Friday, March 30, 2007

"Seatbacks and Traytables" / Fountains of Wayne

Everybody go out right now and buy this new CD, Traffic and Weather, which hits the stores on Tuesday. I adore Fountains of Wayne, and I know a lot of you out there do too; this new album is just the sort of quirky rumination on modern life and love we've been waiting for.

Since I am getting on a plane tomorrow, this song's haunting me at the moment. While some of the earlier songs on the album are FOW's trademark vignettes of odd lonely characters (like the Kinks Village Green transplanted to New Jersey), this track's a Life on the Road Lament -- a fairly common rock music theme, of course, but the singer of this one could just as well be a frequent-flying business man as a touring musician.

With that wheezy Dylanesque harmonica starting us off, it's a gentle rootsy waltz with a touch of slide guitar, a plinky little banjo, and an appropriately disaffected lead vocal (is that Adam Schlesinger or Chris Collingwood?). Yet the song's setting is total 2007: "Seatback and traytables up / Stow your newspapers and cups / We're about to touch down / Midwestern town / Through the haze." The town could be Oklahoma, could be Santa Barbara; they both look vaguely familiar -- and at this point, our frequent flyer doesn't even really care. What's really on his mind is the weird limbo he's in, that in-transit routine: "Seatbacks and traytables please / Suddenly I can't feel my knees / Second-run movies / In-flight shopping magazines / Wheeze in the air up there / Got me a backache somewhere." Yup, sounds like he's flying coach all right. Who knows where the emergency exits are?

The chorus gets a little more melodic, and plaintive: "Trade one town for another / Delayed now, why did we bother? / X on a calendar square / New city, same stuff / Seatbacks and traytables up." This rueful sense of dislocation, of rootlessness, is a big theme on this new album. I guess it isn't odd that a bunch of guys from New Jersey would be hung up on highways and cars (it's no accident the album is named Traffic and Weather), but tucking this modern traveler's lament into a folky envelope gives it a plangent quality that really resonates with me.

You can always follow this up with the perfect chaser, track 8: "Michael and Heather At The Baggage Claim" (a metaphor for the search for love, of course). Sheesh -- who ever coined the phrase "the friendly skies" must have been crazy.

All the same, I'll go pack now. It's modern life -- what can you do? And anyway, I'll be back in a week.

Seatbacks and Traytables sample

Thursday, March 29, 2007

"Jack and Diane" / John Mellencamp

I'm a sucker for countdown shows, and last night VH1 Classic showed The 100 Greatest Songs of the 80s (though it was really more like 100 80s Songs with Good Videos Whose Stars Were Available For Where-Are-They-Now Interviews). Like most of the 1980s themselves, it was a strange experience, mixing New Wave, punk, hard-core funk, and hair bands, not to mention all those campy British groups like Culture Club and Flock of Seagulls. I still blame MTV for sidetracking music in the 1980s, making it all about synthesizers and glossy visuals instead of musicianship and meaning and heart.

In the midst of all the high-concept videos, however, the one that really stood out was a grainy home-movie of a couple of teenagers messing around in Seymour, Indiana: the video for John Mellencamp's poignant "Jack and Diane." Sure, it came early in the decade -- 1982, back when he was still recording under the goofy stage name John Cougar -- but the artlessness of that video was remarkable even then. And it was absolutely perfect for that song, a wistful "little ditty" about small-town high-school sweethearts. I was riveted, all over again.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm from Indiana myself, and I'm only a couple years younger than Mellencamp. Those images in the video look like MY home movies. But I still think it's a wonderful iconic American song, as good as anything Bruce Springsteen's ever done. By the time you get to the wailing chorus -- "Oh yeah, life goes on / Long after the thrill / Of living is gone" -- your heart's already breaking for these two dumb kids. You don't have to be told what happened after they got married and grew up (in that order); you just know it wasn't what they dreamed of. And is there anything more American than disappointed dreams?

It starts off with these big clanging guitar strums, underlaid with a hard-rocking hand-clap percussion (those claps may be the song's most irresistible hook), but for the verses things tone down to a tender acoustic arrangement. Enter our hero and heroine: "Two American kids growin' up in the heartland / Jacky's gonna be a football star / Diane's a debutante backseat of Jacky's car." The next verse is a scene out of Splendor in the Grass, absolutely dizzy with hormonal teenage lust:" "Suckin' on chili dog outside the Tastee-Freeze / Diane sittin' on Jacky's lap / He's got his hands between her knees." An incredibly sexy moment -- it's no surprise Diane takes up Jack's offer to slip off behind a shade tree. (That line "Dribble off those Bobby Brooks" is a vivid detail -- I visualize all the Bobby Brooks blouses in my old closet, circa 1970.)

The next verse is the pivotal moment when Jack -- doing "his best James Dean" (that Rebel Without A Cause reference, such a grabber) -- suggest they run off to the city. This is their moment to break free, the moment every small-town dreamer wants to seize. But Diane, the homebody, talks him out of it -- "Baby, you ain't missin' a thing," she murmurs. Doing her best Natalie Wood, no doubt.

Do you think Jack stayed with Diane? Or did he eventually get out of town? Johnny Mellencamp got out of town, even though he eventually moved back (with a supermodel wife and enough money to build his own recording studio in Seymour). Personally, I think Jack left -- he had to -- but a part of him still regrets losing that sweet and innocent happiness. Which he would have lost even if he'd stayed. Man, if Wordsworth had been a roots rocker, this is the song he would have written.

But I love the fact that you can write whatever ending you want. Mellencamp only tells us, in that anthemic a cappella bridge, with its gospel-like backing vocals, "Gonna let it rock / Let it roll / Let the bible belt come and save my soul / Hold on to sixteen as long as you can / Changes come around real soon, make us women and men." Whatever else, he's in love with the innocence of those kids, their unreflective passion. He's not going to judge them. He'll just immortalize them.

Jack and Diane will live forever now, still sucking on those chili dogs behind the Tastee-Freeze. In Indianapolis it was the Dairy Queen, but same difference. God, this song makes me want to go home again. As if any of us can.

Jack and Diane sample

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

“Stupid Thing” / Aimee Mann

Men, you should be afraid of Aimee Mann. Be very afraid -- she knows all your tricks.

So maybe you don’t dare listen to this track from her 1993 debut album Whatever –but ladies, I’ll recommend it as the perfect song to crank up when your significant other has been messing you around. It’s not a revenge song so much as a putting-things-in-perspective song.

What woman hasn’t watched a relationship fall apart like this? Patiently Aimee rehearses the situation as she recalls it: “Nothing was saving our day / There was nothing to say, / But you said something anyway” (unable to resist that little dig there, with a shrug and a roll of the eyes). “Claiming I stepped out of line,” she continues, “Which forced you to leave me, / As if that idea was mine.” Maybe this is a Mars/Venus situation, but I can’t help but side with Aimee – I’ve seen how men overreact to perceived slights, with an air of offended pride (wounded vanity is more like it), and the woman’s side of the story just doesn’t count. In verse two, Aimee’s even more suspicious of her ex’s motives: “I bet you knew it would come / That’s just like you to sit back / And just play it dumb / One word of warning would help / But that sacrifice was made / Trying to save yourself.” He’s put his own ego first, instead of playing things for the good of the relationship. Just waiting to blame things on somebody else . . . just waiting for an excuse to give up.

The verses are sung wearily, just acoustic guitar and drums with a fragile, lilting melody – but hey, she’s only getting started. The chorus gets more vigorous, with electric guitar and piano joining the mix, and Aimee’s singing sharpens with a skeptical edge. “Oh, you stupid thing / Speaking of course as your dear departed / Oh, you stupid thing / It wasn’t me that you outsmarted / Oh, you stupid thing / Stopping it all before it even started.” That wry description of herself as “your dear departed” clues me in that she’s not even grieving the end of this relationship anymore – how could she? It never even got out of the gate. That blunt term “stupid thing” is a pretty dry-eyed description of a guy who wasn’t worth hanging onto -- it’s his loss, not hers (“It wasn’t me that you outsmarted”). But the slightly draggy tempo, the melodic repetitions, suggests how bone-tired she is of doing all the work and not getting any generosity in return. There’s a pattern here. Familiar?

This is why we need female singer-songwriters. Probably this was an autobiographical song, but I doubt I’m the only woman who can relate. Some days I want to wear my heart on my sleeve, and then I’ll listen to Dusty Springfield and Patsy Cline. But other days, I want to stand up for myself – and for those days, it’s good to have Aimee Mann around.

Stupid Thing sample

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

“Perfect Day” / Lou Reed

In the summer of 1973, Eurailing around the Continent with my friend Debbie, there were two songs we sang constantly: “Creeque Alley” by the Mamas and the Papas (for the line “living off American Express cards”) and Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side.” Not that our walks were ever wild – it was just that its doo doo-doo doo doo-doo-doo doo doo-doo refrain set the perfect tempo for rambling around cobblestoned European capitals. And of course it had a verse about someone named Holly (who turns out to be a transvestite, but I still identified – heck, the only other song I knew with my name in it was (yuck) “Holly Holy” by Neil Diamond).

Despite loving that snarly, transgressive Lou Reed single, I never bought the album from which it came, Transformer. Lou Reed struck me as a difficult, dangerous guy (wonder why) and . . . well, I had other bands to follow. I don’t apologize for that; there’s only so much time in life.

If I HAD bought Transformer, though, I would have known “Perfect Day” earlier, and who knows how that might've changed my mind about Lou Reed. (Lou himself hated the fact that the atypical “Walk On the Wild Side” became his signature song – kinda like “Lola” being the only Kinks song most non-fans know). “Perfect Day” shows a different side of Lou Reed, a lyrical, poetic side. The key lies in the very ordinariness of this “perfect day” he’s marveling over; it’s wonderfully affecting, especially coming from a guy who wore eye make-up and considered Andy Warhol his mentor. “Drink Sangria in the park, / And then later, when it gets dark, / We go home. . . . / Feed animals in the zoo / Then later, a movie, too, / And then home.” Simple pleasures we can all relate to, and his gruff, half-talking, slightly wobbly voice makes it even more convincingly ordinary. As the song transpires, of course, the melancholy edge becomes clear: “You made me forget myself. / I thought I was someone else, / Someone good.” That’s the heart-breaker, the part that makes me want to put my arms around Lou Reed, leather jacket and all, and just console him.

David Bowie produced this album and Mick Ronson was somehow involved too; I’ve read that it was Ronson who gave this number its lush waltzing arrangement, with a chorus of strings swelling over the simple piano accompaniment. This walking-in-the-park conceit is tired now, after a bazillion hackneyed film montages, but in 1972 it was still code for escaping the rat race and being authentic; it was effective in Woody Allen movies and even more effective when a downtown guy like Lou Reed takes it up. For this one moment, he’s let go of all his defiance, all his desire to shock. He’s content just to BE.

I saw Lou Reed once, years ago, waiting for the subway at the Christopher Street station down in Greenwich Village -- brooding, rumpled, leonine, devastatingly attractive. Dressed in black leather, of course, but still, riding the subway, like a million other ordinary New Yorkers. I’m hoping that was a perfect day for him. It was for me.

Perfect Day sample

Monday, March 26, 2007

“Before the Night Is Over” / Jerry Lee Lewis and B. B. King

Duet albums? I’m sick of ‘em. The record companies have jumped on this gimmick to revive an aging artist’s career at the end of his/her days – Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, two cases in point. So I was skeptical about buying last year’s Jerry Lee Lewis duet album – but I shouldn’t have been.

I should have been able to tell from its title, Last Man Standing (not to mention the cover shot of Jerry Lee hammering away at a grand piano that’s burst into flames), that this wouldn’t be a mere exercise in coasting. No collaborators made the cut unless they were willing to let Jerry Lee, the original wild man of rock ‘n’ roll, tear loose and take the lead. And it works because his playing AND singing are in prime form. The liner notes claim that this project breathed new life into Jerry Lee, who'd been sick and basically out of commission until rock 'n' roll came to the rescue. You sure can't tell it, though, by listening to this album. Respect must be paid.

My favorite track, from the very first listen, has been track #2, “Before the Night Is Over,” which teams Jerry Lee up with B.B. King, two old masters trading off sizzling solos between the verses. Jerry Lee so completely rocks the joint with his honky-tonk piano, hard put to take the spotlight when it comes his turn -- and to give him credit, he seems happy just to let Jerry Lee shine. God bless both of them.

It’s a cunning old blues song by Ben Peters, sung by Jerry Lee with just the right amount of sexy swagger. Just get a load of the chorus: “And before the night is over you're gonna be in love / I bet you by the mornin', I'll be the only one that you'll be thinkin' of.” The way he hits that word “love” -- now there is CONFIDENCE. Jerry Lee may be 80 years old but he still knows what it means to have mojo. Those insouciant glissandos, the twiddling grace notes, the pounding chords – here is a man in charge. Listening to this for the first time in my car, I couldn’t help but shift in my seat and think, “All right, Jerry Lee, show me what you’re made of.”

Of course it’s also wheedling, and more than a little opportunistic: “I can tell by the way you're a little bit lonesome baby [“just like Jerry Lee," he can’t resist tossing in, winsomely] / It's just like someone that you're needing to forget / Honey, that's the same thing with me / I've been wonderin' baby, why don't we / Just make believe it ain't the first time we have met.” Nothing like taking advantage of a woman when she’s on the rebound. All the same, that chuckling drawl lets her know that he won’t feel hurt if she turns him down. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But if she’s up for a little fun, fun’s what this tomcat can deliver. Grrr-owll.

Confession time: I still prefer to picture Jerry Lee as Dennis Quaid in the movie Great Balls of Fire, and, okay, I have a thing for Dennis Quaid. Until I saw that movie I didn’t get the point of Jerry Lee. But listening to this new CD, with this wild man raging against the dying of the light, I have to say…whoo-ah.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

“Let’s Stay In and Make Love” / Nick Lowe


The sexiest song I’ve ever heard, period.

MY NICK LOWE THEORY#6: Considering how many pop songs Nick Lowe has written over the past 40 years, it’s amazing how his melodic invention never flags. On his most recent CD (The Convincer, 2001) , he's still finding fresh tunes to charm us with. I dig the way this tune starts out shimmering on a seventh chord and stairsteps down into a major key, taking its sweet time to get there. It's all about seductive chord changes and unpredictable syncopation, venturing coolly onto jazz turf. (Nick's visited there before, on Dig My Mood -- check out the elegant tracks "You Inspire Me" and "Freezing.")

Here's the set-up: This guy (I imagine it as Nick) has just mustered up the nerve to tell his wife/girlfriend (and yes, I imagine it as me), “I don’t really care / About tonight’s affair / We don’t have to go.” Not unusual; lots of men say that, but they mutter it angrily, because they hate putting on a tux and would rather watch the game. The last time someone pulled that on me I was LIVID. But that tentative melody – starting OFF on a note that begs to be resolved – makes her pause, listening. And when he gets to the chorus, and she finds out why he wants to cancel the engagement – “Let’s stay in and make love” – well, how could she mind that? The languid lilting tempo, the noodling guitar and electric piano, all make this song so intimate and tender, I know I’m melting already.

Look at how he sketches the scene, so cinematic, camera angle and everything: “Now you’re waiting in the hall / And I am on the stair / Looking at you from above / Say, darling, just for a change / Let’s stay in and make love.” Again with the melody – that hopeful lift on “Let’s”, the cozy repeated notes on “stay in,” a higher note to emphasize “and”, the way he slurs “make love” into three notes that curl around caressingly. I don’t imagine any writer plots a song in such detail, but when you’re in the zone, songwriting-wise, serendipity takes over.

Soon he gives us the movie’s script as well, with a voiceover: “You say softly, ‘Darling / You’re quiet tonight’ [extra beat of silence] / And you‘re right, ‘cause what I’m thinking of / Is ‘Take off your dress / Let’s stay in and make love.’” How lightly he sings that line, just a suggestion, like drifting his fingertips over her (my) skin. But in the bridge, with building volume (and cocktail lounge-y piano arpeggios from Geraint Watkins), he moves down the stairs and presses his case, each line shifting urgently into a higher key: “Let’s forget the chattering crowd / And get back to what’s really real” (cue those chattering back-up la-la la-la la’s ).

Okay, that’s probably a new dress she’s wearing. She knows she looks fabulous in it. She’s been looking forward to this do -- it’s hard to change gears that fast. So he’s got a little more persuading to do; he tempts her with a new scenario: “I’ll put on something that’ll groove us / You may dim the lights / Then come to me darling / Let’s stay in -- / Slip off those things and love me now.” He begins to drift off, losing the train of the melody from the first two verses. Distracted . . . intoxicated by desire . . . those buttons, the zipper, a rustle of satin...

Jeez, Nick, if she doesn’t take you up on it, I will.
Happy birthday, Mr. Lowe!

Friday, March 23, 2007

“The Beast In Me”, “I Live On A Battlefield” / Nick Lowe


When a musician gets to a certain age, he has to decide; do I get a facelift and hair plugs and maintain the same act, or do I peel off the spandex and reinvent myself as a middle-aged rocker? Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler chose Option One. Nick Lowe has chosen Option Two, and I’m glad he did.

Nick started to go gray in his twenties and never did a thing about it; the hair’s snow-white now. He’s brought the tempo down a few notches, he’s singing in a slightly lower key, and he’s settled into a mellow rootsy country/R&B sound (not all that different from Brinsley Schwarz, when you think about it). Aging gracefully doesn’t even begin to cover it. Nick Lowe seems to be standing in the middle of life’s road, giving us the straight dope about regret and disappointment and accepting reality. This kind of wisdom is worth more to me than admiring how tight Mick Jagger’s 64-year-old ass still is.

Nick wrote “The Beast In Me” for his then stepfather-in-law, Johnny Cash, and it’s a perfect gritty, world-weary song for the Man In Black. I love Cash’s passionate rendition – but when Nick sings it, I just shiver. MY NICK LOWE THEORY #5: Nick’s skill as a poet is completely underrated. Just look at the first verse of “The Beast In Me”: “The beast in me / Is caged by frail and fragile bars / Restless by day / And by night he rants and rages at the stars.” Alliteration, internal rhyme (that “caged/rages” link), the symmetry of day/night – classic poetic techniques (three verses and a bridge and he never drops the ball once).

And Nick mirrors it with his melody: “The beast in me” rises hopefully, only to sidle down the scale as the beast is caged; “restless by day” hammers restlessly on a one note, while “rants and rages” dances, agitated, around higher notes, only to descend again for the final line – “God help / The beast in me.” It’s sung softly, with just an acoustic guitar, letting silence fill every significant pause. That tone of humble surrender is just perfect. Sure, he’s Dr. Jekyll right now, but he knows where Mr. Hyde is lurking.

On this same album (1994’s brilliant Impossible Bird), “I Live On A Battlefield” perfectly complements “The Beast In Me.” The tempo picks up, with drums and a chugging electric guitar, because this soul survivor needs adrenaline to deal with life’s onslaught. “I live on a battlefield,” he says ruefully, “surrounded by the ruins of the love withheld,” and Nick keeps up the battle metaphor, verse after verse. For all the rollicking country-western sound, I picture a smoke-hung line of trenches straight out of World War I, and mud-spattered Nick staggering through barbed wire -- “I stumble through the rubble / I’m dazed, seeing double.” (Note the vowel echoes, the alliteration.) With a wail, he declares, “My new home / Is a shellhole filled / With tears and muddy water / And bits of broken heart.”

He even translates the metaphor for us: “Though one way not one single drop of blood has spilled / It’s no less horrifying / Sweet memories of a bygone situation / Now shattered, lord, and battered / Lie scattered all around,” lobbing extra rhymes at us like hand grenades (similarly, later, he gives us “my new home is one of desolation / And scenes of a devastation / There is no consolation”). That perky tempo, those call-and-response back-up vocals, keep it just humorous enough. He’s got no time for self-pity; THIS IS WAR. I grin, and then I wince, because, yeah, it sure looks familiar. Sigh.

This is what life looks like when you’ve lived it, and I for one dive into these songs gratefully. Wine and cigars improve with age – why not rock musicians? Nick’s even got the confidence to title his next album (his first in six years, due out June 26th) At My Age. I may be older myself, but I'm not ready to hang it up. I still get giddy at the promise of a new Nick Lowe album.,,203157,00.html

Thursday, March 22, 2007

“One’s Too Much (and A Hundred Ain’t Enough),” “Chicken and Feathers,” “I’ve Got the Love” / Nick Lowe


I’ve been dealing with major Nick Lowe tracks up to now – but the way I see it, a truly topnotch artist is judged by his minor tracks, and what passes for album filler with Nick is pure gold. Granted, some of it’s kinda goofy, but MY NICK LOWE THEORY #4: Nick rightly understands the value of goofiness in rock music. And there are days when that’s all I want on my playlist.
Here, then, are three “throwaway” numbers from those out-of-print mid-1980s albums (why has Nick been so careless about his back catalogue?), three songs totally dear to my heart.

“One’s Too Much (and A Hundred Ain’t Enough)” from Nick the Knife – Like “Cruel to Be Kind” revisited, this song is sung by a guy who’s getting a rough ride from his woman, and knows it. “I love my baby,” Nick explains, “But lovin’ ain’t enough / I try to make her happy / But she’s running me around.” It’s the undercurrent of desire that makes this song work – that powerful sexy tug of that sinuous minor-key melody, underlaid with congas and maracas and a throbbing bassline. That’s why he puts up with her crap. But he’s not happy – witness those dissonant guitar and organ accents, that canny vocal full of hissed s’s and growly low phrases. And the jerked-around rhythm of the chorus: “Her kiss is the best / Her touch is the most / One’s too many and a hundred ain’t enough,” he groans. This guy’s so beat-up by this relationship, he can’t see straight. I want to rescue him.

“Chicken and Feathers” from 1983’s The Abominable Showman – here Nick goes for Abba-like glossiness, with lots of echo-chambers, a slinky guitar hook, fluttery electric piano trills and synthesizer flourishes. But it’s got an intriguing jigsaw puzzle of melodies, and a completely irresistible beat, which makes me forgive him the EXTREMELY SILLY lyrics. “You get the chicken / I get the feathers / I’m always eating crow, no matter whether / Whether I’m right or I’m wrong / This sorry situation’s gonna be changing pretty soon.” (Next verse: "I get the sip / You get the swallow / Just dying of this thirst..." -- well, I told you it got silly.) Again, it’s a guy who’s getting screwed by his girlfriend, but now he’s ready to do something about it . . . and I'm swooning over those earnest boyish vocals, cheering him on (and ignoring the snarky "oh yeah, unh huh, boo hoo" vocal fillers in the bridge). “Patience of saints is what I've got tons of / But even saints have got to snap sometime / And I’m about to,” he announces with perfect pop sincerity – and here I am, waiting to be his next in line.

“I Got the Love” from 1988’s Pinker and Prouder Than Previous – I've been told that this record appeared on Rolling Stone’s Worst Record Albums Ever list, but what does Rolling Stone know? It’s an absolute treasure. Evidently it was cobbled together from a number of recording sessions over a couple of years, as if somebody – I’m guessing Elvis – finally pulled Nick out of his mid-80s personal crisis and pushed him into the studio to get back to work. Recorded in Austin, Texas, this track is just Nick, Paul Carrack on organ (plus a few double-tracked plinks on the piano), and Robert Treherne (aka Bobby Irwin) on drums. Maybe it was originally just a demo, but I love the loping back-to-basics arrangement, which perfectly fits the dead simple lyrics – “I’ve got the love, and I’m gonna give it / I’ve got the love, and you’re gonna get it / I’ve got the love, girl I’m with it / Lay down your arms to my surrender [nice Arthur Alexander reference there] / I’ve got the love, I’ve got the love.” Who says rock music has to be profound all the time? Nick peels off a few twangy electric guitar riffs, and the whole track is just pure goofy joy, a jaunty invitation to love that I’m powerless to resist. I dig how that thrumming bass line comes through every once in a while, like a heightened pulse. “Come on sugar,” Nick begs, with a sort of Buddy Holly hiccup, “Don’t make me wait no later than Monday.” Wait? No chance of that. I’m here, and I’m yours.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

“Heart” / Nick Lowe


In 1979, I knew Nick Lowe only as the producer of Elvis Costello albums; I saw Rockpile open for Elvis that year, but they were so sloppy on stage, I totally wrote off Nick Lowe. Later that spring I must have heard “Cruel To Be Kind” on the radio – Nick’s only certifiable hit single – but that vintage pop sound tricked me into thinking it was a golden oldie. (Ditto for the Knack’s “My Sharona.”) And so I remained in the dark about Nick Lowe. This is one of the great regrets of my life.

So I never heard Rockpile’s 1980 version of “Heart” (on their only official album, Seconds of Pleasure), a rockabilly rendition with, I believe, Dave Edmunds channeling the Everly Brothers on the lead vocal. Nor did I hear it when Nick resurrected it on his now-disgracefully-out-of-print 1982 album Nick the Knife. Since this was Nick’s first outing after his blow-up with Dave Edmunds, I’ll bet he recorded it to reclaim the song for himself, and hopefully to score a follow-up hit to “Cruel to Be Kind.” That, of course, never happened. More years of My Nick Oblivion ensued.

I won’t tell how I finally discovered Nick – I’m saving that for my novel – but the Nick The Knife “Heart” was one of the first songs that sealed the deal for me. Slowed way down (this version runs almost a full minute longer than Rockpile’s), shifted to a lilting reggae beat, Nick delivers it in a shimmering, breathless vocal, punctuated with eager moans and gasps and grunts. With that stuttering rhythm and a melodic line that slides deliriously all over the place, it sounds diffident, fragile, vulnerable – in other words, just how adolescent males feel when falling in love.

Yes, teenage romantic love – the great classic pop theme. “Heart” has nothing to do with getting married and settling down, or promising eternal fidelity; it’s about how I feel RIGHT NOW when I’m with you. “Heart, why are you pounding like a hammer / Heart, why are you beating like a drum / Heart, why do you make such a commotion / When I’m waiting for my baby to come?” Does it feel good? Kinda yes, kinda no. But it’s not like there’s anything you can do -- this physical reaction is just a fact of life. And it doesn’t matter how many others have felt this way before; when it happens to you for the first time it’s bewildering. “Oh heart, don’t do it if it’s not the real thing,” he pleads, a little freaked out, “Heart, I am so easily deceived / Heart, there is no other I can turn to / If not you, heart, then who can I believe?”

MY NICK LOWE THEORY #3: Nick loves the discipline of writing a pop song, the sheer craft of it. Notice how this entire song sticks to its premise -- the dialogue between the singer and his own heart, or as he calls it, "you motor of emotion" (love the vowel play there). “Make certain now, or else you’re gonna break,” he nervously warns his runaway heart, as if that’ll do any good. He never addresses the girl in question, not once. It's a little schizo, maybe, a little self-involved, but that's adolescence for you too. And the teenage girl in me completely melts, aching to be with someone this earnest and vulnerable. Every one of his yearning groans sends a shiver up my spine.

That wonderful calliope-like organ solo in the middle -- was it Elvis’s keyboardist Steve Nieve, or Paul Carrack? Whoever the musicians were, Nick’s exquisite pop instincts made him keep the whole track light and uncluttered, a pure pop confection. It deserved to be a hit. Maybe if it had been, I wouldn't have wasted so many Nickless years.

All I know is that now my heart starts pounding like a hammer every time I hear this song – or, frankly, anytime I hear any of Nick Lowe’s songs. Nothing I can do about it . . . it must be love.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

“I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” / Nick Lowe


Nick Lowe is often called the Godfather of Punk, most likely because when Stiff Records blazed onto the scene, he was (largely by default) their house producer. But Nick himself didn’t record much that I’d call punk music. Even this track, which has punk attitude up the wazoo, is a giddy syncopated number sung lightly and tongue-in-cheek.
You’ll find it on Nick’s 1978 solo debut LP, called Jesus of Cool in the UK and Pure Pop For Now People in the US.

In the four years since he’d left Brinsley Schwarz, Nick had released a couple Stiff singles, produced other artists (Elvis Costello, the Damned), and gone on the road with the legendary Stiff Tour, but didn’t record an album of his own until Jake Riviera left Stiff to form Radar Records. By then Nick was playing with the core of musicians who would eventually tour as Rockpile – Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, Terry Williams – though for contractual reasons they had to release their LPs as solo acts. For all intents and purposes this is a Rockpile track, charged up with irrepressible rock & roll energy, a far cry from yesterday’s laidback Brinsley Schwarz jam.

This song (which Nick wrote with Andrew Bodnar and Steven Goulding) is a perfect expression of teenage nihilism – “I love the sound of breaking glass / Specially when I’m lonely / I need the noises of destruction / When there's nothing new.” MY NICK LOWE THEORY #2: The “I” in Nick Lowe songs is usually a character, but Nick’s such a chameleon, he can get into another person’s mind with total conviction. When this track came out, I’ll bet plenty of people thought Nick was advocating vandalism (just like people thought he was a hippie when he wrote “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding,” though in interviews Nick says he thinks he was poking fun at flower children – he just can’t remember why).

After all, with the Clash and the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers around, anarchy was the order of the day; Nick had to deliver something in that vein. But I feel no threat here, just a reckless sort of joy. The weird disconnect going on here is textbook adolescence – the kid’s smashing windows in the deep of night just for the aural sensation, not out of any social rage or personal malice. He just likes the feeling it gives him to hear that sound.

The chorus’s call and response works perfectly – various phrases (“nothing new,” “all around,” “safe at last,” "change of mind” ) are invariably answered with “sound of breaking glass,” which Nick sings with a shrug, almost like a kid idly riffing through things to do. Whatever’s going on, hey, breaking glass is as good as anything. SMASH.
Nick has nailed so well what it feels like to be a juvenile delinquent on a rampage -- and in a way, I suppose being at Stiff was Nick’s turn to be a juvenile delinquent. What can we get away with? This’ll piss off the old guard, won’t it? Wot larks.

Still, the song is way too syncopated, and at 3:05 minutes, way too long to be standard punk issue; the arrangement isn't stripped-down enough for the punk aesthetic. Can anybody tell me who played the electric piano on this number? It’s fantastic, all these shattering glissandos, playing off the reverb chords on the guitar and the offbeat smash of a tambourine; it’s like you can hear the rocks being pitched in the dead of night, echoing off the surrounding walls. But Nick’s voice floats carelessly over it all, his bass line lounging negligently beneath. I imagine him chewing gum as he sings, sticking out his tongue at his mates. Anarchy, yes, but the fun kind. You don’t have to throw rocks, you know, but with that hooky syncopation, you really DO have to dance.

Monday, March 19, 2007

"Feel a Little Funky” / Brinsley Schwartz


Next Saturday is Nick Lowe’s birthday, so in tribute, I’m devoting this entire week to his music. To be honest, I’ve got Nick Lowe songs running through my head most of the time; for just this one week, I'm going public with my Nick Lowe addiction. Fasten your seat belts!

So who’s Brinsley Schwarz? They were Nick’s first big band, major players in the 1970s pub rock movement. It kills me that I was living in the UK when these guys were active and I never knew about them, never got to hear them live. Apparently the energy of those live shows was something to behold. Brinsley made a bid for pop stardom early on, swiftly blew it (typical!), and ended up doing the good-time music they really wanted to, tinged with American country/folk sound. Nick was the chief songwriter and already in fine form; his biggest hit, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding” was written then, though it was Elvis Costello’s 1979 cover that made it famous.

But enough history; let’s talk about this track.

MY NICK LOWE THEORY #1: Nick is a bassist, and bassists can’t resist messing around with the rhythm of a song. (Paul McCartney does the same thing; Sting, too.) “Feel A Little Funky” isn’t funky in the Rick James sense, but in the earlier jazz sense, with a mellow, bass-driven backbeat rhythm that I find completely irresistible. This was jam-band music pure and simple, with every band member getting a riffing moment in the spotlight, and on the record (Nervous on the Road) the pace is cheerful but laid-back (apparently the tempo racheted up wildly in live shows). I can just picture tall, lanky Nick in a plaid flannel shirt driving that offbeat groove, syncopating the vocals even further, mixing up the rhythm however he can.

The lyrics promise a good time: “Well if you feel a little funky / You want to get a little high / I got a brand-new system we all can try.” “Funky” is a slippery word in English; it could mean smelly, or cowardly, but I assume Nick means feeling earthy, maybe a little aroused, and ready for something out of the ordinary. And yes, “high” does mean what you’d imagine – this was 1972 – though everyone’s welcome to the party: “It doesn’t matter if you’re straight / Makes no difference if you’re stoned / They’re one and the same when you’re all alone.” Of course it would HELP to be stoned, but the main thing is to Surrender To The Rhythm -- not coincidentally, the title of another Brinsley Schwarz classic. Add in “Happy Doing What We’re Doing” and “Down in the Dive” and you’ve got a quartet of jam-band tracks to party to all night.

Why, this is practically a public-service announcement, with Nick advising over and over, “Just get up / Get hip / To this trip.” There’s a warmth to Nick’s youthful tenor, that hint of a goofball grin, the imitation of a country-blues accent (even better, an imitation of Jerry Garcia imitating a country-blues accent), that makes me long to cut loose. It’s that simple. “Don’t worry ‘bout those neighbours,” he coaxes us, with a confidential wink in his voice -- “Let them worry about you / You can explain it to them later / But by then they should be doin’ it too.” That’s right – they should be doing it too. What’s wrong with them?

My favorite moment is toward the end, when Nick sings, “Bert on the keyboards,” and Robert Andrews throws in a glissando; “there you are!” Nick exclaims, as if Bob had just snuck up on him. “Now just get a hit of this Nashville guitar,” Nick adds, cueing his old schoolmate Brinsley Schwarz to commence a loping guitar solo. Everybody’s having a good time now, Nick most of all. How could I NOT love a man who can find this much joy in a simple dance jam?;title;1&om_act=convert&om_clk=artalb

Friday, March 16, 2007

"Celtic New Year" / Van Morrison

Though I haven't a drop of Irish blood in me, I love St. Patricks' Day -- so long as it doesn't degenerate into a beer-and-brawl fest that takes over the streets. (Which is, sad to say, usually the case in New York and Chicago and Boston.) In honor of our Irish brethren, I started out listening to the Pogues and Claddagh today, but like every year, soon I found myself sidetracked by the magnificent old Belfast bard Van Morrison. And once I get deep into Van, it's pretty much impossible to move on.

If we're going to get technical, the Celtic New Year is at Halloween, but this song (from his 2005 album Magic Time) could be sung any time of year -- it's a classic Long-Distance Love Song, with the singer repeatedly begging an absent loved one "Won't you come back in the Celtic New Year?" But this isn't an I'm-missing-you-like-crazy song; it's more like an old Irish blessing, a shout-out across the miles. (Maybe "May the road rise to meet you," although I'm afraid that one always makes me picture a drunk falling down in the street.) This is Van Morrison Mellow, and personally I love its laidback groove, with stream-of-consciousness lyrics that are just an excuse for some emotive vocals. The copasetic strolling tempo lets Van scat and syncopate at will; Foggy Lyttle's deft guitar winds like a river through a meadow of lush strings (the Irish Film Orchestra, no less), and there's even a plaintive bit of tin whistle at the end, played by the Chieftans' very own Paddy Maloney. Nothing like a tin whistle to make me misty-eyed.

The words/story really don't make much sense, but I don't mind, not the way Van croons and belts this number. The first verse plays around with that slippery verb "see" -- "If I don't see you through the week / See you through the window / See you next time that we're talking on the telephone / If I don't see you in that Indian summer / Then I want to see you further on up the road." It's all missed connections, fleeting glimpses, ships passing in the night . . . modern life, for better or worse.

Verse two takes us to New Orleans, for some reason, where Van seems to be a riverboat gambler; verse three moves to a Druid wood (Van slips easily into his Irish mystic mode), with ghostly bonfires burning and the pale moon waning. I'm still working on that line, "If I don't see you when we're singing that Gloriana tune" -- Gloriana as in Elizabeth I? you've got me stumped, Van, but maybe it's some private thing between you and whomever you wrote this song for.

I do get the feeling this was written for someone particular. No wonder they have trouble getting together -- he's in his wild Irish rover mode, never staying in one place for long. But I don't hear any anguish at being apart (and we know Van can do anguish if he wants). No, I get the feeling they trust time to eventually reunite them. Clearly they go way back; real affection shimmers through every remembered scene, helped along by those melting violins and Van's caressing vocals.

Isn't there a traditional Irish toast, "To absent friends"? Well, if not, there should be. Love you all.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

"Song for a Future Generation" / The B-52s

I wish I could travel back in town and go to some of those college parties in Athens, Georgia, where the B-52s cooked up a gag act to perform for their friends. Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson got wigs from some old-school beauty shoppe in town, picking the weirdest hairdos on the rack -- a beehive called the B-52 for its uncanny resemblance to a missile warhead. The material they threw together was bubbly, catchy, hilarious dance tunes, with Kate and Cindy and their friend Fred frugging around at the mike.

By the time they brought the party to New York (I caught them at CBGBs and at Summerstage in Central Park, sharing the bill with the Talking Heads), they had the choreography down pat and had polished their songs, but that infectious party vibe was still there. It's astonishing to realize that the band was basically two musicians and three frontpeople -- Ricky Wilson's brisk guitar and Keith Strickland's peppy drumming made it sound like a full combo at work. Okay, Kate played keyboards and Fred and Cindy often wielded tambourines or maracas, but the meat of the band was one guitar and a drummer. There was just so much going on in front, you didn't notice.

The droll, absurdist songs that made their reputation -- "Rock Lobster" and "Planet Claire" and "Private Idaho" -- are indelibly etched in my mind, but I also love their later albums. Whammy! (1983) was the last record they made with Ricky Wilson, who would soon die of AIDS. Maybe that's why I'm so fond of this particular track, where each member cheerfully introduces him/herself, like a meet-the-band spread from Tiger Beat. "Hello, I'm Cindy, I'm a Pisces, and I like chihuahuas and Chinese noodles!" "My name is Keith and I'm a Scorpio from Athens G.A., and I like to find the essence from within." Inspired.

It all runs over an uptempo loop of Sputnik-style synths and layered vocals and that jangly drumbeat, locomoting along in the sort of beat you pretty much HAVE to dance the Pony to, or at least the Watusi. The lyrics are a goofball list of out-sized life ambitions, like the script from some hallucinatory speed-dating session: "Wanna be the empress of fashion / Wanna be the king of Moscow", "Wanna be the captain of the Enterprise / Wanna be the king of the Zulus," always ending in "Let's meet and have a baby now." If they didn't sound so damn chirpy about it you'd think they were serious.

"Now!" "Now!" "Now!" "Now!" "Now!" "Now!" "Now!" "La-la-la-la-la" their voices trade off staggered notes in one interval, Kate and Cindy's high, hard voices chiming against Fred Schneider's inadequate, slightly flat tenor. Never mind, Fred always made up for it with his lounge-lizard panache on stage.

I remember 1983. Everyone was terrified of AIDS and career women were discovering their biological clocks and singles bars were hitting new heights of sleaze -- the dating scene was frantic, to say the least. Who better to make us lighten up than the B-52s? When all else fails, they told us, put on a record and dance. You're with friends.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

“I Wanna Slow You Down” / Joe Ely

Joe Ely has been touring the country lately with his colleagues John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, and Guy Clark, and it kills me to read the reviews of their performances – four songwriters armed with acoustic guitars, sitting on a bare stage and trading off songs with each other. I saw them about a year ago and it was one of the great concerts of my life. I wish they were visiting my neck of the woods this time around.

I didn’t even know who Joe Ely was before I saw the Songwriters Circle, but after I came home, I promptly downloaded several songs and soon picked up a couple CDs (he’s released about a dozen.) His stuff has been growing on me like crazy. This is just one of the many wonderful tracks on his 1992 album Love and Danger (an absolute gem). Joe Ely is from Texas, so I’m not surprised by the western twang at the beginning, or lyrics that mention truck stops and coyotes. But he straddles the line between country and rock better than almost anybody I know -- I read somewhere that Bruce Springsteen is a Joe Ely fan, and I can see that roots-rock similarity – and even on this relatively languid track, a knocking drumbeat and peeling guitar riffs jack up the wattage. It’s not a ballad, exactly, but a . . . well, a lovemaking song. And one that sets my pulse racing.

“Come here with me,” Joe coaxes, in his slightly weathered real-guy tenor. “I wanna slow you down / I wanna smear the moonlight in your skin / And put Orion in your crown.” I’m already intrigued – I’m such a sucker for men who spout poetry, especially when they wear faded blue jeans. Then he reveals just enough of his sensitive male side: “Let it all go / I know that you’re beat / That truck stop’s just not good for you / You’re always on your feet.” By now I’m relaxing on the couch, feet up, waiting gratefully to be taken care of. Instinctively I feel as if this man knows women – and likes them. By the time he sidles into the chorus, I’m all ears. “I wanna slow you down / Slow you down / I wanna slow you down” he repeats with growing urgency, hissing on the occasional s, lengthening the o in “slow” and “down” with a suppressed groan. Not sleazy, though; not at all. It's just plain erotic.

“Take off your dress,” he suggests next, casually, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. I can almost hear the zipper being tugged open, tooth by tooth, taking its time. “I wanna feel the warmness of your skin / As your heart begins to pound.” The physical immediacy of these up-close details is intoxicating; I am feeling flushed, and my heart is pounding. Then he closes in for the last verse: “Lay a while beside me / Forget about your cares / Down in your arroyo / I wanna climb your silver stairs…” Now there’s a songwriter who knows how to use a metaphor.

If Joe had sung this song the night I saw him, I’d have hung around the stage door for hours afterward. Maybe it’s just as well…

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

“Red Rubber Ball” / The Cyrkle

I think I got 50 cents a week for allowance when this song came out -- it cost nearly two week’s pay for me to buy the single “Red Rubber Ball.” (Albums? Out of the question. I was strictly a single-buyer back in 1966.) I didn’t know it was co-written by Paul Simon -- back when I could read the tiny print of songwriting credits, I didn’t think to do so. I didn’t even know that the Cyrkle was managed by Brian Epstein, who’d suggested that deliberately misspelled band name to imitate the Beatles. It was just a catchy, upbeat tune I’d heard on the radio, with nifty harmonies and a memorable organ riff. And who knows, maybe I saw this appearance on Hullabaloo (dig the Paul Anka intro...)

But whatever it was that sucked me in, I knew I just had to own this record.

I was too young to have had a boyfriend -- I could hardly judge whether this was a convincing break-up song. And yet I think I did pick up on the complex emotions in “Red Rubber Ball.” At first the singer claims he’s moved on – “Now I know you're not the only starfish in the sea / If I never hear your name again, it's all the same to me” – but doesn’t it seem like he’s bluffing? Especially when we get to the chorus -- the drumbeat turns edgy and aggressive, tambourines shiver loudly, and we shift into a minor key: “And I think it's gonna be all right / Yeah, the worst is over now / The morning sun is shining like a red rubber ball.” I don’t know, that “red rubber ball” image always sounded unnatural to me. He’s not out of the woods yet.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I pick up on all the zinger disses tucked away in the lyrics -- “You never cared for secrets I’d confide / For you I'm just an ornament, something for your pride / Always running, never caring, that's the life you live / Stolen minutes of your time were all you had to give.” The vocals sound so sincere, I totally side with the singer, pulling for him to get through this messy break-up. “The roller coaster ride we took is nearly at an end / I bought my ticket with my tears, that's all I'm gonna spend.” Now that organ riff makes sense – it’s the calliope playing on the carnival midway, and the swoops of the verse’s melody are roller-coasterlike indeed. Well, when I was a kid I loved roller-coasters, loved to feel my stomach plunge and my heart hammer. Now I avoid them like the plague.

The Cyrkle weren’t entirely a one-hit wonder. Their follow-up single, “Turn Down Day,” was a groovy track with a hint of psychedelia and harmonies to die for. Still, the band faded soon into obscurity (half of them went into jingle-writing for Madison Avenue – Tom Dawes wrote that classic Alka-Seltzer “plop-plop fizz-fizz” jingle). Was this brilliant single just luck? Who knows? I only know that I still perk up when I hear it. It’s a good starting-over song . . . a good song for spring. Enjoy.

Monday, March 12, 2007

“Awkward Age” / Joe Jackson

Last week I made up some new iPod playlists, lining up fresh tunes to exercise to. (Spring is here; I must eliminate every excuse to avoid the gym.) Well, today in mid-workout this Joe Jackson song (from his 2003 album Volume 4) dialed up -- and right there on the elliptical trainer, I suddenly homed in on what a brilliant track it is. Joe Jackson songs tend to sneak up on you like that.

“I should have known you were only just fifteen,” Joe starts out the song (that’s GOT to be an intentional echo of “Well she was just seventeen, you know what I mean”). But with its frantic pace and octave-jumping melody, this is no simple teenage love song. He sketches in more details: “You had a scowl like a Klingon beauty queen / Old enough to stand out / But too young to stand with pride / So uncomfortable in your messed-up skin.” I see the spotty complexion, the ill-at-ease posture, the defensive glower. I know that girl. I’ve been that girl. And just like Joe says, in a line that soars yearningly upward, “And the cool parties never let you in…” Joe, you’ve been reading my diary again.

“Don't cry,” he consoles her/me in the chorus, “You're just at an awkward age.” But in verse two, Joe really nails my heart, as he brings himself into the scene: “You look at me like I know what's going on.” I visualize Joe Jackson – tall, thin, pale, gawky, balding – and it’s like one of those toys you wiggle it back and forth to make the picture change: I see the teenage Joe lurking under the adult Joe, just like the teenage me always moping around beneath my adult face. “I got a mind that goes out to lunch for days / And a body that sometimes disobeys.” So what has changed now that we’re older? Not a helluva lot, Joe ruefully points out. “I get into the parties / But I hate them 'cos I'm shy / Oh my... / I'm still at an awkward age.”

Now comes the killer bridge, with its jerky punk rhythms and a melody that staggers down the scale: “We're supposed to be happy / Supposed to be tough / Supposed to be flawless / And buy the right stuff.” Joe is absolutely right. Psychologists blather on about adolescent peer pressures, but who do you know who isn’t still vulnerable to them? And Joe can only offer enormous empathy – “It's a scary mountain to climb up without a guide / Besides... / We live in an awkward age.” Just a little few words changed, and suddenly it’s not our fault, it’s the world around us.

When I was in high school, I had a secret weakness for boys like Joe Jackson – the skinny shy nerds with wicked senses of humor. Maybe I knew even then that someday they’d turn out cooler than anybody else.,,2525724,00.html

Friday, March 09, 2007

"Going Quietly Mad" / Al Kooper

One of the great unrecognized talents of rock music. This guy did everything: he played the organ solo on Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," he wrote "This Diamond Ring" for Gary Lewis and the Playboys; he produced the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" ; he was a founder of the Blues Project AND Blood Sweat & Tears (with typical bad timing, he left both before they made it big). He also released three solo albums that were essentials in my 1970s record collection: I Stand Alone, Easy Does It, and New York City (You're a Woman). I really need to convert my vinyl to digital files; these albums don't show up on iTunes and they're available only at collector prices on Amazon -- and I miss listening to Al Kooper.

I finally landed a copy of New York City at an excellent used record store in Amherst, Massachusetts -- fitting, since the sticker on my vinyl LP tells me that I bought it at a long-defunct record store named Baggins' End (how 70s is that?) in nearby South Hadley. I played this record constantly back in the day; these songs saturate that stratum of my consciousness, lying underground waiting to be excavated. All it takes for me is to think "I'm going mad" and this song is back on my mental turntable.

I see it as a companion piece to the Kinks' "Complicated Life". The singer's in a pretty fragile state from the get-go -- "I am sitting here so softly / I can hear my wristwatch ticking / Wish someone would come and help me / I'm going quietly mad." He's singing at the high end of his vocal range, eeriely doubled, and his tone is whinier and more nasal than usual. There's more than a drop of self-pity here -- hear the electric organ moaning softly under verse two -- but I'm not tempted to write him off. I've had those days myself. Part of it's the build-up of modern life's stresses ("Tried to read the morning paper / Couldn't make it past page one"), but other things are piling up as well ("Lost my job and my wallet too").

In the end, over his flailing piano chords and a mocking wah-wah guitar and harsh pounding drums, the lonely stricken refrain is what matters: "Wish that you were here to save me, baby / I'm going quietly mad." It's the "quietly" that kills me -- nobody in the big city seems to notice how he's unravelling. As the track runs out he messes around the speed of the vocals, until it's low and distorted and warped . . . he's officially gone round the bend. (That is, until two tracks later, when he comes boogieing back with "Back On My Feet".)

My recollection is hazy, but I think I was turned onto Kooper at a high school journalism conference by a couple of extremely hip girls who called themselves Toots and Babs; they seemed like an Evansville, Indiana, version of the Banger Sisters. They knew so much more about rock music than I did, I just sat by their stereo and drank it all in. I wonder if they knew what important doors they were opening for me?

Maybe that's why I get passionate sometimes about turning someone else onto new music. I'm just paying forward my debt to Toots and Babs -- it seems like the right thing to do. Go thou and do likewise.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

"All I'm Thinkin' About" / Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is such a lightning rod -- people are equally passionate about loving him or hating him. You can't just sit on the fence. I once owned The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle and I liked it just fine; but later on I got turned off of Bruce. I was turned off by two things: the rabid conversion tactics of his fans ("Oh, but you have to see him live to understand" -- WHY IS THAT? I never saw the Beatles live but I understood their music); and the steadily mounting self-importance of his songs.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticizing his politics (though some anti-Brucers do), I'm just tired of Bruce being the designated Spokesman-General of the United States. Bruce gets interested in the plight of the American farmer; Bruce "discovers" AIDS; Bruce takes it upon himself to express our national sorrow over 9/11. Sure, he's sincere, but he's never the first person on the bandwagon, is he? And then he feels he must pump up his songs to anthem-strength, tacking on extra choruses, back-up choirs, louder drums, louder guitar, passionate vocal refrains -- cranking it up to eleven. He never met a majestic chord progression he could resist. I once tried to listen to The Essential Bruce Springsteen straight through, all three discs of it; soon I found myself fast-forwarding through the end of every song. Even those old E Street Shuffle tracks I used to enjoy seem tedious to me now.

But hey, not every artist is well served by his Greatest Hits collection. Before I totally write off Bruce Springsteen I figured it was only fair to dig deeper into his catalog, looking for anything less grandiose -- or anything with a sense of humor. And that's when I came upon this lovely track. It's on Devils & Dust, which many Springsteen fans seem to feel was a disappointment. I don't see why. I like the acoustic, storytelling side of the Boss, and this song in particular is actually . . . well, I won't say funny, but it is certainly light-hearted.

"All I'm thinkin' 'bout is you," he announces, over and over (apparently it really IS all he's thinking about), adding "Ain't nothing in this world I can do about it." The drumbeat ticks along like a V-8 engine, delicate steel guitar licks decorate the edges of the song, and he's singing in this breathy falsetto that I find darn appealing. Sometimes he doesn't even hit his notes -- endearing.

But of course there are verses, too, each one a vignette of a country scene: a flatbed truck running down a dusty highway, a couple of barefoot kids fishing, a family going to church (those gospel ooh's he throws in there, nice touch) and the daddy downtown brawling on a Friday night. The last verse is almost apocalyptic: "Field turned up, the seed is sowed / Rain comin' in from over across the road / Big black curtain comin' across the field / Blind will see and lame will be healed." I'm willing to ignore the fact that this Jersey boy probably never walked barefoot down a dusty country road in his life. At least he's listened to enough Delta blues to breathe in its spirit.

So there is one Bruce Springsteen track I like, even though it isn't a typical Bruce Springsteen track. And for all I know, there may be more like this, hidden away. Just lighten up, please, Bruce -- don't take yourself so seriously. You're really a nice guy when you relax.

Give it a spin:

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"Skid Row in My Mind" / Bill Kirchen

I should have known about Bill Kirchen. After all, he was in Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, a 70s band that set many roots-rockers on the honky-tonk road. But silly me: I thought Commander Cody was a heavy-metal band and I never listened to them. My bad.

Now I'm making up for lost time, and buying Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods is my first step. A word of warning: Kirchen's probably best-known for those smokin' Telecaster riffs on "Hot Rod Lincoln," first with the Airmen and again on various solo efforts. Maybe it's a guy thing, this awe of the blistering-fast guitar solo, but if that's what you desire, you may feel let down by this album's laid-back groove. Not me. I'm properly impressed by those truck-driving songs that earned him the nickname King of the Dieselbillies, but I prefer this drive down the blue highways.

Kirchen has said he was trying to focus on songwriting this time around, and I dig all his original songs on this album. But my favorite track was written by Blackie Farrell, a Bay Area songwriter Kirchen's known since the Commander Cody days. "Skid Row In My Mind" fits into a category I call Lovable Loser Songs: sung by a guy whose woman has left him, whose life's comically falling apart. (Check out John Hiatt's "I Don't Even Try" or Nick Lowe's "Lately I've Let Things Slide" for more in this vein.)

"Skid Row In My Mind" starts off with a classic scenario, in a lonely hotel room: he's listening mournfully to the radio, drinking whisky straight from the bottle -- "I'd like this whiskey more / If it was in a real glass on ice / But this bottle feels just right" --- staring out the window at a tantalizing view of his old house. I can just imagine the red on-and-off glow of the Vacancy sign, hear the rattle of ice cubes in the machine down the hall. It's made even more believable by Kirchen's slightly gruff ordinary-guy voice (am I the only one who hears him as Willie Nelson without the whiny quaver?).

But then the song takes a surprising turn into John Cheever country. He may be feeling like a bum, but he's not a bum at all, and the contrast between the two is intriguing. "So I get up, shower, and shave / Buy the USA Today / And on my way to work I slip a bum a five / I've got proof of my success / On my office wall and desk / But in this frame of mind I'm barely half alive." Now he's got my attention all right. And then he adds a poignant detail that Hiatt and Lowe never got to: "Tomorrow I'll run over / Try to see the kids at recess time / Then I'll hide so they don't run to me..." Suddenly I find myself wondering how his wife feels, what went wrong, who was to blame -- the whole drama opens up.

The tempo's appropriately slow and sluggish, almost dazed; the arrangement's country-ish, but uncluttered -- a serviceable drumbeat, a rueful organ sighing here and there, a little piano plinking around. (I'm listening for the bass really hard, since it's Nick Lowe playing, but I can't quite hear it.) But then comes the interval, and Kirchen lets fly with a series of elegant guitar arpeggios that's simply heart-breaking. With that one master stroke, he turns the comedy into wistful tragedy . . . and I'm gobsmacked.

Take a listen:

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"Mr. Tough" / Yo La Tengo

Life is too short to spend much time listening to bands that have no sense of humor. Yo La Tengo, though -- they just about ALWAYS make me smile. Case in point: This track from their 2006 album, I Am Not Afraid Of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. (How could you not love an album title like that?)

Don't even ask me to classify Yo La Tengo's sound; they do a little of this, a little of that, but always with flair and verve. This particular song takes off with a blissfully boppy bossa nova beat (I've always been a sucker for a bossa nova), along with falsetto harmonies, sassy Latin percussion, a Vince Guaraldi-like piano line, and a razor-sharp set of horns that might as well be the Tijuana Brass. For some reason it makes me think of that jazzy bah ba-de-dah bah bah-de-dah vocal interlude that played over the bank robbery montage in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I find myself tripping on its breezy 60s vibe; I expect Peter Sellers to walk in the door at any minute, wearing a Nehru jacket, with Claudia Cardinale on his arm. The whole thing buys me four minutes and five seconds of happiness, which in this world is not something to sneeze at.

In fact that's the theme of the song -- how music can make you happy. Verse 1 addresses Mr. Tough (forgive me if I picture George W. Bush here): "Hey, Mr. Tough / Don't you think we've suffered enough? / Why don't you meet me on the dance floor?" Verse 2 does the same with a Mrs. Blue: "Hey Mrs. Blue / Time to think of something new." I imagine them both being pulled reluctantly onto a dance floor, an old-school sort of disco, and tugged this way and that by the infectious beat until they finally relax and loosen up. That goofy falsetto vocal is just good-natured enough to pull it off.

Sure, there's a post-modern edge to it -- there's always a post-modern edge with Yo La Tengo. They're thoroughly aware that dancing won't solve everything: "And we'll forget about our problems / If only for a little while / And leave our worries in the corner / Leave 'em in a great big pile." I can just see that pile of worries in the corner, like a heap of partygoers' overcoats. We all know we'll have to pick them up at the end of the evening. But for right now, let's give ourselves a break. It's been a long winter and spring isn't here yet; we're still embroiled in Iraq, the polar ice caps are melting, millions of Americans lack health insurance . . . jeez, we need a spin on the dance floor more than ever.

Listen here:;title;recent&om_act=convert&om_clk=artalb

Monday, March 05, 2007

"Happy Together" / The Turtles

I wasn't particularly a Turtles fan, but when this song came out in 1967 you couldn't escape it -- and who'd want to? I remember making out to it at a party with a junior-high boyfriend named Mike (in classic junior-high fashion, I secretly liked his best friend Mark better -- that's how happy together Mike and I were). Come to think of it, listening to this song was probably the best thing about that party.

I calculate that 98 percent of all music fans old enough to know this song love it, right from the opening bars -- and it's got one of those openings you recognize instantly, a hypnotically soft guitar riff underlaid with an ominous march-like drumbeat. I'm guessing it was sheer luck on the Turtles' part, but for two minutes and 55 seconds, everything seems to come together just right. For one thing, you'd never expect a song titled "Happy Together" to be in a minor key, and yet it works -- maybe because when you're a teenager, happiness is totally complicated.

The earnest tremble in the lead vocal (was it Howard Kaylan or Mark Volman?) ups the emotional ante too; the guy may think he's happy, but he's also obsessive ("Imagine me and you / I do / I think about you day and night"), not to mention insecure ("If I should call you up / Invest a dime / And you say you belong to me / And ease my mind"). Anyone who's ever been a teenager can sympathize.

I've always gotten tangled up in the pronouns in the third verse: "Me and you / And you and me / No matter how they toss the dice / It had to be / The only one for me is you / And you for me / So happy together." Normally I'd say this was sloppy songwriting, but in this case it's brilliant. It's not because the two lovers are so attuned to each other that they've become one -- no, not at all. It's because adolescents constantly get confused about where their ego ends and someone else's begins; the effect is intensified by the back-up singers, schizophrenically echoing everything he says. And that haunting oboe slithering around beneath the vocals -- you can't be at all sure how those dice are gonna fall.

And yet just listen to how the singer dives hellbent into that grand chorus, with its roller-coaster melodic line: "I can't see me / Loving nobody but you / For all my life." The drummer pounds everything in his set, a horn section blazes in, the back-up singers chime in with the lead vocal, and even though the key is still minor, the mood is ecstatic. Who cares if he really IS going to love her for the rest of his life -- he feels that way NOW, which is all that matters. In the middle eight, the singers get so elated, they burst into a wordless stretch of ba-ba-ba-ba's (those close harmonies, so 1967, borrowed straight from the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas). The coda builds over a repeated "So happy together" (add in heavier drums, horns, more back-up singers), pushing it higher and higher until it sounds almost feverish. Then suddenly it resolves on a major chord -- and cut. Genius.

Folk-rock was generally too serious for me -- I was too young in the mid-60s to care about the politics, I guess -- so I was glad when the Turtles, and the Lovin' Spoonful, and the Monkees came along to brighten things up. Sure, in the end this catchy pop sound would degenerate into bubblegum (Tommy James and the Shondells were already paving the way; the Archies were waiting in the wings), but there's a lot to be said for the perfectly-produced sub-three-minute pop song with seductive hooks and an unforgettable refrain. Forty years later, I have no idea where Mike OR Mark is . . . but I can still sing every line of this song.

Have a listen:;title;1&om_act=convert&om_clk=artalb

Friday, March 02, 2007

"Talk Is Cheap" / The Toasters

Today started out rainy and ended up sunny and that seems as good a reason as any to listen to some ska. Now, when I think of ska I want it to sound like the Specials or the English Beat -- or like this New-York-based band that's still performing, still recording (as far as I know), and still clinging to that ska-reggae-punk blend that Two Tone Records made famous at the dawn of the 1980s. That retro name (sounds like a doo-wop group from the 50s, doesn't it?) tells you that the Toasters are not about re-inventing the genre: as you'd expect they've got a tight, sly horn section, a hopped-up beat, frenetic percussion, rapid-fire guitar riffs, and a lead singer with a working-class British accent.

This song is even about ska, at least in the first verse: "Well I heard bad news from the man in the street / His shades are dope but his dogs are sweet / Ska isn't reggae, it's a brand new beat / It's the same old tunes on a New Wave beat." The main gist of the song, though, is that people run their mouths all the time and say stupid things. (A warning to all of us critics.)

Ska musicians always seem to me to have their politics in the right place -- they're street-wise cynics who can spot a blowhard or a hypocrite or a bigot a mile away -- and the I've-seen-it-all attitude cynicism is underscored by a jerky, jaundiced minor-key melody. These two lines especially make me snicker: "And I heard some crack about unity / That only works when the beers are free" and "Talk to me about the problems of the world / You want to bone your best friend's girl."

But the lyrics are minimal, really; it's that breathless runaway rhythm that makes this track work, as if the entire ensemble is working like mad just to keep up with each other, fuelled by some kind of crazy adrenaline that I wish they could bottle and sell over the counter. My favorite part of the song is about three-quarters of the way through, when the lead singer launches into the fastest spate of nonsense scat you ever heard, a sarcastic sort of blub-a-da-blub-a-dah that, I swear, makes me imagine nothing but a pair of fat fleshy lips flapping in the wind.

It's no surprise that my son, who loves ska-punk, turned me onto this band -- the speed and energy of this track probably seems normal to a teenage boy's raging metabolism, and the anti-authoritarian political sentiments are perfect for the under-30 mentality. But on a cold, rainy day, we could all use a shot of fierce head-thrusting music with snappy so-there horn flourishes (is it any wonder that ska took off in England?). It certainly kicked my mood up a couple of notches -- just in time for the sun to come out.

Check it out at:;songs&om_act=convert&om_clk=arttabs

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Again" / John Legend

A couple weeks ago on the Grammy awards show, I was mesmerized by this guy, the coolest neo-soul cat around. (Not to mention having one of the most perfect star names ever.) He didn't appear in the same segment with Smokey Robinson and Lionel Richie, but he might as well have -- in his smart tuxedo, seated at a black grand piano, he seemed the epitome of elegance and melodic gift, an urbane reincarnation of what Smokey and Lionel represented in their heyday. I knew I had to hear more.

This track -- from Legend's second album, Once Again, released in 2006 -- shows that the guy has already figured out that less is more: it's basically just John's jazz piano and his coaxing reedy tenor (you can barely detect a few sustained notes on an electric guitar, an organ moan or two), which throws the focus onto the lyrics. But they're not tidy pop lyrics; he's got a sort of free-floating blank verse thing going on, a welcome contrast to the insistent forced rhyme and meter of rap. Oh, there are rhymes all right -- generally linking significant pairs of words, like "ecstasy / forbidden tree," "motel / familiar smell" --but the verses stretch and contract to accommodate extra words and lines as necessary. It's almost as if the singer is talking to himself, muttering tensely under his breath, trying to figure out what in the hell is going on in this affair.

At first "doing it" stands for the usual (wink wink, nudge nudge) but as the story of this illicit passion develops, "doing it" also refers to the tormented soap opera of fighting, making up, breaking up, over and over, an endless cycle of "fleeting joy and fading ecstasy." "Accusations fly like bullets do," Legend sings wearily; he can see the all-too-predictable pattern by now -- "passion ends, then the pain begins." Yadda yadda yadda. "Damn I love you but this is crazy / I have to fight you almost daily," he groans in frustration. By the time he says, "you feel good as hell to me," it's definitely a double-edged remark.

The chorus is like jazz improv, repeating "I'm/we're doing it again" in all sorts of different permutations, rallying around that trumpeting high note on "again." Texture and emotion are more important here than packaged pop-song structure. Eventually, if you've been listening to it with all your senses, you find yourself tangled up and lost inside this song -- just like the singer is in his sordid passion. If Stevie Wonder's deliciously boppy "Part-Time Lover" is the Before, "Again" is the miserable After. I can't say I've ever been caught up in a tawdry affair like this, but I can sure feel his pain -- and feel the tug of lust that keeps him going back for more.

Watching that Grammy show, I felt a little depressed, I have to admit it -- as if hip-hop and rap have taken over pop music and coarsened everything. But if John Legend is the future of pop music, then I won't slit my wrists just yet.

Listen to it here: