Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"The Warmth of the Sun" / The Beach Boys

It's frickin' cold outside right now, nasty scarf-hat-and-gloves weather, and all I can think about is getting warm. So tell me: Why does this ancient Beach Boys classic drive away the chill? Is it just the power of suggestion, the image of Southern California summers long gone by? Or is there something in those lush Wilson brother harmonies that actually radiates heat?

Every spring at college, on the first truly warm day, somebody would throw open her dorm windows and blast out vintage Beach Boys hits -- in the mid-70s, mind you, when those 60s songs about surfboards and hotrods seemed prehistoric. "Everybody's gone surfin' / Surfing USA" -- "Round round get around / I get around, yeah / Get around, oooh-oooh-oooh -- " suddenly you'd feel compelled to slip into shorts and pop open a beer and sprawl on the grass. It was officially SUMMER -- the Beach Boys had decreed it so.

I adore their racheted-up car songs, their chord modulations miraculously sounding just like a standard transmission shifting gears -- SoCal car culture was second nature to Brian Wilson, no matter if he had to fake it when it came to surfer culture (the adorable Dennis Wilson was apparently the only Beach Boy who actually surfed). But give me a choice and I'll always go with the Beach Boy ballads, particularly "Surfer Girl," the great agoraphobic anthem "In My Room," and "The Warmth of the Sun."

You can just hear Brian Wilson soothe his aching heart by diving deep into the textures of vocal harmonies. Even in 1964, this sounded retro, a throwback to the Four Freshmen or The Lettermen -- but Brian Wilson knew what he was doing. He was only a few steps away, in fact, from the bold new sound of "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations."

This is the kind of slow song you only wanted to dance with the "right" person at your school dance -- the languid shifting rhythms, the plaintive melodic line, and those drawn-out vocal chords were just made for resting your head on a special somebody's shoulder. (I can smell the English Leather cologne even now.) Never mind that this is the story of a guy who's been abandoned -- "The love of my life, she left me one day / I cried when she said, 'I don't feel the same way'' -- he's still warmed within by the feeling of his love, and so long as he can dream of her he'll be all right.

It's a totally adolescent view of love, where the romantic ideal is more important than the actual relationship, but since when did we look to Brian Wilson to be our relationship guru? What matter is those slightly nasal yearning "aaahhs" and "ooohs" melting in and out, and Brian's echo-chambered falsetto soaring over the muted guitar strum, brushes on the drums, and the occasional metallic zither pling. It's all texture, melody, and modulation, and even this early in Brian Wilson's songwriting career he instinctively knew how to pull it off.

So what if it's a "sad" song? Adolescents like sad songs. And just as the dream of his love keeps the singer warm, so the beauty of this song makes the storyline irrelevant. The key is major, the chords all get resolved, and the notes keep climbing upward. This is the song of a fantasist -- but a survivor. Carl and Dennis Wilson are dead now, and Mike Love looks faintly ridiculous as he still tries to tach it up with a new incarnation of the Beach Boys. But Brian, crazy old Brian, somehow has survived and is hailed as a genius everywhere he goes. And rightly so.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"Worry B Gone" / Guy Clark

Every day my Google news alert teases me with another appearance, somewhere around these United States, of what they call the Four Horsemen Tour -- John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, and Joe Ely, four of the finest singer-songwriters you'll ever hear. If they're coming to your neck of the woods SEE THEM at all costs. I took in one of their shows a year ago, mainly on account of John Hiatt (one of my personal music gods), but to my great surprise I fell wildly in love with the other three as well. I wrote about Lyle Lovett a few weeks ago; now it's time to rave about Guy Clark, as I spin his new CD Workbench Songs.

On my iTunes, Guy Clark tracks get classified as everything from folk to country to blues to rock -- it's like he's pitched his tent at the Four Corners of music. Maybe that's why he's never been successfully marketed to a wide public. Well, the fact that more folks don't know about Guy Clark is a crying shame. Just listening to him sing these down-to-earth numbers in that mellow, slightly growly voice makes me feel all warm inside. I totally dig his love songs, the way they ooze genuine affection for flesh-and-blood women, not plastic hotties; I sink happily into his nostalgic reminiscences of his small-town Texas boyhood. Guy Clark never seems to take himself too seriously, but don't be fooled -- he'll sneak in some edgy home truths just when you least expect it.

That's where we stand with this little tune. "Give me just one more puff of that Worry B Gone," he croons over a perky acoustic line, with his buddies chiming in, "Worry be gone," like some 1930s-period piece out of O Brother Where Art Thou. His scratchy vocal is completely disarming, and obviously NOT your typical slacker stoner. He can't really mean he's smoking dope, can he? "I got a world of trouble I need to forget," he says, with just the slightest wink; "I'm on my way, but I ain't there yet." Now what could drive a good ol' boy like this to smoke pot?

Well, hang on a minute, and he'll get around to telling you. (Don't be in such a dang hurry.) "Everywhere I look, trouble is all I see," he gripes lazily, matching his pace to that shuffling old-time rhythm (a little honky-tonk piano slips in here now too); "Can't listen to the radio and I hate TV." Hmmm...well, I'm with you there, Guy. Go on. "Trouble with the air, trouble with the water / People ain't treating one another like they oughtta," he adds, and he does have a point -- it's enough to drive anybody to seek a little herbal escape.

"I don't want to hear no preacher preaching," he continues, your classic front-porch philosopher; "No more politician bitchin' / All them songs about love gone wrong / Got me wondering where's my baby's gone / I can't suffer fools wastin' my time / Don't give me no advice that rhymes..." and even though he's giving us advice in rhyme right there, I'm suckered in. "Don't gimme no shit, just gimme a hit / I been smokin' all day and I can't get lit," he complains, with a sly chuckle in his voice. By now, it's clear that this song is only incidentally about the virtues of marijuana, and whether you puff Worry B Gone or not, you know where he's coming from.

If the modern world can drive a danged old coyote like this to pot, then something must be wrong. But, hey, Guy Clark's not preaching at you; he'd never do that. No, sirree. You just happened to stumble on some notions he left lying around...

Monday, January 29, 2007

“Cumberland Blues” / The Grateful Dead

I have to make one thing clear: I’m not a Grateful Dead fan. It’s not that I don’t admire their music, it’s just that Deadheads raise the bar too high -- it’s impossible to be just a casual listener. Besides, I always put the Dead into the category of Guy Music: long loud jams full of top-this-one-buddy instrumentals. Girl Music features melody, hooks, crafted lyrics, and fine-tuned vocals, preferably running less than three minutes. The Grateful Dead is NOT Girl Music -- and hey, I suspect they’d all be just fine with that.

Still, I have to say I like this Workingman’s Dead album. The bluegrass/folk side of Jerry Garcia seems in control here, the psychedelia toned down, and that’s refreshing. While the best-known song from this album is “Casey Jones” (how can you forget that line “Driving that train/ High on cocaine”?), the track I really enjoy is “Cumberland Blues.” It’s full of juicy vocal harmonies (disguising the fact that the Grateful Dead really didn’t have a single decent singer) and the guitar picking is nimble and upbeat. Of course, I have no idea whether it’s Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir playing. I suppose I should care, but I don’t.

"Cumberland Blues" also has a story going on, one that even fits the album’s theme – and that appeals to the English major in me. The singer is hauling himself sleepily out of bed; he and his girlfriend Melinda have been up most of the night, but now he’s anxious to get to his shift at the Cumberland mine -- not because he likes working there, but because one false step could lose him that job. “A lotta poor man make a five dollar bill / Keep him happy all the time / Some other fella's makin' nothin' at all / And you can hear him cry / ‘Can I go, buddy, can I go down / Take your shift at the mine?’”

I love how this captures the working man’s economic insecurity, the catch-22 of it: “Make good money, five dollars a day / Made any more, I might move away.” The foot-jiggling pace of the song, that hustling drum track -- lots of cymbals and brushes, like jingling loose change -- come across as pure nervous anxiety. Of course, then the singer re-evaluates how he feels about this job: “Lotta poor man got the Cumberland Blues / He can't win for losin' / Lotta poor man got to walk the line / Just to pay his union dues.” By the last line, he sounds a whole lot less convinced. “I don’t know now, I just don't know / If I'm goin' back again.” I picture him sinking back into Melinda’s arms, switching off that Little Ben alarm clock (love that detail – the Grateful Dead could use more visual details like this).

True, if I were Melinda, I'd wish this song were more about being in love and less about going to work. But what do you expect? Like I said, it's Guy Music.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"Property" / The Kinks

Okay, all you Kinkaholics -- and apparently there are several of you out there -- another Ray song's gotten stuck in my head. This one's from State of Confusion again, but it's a whole 'nother thang. In "State of Confusion," the narrator whines that his girlfriend's moved out because the video machine broke, and you've gotta laugh. There is NO LAUGHING in "Property."

Rock music is full of break-up songs, but this is a rarer thing, a break-up song for grown-ups.

We get the characters' whole history in one sliver of time, one watershed scene, flavored with a mixed cocktail of emotions -- sorrow, acceptance, regret, and, oh yes, relief. The protagonist stands awkwardly in the vestibule, bags packed, sharply aware of all he's feeling, like an out-of-body experience: "When I think of what I'll be losing / It's hard to move along / But it's harder just to stay here / Knowing that I don't belong." I picture him taking a farewell glance at the mantelpiece, where he spots the framed photographs and a clutter of holiday souvenirs -- and he almost loses it. That's a nice realistic touch; that's the sort of thing that does trip you up, when you least expect it.

But what really gets me here -- the truly brilliant effect -- is how Ray describes those objects, with the lovers' fate foreshadowed in every one: "You take the photographs, the ones of you and me / When we both posed and laughed to please the family. / Nobody noticed then we wanted to be free / And now there's no more love, it's just the property." (Remember the Kinks song "Picture Book"? Ray Davies has always been skeptical of snapshots.) "And all the little gifts we thought we'd throw away / The useless souvenirs bought on a holiday. / We put them on a shelf, now they're collecting dust. / We never needed them, but they outlasted us." That rhyme, "dust" and "us," cuts right to the heart.

Then comes a final flicker of regret, Ray's voice straining anxiously upward: "Started off with nothing, started off just you and me " --but he's knows there's no going back. "Now that it's all over, you can keep the property," he concludes. And he's out the door. Slam. Finis.

Of course, a song isn't just words, but I can't imagine these lyrics set more perfectly. It's a midtempo track, with a simple unwavering drumbeat like a ticking clock (because time's running out). The guitar strums dully, the keyboards add an electronic sigh of regret. Both the verses and the chorus repeat the same melodic line over and over, as if the singer's too numb to come up with anything new. It's bouncy, but it's also a circular sequence of notes that makes him sounds trapped. Sure, in the bridge the melody does arc upward, but at the end of every line it sinks into a minor chord, as if whelmed by despair. At the end, things get synth-y (hey, it was 1983) but it works: dehumanized back-up vocals chant "property" like a cruel taunt, echoed by a creepy talking guitar.

This guy's got to leave; he knows it, she knows it. They've talked it to death. But that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt, and somehow I feel that this is a lot more naked and personal than the usual Ray Davies song. Biographical or not, it aches with real feeling. On a day when you just feel like being sad, I can recommend it highly.

Friday, January 26, 2007

"King of California" / Dave Alvin

Anybody remember the Blasters? Yeah, me neither.

That was Dave Alvin's first band, with his brother Phil (love those brother bands), Phil Alvin being the lead singer and Dave the guitarist and songwriter. I've now got a couple albums by the original Blasters, a power-fueled rockabilly shot of adrenaline; though released in the 1980s, their musical roots were set deep in the 50s, like something you'd find on an ancient roadhouse jukebox. Eventually, I gather, Dave and Phil couldn't work together anymore (love those brother bands); Phil kept hammering away at the Blasters, while Dave went solo. So it goes.

This 1994 solo album, King of California, was the first I knew of Dave Alvin, though, and it's hard for me to backtrack to the Blasters after falling in love with this. This release shows Dave exercising his acoustic chops and exploring where his own gravelly voice could take a song. "King of California" is particularly heartfelt -- the Alvins are not only Californians, they're fourth-generation Californians (not too many of those around), connected to an old gritty California that has nothing to do the beach/mall/freeway culture. Dave may not have his brother's great yelping voice, but he does have a rough, sincere vocal edge that makes me visualize sagging barbwire, a sunbleached cow skull, a snarl of tumbleweed. This stuff may be classified as "country", but it's far from Nashville and NASCAR; it's a pipeline into the authentic West, and I love it.

There's a tender, yearning quality to this track , with sweet slide guitar fills and a deft mandolin twanging alongside Dave's acoustic strum. Though Dave wrote it himself, it's basically a pioneer folk ballad : "Well I left my home and my one true love / East of the Ohio River / Her father said we'd never wed / For I had neither gold nor silver / But my darling dear please shed no tear / For I think that it's fair to warn ya / That I return to claim your hand / As the King of California." Maybe it's just me, but I love that "warn ya/California" rhyme. He crosses the Indian country and desert (dreaming of his girl), prospects in the Gold Country (dreaming of riches and his girl), and . . . er, is killed in a gunfight (dreaming of her kiss as he sinks to the floor). Killed? Yup, a tragic ending.

We've been so seduced by that loping melody, buoyed by that earnest gruff voice -- that melancholy ending devastates me, especially the way Dave groans and heaves on the line "His bullet in my chest is burning" (inverted syntax, a perfect 19th-century touch). For some reason I picture the ending of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, my favorite Robert Altman movie. "My darling dear please shed no tear," he pleads -- too late, I'm already choked up -- then adds, "'Cause I think that it's fair to warn ya / That I return to claim your hand / The king of California." Okay, possibly he survived that gunfight; but I think he's coming back as a ghost to haunt her, in classic folk-ballad manner. The mandolinist plucks an unsettling riff, the guitar strum gets louder, almost frantic . . . and for just a moment, we feel the sadness at the heart of things. That's what I call striking gold.

Check it out at

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Sway" / Tres Chicas

Is it country? Is it folk? Is it jazz? Let's just call it Americana and settle in, because these three women from North Carolina -- Lynn Blakey, Caitlin Cary, and Tonya Lamm -- blend all those traditions to yield a gorgeous, soulful sound. I'm a sucker for lush female vocal harmonies, my ear programmed early by Cass Elliott and Michelle Phillips, or Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie; but when these gals harmonize strong and clear, it reminds me more of Emmylou, Linda, and Dolly on that Trio album. You get the feeling that these Three Chicks are really on the same page of music . . . and, oh, they're probably not sleeping with each others' boyfriends.

This 2006 album, Bloom, Red, and the Ordinary Girl, is another Nick Lowe-related discovery for me; Tres Chicas went to London to record it with a gang of British musicians, including several who've worked with Nick (he himself plays bass on a couple tracks). Robert Treherne's copasetic drumming and Geraint Watkins's elegantly tossed-off accents on the electric piano give this track a lush groove, over which the vocals can scat and swoop and swirl all they please.

The chorus repeats over and over "How we sway / In the breeze", and with that langorous beat, the sexy frisson of the vocals, at first I got an image of a couple dancing, swaying close together. But then I dove deeper into the lyrics and realized it's a lot more interesting than that: It's about how to move and give, like a tree buffeted by the wind, how to be flexible enough to weather life's ups and downs (or at any rate, a relationship's ups and downs). Not your usual candy-gloss pop sentiment, eh?

"You can't have too much faith / In a person, or place / You can't have too much room to breathe / To breathe," says the first verse. Amen, ladies. This is a love song all right, but it's from the perspective of someone who's been around a bit, who's suffered her share of hurt and loss. I like that; I don't feel like these girlfriends are lying to me. And with those soaring vocals, the three-part harmonies blending perfectly, you can relax into its warm wisdom, shifting and swaying right along with them. Do yourself a favor -- check these girls out.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"The Way I Want To Be" / The Village Green

In the wonderful world of the internet, it's amazing what pops up with an innocent Google. I was looking for information about the Kinks' landmark 1968 album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and what am I bounced to but the website for this young band from Portland, Oregon. The fact that they chose this name, though, is proof that they admire the Kinks -- and, it seems, lots of other British Invasion bands. The weird thing is that when these songs come up on my shuffle, I start thinking, "Who is this? The Tremeloes? The Searchers? The Small Faces?" You'd never guess they were a 21st-century band, they've absorbed the Beat Era sound so well. For me, that's a good thing.

I dig this song's skippy syncopation, its chunky guitars, and that plaintive lead vocal -- I swear that guy's putting on a British accent, or at any rate the accent of a British rocker trying to sound like a Delta bluesman. The melodic line flirts and dances all over the place; my head bobs up and down without my realizing it.

But as you'd expect from musicians who cite Ray Davies as a major influence, their lyrics put a darker spin on things: As upbeat and bouncy as this track sounds, it's sung by a misfit personality, a square peg twisting and wrenching around in his round hole. "I see the sun rising," he begins -- standard song opening, no problem -- but then it turns sour: "up through the stormy haze / Clouds in my eyes hide the view in this lonely place / All that I see turns to blank when I'm on my knees / All that I know turns to dust, and I don't believe..." Whoa, sorry I asked.

And then here's the chorus: "Like taking the sunrise from the morning / Stealing the water from the rain / Clearing the gutter from the ghetto / All of my life has been the same / All of my life I've lived forever / All of my life I've been in pain / Praying to God that there's no heaven / Give me the water, the way I want to be." I'm not a hundred percent sure I've transcribed those words right, but you get the point. It's pessimistic, but damn poetic -- any guy who can play with language this way has not signed out of life, no matter what he thinks. The guitar solo towards the end bursts with energy, a vigorous drumbeat whips along smartly, and somehow it's not nearly as depressing as it ought to be.

But that's just my take on the song -- follow this link and have a listen and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"The Letter" / The Box Tops

When this single came out in late 1967, I'm surprised I paid it any attention. Sgt. Pepper's had been released the preceding summer, changing the pop music landscape forever; besides, I was still at least partly a Tiger Beat-programmed adolescent, who'd evolved (if you can call it that) from the Fab Four on to Herman's Hermits, the Monkees, and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

But I know I was hearing other tracks on the radio, primarily a lot of Motown -- hits like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "I Was Born to Love Her," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," and "I Second That Emotion." Some part of my brain was wired to love that sweet soul music too. So when this single by a new band called the Box Tops rocketed onto the air waves, how could I not love it?

I didn't know that the lead singer, Alex Chilton, was just a teenager, barely a couple of years older than me. I didn't know the band was from Memphis; I doubt I even knew whether they were white or black. I sure didn't read about them in Tiger Beat. But this was a song you could not deny. I bought the single (which, given my paltry allowance, was a serious vote of faith) and listened to it so often, every beat was branded on my memory. It's one of my candidates for Most Perfect Single Ever.

It's only 2:03 and it doesn't waste a second; the drummer knocks half a dozen brisk strokes on the rim of his set, the guitar nimbly plucks another half-dozen notes, then Chilton's voice rips in urgently, "Give me a ticket for an aeroplane / Ain't got time to take a fast train," the melody jittering back and forth between two notes, words accented off-beat, everything jumpy as hell. He's at the ticket window, hair rumpled, out of breath -- a man on a mission. "Lonely days are gone, I'm a-going home" he proclaims, then his voice drops into an awestruck growl: "My baby just wrote me a letter" -- and his hoarse shiver on the word "letter" seals the deal for me.

That explains why he's hopping from one foot to the other, telling the ticket agent, "I don't care how much money I gotta spend / Got to get back to my baby again." He doesn't even need to tell us what the letter said, though he does in the bridge: "Well, she wrote me a letter, said she couldn't live without me no more / Listen, mister, can't you see I got to get back to my baby once a more" -- pregnant pause here, while the horns swing around, the drummer knocks twice, then Chilton's voice swoons wildly -- "Any way, yeah!" That's pretty much it, except for a long fadeout where the oddly perky electric organ repeats its calliope-like refrain and you hear a jet take off (I've always heard a seagull squawk too, though I could be wrong).

Though this wasn't released in the summer, it still feels like a summer song to me -- I have a distinct memory of standing on the midway at the Indiana State Fair, eating a corn dog, watching the Tilt-A-Whirl, standing transfixed while this song blared over the PA system.

Nobody writes letters anymore, I know -- but I just can't imagine this song being updated to "My baby just sent me a text message." Just like Paul McCartney asking to hold your hand, that letter is code for the whole sexual shebang, and it's Chilton's gritty, earthy voice that puts in all the subtext. He may have just been imitating the Muscle Shoals and Sun Records r&b singers he'd grown up around, but that groan of longing, that husky urgency, means just one thing. I was even younger than Alex Chilton when I first heard this record, but I could feel the heat all right. Whew.

Monday, January 22, 2007

“Oh My God” / Kaiser Chiefs

Sure, I like the Arctic Monkeys, I like Franz Ferdinand, but if you ask me which new UK band I like the most, I’d have to say The Kaiser Chiefs. They have a much wider range, which probably hasn’t helped them – you don’t hear a track and automatically think, “Oh, that’s the Kaiser Chiefs.” This song, for example, sounds a bit like Blur, with a similar layered coolness and hypnotic hooks. But the first time I heard this song, what I thought of was the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” – it’s got that same desperate quality, the longing to bust out of a drab provincial existence (in their case, Leeds). This album, Employment, came out in 2005, forty years after the Animals’ hit, but some things never change.

I wouldn’t say their lyrics are poetry, but the Chiefs get off some one-liners that make you realize the songwriter has actually thought about life. Take this first verse, which starts off with load of crap clichés (catch the reference to the Stones’ “Time Is On My Side”) and then smashes them with frustration: “Time on your side that will never end / The most beautiful thing you can ever spend / But you work in a shirt with your name tag on it / Drifting apart like a plate tectonic.” Maybe “tag on it” is a cheap rhyme with “tectonic” -- still, it’s a perfect phrase to describe the sort of belittling job you fall into at a certain age, and when you add the seismic force rumbling underneath, it sets up the conflict with wonderful economy. That’s songwriting.

Then he describes how he relates to his girlfriend, another bogged-down situation: “Too much time spent dragging the past up / I didn't see you not looking when I messed up.” (Love the paranoia of him watching her watching him blunder around.) At least in the Animals song, the guy and his girl were in it together – “Girl there’s a better life for me and you”; for the Kaiser Chiefs, the draggy girlfriend is strike two against him. But in the third verse, he reminds us that he’s got youth’s resilience: “Knock me down I'll get right back up again / I'll come back stronger than a powered up Pac-Man.” Goofy image, okay, but considering the minor key, the sullen vocals, and the lock-step rhythms, it doesn’t come off as comic – it’s just the kind of magical thinking a young slacker needs to survive.

His voice lifts tentatively into another modal key at the end of each verse, claiming (I picture his defiant shrug, jaw jutting forward): “It don't matter to me / 'Cos all I wanted to be / Was a million miles from here / Somewhere more familiar.” Yeah, that’s authentic too, that feeling of not belonging (the Animals echo again) and knowing there’s another place that will feel right.

Heading into the chorus, the doubled vocal “oh’s” swoop menacingly up a long scale, building in volume, until all his suppressed rage and determination break out: “Oh my god I can't believe it / I've never been this far away from home” wailed over and over, a wall-pounding mantra that doesn’t go anywhere. How can it? This song isn’t about a solution, it’s about a feeling. You may feel this way even without a name-tag on your shirt. Well, next time you need to beat your fists against the sky . . . here’s the song for you.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

“You Are What You Love” / Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins

Jenny Lewis has one of those little-girl voices, like Jill Sobule, that’s deceptive – when you listen to the words of her songs there’s nothing little-girly about her at all. In fact, she’s downright snarky and dangerous. What’s most dangerous about Jenny Lewis is that men don’t fool her, and she doesn’t fool herself. There’s nothing scarier in the realm of love than a woman with no illusions. Am I right, guys?

This track is from Jenny’s 2006 album, Rabbit Fur Coat (her first solo album after leaving the band Rilo Kiley), and it’s full of wry, sharp, I-know-who-I-am-by-now songs. Like Billy Bragg in yesterday’s song, she’s playing with metaphors, but she’s got a whole grabbag of them, anything that could be called an “illusion”: ghosts, mirrors, art forgery, a woman being sawed in half, a rabbit pulled from a hat.

She hustles smartly through the lyrics, not bothering even with rhyme, as if she’s got too much to say to dress it up. And sure, the beat is brisk and cheery, with a snappy drumbeat and sparkly electric piano and lulling guitar strums, but that’s an illusion too: Throughout the song she describes nothing but a relationship in crisis. She’s looking for “invisible reasons to fall out of love and run screaming from our home”; “More and more we’re suffering / Not nobody, not a thousand beers / Will keep us from feeling all alone”; she refers to the “heart attacks I’m convinced I have / Every morning upon waking” -- none of this looks good.

The echo-chamber effect gives her voice a chilling sort of hollowness, despite its whispery girlish intimacy. And sure, she’s on the doorstep, begging to be taken back, she’s hashing things out for hours on the phone, but she’ll coolly admit she’s an expert liar – “I’m fraudulent, a thief at best / A coward who paints a bullshit canvas.” Late in the song, she softly sneaks in her partner’s name – “Tim” – as if she’s past caring about changing names to protect the innocent.

All of which brings us down to the refrain of this song, which is like a Zen koan, with more layers of truth than an onion: “You are what you love / Not what loves you back.” Amazing, what that has to say about the human heart’s infinite capacity for yearning and self-deception. It makes me think of the Mamas and the Papas (who’ve been on my mind all day, since reading Denny Doherty’s obit this morning) -- Cass loved Denny, but Denny loved Michelle, who was married to John, and nobody was happy. What’s even worse is how we hang in there, trying to force the person we love into somebody who will love us back, and refusing to surrender to the person who does love us.

So why does this song make me grin and feel charged up? Maybe it’s because it’s so refreshing to finally hear someone call a spade a spade, and not try to pretend that things are any different than they are. “I’m in love with tricks,” Jenny admits at the end of the song, “So pull another rabbit out of your hat.” We all know there’s no rabbit in that hat, but still we stare at the stage, hoping the magician will pull it off. Even the girl with no illusions.

Friday, January 19, 2007

"She's Got A New Spell" / Billy Bragg

I mostly know Billy Bragg because he's on the Yep Roc label, same as Nick Lowe -- from time to time I check out their other artists, and I've never been disappointed. I downloaded several of Billy's tracks onto my iPod a few months ago, and every time this one comes up on the shuffle, it stops me in my tracks; I just have to listen and grin. Billy's as famous for his leftist politics as for his quirky folk-punk music, but this track (from his 1987 album Worker's Playtime) isn't topical. I like his political stuff just fine -- it's intelligent and passionate -- but when you come right down to it, this is the song that gets me going.

It starts off with a jangly electric guitar intro, something bouncy and retro that I could imagine in a song by the Turtles, or Tommy James & the Shondells. Then Billy bursts in, in his nasal Essex accent: "What is that sound? / Where is it coming from? / All around / What are you running from?" It's not so much tuneful as talky, and he sounds agitated, or paranoid -- or could it be he's just in love, hmmmm?

Well . . .maybe, maybe not. It's often said that a beautiful woman is "spellbinding" or "bewitching," but the distress in Billy's strained voice suggests he's not just being metaphorical when he says, "That's how I know / That she's got a new spell." Though the arrangement's still perky, the melody light-hearted, in the next verse he's even more baffled and disoriented: "What's going down / Who's moved this room from round me? / Where has it gone? / I fear this night will drown me / So I lie awake all night." I'm guessing he's swirling around in the hormonal rush of new love, but that's not how he sees it: "One minute she says / She's gone to get the cat in/ The next thing I know/ She's mumbling in Latin". Yikes! By now it's funny, and we're laughing along with him, and maybe at him, too, as he scratches his head and looks perplexed.

In the third verse, he turns all poetic on us, and it's totally disarming: "She cut the stars out of the sky / And baked them in a pie / She stole the scene and scenery / The script and the machinery." He's gobsmacked, there's no other word for it, and I for one am charmed. He's Darrin Stevens, she's Samantha, and so long as the beat is this good, he might as well dance to it, doncha think? I know he's got me dancing, all right.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

“Chocolate on My Tongue” / The Wood Brothers
These guys are real brothers (I’m still annoyed that the Righteous Brothers and the Doobie Brothers lied to us) and in my humble opinion there’s something magical whenever guys who grew up in the same household make music together. They’ve both been plying their trade for years – guitarist Oliver as an Atlanta-based rock-blues artist (in the band King Johnson) and bassist Chris playing alt jazz in New York City (with Medeski, Martin & Wood) – but something finally inspired them to record together in 2005. Ways Not to Lose may be their first record as a brother act, but I sure hope that it won't be their last.

Having made their mark with other bands, the Woods have already learned one big lesson about art: Less is More. Several songs on Ways Not To Lose wrestle with questions of faith -- titles like “Tried and Tempted,” “The Truth Is the Light,” “Spirit,” “That’s What Angels Can Do” --- but we’re not being handed any smug conclusions. Instead, it’s as if Oliver Wood (the songwriter of the two) is taking stock halfway down the road of life, having a smoke and inspecting the holes in his shoes and trying to make sense of the map. Both the lyrics and the music have a sort of homey honesty that’s tremendously moving.

This song in particular is so stripped-down and laid-back, you feel like you’re in a backyard pickin’ session: it’s just Oliver on his acoustic guitar, singing in an effortless folky tenor, with Chris softly plucking his stand-up bass, or bowing a sustained low note in the chorus to add a little tension. The three verses are like candid Polaroids, each focused on some tiny mundane pleasure – licking chocolate ice cream on the front porch (how bluesy is that?), listening to Al Green on the hi-fi while soaking in the bathtub, or lounging in the front seat of his car with a good woman in his arms. “And that’s good enough reason to live / Good enough reason to live,” Oliver declares contentedly at the end of each scene, and -- well, he’s right, you know, and finding a reason to live is NO SMALL THING.

Things skew into a diminished key briefly in the bridge, as he muses – his voice lifting like a muted jazz trumpet -- “If I die young / At least I got some chocolate on my tongue” – but then magically the key resolves back into major. Yeah, we’re all gonna die someday, but for here and now, the holy trinity of chocolate, music, and love should keep us going. That sounds like a sacrament I can go for. I can just taste the chocolate now.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

“It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll
(But I Like It) " / The Rolling Stones

I have a problem with the Rolling Stones. I liked their first few hits, back in 1964. Then I saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show, and they were so . . . ugly compared to the Beatles, I immediately lost interest (give me a break, I was just a little kid). Back then you could be either a Beatlemaniac or a Stones freak, but never both, and I was already engaged to the Fab Four. Oh, from time to time, I’d hear a Stones song I secretly liked (wimpy stuff like “As Tears Go By” or “Lady Jane”), but I’d never admit it.

And then, ten years later, reviewing records for my school newspaper, I got It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll in the mail. The Beatles had split up, so I didn’t have to regard the Stones as The Dark Side anymore -- and hey, a free record deserves a spin on the turntable. Now, remember, I’d ignored Let It Bleed and Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers -- I didn’t have those classics to compare it to. My expectations were low, and this hard-rocking, high-spirited record just knocked me off my feet. I played it nonstop for the next couple of weeks, this track in particular – I’d play it at top volume every Friday when classes were over for the week.

“If I could stick my hand in my heart / Spill it all over the stage,” Mick Jagger brays in his broadest London accent. “Would it satisfy ya, would it slide on by ya / Would you think the boy is strange?” The answer is yes, of course. They’re mocking the notion of being “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band,” and living up to it at the same time. Keef and Mick Taylor’s guitars trade teasing riffs, Charley Watts whomps away on the drums, and Jagger howls and preens his way through the lyrics, occasionally dropping the name of some old standard like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” (that’s about as allusive as the Rolling Stones ever get).

He gets even campier in the interval, grunting and gasping and moaning as he repeats “I like it” over and over, probably while waggling his ass. There’s nothing insightful about the lyrics AT ALL (halfway through, they run out things to say about being on stage and fill in with a couple lame verses about sex). They tell you, straight out: It’s only a dumb thing called rock ‘n’ roll, and the only reason they’re singing it is because they like it. Well, so do I. It works.

I enjoyed Black and Blue. I got a kick out of Some Girls. And then I wasted money on Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You, and the Stones started charging a fortune for concert tickets and generally believing their own hype about being the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band. If you ask me, they became the World Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Bores. I turned against them in a big way (as if you can’t tell). My brief love affair with the Stones was OVER.

But every now and again, I’ll put It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll on again . . . and you know what? I can’t help it; I still love it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"State of Confusion" / The Kinks

Inside Ray Davies lurks a gifted actor, begging to come out. You can see it in all the Kinks videos, in his cameo performances in Absolute Beginners and Return to Waterloo, in all those larger-than-life roles he played in his 1970s rock operas Soap Opera and Preservation. Most of his classic songs are really little playlets, with Ray creating a persona and singing from that viewpoint -- the envious schoolboy of "David Watts," the smug suburbanite of "Autumn Almanac," the naive hetero seduced by a transvestite in "Lola."

One of Ray's favorite characters is the ordinary Joe, the working stiff -- whatever social class he is -- driven to distraction by his job and obligations. (Think of songs like "Situation Vacant," "Dead End Street," "Alcohol," "Get Back in Line," "Yo-Yo"). "State of Confusion," the title track of their 1983 album, is sung by another of these ordinary people, barely coping with the pressures of modern life. And when I'm having a stressed-out day, this is the song I want to play LOUD.

After a few initial howls of desperation, Ray breaks into the jazzy piano of the intro with a startled cry: "Woke up in a panic / Like somebody fired a gun." He's yelping tuneless phrases in jittery rhythms; those punishing drumbeats are way forward in the mix, like the timbers of his house falling down around him, and the minor key guitar riff circles ominously around, trading off with an electric organ refrain stolen from an old horror movie. In verse two, he whinges and moans: all his appliances are on the fritz, and on top of it all, his girlfriend's moved out too (he says it's because the VCR broke down -- you've got to wonder if that's the whole story). All the trappings of middle-class affluence, and they still haven't made him happy.

By the third verse, he can't cope at all: "Standing on an island in the middle of the road / Traffic either side of me, which way will I go? / I should've stayed at home, I should have never come outside / Now I wish I never tried to cross the other side." I can just see this poor bloke dithering in the crosswalk, cars whipping past him. It's funny -- Ray makes his voice extra panicky for comic effect -- but jeez, haven't we all had those dizzy, disoriented moments in times of stress?

In the bridges, a little more melody slips in as Ray, playing up that strained quaver in his voice, ponders his condition: "Is it the weather, or am I going mad?" In the second bridge he blames society: "Should feel happy, should feel glad / I'm alive and it can't be bad/ But back on planet Earth they shatter the illusion / The world's going 'round in a state of confusion."

The last bridge is the one that really gets me, where he's "Lyin' awake in a cold, cold sweat / Am I overdrawn, am I going in debt? / It gets worse, the older that you get." This guy isn't just another Ray Davies nervous breakdown; we could be him tomorrow.

In the chorus, the backing vocals whirl around dizzily on the "Whoo-oo-oo's", while Ray frantically barks out "I'm in a STATE [beat, beat] of confusion." It's as if the song starts to spin out of control, just like the singer's life. We don't need to believe that Ray's writing about himself; we don't need to feel that he's writing about us. But this portrayal seems so true to life, we can crawl inside this man's neurosis and feel right at home. And, strangely enough, like it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

“Yeh Yeh” / Georgie Fame

This song was a UK #1 hit in 1965, and though it didn’t do quite so well in the States, I must have heard it at the time -- it sure jumped out at me when I got a History of British Pop compilation years later. Given the Beatle-dominated popscape of 1965, I imagine it sounded a bit of a throwback even then. The hepcat saxophone accents, the finger-snapping syncopation, Georgie’s cha-cha-ing electric organ, all make me picture a 1950s bachelor pad, well-stocked with hi-fi, jazz LPs, mood lighting, and martini glasses. Laurence Harvey would be right at home in this song.

They Might Be Giants did an excellent, and very faithful, cover of this on their Mink Car album. I love their version, but when I hear the original again, I appreciate all over again the velvety textures of George Fame’s inimitable voice. Despite being one of those early 1960s manufactured British popsters, in the mold of Adam Faith or Cliff Richard, his heart always lay with jazz; as soon as the pop star thing died down, he started recording with folks like Count Basie and Harry South, and in the 1990s worked a lot with Van Morrison on jazz and blues standards.

Clearly Georgie was already tending jazzward way back in 1965 when he recorded this track – play it next to any contemporary records by the Beatles or the Stones or the Animals or the Kinks and you’ll be surprised at its retro sound. There’s no plot to speak of – the singer meets his girlfriend after work for dinner at her flat and they just have a groovy time. She keeps asking him if everything is okay, and he happily answers “The only thing I can say / I say Yeh yeh.” It’s so upbeat, so unconflicted, it raises my spirits every time I give it a spin. (I’ll always think of this revolving on a turntable.)

The best effect is that middle section, where Georgie, starting with his huskiest low tones, sings one long suspenseful chromatic scale, rising in volume and pitch all at the same time: “We’ll play a melody and turn the lights down low so that none can see / You gotta do that! You gotta do that!” Then he does it again “And there’ll be no one else alive in all the world ‘cept for you and me / Yeh yeh yeh yeh yeh….” Maybe it’s a sexual climax, maybe it’s just exuberance; the main thing is that he hits those last phrases with such joy. For just a moment at least, the world feels totally copasetic. Yeah, man.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

“Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight” / Amos Lee

Sometimes it pays to take a blind chance. I bought the 2005 album Amos Lee after seeing an ad in The Oxford American’s excellent annual music issue; whatever that ad promised, it made me curious, and I was in the mood for something new. The minute I slid that CD into my stereo system and heard “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight,” I knew I’d hit the jackpot.

Amos first got “discovered” opening for Norah Jones, and he’s been lucky enough to piggyback on her success. Like hers, his music straddles a lot of genres: folk, rock, gospel, blues, country, even funk and ragtime. And like Norah Jones, Amos Lee could be called middle-of-the-road. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, shoot me now.) His approach is sensitive but not confessional, uplifting but not overtly spiritual, politically liberal but not confrontational. But his music is also incredibly tuneful, rhythmic, and above all sincere – and that counts for a lot with me. The arrangements are tactful, low-key, with just a few musicians and no fancy studio effects. And then there’s Amos’s supple, mellow, earnest voice -- for that alone I could listen to this music for hours.

Yeah, there are some politics in “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight” -- but who could argue with lines like, “But the people on the street / Out on buses or on feet / We all got the same blood flow.” Besides, this all-men-are-brothers philosophy totally rings true, coming from a multi-racial dude who grew up poor in a tough Philly neighborhood. I like to think that this track's loping rhythms and laid-back acoustic arrangement are the “keep it loose” half of the equation, while Amos’ glorious scat-like singing is the “keep it tight” half.

To me, this song is all about striking balance, learning how to find your equilibrium, whether it’s an uncomfortable encounter with the landlord or a hopeless affection for a girl who may not be faithful to him (“I’m in love with a girl who’s in love with the world / Though I can’t help but follow”). Whichever he’s facing, Amos reasons, he needs to learn to let go, not to pin his heart on false dreams – those “over the rainbow” illusions society sells us. Don’t expect him to rage against anything; that’s not Amos Lee’s style. He’ll just shimmy his voice over the rainbow for a wistful moment, then slide back down to earth.

Lyrics? Usually I’m drawn to clever lyrics, but Amos Lee tends to be more inarticulate and vague -- that’s the way people talk when they’re sincere, after all. Still, there are some subtle beauties if you listen carefully. I love the bridge, where the song completely hushes down to focus attention on Amos' nugget of wisdom. The first time around, pondering the lust for fame and fortune, he advises us, “Sometimes we forget what we got / Who we are, and who we are not”; but the second time around, just by changing a few pronouns, it becomes a statement about not trying to own the people you love: “Sometimes we forget who we got / Who they are, or who they are not.” His voice hovers so tenderly over these simple words, it goes straight to my heart. That’s the kind of gold worth finding.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

“Space Oddity” / David Bowie

Can you believe that David Bowie just turned 60? (He sure doesn’t look it – either he’s got a great plastic surgeon or there’s a really decrepit-looking oil painting hanging in some London attic.) I think back to my first-ever trip to London -- way back in 1973; I was still a teenager – when, leafing through a music magazine in a smart hair salon, I saw my first photo of David Bowie. Loaded up with eye make-up, his hair gelled in magenta spikes, his lithe long pale body draped in lame and satin . . . yeah, I know, by today’s standards this would be nothing, but coming off the Woodstock era it was quite a sight. Though I hadn’t yet heard the term “glam rock,” I was staring in fascination at its prime exhibit.

Then, a few days later, “Space Oddity” came over the loudspeakers in a record shop in Chelsea; I must have heard it before (it was released in 1969, after the first moon landing, when everybody was space-crazed), but I’d never really heard it before. Now I could put song and singer together, and I was absolutely mesmerized by it.

Bowie imagines a future where being an astronaut – the A # 1 coolest career of the 1960s – has become a routine job. Major Tom goes off to work, takes his protein pill (nice sci-fi detail), and climbs into his “tin can” without a second thought, heading for the galaxies with complete trust in his handlers. Bowie sings a dialogue with himself, playing both Ground Control (the nasal, low-pitched monotone) and Major Tom (the plaintive, melodic high voice). The hollow, metallic sound of the recording, all those feedback echoes and synthesized strings, the ghostly voices doing the countdown – it’s so atmospheric . . . and so ominous.

As he steps out of the capsule into space, Ground Control fawns all over him (“And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear”); even when things begin to go awry, this team player still naively trusts in technology: “I think my spaceship knows which way to go.” But it’s not going to end well, you can just tell; all those minor keys and dissonance were there for some reason. There’s that haunting moment when the good major sings “Tell my wife I love her very much” and Ground Control snaps back, a little too quickly, “She knows”; next thing you know, the circuits stop working. Ground Control keeps urgently repeating, “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” while Major Tom drifts woozily off into the eternal loneliness of space, idly musing on how Earth looks from afar. Whatever was in that protein pill, anyway?

It’s chilling to realize that this song was written before Apollo 13, before space shuttles started blowing up in mid-air. But while the title obviously refers to Kubrick's psychedelic space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bowie was probably also thinking about how becoming a rock star – or taking drugs ("we know Major Tom's a junkie," Bowie revealed years later in "Ashes to Ashes") – severs you irrevocably from your former life.

Major Tom is incredibly passive, when you think about it. He’s “floating in a most peculiar way,” not getting hysterical, not springing into action. That disorientation, that disconnect, is what got me most about this song that day in Chelsea. I felt I was standing on the brink of a brave new world, a world full of androgynous men in eye make-up and strange rock songs – and I was already sucked into it. There was no going back.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

“Political Science” / Randy Newman

We all slow down as we get older and grayer, and Randy Newman has gone completely gray -- he seems content to be a soundtrack composer nowadays (considering that his uncles were Alfred and Lionel Newman, that’s like taking over the family business). Good for you, Randy – I was as thrilled as anybody when you got your long overdue Oscar for Toy Story 2.

But I do miss the mordant humor of those 1970s albums like 12 Songs and Good Old Boys. My first Newman album was 1971’s Randy Newman Live, and I saw him sing (on a double bill with Ry Cooder) in Northhampton, Massachusetts, in 1974. Being a Randy Newman fan in those days made me feel I was in on some big clever secret. Randy seemed slightly out of step with contemporary pop music – if his songs sold at all, it was through cover versions by folks like Judy Collins and Linda Ronstadt and Three Dog Night, who never really conveyed their irony. I’m grateful that Alan Price and Harry Nilsson, at least, covered his songs with the caustic perspective intact.

Randy’s always hidden behind unreliable narrators – we know he’s not the slave trader wooing Africans to emigrate in “Sail Away,” but the masses who bought “Short People” and “I Love L.A.” never were sure whether to take his lyrics at face value. “Political Science” (from 1972’s Sail Away) still fools some people. It’s ostensibly sung by an America-Firster who’s baffled that the rest of the world hates the United States (remind you of anyone . . . like, I don’t know, maybe half the current White House administration?). “No one likes us -- I don't know why,” he mulls over the situation, in a puzzled voice. “We give them money, but are they grateful? / No, they're spiteful and they're hateful / They don't respect us, so let's surprise them -- / We'll drop the big one and pulverize them.” (Those rhymes are the work of a master songsmith; I love the suspense of waiting to find out what unexpected word he’ll find to close the deal.)

He starts off with a valid point, okay – then glides so smoothly into his modest proposal, you’re taken off guard. Having come up with this solution, he cheerfully picks up the tempo of his honky-tonk piano, ticking off a list of all the allies who’ve let him down: “Asia's crowded and Europe's too old / Africa is far too hot / And Canada's too cold / And South America stole our name.” The sneaky thing is, everything he says is, on the face of it, true, but it’s such daffy logic -- if you find yourself buying into this, STOP. He gives Australia a pass, but why? Same kind of superficial reasoning: “Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo / We'll build an All American amusement park there / They got surfin', too.” By the third verse he’s off to town, blithely picturing his Dr. Strangelove-ian scenario: “Boom goes London and boom Paree / More room for you and more room for me.” I wince every time he slam-dunks those “booms” with their bombastic chords.

I still grin to remember Randy’s mock innocence as he sang this song, shaking that mad curly mop of hair, looking skyward through wire-rimmed glasses, hands bouncing over the keyboard. I love all those lush, romantic Randy Newman soundtracks – but if you’ve got ‘em in you, Randy, we sure could use a few more songs like “Political Science.” Today more than ever.

Monday, January 08, 2007

“I Love It When She Lies” / Greg Trooper

Now, where did I first discover Greg Trooper? Maybe it was some iMix I stumbled across; I do remember unearthing a Greg Trooper CD in a bargain bin a year ago and feeling as if I had struck paydirt, so his name must already have meant something to me. By the time I spotted his name on Lowe Profile, last year’s 2-CD Nick Lowe tribute album, it shot at me out of the track list like a bolt of lightning. (He covered “What’s Shakin’ On the Hill,” and a damn fine version it is, too.) But here’s a puzzlement: Nobody else I know has ever heard of Greg Trooper. And that’s a damn shame.

Like a lot of musicians I admire – John Hiatt, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Dave Alvin – Greg Trooper’s records show up on iTunes variously labeled as folk or country or rock; the reality is, his sound snuggles right in the nexus of those genres, a pretty sweet spot to my ears. His 2005 CD Make It Through This World has a lot of R&B flavor as well, although this track is full-blown country – dig that twangy intro, the plodding drumbeat. Greg indulges in a bit of C&W hootin’ and hollerin’ here, but with his warm, relaxed vocal touch, he doesn’t come off all hectic and overheated like so many other country singers do.

One thing I do love about Nashville songwriters is their disciplined song construction; in this song every line feeds straight into the central conceit. Verse one is the set-up: he explains what a decent guy he is, always brought up to value truth (he sounds so pious, it's gotta be tongue-in-cheek), leading to the about-face in the last line – “All that changed just recently / Since I fell for her.” A few guitar strums for punctuation – ta-da! -- then the chorus elucidates, with a slide guitar tying a bow around the end of every line: “I love it when she lies to me / Tells me that we’ll always be together for eternity / She don’t even have to try / It comes to her so naturally, she bends the truth so easily / But she looks into my eyes and tells me I’m the prize / I love it when she lies.” Lies? Hey, aren’t those the sort of things we’re all hungering to be told?

In verse two, he reveals more of her fibs – “Tonight she’ll tell me once again / I’m her lover and her closest friend / Kiss me deep like it’ll never end.” And the way his voice thrills on that “never end” line, it’s clear how these so-called lies keep him happy. There's a certain giddiness to his voice that tells you it's a new and strange feeling for him -- and shoot, what’s so bad about feeling good?

The sound here may be old-school, but once you get inside the lyrics you realize it couldn’t have been written in the platitude-happy 1950s; it’s only us, in our 21st-century paranoia, who are so leery of speaking our feelings – we’re too emotionally constipated to tell someone “I love you,” and completely spooked by having anybody say it to us. Maybe this is an old-fashioned joy we should get back to . . . because, of course, saying something brings it closer to happening.

Sure, Greg says at the end of the second verse, maybe someday he’ll find someone who’ll say the same wonderful things and really mean them. “But honestly, honesty’s not all that it’s cracked up to be,” he points out with a rueful wink. He’s not in any hurry to find that honest woman. He’s doing just fine.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

“Gravity” / John Mayer

My first impression was, this guy is too good-looking to be talented – that shaggy mane of dark curls, those heavy-lidded brown eyes, the softly parted full lips, all those shots of him in a snug black t-shirt. The first Mayer songs I heard, on film soundtracks, were sensitive-guy seductions like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Come Back To Bed,” and I resented their husky sexiness (plus I resented feeling them loosen my strings too, right according to formula). I figured it was the old Jon Bon Jovi Syndrome – if his handlers have to push his sexpot image, then how good can his music be?

Then I saw the John Mayer Trio live, and man, it was time to revise my opinion. Watching Mayer on stage, showing off deft and passionate bluesy guitar chops, I could see how much he dug making the joint howl and jump. Suddenly it occurred to me that he’d done what any aspiring musician would do – recorded some surefire radio hits, and let the company sell whatever image of him they could sell. Time enough to gain credibility later.

his 2005 live album with the John Mayer Trio, was a major play for credibility; next came a guest appearance on the Eric Clapton-J.J. Cale album The Road to Escondido (the track is called “Hard to Thrill”), a very impressive resumé item. His 2006 album Continuum carries on in the same vein, though a love song here or there makes me think John’s not ready to throw away the swooning female fans quite yet. Hey, when you have a voice as honey-laden and soulful as Smokey Robinson’s, you’d be a fool not to put a couple lovesick tracks on every album.

This song “Gravity” is on both Try! and Continuum; I prefer the live track on Try!, though I expect that's because I am still intoxicated with the memory of Mayer performing it. The lyrics aren’t much – a series of complaints about the force of gravity, which I take to mean the downer aspects of reality – but he sure can get a woeful timber going in his voice, and that sleepy syncopation keeps us just slightly shifting and swaying the whole time. As the melody climbs up to the word “gravity,” Mayer gives that triplet an odd vocal shiver, like it’s some radioactive substance he doesn’t want to get near. I have no idea what he means by “Twice as much ain’t twice as good / And don’t sustain like one half could,” but by that point I’m sunk into that gently lurching beat, usually with my eyes closed, ready for the yearning falsetto yelp at the end of “That’s gonna send me to my knees.”

The last minute and a half is a drawn-out repetition of the cry “Just keep me home where the light is,” and Mayer delivers the line with building passion each time, hitting the high notes on “home” and “light” just a hair off the beat, like a jazz scat. Maybe it’s not a great song, but it’s a brilliant performance all right. Respect must be paid.

So first impressions can be wrong. And hey, you never know – next week I might even revise my opinion of Justin Timberlake.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

"Inbetweenies" / Ian Dury & the Blockheads

Did anybody ever record more glorious nonsense than Ian Dury and the Blockheads? What a combination: this scruffy pub singer with the thick Cockney accent, backed by an extended funky jazz combo -- this in the days of stripped-down punk rock -- pouring out songs that sounded incredibly dirty, if only you could figure out what he was saying. Dirty, but also wickedly funny. (Just consider some of these song titles -- "There Ain't 'alf Been Some Clever Bastards," "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick," and the iconic "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.") When I first heard Do It Yourself in 1978, I sat on my apartment floor with my friend Susan and we just laughed over and over, putting the needle back to replay every track until we got all the words.

I never saw Ian live, but I've seen films of him: a frail-looking geezer with a horrible limp (due to childhood polio), clinging fiercely to the microphone stand and distracting everybody from his affliction with that huge kerchief he kept flinging around. And that slapdash singing style, half talking, missing as many notes as he hit -- but the band, oh the band was tight, a well-oiled machine with a rhythmic groove that never failed. Who knows why it worked . . . but it did.

I'm not laying money on this, but I imagine "Inbetweenies" as a song about two friends, both of them between affairs, having a spot of sex just to keep their hand in, so to speak. Or, as Ian puts it, with a Noel Coward-like flair, in the second verse: "As serious as things do seem / At least you've put me on the team / And friends do rule supreme." Later on in the song, he adds, "Do lift the heart of my morale / To know that we are pals." But most of the rest of it is so frankly about lovemaking, I get flushed despite myself -- lines like "Shake your booty / When your back is bent / Put your feelings /Where my mouth just went." And somehow, Ian's exuberant off-key squawk makes it all so friendly, you find yourself thinking, "Oh hell, why not?" The back-up vocalists are chanting "Inbetweenies" over and over, the piano goes rippling all over the place, the saxophone wails in and out, and that rock-solid bass-and-drums unit grooves right along. You know you're coming along for the ride -- why fight it?

By the time you get to a goofy verse like "Spread your chickens / When you think of next / What the Dickens / If they're highly-sexed?" (with electronic clucking exploding around the word "chickens" ), you've stopped worrying whether it makes sense. If it feels good, just do it, that's the credo of "In Betweenies" -- or as Ian sings right at the outset: "In the mirror, when I'm debonair / My reactions are my own affair." He's flipping the bird at middle-class propriety, but that cheeky Upminster grin makes it more than all right.

Friday, January 05, 2007

"Tempted" / Squeeze

One day I was in a music store buying a turntable (which tells you how long ago this was -- 1981, to be precise) and to show off his equipment, the clerk put on this record. Suddenly the whole store was filled with Squeeze's delicious pop vibe; as I looked around, I saw every customer in that store start to grin and groove. For just a moment, this bunch of strangers was drawn together by the same bit of music, just like magic.

Knowing that this single was released during Paul Carracks' stint with the band -- that's him on lead vocals -- makes it extra cool for me (Carrack later played with Nick Lowe, and you know how I am about anything associated with Nick Lowe). My guess is his keyboard technique led to the soulful syncopation that makes "Tempted" different from Jools-Holland-era Squeeze tracks like "Pulling Mussels From the Shell" or "Goodbye Girl." That funky beat may explain why this was Squeeze's only U.S. Top 50 hit; it sure was the first I ever heard of them. The lyrics, though, make it totally English -- as the singer packs his "case", he throws in "a flannel for my face," then drives out of a town that's quintessential British pastoral -- "Past the church and the steeple / The laundry on the hill." For me, the British references are a plus, but that's just me.

Anyway, the British incidentals aren't important; what this happens to be is a sexy song about an illicit affair. (Which makes that ripe, languid rhythm even more essential.) Just sink into that chorus: "Tempted by the fruit of another / Tempted but the truth is discovered / What's been going on / Now that you have gone..." Feel that tension, the way those "tempted" lines hammer away at one pitch, then swoop low for "what's been going on" -- this reeks of adultery, and guilty secrets, and danger, which makes that sweet English village he's ditching extra poignant.

In the third verse, we jump on into bed: "At my bedside empty pocket / A foot without a sock / Your body gets much closer / I fumble for the clock / Alarmed by the seduction / I wish that it would stop." I'm riveted by that "foot without a sock," and the pun of "clock" and "alarmed" -- Squeeze's lyricist, Chris Difford, knows that God is in the details, and what the details add up to is an almost cinematic visual. It's a jumbled, wrought-up scene, because this guy isn't entirely cool with sleeping with this woman -- but he's doing it, inn't he? And that pelvis-shifting beat, the craving moan of Carrack's singing, makes you want this affair as much as he does.

Did everybody in the record store that day pick up all these nuances? Nah. They just liked the teasing beat, the bright melody, the ripe vocals. Good enough. But it's 25 years later, and that turntable got retired long ago...and I am still listening to this song. And loving it.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

"Cry On Demand" / Gomez

I knew hardly anything about this English band before this summer, when I began to hear "See The World" every other day on Sirius radio; I soon found myself singing along to it LOUDLY (the main reason for having a car radio, in my opinion) and realized I had to buy their new album, How We Operate.

I've been burned before by buying a whole CD on the strength of one great track, so I'm happy to report that this CD totally delivers the goods. It's hard to label, except to say it's all solid melodic pop, with droll lyrics and sneaky riffs. "See the World" has real staying power, but lately it's this track, "Cry On Demand," that's been looping in my brain.

It took several listens, I'll confess, before I realized this is yet another song about a guy facing an accusing female -- it's like a sit-com version of that old old story, quite different from the tragic howl of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" or the writhing frustration of "Mardy Bum". You think you're in folk-music territory at first, as Ian Ball earnestly sings "I wish I could cry on demand," all Donovan-like over that acoustic guitar, but the very next line flips into petty sarcasm: "Boo hoo, boo hoo," he taunts. I imagine the woman weeping wildly, and him rolling his eyes (if you know "Stop your Sobbin'," by the Kinks, you've already got the whole picture).

Very quickly an electric guitar butts in, with a particularly snide chug-a-lug, laid over a upbeat whistling motif (think fast-food jingle); they're pushing a lot of musical buttons here all at once, but somehow it works, keeping things bouncy and light-hearted. "I've been shaking, shaking in my boots / Every time I hear my telephone ring," he confesses, stuttering nervously, hitting discordant notes; "It can't possibly be you / You never call, not since my little accident." Now, I have no idea what he means by his "accident", but I'll bet you anything the woman in the case didn't think it was an accident. He's spinning the situation so frantically, you've got to laugh.

Things sound almost woozy in the bridge, as harmonizing vocals billow up and down in volume, like he's trying to sound soothing (and failing dismally): "I didn't mean to cause any trouble / I didn't know you were so serious / And I didn't mean to burst our bubble / It can only float for so long." (Nice pun, that.) Cut to a repeat of the "cry on demand" chorus, this time with more jangly guitars and a punchy drumbeat, as he loses all patience with her drummed-up tears.

In the next bridge he delivers a few more sheepish particulars: "Now I realise, I realise they were wrong / 'Cos what happens in Vegas don't take very long / To travel across continents, and onwards overseas / Onto our little island, to our city, our home." The reference to the Vegas ad slogan is another tip-off -- it doesn't really matter what he's done, we can't take this seriously. Especially not when it drops into a boppy guitar break, with a few muted yelps of fun in the background -- it's just a song, and a damn fun song at that. I defy you to listen to it without wanting to pop up and dance...or, if you're in the car, slapping the steering wheel and singing LOUD. Hey, no one will ever know.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

"I'll Walk Away" / James Hunter

I just learned that the term "rhythm and blues" was invented as a music-chart category to replace "race music"; it was understood that R&B singers were black, but on the eve of the civil rights era it seemed better to speak in code. Occasionally you'd get a white singer who'd break the mold -- Alex Chilton, Dusty Springfield, Van Morrison -- but on the whole R&B has survived as a black genre. So when I first heard James Hunter's smooth, velvet-edged voice, why would I imagine he was white? Not only white, but English? No, that voice pouring like honey out of my speakers was kin to Sam Cooke, or James Carr, or Arthur Alexander, Joe Tex, Percy Sledge, or Lionel Richie.

Not only that, his songs are such pitch-perfect recreations of the classic R&B groove that you'd swear they were all covers, though most of them -- in fact everything on his stellar 2006 album, People Gonna Talk -- he wrote himself: finger-snapping charmers with winsome melodies and laid-back lyrics. In a world where R&B is represented by overheated shtreet characters like R. Kelly and Usher, these songs are a breath of fresh air.

"I'll Walk Away" begins at a leisurely stroll, with light whisking drums and a cool bleat of horns on the offbeat; the singer addresses his woman with an ironic shrug, wryly predicting the end of their affair before it's even begun -- "Darling, if ever you refuse me / Like I know you will one day." But in the next verse, he clarifies the situation: "When I feel my chances growing slimmer / And there's every chance they may / When the love light in your eyes goes dimmer / I'll know that's my cue to walk away." That vulnerable blurt on "every chance they may," a telltale tremble on "the love light," gives him away -- yeah, he may have his eyes wide open, but he's a helpless sucker for her all the same, isn't he? It's very endearing, cynical and eager at the same time, and I love how his voice curls around and caresses every line.

Over a jazzy piano in the bridge, Hunter's voice pulls off a shivering sax-like lick on the line "I won't hang around where I'm not wanted" (shades of Van Morrison, one of Hunter's mentors, who joined him for two duets on Hunter's earlier album Believe What I Say). That "I won't hang around where I'm not wanted" is to me the core of this song: Some singers would make it a menacing snarl, but with him it's upbeat and relaxed, a guy who's navigated enough love affairs to read all the signs.

I'm under the spell by now, and by the time Hunter throws in a nimble guitar solo before the second bridge, suddenly I'm wondering -- just hypothetically -- what that guitarist's fingers would feel like on my earlobe, or my throat, or... you know, he could be wrong about this affair; she could be a keeper after all. And if she isn't -- well, he won't have to look too far for someone who is.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

"Senses Working Overtime" / XTC

I suppose I should be upset that I never heard anything by XTC when it was first released. Let me see, 1982 -- New Wave had distanced itself from punk, and the Talking Heads' Remain in Light, Blondie's Eat to the Beat, and the B-52s' Wild Planet were still getting heavy rotation on my turntable. Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom and Joe Jackson's Night and Day had crossed the ocean for me, so why not this album, English Settlement? Even the Jam and The Specials and Squeeze and The English Beat got enough airplay over here for me to find out about them, but XTC? Nada. Niente.

I'm not complaining, though; it's a kick to find out about this band now and have a dozen albums stockpiled to discover all at once. This is bright, dense pop music, the arrangements complex and witty, the lyrics cryptic and allusive -- I like having it swirl around in my brain, taking it in on several levels at once. That's why I especially like this tune, "Senses Working Overtime" -- a song about sensory overload should have a sort of fragmented Cubist logic, don't you think? That plus a good bashing drumbeat, windmill guitar strums, and slightly off-kilter vocals.

Here are just a few of the images that flicker through this song: "the clouds are whey," "sun is pie," "night fights day," "the sky will cry jewels for the thirsty." The world is described as "football shaped" when the singer wants to kick it out into space, but it's "biscuit shaped" when he wants to "feed my face." (An English football, of course, and an English biscuit.) Sometimes words are yoked together for no other reason than alliteration, scansion, or vowel play -- like in this verse: "Birds might fall from black skies / And bullies might give you black eyes / And buses might skid on black ice." Don't get hung up on making sense of it; it's all about those line endings. Hey, if Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot could get away with it, why not Andy Partridge?

In those cryptic verses, chords and keys shift constantly, uneasily; it's satisfying, then, to finally land in the chorus, as voices and drums come together to whack out an irresistible singalong countdown: "I've got one, two, three, four, five! /Senses working overtime / Trying to take this all in, I've got / One, two, three, four, five! / Senses working overtime, /Trying to taste the difference 'tween a lemon and a lime / Pain and pleasure and the church bells softly chime...." And yes, there's a little bell on the word "chime." The more you listen to this stuff, the more you pick up those obsessive details, the weird sound effects thrown in here and there. All right, so it's a bit arty -- but it's also got a good beat and you can dance to it. Ecstatically.

Monday, January 01, 2007

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

Jill Sobule's like this great girlfriend you can sit up late with, drinking margaritas and eating Doritos and giggling and getting slaphappy. Her songs are so perky, her voice so kittenish, you don't realize at first how snarky her lyrics are; then suddenly you catch her winking at you and you're in on the joke and you love it. She's like the patron saint of insecure misfits and underdogs, with a Geiger counter in her brain that ticks wildly at every absurdity. Even when life doesn't work out for her -- like in this brilliant song from the Pink Pearl album (2000) -- she can't help but sketch it with sick, dry humor.

The joke here is not that the girl singing the song is suicidally depressed -- although she is -- it's that her obtuse boyfriend hasn't got a clue. "Can't you see that I am dying inside?", she starts singing, in that sweet-and-innocent voice, even before the listless acoustic guitar and bored-sounding drums lurch in -- "Can't you hear my muffled cry?" On the second verse, a lazy slide guitar joins in as she wearily elaborates: "Don't you know my life's a quiet hell? / I'm a black hole, I'm an empty shell / Does it occur to you that I might need help?/ You're the guy who doesn't get it."

Okay, that's the premise; we've all known/dated/married men like this, and we're smiling in recognition and shaking our heads. But then, Jill being Jill, she keeps on pushing the scenario further: "Say I'm in the tub with a razor blade / You'd walk in and ask me "How was your day?" / Then you'd lather up and start to shave / As I bleed on the new tile floor..." The NEW tile floor; that's the detail that grabs me -- trust a woman to notice, even as she's slitting her wrists, that the blood's going to ruin her nice new floor.

"I'm sure that you really care for me / And your heart's as big as Germany," she goes on, and of course the word Germany is not idly chosen: "But you're as blind as they were back in '33 / You're the guy who doesn't get it." Sure, it's stretching the point a bit to compare the guy to a Nazi collaborator, but what the hey -- he's not listening anyway, is he? She could say anything and he'd never notice. She hauls out one more melodramatic scenario, upping the ante for shock value: "Say the car exhaust engulfs my brain/ The Nembutol is racing through my veins / You come in and ask "Are you okay?"/ As I close my eyes forever." And still . . . no reaction.

A plunking piano ambles in next, slapping down a few discordant notes, as if it's not even worth the effort to get them right. Jill tries the chorus one last time, asking wryly, "What's going on inside those vacant eyes?" And of course she has no answer -- none of us do. None of us ever do. But sometimes, the only thing that keeps you sane is knowing that at least your girlfriends know just what you're talking about.