Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Only Love Can Break A Heart" / Gene Pitney
"Only Love Can Break Your Heart" / Neil Young

Listed among all the American musicians who inspired the young Beatles -- Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers -- it always surprises me to hear Gene Pitney's name. Somewhere in the aural slagheap of songs I heard on the family radio before I gained musical consciousness (i.e., before the Beatles' first U.S. tour), I remember those torchy Gene Pitney ballads, but they seemed quintessentially 1950s music to me. I lump all those guys together: Frankie Laine, Roy Orbison, Dion, Ricky Nelson, and all the Bobbies (Vee, Vinton, Darrin, Rydell, etc). That's not to say I don't like them . . . but hey, I like Dean Martin and Vic Damone too. I always thought rock 'n' roll was something different.

On the radio the other day, however, this Gene Pitney song came on, and -- you know what? It is a GREAT song. What makes it great is that flat-out yearning in Pitney's voice, the emotional catch in the throat, all its little wobbles and swoops, the way his vocal cracks on the occasional line. ("You know I'm sorry / I'll prove it / With just one kiss..."). I can see how this intensity inspired the Beatles, not to mention how John Lennon stole that crafty cracking-voice trick.

Of course the arrangement is horribly dated, with its melodramatic string section, echo chamber backup choir, those two interludes of cornball whistling. All this schmaltz for a teenage love song? But teenagers were his core audience, and having a blow-out fight with your girlfriend can be a Huge Event for a teenager -- and Pitney gave it the passion it deserves. Let's also remember that he wasn't speaking for his male listeners so much as casting himself as the sort of tender lover his female fans wanted. I can imagine plenty of tear-stained pillows were clutched to angora-sweatered bosoms while this 45 spun on the turntable.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote this tune (those guys pop up EVERYWHERE), which may account for its sophisticated angle. We launch abruptly into the middle of the story -- it starts out "Last night I hurt you / But darling / Remember this" -- and we never actually find out what he did (I have to admit, I'm curious). But that's beside the point, at least from his perspective. Now he's backpedaling like crazy, offering a convoluted argument to win her back: if you're so heartbroken, you must love me a lot -- therefore you must love me enough to take me back. It's flawed logic, but there's a good chance that her hormones are raging so hard, she'll fall for it. Pitney goes at it with full-bore regret, though I suppose in a modern cover the singer could be a sleazeball seducer. "Please let me hold you / And love you / For always, and always" -- that's one horny line, even the way Pitney sings it. He wants back in, and he'll do anything to get there.

Eight years later, Neil Young recorded a winsome acoustic waltz with practically the same title, "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," but it's about as different as a song can be. By 1970 "love" had a new meaning, a post-Summer of Love hippie meaning. In classic wistful folk-rock mode, Neil muses on the value of making honest emotional connections, even if it means risking heartbreak. Addressing the whole world, not just one specific lover, he's armed with just a acoustic guitar and that earnest, slightly strangled vocal, with a few friends harmonizing in the background. No echo chambers. No strings. It's a grander statement about life, but delivered with affecting simplicity.

"But only love can break your heart / Try to be sure right from the start / Yes, only love can break your heart / What if your world should fall apart . . . " The mellow, slightly stoned tempo floats you along, thinking lovely abstract thoughts about how love is all you need. The heartbreak reality gets lost in the shaky shuffle.

I love this Neil Young track -- and yet whenever I read that title, it's Gene Pitney's voice that flashes first into my mind; that's how deeply that Pitney track lies embedded in my subconscious. Lovely abstract thoughts just don't pack the wallop of a real guy and a real girl going through teenage angst. I guess I've sold Gene Pitney short all these years.
Well, for the record, I think she should take him back, no matter what he did. After all, he's really sorry. Just listen to that shiver in his voice...

Give Pitney a listen: or check out Neil:

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"Fall On Me" / R.E.M.

Mea culpa: I missed posting yesterday because I was juiced all day about going to the Tibet House benefit concert at Carnegie Hall. What a brilliant line-up: Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Philip Glass, Sigur Ros, Debbie Harry, Ray Davies, Michael Stipe, and Patti Smith (not to mention a glorious contingent of orange-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks). I adored Ray's a cappella version of the Kinks song "Days", and Lou Reed's extended version of his "Ecstasy" was electric. But one of the highlights of the evening was hearing Patti Smith duet with Michael Stipe on the R.E.M. hit "Everybody Hurts." Sitting in my seat, wrapped in the song, I felt seized with nostalgia, wondering why Michael Stipe had fallen so far out of my musical world.

Well, there are many answers. R.E.M. got so much airplay in the early 1990s that I gradually lost interest in them, especially as Michael Stipe became too ubiquitous a figure on the do-gooder circuit (I call this the Sting Effect). There's always a fine line, too, between a band that has a distinct recognizeable sound and a band whose songs all sound alike, and R.E.M. often teetered perilously on that line. It's an engaging blend -- folkie wistfulness married to a bashing garage-band beat -- but they could've borrowed more of a sense of humor from the punk movement; R.E.M. had a fatal tendency to build every song up to grandiose anthem level (I call this the Springsteen Effect).

And yet, during the long musical dry spell of the late 1980s and early 1990s -- years when I retreated into my old albums because very little contemporary music interested me -- R.E.M. was one of the few new bands that seemed to matter. I fell for the swelling majesty of those songs, their pensive minor-key poetry, those riddling lyrics -- and, of course, the slightly nasal earnest passion of Michael Stipe's vocals. Just think of the haunting loneliness throbbing through "The One I Love," or the punch-drunk alienation of "Losing My Religion," or the dazed jerky reflexes of "Stand." Yeah, maybe it was rock music for depressives (until Nirvana came along and made R.E.M. sound upbeat in contrast), but all that emotional sincerity was refreshing after the nihilism of punk.

This track from Life's Rich Pageant (1986) never got overplayed on the radio; in fact it never got near the attention it deserved. On this album, Stipe finally began pronouncing his words clearly, which made me realize at last that these lyrics were supposed to be baffling. "There’s a problem," he starts out, intriguingly, sucking me into the string of images that follow, in a hypnotic circling melody: "Feathers iron / Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys / Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air." Hunh? I'm not sure why I picture Galileo here, dropping the feather and the weight off the Tower of Pisa, but apparently I'm meant to because the next verse mentions "progress" and "conscience" and "building towered foresight."

But I also think of Chicken Little on the refrain, "Buy the sky and sell the sky / And tell the sky and tell the sky / Don’t fall on me" (notice how each substituted verb signals a moody key shift). By the time Stipe's voice soars into "Don't fall on me," it's almost a relief. It took me ages to sort out what the background vocals were chanting, their own Chicken-Little-ish squawks of "(What is it up in the air for) (It’s gonna fall)" and "(It’s over it’s over me) (It’s gonna fall)."

Apocalyptic tremors run throughout this song, no question about it, with the echoing vocals and jangly guitar and sledgehammer drumbeat, but those elliptical lyrics leave me groping in the dark -- without an action plan, without a road map, without any sort of fallout shelter. Hmmm. Just like life.

The one factor that balances the equation is Michael Stipe's singing, a beacon of human passion shining through the tangled melody, the dense arrangement, the cryptic lyrics. There are moments in this song (and in most R.E.M. songs) where his clear boyish tenor scales a melodic line and simply seems to burst into fireworks. He lays it all on the line, vocally speaking. I call this the Van Morrison Effect -- and it gets me every time.

Last night at Tibet House I saw Michael Stipe tear into "Everybody Hurts" with that same gut-wrenching passion, and I realize I missed it. I went home and dug out my old R.E.M albums, and it was like a high school reunion. I may not want to spend the rest of my life listening to R.E.M., but every once in a while it's great to get that old feeling back again.


Friday, February 23, 2007

"David Watts" / The Jam

I read that the Jam are reuniting for a tour and album, which got me very excited until I read in the next paragraph that it would be most of the Jam -- everyone except Paul Weller. Now, that leaves just Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton . . . and Weller's the one who wrote most of their songs and did the lead vocals. Pardon me, Rick and Bruce, but no matter how talented your newly-recuited bandmates may be, I just don't see how you can call this The Jam.

There is at least one Jam song Paul Weller didn't write -- it's called "David Watts" and it was written by Ray Davies for the 1967 album Something Else By The Kinks. Thanks in large part to this cover by the Jam (1978 -- it's on their superb album All Mod Cons), Ray Davies began to be called "the godfather of BritPop," which I find nearly as funny as calling Nick Lowe the "godfather of punk". But that's a whole other discussion.

The main thing is, Paul Weller was influenced by the Kinks (so who wasn't?) and had the good grace to pay public tribute to them by recording this track. Most of the Kinks fans I know agree that this is a great Kinks cover, possibly even better than the Kinks' original recording. The Jam didn't just reproduce the song as the Kinks sang it, they added flavor of their own, giving it a smart slap of punk aggression. They take it just a tick faster, introduce some dissonance to the harmonies here and there, lay down a thrumming guitar line, and punch out the last line of the verse with a loud shouted "Oy!" (the Kinks merely shouted "hey!"). I love that "Oy!" The class division that was implicit in the original comes out so much stronger with the Jam's yob accents.

This song is the ultimate expression of adolescent male envy. The singer -- who describes himself right up front, "I am a dull and simple lad," almost painfully insecure -- recites a litany of all the advantages his schoolmate David Watts possesses: He's met the Queen, has tasted champagne, leads the school team to victory, passes all his exams, is the head boy at the school -- and of course, all the girls compete for him, which is probably the cruelest and most inevitable advantage of all.

The singer watches wistfully from afar, and isn't there a flicker of homoerotic attraction mingled with the envy ("And when I lie on my pillow at night / I dream I could fight like David Watts")? He doesn't hate David Watts, mind you -- it's just that (as he tells us over and over, at the end of every verse) "I wish I could be like David Watts." He says David Watt's name eight times in the course of this song, almost obsessively, like a mantra, and winds up saying admiringly, "For he is a pure and noble breed," the kind of phrase you'd use to describe some Shakespearean prince.

The tune I could easily imagine as a prep school anthem, with those madrigal-like "fa-fa-fa fa fa fa-fa-fa's" at the beginning of every verse. (Although I suspect it's also a sneaky allusion to Roger Daltrey's stuttered line, "Why don't you just f-f-f-f-fade away?" in "My Generation" -- the f's seem so ready to morph into words that are a little less polite).

This song doesn't go anywhere, doesn't reach any conclusion. It's just an expression of the dull agony of being an ordinary kid, continually taking a back seat to the golden boy. But as we have all learned in life, those golden boys tend to peak early -- while the teenage misfits like Ray Davies and Paul Weller end up scoring the real successes in life.
Anyway, that's who I'm pulling for.

Check out a sample:,,108340,00.html

Thursday, February 22, 2007

"California Dreamin'" / The Mamas and the Papas

If you want proof of how much music changed during the 1960s, just listen to yesterday's Patsy Cline song and then this one. "Crazy" sounded perfectly at home on the radio in 1961, but by 1965 -- just four years later -- the airwaves were full of a new sound entirely. When the Mamas and the Papas burst onto the scene with this song (fittingly, released in November), it was a perfect counterculture anthem of defiance and alienation -- and unforgettably lush and catchy to boot.

The soft intro, picked on an acoustic guitar, stated the song's folkie intentions from the outset, but this was no folk song, not with that metallic rock 'n' roll drumbeat, the brittle echo-laden production, the jazz flute in the instrumental break. And while folk music had harmonies, they weren't harmonies like this, a dense wall of vocals you could almost climb into. Because the song had "California" in the title, I used to associate those harmonies with the Beach Boys' sound, but the Wilson brothers always sounded sunny, their mellow voices blending in Four-Freshman-inspired polyphony; there's nothing sunny about the minor-key dissonances of "California Dreamin'." No, these harmonies owe more to the British Invasion, to the Zombies' "She's Not There" and the Yardbirds' "For Your Love" and the Beatles' "Things We Said Today." (And in turn, next year we'd get the Hollies' "Bus Stop" and the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby.") Denny Doherty's lines are constantly overlapped by Cass Elliott and Michelle Phillips' counterpoint, so there's scarcely a beat without vocals, their voices crunching together at the end of every verse in a haunting dissonant chord.

No, this song is about as un-California as it could be, but that's the point. The singer is roaming aimlessly in the middle of bleak winter -- "All the leaves are brown / And the sky is gray" (I can see that scene outside my window, which is probably why this song came into my head today) -- and he's pining for warm Los Angeles. But it's not just the weather that's got him so gloomy; there's a subtext of romantic complication, never spelled out but hinted at in the end: "If I didn't tell her / I could leave today." He's not telling us the story, he's just brooding -- and that note of mystery makes this even more compelling.

What really made this song a hit, though, was the controversial second verse: "Stopped into a church / I passed along the way / Well, I got down on my knees / And I pretend to pray." Pretend to pray, and Denny delivers that line with an extra punch of desperation. But religion is no consolation; quite the opposite. "You know that preacher likes the cold / He knows I'm gonna stay" -- the church seems like part of the forces ganging up to suppress this California dreamer. (It was the anti-establishment 60s, after all.)

That tantalizing flute comes weaving in right after this verse, the inarticulate expression of all his yearning, and by the time the final verse begins again, it seems like the women are taunting poor Denny, the same way the girl back-ups often seemed to be shaking a warning finger in Motown songs; there's no getting away from those nagging echoes. He's truly trapped.

Of course, when I first fell under this song's hypnotic spell in 1965, I had no idea that the singer, Denny, was sleeping with back-up singer Michelle -- but then, neither did Michelle's husband John Phillips, who wrote the song and stood there playing guitar while Denny sang it. So who is it about? I suppose it shouldn't matter, but somehow I think all that complicated emotion is what gives this song its extra power. That and the magnificent voice of Cass Elliott, who starts out trying to blend her voice in those close harmonies with Michelle's frail soprano, but can't help overpowering her by the second verse. The story goes that Cass was in love with Denny too -- you could say she's singing her heart out here.

And in the end, the only thing that really matters to me about the Mamas and the Papas was Cass's voice. I remember seeing them for the first time on TV, with John wearing that stupid fur hat he favored, Michelle slim and blond and beautiful, Denny in an embroidered Mod tunic -- and hefty Cass, wearing an absolutely huge flowered caftan, swaying and singing away. I couldn't take my eyes off of her. It was so clear she was there because SHE COULD SING. I cannot tell you what a powerful message that sent me as a little girl.

And on this bleak winter's day, the sound of Cass Elliott's voice is still better than any dream of California.
Have a listen at

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"Crazy" / Patsy Cline

Confession time: I didn’t even know who Patsy Cline was until I saw the movie Sweet Dreams, that excellent biopic starring Jessica Lange. I know, buying her records after that was kinda like buying a Dalmatian puppy after seeing 101 Dalmatians. But in the long run, it doesn’t matter how you find the music, so long as you love it when you do.

I will add, in my defense, that Patsy Cline’s songs had entered my consciousness by osmosis way back when I was a little kid. There were a bunch of similar powerhouse female singers in the early 60s -- Teresa Brewer, Brenda Lee, the divine Skeeter Davis (her “End of the World” was one of my favorite tracks even before Herman’s Hermits covered it) – and I knew their songs even if I couldn’t tell you who sang which one.

Sitting through Sweet Dreams, I kept saying, to myself, “Wow, she sang that one too?” When you stop to think that Patsy only had six years to make her mark – she put out only three albums before that plane crash took her in 1963 – the quality of the output is incredible. It's no wonder that Patsy Cline gravitated into mainstream pop; country music alone wasn't big enough to hold her talent.

The compilation 12 Greatest Hits By Patsy Cline has been in constant rotation on my music player ever since. The confidence of her voice simply astounds me – the way she could fiddle with the beat, top a high note with perfect pitch, zoom in and out on volume (often on a single word), curl her voice around a phrase just so. Phrasing? Patsy had a instinct for phrasing nearly as good as Sinatra’s. Putting a song across? She was a born storyteller – an essential for any country music performer – who knew exactly when to quaver with emotion and when to bite off a lyric sarcastically. But here's the thing that, to me, really set Patsy Cline apart: Despite those incredible pipes, she never came across as a diva. Maybe that was a conscious decision, maybe it was just the kind of down-to-earth Kentucky gal she really was. Her delivery is so natural, relaxed, and unaffected, I find myself believing every word she sings.

We all know the song “Crazy”, of course – funnily enough, written by Willie Nelson, his first songwriting hit. Flavored more by jazz and pop than by country (that cocktail lounge piano twiddling around), it was a big crossover number for her in 1961. Willie didn’t write this song for Patsy, but it sure ended up in the right hands: who else could have done that swooping thing on the word “crazy”? And who else would have been smart enough to keep this song so light-hearted? Because if you listen to the lyrics, it’s a martyr’s song – she’s feeling blue, he’s left her for somebody new, she’s wondering what she did to lose him, she’s embarrassed that she ever thought she could keep him. “I’m crazy for trying / And crazy for crying / And I’m crazy for loving you.” A lesser singer would whine and moan; Patsy just sounds rueful and bemused, with a warm little chuckle in her voice. Even she knows he’s not worth it. And yet -- she can’t help it. That’s just how love is. I dunno why, I find this profound.

This is the same gal who goes out “Walkin’After Midnight,” obsessively visiting the spots where she used to hang with her ex-boyfriend; who finds it “Strange” that she’s still dreaming of the man who suddenly dumped her for another woman; who’s found a much better new boyfriend and still moons around wondering “Why Can’t He Be You?” Patsy Cline is the high priestess of hard-luck girls wearing their hearts on their sleeves, a girlfriend all of us can relate to when men let us down (as they inevitably do). But her genius is to keep the rhythms upbeat, her voice confidential and light, just an occasional note betraying a yodel of anguish.

Unlike Skeeter Davis, Patsy doesn’t think the world’s going to end because her feller left her. She’s bruised but brave, and she knows perfectly well that nothing she does will bring that louse back. Still, might as well sing about it . . . at least 'til the next heartache comes along.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"Hey, Pocky A-Way" / The Meters

Happy Mardi Gras!! Even if you can't be down in New Orleans for the fesitvities, you can always bring the festivities right into your own home -- all it takes is a few funk-laden tracks from the Meters, and you're ready to strut your stuff.

Here's the recipe: Throw together a couple chunky guitars, a cupful of honky-tonk piano, a dash of horns just to spice things up, and stir it all up with some soulfully sung refrains. Pour it into a syncopation-crazy percussion section that uses everything from congas to hand claps (courtesy of the divinely-named drummer Zigaboo Modeliste), and there you are -- you've cooked up the sort of music that absolutely requires you to get up out of your chair and do a little parading.

Nobody has better New Orleans credentials than the Meters. Art Neville (of the Neville Brothers) was their frontman when they first formed in 1965, forging a new musical sound from jazz and R&B and Afro-Caribbean rhythms that would eventually become known as funk. Not only that, they were the house band for the masterful producer Allen Toussaint for years. I love Allen Toussaint too -- there's nobody on this planet more souful and elegant -- but today I felt like dancing. On days when I feel like dancing, the Meters will always win out.

I can teach you the lyrics in ten seconds -- "Hey Pocky A-Way" is most of it, sung in a call-and-response that dances from speaker to speaker. There is a verse, if you want to get literary: "Little bitty boy, with a heart of steel / You know you can't boogie now / But your sister sure will / Feel good music in your soul / Makes your body wanna rock, wanna rock 'n' roll." The other verse has us listening to the good music in a car, but the basic idea's the same. Hardly profound.

But hey, it's Mardi Gras. We have all of Lent ahead of us to be profound in. Today, put on the Meters and have a party.

Here's 30 seconds of it, just to make you hungry for more:

Sunday, February 18, 2007

“Knowing Me, Knowing You” / ABBA

I suppose this fits in the category of Guilty Pleasures – except I refuse to apologize for loving ABBA. I am, however, willing to admit that my ABBA fondness owes a lot to the Time and Place Factor, right along with Carole King’s Tapestry and James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. I was living in Europe, where ABBA was always bigger than in the States, and over the 1976 Christmas holidays, every third song played at every party and disco we went to was “Dancing Queen.” You know that keyboard glissando at the beginning? Everytime the crowd heard it, they let loose a matching hoot of delight. “Dancing Queen” is a fantastic dance hit, at least for the dances people danced in 1976 -- not too fast, full of whoo-oohs and shick-a-shick drums and string section twirls that let you peel off a disco flourish or two.

If pressed, though, I'm willing to concede that “Dancing Queen” is no masterpiece – it’s too much a rip-off of “I Saw Her Standing There.” But “Knowing Me Knowing You”? There’s a song with substance. Really. Bear with me.

Once on a flight to Europe, I saw a documentary about ABBA and I was positively riveted by its account of the tangled love lives of the band's four members, Benny, Bjorn, Frida, and Agnetha. I can’t keep straight who’s who, so don’t ask me which two were married and which ones had the affair, but you get the picture. It struck me as tragic, much more so than the similar affairs that busted up Fleetwood Mac and The Mamas and the Papas in their day. “The Winner Takes It All” is the most poignant song they ever recorded about this betrayal and break-up, but “Knowing Me Knowing You” comes close.

Yes, it’s a break-up song, despite its mid-tempo synthesized glitter. Hear that bitterness in the girls’ voices, especially when the men’s voices weave weakly in and out, ineffectually protesting. Those strident female vocals never worked better than in this song (well, this one and “Money, Money, Money”). Then there’s the tantalizing “a-ha’s” thrown in, not to mention the whispered echo of “memories…good days…bad days…”, like the devil on her other shoulder tempting her back into the relationship.

The lyrics casually drop details of this affair. Clearly it's been volatile – “this time we’re through” they keep saying, so you know they’ve broken up before. She’s “walking through an empty house / tears in my eyes,” so they’re been living together; “in these old familiar rooms / Children would play / Now there’s only emptiness / Nothing to say,” so there’s kids involved. I imagine a tough, independent woman (blond of course), pulling the plug on a marriage that’s put them both through the wringer -- hence the hardness of the music's electronic texture, the flat affect of the singing, the forced snappy rhythm. They're past fury, but not yet in acceptance mode; hear how the voices waver briefly on the line “Breaking up is never easy / I know / But I have to go,” with its plaintive echo of all those girl-group songs. It’s practically like a Bergman film in my opinion; those doubled vocals make me see Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson in Persona.

Did you know that Frida and Agnetha’s vocals were recorded separately, at slightly different tempos? They were then adjusted for playback at the same tempo, which made one girl’s voice come out ever so slightly lower than the other. The result was a distinctive mix of dissonance and bottom, which invested those tracks with an anthemic grandeur. When I heard that (that airplane documentary again) it was like a bell going off – of course! It wasn’t just how great Frida and Agnetha’s voices were; this studio “sweetening” was a stroke of genius, especially given the disco-like shimmer of their wall of sound.

If this were a slow and mournful song, it wouldn’t work. It’s a hard and determined song. She is walking out, and calling on all the steel in her soul to do so. But she’s the level-headed one here, the one who knows her man and knows herself and knows there’s no hope. They’ve given it an honest shot, but it is TIME TO MOVE ON. Well, godspeed, sister. You go, girl.

Take a listen:

Friday, February 16, 2007

"Music Is My Radar" / Blur

For whatever reason, I missed out on this band the first time around (not that it was that long ago -- their first album came out in 1991). I only picked up on Blur recently, because of the Damon Albarn-Ray Davies mutual admiration link. Any Britpopster who so publicly admires Ray Davies is okay by me, and Ray actually seems to like him back. For me, that's a good enough reason to go buy someone's CDs.

I can see the Kinks influence in some Blur songs, like "Park Life" and "Girls & Boys," but "Music Is My Radar" is one of their later tracks, and a new and strange thing altogether. Yet I'm hooked on it, I must say, and maybe for the same reason that I was mesmerized by that Police track I wrote about yesterday. The melody is robotic, one line after another repeating the same drifting series of notes, although one pattern could be called a verse (where each line starts with the word "really") and another pattern I suppose is a chorus ("Aah, don't stop me now," repeated seven times). But it doesn't tell a story, it doesn't convey an emotion, it doesn't state an opinion -- it's simply a vehicle for the layered, percussive music. What matters is not where you are in the song, it's the tugging constant beat, and the dense tangle of synthesizer and guitars and drum clatter laid on top of it. And Damon Albarn's slurred singing, a sort of disaffected nonsense crooning that 's somehow perfect for this foray into electronica.

I always begin by trying to pay attention to the lyrics of this song, but I lose my way pretty quickly. I get distracted by odd details -- such as, why is a Brit like Albarn addressing us as "y'all," and who is this Tony Allen that he claims has got him dancing? (I looked that one up -- Tony Allen is a Nigerian drummer who's considered one of the founders of the jazz-soul-Yoruba hybrid Afrobeat -- who, by the way, plays with Albarn now in his new band The Good, The Bad, and the Queen. Hunh; you learn something new every day.)

Damon Albarn's odd pronunciation of several words only makes the lyrics harder to comprehend. The line "Really topping up my joy y'all" (?) I always hear as "Really Tommy John, yeah," as if these guys would have had any idea who Dodger pitcher Tommy John was. And the thing is, he might as well be saying "Tommy John," because nothing makes sense anyway.

It's like what you get when you sit next to someone on the bus who's grooving to his iPod, singing fragments of lines and vocally imitating the instruments, totally unaware that anybody else is listening (or watching). The good thing with this song is that you don't have to strain to pick up what's leaking out of his earbuds; you can go get lost in that intoxicating groove right along with him. And at least one line in this song comes through loud and clear -- "you really got me dancin', dancin' in my head now baby." Aah, don't stop me now, aah....

Audio clip:

Thursday, February 15, 2007

"When The World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around" / The Police

So now the Police are getting back together (whether or not they still hate each other seems to be irrelevant) and no doubt they will cash in big-time on the Aging Rock Stars Sold-Out Arena Tour circuit. How lovely for them.

I have to admit, this news made me curious enough to tune into the Grammy Awards telecast for once . . . not curious enough to tune in on time, however; I missed their Second Coming debut entirely. I'm tempted to get tickets for one of their August shows at Madison Square Garden, although if history is any guide, I probably won't do anything about it until it's too late to snag even a rafter-level seat with an obstructed view of the jumbotron.

For the past few days as well, I've noticed an exponential increase in the number of Police hits I hear on the radio, on TV soundtracks, in shopping-mall musak, and it's making me nostalgic. I was a HUGE Police fan back in the day; it's impossible to convey what a breath of fresh air these guys were, mixing up reggae and pop and jazz with just a whiff of punk attitude, stripping it all down to the essentials of a guitar, bass, and drums (granted, a guitar, bass, and drums played by virtuosos who could vamp in any style). In an era driven by music videos, theirs were loose and goofy and had a sense of humor. Imagine, MTV was actually witty back then . . .

I had all the Police albums -- vinyl, of course -- but when it came time to shift my music collection to CD, the Police didn't make the cut. By then I'd been put off by Sting's pretentious politics and fatal self-seriousness. Eventually I bought one Greatest Hits compilation and thought that would suffice. It doesn't.

I don't have to go to the Garden, though, do I? I don't have to wait until August to get my Police fix. I can just get out my turntable and put on Zenyatta Mondatta. This was hands-down my favorite Police album, the one on which success had freed them to indulge in a little more jazz and world music. The big hit single was "Don't Stand So Close To Me" -- a fun track, but a safe commercial choice, with that irresistible chorus. This third track, however, is the one that has me mesmerized at the moment (and "mesmerized" on vinyl means lifting the needle and setting it down again -- you only do that when a song really has its hooks into you).

At first the song seems downright monotonous, with the same progression of four harsh metallic chord strums repeated over and over, Sting's vocals more or less chanted over them (okay, the so-called chorus has four different chords). And yet that wonderful clockwork drumming, the hypnotic bassline, the thrumming guitar, all lock together to make a textured piece of music that's completely entrancing.

The lyrics he's chanting are odd, affectless and surreal -- just the thing I loved back in 1980, after total immersion in the Talking Heads for a season or two. Still, they make some weird sort of sense, as the singer describes his daily routines, hunkering down in survival mode: "Turn on my V.C.R. / Same one I've had for years / James Brown on the TAMI show / Same tape I've had for years..." His car is the same one he's had for years; ditto for his stereo, with just one Otis Redding record; he plays the same movie over and over too ("Deep Throat"). He never goes out, has no one to talk to on the phone, and eats the same canned food day after day. Hates it? Sure he does. But "when the world is running down / You make the best of what's still around / When the world is running down / You make the best of what's still around."

Now, tell me what to make of this guy. He could be a Howard-Hughes-like recluse; he could also just be an ordinary guy who's developed agoraphobia or obsessive compulsive disorder... or a right-thinking fellow reacting against the cheapness of recent culture. (Or a newly-minted celebrity who can't go out and enjoy normal life anymore.) Whatever the scenario, he's on auto-pilot, just like the music. It seems like a joyless existence . . . except it's not a joyless song. That backbeat rhythm is just too bouncy, with Sting's slightly pinched voice (kept well back in the mix) lifting chirpily at the end of every line. Talk about making lemonade when life serves you lemons.

I have a sinking feeling that the Police Reunion Tour 2007 will be a greatest hits sort of affair. I sincerely doubt they'll write new music for it, let alone perform back tracks like this one. And yet it was on the back tracks that they allowed themselves to be creative and a little loopy. That was the side of the Police I liked best, and I don't think it'll be visible from the rafter seats at the Garden. Too bad.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"Feels Like Rain" / John Hiatt

It being Valentine's Day, I don't want to write about Love Misery songs -- and face it, most so-called love songs are about unrequited love, or unconsummated love, or jealous love, or post-break-up love. No, I want a contented love song, and if it can be a little sexy as well, even better.

If you want a song to win your true love, you can't go wrong with John Hiatt. The most obvious choice is "Have a Little Faith In Me," which always gets the couples at John Hiatt concerts slow-dancing and gazing moonily into each others' eyes. But instead I'm beelining for his 1988 album Slow Turning, which from start to finish is all about love -- real, getting-through-life, fight-and-make-up, learn-to-live-with-your-demons love. I never know which track is my favorite -- is it the rockin'-out "Drive South" ("Don't bother to pack your nylons...It gets HOT down where we're going..."), the wry ode to family life "Slow Turning" (with his rambunctious kids in the back seat "bangin' like Charlie Watts"), or the heartfelt plea of "Is Anybody There?" (I go weak in the knees every time I hear John sing "'Cause I'm such a stubborn man / Stubborn as a mule / Even though I struggle some, I believe a change will come / And I hear you love a fool").

In the end, though, I always go for "Feels Like Rain," one of the most emotive love songs ever written. It's been covered by loads of other artists -- and it deserves to be -- but I don't think anybody does it better than John himself.

That leisurely tempo takes its own sweet time, with Sonny Landreth laying down light-fingered electric guitar licks while John tinkers around on the electric piano. The texture of this song feels just like the sort of gentle nighttime rain that sweeps in to wash away all the grit and hurt of the day -- if rainfall sound-effects had been layered in, it couldn't sound any more atmospheric. And over it all John's vocals work some serious R&B voodoo, crooning and howling and whispering and coaxing, so gruff and yet so tender.

The first verse starts out lazy and carnal: "Down here the river meets the sea / And in the sticky heat I feel you / Open up to me." (I'm fanning myself already, aren't you?) It's all about the mood, and the moment, and that rising barometric pressure; the chords shift upward too, with growing urgency, as John warns: "Love comes out of nowhere, baby / Just like a hurricane." Then, like a dying gust of wind, his voice drops downward, caressing the refrain: "And it feels like rain / And it feels like rain." This isn't just rain, it's heat-wave-breaking, drought-ending rain, the kind of meteorological event that makes folks change their plans. "We'll never make that bridge tonight / Across Lake Pontchartrain," John decides, without a trace of regret; "Batten down the hatches . . . A little bit of stormy weather / That's no cause for us to leave . . ." No indeed, I'm staying right here, all cozy and relaxed and oh yes.

For some reason this song reminds me of one of my favorite Bob Dylan tracks, "You Ain't Going Nowhere" -- it's not just the similar scenario (clouds rolling in, folks hunkering down to wait out the storm), it's also that spirit of happy recklessness. The two songs sound nothing alike, but Dylan was one of Hiatt's earliest influences, so who knows? "Feels Like Rain" also makes me think of a jazzy Kinks track called "Stormy Sky" (on their underrated Sleepwalker album), which again turns waiting out a rainstorm into a tender seduction. But stack up John Hiatt's singing here against Bob Dylan's or Ray Davies' and . . . well, it's no contest. For Valentine's Day, I need a voice that'll make me shiver and catch my breath. That's John Hiatt, every time.

Check out the song at

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

"All the Right Reasons" / The Jayhawks

Continuing on the Valentine's theme...

There are plenty of pop songs about first love and infatuation, but they wear thin after awhile; what we need more of are grown-up songs about love. That's why I keep coming back to this song from the Jayhawks 2003 album Rainy Day Music, which may well have been their last outing (though never fear, half the band -- Gary Louris and Marc Perlman -- probably can be found with the band Golden Smog). Perhaps disbanding was inevitable -- the Jayhawks were one of those bands that kept changing personnel, and changing their sound in the process. I like them best when they stick to this acoustic-Americana style, though, and Rainy Day Music is one lovely album.

The chorus of this song, sung in soft harmonies over an acoustic strum and softly wheezing accordion, tells you most of what you need to know: "I don't know what day it is, I can't recall the seasons / And I don't remember how we got this far / All I know's I'm loving you for all the right reasons / In my sky you'll always be my morning star." Love sneaks up on you sometimes, just like this, and right in the middle of life -- when you're not paying a bit of attention -- you can suddenly realize what matters to you. It has nothing to do with love at first sight, or promising to love somebody forever, or any of those romantic cliches; in fact, those are generally the wrong reasons for being in love. What Gary Louris is describing here is something completely different, a love that sustains a couple through the hard times, a love that helps them move ahead with all the other baggage of life. Grown-up love.

My favorite verse is the second one, where drums and electric guitar join in to lay on a bit of grandeur as Louris steps back for a panoramic perspective. His slightly ragged tenor swoops upward on a climbing melody: "Like a tired bird flying high across the ocean / I was outside looking in/ You made me live again." That sense of weariness and isolation speaks to me; who doesn't want a love that'll overcome that? He goes on to shamelessly steal a line from "God Bless America": "From the mountains to the prairies, little babies / Figures fill their heads / Visions bathed in red." Frankly, I have no idea what he's talking about here, but somehow that just makes me suspect he's writing this to a real woman, and if she understands the code, that's what matters.

In the third verse Louris gives us his "Homeward Bound" moment -- "From the train in Manchester, England / Lightning fills the sky / As I watched you wave goodbye" -- with the accordion swelling underneath, as if his heart is bursting with affection (really, the accordion is a tremendously underrated instrument). Again I picture a real woman, who clearly remembers that farewell in Manchester (the life of a touring musician, such a drag), and that makes it all the more poignant.

I guess what I'm saying is that I don't want into this relationship -- I'm not lusting for Gary Louris, appealing as those earnest snags in his voice may be. I just want something like this. Grown-up love doesn't come in one-size-fits-all, it's custom tailored. Looking for love is one thing, and often a fruitless quest; finding it on your doorstep is something else. Something wonderful indeed.

Monday, February 12, 2007

"For Your Love" / The Yardbirds

An appropriate song for Valentine's Day week, surely -- one of those essential British Invasion tracks that's both timeless and completely evocative of its time.

Okay, okay, I know it's not a typical Yardbirds song. It's an early track, their third single and their first real hit (1964 in the UK, 1965 in the US), and ironically it doesn't sound bluesy at all, though the Yardbirds had staked their identity as a blues band. In fact, Eric Clapton quit soon after this, disgusted at the shift towards a commercial pop sound. (The same thing happened to the Animals at about the same time, sanitizing for the sake of selling records.) But I'm no Yardbirds purist, just a music lover who gets stuck sometimes in 1964. And this song reeks of 1964.

Normally I prefer songs to have thoughtful, original lyrics. "For Your Love" does NOT qualify on that score. Easy rhymes ("love / stars above"), fractured word order ("there'll be things that will excite / To make you dream of me at night"), lines bordering on utter nonsense ("I'd give the stars and the sun 'fore I live") -- a 12-year-old could have written these lyrics. So let's move on, and talk about what's really important here: the texture of this song.

It begins jazzy and suspenseful and modern, like a bit of chrome glinting under a streetlamp -- an gloomy minor-key chord progression on an electric harpsichord, followed by clattery bongo drums, then tight vocal harmonies delivering a brisk, staccato "for your love," over and over, as if they're hypnotized. Keith Relf comes in to sing the verse in a reedy, slightly strained voice, and it's somehow sweet, in a plangent sorta way. (Ten dollars to the reader who can tell me where I learned the word "plangent".) Suddenly the clumsy lyrics make sense -- this guy is the voice of dumb adolescent lust, with the increasingly frantic bongos and keyboards representing his mounting frenzy. This is your brain on teen hormones.

The climactic effect comes on the chorus' "For your love," the way the top voice sustains while the others peel off in stairstep descending harmonies. Love seems mysterious and dangerous, and you want it.

Then suddenly, after the second verse, a full minute into the track (which is only 2:30 to start with), the song stops -- just STOPS, with a final flutter on those bongos -- and then big whomping rock 'n' roll drums crash in, turning this into an entirely different song for the middle eight. An electric guitar chugs away, the chords all major; the vocals are in unison, with a backbeat syncopation, almost like a cheery pub singalong. "I would give you all I could," the singers promise -- and then that chilling electric harpsichord starts in again, and I instinctively shiver and flinch.

Now that I think about it, this is not much of a Valentine song, is it? It's all about sweaty pleading and paranoia and desperation, and Valentine's Day is when we pretend that love has nothing to do with things like that. Well, let's keep up the fiction, shall we?

Friday, February 09, 2007

"What Good Am I Without You" / Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston


In April 1984, when I heard Marvin Gaye had been shot by his father in the heat of an argument, I bet I hadn't thought about him for seven or eight years. But as soon as I began to, I realized I had to mourn at least three different Marvin Gayes. "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" is in some ways THE classic Motown track; his jazz-drenched 1970 hits "What's Going On" and "Mercy Mercy Me" shattered the Motown mold by actually being -- gasp! -- about something besides romantic love; then he practically invented the heavy-breathing song with "Let's Get It On" and "Sexual Healing," blatantly sexual tracks that mortified the teenage me when they first came out. (And now, of course, I love them...)

But the thing about Marvin Gaye I never focused on until recently was that so many of his hits were duets. Gaye was Berry Gordy's brother-in-law (talk about convenient), and I'm guessing that when his first few solo singles failed to chart, Berry looked for a way to hoist brother-in-law Marvin to bigger success. The solution? An album of duets with Motown's reigning girl star Mary Wells. Gaye's silky voice blended incredibly well with female vocals, and considering that he had come up through doo-wop, harmonizing was no doubt second nature to him.

Eventually he'd pair up, to enormous success, with Tammi Terrell and even cut a few tracks with Diana Ross, when she was the queen of Motown. (It's nice to be the girlfriend of the king.) In the mid-60s, though, Marvin Gaye's partner was Kim Weston, a Motown regular who never really got the success she deserved. Even stacked up against chart-topping Marvin&Tammi duets like "Precious Love" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," I'd have to say my favorite Marvin Gaye duet is this laid-back syncopated number with Kim.

The honky-tonk piano plinking away behind the vocals gives it a touch of roadhouse sloppiness that draws me in right away; I can almost picture a tiny bare stage with two singers leaning into the same microphone stand to blend their voices on those jazzy wo-oh-ohs. The horn section, the back-up ooohs, the drumming, are all kept back in the mix so you can focus on the voices, both Weston and Gaye playing with notes and rhythm as if they are actually live singers and not studio-polished automatons.

Duets only work when the two singers are in the same groove, and I really feel like Kim and Marvin are both having exactly the same amount of fun here, getting a kick out of each other's stylizings. Like many Motown lyrics, this one picks a single concept and runs it through several variations -- in this case objects that need something else to complete them (sounds like a category from The $25,000 Pyramid, doesn't it?). "What good is a telephone if there's no one to call?" "What good is a wedding if no one says 'I do?'" "What good is a doctor if he can't cure the pain?" "What good is the heavens without the stars above?" et cetera et cetera.

Kim takes the first verse, Marvin takes the second, and they do a call-and-answer on the third verse, but at the end of every verse, on the line "What good am I baby, without you" they get to improvise for a measure or two, and man, what they do with it makes this song sizzle -- Marvin pulls a gritty edge into his voice, and Kim drops down a chromatic scale that's so languid and elegant, it's like she's channeling Ella Fitzgerald.
This is one of those songs where finger-snapping is more or less compulsory (Marvin Gaye was also a drummer, after all).

I loved Marvin Gaye the social activist and Marvin Gaye the heavy-breather, but this other Marvin, the swinging jazz singer, may be my favorite Marvin of all. And now I'm curious to dig up some more Kim Weston numbers, too. Marvin I always knew about...but Kim...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

"The Love You Save" / The Jackson Five


What in God’s name happened to Michael Jackson? I never hear any of his new music – I guess it’s only released overseas, where his “true” fans live. I dug Off the Wall and Thriller like everyone else, but that was 25 years ago, and to be honest, I’m not sure I would have liked them so much if it hadn’t been for those sensational videos, back when MTV actually mattered. Soon after that he jumped the shark, making every track Bigger!Badder!Better! without charting any new musical territory. Like most everybody, I’m horrified by the bizarre spectacle he has turned into – it’s like Thriller come to life, his face morphing into a creepy mask worthy of Lon Chaney.

But being in a Motown groove this week, I’m listening to those early Jackson Five songs and it breaks my heart. Yes, they were highly produced commercial funk-pop. Yes, Michael’s image was managed to the nth degree, I’m guessing because “Little” Stevie Wonder had left the fold and Berry Gordy needed another cute kid phenom to take his place. Whatever. The fact is, those Jackson Five hits were tight and spunky, with hooks that stay with you like a rhinovirus.

Michael sounded so sweet and earnest on ultra-smooth ballads like “I’ll Be There” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” – though, come to think of it, at Michael’s age most boys wouldn’t be caught dead in a room alone with a girl. (And they grew up to be sexually normal.) Still, there was a cunning genius at work behind hits like “ABC” that riffed on the idea that a kid was singing them. I defy you to sing this chorus just once: “Simple as do-re-mi / A B C/ One, two three / Baby you and me,” even if you mix up the order, like I do. Or even if somehow you segue right into “ABC” in the chorus of “I Want You Back.” It’s all the same song, really.

As soon as I hear “The Love You Save,” I think of those street safety filmstrips we had to watch in elementary school: “Stop the love you save may be your own / Darling look both ways before you cross me / You’re heading for a danger zone.” This song wipes the Supremes “Stop In the Name Of Love” off the map for me, it’s so much more lively, with funky staccato rhythms and a melody that bounces all over the place. Naturally it starts out with a childhood setting, as Michael innocently explains: “When we played tag in grade school / You wanted to be it / But chasing boys was just a fad / You crossed your heart you’d quit.” But now they're adults – “When we grew up you traded / Your promise for my ring” -- and she’s still chasing boys around the playground, and Michael’s getting worked up into a real tantrum.

Jermaine and Michael swap lines in the bridge, egging each other into a frenzy: Michael, “They’ll ruin your reputation! / They’ll label you a flirt!”; then Jermaine, “The way they talk about you / They’ll turn your name to dirt!” The second verse is even cleverer, as Michael names the boys she’s fooling around with, and after the second bridge they fall back on that time-honored middle-section spelling shtick ("ABC" all over again): “S is for save it / T is for take it slow / O is for oh, no! / P is for please, please, don’t go!”

The songwriter was having F-U-N here, and so did the studio band (I assume this was the Funk Brothers, with Joe Hunter throwing out those snazzy glissandos on the keyboards), and so did the other four Jacksons, doing vocal bass lines and percussion. I’m sure I saw them perform this on TV and they had a slick dance routine worked out as well. By the time it was over they weren’t the only ones who had to catch their breath.

So that's why I still care, in a sad little corner of my heart, about what's become of Michael Jackson. If you never saw the Jacksons in their prime, you might think he's just a freak show, a tabloid curiosity. But for those of us who did . . .

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

“Living for the City” / Stevie Wonder


I grew up with Stevie Wonder. First he was Little Stevie Wonder, Motown’s 12-year-old genius, doing “Fingertips” on TV (I just thought he wore those sunglasses to be cool, until my mother set me straight). A blind black child prodigy seemed just a novelty, though; it wasn’t until the later 60s, when his voice changed and he started that amazing run of hits (“”For Once in My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”) that I sat up and took notice, even in the midst of my Beatlemania. And then, just as I began to itch to leave the nest and go to college, Stevie turned 21 and struck out on his own, re-negotiating his Motown deal to obtain artistic control.

Artistic control – wasn’t that what we all wanted in 1971? Except what I did with it was a few not-half-bad English papers; what Stevie did with it was Talking Book. And then Innervisions. No one since the Beatles had written entire albums that scored so high on both social meaning and sing-along-ability. By the time Stevie hit Songs In the Key of Life, I felt like the kid down the street had just earned the Nobel Peace Prize.

By then I’d outgrown commercial Motown and discovered “real” blues, but Stevie’s politics earned him a free pass. Why a pampered child prodigy should be an authority on ghetto life I don’t know, but I believed it when Stevie sang it. This song in particular, which clocks in at 7:03, was an entire mini-opera. It begins at the beginning, naturally, with a hardscrabble childhood in the rural South (Stevie, by the way, was born in Saginaw, Michigan, far from Hardtime, Mississippi) – it’s like a Richard Wright novel, piling up the injustices, the father’s low-wage 14-hour days, his mother scrubbing floors for the white lady, his sister wearing secondhand clothes, his brother unemployed because “where he lives / They don’t use colored people.”

Oddly enough, coming from a tunesmith like Stevie Wonder, this song’s not much on melody – the verses are like talking blues, though the chorus is more catchy. The real hook is the repeated synthesizer riff, a jazzlike fanfare melting through several chord changes. Notice how Stevie’s voice gets a harder edge as his protagonist gets older and more frustrated with life. Eventually things slide into a long musical interlude, simmering synthesizers and counterpointed vocals, propelled by that same hard-driving beat that’s hustled us along from the start.

By all rights the song should be over now, but no – now our hero arrives in the city, the promised land. In an awed voice Stevie exclaims "Wow! New York, just like I pictured it -- skyscrapers and ev'rything" (a line that became my personal slogan for several years) as the track evolves into a cinema verite montage: sound effects of a bus pulling into Port Authority, a street hustler’s jive patter, sirens wailing, the echoing whack of a gavel, and the clang of a prison door (“Get into that cell, nigger!”) – boom boom boom, a swift and shocking series of events. By the time Stevie sings again, all that’s left is a gruff vocal wreck. But our hero's still singing, damn it. He’s still singing.

This one song telescopes 25 years of civil rights protests into one man’s story, and I have to say, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” never reached me the way “Living for the City” did. Here I was, a white college girl identifying with these characters in a Motown song – but then, that was the early 70s, when we still hoped we were all on the same side. Well, some of us still do, thanks to Stevie Wonder. Maybe they should have given him a Nobel Prize.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

“My Girl” / The Temptations
“My Guy” / Mary Wells


One thing I didn’t mention yesterday about Smokey Robinson: He was also one of Motown’s most prolific songwriters, turning out hits for other artists as well -- including this pair, consciously written as a soul-music version of "he says/she says." Motown had a huge hit on its hands in 1964 with Mary Well's"My Guy," but in a brilliant stroke of cross-marketing, Berry Gordy used that to promote another act with the 1965 sequel, the Temptations' "My Girl."

Smokey wrote several songs for the Temptations, but this was their signature tune, and it’s easy to see why. It starts off with one of those openings you instantly recognize when it comes on the jukebox – that drawling guitar line, bomb ba-bah-da-ba-dah bomb ba-ba-dah-ba-dah, taking its sweet time to climb upward. Then in slips David Ruffin’s shimmering tenor, "I got sunshine / On a cloudy day" (the flutters on "sunshine" and "cloudy" are classic). He keeps working that weather metaphor, "And when it’s cold outside / I got the month of May." Then all four parts come in on stair-step chords: "Well, I guess you’ll say / What could make me feel this way" and then Ruffin sparkles in again on "My girl" (as the harmonies deliver another "My girl," here comes a lush suite of strings too), "talking ‘bout / My girl." "My girl" the back-ups repeat in a high staccato, zipping it up to take her away.

Next verse, new metaphor: "I've got so much honey / The bees envy me. / I've got a sweeter song / Than the birds in the trees," and Ruffin’s voice alone is proof how sweet that honey is. Imagine the choreography that went with this, some smart snapping slide step, maybe with a synchronized spin. The Temptations were so goddam elegant, you just KNOW they’d give a girl a good time.

But something about Mary Wells' song comes a little closer to my heart. The beat’s snappier, with a pack of horns punching it up; it starts off with a metaphor (Smokey couldn’t resist): “I'm stickin' to my guy / Like a stamp to a letter / Like the birds of a feather / We stick together,” but as Mary’s voice skips along, all kittenish and flirty and coy, she’s simply dealing out the emotional facts: “Nothing you can do could make me untrue / To my guy / Nothing you can buy could make me tell a lie / To my guy.” I picture her facing another man who IS trying to woo her away, shaking her head and laying her long-nailed fingers on his chest to push him away.

Mary knows she’s got alternatives, and as neat as the rhymes may be, she’s making her decision the way a woman does, on deeper qualities: “No muscle bound man could take my hand / From my guy / No handsome face could ever take the place / Of my guy / He may not be a movie star / But when it comes to being happy / We are.” (Remember that Smokey also wrote “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep” for his own group, the Miracles – handsome as he was (is), Smokey knew that looks aren’t everything.)

Where the Temptations are simply giddy with how the girl makes them feel, Mary shrewdly lays out a battle plan – “I gave my guy my word of honor / To be faithful and I'm gonna” (love that rhyme). While the guys wallow around in bliss, the girl is rolling up her sleeves, knowing that a relationship takes work. She’s not saying he’s perfect, she’s not saying there’s magic -- but she’s got material she can work with. So what if he’s off in the clouds right now, warbling “My Girl” about her? Of course a girl likes being appreciated. And when the hard times come – and they will -- she’ll do the heavy lifting. I bet they’ll make it.

Monday, February 05, 2007

“Shop Around” / Smokey Robinson


At the theater the other night, seeing Jersey Boys, our friends were raving about how the Four Seasons were the soundtrack of their childhoods in New Jersey and Queens. I had to stop and think; I mean, I liked the Four Seasons all right, but . . . well, I’m from Indiana and I never felt they were singing to me. Same deal with the Beach Boys – I figured I needed to be a sun-bleached blonde with a year-round tan to really get the Beach Boys. So what was the music of my youth, I wondered? Then it came to me: Motown.

And so, in honor of that epiphany, I hereby declare this MOTOWN WEEK.

The beauty part of Motown was that it wasn’t black music just for blacks – even we white kids could dance to that glossy soul-infused pop. And the guy who most epitomizes that Motown sound to me was William “Smokey” Robinson. Whether he got that name from his velvety tenor or those mesmerizing hazel eyes, Smokey was romance incarnate, tricked out with enough book-smart lyrics and polite manners that you could always bring him home to the folks. (Though we cannot ignore the fact that “Oooh Baby Baby” was the most intoxicating ladies-man seduction ever recorded – it makes Barry White’s sexy growl seem tepid).

Smokey could go in all sorts of directions, from house-party tracks like “Mickey the Monkey,” “I Second That Emotion,” or the infectious “Going to a Go-Go” to dreamy slow-dance ballads like “Tracks of My Tears.” Just where the self-pity classic “Tears of a Clown” fits in I don’t know, but it is one memorable tune (and the only dance hit I know that references the opera Pagliacci).

Smokey wrote “Shop Around” with his mentor Berry Gordy, and maybe that why it has a darker edge, or maybe it’s because it’s from 1960 (the label’s first #1 single) before the Motown commercial formula had been completely refined. This song is Smokey’s Some Like It Hot moment, with his high silky-smooth voice morphing into an female impersonation of his mother giving him advice: “Just because you've become a young man now / There's still some things that you don't understand now / Before you ask some girl for her hand now / Keep your freedom for as long as you can now’ / My mama told me:” The whole song jerks to a dramatic halt for a beat, then Smokey's voice swoops down dramatically low to deliver the punch line – “’You better shop around'.”

Is it just me, or is there something Oedipal about this? Sure, Mom’s just looking out for her baby boy’s best interests, urging him, “Make sure that her love is true now / I'd hate to see you feelin' sad and blue now.” Clearly this mother is in NO HURRY to see her son settle down with another woman, and she’s willing to sell out her own sex – “Pretty girls come a dime a dozen,” she says cynically, adding: “Try to get yourself a bargain son / Don't be sold on the very first one!” Caveat emptor and all that.

Now remember, this guy is just repeating what his mother said; it’s possible he’s using this as an excuse to deny a woman who’s pressuring him to settle down. But as the song swings into the coda, it builds to a frenzy of call-and-answer between back-up and lead vocal -- either his mom is picturing his love-making in incestuous detail, or he himself is quivering at the idea that girls are going to hold him tight and take his hand, et cetera. “Be a man, son,” he advises himself in his mother’s voice, as if playing the field is the only way to prove his manhood. And if mama told him to, he’s gotta do it, right?

Well, there are a lot of psychological layers here, more than usual for a pop song. But there’s also a boppy dance beat, a sizzling sax solo in the break, and those finger-wagging back-up “oohs” and “mmms” (listen and you'll hear Smokey’s future wife, Claudette Rogers). It comes flowing out in glorious monoaural -- a song made to be listened to on a transistor radio on a summer night, or blaring out of open car windows (who had AC in the car back then?). This is Motown, and I want more.

Friday, February 02, 2007

"Redemption Song" / Bob Marley and the Wailers

Yesterday I was deep into the Specials; this morning I found myself diving deeper, down to reggae roots -- which for me means Bob Marley. Like most of my generation, my first taste of true Jamaican reggae came through the Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come, where I found out about a slew of reggae artists all at one go. And right away it was clear to me that Bob Marley and the Wailers were head and shoulders above the rest (I'm glad I knew "I Shot the Sheriff" before Eric Clapton's cover). I love so many Wailers tracks -- "Is This Love", "Jammin'", "Waiting in Vain" -- but this song, man, this song is something else.

By this point in his career -- 1980's Uprising album, which would be his last --Bob Marley knew how to wrestle grandeur out of even a simple acoustic track like this. It almost seems like heresy to have a reggae song without a heavy electric bassline, but there's no bass on here, no drums, nothing but Marley's expressive voice and an acoustic guitar; the reggae beat is laid down entirely vocally, putting accents wherever the syncopation requires. The melody seems wistful, almost uncertain, but it soars exquisitely when it needs to, on "It's all I ever had" -- hanging fiercely on that unresolved chord.

Like a campfire storyteller, Marley starts off by reciting his people's slave heritage: " Old pirates, yes, they rob I / Sold I to the merchant ships, / Minutes after they took I / From the bottomless pit," his Jamaican patois proudly, almost defiantly, emphasized -- so what if this record will be sold worldwise, it represents JAMAICA, and Marley's not going to play that down, not now. Songwriting technique is less important than the message, so he's willing to go with near rhymes, or no rhymes at all in some verses, like in "But my hand was made strong / By the hand of the almighty. / We forward in this generation / Triumphantly." He sounds to me like an Old Testament prophet exhorting his tribe in the desert, even knowing his words may (probably will) fall on deaf ears.

These phrases Marley's spouting by all rights should come across as propaganda, but he enunciates them with such utter conviction, they seem dogma-free -- even lines like: "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds." It's a rallying cry that digs really deep, laying it at every listener's door -- yours and mine too. Spirituality and politics and history are all braided together, and even when Marley's voice trembles, remembering past injustice -- "How long shall they kill our prophets / While we stand aside and look?" -- he's old enough, and wise enough, to spot the hand of God at work: "Ooh! some say it's just a part of it / We've got to fulfill the book."

It took me a couple of years before I understood Marley's not looking for "redemption" in the traditional Christian sense, but something a whole lot more specific: a slave being "redeemed," bought out of slavery. With that in mind, it's incredibly moving when he sings that "these songs of freedom [are] all I ever have." Even being a worldwide music star, and more or less a Rasta prophet, Bob Marley never forgot what it felt like being a poor kid from the Trenchtown slums, with nothing but the music and passion in his heart.

Singing this, at the apex of his career -- with the cancer that killed him already raging through his body -- he has an end-of-days urgency throbbing through his voice, and it's so . . . well, we use the word "awesome" too easily these days, but this song? This song is awesome.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

"It Doesn't Make It Alright" / The Specials

When the Specials' debut album landed on my turntable in late 1979, it came with the only imprimatur that mattered to me that year -- Elvis Costello had produced it. Though it came on a legit label, Chrysalis, the black-and-white album cover looked homemade, with its checkerboard motif and the muddy photos of a multi-racial bunch of players, kitted up in skinny ties and narrow-brimmed fedoras. I considered myself a reggae fan, but it had never occcurred to me before that you could graft reggae onto punk, let alone throw in a ska organ and horn section. But as soon as I heard it, I knew it WORKED.

And like their mentors, the Clash, the Specials weren't afraid to dish up some politics while they were at it, even if it meant that racist agitators showed up at some of their early gigs to turn them into slugfests. But really, how could anybody be offended by this earnest plea for tolerance? Nothing could be less aggressive than these laid-back reggae rhythms, the offbeat guitar strums and organ riffs, the meandering bassline (granted, the drumbeat does morph into a bit of a bash-up at the end of every chorus). But I never doubted how sincere these guys were, with those inarticulate Midlands-accented vocals, not to mention the deliberately unglossy production values -- Elvis learned from the master, Nick Lowe, how to keep a record sounding authentic and fresh and honest.

We're not talking sophsiticated arguments -- these lyrics are simple and heartfelt: "Some people think they're really clever / To smash your head against the wall / Then they say "you got it my way" / They really think they know it all / It doesn't make it alright." This is the puzzled outlook of a kid who's been there on the street, and who could argue with that? Only people who like smashing heads against a wall. And the Specials -- or rather, organist Jerry Dammers, who wrote this song (with M. Harrison and D. Goldberg, according to the label) -- even have some insight into the psychological make-up that leads to hate: "Just because you're nobody / It doesn't mean that you're no good . . . It's the worst excuse in the world." You don't have to be a sociologist to understand the frustration that's made street punks throughout the centuries lash out because their own lives were such crap.

It isn't until the third verse that this becomes specifically about race: "Just because you're a black boy / Just because you're a white / It doesn't mean you've got to hate him / It doesn't mean you've got to fight." The Clash had already predicted that Britain was going to blow up in racial riots in their 1979 track "The Guns of Brixton" (long before Brixton finally erupted in April 1981). But anybody who listened to this Specials album, too, already knew there was hate simmering in Britain. I have to be honest -- this song is pretty mild, compared to "It's Up to You" and "Concrete Jungle" and "Too Hot" (the whole first side of the LP, actually), which was a bit of an eye-opener to us in the States, who'd always thought we were the only country in the world with civil rights problems.

Okay, the Specials were kinda asking for skinheads and rude boys to mix it up a little. But the skinheads never had a band like the Clash or the Specials or the English Beat explaining their point of view to me, so I've gotta go with these guys. After all, blacks and whites could play together in this band just fine. Nearly three decades later, this song's message still matters.

Song sample:,,167155-1237268-WMLO,00.html