Monday, April 30, 2007

“Maimed Happiness” / The New York Dolls

If, like me, you missed the New York Dolls the first time around, this 2006 reincarnation -- at least with the two surviving members, Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen – may seem like a big case of “So what?” Rockpile reuniting -- that would excite me; a Kinks reunion would have me over the moon. But I don’t think the world was holding its breath waiting for One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. (From that wry title, I suspect Syl and David know this perfectly well.) The eyeliner and platform boots that were so groundbreaking in the early 1970s have lost their shock value; all the punk bands they inspired took that jam-kicking energy long ago and made it business as usual.

Still, any David Johansen is better than no David Johansen. I enjoyed his solo act in the late 70s, I got a kick out of his performances as the pompadored lounge-lizard Buster Poindexter, and his Mansion of Fun show on Sirius is the best reason for subscribing to satellite radio. David Johansen’s not a great singer or a great songwriter, but I dig his dark, campy sense of fun. And what these songs do have is that off-kilter sensibility that made the New York Dolls special back in the day.

“Maimed Happiness” is a wonderful oxymoron of a song (how long have I been waiting to use that word in a rock review?) about midlife resignation. I suppose you could see life this way at age 22, but this sort of philosophy doesn't usually ripen without years of disillusionments. “It’s a maimed happiness,” Johansen announces in that gravelly voice, adding wearily, “I keep trying to acquiesce . . . Life takes a lot of finesse.” He’s not fighting it, just trying to wriggle through safely. Behind him, the song ambles along like an early 60s pop ballad -- four chords, a touch of electric piano atop the drums and strumming guitars. A sax wanders in sighing here and there, strings (or the synth equivalent thereof) underlying the bridge, but nothing too passionate. “Don’t know if there’s that much to be said / For this world or the time that we spend,” Johansen croons in the bridge; but, he points out, “I’d die, then I’d want to live / This wasted life over again.” Sure, things are crappy, but what are our options?

The sense of mortality running through this, you just wouldn't get that from a typical twenty-something. “Yeah I been to the doctor,” Johansen sings, with a shrug. I can just see him, electrodes taped to his chest, coughing on the doctor's command. “He said there ain’t much he could do / You got the human condition / Boy I feel sorry for you.” I love the submerged chuckle in his voice there. Might as well get used to it, he's saying. It's true, some people are naturally inclined to see the dark side of things: “There’s a sorrowful joy / I’ve known since I was a boy / Joyful sorrow I guess / It’s a maimed happiness.” The glass is half-empty AND half-full at this moment, and I feel as if finding that poise is a victory in itself. The happiness will always be maimed – but there will always be happiness. I'll take that.

After thirty-some years -- after seeing their old bandmates self-destruct, drop out, and die -- the Dolls are rock survivors. They've come back to us with a little hard-won wisdom, and that in itself makes the whole reunion thing worth it.

Maimed Happiness sample

Friday, April 27, 2007

"How To Fight Loneliness" / Wilco

At this very moment a debate is probably raging on some message board somewhere about whether Wilco is better than Uncle Tupelo (Jeff Tweedy's earlier band) or Son Volt (the band fronted by Jay Farrar, Tweedy's Uncle Tupelo partner). Most likely, that argument will morph into another about whether Tweedy betrayed his roots to gain commercial success. Me, I can't get too worked up about it. I like them all; I like Tweedy's side project Golden Smog too. I suspect that being a full-time Wilco fan could be a demanding job, more than I'm ready to take on. But as far as the music goes, what's not to like?

I'm trying to remember now what first turned me on to Wilco. I think it was this number from their 1999 album Summerteeth -- was it on some indie movie soundtrack? If not, it should have been; it has just the sort of tentative, discontented moodiness that belongs in an indie movie. Maybe it's the laidback beat, or those ruminating chord progressions; could be that layered texture of the meandering piano against the soughing organ; or the odd bits of recorded melody played backwards, like sucked-back sighs. However they pulled it off, it's atmospheric as hell.

This is an I'm Lonely Song, but with a difference. Most I'm Lonely Songs are just Missing You songs in disguise, loaded up with romantic self-pity; this guy's loneliness may have started with romantic loss, but it's much more general by now. He's no longer bemoaning his own fate, simply offering fumbling advice on how to cope. It's a self-help manual for the social isolate: "How to fight loneliness / Smile all the time / Shine your teeth to meaningless / And sharpen them with lies." (Or as T. S. Eliot, the high priest of modernist anxiety, once put it, "There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.") Tweedy's listless vocal is anything but encouraging. He offers us two choices -- dumb conformity, or remaining in your hermit cave -- and it's not entirely clear which one he'd choose himself.

In verse two, Tweedy paints an even bleaker picture: "That's how you fight loneliness / You laugh at every joke / Drag your blanket blindly / Fill your heart with smoke." That line about the blanket makes me think of a lost little kid, clinging to his security blanket, and the image of the heart filled with smoke (as in "smoke and mirrors," no doubt) is simply haunting. I see something pathetically brave in all this. If you follow these easy instructions, you can just about convince yourself to settle for shallow social contact: "And the first thing that you want / Will be the last thing you'll ever need." (I think here also of the Death Cab for Cutie song, "The Sound of Settling.") Am I the only one who detects a whiff of longing here for that easy out?

It's funny how the jaded melancholy of this song works. Someone else (say, Bob Dylan) might have sung it with a cynical snarl, emphasizing words like "meaningless," "lies," "blindly," "smoke." Tweedy, though, shuffles through this with a weary diffidence that makes you wonder which way he's gonna go. It's like he's half closed-down already. Sure, that lying smile is a sell-out, but when you've been lonely enough for long enough...well, you don't have any energy left to take the high road. Talking himself into it, he repeats over and over, "Just smile all the time," his voice heaving hopefully upward on "smile", then slipping back down the scale. It's a pretty thin hope, but I find myself rooting for this guy. I can just picture him -- unshaven, hair tousled, shirttail out, eyes glazed -- I see guys like this on the streets every day. I'm rooting for all of them now.

How To Fight Loneliness sample

Thursday, April 26, 2007

“96 Tears” / ? and the Mysterians

My computer’s music library is organized alphabetically by artist – so this band, with its name beginning with a punctuation mark, is right at the top. As soon as I open my music player (if it hasn’t been set on shuffle), that bouncy Farfisa organ riff comes bopping out of my speakers. Even as I click on the button to switch to another tune, I’m smiling.

I always thought ? and the Mysterians was a novelty act, so imagine my surprise to find out that they are still around, with the original line-up and everything. They never called attention to their Hispanic background, but this 1966 record made them the first Latino band ever to score a #1 hit. After releasing a slew of catchy singles, ? and the Mysterians fell by the wayside, victims of record company politics. The rights to the original recording fell into the hands of Allen Klein, never a good sign – the sample below is a weaker version recorded years later, so unless you've got a digital bootleg (sscchhhhhhhhh) you'll just have to imagine, or remember, what the original sounded like.

But the Mysterians reunited in the 1970s and again in the late 1990s, and now chiefly play around their home state of Michigan. Their leader, ?, always wears a hat and sunglasses and refuses to go by any other name (he legally changed his name to ? years ago, though sources disagree on whether his original name was Rudy Martinez or Ted Cohen). Keeping this up for five years would be annoying; doing it for 40 years qualifies ? as a Lovable Loony. He claims to have come from Mars and to have lived with dinosaurs in a past life. Probably by now he believes it.

As golden oldies go, there are few vintage rock songs more likeable than “96 Tears.” That hypnotic organ riff, played by Frank Rodriguez, may just be two chords -- something you could pick out yourself in about two minutes – but it’s instantly recognizable on the jukebox or radio, and then you can’t get it out of your head. The slightly slurred, rambling lyrics are quintessential adolescent revenge fantasy, about getting back at the girl who’s broken his heart. (Picture a teenage boy sitting in his bedroom fuming incoherently, rocking back and forth on his bed, muttering to himself.) There is absolutely nothing sophisticated about it – it goes from the resentful “you’re way on top now / since you left me / you’re always laughing / way down at me “ to “and when the sun comes up / I’ll be on top / you’ll be right down there / looking up.” Today he’s the one crying 96 tears, but someday she’ll be crying 96 tears. That’s about it.

The melody isn’t much either – ? kind of raps around one chord’s top note, then shifts to the other chord’s top note. Disconnected phrases like “Watch out now” and “I’m gonna get you” and the incessantly repeated “cry cry cry now” are just vocal licks, strung together almost haphazardly. Parts of it sound like Eric Burdon doing the talking-blues thing on early Animals tracks, but it’s also got the sort of crude energy that inspired punk. The drums are just as repetitive as the organ, bashing cheerfully on and on; the guitar strums from Chord 1 to Chord 2 and back again, the bass does its timekeeping duty. Loud and simple and contagious.

Any garage band could play this – and throughout my teen years, most did. This, “Louie Louie,” and “Gloria”, that’s what passed for a teen-band repertoire in the late 1960s. And you know what? It was fine.

96 Tears sample

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"The Things We Never Said" / Thea Gilmore

Thanks to my friend Tom for turning me onto Thea Gilmore. All I’ve got so far is her second album, 2002’s Rules for Jokers, but I’m impressed by this British singer-songwriter's assurance, remarkable for a woman still in her 20s. Sure, it has a throwback acoustic folk sound – she clearly has listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell (haven’t we all?) – but the tough, cynical spirit reminds me more of Aimee Mann. Gilmore’s voice is supple, rich, and exquisitely musical; it sounds great here against the simple guitar, with just a touch of harpsichord-like electric piano, a mournful cello, and a ghostly warped tone that might be a theremin.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and there’s a load of fury in this break-up song. Stunned, Gilmore faces her now-ex-lover, sputtering sarcasm as she takes in the bad news – “Could you say that again, babe / I've not heard that one before,” then quickly narrows her eyes, already seeing him in a new light – “You're looking four years older / You're looking for the door.” Like a movie, we jump-cut to her scrawling a farewell obscenity on the mirror in lipstick (love how she bites off that vicious expletive) before storming into the night. It’s bleak outside – “the old launderette is hissing out a song again / Like it doesn't give a damn / And the cars are all french kissing / In some lonely traffic jam,” and yeah, maybe she’s projecting her misery on the scene, but I see it at once, a jumbled cinematic montage of urban images. And one last detail of her loneliness, “I’ve been talking to the radio / ‘Cos it don’t answer back.” I can see that scene too. You talkin’ to me?

I love how this melody matches the theme, hopelessly wavering and fluttering in melancholy chromatic steps. Even on the chorus, where Gilmore's voice rises higher and sweeter, the notes never quite reach that happier key they’re straining for. With a poet’s gift for transforming clichés, she plays with the image of a castle built on sand: “There's the sand / There's the spade / That dug the trenches that we made / Babe, our foundations were built on / All the things we never said.”

That fatal lack of communication – no matter how she guarded herself (wearing “tin plate armour” and “practicing my swan song”), in the end it was bound to trip them up. She sees that now – not that it makes her feel any better. Her words get tangled and confused: “You keep trying to tell me that / You'd been trying to tell me all along....” We never learn what they would’ve said to each other if they had had the courage – that’s irrelevant. It’s the cowardice that did them in.

The last verse is a bitter valediction: “Here's hoping you and her are happy / A little fairy tale to be / Hope you stay together and don't pollute / Any more fish in the sea.” (Note the sly malice in that upended cliché – we know this jerk will eventually move on again, and again.) Then comes the traditional break-up song finale, a forecast of their next meeting: “And next time I bump into you / Put your hands where I can see them / So that I can strip search your eyes / To check for any hidden feeling.” I can feel him squirming already.

We're far from the simple “You left me, now I’m blue, come back to me” sort of break-up song. Feeling blue is for saps. Thea Gilmore takes us right to the knife’s edge, to that moment of blind rage and pain, and probes the wound . . . just so we’ll be prepared the next time it happens to us.

The Things We Never Said sample

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful" / Morrissey

I suppose if I lived in the UK I'd have a strong opinion about Morrissey. In that parallel universe, I probably would have thought that the Smiths were the salvation of rock music in the early 80s, and then Morrissey's diva act would have gotten on my nerves. I would have blamed him when the band split up and he launched his solo career. His moving to Los Angeles would have just been the icing on the cake.

I don't live in the UK, however. I liked what I heard of the Smiths' music -- the reptitive riff-like melodies, the neurotic lyrics, the odd cabaret-style singing voice (really not all that different from Boy George, is it?) -- but you just didn't hear it much over here. I didn't even know Morrissey by name. So nowadays, when a Morrissey tune comes up on Sirius radio, it has no baggage for me. I don't have a visual to go with it, let alone a mental file full of the bloody-minded things the guy has said and done. I can enjoy it for what is is.

This song I first heard in the cover version by Reel Big Fish, a catchy, tight rendition that's totally fun. Generally, however, I think Morrissey's own morose, effete croon is the perfect vehicle for his offbeat, twisted songs. His original is on the 1992 album Your Arsenal, but I found the track on a Best of Morrissey CD, which I suspect gives me all the Morrissey I'll ever need.

One thing you've got to say for Morrissey: his songs are brutally honest about how horrible people can be. (Drawing from his own experience, no doubt.) He rarely bothers to rhyme his lyrics, but that makes the songs even stronger, as if he's just taking down verbatim the crap people say. This perky, snarky song exposes the total pettiness of envy: "We hate it when our friends become successful / Oh, look at those clothes, / Now look at that face, it's so old, / And such a video -- well, it's really laughable / Ah hahahaha..." Oh, I'm sure none of us have reacted this way ever. Right.

The narrator of this song may be just a character -- one of Morrissey's former friends, who I'm sure turned on him when he became successful (I'm guessing they had other provocations as well, but he'd never acknowledge that). In verse two he adds, with an extra sneer, "We hate it when our friends become successful, / And if they're northern / That makes it even worse" (Morrissey is from Manchester, which is northern enough.) And in verse three, he mocks their self-interest: "You see, it should have been me / It could have been me / Everybody knows, everybody says so." Sunk in self-pity, the narrator lashes out irritably even at his supporters: "They say, "Oh, you have loads of songs, / So many songs, / More songs than they can stand / Verse, chorus, middle eighth break" / Just listen: Lalalalalalala..." Envy really isn't pretty, is it? No wonder the medieval church named it one of the seven deadly sins.

I dig the way Morrissey's campy vocal skips blithely over a charged-up beat and some brisk power-chord guitar. Those taunting vocal flutters, the disdainful swoops, the mocking ha-ha-ha's -- he can sound so wounded and snide all at once, it's truly a marvel. The truth is, if Morrissey were a normal, salt-of-the-earth type bloke, he just wouldn't deliver this much nasty fun, would he?

We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful sample

Monday, April 23, 2007

"Goodbye" / Rainbow Ffolly

No, that's no typo -- that archaic double-f was just one of many deliberately weird details about this 1960s British art-college band. Their one and only album (Sallies Fforth -- that double-f again) faded into quick obscurity, but from what I read, for one brief shining season Rainbow Ffolly were all the rage among their famous peers like the Beatles and the Who and the Moody Blues.

There's more than a whiff of Monty Python in the odd fragments of dialogue and half-caught radio jingles and sound effects on Sallies Fforth. Absurdist experimentation evidently drifted around in the cannabis-hazed air in London in 1967 -- Magical Mystery Tour didn't come out of nowhere -- but these guys took it farther than anyone else. The stylistic patchwork of the album was accidental; the Ffolly threw together a dozen tracks as a demo tape to show their range (folk-blues-samba-vaudeville-psychedelic-rock-pop), but execs at Parlophone liked it so much they released it as is. Maybe if the band members had had time to craft the album, their instrumental performances would have sounded more polished, the sound fuller, but I don't know -- the dreamy zaniness of this LP might have been destroyed with long studio sessions.

Rainbow Ffolly is yet another brother band (I've got such a weakness for those), with Jonathan and Richard Dunsterville on vocals and guitar, along with bassist Roger Newell and drummer Stewart Osborn. Unfortunately, despite constant gigging for a year or so, they never made enough money to give up their day jobs; they disbanded in 1968. But their stage shows were apparently a heady experience, full of fake smoke, strobe lights, outsized props, and outlandish costumes. They had teakettles rigged to whistle at a certain moment in a song, at which point the band members made tea and sat down for a cuppa. They performed one entire show with a dressed-up cardboard cutout substituting for their rhythm guitarist. They drove around in an old ambulance with spiral-painted hubcaps and a huge wind-up key protruding from the roof. The cover art for Sallies Fforth (painted by Jon Dunsterville, who was also their prolific songwriter) is a swirl of vivid colors and jumbled imagery, most of it coded clues to the songs on the album. Reading about all of this makes me wish I could time travel back to London in 1968.

Rainbow Ffolly remained a footnote in the annals of British pop; I never heard of them until a few months ago. (Copies of the original vinyl LP regularly sell for 150 pounds -- there just weren't many copies sold in the first place.) Whenever the songs come up on my shuffle, I'm startled by the funny voices, the echoes of other songs floating in and out -- it reminds me of the Beatles line about "voices out of nowhere put on specially by the children for a lark." But not all the tracks are experimental; "Goodbye" is fairly straightforward, and so beautiful it makes me wonder what more this band could have done.

It's a slipstreaming bossa nova with a deft Spanish guitar solo, the lead vocal breathy and sincere, a few hushed back-up vocals in close harmonies. But those hypnotic rhythms seem a little sinister; notice how the lyrics of the first verse trip over a tangle of accented internal rhymes: "Goodbye / You sigh, but in a while you'll smile again / Goodbye / Don't cry now, I'll come through to be with you again." The alternation of those long exhaled "goodbyes" and the swiftly delivered excuses seems a little dodgy to me. In the second verse he assures her, "I fell before for you and I'll fall for you again," but that's not the same as being a constant lover, eh? And in the bridge, it seems even clearer that something's wrong between them: "Your eyes betray the setting sun / Your eyes tell me that your day is done / Our time will come." But who's breaking up with whom? In the third verse, he says almost morosely, "So long / It's wrong but I cannot turn back that clock again." This sounds pretty final, and bitter, too.

Why do I keep puzzling over these words, trying to write the story of this love affair? For all I know, this song was scribbled overnight for those demo taping sessions. Maybe Jon Dunsterville was high when he wrote it. (Ya think?) I don't know. But I do know that it's simply enchanting. Now if I could just find a time machine, and set the dials to 1968...

Friday, April 20, 2007

“Little Bird” / Alan Price


Now we come to the baffling part of Alan Price’s career. From 1977 on, it was a pattern of ever-more-minor labels and inconsistent efforts – patches of lazily rhymed and recycled material, overproduced tracks, half-hearted concessions to commercial pop trends. He tried his hand at a stage musical (Andy Capp) and more soundtrack composing (Whales of August). As a performer, he still had the chops, but increasingly he relied on covers of classic rock & roll and blues, tearing loose on the keyboard with a line-up that included guitarist Bobby Tench and fellow keyboardist Zoot Money.

As time passed, there were no more Alan Price CDs in US record store bins (even back when there still were record stores) and precious few on-line. Finally, in 2005, by bizarre coincidence I was in Cheltenham, England, and discovered Alan was playing a concert that night (he doesn’t tour outside the UK anymore). How long do you think it took me to snap up a ticket? Out in the lobby, I saw for sale his self-released 2002 album Based On A True Story; I bought it at once, just to have something for him to sign after the show. Well, the concert was amazing, and he did sign my CD, and he was charming and funny, and . . . oh, I’m rambling, I know. Indulge me.

The point is, when I listened to the album the next day, I was BLOWN AWAY. Based on a True Story is a searing set of songs about love and marriage and commitment and infidelity, much more free-form and jazz-influenced than anything else he’s done. Alan’s playing is at peak form, his voice weathered but still compelling. This should be on a major label and featured on intelligent radio stations everywhere – and yet it seems to be languishing in a cardboard carton in the back of Alan’s garage in London. Once or twice I’ve seen copies on eBay, listed for a dollar or two – pick one up if you can, it’s an absolute gem.

“Little Bird” is a pulsating minor-key song with a restless Latin beat, driven mostly by percussion – until the intervals between verses, when Alan’s fingers speed through a fluttering piano trill that sounds uncannily like a desperate bird. The melody is shifting, uncertain, a syncopated stair-step of phrases halting and sidling from chord to chord. “Your heart is beating like a little bird,” he sings, in that purring, rough-edged voice, “First you want to stay / Then you fly away.” It’s a seduction song, all right, but the wary, nervous mood makes me know it’s an illicit affair.

The thing that really stands in her way isn’t her husband, it’s her own complicated moral code (“Escaping from some self-made house of cards / Trying to have it all / But your obstacle / Is your sense of truth”). Wow, imagine that – complex human beings. We could be in a Harold Pinter play. And in verse three, things get even messier, once desire is brought up – “Your appetite for love cannot be satisfied . . . The books and films and poems that state the case / Leave one thing aside / That joy is justified / If it comes from you.” His voice quivers just so on "joy," underlining it knowingly.

Now, ladies, let’s be honest – is there anything more thrilling (and scary) than staring deep into the eyes of a man who knows what you’re thinking? Especially when he’s got a husky voice and quick, deft hands? By the time Alan goes off into his extended jazz piano solo, underlaid with that relentless conga and maracas, I am pondering possibilities that make me blush.

Forty-two years after I first heard “House of the Rising Sun” -- and Alan Price’s music still unsettles me. Not bad for a man in his sixties, eh?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

“In Times Like These” / Alan Price


Today, April 19th, is Alan Price's birthday -- either his 65th or his 66th, depending on which source you read. Either way, I hope it's a happy one, Alan!

There are those who say Between Today and Yesterday -- the 1974 follow-up to O Lucky Man! -- is Alan Price’s masterpiece, and I won’t argue. (I haven’t a shred of objectivity left on this subject anyway.) All I know is that, sitting in my US college dorm room, valiantly nursing the lonely flame of my Alan Price mania, I fell in love with “In Times Like These” on the very first listen. Look at my LP and you’ll see how the vinyl surface is scratched around the beginning of this track – that’s how often I set the needle down to play just this one goofy, glorious song.

The blaring horn intro starts us off in jazz mode, but cheerful old-fashioned Dixieland jazz, not the moody Miles Davis sort. “In times like these, it’s good to have a friend,” Alan begins, his voice warm and jovial, “in times like these / On whom you can depend on / For a helping hand.” That tenuous grammar suggests it’s not much to hope for, but then you'd have to be a fool to expect much in the first place. Though he’s never specific about what “times like these” he’s referring to – could be Depression-era Newcastle, could be Thatcher-era London – it’s understood that they’re grim times indeed. “When folks next door help you raise a smile / Makes you forget your troubles for a while / Now that’s what friends are for / I’ve told you before.” I always imagine him winking there, referring to his previous record and the line “If you have a friend on whom you can rely / You are a lucky man.”

But this song’s much less cynical than O Lucky Man!, full of rowdy fellowship and I’m-all-right-Jack goodwill. The light-hearted melody and skipalong rhythm, the cheery horns on that instrumental middle eight, come as a relief after the preceding three tracks, brooding and melancholy as they are. I love it when the back-up voices chime in on the bridge, echoing the lead: “And when the money doesn’t go far [go far] / We end up drinking out of jam jars [jam jars] / When there’s no meat on the table [table] / We live as well as we are able [able!].” Hey, friendship won’t solve everything, but at least it’s SOMETHING. When love, or family, or the church, or the government let you down, at least you’ve got your mates at the pub.

The entire first side of this album is a portrait of industrial northern England, a tremendously sympathetic look at working-class lives. Side 2 is more autobiographical and personal, but on Side 1 Alan Price takes on the role of social historian, and does a surprisingly good job of it. “You’ve heard no doubt of places where you sweat and work for pence...” “Breakfast at six for the boys with a job / Tired before they start…” And appropriately, the musical styles hark back to film soundtracks and music halls and pub singalongs, full of horns and strings instead of a rock & roll line-up.

The best-known track is the rabble-rousing “Jarrow Song,” a tribute to the monthlong 1936 Jarrow March when Geordie miners and shipbuilders marched to London to demand an end to unemployment. “And if they don’t give us a couple of bob / Won’t even give you a decent job / Then Geordie, with my blessings burn them down!” Eventually these songs became the basis for a BBC documentary about Alan Price, going back to Newcastle to revisit his roots. I’ve never seen it and I’d love to -- if anybody out there has a copy, please let me know. I'm still nursing that flame.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

“Poor People” / Alan Price


In the summer of 1973, I finally visited England. A film fanatic, in the grip of a Malcolm McDowell obsession (I’d loved him in A Clockwork Orange and If…), I noticed his new movie O Lucky Man! was playing at the Leicester Square Cinema; I went the day it opened. I didn’t note beforehand who wrote the songs for the movie, but sitting there in the dark, watching him perform on-screen -- camera circling around him, close-ups of his hands hammering the keyboard at lightning speed -- I was simply mesmerized. My heart leaped halfway through the film when he and the band actually enter the film and become characters, Alan speaking in that thick Geordie accent. As my friend and I walked out, while she babbled about Malcolm McDowell, I jerked to a stop next to the poster and scoured it for the name I wanted. Alan Price.

O Lucky Man!
is a cynical film, and so are the songs Alan wrote for it – deeply cynical songs in a deceptively upbeat style. “Poor People” is a lilting samba, full of maracas and a bossa nova guitar, but while that title sounds sympathetic, its view of life is unrelentingly bleak. “Poor people / Are poor people / And they don’t understand / A man’s got to make whatever he wants / And take it with his own hands,” Alan sings in a relaxed, confiding voice, much different from that howl of rage in “I Put A Spell On You.” He sneaks a sideways glance at the camera, grins, rolls his eyes. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a quintessentially British attitude, that fatalistic shrug – where an American artist gets pissed off at injustice, an Englishman takes it for granted. “Someone’s got to win in the human race / If it isn’t you, then it has to be me.” Cheers, mate. It’s a manual for the ruthless go-getter, with a sneer of despair: “So smile while you’re making it / Laugh while you’re taking it / Even though you’re faking it / Nobody’s gonna know.”

Those royalty checks from “House of the Rising Sun” made an impression on Alan Price, because in the Alan Price Set days he began composing his own songs, inspired in part by the many Randy Newman covers he recorded in the 60s. A Newman-esque whip-smart irony informs these songs, from the snarky “Sell Sell Sell” (“Sell sell sell sell everything you stand for”) to the paranoid music-hall soft-shoe “Look Over Your Shoulder” (“Don’t forget boy / look over your shoulder / ‘Cos there’s always someone coming after you-OO / La la la la”) to the bitter cha-cha-cha “Justice” (“We all want justice / But you’ve got to have the money to buy ii-IT”). There’s small comfort to be wrung out of life, but if you keep your goals VERY LOW and your wits about you, you just might survive – or as the anthemic title track puts it, “When no one can tempt you with heaven or hell / You’ll be a lucky man.” I was a college student, it was the early 70s -- this philosophy spoke to me.

I bought that soundtrack album and played it nonstop. I hung an O Lucky Man! poster over my bed. I saw the movie again five or six times. And I haunted record stores, looking for Alan Price albums. By the end of the year I had amassed quite a collection, all those Alan Price Set LPs, his collaborations with Georgie Fame, and old Animals albums snitched from my older brother. Each record was another revelation to me. Where had this artist been all my life?

Poor People sample

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

“I Put A Spell on You” / The Alan Price Set


In the late sixties, if I’d been PAYING ATTENTION, I might have learned Alan Price’s name. The next band he formed -- after an extended drunken sulk, bits of it forever captured in the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back -- was called The Alan Price Set, as if to set the record straight (remember, the Animals were originally named the Alan Price Combo). This new band had a horn section and was deliberately different from the blues-oriented Animals. They got a bit of US airplay; I remember hearing the bouncy Randy Newman tune “Simon Smith and His Amazing Talking Bear”, but I never registered who sang it.

I KNOW I heard “I Put A Spell On You,” but was it the Alan Price Set’s version? After all, it had been an R&B standard since Screamin’ Jay Hawkins first tore into it in 1956. Alan released this in 1966, soon after Nina Simone’s jazz-oriented 1965 cover (her “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was an early Animals high point); Manfred Mann covered it too, on a 1965 LP, so it probably was the song of the moment. But I’d guess the version I heard on American radio was by Creedence Clearwater Revival, who featured it on their 1968 debut album. They had the home-field advantage.

If I did hear Alan’s version, I doubt I associated it with the band that did “Simon Smith” – because on “I Put A Spell On You,” Alan headed right back into Animals territory. Yes, the horn section is there, with a tight staccato accompaniment that pitches up the heart-breaking tension of this song. But otherwise, this song sounds to me like Alan was determined to prove that “House of the Rising Sun” was no fluke. He’s center stage from the first note, weaving a sinuous minor-key organ counterpoint, and for the bridge, he totally rips loose, fingers flying all over the keyboard, much more powerful than the boozy sax solo on Hawkins’ original. The “House of the Rising Sun” solo is hard enough to duplicate; just try imitating what he plays on this track.

Yes, with “I Put A Spell On You,” Alan gets his revenge. You see, once Eric Burdon joined the Animals, Alan Price was consigned to back-up vocals – stuck behind a keyboard, he couldn’t dominate the stage the way Burdon could. I can only imagine how that rankled. Now, with the Alan Price Set, Alan could show the world that he too had a powerful smoky blues voice. He starts out low and gruff, half pleading, half threatening, but he soon builds to glowering anger, the same stuff that worked on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” He’s accusing his girl of running around; he SHOULD sound mad. I love the way he flings his voice recklessly on “I just can’t stand it,” over and over, sounding truly tortured; the way it shivers helplessly on “You’re always running round,” or the hoarse wail on “Because you’re mine!” He doesn’t believe she’s his, and it hurts. All this talk about spells is just desperation.

Listen to how Alan’s voice cracks as he sings, “I don’t care if you don’t want me / I said I’m yours, I’m yours right now.” This track was recorded in January 1966, the day after Alan returned from Newcastle, shattered, from his mother’s death. You can just hear the howling orphan misery in that ravaged voice – that alone makes this the definitive version of this song, in my opinion. Okay, so I didn’t discover it until 1973, when I dug his 1968 US release LP This Price Is Right out of a record store bin. But the moment it landed on my turntable, it was there for life.

But wait . . . what made me start rooting around in the P bins of record stores in 1973? Well, I'm getting there. Tomorrow, I promise.

I Put A Spell On You Sample

Monday, April 16, 2007

“The House of the Rising Sun” / The Animals


In 1964, I was too young to be a rock ‘n’ roll fan, but once the Beatles hit America there was no escaping it. Here I’d just gotten my first Barbie doll (blond ponytail, black-and-white striped swimsuit), and I was pulled away from it to obsess over John and Paul and George and Ringo. (I did get a set of Beatle dolls. They’d be worth a fortune today if my mother hadn’t sold them in a yard sale.) The Beatles dominated the charts in 1964 -- in April they held the top 5 spots on the Billboard charts, with "Can't Buy Me Love", "Twist and Shout", "She Loves You", "I Want to Hold Your Hand", and "Please Please Me". The remaining spots were nabbed by Merseybeat bands like Gerry & the Pacemakers (“Ferry Cross the Mersey”), the Swinging Blue Jeans (“You’re No Good”), Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (“Little Children”), and the Fourmost (“A Little Loving”), or by other Brian Epstein clients like Cilla Black (“Anyone Who Had a Heart”) and Peter & Gordon (“World Without Love”), most of them recording discarded Lennon-McCartney songs. If you were alive at the time, if you had ears at all, you must remember: The world changed overnight.

But I remember very distinctly riding in our family car that summer – at the intersection of Kessler and Washington Boulevard, I can picture it now -- and hearing this new song come on the radio. It didn’t sound anything like the bright pop Merseybeat songs. I heard a haunting minor-key guitar riff, a raw bluesy singing voice, and dark warning lyrics about gamblers and trains and ruined girls; it was set in New Orleans, not Liverpool, though the singer’s broad vowels told me he was English too, imitating Delta bluesmen even better than Mick Jagger. I leaned forward over the seat and asked my brother to turn it up. “Who is this band?” I demanded.

“The Animals,” my brother said. (He was thirteen. He knew everything.)

“Animals,” my mother snorted. “What kind of a name is that for a musical group?”

Just then came the bridge, that long furious organ solo, full of desperation and sorrow and guilt and longing. I had never heard anybody play the organ that fast or with that much power. My heart ached, physically ached.

My next question should have been, “Who is that playing that organ?” I doubt my brother knew the band members’ names yet (this was the first Animals single to break onto U.S. radio), but anyway I didn’t ask. Instinctively I knew that I wasn’t ready yet for this music -- the Beatles and Peter & Gordon and Herman’s Hermits, yes, but nothing this dark and compelling.

It would be nine years before I found out that that organist was Alan Price. But the song remained filed in my memory, seared on my brain. And when I finally learned who Alan Price was . . . well, that’s tomorrow’s story.

House of the Rising Sun video

P.S. I have to mention the controversy over “House”s authorship. Dave VanRonk’s arrangement of this old folk ballad, which Bob Dylan adapted for his 1962 debut album, was influential, but the songwriting credit on the Animals’ version reads “Traditional, arr. By Alan Price” -- so Alan Price got all the royalties. The other Animals claimed that was an accidental misprint, that it was a group effort and they deserved money too. Price left the band abruptly less than a year later, citing the pressures of touring (he’s phobic about flying), but there was bitterness on both sides -- though not enough to prevent the Animals from doing two reunion tours in the 1980s.

Friday, April 13, 2007

"Don't Wait Up" / Dr. Feelgood

Another band I wish I'd seen back in the day -- word has it that Lee Brilleaux's live performances were riveting. His slightly husky, supple voice has plenty of shivers and growls in it; something about it reminds me of a less laidback Huey Lewis (I always had a fangirl crush on Huey Lewis). Photos I see of Dr. Feelgood in performance -- all dressed in suits, like the Blues Brothers' British cousins -- make it look like they rocked long and hard every night. If their studio recordings have this much visceral energy, I can only imagine what the adrenaline of being on stage did to them.

"Don't Wait Up" was a 1986 single that didn't do much on the UK charts (and certainly did not do any better across the ocean). I guess Dr. Feelgood fans felt disappointed because it's not like the band's usual propulsively uptempo tracks -- but I find it haunting and irresistible. The minor key, the echoey double-tracked vocals, the prowling offbeat rhythms, all build an apprehensive mood, like a coiled snake ready to strike. Basic premise: The singer's telling his wife/girlfriend not to wait up for him -- "There's someone I gotta meet," he says with casual, but deliberate, malice. "I've got the keys to the door," he informs her, "and you've got the keys to . . . the street." Now there's a punch line that really packs a punch (more like a dagger to the ribs).

"I may be gone for quite some time / But I will return," he begins -- fair enough. But then he goes on, coolly, "Where I'm going, what I'm doing / That is my concern." Excuu-uuse me. And if she needs an explanation, he's happy to supply one: "I'm just getting even / If you've been keeping score" -- and you just KNOW she has been. In the next verse, he reminds her that she put a detective on his tail to find out "who I'm seeing / IF I'm seeing anyone at all." These people have obvious trust issues, in psychobabble terms, and now he's deliberately keeping her in suspense, knowing that that's more agonizing than anything else. But before we rake this guy over the coals for tormenting her, check out the end of the verse: "I've had my share of waiting / Staring at the wall." So she's been fooling around too, and turnabout is fair play . . . isn't it?

The hypnotic repeated organ and guitar riffs give me a feeling that these people aren't just cheating on each other -- they're still tangled up in jealousy and revenge, still focused more on each other than on whatever new partners they've found. It's a dance, and an ugly one all right. Brilleaux's vocal has enough weariness and hurt and hostility to put this all across, and more.

This song was co-written by ex-Kursaal Flyer Will Birch, the producer on their first Stiff album (who also wrote the definitive book about pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island, which I've finally acquired and can't wait to read). Another song Birch co-wrote for Dr. Feelgood, "Spy Vs. Spy," is also about a relationship full of suspicion and recriminations -- you've got to wonder how autobiographical this is. Some songs just have that jolt of hard-lived experience to them. I can imagine hearing this song sung, for a change of pace, late in the set in a smoky club -- and feeling suddenly, starkly, alone. And pissed-off. And ready to DO something about it.

Don't Wait Up sample.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"Rain" / The Beatles

It's pouring, simply pouring rain here, with a battering chill wind. If it were a monsoon, at least it'd be warm. Nasty stuff -- so I'm staying inside and listening to the Beatles. "Rain," of course -- an obvious choice, maybe, but maybe not. This song often falls between the cracks, since it was never on a regular album (released in June 1966 as the flip side of "Paperback Writer," it was included on the singles compilation Hey Jude, and is on CD on Past Masters Vol. II). People always seem to forget about "Rain," but once it's on my mental mix tape, it's so luscious, I don't want to turn it off.

This early trip into psychedelia features lots of discordant harmonies and a counterpointing guitar line that adorns the song almost like embroidery -- or like a spatter of raindrops against a windowpane. Everything sounds a little draggy, disoriented, out of sorts (sorta like how I feel today). Notice how ponderous those splashy drumbeats are, and how far back in the mix John's vocal is, as if muted by a curtain of rainfall. Dig those woozy shifting harmonies on the extended "rain" and "shine" in the bridges, sung over grating metallic guitar strums. It feels like we're underwater, or in some altered state of mind -- pretty radical stuff for 1966, but hey, it was only a B-side, they could afford to experiment, testing the waters before blowing everybody's mind with Revolver later in the year.

Though we're not yet into the surrealistic imagery of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," the lyrics are allusive and cryptic: "When the rain comes / They run and hide their heads / They might as well be dead / When the rain comes . . . " It's standard Beatles veiled contempt for establishment squares: "When the sun shines / They slip into the shade / And sip their lemonade" (I can't help but think here of "I Am the Walrus -- "Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun / If the sun don't come they get a tan from standing in the English rain.")

And what about us? Lennon pulls us into his privileged inner circle: "I can show you / That when it starts to rain / That everything looks the same / I can show you, I can show you." That's definite pusher talk -- turn me on, dead man. It's John Lennon in his Mind Expander for the Hip mode; never mind that millions of people will buy this record, not everybody will be able to read the code. "Can you hear me / That when it rains or shines / It's just a state of mind / Can you hear me?" (Did The Who steal this for "Tommy, can you hear me?" Probably. Pete Townsend had a great ear for riffs to crib.) And then, at the end, the first snatch of backwards-played tape on any Beatle record; once they started messing with that particular technique, they were hooked on it, of course. It's a muddled fragment of incomprehensible babble -- heavy indeed.

I got none of this, of course, when the record first came out. To tell the truth, I don't think I ever really listened to this song until I bought Hey Jude, by which time Sgt. Pepper's and the White Album had trained us all in the ways of psychedelia. But listening to it today, I'm feeling afresh what an inspired bit of music this is. Recently I heard a DJ on Sirius say this was her favorite Beatle track of all time. I wouldn't go that far (the idea of picking one favorite Beatle track short-circuits my brain), but it's certainly a great track.

But then, aren't they all?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

“Le Hiedra Venenosa” / Los Straitjackets

Okay, summer’s a long way off – you folks in the Midwest are still getting snow, right? – but I believe in the power of positive thinking. Maybe if we all play records that SOUND like a Southern California summer afternoon, the sun will be inspired to warm things up at last. Anyway, it’s worth a try – and for this purpose, you can’t go wrong with anything from this new Los Straitjackets CD, Rock En Español Vol. I.

Los Straitjackets are an instrumental combo (what a great retro word that is, “combo”) from Nashville, which is kinda incongruous, considering how authentically they play 60s-style California surf guitar, channeling Duane Eddy and the Ventures for all they’re worth. Occasionally they’ll bring in guest vocalists to spice up the instrumentals (check out Sing Along With Los Straitjackets), and for Rock En Español, they’ve thrown us yet another curve – all the vocalists sing in, yes, you guessed it, Spanish.

For the record, I don’t believe any of these guys are Latino – their names are Eddie Angel, Danny Amis, Pete Curry, and Jason Smay – but as rock’n’roll revivalists, they’re diving down into a very specific sub-subgenre of Sixties music: Top 40 hits as re-recorded by Latino bands from Mexico or East LA. It takes a few minutes to purge your ears of the original versions – all great songs in the first place, or else they wouldn’t have inspired covers. When it comes to songs like “Anna,” “Slow Down,” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” I also have to purge my ears of the brilliant covers the Beatles did. But once you get into the AM radio groove of these tight pop classics (think vinyl 45s, think fold-up record player), it all begins to make a loopy sort of sense.

I assume “le hiedra venenosa” is an accurate translation of “poison ivy”; from there on, the lyrics are as impenetrable to a non-Spanish-speaker like me as the Coasters’ original must have been to Mexican fans – but hey, that’s only fair. And come on, “Poison Ivy” was never a work of literature; it’s all about that whomping rhythm section. Remember the line, “You better get an ocean [bump da-BUMP da-bump] / Of calamine lotion [bump da-BUMP da-bump]”? You can’t sing it without the rhythm section, can you?

And now, grooving on Los Straitjackets’ tangy guitar licks, I begin to realize how plodding the Coasters' arrangement actually was. Sure, there’s only one singer here, not the original fat four-part harmony -- but vocalist Big Sandy (front man for the East LA band the Fly-Rite Boys) adds a tasty vibrato that’s all his own. And I’m digging it.

So maybe I’ll never get to the point where I’ll prefer Los Straitjackets’ “De Dia Y De Noche” to the Kinks’ “All Day And All Of The Night” (I mean, c'mon, we're talking the Kinks here), but theirs is a perfectly acceptable simulation -- a whole lot better than, for instance, Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me”. And chances are, if I keep on listening to this CD, I may actually begin to prefer “Loco Te Patina El Coco” to the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” Say, I’m feeling a little global warming already. Todo es bueno.

La Hiedra Venenosa sample

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

“World Without Sound” / Rosanne Cash

I seriously dig this Black Cadillac CD. It’s Rosanne Cash’s breakthrough album, or at least the first one that registered on my music radar (I’ve read that she’s had a load of hit singles, but they must have been on the country charts – I sure never heard of them). Now, however, I’ve listened to Rules of Travel too and I realize I've underrated Rosanne – blame my knee-jerk prejudice against anybody who gets an easy “in” to The Biz through celebrity parents. (I’m still resisting her stepsister Carlene Carter, but that’s a whole other story….)

Black Cadillac had a natural PR hook – it’s Rosanne’s coming-to-terms with the loss of her parents (her stepmother June Carter Cash died in May 2003, her dad Johnny Cash just four months later in September 2003). But one of the strengths of this album is how deep down Cash digs with her songwriting. She refuses easy answers and cheap sentiments; it’s mournful but never whiny, and several songs – like this one – take the meditation on grief and loss further, describing how a surviving orphan reevaluates her universe. Anyone who’s lost a parent knows what that’s about.

Leading off with a boozy horn section riff, “World Without Sound” is one of the CD’s more uptempo tracks, a sort of Texas two-step that’s far less country than I expected – just like her dad, who was more of a rocker than he got credit for, Rosanne has shed those Nashville bonds. “But who do I believe / In this world without sound?” she wonders (“sound” being the essence of the two musicians’ souls), and her confident vocal makes it a real question, not a self-pitying complaint. “Who do I believe / Once they put you in the ground? / Who do I believe / When the night’s falling down?” Yes, she’s feeling lost, but instinctively I trust she’ll find her way – and I’m curious to see where she winds up.

The issue of faith clearly perplexes Rosanne (in another song on the album, she rejects “your tired religion” -- I’m guessing not all the Cash/Carter children see eye-to-eye on this question). On “World Without Sound” she gets right into it: “I wish I was a Christian / And knew what to believe / I could learn a lot of rules / To put my mind at ease” (hardly sounds like organized religion works for her, now does it?). The successive verses are all about exploring new reasons for living – wealth, friends and family, artistic success, politics. Of course, just about every one of these dreams has tempted me too. F’instance: “I wish I lived in Paris / And dreamed in French each night” (dig that tasty little sax fill there) “And had a dozen children / And raised them up just right.” She piques our interest, and then she pushes it too far, till the crazy hope deflates like a punctured party balloon. Frankly, she doesn’t hold out much hope for any of these fantasies. “I wish I was John Lennon / Free as a bird / And all of you who sit and stare / Would hang on my every word.” Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. That didn't even work for John Lennon.

So there’s no magic answer . . . unless it’s the quest itself that gives life meaning. After all, she’s already filling that “world without sound” with her own sound, and a fine sound it is, too. So this is Rosanne Cash, hunh? Maybe talent does run in families.

World Without Sound sample

Monday, April 09, 2007

“Belltown Ramble” / Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3

Life is GOOD. I know this because, just when I thought my music-fan dance card was totally full, some kind soul said, “You really should check out Robyn Hitchcock, you know.” Yeah, yeah, another artist on my favorite label, Yep Roc; another boyish-looking white-haired British rocker. Well, I kept intending to…and then finally I saw him perform two weeks ago. I’ll tell you, it was love at first sight. Straight away I bought three albums; I listened to nothing else on my vacation last week. I felt like Alice, free-falling down the rabbit hole. A new obsession, just in time for spring.

Robyn Hitchcock’s often dismissed as a cult artist, or an acquired taste. All I know is that his psychedelic free-associations make perfect sense to me; I dig that idiosyncratic nasal English singing voice. On Olé Tarantula!,his newest album, he’s working with three musicians – guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Kieflin, and bassist Scott McCaughey – whose day job is backing up Michael Stipe in the Very Important Band R.E.M. If I were these guys, I’d prefer working with Hitchcock; they sure were having a blast on stage when I saw them.

This particular song instantly hooked me that night. Whatever you’d call the folk-music equivalent of talking blues, that’s what this is -- a rambling series of three-line verses (the rhyme scheme is vaguely a villanelle, but you don’t need to know that), drifting along the Hitchcockian stream of consciousness. It rides a jazzy loop of acoustic strumming, with Scott McCaughey twiddling a piano counterpoint, minimal bass and drums; the melody’s light-hearted, like a vintage Donovan number. The chorus – or at any rate, the only lines that repeat – seems like a Zen koan: “And you want to know what is / And also what is not / Don't you, girl? / It's an independent life / And you want to see your eyes / Reflected in the world.” Okay, fair warning -- altered state of perception ahead.

The narrative starts off in an actual Seattle neighborhood, with specific geographical references – 4th Avenue, Blanchard Street, Denny Way, the sites of the Crocodile music club and the old Claremont (he can’t resist spelling out Claremont, emphasizing the REM in the middle) – but soon things slide into a parallel universe. Suddenly we’re consorting with the Uzbek warlord Tamerlane, aggressively astride the revolving pink elephant at a Seattle car wash (“you’re in your element,” a delicious rhyme for “elephant”). And then, just when you’ve gotten your bearing in that fairy-tale world, it turns into a medieval parable pageant, starring a modern version of the Seven Deadly Sins: Ignorance, Opportunism, Greed, Fundamentalism, Haste, Waste, and the deadliest of all, Escapism -- “Reclining in his chair / He's got his headphones on / His head is full of paradise / He isn't there.” The way this slips in, carelessly, where you’d never expect trenchant satire – that’s the sort of thing I’m learning to love about Robyn Hitchcock.

Then, poof! Here comes Tamerlane again, and we’re drinking at the Two Bells Tavern, schmoozing with (I assume) a real bartender named Kenny. Everything’s mellow, everything’s relative. “You can walk a square / You can walk an oblong / Even just walk straight / You'll still be standing there,” Robyn points out, slyly wrapping things up with another cryptic koan. “Though you think you did the job wrong / You did it.” I can just picture his mischievous grin, that complicit wink. Devastating.

What does it all signify? If you’re asking that question, you’re on the wrong track. And me, I’m so far down this rabbit hole myself at the moment, I'm no use at all.

Belltown Ramble sample