mode of songwriting, working in a little rockabilly and jazz and R&B and anything else that'll make these songs sparkle.

This guy had it right from the beginning, on his 1982 debut titled (duh) Marshall Crenshaw. It's packed with instant classics: "Someday, Someway," "There She Goes Again," "She Can't Dance," "Cynical Girl," "Rocking Around In N.Y.C" -- even if you don't recognize the names, once you hear them, you realize, yeah, I know this song.

"The Usual Thing" is particularly contagious, shot through with rockabilly guitar licks and Everly-worthy harmonies and a giddy tempo like a joyriding teenager on a Saturday night. It declares itself with a burst of youthful energy: "Don't want to know about the usual thing / I never bother with the usual thing / And I only wanna shout / Wanna shout / Wanna feel alive / Do whatever I wanna do." I love how those "shouts" skip up the scale, building to thrilled yelp of "feel alive." This song makes me feel seventeen again, every time I hear it.

We all know what it's like to feel that way -- but when you're in that impetuous teenage moment, you also have to feel different, new, SPECIAL. At least, that's how I felt when I was seventeen (in the same vein, I love the Kinks' "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" and the Replacements' "Bastards of Young"). Marshall catches this nonconformist spirit, too. "Just forget about the usual thing," he advises the girl he's wooing, "I never bother with the usual thing / And if I didn't think you were a little bit out there too / I just wouldn't bother with you." Isn't that what we're all looking for -- someone who sees how we're different?

Hearing "The Usual Thing" back in 1982, I felt as if Marshall was somehow a close friend -- not just a rocker to admire, but someone completely sympatico. Over the next 25 years, he's just kept on proving it time and again. That's why his CDs sit on the special shelf in my collection; that's why he deserves a whole week here. And if you don't know his music, check in over the next few days -- I think you'll like what you'll hear.

The Usual Thing sample

Monday, November 26, 2007

“Seeing Other People” / Belle & Sebastian

Back in the 60s, pop songs raved about loving someone forever. Not any more. Alt rock is full of quizzical songs about infidelity, or the joyless pursuit of multiple sexual partners. It may not be progress, but you’ve got to admit, those are much more complex frames of mind to explore.

Exhibit A: Belle & Sebastian, that arty folk-tinged combo from Glasgow, and this nifty track I've been listening to from their 1998 album If You’re Feeling Sinister. On the surface it’s a bright, uptempo number about “friends with privileges,” but I hear something dark and disappointed woven in too. Stuart Murdoch’s breathy, slightly fey tenor clips heartlessly through the song’s word-crammed lyrics, melody swooping up and down, accents falling in odd places. That piano line ripples briskly along, all jazzy key shifts, uncertain and unreliable – I don’t know, but it feels like nobody’s happy here, not really.

We start with a fumbling love scene – “We lay on the bed there / Kissing just for practice / Could we please be objective? / Cause the other boys are queuing up behind us,” which reminds me of way too many junior-high parties. And for all its innocence – “Well if I remain passive and you just want to cuddle / Then we should be okay” – the main thing is to look like you’re having hot sex. Actual desire is beside the point.

Of course, as the shrinks warn us, detachment is often just a pose: “Cause we're seeing other people / At least that's what we say we are doing.” Awkwardly, he probes his partner’s state of mind: “How are you feeling? / I don't think you can be dealing / With the situation very well,” with a lack of connection that’s pathetic. For all the talk of lovers and dirty weekends, he winds up feeling sleazy, like some kind of gigolo, instead.

It’s a riddling song about self-absorption (“You're kissing your elbow / You're kissing your reflection”) and watching your back (twice he mentions the “other boys” who are crowding in). It’s also rife with sexual confusion (“You're going to have to change / Or you're going to have to go with girls / You might be better off / At least they know what they're doing.”) But let’s face it, the boys aren’t the only ones who don’t know what they’re doing. Everybody’s lost.

I’m reminded of a much older song, an 80s number by Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” that pulled off a similar trick, layering regret and melancholy under a funky, strutting disco pose. This song may profess to be celebrating casual sex, but it’s saturated with a crying need for plain old love. Hunh. Human nature hasn’t changed since the 60s -- we’re just telling ourselves different lies, that’s all.

Seeing Other People sample

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"She Turns My Radio On" / Jim Ford

Jim Ford? you're asking. Well, I don't suppose I would have known who Jim Ford was either, if it hadn't been for Nick Lowe. Nick and his Brinsley Schwarz buddies worshipped Ford and recorded a couple of his songs -- "Nikki Hoeky," Juju Man," "36 Inches High" -- which are about the only Jim Ford songs I really knew. That's if you don't count "Ode to Billie Joe," which Ford apparently wrote but let his then-girlfriend Bobbie Gentry take the credit for.

Thanks to Nick's recommendation, I did eventually buy The Sounds of Our Time, a Jim Ford compilation that includes his one studio album -- 1969's Harlan County, named after the Kentucky region where Jim was born -- plus a number of other tasty rarities. "She Turns My Radio On" is a demo Jim made in preparation for a second album that never was completed; someone much later happened to find the tape cassette in a box and saved it. That's the sort of thing Jim Ford's legend is made of. Moody, brilliant, careless, generous, unpredictable, a notorious hell-raiser -- by all accounts he was a law unto himself, and a world-class squanderer of his own enormous talent.

Swamp rock, country soul, roots funk -- there isn't really one phrase that could sum up the Jim Ford sound. Suffice it to say that this is what the Band and Creedence Clearwater were trying to sound like, if they could only have gotten grittier and more authentic. Jim Ford, though, he makes me want to set on my porch steps and drink something home-brewed out of a Mason jar.

A lazy, kicked-back guitar lick leads off this song; then comes Ford's croaky vocal, as he commences to sing: "Every morning 'bout dawn / Sun shines through my window and a new day's begun /Every evening, 'bout sundown / My whole world changes, Lord, when she comes around." That's mostly what this song is about, being satisfied by his woman -- and it's utterly convincing. The chorus puts it thusly: "She comes and turns my radio on / Gives me all day music, I got an all night song / I'm gonna sing till the cows come home / I'm really glad you turned my radio on."

Sexual metaphor? Well, shoot, what do you think? Of course it is, but he doesn't feel he has to get clever with it. "Turn the dial with a smile" he urges her at one point; he mumbles something else about writing a song with harmony, melody, rhapsody. But the guy sounds so contented, he can't be bothered to push it any further. And anyway, it IS also about how music makes him happy, and that's cool too.

Jim Ford died last Sunday, broke and obscure. Maybe that's how he wanted it. But I've got to think he'd be glad to know that people were still listening to his music, and grooving to it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

“Let Him Dangle” / Elvis Costello

I’m so besotted with Elvis’ relationship songs (very few of them are really love songs, I’m afraid), I tend to overlook his political numbers. But there are plenty to choose from—Accidents Will Happen is loaded with them—and this morning, this chilling example from Spike popped into my head and just wouldn’t go away. Well, it’s been that sort of day.

“Let Him Dangle” is about a specific miscarriage of justice, a celebrated 1952 case where two teenagers breaking into a Croydon warehouse shot and killed a police officer. The 19-year-old, Derek Bentley, was hung for the crime, even though he didn’t shoot the gun; the shooter, Chris Craig, was only 16 so could not be executed under English law. Bentley was borderline retarded and probably not competent to be tried. Much of the case hinged around the fact that when the officers apprehended the kids on the warehouse roof, Bentley shouted “Let him have it, Chris” – which could have meant either “give him the gun” or “shoot him.” We'll never know.

Bentley was hung in 1953, before either Elvis or I was born, but the gruesome case lived on in tabloid culture. I saw a disturbing 1991 movie about it called Let Him Have It; Elvis’s song recites all the same names and details—“Bentley had surrendered, he was under arrest, / When he gave Chris Craig that fatal request / Craig shot Sidney Miles.” Still, the song’s about more than this one horrible case. “Well it's hard to imagine it's the times that have changed,” Elvis points out, with venom in his voice, “When there's a murder in the kitchen that is brutal and strange / If killing anybody is a terrible crime / Why does this bloodthirsty chorus come round from time to time?” It’s a savage rant against the death penalty, and against the mob hysteria that arises around certain cases.

And just to make sure no one escapes with their complacency intact, Elvis lets fly a final bridge that indicts the present age as well: “From a welfare state to society murder / Bring "back the noose" is always heard / Whenever those swine are under attack / But it won't make you even / It won't bring him back.” Bentley was finally granted a royal pardon in 1993 (four years after this song, two years after the movie), and the conviction was overturned in 1998—but he’d already been dead 45 years. Fat lot of good that did him.

The verses are minor-key, brooding, with a menacing sort of finger-snapping syncopation that feels very Fifties to me. There’s a distinctive Marc Ribot guitar riff wailing through it like a police siren, and Benmont Tench hammering wearily on the piano; somebody’s even whacking on a hubcap in the background, adding to that gritty urban texture. Elvis scornfully spits out the repeated word “dangle” in the chorus, following it up with a grim “doo-doo doo doo doo” that sounds to me like skeletons dancing.

Nobody else does political outrage like Elvis Costello. Dylan turns snide, Neil Young falls back on mottos, but Elvis takes no prisoners -- he just comes tangoing into the room like a Jesuit on a mission, and serves up this cocktail of vitriol and passion. Whew.

Let Him Dangle sample

Thursday, November 15, 2007

“That’s How Strong My Love Is” /
Alan Price and Georgie Fame

I love Alan Price. I love Georgie Fame. So imagine how bowled over I was when I learned that the two of them recorded together for a while in the early 1970s. They even had a TV show together; I’ve seen a few clips from it (of course we never heard of it in the States). It is kinda surprising that they’d team up, considering that they’re both keyboard players, but I guess they just hit it off and thought, “Why not?”

Listening to their 1971 album Fame & Price Together (which I only got hold of years later—it’s hard work being an American Alan Price fan), I deal out most of the tracks as being either Georgie songs or Alan songs. This one, though, is definitely a duo effort—they sing in equally balanced harmony for nearly the entire thing, with Alan’s smoky voice on the lower part, Georgie’s wispy tenor going falsetto. Alan’s hitting the electric organ in majestic sustained chords (exactly the same sound he’d pull out later on O Lucky Man!) while Georgie counterpoints with splashes of honky-tonk piano. The result is magic.

Otis Redding did this song first, in 1965, but I’d never heard his original when this Price-Fame cover got planted on my turntable. The Rolling Stones did their own bluesy version on Out of Our Heads, but I didn’t know that one either. (I was a true-blue Beatle girl, remember?) Both Otis and the Stones make it snappy, playful and seductive; Alan and Georgie, however, drive theirs into a fervent gospel sound – which inevitably comes off like something you’d hear in a damp church basement in Northern England. In other words, just my cup of tea.

Okay, maybe it’s because this is the version I know best. Or because the very sound of Alan Price’s voice renders me weak-kneed. But you can’t deny it, this one’s a much more earnest pledge of devotion, as if the singers really do believe all their extravagant promises: “I'll be the moon when the sun goes down / To let you know I'm still around”; “I'll be the rainbow when the sun is gone / Wrap you in my colors and keep you warm”; and in that momentous bridge, Alan’s solo vocal, “I'll be the ocean, so deep and wide / I'll dry the tears when you cry / I'll be the breeze when the storm is gone / To dry your eyes and keep you warm.” Sure, so that string of nature images (that’s all this song is, really) is a little hokey, half Metaphysical poetry and half Tin Pan Alley. But those stately organ chords sell it to me just fine.

In my opinion, anybody who does a cover version of any song should bring something new to it. Price and Fame simply transform this song, and I think for the better. Oh no -- a cover version better than Otis? Believe it, oh my brothers and sisters.

That's How Strong My Love Is sample

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

“Solitary Man” / Neil Diamond

I’m on the fence about Neil Diamond. I know plenty of folks who despise him, who see him as a mere commercial hit-machine. Still, like the Four Seasons, he’s too much a part of my life’s soundtrack to reject. “Holly Holy” of course -- I had that song played for me way too much, for obvious reasons – but also “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Song Sung Blue,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” (blech), and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (double-blech): a string of overproduced anthems that never seemed sincere, no matter how intense his delivery. But he was a big star, and his music was played all over the radio, and it still sets off a Pavlovian response in me.

At a bat mitzvah a couple weeks ago, I heard a hip-hop-ized version of “Sweet Caroline,” and was appalled. Jeez, I never thought I’d be defending the honor of “Sweet Caroline” (frankly I’m amazed anybody bothered to redo it), but there it was, and it was awful. Shame on somebody.

Then yesterday I heard this 1966 track on the radio, and it took me by surprise. It almost sounded like folk-rock, the arrangement was so restrained (well, restrained for Neil Diamond – mostly guitar and drums and a few tasteful horns, if you don’t count that faint smarmy choir in the chorus). Its tempo ticks along briskly, playing against a backbeat melody, and his voice sounds vulnerable, yearning, engaging. I listened intently the whole way through, and you know what? I liked it.

This is the closest Neil Diamond ever got to Bob Dylan, recounting a string of relationships that fizzled out (leaving him – da-da da da da-da – a solitary man). The verses are all in a brooding minor key, which shifts to major for the chorus: “Don’t know that I will / But until I can find me [nice internal rhyme there] / A girl that’ll stay / Who won’t play games behind me / Then I’ll be what I am / A solitary man.” That restless, critical spirit – how did Neil Diamond lose that later on?

Idealism usually feels overhyped in Neil Diamond songs, but verse two I buy completely: “I’ve had it to here / Being where love’s a small word / Part-time thing / Paper ring.” That almost sounds Beatlesque, doesn’t it? Well, Neil can’t keep it up; he wraps up the verse weakly with “I know it’s been done, / Having one girl to love you / Right or wrong / Weak or strong” – but let’s pretend he meant those last two lines to sound like a cliché, and move on.

Granted, Johnny Cash's cover of this blows Neil's version out of the water. Johnny does it all stripped down, and his gruff vocal is totally convincing as the voice of a disappointed loner. But I don't know, I kinda miss those horns.

The thing is, Neil Diamond had a decent voice and really knew the value of a great hook. I defy you to read the list of song titles above without wanting to sing them out loud. There’s nothing arty or introspective or groundbreaking about Neil Diamond songs; they’re just mainstream American pop, well-crafted and calculated to please. But what’s wrong with that?

Solitary Man sample

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

“Wedding Bell Blues” / Laura Nyro
“BILL!” the girl singer cries out, extending it for two, then three measures – “I love you so / I always will,” she insists. But . . . but . . . BUT . . .

I knew this song first from the Fifth Dimension’s 1969 cover version, but once I got hold of Laura Nyro’s original (from her 1966 debut album), that was it for me. It helped, of course, that I had a crazy mad crush on a guy named Bill for the second half of high school, a guy who seemed interested but never would commit. When I think of the hours I wasted dreaming about him, with Laura Nyro egging me on . . .

I was 15, just the perfect age to sit hunched on my bedroom floor, teaching myself to blow smoke rings and pondering the romantic mess that my life would be IF I could ever move out of my parents’ house and start living it. Teen angst – we all go through it. And Laura Nyro was an ideal companion, with her smart barbed lyrics, her soulful jazz-tinged art songs, and her fierce piano playing. Sure, “Wedding Bell Blues” is about a girl who’s dying for her boyfriend to propose, which even in 1966 ran against all feminist principles. But the way Nyro handles it makes all the difference

She spins through a litany of romantic clichés -- “the passion eyes of May,” “a choir of carousels” – and declarations familiar from dozens of girl-group songs: “I never scheme or lie Bill, there's been no foolin'”, “I was the one who came runnin' when you were lonely / I haven't lived one day not lovin' you only.” (We even have the traditional back-up girls echoing those rhymes.) These are the articles of faith by which this poor female has lived -- and now this schmuck isn’t living up to his part of the bargain, dammit. “Oh, but am I ever gonna see my wedding day?” she howls, panic-stricken, and the melody howls and droops right along with her.

“I love you so, I always will,” she insists once more in verse three. “And though devotion rules my heart, I take no bows / But Bill you're never gonna take those wedding vows.” The rhythm punches out those words, like a furious girlfriend pounding on her boyfriend’s chest. She knows in her heart that he’s the wrong horse to put her money on – but she’s too hung up to move on. “Oh, come on, Bill,” she moans, urgently. “Oh come on, Bill!”

It’s the old tug-of-war between desire and social convention. Nyro’s heroine feels desire, all right; you can hear it every time she groans Bill’s name, giving it an extra trill of excitement. But she wants to know it’ll last – which in her limited world means marriage. “But kisses and love won't carry me / Till you marry me Bill!” she explodes, the line working its way up the scale and building in volume. “I’ve got the wedding bell blues!”

At fifteen, I didn’t really want to marry anybody – but I did want something to happen in my safe little suburban life. Laura Nyro gave voice to all my inchoate longing, in dozens of songs like “Billy’s Blues”, “And When I Die,” “Time and Love,” “Emmie,” “He’s A Runner” – the list is long. I wore the grooves off those records. Being a teenage girl is never easy, but thanks to Laura Nyro, I made it through -- though come to think of it, I never did perfect the smoke ring.

Wedding Bell Blues sample

PS Bill, if you read this -- call me.

Monday, November 12, 2007

“She’s Already Made Up Her Mind” / Lyle Lovett

Is there any sound in the world lonelier than the drawn-out twang of a pedal steel guitar? I’m listening here to this song from Lyle Lovett’s 1992 album Joshua Judges Ruth, and there’s a single quavering note, repeating over and over like a faraway train whistle, that just give me goosebumps.

I used to think Lyle Lovett was a country singer. After Joshua Judges Ruth, that image was shattered forever. Despite that pedal steel, this track features an elegant piano counterpoint that’s way more jazz lounge than roadhouse; the acoustic guitar and drums are held firmly in the background, letting Lyle’s hushed, melancholy vocal shimmer on its own. The lyrics are brooding, reflective, artfully unrhymed, plunging us into a fraught mood rather than telling a story. “She said something about going home,” he launches into it, adding uncertainly, “she said something about needing to spend some time alone” (almost whispering “alone,” as if he can barely choke it out). That word “something” is so arresting; the details are irrelevant, because he knows as well as she does that going home is just an excuse. “She wondered out loud what it was she had to find,” he continues, then stoically, softly, concludes, “She’s already made up her mind.”

Made up her mind to do what? Lyle never tells us, but this whole song is steeped in regret (all those diminished chords); I have to guess it’s the end for them. His friends have been predicting it (she’s too young, they warn), and even the standard folk-ballad vocabulary (“There is nothing so deep as the ocean / And there is nothing so high as the sky / And there’s nothing so unwavering as a woman / Who’s already made up her mind”) clue us in to how inevitable that farewell is.

And yet he resists saying it out loud, for that would destroy his last shred of hope. I love how Lyle portrays himself, hanging on her every word, trying desperately to guess what’s going on inside her head. He’s like a private eye, hunting for evidence: “Now she’s sitting at one end of the kitchen table / And she is staring without an expression / And she is talking to me without meeting my eyes / She’s already made up her mind.” That last line falls like a sentence of death.

Can we ever really read somebody else’s mind? Tons of love songs have been written about “my baby thinks this” and “my lover wants that,” just perpetuating the great romantic lie. And now here’s Lyle, admitting freely that a) he hasn’t got a clue, and b) he knows he never will – not because he’s stupid, but because the woman he loves is a separate person. The very fact that he recognizes that, and respects it, makes him a hundred times more sensitive than any guy who claims to be a mind reader.

It’s a perfect song for Lyle’s supple, edgy voice; it’s a perfect song for his wary, introspective persona. (Lyle may be a Texan, but he's never seemed like a good ol’ boy.) And when that pedal steel sends out that one sorrowful note, like a shooting star across the wide East Texas skies -- well, it’s perfect, and perfectly heartbreaking.

She's Already Made Up Her Mind sample

Friday, November 09, 2007

"Ever Present Past" / Paul McCartney

I've had Sir Paul on the brain lately, big time. He's been on the gossip pages lately, for one thing; for another, there's been an ongoing Beatles vs. Kinks discussion on the Kinks Digest, with the anti-Beatle forces stooping to a lot of vitriolic Paul-bashing, which really gets me steamed up. And for a third thing, I got a chance to hang out yesterday with my fellow Kinkette Nancy, who's always good for a mutual Macca swoon. (A lady of great taste, there.) So happy birthday, Nancy -- this one's for you.

I realize that I didn't give Memory Almost Full its due when it came out this summer -- it was released the same day as Nick Lowe's At My Age, a coincidence which overloaded my circuits for a few days. But I could tell from the very first listen that Paul had hit another one out of the park, and this track in particular jumped straight onto my list of all-time favorite McCartney numbers (granted, that's a long list).

It's irrepressibly sunny, an aspect of McCartney that turns off some folks -- but not me, no way. It's his fundamental take on life, and always has been. Get that melody, for one thing, so distinctively McCartneyish, a joyous roller-coaster ride from the very first note. The first line of the verse swoops downward, with just one little syncopated hitch halfway; the second line sweeps buoyantly back up, followed by a diving third line and a fourth line that climbs one last mini-peak to resolve the whole thing. Whatever the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (and he's had a few lately), somehow Macca manages to end on a major chord. The arrangement is seamless pop, a fluid stream of synthesizers and guitars that verges on sounding dense and overproduced -- definitely more Wings than Beatles -- but it never tips over into glossiness or bombast.

I have to admit, I always search McCartney songs for coded autobiography, and this one comes out with it right away: "I've got too much on my plate." (Imagine the sorrowful pout on that low note of "plate"). But when he adds,"Don't have no time to be a decent lover," I know he's waiting for us female fans to protest. We're hanging on his every word, and yearning for the promise of "I hope it isn't too late / Searching for the time that has gone so fast / The time that I thought would last / My ever present past." Now, I'll be honest, I have no idea what he's referring to --his late wife Linda? his insurmountable Beatle reputation? the tabloid-dogged shame of his messy divorce? All of the above? I do love how it evokes the jumbled emotions and memories of middle life (I refuse to call it middle age). Life's still happening, but you've got a lot of baggage by now. Why did we ever think this aging thing would be simple?

The tune gets even perkier in the chorus, as he flicks through a string of vague profundities: "The things I think I did / I do, I think I did / The things I think I did / When I was a kid." No specifics, just what it felt like to be one of rock 'n' roll's most fortunate sons. Macca was always a great chameleon, who could play any instrument and sing in any genre so long as someone would listen. And while he was busy tap-dancing, life slipped past. "I couldn't understand a word that they were saying," he admits in the bridge, "But still I hung around and took it all in / I wouldn't join in with the games that they were playing / It went by, it went by, in a flash / It flew by, it flew by, in a flash." That stunned repetition is wonderful, a humble groping for truth rather than pompous sermonizing. I may be old, but I haven't got all the answers, he's admitting -- in fact, I haven't got ANY answers. Sounds a lot to me like Ray Davies' "You're Asking Me."

The rhythm is unpredictable, another McCartney trademark (bassists do love to play with rhythm), energized by a propulsive tempo. Somehow this song always seems to be running away with itself, and Macca's hanging on for dear life, though with an insouciant smile. Well, life's a slippery proposition. Plenty of older artists ponder this truth with despair and gloom. Not Paul McCartney -- he's still tap-dancing; that all he knows how to do. And he's the best.

Ever Present Past sample

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"Eight Miles High" / The Byrds

At first (I'm talking ancient days here, 1965 and 1966), I liked the Byrds. I bought both "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn, Turn, Turn" as singles; I'm pretty sure my brother owned that first album, the cover looks so familiar to me. Their hootenanny harmonies were lovely, and though it was apparently an electric guitar that Roger McGuinn was playing, he still seemed to be picking it folk-music-style (that "Mr. Tambourine" line about the "jingle-jangle morning" seemed completely apt, didn't it, given the metallic clang of McGuinn's guitar?). It didn't really register in my Beatlemaniac mind that these guys were Americans -- their sound fit right in with the rest of the British Invasion stuff I loved.

And then, in the middle of 1966, they came out with this strange new song, "Eight Miles High." That jangly guitar was now spinning crystalline strands of dissonance, and the close harmonies suddenly sounded less earnest, more...confused.

Young as I was, I knew perfectly well that the word "high" in the title had nothing to do with an airplane taking off. It was the first undeniably psychedelic song I'd ever listened to, and while I could pretend that the Beatles' "Rain" and Donovan's "Season of the Witch" meant something else, there was no pretending with this one. I was just a kid; it scared me. I did not buy that single, or anything else by the Byrds, ever again.

And I never gave this song another thought -- until a few months ago, when I saw Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 perform it as part of their encore set. In Robyn Hitchcock's hands, of course, psychedelia is a good thing. Suddenly I GOT this song. It's not just vague and dislocated; it's about vagueness and dislocation, and a drug user's surreal disconnect with reality.

"Eight miles high," the chiming vocals solemnly intone, climbing up a succession of minor chords, "and when you touch down / You'll find that it's / Stranger than known." Sure, that's weird grammatical usage, but we know what he means. Nothing around him makes sense: "Signs in the street / That say where you're going / Are somewhere, just being their own." That peculiar drug-induced dyslexia, turning letters into meaningless hieroglyphics, that's accurately noted all right.

Beneath those gliding, constantly shifting harmonies, the lyrics muddle around in hazy social commentary about the square (read straight) citizens who flit past, "afraid of losing their ground." Like a surreal silent film, the images unspool, a nonsensical street scene of huddled people "Some laughing, some just shapeless forms." A black limousine glides past. The guitars begin to get very busy, heading no one knows where, indulging in the musical equivalent of navel-gazing -- notes for the sake of notes. I've never had much patience for extended guitar solos, and I find myself spacing out during this part. But now I know that's what you're supposed to do during the solo. Of course!!

What this song really has -- which I never fully appreciated before -- is texture. We were just coming out of a monoaural era, full of music that sounded best spilling out of a transistor radio on AM frequencies. Here at last was music that begged to be played in stereo, with dense layers of different sounds -- hums, scrapes, throbs, thuds, murmurous whines and wheezes, and knifing through it all a reverberating cascade of notes from that juiced-up 12-string. It seems to go on a whole lot longer than three minutes and thirty-eight seconds, doesn't it? It makes me picture heavy swirling paisley draperies, and dark rooms lit with candles, and a definite smell of patchouli. Ah, it's the pure essence of the late Sixties, distilled into one little record. Mighty fine.

Eight Miles High sample

Monday, November 05, 2007

"Put A Penny In the Slot" / Fionn Regan

When I'm sent an album to review, I get nervous -- I really don't want to hate it, I don't want to write a negative review. And nobody's sending me big-name CDs to review, they're sending me debut efforts by unknown artists, hoping to get a little press for their fledgling talent. The chances are fairly good that those CDs are gonna suck.

But every once in awhile I strike gold -- like with Fionn Regan. I recently posted a rave review of this Irish singer-songwriter's debut CD, End of the World, on, and I can promise you, every word of it was sincere. This guy sounds great, and his songs really stick in my mind, long after I've stopped listening to the records for review purposes.

Sure, he's quirky -- but quirky is what I like. His music is a little bit folk, a little bit alt-rock, even a little bit jazz; given the lightning-fast picking of his acoustic guitar work, you could almost say it's a little bit bluegrass as well. His lyrics are wonderful, a loquacious flood of imagery and cryptic references that peg him as yet another acolyte of professors John Lennon and Bob Dylan, only blessedly free of all the snideness and politics.

"Put A Penny In the Slot" isn't exactly typical of Regan's work -- he's got too much breadth to have anything "typical" yet -- but it's certainly a sharp little tour de force. That title image calls to mind an old nickelodeon in a penny arcade, where you could peer through a brass viewer to watch herky-jerky silent shorts. That's as good a parallel as anything else to the absurd existence he describes, peppered with references to Hennessey cognac, FedEx, Saul Bellow, Paul Auster, Rhodesian ridgebacks, Beckenham Park, high-rise blocks, furniture shops, church candles, charoplanes, stinging nettles, and the rock pools of the County Wicklow coast. It's like a page out of James Joyce, the way he rattles through these disconnected events, adrift in a senseless modern world.

Though it's a delicate, folky sort of talking ballad, this song moves at a swift clip over nimble acoustic guitar playing. As his beguiling lazy tenor bops along, we piece together a sort of story, about a girlfriend who "will not let you be her lover" -- dashing off to find a taxi, not answering her phone -- and the way she's jerking him around has left him dizzy. "Put a penny in the light and make an artificial li-ii-ight shine" he warbles from time to time, "Leave go / My golden arm"; he knows he's a sap for her demands, but she pushes every button he's got, and he's hooked. (The Man With the Golden Arm, wasn't that the old Sinatra movie about a drug addict?) "Put a penny in the slot and watch the drunken sailor dance...Put a penny in the slot and count the swans through a te-eh-lescope / I can't help from crying / I wish you were mine." Forget that skipping tempo, the chipper croak of Regan's breathy vocal -- this song is so plangent, it just kills me.

Check the kid out. I think you'll like.

Put a Penny In the Slot video

Saturday, November 03, 2007

"Let My Love Open the Door" / Sondre Lerche

Yeah, yeah, I know Pete Townshend wrote this song. The trouble is, Pete Townshend's version is too bouncy, careless and confident -- there isn't a bit of pleading to it. I've always felt this song should be a whole lot more desperate and plaintive.

Last night, watching the movie Dan In Real Life, I finally heard the song the right way. It's a pivotal scene in the movie -- Steve Carell is accompanying his brother (played by Dane Cook) while singing this song, and the heartsick Carell slows it down and sings it so yearningly, it wins over Juliette Binoche. Carell's version is adorable; even better is this recording by Sondre Lerche, the Norwegian wunderkind who performed most of the film's brilliant soundtrack. Mark this up with Once and The Darjeeling Limited as three recent movie soundtracks that turn good movies into genius movies.

I knew nothing about Lerche, but I went straight home and listened to loads of his stuff, and I adore it. He totally gets the value of a spare arrangement -- Pete Townshend should take lessons from this kid. On "Let My Love Open the Door," behind Lerche's warm, endearing tenor he gradually layers in an acoustic guitar, then a cello, then the full string quartet, and finally a burst of handclaps. It builds, sure, but it never gets overblown.

It helps that Lerche's voice still has a trace of adolescent quiver and squawk -- it gives this song urgency, as well as sweetness and sensitivity. The old hackneyed truths about love still seem fresh to him -- "When people keep repeating / That you'll never fall in love / When everybody keeps retreating / But you can't seem to get enough / Let my love open the door." Repeating that phrase, as if hammering on a literal door, he allows just a little yelp on "open", matched by a heart-melting vocal crack on "To your heart."

I'm here to tell you, no woman is won over by a man who claims to have ALL the answers. Pete Townshend sounded like he thought he had all the answers; Sondre Lerche sounds like he doesn't even know that there are questions. In verse two, the line "I'll give you a four-leaf clover" always made me think Townshend was scraping for a rhyme to "all over"; Sondre Lerche delivers it so innocently, I can envision him picking the damn clover. He barges through all the song's wild claims -- "I have the only key to your heart, / I can stop you falling apart", "It's all I'm living for," "Only one thing's gonna set you free / That's my love" -- and I actually buy it. Not that I believe he'll deliver, but it's just so sweet that he thinks he can.

He even has the sense to hush and slow down the final verse: "When tragedy befalls you / Don't let them bring you down / Love can cure your problem / You're so lucky I'm around." (Another winsome crack as his voice rises to "I'm around".) He's just figured out that there is tragedy in life; it still sobers him up. But not for long -- love will find a way to fix everything. And at least for two minutes and twenty-seven seconds, I'm willing to believe it too.

Let My Love Open The Door sample

Friday, November 02, 2007

"Crawl Back (Under My Stone)" / Richard Thompson

Even though it's not January 1, I've made a New Year's resolution: I don't have to make a Big Fan Commitment to every artist I come across. Richard Thompson, for example -- I've kept putting off falling in love with Richard Thompson, because I know it'd be falling into a black hole. This guy's so good, with such a long, convoluted career, I could easily get obsessed. There just isn't room in my life for ANOTHER artist like that.

But really, I could get to know a few songs by the guy, couldn't I? I'll skip the Fairport Convention years (they were too folky for me back then) and the years he recorded with his then-wife Linda -- that still leaves a lot of material to browse. Thanks to a wonderful elf in Milwaukee, I have a CD of handpicked Thompson tracks, every one of which went straight onto my iPod. This stuff is Kwality with a capital K. This particular song comes from his 1999 album Mock Tudor, which I'm now tempted to buy in its entirety (somebody stop her -- it's gonna be John Hiatt all over again!).

In my new spirit of restraint, I refuse to think about Thompson as an ace guitarist ("Sacrilege!" I hear you guitar geeks cry.) There are plenty of nimble riffs here; I love how they interweave with the organ lines; that's all I have to say. What I want to talk about is his songwriting -- that supple melodic line, how it winds neurotically around, matched to a fretful, scolding syncopated rhythm. This is a particularly vicious break-up song, and the tune fits perfectly.

I would NOT want to be on the receiving end of this song. "This time you hurt me, you really did it this time, / You did," he starts out testily, adding, "Did you count your fingers after shaking my hand / God forbid?" Yeesh, that's pissed off; these wounds he's licking are still pretty fresh. He peevishly recalls the latest insult -- "'Riff raff / Crawling from the slums' / Right there / In front of all your chums" -- and declares: "I swear by the pricking of my thumbs / I'll make your day / And melt away." (Love that Macbeth reference, by the way -- nothing makes a woman look worse than being compared to Lady Macbeth, does it?)

It all builds up to a spitting-mad chorus, as he insists three times: "I'll crawl back (crawl back) under my stone." But before he crawls back, he's still determined to have the last word: "But you won't have to stand next to me / You won't have to introduce me / You won't have to think about, talk about, care about me." (Later on he dredges up more snide verbs for what she's been doing to him -- "You won't have to ask about, fuss about, discuss about / You won't have to mind about, swear about, forget about me.")

This isn't just a break-up song, it's a song about snobbery and class. The stone he's crawling back under is the primitive cave she considers he's come from ("rude," "scruffy," those are her terms he's quoting). When he tells us in the bridge "I want to be middle class / Floors and ceilings made of glass," the class thing is heavily freighted. (I just sat here for five minutes thinking about that glass floor, how we're just as paranoid about what's below us as above us.) "Somehow I gave myself away," he adds in the third verse, voice curling with disgust, "Some code, some word I didn't say / I missed one line in the play / And the trap shut tight / And you did me, all right." He never had a chance with this chick, did he?

And so, of course, we take his side. He's skewed our picture of the relationship so thoroughly, we have no choice. He could have been a total boor (albeit one who quotes Shakespeare and can play genius guitar); all we see is her finicky disdain. So he's just going to leave quietly and not bother her anymore . . . except for this little song. Note to self: never break up badly with a song writer this good. He'll get you, he'll get you in the end.

Crawl Back (Under My Stone) sample

Monday, October 29, 2007

"You're Asking Me"/Ray Davies

Sorry I checked out for a few days; I got seriously distracted by the release of Ray Davies' new album, Working Man's Cafe. Of course, getting my hands on it required tenacious sleuthing -- at first there were three tracks on Ray's MySpace page, but they soon disappeared (they've since materialized again, but who knows for how long?). Then all 12 tracks were available on iTunes, but only for 48 hours. For weeks it was listed on Amazon as a pricey import, but last I checked you could only get in the queue to be advised when it was available (hopefully this means that a deal with a US label is pending -- cross your fingers!).

Luckily for me, I grabbed the MySpace tracks early on, downloaded the rest during that fleeting window of opportunity on iTunes, and last week received the CD itself as pre-ordered from a UK on-line record store, CD Wow. I also had friends in England poised to scoop up an extra copy of the free 10-track promo given away with the 21st October Sunday Times. (GIVEN AWAY FOR FREE -- why can't American newspapers do giveaways like this!!?) But how many of Ray Davies' potential US listeners would do all this to finagle a copy of Working Man's Cafe?

Well, I've been a Ray Davies fan a long time -- by now I should be used to his perplexing marketing logic. It's business as usual in the bizarro world of Kinkdom. If the music wasn't so damn good, we'd never put up with this, that's for sure.

And this music is gooooooooood. The WMC track I'm currently obsessed with is called "You're Asking Me," a particularly snarky little number in which Ray Davies irritably shrugs off the mantle of Wise Old Man. I'm not sure whom he's addressing in this song -- a daughter pleading for fatherly advice? a younger musician eager to learn at the feet of the master? a youthful girlfriend, leaning on Ray for wisdom and guidance? Whoever it is, he's having none of it. "If you're asking me, don't take my advice!" he snaps at the end of every other verse.

Sure, part of this is simply Ray dodging away from emotional entanglement (the latest in a long line of songs, dating back to "Stop Your Sobbing"). "Don't make me responsible / For you living your life," he warns her. "It’s up to you to go and make / Your own mistakes / Have a go and break a leg but / Please don’t come home crying when you do." There's genuine panic in his voice as he repeatedly spits out, "Get a life, get a life, GET A LIFE!"

But it's also the bafflement of a man who's been around long enough to know that there are no easy answers. In the bridge, against a rueful Beatle-ish background of wistful "oohs" and strummed seventh chords, Ray laments: "Do we learn from all the questions that we ask? / Do we listen to the past? We never do." In verse two, he puts these words in her mouth: "Because I’ve been around, I have the insight / And I was there the first time / So I must know what it’s like." But he turns that misconception on its head in verse three: "Because I’ve been there before / Doesn’t come to pass / That I have all the answers." I love those falsetto doubled vocals when he "quotes" her. Ray's voice here bears an eerie resemblance to David Bowie -- those punched-out syllables of "cry-ing when you do" and "noth-ing left to fear," the octave-jump flourish on "ad-vi-hice!" Only fitting, of course, since Bowie imitated Ray like crazy in the early years of his career.

There are no answers, and if there were, Ray'd be the last bloke to have them. "First time around it was really grand," he admits in the second bridge, "But inside something said to me / 'Go get a life, get a life.' / Now that I’m here I can’t understand / Why anyone is asking me -- if I could give a damn." That last part's important. He just doesn't care about being anybody's guru. I can't help thinking of John Lennon, wearily singing "a working-class hero is something to be." Who wants the responsibility of so many dreamers hanging on his every word?

Lennon, though, used that melancholy ballad to blast away at the constricting tangle of modern society. Ray just seems . . . well, pissed-off. That twiddling guitar riff at the beginning sounds exactly like someone slithering out the door; the tempo skips around like a boxer bobbing and weaving, and behind those snide "get a life's" there's an aggressive flailing of drums and crunchy guitar. It's gritty and astingent -- definitely not the sound of a mellow old man. Ray has found his own way to grow old, and it's anything but graceful. But Ray Davies has never been like everybody else -- why start now?

Monday, October 22, 2007

"Some Dusty Things" / Ron Sexsmith

My thing for Ron Sexsmith has been growing exponentially since I saw him open for Nick Lowe out in the Midwest a couple weeks ago. At the show, I bought his latest CD, Time Being, a wonderful album I've been playing pretty constantly ever since. It just happens to be a very spiritual, very consoling album -- and consolation's what I've needed lately.

So of course I took Time Being with me on a road trip last weekend -- and left it in the rental car when I turned it in. Somewhere, some Avis renter in Pennsylvania is now discovering the magic of Ron Sexsmith. Well, so it goes. I've got my replacement copy ordered already, and luckily I'd downloaded it all onto my computer to get me through.

"Some Dusty Things" is perfect proof of how Ron Sexsmith's music can heal the soul -- there's no proselytizing here, no haranguing, just a tender rumination on life's fleeting joys, set to a gently rocking acoustic beat. It starts out taking a cosmic view: "The world is a very small place / And before we know / We're back in our own space" (not like personal space, but some hazy spirit-matter limbo). So what anchors us in the here and now? "Some dusty things to remind us all / Of our time on earth," Sexsmith declares, "How sweet and precious it was / And we will never be the same." It's so simple, and so perfect.

At first I picture an attic full of dust-furred relics, trunks and scrapbooks and old rocking chairs. (And of course that obligatory dressmaker's dummy, featured in every cartoon attic.) But Ron never gets specific about those "dusty things" -- until I begin to realize he means US. As in ashes to ashes, dust to dust -- we are the dusty things that human hearts attach to. In verse two, he adds: "For love is a very small word / It's easy to say, but seldom is heard / Above the war that lives on and on / In the hearts of men." And in verse three, he narrows it down even more: "The world is a very hard place / When lost in a crowd, you search for a kind face / Some trusting soul to confide in, / Arms we can hide in, too." I'm getting verklempt.

The melody soars yearningly into the bridge: "Have no fear, / We are nearing the end / We'll just drink to old friends." Ron's high choirboy vocal cracks just a little here and there, which is so damn endearing I can't stand it. (That little trill on "small place," "small word," and "hard place" gets me too.) What's so great about Ron Sexsmith's music is how the whole package matches up, emotive tunes and soulful lyrics and that exquisitely sweet voice. Magic, indeed.

I read in an interview that when Ron was writing Time Being, a couple of his friends died, and the album is at least partly his response to those deaths. As you'd expect, there's not a false emotional note here -- just a modest, genuine reflection on this mortal coil. In the grip of grief, it's just what we need.

Some Dusty Things sample

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"Strangers" / The Kinks

It's not as if I haven't written about the Kinks before -- but here, for a change, is a Dave Davies original, which has been echoing in my brain ever since I saw the Wes Anderson film The Darjeeling Limited last weekend. The Darjeeling Limited is about three brothers and their complicated love-hate relationship, so how perfect is it to use songs by the warring Davies brothers. ("This Time Tomorrow" and "Powerman" are the other two Kinks tunes on the soundtrack.)

"Strangers" is one of those songs I tend to forget about, and not just because it's a Dave song -- with that heavy guitar strum, the distant echoing vocals, the lurching rhythm, it has a folky vibe I don't often associate with the Kinks. It could almost be a track from the Band; Dave's lonesome vocal here is distinctly Levon Helm-like. And the riddling question-and-answer lyrics definitely feel like a folk ballad: "Where are you going? / I don't mind / I've killed my world and I've killed my time / So where do I go, what do I see? / I see many people coming after me." I get a fugitive image there, for sure -- those people coming after him could easily be a posse riding him out of town. A classic folk ballad image, the exiled wanderer.

It's folky, yes, but apocalyptic too, and Dave is in truth-seeking mode here. Later on he says, "So you've been where I've just come / From the land that brings losers on / So we will share this road we walk / And mind our mouths and beware our talk / 'Till peace we find..." Whatever guru or messiah beckons at the end of this road, he's on some kind of a spiritual journey. (Though, as Owen Wilson says matter-of-factly late in the film, "We came here on a spiritual journey...but that didn't pan out.")

As the song lurches on, Dave begins to rebel against the whole spiritual shtick: "In a promised lie you made us believe / For many men there is so much grief / And my mind is proud but it aches with rage / And if I live too long I'm afraid I'll die." That's more like the Dave I know. I think back to 1970, when this song was released on the album Lola Versus Powerman and the Money-go-round Part One (by the way, Dave and Ray, we're still waiting for Part Two), and I recall George Harrison and all the hazy Eastern philosophy going around London's music world at the time. And there stands bad boy Dave Davies, wanting to believe in all this peace-and-love stuff, yet at the same time hating the idea of jumping on anybody else's flower-festooned bandwagon. Powerman is an album full of songs that reject accepted orthodoxies --labor unions, record company executives, music promoters, lawyers, bankers -- so why not kick back against religion while you're at it?
Still, the plaintive way Dave sings the chorus make his yearning for connection seem totally geniune. The quest still beckons, and it isn't a quest anyone should undertake alone. "So I will follow you wherever you go / If your offered hand is still open to me," Dave declares, leading into the refrain, "Strangers on this road we are on / We are not two we are one." It's a gorgeous hook, with its fluid, rippling triplets morphing from one key to another; I love how the voices split into harmony on the line "We are not two we are one," finally resolving on a major chord. Of course it's about the brotherhood of man, but for some reason I've never been able to hear this line without also thinking of Ray and Dave and their intense love-hate bond. Like it or not, it's been the one constant in their turbulent lives.
So what in the end does this song mean? I haven't got a clue. But then, neither does the singer of his song; he's just sitting at the side of the road, rubbing his aching feet and musing wistfully. The drums slap wearily along, an organ sighs like an exhaled breath. And somehow, all of this manages to come out haunting and evocative and tender. The moment when it bursts into the film, about two-thirds of the way through --well, I won't give away the plot, but it's a beautiful moment of acceptance and enlightenment, and this is the perfect song for that moment. Kudos to Wes Anderson for an absolutely inspired choice.

Strangers sample

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"Simple Twist of Fate" / Bob Dylan

This one goes out, through the spiritual ether, to Tom Gallagher. Tom and I agreed about a lot of music but, pig-headed as I can sometimes be, I always refused to share his love for Bob Dylan. You've gotta know I was just being contrary, reacting against the knee-jerk Dylan worship of my generation. Of course Bob Dylan's a brilliant songwriter -- he just doesn't speak to me.

He spoke to Tom, though. Tom was a true believer, and respecting his musical opinions as I did, I always cut Dylan extra slack just for Tom's sake. So here I am tonight, missing Tom like hell, and one thing that comforts me is spinning a little Dylan in his honor. A story song, of course -- one of Dylan's little novels-in-song -- this one from Blood On The Tracks, an album that even I am forced to admit is freaking genius.

Just follow Dylan's loser lovers, fumbling their way through a doomed affair: "They sat together in the park / As the evening sky grew dark, / She looked at him and he felt a spark / Tingle to his bones." Soon enough they're in a hotel, and not just any hotel, but "a strange hotel with a neon burnin' bright" where he "felt the heat of the night / Hit him like a freight train." Funny how just that abrasive singing voice, the strummed guitar, a wheezy harmonica interlude, can draw you into their world and suddenly turn sexy like that.

It's an iconic American scene, like an Edward Hopper painting: "A saxophone someplace far off played / As she was walkin by the arcade. / As the light bust through a beat-up shade / Where he was wakin up, / She dropped a coin into the cup / Of a blind man at the gate." Now there's poetry for you, so cryptic it's almost Biblical. (Yeah, I know, I strongly suspect it's all smoke and mirrors and means nothing, but it sure does sound good.) I love how he soars upward on those final rhymes, breaking loose from the talking-blues monotone.

Then of course the girl disappears, he realizes too late that he misses her, and he's left to wander the lonely byways by himself. In verse four, okay, Dylan stretches for a few extra rhymes: "He hears the ticking of the clocks / And walks along with a parrot that talks, / Hunts her down by the waterfront docks / Where the sailors all come in." But you have to admire him for trying that aaab rhyme scheme; in this case, more is more. In the last verse, he finally drops the third-person mask and comes clean: "I still believe she was my twin, / But I lost the ring. / She was born in spring, / But I was born too late / Blame it on a simple twist of fate." I don't know, that goofy last verse endears itself to me. That's part of its folky charm.

If everybody I know didn't revere Bob Dylan, I'd find it a lot easier to be a fan. There's nothing keeping me from it but my own cussed nature. But just tonight, Tom, I'll let down my guard and love Dylan with you. Somewhere, I know you're listening too, and digging it.

Simple Twist of Fate sample

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"I Wanna Make It Alright" / Paul Weller

I've been feeling in desperate need of a pick-me-up song -- so thanks, Paul Weller, for tap-dancing into town with this one, from his marvelous mature 2005 album As Is Now. (Man, I sure do dig rock stars who know how to age gracefully.) What a simple confection this is, a perfect example of less being more. It's just one musical phrase -- two notes, repeated in different keys, varied only occasionally by a seventh jump upward at the end -- but oh, how that dogged repetition gets his point across.

What's the plot here? I'm guessing it's one massive apology song, a clear-the-boards-and-start-fresh thing -- that soft husky vocal of the beginning sounds pretty humble to me. Patiently he repeats, "I want to make it alright / Alright between us two / I want to put things right on this ground / Before our time is through." Whatever he's done, he knows it came damn close to killing the whole affair. But, he protests, his intentions are thoroughly honorable --"I want to be the kind / You want to come home to" (what woman doesn't want to hear that?) -- though, oh yes by the way, there's a healthy dose of lust as well: "I want to be the one who gets to / Make it with you" (just a bit of gasp and shiver there.) Because we need both.

On the whole, Weller insists, he's a stand-up guy: "Try to love you better than / I ever done before / I wanna stand up and say / I'll always love you this way." How sweet is that? It's clear he's hurt her somehow, but he's sorry sorry sorry: "I don't want you feeling blue / At the end of the day / Try to put some goodness back / Before this good thing goes." Jeez, the fact that he knows it's a good thing puts him well ahead of most guys I know.

I love the comforting spirit of this song; it gives me the same warm vibe as Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing." Those sibilant brushstrokes on the drums, the lilting little piano glissandos, keep the whole thing bright and good-hearted; the laid-back syncopation is sexy and yet reassuring, especially with that pleading quiver in his slightly gritty voice. (In the bridge, he sounds almost like Joe Cocker's long-lost brother.) It's amazing how physical this song is; I can almost feel his strong arms circling me, can almost smell the starch in his shirt. How does he pull this off?

I'm still not sure why this song lifts my spirits so -- after all, how does an apology from Paul Weller sort my life out? Who knows? All I know is that this track is one big easy chair I can snuggle up in for the afternoon. Some days that's the most we can hope for.

I Wanna Make It Alright sample

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"Don't Be A Stranger" / Tom Gallagher

As if we need a reminder that life is not fair, here comes the devastating news of the death of my dear Kinks friend Tom Gallagher. The fact that Tom's enormous musical talent had never scored him a record contract was already high on my list of "life is not fair" examples -- and now this. He was a magnificent soul and he'll be sorely missed in the realms of Kinkdom.

So in honor of Tom -- or Major TAG, as we knew him best -- I'm turning my thoughts to this track from his unreleased masterpiece Age of the Wheel. When Tom's songs shuffle up on my iPod, they never strike my ear as amateur tracks; his guitar work is so assured, the songwriting such top quality, that I find myself grooving to the song for quite a while before I realize it's not some classic album track that any casual listener would recognize. "Don't Be A Stranger" has confidence in spades, from the raspy guitar strum to the pouncing melodic line to Tom's prickly, passionate vocals. And then there's that killer hook -- "Don't be a stranger / Don't let me feel so strange" -- that deft little bit of word play seals the deal.

There are so many musicians out there whose music doesn't truly make a dent -- listen to the radio for hours and they all begin to sound the same. The real gift is to make music that sends your personality out there, and personality is what makes Tom Gallagher's music special. Listening to this track, you can just tell that it's sung by someone with fierce intelligence, high standards, and a slightly dangerous edge; sure, there's darkness here, but that's what makes it compelling. This is rock and roll music, not wimpy emo.

From the very first verse, this is the song of a natural loner longing to make a connection, and there's a heartbreaking anxiety running beneath the usual I-wanna-get-you-girl plotline. Small talk and romantic games don't do it for him; he wants something real, and yet he's wary ("turn away, turn loose, but don't turn on me"). Tom sings this with consummate skill, navigating brilliantly between snarl and seduction and wounded howl. "Shed light so I can see / Shine your light down on me / Don't be a stranger / Come around, come again."

I can personally testify that we ladies are suckers for this kind of rock 'n' roll proposition. There's nothing we like better than comforting a bad boy who's been hurt. If any record company had ever been smart enough to sign Tom Gallagher, they'd have had a star on their hands for sure. Did I mention that he was also drop-dead handsome?

Once you knew Tom, though, you didn't think of him as a good-looking guitar god -- he was just Tom: moody, brilliant, wicked, kind, generous, quick to argue and just as quick to make peace. I feel blessed to have known him. Love on ya forever, Major Tom.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

"Season of the Witch" / Donovan

The thing I love about this track is, it's not what you'd expect from Donovan Leitch, the Scottish flower child -- fact is, it smoking rocks out. That guitar line is full of slouchy blues attitude, and Donovan wails away with gusto on the refrain, "You've got to pick up every stitch!" I've never had the slightest idea what he means by that (I flash to a baffling image of Donovan knitting a Fair Isle sweater), but by God, I love it.

I know people who consider Donovan a lightweight because of that fey quality in so many of his songs -- "Mellow Yellow", "Sunshine Superman," "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" -- but when this record came out in 1966, the rock world was careening straight for the Summer of Love, psychedelia was the flavor of the month, and Donovan took to it like a duck to water. There's something trancelike in these riddling repeated phrases, the hovering two-chord progression, the floaty syncopation. It makes me high just to listen to it.

"When I look out my window," Donovan starts out, with a campy sort of off-beat emphasis, "Many sights to see. / And when I look in my window, / So many different people to be." Heavy, man. The second verse offers more of the same mirrors-within-mirrors concept: "And when I look over my shoulder, / What do you think I see ? / Some other cat looking over / His shoulder at me." It's the sort of thing that can seem very profound when you're in a certain, well, chemically enhanced frame of mind. Best not to enquire too closely, though -- by the time he gets to the "rabbits in a ditch" and the "beatniks out to make it rich" lines, I'm not hung up on the logic any more; I know they're there just for the sake of the rhyme. The video to this would definitely include abstract iridescent color puddles spreading and mutating, like slides from biology class, or a reel of film burning up in the projector. Turn on the black light and strobes now.

Trust Donovan to embrace the hippie zeitgeist so totally that he makes it his own. "Season of the Witch" has a haunting minor-key edge, but thanks to its mellow loose-limbed rhythm, it never gets too eerie or disturbing. No bad trips here, man. This song doesn't sound dated at all to me; on the contrary, between that curlicuing guitar and the noodling organ fills, it just grooves away, uncomplicated, enthusiastic. Sure, there's a witch here, but a mystical Druid-type witch, not a scary toothless warty Halloween hag. Light a candle, draw a pentagram on the floor, and see where she'll take you.

Season of the Witch sample

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"Long Limbed Girl" / Nick Lowe

I'm beginning to realize that I am never going to come down from this Nick Lowe high. After seeing him last week in Milwaukee, and actually getting him to sign my copy of his new album At My Age, I'm pretty seriously addicted. As if I weren't before.

I went to sleep last night with this number styling away in my brain; woke up and it clicked right back in. For all I know, I probably dreamed about it in between, too. But you see, that's a good thing. This song ripples right along like a mountain stream, with a lilting beat and deceptively crafty phrasing (a Nick Lowe trademark, those little stutters and inversions that continually mix things up). On the album it's done with a charming retro pop arrangement, upbeat and yet laidback, but I'm thinking of the way I heard it in Milwaukee, just raggedy Nick and an acoustic guitar. When you've got a song this solid, you don't need anything more than that.

The premise is simple: a guy's going through some old papers and photos, he comes upon a snapshot of an old girlfriend, he takes a moment to wonder what's become of her since. But oh, what Nick does with it! There's the glint of admiration in his voice as he recalls her, "tall and slender / as a willow tree," and the flash of longing when he notes "and she had her arms round me." I imagine him sitting back and lighting a cigarette, taking a long contemplative drag. He's not just lusting after Girl As Object; he's yearning for the relationship, the sort of relationship you can only have when you're young and carefree. "So young and foolish / And so in love," he remarks, marveling all over again. It's his lost youth he misses, more than the girl herself.

That gentle rollicking rhythm is significant: Nick's not kicking himself over losing the love of his life, he's just idly musing. He goes on to speculate: "well, I wonder about you / And if you made it through / And had all your dreams come true / Or has it been a long and bumpy road." How subtle and brilliant is this? I immediately guess that the girl was too restless to stick around; and that it's been a long and bumpy road for him since, so naturally he assumes it was for her too (later on he changes the "bumpy" to "bitter," also very telling). And all done with so few words, a veteran songwriter's sleight of hand. Less is more indeed.

Nick's vocals sound so warm and relaxed, we just know he's come though things all right. The whole thing is painted in sepia tones -- "the edges are starting to curl" -- because he can put it into perspective now. It's just so damn confident, so mature. There's part of me that's jealous as hell of whoever that long-limbed girl was, for sure. But another part of me is pulling out a photo of a tall dark-haired guy with hazel eyes and wondering...

Long Limbed Girl sample

PS You haven't bought this album yet? What are you waiting for?