Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"Can't Buy Me Love" / The Beatles

On these lazy days of summer, I've cleared off the dining room table and laid out a jigsaw puzzle -- there's something very satisfying to me about getting all those pieces in the right places (if only I could do the same with my life!). The puzzle I'm working on? A copy of the Beatles' Anthology 2 cover, a wonderfully detailed work of art hand-drawn by the amazing Klaus Voorman. Of course this has set off all sorts of Beatle bells in my head, so by the time this snappy number came up on my shuffle, I was ready to forget that puzzle and get up to dance.

I don't know about you, but I take the Beatles for granted too much of the time. We all know they were a great band, that they changed music history, blah blah blah. But then a tune like this comes blasting out of the speakers and I remember all over again why I will never outgrow this first musical love of mine. This is a relatively early track, from 1964's Hard Day's Night, so it's still packed with cheery upbeat energy, perfect to ensure lots of AM radio play. As they used to say on American Bandstand, it's got a good beat and you can dance to it.

The sentiment is simple, almost laughable -- "I don't care too much for money / Money can't buy me love." (Are these the same guys who snarled through a cover of the cynical Motown hit "Money" a year earlier?) But it is, after all, a Paul McCartney song, winsome and loveable . . . if you don't listen too closely to its list of demands. "Say you don't need no diamond rings / And I'll be satisfied / Tell me that you want the kind of things / That money just can't buy" -- so, hmm, he didn't really mean it in the first verse when he promised to buy her a diamond ring. But hey, love is always a negotiation, isn't it?

Anyhoo, I'm willing to overlook all this as I groove on Paul's vocals (that little flutter he throws in now and then -- heavenly). It's an irresistible melody, and Ringo's solid drumming is equally irresistible, full of high-hats and cymbals and BEAT. By 1964 the Beatles had acquired plenty of show-biz polish, but the savage rawness that first propelled them into the spotlight is still percolating under the surface. Listen to it break loose in that wild howl after the second chorus, followed by George's twanging guitar solo.

None of us really believe that Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison didn't care too much for money. Just listen to "I Me Mine," Harrison's description of their financial wrangling on Let It Be; these guys were as greedy and ambitious as anybody. Even nowadays, with millions of pounds in the bank, I'll bet Paul McCartney counts every penny. But all that is beside the point. This is a happy-go-lucky love song from the standpoint of an ordinary bloke ("I may not have a lot to give / But what I've got I'll give to you"). Totally fiction -- and I love it. On some plane, we girls can still believe that the Beatles were those cute young guys hanging on the street corner, the ones you hoped would notice your new dress when you walked by. The ones you hoped would fall in love with you and make you feel like this all the time.

Monday, July 30, 2007

“Lies” / Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
I just saw the movie Once yesterday evening, a new Irish indie film that’s positively glorious. It’s about a disillusioned Dublin musician who’s playing street corners for spare change, and the Czech immigrant who turns his life around. I don’t want to give away any plot details; all I’ll tell you is that the musician’s played by Glen Hansard (front man for the Frames, who played the guitarist in The Commitments eons ago) and the Czech woman is the absolutely luminous singer-pianist Marketa Irglova. This is one of the few musical movies I’ve seen lately in which the songs are completely organic to the action (forget the staginess of Moulin Rouge), and the songs are mostly haunting and passionate -- like “Falling Slowly,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” and the one that’s stuck in my head tonight, “Lies.”

“Lies” is an acoustic number, guitar and piano eventually joined by cellos and a mournful Irish fiddle. You’re drawn in by its soft, tentative beginning, but don’t worry, it builds to full heart-wrenching emotion – then pulls back for a delicate ending. It’s a song about a love affair faltering on the shoals of bad communication – “I think it’s time / We give it up / And figure out / What’s stopping us / From breathing easy / And talking straight” he suggests gently in the acoustic section, though soon enough he’s blasting her in the chorus: “I can see you’re only telling lies, lies, lies / Breaking us down with your lies, lies, lies / When will you learn?”

Okay, it’s not the first song on this topic, obviously, and it doesn’t really say anything new. But it says it beautifully, especially in the bridge: “The little cracks, they escalated,” Hansard sighs, going up in a whispery sweet falsetto; “Before we knew it was too late / For making circles / And turning round and round.” The way the two voices yearn together, soaring upward on “making circles” – it’s simply magic, and I defy you to resist.

Though Hansard says his chief songwriting influences are Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (join the club, Glen), his vocals remind me a lot of Cat Stevens. He’s got greater range, however, from that falsetto to a savage, urgent yelp, and Irglova’s pure soprano blends beautifully on back-up. This pairing was made in heaven (and apparently worked so well that Hansard and Irglova wrote more songs together than the movie required, releasing together another album, The Swell Season). I’m tempted to buy that one too, though I’m still sinking happily into the soundtrack CD (which was on sale at the movie concession stand – a no-brainer.)

I don’t know how wide the distribution for the film is at the moment; it’s only playing one art film house in New York right now, though it’s been around for at least a month. But if you see it playing anywhere near you, see it immediately. And if that’s not happening, get the soundtrack CD – you won’t be sorry.

Lies sample

Friday, July 27, 2007

“These Days” / Ron Sexsmith

Yahoo!! Ron Sexsmith is going to be opening for Nick Lowe on several tour dates this fall – that’s about as good a two-for-one deal as it gets. As if I needed anything more to get psyched for seeing Nick!!

The Nick/Ron combo is a natural – both Lowe and his pal Elvis Costello are on record as Ron Sexsmith admirers – but my first taste of Ron Sexsmith was his cover of “This Is Where I Belong,” one of my favorite Kinks covers ever. Recommended by Nick, Elvis, AND Ray – that’s hitting my personal trifecta. And every Sexsmith album I’ve listened to completely lives up to its billing.

So I was already thinking about Ron Sexsmith, when the movie I was watching tonight – a 2004 Irish film called Intermission – suddenly broke into one of my favorite Sexsmith tunes, “These Days.” I knew it from the first heavy rhythmic drumbeats, and those gospel-like back-up doo-de-doos (which always remind me of “Walk On The Wild Side”); Ron’s voice is instantly recognizable, that choirboy tenor with its soulful vibrato. Given the thick Irish accents, I wasn't one-hundred percent following the movie, but when the song came on, every character was mired in romantic discouragement. What better time to hit the audience with a dose of Ron Sexsmith’s rueful charm?

“Promises are made to be broken / Haven't you heard?” he announces casually, addressing a woman he’s trying to win (or win back – it’s not clear). “He said he'd never break your heart / Now haven't you learned?" But he 's not scolding her, just sympathizing. "Oh, but love is not some popular song / Filled with empty sentiment,” he advises her. (Pretty gutsy, eh, to dismiss pop-song sentiment when you’re writing a pop song.) You can almost hear him shaking his head as he sings the chorus: “That's what passes for love / That's what passes for love / These days.” That midtempo syncopation, the easy lilting melody, make his argument seems so mellow -- well, that girl just has to listen.

It's a set-up, of course. He begins to pitch his own woo in the next verse: “It won't take a miracle, darlin' / Just keep it real.” He gives her an understanding shoulder to cry on – “I know how it feels / You took it to heart / What they said on the screen” -- then offers her an alternative: “No one can complete you or make you whole / But love will come to greet you halfway / Though the streets are never paved with gold.” And if she's got any sense, she's already relocating her affections.

Realistic advice about romance, sure, but it's anything but a downer. Sexsmith’s voice skips so warmly and affectionately from note to note, you just know things will turn out all right. He’s not blaming this woman, or pressuring her to go with him instead. He’s just going to slip his arm around her shoulder and be extremely sympathetic. And if that leads to something else…

Thursday, July 26, 2007

“Ready Right Now” / Marshall Crenshaw

If life was fair, Marshall Crenshaw would be a bigger star than Elton John or Rod Stewart or Michael Jackson. Nobody I know likes any of those acts, and yet somehow they’re rich and famous, while Marshall – after 25 years in the business – still slogs away in small clubs. It ain’t right.

But if there's a silver lining here, it may be that Crenshaw's limited commercial success has left him free to develop in fascination new directions. If all you know about Marshall Crenshaw is those infectious early tunes like “Someday Someway” and “There She Goes, check out some of his later albums -- like #447, which came out in 1999. Marshall hasn’t lost his ear for catchy melodies, but he's added darkness and texture that’s deeply satisfying.

“Ready Right Now” starts out with a prowling, feral fuzz-toned guitar and a gut-punching backbeat drum line -- nerve-wracking and ominous right from the get-go. When the vocal slides in, it’s minor-key and edgy: “I’m standing on the sidewalk in the sunshine / Not all the time, but sometimes the world looks fine.” I love that cautious description; that’s just how a worse-for-wear adult looks at the world. Plunging into a new romance, he’s plenty skittish: “When you smile at me that’s all there is / Once I could only dream of days like this / No matter where we’re going from here / I know this much anyhow / I’m ready right now.” His voice lifts so urgently on that last line, fierce and determined against all odds. Later on, he describes his past -- “You shook me out of my sleep / I was trapped inside a bad bad dream / In the bottom of the bottom, / Headed all the way down, or so it seemed.” It’s clear this narrator is scarred by life -- and STILL he stakes everything on love. I find that intoxicating.

“This is not a rehearsal, this is the one,” Marshall declares in the second verse. “And I swear it won’t be something casually done.” (Ladies, is that a sexy line or what?) “Calling all my energy, every bit of life that’s left in me / I’m gonna give you all that I have, all that time will allow / I’m ready right now.” I love how this teeters between weakness and strength, half-bragging, half-begging. We’re on the knife-edge between desire and despair, and he’s NOT letting us off.

Just feel the tension built up by that repetitious guitar line and those smackdown drums. I’m in a rush; I want to slow down; my attention is riveted; my pulse is racing. By the time the guitar solo bursts out, I’m completely under his spell. (And you know me, I usually have a very high resistance to blistering guitar solos – but I’m so primed for this one, I love it.)

A guy who can turn out a song this mesmerizing deserves to be on everybody’s playlist. Yeah, I know, that’s not gonna happen – but you guys have good taste; put him on your playlist.

Ready Right Now sample

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

“Crippled Inside” / Widespread Panic

I don’t know about you, but I found the recent worldwide Live Earth concerts to be a little, well…disconcerting. I know we need to save the planet and all, but still -- did those shows really make a single person more environmentally aware? I bet they wasted more energy than they saved, in the long run.

Nevertheless, I’m not opposed to do-good causes, when they’re done right, and it seems like this Instant Karma: The Campaign to Save Darfur has been done right. Trust Amnesty International and Yoko Ono to play their cards shrewdly. Cashing in on John Lennon's songwriting genius makes complete sense if it's for a political cause. Okay, it’s a little annoying to hear Avril Lavigne warble “Imagine,” but Green Day doing “Working Class Hero,” Matisyahu rapping away on “Watching the Wheels,” or Los Lonely Boys rocking out on “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” (really, can anybody ruin that song?) make it all worthwhile.

I love it when a tribute album turns me on to a band I’ve never heard before. Though it’s only available on the iTunes bonus tracks, Widespread Panic’s version of “Cripple Inside” did just that. It was great to get a jolt of southern jam band energy after all the slick pop and Important Anthem Rock performances on this record (R.E.M. no longer counts as a southern jam band in my book). Lennon’s original recording of “Crippled Inside” already had a nice jangly honky-tonk vibe; Widespread Panic has taken that and added bluegrass picking and pedal steel -- I even hear a little washboard in there -- and then let it swing like the roadhouse classic it was always meant to be.

Sure, Widespread Panic’s lead singer sounds more like a cracker-barrel philosopher than the snide, bitter pundit Lennon was. But somehow it works this way, too. “You can shine your shoes and wear a suit / You can comb your hair and looks quite cute” – when Lennon sang that, he was a long-haired dropout sneering at conformists; when WP sings it, it comes off as a country boy poking fun at a city slicker. You can almost imagine him pausing to spit tobacco juice between verses. “You can go to church and sing a hymn / And judge me by the color of my skin” – these lines sound even more relevant when sung by somebody with a southern twang. And the chorus just crackles with down-home wisdom: “Well now you know that your cat has nine lives / Nine lives to itself / But you only got one / And a dog’s life ain’t fun / Mamma take a look outside.”

Anyway, I apologize in advance for shilling a track that can only be bought on iTunes. (Must be my secret crush on Steve Jobs leading me astray.) But check it out if you’re iTuned in; otherwise, head over to www.widespreadpanic.com and check out some other tunes by these guys. That’s what I plan to do.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"You Can't Be Too Strong" / Graham Parker & the Rumour

There is a huge hole in my record collection, and it's called Squeezing Out Sparks. I didn't even realize this until this afternoon, when I laid down the book I was reading -- Will Birch's excellent No Sleep Till Canvey Island, the definitive history of British pub rock -- and went onto iTunes to check out early Graham Parker & the Rumour albums. After all, half of the Rumour were in Brinsley Schwarz with Nick Lowe, and Nick produced Parker's early albums . . . well, you get the idea; in my personal rock world, all roads lead to Nick Lowe. (Except for the roads that lead to Ray Davies.)

So there I sat, calling up samples from Squeezing Out Sparks, and track after track hit me with deeply familiar force. I've searched my stacks of vinyl and no, incredibly enough I never owned this record, but I'm guessing that my boyfriend at the time (this would have been 1979) must have had it. In fact, we must have listened to it non-stop -- that's the only way to explain why I know every bit of it by heart, AND why I resisting buying it after the break-up (those must have been some powerful associations). Weird how this slipped into some mental fissure until just now.

I've fixed the problem; I've just ordered my own shiny new copy from Amazon, and I should be getting it in 36 hours. Until then, I'll have to be satisfied with a couple of downloaded tracks. It's a toss-up which slays me more -- "You Can't Be Too Strong" or "Passion Is No Ordinary Word." But the nod goes to "You Can't Be Too Strong"; I can't think of another song about abortion that's so heart-breaking.

He launches straight into it: "Did they tear it out with talons of steel /And give you a shot so that you wouldn't feel /And wash it away as if it wasn't real?" Here's abortion from the perspective of the guy, who I guess wasn't consulted -- "It's just a mistake I won't have to face / Don't give it a name, don't give it a place / Don't give it a chance -- it's lucky in a way." Does he really thinks it lucky? He really doesn't yet know how he feels, and that ambivalence is what makes this song so goddam poignant.

Considering the load of regret and uncertainty this song carries, the arrangement is appropriately sober and simple, just an acoustic guitar, embroidered with a few delicate keyboard fillips from Bob Andrews. Behind all the male bluster -- "I ain't gonna cry, I'm gonna rejoice /And shout myself dry, and go see the boys /They'll laugh when I say, 'I left it overseas'" -- there's a haunting echo of desire in Parker's voice: "But everybody else is squeezing out a spark / That happened in the heat, somewhere in the dark." I love that little vocal echo he throws in, "in the dark," the voice of a helpless kid still trying to sort things out.

He can't help returning to that furtive surgery scene: "The doctor gets nervous, completing the service / He's all rubber gloves and no heart." As the song goes along, the title phrase loads up with irony -- maybe you CAN be too strong, too tough, too hard. The way he pauses, wondering, each time he sings "You can't be too strong" in the chorus -- surely that toughness is a double-edged sword here.

My favorite line has to be "It must have felt strange to find me inside you / I never intended to stay." That's so disturbingly sexy, which I think is the whole point of this song -- how sex turns complicated on people. This guy doesn't know how he feels about all this, or how he feels about the girl now. And he leaves it there, confused and numb and unresolved. Perfect.

This song reminds me of what might have happened if you could throw the earnest young Bruce Springsteen into a cocktail shaker with the rueful wit of Joe Jackson; that gritty soulfulness in Parker's voice lays on so much passion, but he can hold back and leave things unsaid. I'm still puzzling over this song, 25 years later. It's long past time to bring Graham Parker back onto my playlist. I can't wait for this CD to arrive.

You Can't Be Too Strong sample

Monday, July 23, 2007

"High Fidelity" / Elvis Costello & the Attractions

When the album Get Happy came out in 1980, Elvis Costello was no longer The Flavor of the Month, and this new musical direction -- a tribute to the sounds of Stax R&B and Philly soul -- baffled critics as well as many fans. But not me; I loved that album from Day One, couldn't get enough of it. It just may be my favorite Elvis Costello album ever.

So imagine how thrilled I was a few days ago when Elvis, performing with Allen Toussaint at at a jazz festival in Madrid, Spain, launched into this number from Get Happy. It was deep into the set and Elvis was definitely on a roll, emoting and pulling out all the stops. The only person in that crowd who was more thrilled than me was my friend Luis, who looked like he was having an out-of-body experience.

In typical Elvis Costello fashion, this song is based on a pun -- "high fidelity" could be either stereo sound or marital faithfulness, and Elvis constantly darts from one meaning to the other. The situation he paints is all clouded up with jealousy and irrational fury, but it seems that he's watching an ex-girlfriend/wife with her new man, which drives him into a passion (a complicated, neurotic passion, of course -- this IS Elvis Costello, after all). "Some things you never get used to / Even though you're feeling like another man" -- I tell you, nobody pins down these fleeting psychological states like Elvis does.

You can just hear the rancor boiling as he describes the couple -- "Lovers laughing in their amateur hour / Holding hands in the corridors of power." Isn't "amateur hour" a perfect phrase for the first stages of a new relationship? And as he writhes, watching them, they are surely in the "corridors of power." This is genius songwriting, no question about it. His voice faltering, he reminds himself, "Even though I'm with somebody else right now" -- yeah, he's with somebody else, and she may be totally hot, but it doesn't help. He's still savagely jealous and weak and angry. How HUMAN.

I love how Elvis's voice zooms down into the verse like a circling airplane, stuffing in the rapid-fire clever lyrics, throwing us right into the middle of a wrought-up situation (verse 2 pulls off the same trick -- "Even though you're nowhere near me / And I know you kiss him so sincerely now"). Then, when he swings into the chorus, how he draws out the "high" of "high fidelity," taking it through a few chord shifts and upping the volume, as if fiddling with a stereo set's knobs. He pushes his voice relentlessly into its gruff, staticky edges, pleading "Can you hear me? / Can you hear me? / Can you hear me?"

In the bridge, he reels off a series of radio/relationship double meanings: "There's a new kind of dedication / Maybe you'll find it down the tunnel / Maybe I got above my station / Maybe you're only changing channel" (for years I heard that last line as "Baby I'd like to change your channel" -- that's how palpable the threat in his voice is). Maybe it's just Elvis showing off his own virtuosity, but I don't care. I like Elvis's virtuosity.

Listen to those those minor-key piano chords hammering away so ominously (is Steve Nieve brilliant or what?). That night in Spain, the Crescent City Horns added to those syncopated chord progressions, making the whole thing swing even more. This is a timeless song, simply timeless. In 1980, when so many other bands were following the trendy call of disco and artsy New Wave and punk, Elvis Costello was going his own way, following his own quirky muse. I loved it then, and I love it still.

High Fidelity sample

Friday, July 06, 2007


I'd hoped to squeeze out one last post before leaving on my vacation -- but packing caught up with me. Oh, well...just imagine Ray Davies singing this tune:

Oh what a lovely day today,
I'm oh so glad they sent me away,
To have a little holiday today, holiday.

And I'm just standing on the end of a pier,
Hoping and dreaming you were here,
To share my little holiday.

Lookin' in the sky for a gap in the clouds,
Sometimes I think that sun ain't never coming out,
But I'd rather be here than in that dirty old town,
I had to leave the city cos it really brought me down.

Oh holiday, oh what a lovely day today,
I think I'll get down on my little ol' knees and pray, thank you Lord,
Thank heaven for this holiday....

Lying on the beach with my back burned rare,
The salt gets in my blisters and the sand gets in my hair,
And the sea's an open sewer, but I really couldn't care,
I'm breathing through my mouth so I don't have to sniff the air.

Oh holiday,
Oh what a lovely day today,
I'm so glad they sent me away,
To have a little holiday.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

“Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day” / Nick Lowe

It’s hard to pick out just one track to write about from Nick Lowe’s brand-new album, At My Age. As you’d expect from Mr. Lowe, the thing is just chockfull of winning tunes. Still, this unassuming little charmer – and let’s face it, no one does unassuming charm better than Nick Lowe -- has wormed its way into my heart surprisingly fast, and shows no sign of wearing out its welcome.

These days Nick Lowe’s trademark is a laidback, rootsy, less-is-more aesthetic that makes most other music sound fussy and frenetic. On this number, he takes a countrified acoustic tack, spiced with just a touch of horns. (Lotsa horns on this album, which suits me just fine.) Nick’s warm, slightly weathered voice strolls in comfortably: “You don’t know it, but I’ve made my mind up / you’ll wind up / In my arms / First I have to break down your resistance / To my charms.” I have NO resistance to Nick Lowe's charms anyway, but believe me, the light vocal touch he uses on this line is absolutely devastating.

Fiddling with line lengths, letting those rhymes spring up on us, that’s the touch of someone who’s been practicing his craft as long as Nick Lowe has. The whole thing, in fact, is full of easy confidence: “Yes darling, I know it won’t be easy / But I won’t rest until I find a way / Everybody knows that Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Confidence and patience – I’m listening to this, thinking: this is a man who knows how to get to a woman. I suppose I should be scared, given that other song on this album, “I Trained Her To Love Me,” the deliciously snarky confessions of a seasoned cad. But there’s nothing caddish about the way Nick sings this one – just a stubborn conviction that he’s the right guy for her. Or me.

“I’ll offer you protection,” he promises, “Twenty-four-hour loving affection / But it’ll take time to make it right.” Coming from a silver-haired crooner like Nick, that idea of taking time -- not something you often hear in pop songs -- is the voice of experience speaking. I love the fact that the voice of experience is still ready to start new love affairs. Forget that let’s-grow-old-together business; we're still in the market for let's-get-it-on, okay?

With a nod and a knowing wink, he points out, “Just think of what the pharaoh did / When he built his pyramid / Everybody knows that didn’t spring up overnight.” For all we know, Nick is old enough to have watched those pyramids go up. But who’s in a hurry? Not me. I’ll just sit back and listen again, thank you very much. This guy’s really starting to grow on me, y’know?

Rome Wasn't Built In A Day sample

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

"I Don't Want To Go Home" / Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes

On the Fourth of July, it's tempting to write about Bruce Springsteen's anthem to the Jersey Shore, "Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)". But I am so over Bruce Springsteen by now, I just can't. That song in particular gives me pause: it starts out fine, a tender little slice of life, but why build it up and layer it on and stretch it out to make it such a Big Deal Song? I lose interest about two minutes into the thing.

Nevertheless, just thinking about Springsteen puts me in a Jersey Shore frame of mind, and what better alternative could there be than Southside Johnny? I interviewed Southside Johnny once, years ago, and he was one of the nicest guys I ever met -- absolutely no big rock-star ego at all. He'd probably say that that's because he's not a big rock star. Considering that he came out of the same Jersey Shore bar scene as Springsteen, though, I've always wondered why Bruce made it big and Johnny didn't. It's a shame.

This is a totally satisfying summer song (a great top-down driving song, too -- but then most ace summer songs are). Listening to it brings back that school's-out feeling of being out too late, not willing to give it up, wanting to squeeze every last drop out of the night. "Oh, I know that it's getting late / But I don't want to go home / I'm in no hurry baby, time can wait / 'Cause I don't want to go home." The band's still playing; there's still action in the bar. Please don't make me leave.

Of course there's more to the story than that. He's just broken up with his girlfriend, and he needs company -- "I want to hear people laughing and having a good time / I wanna know why she told me she had to go / Why did she leave me all lonely?" He's still in that stage of staggering numbly around, just going through the motions; hanging out at the bar is a powerful distraction. What does he have to go home to, anyway?

The chorus has one of my favorite grammatical mistakes of all time -- "I know we had a time / To reach up and touch the sky, baby / Whatever happened to you and I?" (hint to the grammatically challenged: it should be "you and me"). This really makes me grin because, as I remember it, Southside Johnny told me he'd once been an English teacher. But hey, he needed a rhyme for "sky," and there's something so plaintive, so young and yearning, about that image of touching the sky, that I forgive him. Besides, that's just the way the dude who sings this song would say it. It's the way we've all felt at a certain age, when we first begin to suspect that we aren't as invulnerable and omnipotent as we thought. It's such an iconic moment, it deserves all the saxes and trumpets he's layered on.

Since my main problem with Springsteen is his tendency to over-produce his songs, I'm surprised myself that I don't mind all the extra instruments on this track. But I love how the simple surf-guitar-ish lick plays off against those Philly-soul horns and strings; it's such a classic pop arrangement, it doesn't come off as pompous. I can just picture the song's hero, eyes bloodshot, hanging onto his stool at the end of the bar. As he slips in and out of his maudlin memories (every other line he has to declare again "I don't want to go home"), those musicians on the bandstand are the only thing getting him through this rough patch. "I know he's talking about the way I feel," Johnny sings at one point. I know just how he feels. That's why we need pop music.

I Don't Want To Go Home sample

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

“Summer In The City” / The Lovin' Spoonful

It’s a Pavlovian reflex: On that first day every year when I walk outside and get slammed with the season’s first blast of hot, humid air, those ominous first chords of “Summer In the City” kick in in my brain. Talk about essential songs for your summer playlist – they don’t get any more classic than this.

I loved the Lovin' Spoonful anyway. They had so many hits in a row – “Daydream,” “Do You Believe In Magic,” You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” “Nashville Cats,” “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” “Younger Girl,” “Darling Be Home Soon” -- it’s astonishing to realize how short their career actually was, basically from mid-1965 to the end of 1967. For the most part, their songs were melodic and cheery, mellow and California-sunny – but then there’s “Summer in the City.” It seems like a total anomaly, hard-hitting and dark, full of urban grime and weariness and simmering rush-hour anger; it’s the one song that proves to me that frontman-songwriter John B. Sebastian really was a New Yorker.

Sebastian tears into that first line with existential despair: “Hot town, summer in the city / Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty / Been down, isn’t a pity / Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city / All around, people looking half dead / Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a matchhead.” We’ve all been there, though some of us have had to put up with it more than others. (Ahem.) There’s an electric piano pulsing darkly underneath, like the third rail in the subway; you can’t get away from it.

We briefly shift out of minor key for the chorus, as if escaping the heat – “But tonight it’s a different world / Go out and find a girl / Come on, come on and dance all night / Despite the heat it’ll be all right.” But you can’t really escape, can you? The minor key takes over again before the chorus has even reached its end – “And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity / The days can’t be like the nights / In the summer / In the city / In the summer / In the city.” And even the instrumental break in the middle gets overlaid with honking traffic and jackhammers – pretty atmospheric, it always seemed to me.

The second half of the song presents the flip side -- “Cool town, evening in the city / Dressed so fine and a-looking so pretty ‘ -- but the minor key and that brooding arrangement keep it edgy and uncertain. “Cool cat, looking for a kitty / Gonna look in every corner of the city” – that’s full of desperation, that sense of grabbing relief at all costs; I picture the “cool cats” of West Side Story prowling the streets. And I'll bet Sebastian was thinking of Carole King’s “Up On the Roof” in that line “Till I’m wheezing like a bus stop / Running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop.” It’s not “gonna meet you on my penthouse terrace” – no, it’s a lot more urban than that. People get knifed on rooftops, don’t they?

I love the drama of this song, the way the relentless drums and keyboards crank up your anxiety. Maybe if the Spoonful had stayed together longer, they'd have explored this darker side more (or more melancholy, like in "Coconut Grove," that would be just fine too). I guess we'll never know where else they might have gone -- but given how short a time the Lovin' Spoonful were around, we should be grateful for as many wonderful tracks as they gave us.

Monday, July 02, 2007

“Wrap It Up” / The Fabulous Thunderbirds

Like most of America, I’d never heard of the Fabulous Thunderbirds before their 1986 album Tuff Enuff; like most of America, I stopped paying attention to them afterwards. But this one album – man, did it rock.

Maybe it’s no coincidence that this was the one Dave Edmunds produced, keeping that Texas roadhouse-rockabilly sound true to its roots. Jimmie Vaughan was still on guitar, Kim Wilson belting out those powerful vocals, and the material was sublimely congenial – like this lovable soul standard written by Isaac Hayes. It’s been performed variously by Sam & Dave and Archie Bell & the Drells and even the Eurhythmics (!), but I don’t think anybody else ever got it to sound this joyous and boozy and just plain happy.

The guitar hook that kicks in right from the start is key. Listen to how the notes twang and circle around, just like fingers deftly tying a bow around the song. There’s a nice little solo partway through, too; Jimmie Vaughan may not be as great a guitarist as his brother Stevie Ray was, but then few people ever were – Jimmie’s still no slouch. The drums are way forward in the mix, keeping the dance beat emphatically in its groove, irresistible and yet somehow relaxed – relaxed enough that you could hang onto your Corona and lime and take a few swigs while dancing.

Yes, it’s true, the lyrics are somewhere this side of sophisticated – “I've been watchin' you for days now baby. / I just love your sexy ways now baby. / Ya know our love will never stop now baby. / Just put your lovin' in my box now baby.” In my what? And that’s not even the most suggestive line in the song – that honor goes to “I’m gonna treat you like the queen you are / Bring you sweet things from my candy jar,” with that coarse shiver in Kim Wilson’s voice just boldfacing those classic double entendres. The chorus doesn’t go much beyond, “Wrap it up / I’ll take it,” repeated four or five times, but with that guitar thrilling in the background, it doesn’t matter.

I don’t think about this song much in the winter, but in the summer, it’s inevitably on my playlist. Maybe that’s because it was the summer of ’87 when we played this thing nonstop -- there were some nights with our fussy newborn baby when the only way to stay sane was to play the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and play them LOUD. (My other favorite track for this same reason: “Why Get Up.”) It’s your quintessential feel-good party song, the absolute definition of “upbeat.” That's what made the Thunderbirds Fabulous.

Wrap It Up sample