Friday, August 31, 2007

“Motel Matches” / Elvis Costello & the Attractions


Well, I know Elvis Costello is a rock 'n' roll animal, honest I do. It's just that once I get going on these emotive showstoppers of his, it's real hard to quit. So I might as well wind up the week with one of his first, and still one of his finest.

Get Happy! is one of the Big Albums of My Life, for all sorts of personal reasons, but also because it just IS a superlative record, no matter what the critics said in 1980. Elvis’ songwriting was simply on fire, his band was tight as a coiled spring, and he was just beginning to channel his inner torch singer. Just hear him on the "Riot Act," lacing into his wife/girlfriend for accusing him of infidelity. Somehow I don't pity him, though -- probably because just a couple tracks earlier, we learned all about his own tawdry, tormented affair in the heart-wrenching "Motel Matches."

At the song's heart is a great little film noir detail, the packet of motel matches spilling out of a guilty woman's purse. (I can just see the zooming close-up, the zinging strings on the soundtrack.) We're in "Watching the Detectives" territory all over again. The song begins "Somewhere in the distance I can hear 'Who shot Sam?' / This is my conviction: I am an innocent man." Innocent of what, exactly? because it's pretty clear he's embroiled with this woman; desperately entangled, in fact. "Falling for you without a second look / Falling out of your open pocketbook / Giving you away like motel matches." She owns him right now.

There's a whole line of motel allusions -- the intruder "Boys everywhere, fumbling with the catches," the fire alarm going off as "I wake with the siren in an emergency" ("siren" also meaning the temptress beside him in that hotel bed), the flickering neon as "the light outside changes from red to blue" (e.g., from passion's heat to morose despair). And my favorite motel pun of them all, "Though your mind is full of love / In your eyes there is a vacancy." Of course it's sophomorically clever, but still, I love it.

The chief thing, though, is the way Elvis's voice writhes and caresses and yelps and groans throughout the song. The way he flips skittishly through those rapid-fire lyrics (it took me ages to figure out what he was saying on some lines). The big-gesture drum smashes, the holy-roller organ chords -- there's absolutely no holding back on the histrionics here. It is not a reflective song at all; it's pure angst. Which is exactly what an affair feels like, isn't it? (Or so I've been told.)

I know there are other sides to Elvis Costello. I love those other sides of him. But sometimes, I just need to get out my handkerchief, pour a stiff drink, and wallow in Elvis the Torch Singer. Satisfaction guaranteed, every time.

Motel Matches sample

Thursday, August 30, 2007

“Long Honeymoon” / Elvis Costello


Elvis Costello is a wonderful short story writer; he just happens to do it in song. We can't always assume he's being autobiographical -- sometimes he just has a set of characters in mind and wants to tell their story (I call this "the Randy Newman defense"). And if along the way, a little of Elvis' personal experience works its way in, well that's just an occupational hazard.

"Long Honeymoon," from 1982's Imperial Bedroom, shows Elvis straining at the boundaries of the rock 'n roll genre. (A boundary that the Rolling Stones, for example, never seem to find constricting -- which is why I listen to so much more of Elvis Costello than the Rolling Stones.) At the time, he says, he was listening to Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra records, not rock music; he also had recently begun composing on piano instead of guitar, which just may account for the blossoming of his melodic gift.

The story's almost soap opera -- a young wife waiting anxiously for her new husband to come home. But given the cabaret-style arrangement, with Steve Nieve's cocktail-lounge piano and movie-music accordion (Elvis's suspenseful guitar line is pure Twilight Zone), we're clearly going for character development over plot. The phone rings, jangling her nerves; her imagination runs riot, picturing him out on a date, recalling lurid news stories about break-in murders. Doubt and paranoia set in, and even though it's in third person from the woman's point of view, Elvis doesn't just play the narrator -- he apes a female wail of hysteria pretty convincingly. His voice trembles, oozing sympathy for the poor thing.

"Little things just seem to undermine her / Confidence in him" -- we've all been there. But who knew that Elvis Costello, of all people, would understand how fear mushrooms in a woman's mind when she's alone late at night? "Who can she turn to / When the chance of coincidence is slim? / 'Cause the baby isn't old enough to speak . . . " Oh, jeez, there's a baby now too -- how shrewd of him to let that detail wander into the picture only now. I can't help but think of Elvis's own young wife, waiting home with their baby boy while he was out leading the life of a newly discovered rock star. I'm dying to know if Elvis was thinking of that when he wrote this.

When I say it's a short story, it's more Raymond Carver than John Updike -- a single epiphanal scene, rather than a laid-out plot. The phrase "long honeymoon" should sound happy, like extended bliss, but this is really about the sickening moment of realization that The Honeymoon Is Over. When the song ends, the husband still hasn't come home, but we know everything about their marriage -- more than we want to know, actually ("he was late this time last week..." -- and by the way, why ISN'T her best friend answering her phone either?). Those melodramatic instrumental accents, the serpentine melodic lines, Elvis's woeful vocal stylings, all make me dread the worst. Somehow, I don't want to know how this story ends.

The Long Honeymoon sample

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

“Indoor Fireworks” / Elvis Costello


A lot of us were stumped by King of America, the 1986 album where Elvis jettisoned the Attractions, producer Nick Lowe, and his English cultural references all at once. He even seemed to shed his stage name -- Elvis Costello no longer, but Declan Patrick Aloysius Macmanus, or else Little Hands of Concrete (a nickname Nick Lowe had bestowed upon him for his tendency to break guitar strings). What was he up to?

The excellent liner notes (practically a novel) Elvis wrote for the Rhino reissue explain it all; suffice it to say that he was "going through a phase." All the same, King of America became one of my favorite EC albums -- how could I resist songs like "Brilliant Mistake" ("She said that she was working for the ABC News / It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use") or "Little Palaces" ("So you knock the kids about a bit / Because they've got your name")? And from the very first play-through, I knew "Indoor Fireworks" was going to be one of my favorite Elvis songs ever.

To say that it's about a relationship falling apart doesn't even begin to touch it. Apparently this couple's explosive quarrels have always been part of their dynamic, but now things are going downhill and they just can't stop. "Indoor fireworks / Can still burn your fingers / Indoor fireworks / We swore we were safe as houses" (those domestic "houses" -- I love how Elvis turns cliches on their head). "They're not so spectacular, they don't / Burn up in the sky / They can dazzle or delight / Or bring a tear / When the smoke gets in your eyes." (Another upended cliche -- zing!)

The verses keep dancing around this notion -- how their "parlour games" always flirted with breaking up. "Everybody loves a happy ending," he remarks, "but we don't even try / We go straight past pretending / To the part where everybody loves to cry." It was fiction, play-acting, at first, and their passions fed on it: ""Sometimes we would fight in public / With very little cause / But different kinds of sparks would fly / When we got on our own behind closed doors." (Oh, how his voice sizzles on that hot line.) I've known couples like this, who had no qualms about laying into each other in front of friends -- I used to wonder why they stayed together. But none of us really knows what glue holds another couple together. The public and private faces of a relationship are so different – another life truth picked up from Elvis Costello.

Their outcome's still uncertain, of course. The narrator says wearily, "My fuse is running out," but he also recalls tenderly, "You were the spice of life / The gin in my vermouth. " (I love that couplet; I wish someone would write a lyric like that about me.) "Don't think for a moment, dear, that / We'll ever be through," he declares in the last verse, but then relationships never really end, do they? -- we carry the scars forever. "I'll build a bonfire of my dreams and / Burn a broken effigy of me and you." Elvis can work a line of imagery harder than any other songwriter I know, but somehow every new meaning makes sense. I love that effigy on the bonfire, even if is more Guy Fawkes than Fourth of July.

The arrangement's dead simple -- mostly just Elvis's vocal and an acoustic guitar, with a soft string bass and organ in the background for texture. But it's a beautiful melody, with lots of uplifted line endings for Elvis' voice to tremble upon. I love Nick Lowe's cover too (on his Rose of England album) but it's pretty damn hard to improve on Elvis' rendition. Or rather, Declan Patrick Aloysius Macmanus' rendition, because the Irish crooner is out in full force on this number -- sublimely so.

Indoor Fireworks sample

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

“Favourite Hour” / Elvis Costello


One thing I've only recently realized about Elvis Costello -- what a powerful singer he is. I don't just mean his ability to put across a song; he's always had that. I mean what an amazing set of pipes the guy's got -- volume, range, tone, control, the whole bit. Now I go back and listen to his great torch songs, like "Alison" and "Almost Blue" and "Shipbuilding" and the entire album North, and it simply floors me that I didn't home in on this before.

"Favourite Hour" is the last track on EC's disgracefully underrated 1994 album Brutal Youth, but it's anything but an afterthought. (It does contain the album's title phrase, in the poignant line "Now there's a tragic waste of brutal youth.") Elvis himself writes in the liner notes "I believe it is among the very best songs that I have been fortunate enough to write" -- and I'd have to agree. It's telling that he wrote this after recording The Juliet Letters, his foray into classical music with the Brodsky Quartet. Even in the relatively spare arrangement here -- just hushed piano and vocals -- "Favourite Hour" has a romantic sweep and grandeur we hardly ever get in rock music.

The image-crammed verses are dark indeed, with lines like "Pray for the boy who makes his bed in cold earth and quicklime" and "The tricky door that gapes beneath the ragged noose" and "Put out my eyes so I may never spy," but he counteracts that effect by singing them with calm, stately authority, in his tenderest low voice (how far Elvis has come from the days when he used to spit out acerbic puns at breakneck pace!). I love how the melody proceeds delicately downward on each line, like the day winding gently to a close.

That's just the set-up, though, for the glorious chorus, where Elvis surges into his upper register, letting his vibrato go full throttle, overwhelming us with passion: "So stay the hands, arrest the time / Till I am captured by your touch." With a breathless gasp he pushes his voice even higher -- "Blessings I don't count" -- then pulls back, as if trembling, to add "small mercies and such." Elvis plays the dynamics skillfully, managing the cracks and wavers in his voice just right. He's got such superb technique -- but technique means nothing if it doesn't serve the song's meaning.

For a long time I thought this was a love song; commenters on this blog corrected me, telling me that it's about an execution.  Boy, did I feel dumb.  Of course it is.

As the melody winds back down the scale, he solemnly announces "The flags may lower as we approach the favourite hour." Elvis never tells us what time of day the "favourite hour" is, but I always imagine it as twilight -- a velvety, crepuscular twilight pregnant with possibility. He leaves us hanging on a diminished note at the end, wondering, waiting . . .

Favourite Hour sample

Monday, August 27, 2007

“…Dust” / Elvis Costello


In honor of Elvis Costello's 53rd birthday this past Saturday, I head eagerly into a week of Elvis Costello listening -- but I've got a bit of a dilemma here. Elvis has an enormous back catalogue, simply ENORMOUS, and I'm afraid I love all of it. So which songs to choose?

It's arbitrary, I know, but "...Dust" is always a happy surprise when it comes up on my shuffle -- and then haunts me for the rest of the day. It comes from his 2002 album, When I Was Cruel, an album that felt like a homecoming for me. Elvis returned to his stripped-down rock & roll sound for this CD, but what mattered more to me was that, as the name implies, it brought him back to the snarky mindset that first won my heart in 1978.

Actually, there are TWO versions of "Dust" on this CD, with somewhat different lyrics and an entirely different rhythm and sound. I still haven't totally figured out the differences between them, or why Elvis would include both (neither is a bonus track; in fact "Dust 2 . . . " comes a couple tracks earlier than ". . . Dust"). All I can say is that I prefer the second one, with its insinuating drumbeat, taunting guitar reverb, and accusatory horns. The lyrics of both versions seem to deal with the general human condition, but this one simmers with subtext, as if he's also settling some nasty personal score.

As always with Elvis, he's playing with plural meanings of the word "dust." First off, it stands for mortality (ashes to ashes, dust to dust), but it also suggest something musty and old that's being ignored at our peril. And in the third verse, it becomes forensic matter: "If only dust could gather into lines of chalk / Around a silhouette detective fiction walks / For it's the only witness that can testify." (Shades of "Watching the Detectives.") With those film noir horns pitching in, I'm feeling distinctly uneasy by now -- there's been a crime, and Elvis is clearly ready to turn state's evidence. "Can I spit out the truth / Or would you rather just swallow a lie?" -- his falsetto yelp at the end of that line almost hurts. In the bridge, his snarly vocal keeps jabbing an accusing finger: "You kept your mouth well shut / Appeared to turn your coat / Now there's a name for you but it's stuck in my throat."

Once Elvis gets going with the imagery, he's like a tent-revival preacher on a roll -- "Here comes the juggernaut / Here come the Poisoners / They choke the life and land / And rob the joy from us / Why do they taste of sugar / When they are made of money? / Here come the Lamb of God / And the butcher's boy, Sonny." Who knows what it means? It just feels apocalyptic and savage and scary. And in the last verse, he goes after the music biz, too: "If dust could gather in a needle track / Then it would skip a beat and it would jump right back." It's vinyl-era imagery, but still vivid; "needle track" makes me think of heroin addicts too. Why not? The more allusive imagery he can blast us with, the better.

And coiling through the whole thing is that serpentine rhythm, seducing us into thinking that this must all mean something, if we were only clever enough to get Elvis's references. Me, I've stopped trying to interpret it; I'm just snuggling into the moody arrangement and the dangerous rasp of Elvis's voice. And feeling quite at home here.

. . . Dust sample

Friday, August 24, 2007

“What Do We Do Now” / John Hiatt


John Hiatt can rock out on an electric guitar with the best of them, but he doesn’t need to switch on the amps to satisfy me. Case in point: his 2000 album Crossing Muddy Waters, which is basically an acoustic album, with all the other stuff stripped away to let his songwriting shine. Since this is John Hiatt, of course, don’t expect “acoustic” to translate into “soft and folky” – no, Crossing Muddy Waters simply vibrates with passion. The title song alone will break your heart, and if you forced me to pick my favorite John Hiatt song of all time, it probably would be “What Do We Do Now” – this one slays me every time.

Hiatt sings wonderfully about love and commitment and family, but he also knows the flip side of those things. “What Do We Do Now” is an anguished cry from the heart, as two partners face each other, seething, realizing that this just may the The Fight That Ends It All. “When it’s lying there with a busted heart / Like a piece of glass – where do you start? / Do we pick it up, or say goodbye? / Is there one tear left for us to cry?” This hasn’t been the first knock-down-drag-out argument between these two, clearly, but maybe this time they’ve crossed the line. And it’s SCARY.

“What if I can’t stay?” he wonders, voice scraping in pain, “What if you can’t stay? / What if I can’t leave? / What if you can’t leave?” All the songwriting courses in the world can’t teach this kind of poetry – it doesn’t rhyme, the language is so plain, but I can just feel these two people slamming back and forth between these wretched choices. They’re hurting too bad for fancy poetry.

The melody is deliberately circular and descending, with a weary thudding rhythm that perfectly captures this couple’s private hell. The pitch rises, though, for this heart-breaking verse: “Do we call the kids / Or call the cops / Can you hold me ‘til / This howling stops?” It comes down to these choices: that numb civilized “family meeting” or a window-smashing screamfest. And in the middle of all his rage and pain, she’s still the place he instinctively turns for comfort – that’s the wrenching irony of the whole damn thing.

There’s other great lines here – “Gimme back my steel / Gimme me back my nerve / Gimme back my youth / For the dead man’s curve”; or “Cause we rode it long / And we rode it hard / And we wrecked it in / Our own back yard.” Those dogged repetitions, how perfectly they summon up the mindset of someone who can’t see his way forward. There’s no answer here; these people can’t find an answer right now. Will they finally split? Will they get back together? Will they ever be happy?

I don’t know, and they sure as hell don’t know. Which is the point of this song – to capture this edge-of-the-knife emotion. Anybody who’s ever tried to make a relationship work can recognize this moment, whether it’s ever gone quite that far or not. The pain, the raw passion, the horrible honesty – it’s not easy stuff. But then life isn't all easy, is it? That's why we need truth-tellers like John Hiatt, to light our way through the valley of the shadow of death. Amen.

What Do We Do Now sample


Thursday, August 23, 2007

“The Tiki Bar Is Open” / John Hiatt


There was a time when John Hiatt’s career nearly ran down the drain in a stream of alcohol. It’s no coincidence, I think, that his breakthrough album Bring the Family happened after he got sober -- one of its most moving songs, “Stood Up,” offers this poignant verse:

Now they give last call for alcohol
And no one has to carry me home
You see I only work here now, man
My drinking days are long gone
I couldn’t stand up after one, no,
‘Til twenty had me down on the floor
Now the first one doesn’t get me
Even though I’m still the last one out the door.

Like the AAers say, you take sobriety one day at a time. These things aren’t easy; anybody who tells you different is lying. Several years down the pike, the title song on Hiatt’s marvelous 2001 album The Tiki Bar Is Open updates us on his progress, with a characteristically Hiatt blend of irony, flint-eyed honesty, and courage.

Tiki bars – any American kid born in the early 1950s remembers the tiki bar craze of the early 60s, Polynesian knock-offs of Trader Vic’s sprouting along commercial strips in every sprawling suburb. Most likely the Hiatt family went to the same hokey mai-tai palace in Indianapolis that my family did. And the exotic flavor of the arrangement works into the metaphor too, its slouchy jump-blues rhythm sparked up with a slide guitar (god bless Sonny Landreth) and minor-key honky-tonk piano (ditto David Bianco). Its howling, passionate spirit is perfect for the grit and wail of John’s vocals. “Thank god the tiki bar is open,” John growls for dear life in the chorus, “Thank god the tiki torch still shines.” I can see that fake torch flaring by the heavy carved teak doors, smell its lighter-fluid aroma, even now.

The song’s set in Daytona Beach, but I’m not fooled -- Daytona, Indianapolis, switch one car town for another. But Daytona’s a little tawdrier than Indy, and that tawdriness works here – “My suntan dream is out of reach / And the strip malls are robbing me blind.” Life has a way of letting you down; nothing’s ever like what we hoped. He's a lost soul -- "I was out on a leave of absence / From any resemblance to reality" -- and even when redemption is offered, he can't recognize it ("I was driving by His Majesty's Court Hotel / Where the sign said 'praise his name' / I was tired and alone, I couldn't see too well").

A spirit of disappointment and loss dogs this song from start to finish, embodied in verse four’s vanished hero: “Well his name was Mr. Dale Earnhardt / And he drove the black number three / Now the King is gone but he’ll not be forgotten / Nor his like will we ever see.” Just like Elvis in “Riding With the King,” Earnhardt stands for a dream, a lost grace, that’s missing in our pallid modern life.

It’s verse five, though, that gets to the heart of things: “Well, I know a drink ain’t no solution / I ain’t had one in seventeen years / But if that tiki bar was closed tonight ./ Well I might just disappear.” And just like that, in a flash, the metaphor makes sense – the tiki bar is one of those ubiquitous church basement AA meetings, on tap any night of the week. Even seventeen years down the road (Hiatt sings it as “twenty-three years” on the current tour), you never know when you might need to stop in and get your ass redeemed all over again.

Let’s be honest – we all have a pit of some kind yawning under our feet. We all need to find a tiki bar that stays opens 24/7. This is why John Hiatt’s one of my absolute favorite artists: he grapples with those Meaty Questions, but never gets preachy – and never forgets that the song still has to rock your soul.

The Tiki Bar Is Open sample

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"Loving A Hurricane” / John Hiatt


I love John Hiatt’s persona as devoted family man – but what makes it really meaningful for me is that it comes packaged with a wild-at-heart personality. Staying on the straight and narrow is a daily struggle when those demons in your soul – or as Nick Lowe would have it, “The Beast In Me” – refuse to lie quiet.

Hiatt’s 1993 album Perfectly Good Guitar simply howls with untamed spirit. It’s on song after song – “Something Wild” (“When I was a kid I thought that someday / I could tame this lion heart some way, somehow”), “Buffalo River Home” (“I’ve been circling the wagons / Down at Times Square / Trying to fill up this hole in my soul”), or “Cross My Fingers” (“”I’m driftin’ away . . . To a cold white line down a highway in my head”). Every scenario portrays hell breaking out, from the abused woman in “Old Habits” to the betrayed wife of “Permanent Hurt” to the cataclysmic “Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari,” where an overwrought husband splatters his wife’s and kids’ brains on the walls of the family room. Yow. In the snarky title song, Hiatt even gets angry at his fellow rockers – “It breaks my heart to see those stars / Smashing a perfectly good guitar . . .There oughtta be a law with no bail / Smash a guitar and you go to jail.” He’s laughing, but he’s serious (and I happen to think he’s right).

Well, somebody’s got to speak up for the hellraisers, and John Hiatt takes it on like a man with a mission. It all comes together in the album’s final track, “Loving A Hurricane.” This is the flip side of Hiatt’s langorously sexy “Feels Like Rain” – there’s a hurricane blowing in, all right, but HE is the hurricane, and he’s awed by the strength of any woman who’s willing to take him on. “That’s what she gets for loving a hurricane,” he declares over and over, as if that absolves him from all responsibility.

There’s something magnificent and elemental in this love affair, all the same. “The whole foundation just went flying right past her / She put her heart into it, and you just yank it out. / You pulled her love out through the window pane.” I grew up in Indianapolis, same as John (same neighborhood, in fact – I knew him by sight as a kid), and I remember all too well how it felt when tornadoes came whipping through town: Weird green skies, spooky noises, and barometric pressure so high it’d make anybody temporarily insane. I know EXACTLY the kind of love he’s talking about here.

There’s a whole short story in this verse -- “She could have rode off with some Texas tornado / Some mister twister she could kick up her boot heels with / Could have rode him on down to Laredo / But you blew in from the gulf like a hot wet kiss,” fairly panting with lust on that “hot wet kiss” line. In the chorus, Hiatt howls and wails for all he’s worth, repeating “Waaah, wind and rain / Waah, it’s a shame.” The guitar lays down a particular nasty snarling riff, and a fierce drum track rattles the windows. He’s not just talking about passion, he’s acting it out . . . and no woman worth her salt could resist.

Loving a Hurricane sample

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

“Your Dad Did” / John Hiatt


Consensus calls John Hiatt’s 1987 album Bring the Family his “breakthrough album.” I don’t entirely buy that – I’m astonished by how excellent his earlier albums are, the ones nobody bought, and I’m so in love with his later stuff, I’d fight anybody who implied Hiatt hit his peak in 1987.

Still, Bring the Family is brilliant, and it finally made John Hiatt’s name as a performer, not just a songwriter supplying material to folks like Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan. He assembled an extraordinary group of backing musicians -- Ry Cooder on guitar, Jim Keltner on drums, and Nick Lowe on bass, the same gang that later performed under the name Little Village. And he brought to the table a stunning collection of songs, all on the theme of growing up and shouldering responsibility for his own life (part of which included getting sober, a topic I’ll come back to later this week).

If you ask me, the centerpiece of this album is this upbeat rocker, “Your Dad Did,” wherein Hiatt surrenders with gusto to his role as a family man. We follow him from that first gruesome cup of coffee to his grudging day at work (“you might as well / Get out and sell / Your smart ass door to door”) to the chaotic dinner table, and it’s crammed full of dramatic details so vivid, you just know he’s lived it – “The missus wears her robe slightly undone / And your daughter dumps her oatmeal on your son.” (I love how Hiatt uses rhyme to yoke together the yin and yang.)

He doesn’t pretend to love it or to feel content. Work, in fact, is a bitch (“So you go to work / To watch some jerk / Pick up the perks / You were in line to get”) which he reacts to with typical male logic: “So you go and buy a brand new set of wheels / To show your family just how great you feel.” He knows it’s stupid, but he HAS to do it . . . and only afterward does he realize that it’s exactly the same shit his dad used to pull.

The bridge is such a hoot: “You’re a chip off the old block / Why does it come as such a shock / That every road up which you rock / Your dad already did?” I feel the same way whenever I blurt out the exact sentences I hated hearing my mom say. For all the whomping drums, the fuzzy guitar, this is an earth-shaking epiphany: “Yeah, you’ve seen the old man’s ghost / Come back as creamed chipped beef on toast / Now if you don’t get your slice of the roast / You’re gonna flip your lid / Just like your dad did.” In one flash of insight he understands himself, his father, and the world – and accepts it.

My favorite verse comes last, pausing for the tender moment when they gather around the table – “Yeah, the food is cold / And your wife feels old / But all hands fold / As the two-year-old says grace.” It’s a beautiful moment, nothing cheap or cloying about it – but just to flesh out the truth, Hiatt adds the yang to the yin: “She says help the starving children to get well / But let my brother’s hamster burn in hell.” Hiatt dives into that line with such savage glee, you have to laugh.

This song makes me realize that the only way to get through marriage and kids – the only way to get through adulthood at all – is to grin and bear it. If you can’t keep a sense of humor, you’re doomed. That’s why this is the best, truest, realest song I know about family life – except maybe for Hiatt’s “Slow Turning,” or “Seven Little Indians,” or “Crossing Muddy Water” . . .

Monday, August 20, 2007

“Riding With the King” / John Hiatt


Today, August 20th, Mr. John Hiatt turns 54, so you’d better believe he’s getting a full week on my blog. I love Hiatt to the very depths of my soul and I always will.

This past week the media have been obsessed with the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, so why not start with Hiatt’s own Presley tribute, from his 1983 album Riding With the King (which, by the way, was the first collaboration between Hiatt and producer/bassist Nick Lowe -- you know I’ve got to love it). You may have heard Eric Clapton’s cover, or B. B. King’s (those guys know a good song when they hear one), but Hiatt’s own version is the one that really smokes.

He opens the track with a lazy strutting guitar riff that sounds to me exactly like the way Elvis walked, taking his time, knowing that he had the stuff. This riff dominates the song, butting in again at every major moment, but there’s also emphatic drums (Robert Treherne, a.k.a. Bobby Irwin) and a shimmering organ flourish (the divine Paul Carrack – Lowe definitely brought in his A-team for these tracks). It's a supremely confident track, just like Elvis himself.

But it isn’t Elvis talking in this song, it’s just an ordinary guy – Hiatt writes ordinary guys so well – whose mundane life is inspired by Presley. “I dreamed I had a good job and I got well paid,” he drawls, then defiantly adds “I blew it all at the penny arcade./ A hundred dollars on a kewpie doll./ No pretty chick is gonna make me crawl.” I can’t say which one, but I imagine this as a scene from an Elvis movie – can’t you just see it?

The chorus is wonderful, the way it mashes together gospel and modern life: “Get on a TWA to the promised land. / Every woman, child and man / Gets a Cadillac and a great big diamond ring. / Don't you know you're riding with the king?” Later on in the bridge, he adds one of my favorite lines of all time: “Tonight everybody's getting their angel wings.” It perfectly evokes A Wonderful Life, and also makes me see those little pins the airlines used to give kids on their first flights. I still want a set of those wings.

Okay, so it’s only a dream – but it’s a GREAT dream, the kind of dream that gets you through daily life. And that’s why Elvis mattered. Hiatt, that good Catholic boy, reels out all his Messiah imagery in verse two: “He's on a mission of mercy to the new frontier, / He's gonna check us all on out of here. / Up to that mansion on a hill / Where you can get your prescription filled.” There’s Graceland as Heaven, right down to the pharmacopia Presley must have kept on hand. In verse three, he’s a superhero, too (“A red cape and a shiny cold 45 / I never saw his face but I saw the light”). Whatever you needed Elvis to be, he was, somehow, like magic.

But in verse four, again it’s not about Elvis, it’s the guy grooving on the dream of Elvis: “I stepped out of Mississippi when I was ten years old / With a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart made of gold. / I had a guitar hanging just about waist high / And I'm gonna play this thing until the day I die.” Hiatt pulls that line out in his most passionate raspy goddam howl, the same one he uses on “Perfectly Good Guitar” or “Master of Disaster,” two other iconic song about man and his guitar. When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, John Hiatt is a true believer – and he makes me one too.

Riding With the King sample

Friday, August 17, 2007

"Crying Time" / Ray Charles

And while I'm down there in the vault, I have to pay homage to this 1966 track by the master, Ray Charles. (For the record: I was a Ray Charles fan long before that movie Ray came out.)This was always my favorite hit of his, even when I was a kid. It never occurred to me, of course, that as a black R&B artist he shouldn't sound so much like a country & western crooner (in fact the song was recorded first by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, but I didn't know that). It certainly never occurred to me that the track was loaded with schmaltzy strings, in a way that no self-respecting R&B song ever should have been. All I knew was that the song was supposed to be about lonesomeness and heartbreak, and it simply oozed lonesomeness and heartbreak. It got the job done.

I love the hesitant way he launches into those first few notes, like he can't bear to broach the subject with his woman: "Oh oh it's cryin' time again, / You're gonna leave me." There's something sweet about how much attention he's been paying to the signs, too -- "I can see that faraway look in your eyes / I can tell by the way you hold me darlin' / Oooh / That it won't be long before it's cryin' time." Those woozy harmonies on "faraway" and "I can tell" are so grinding, so miserable -- so perfect.

He lets a velvety hoarseness creep into his voice as he pleadingly repeats all the old adages, with that mocking little back-up echo: "Now they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder (fonder)/ And that tears are only rain to make love grow / Well my love for you could never grow no stronger (stronger) / If I lived to be a hundred years old." He makes himself sound about a hundred years old, too, weary and croaking and worn out. Ray Charles was such an expressive singer, and such a storyteller, he never forgot what the song was about.

Just hear how he begins to fumble the rhythm as he regretfully reminds her of what she's done: "Now you say you've found someone that you love better (better) / That's the way it's happened every time before / And as sure as the sun comes up tomorrow ('morrow) / Cryin' time will start when you walk out the door." She should feel guilty, she really should, and yeah, he's playing for sympathy. But he's also feeling doggone sorry for himself -- and he should.

We don't know anything about this woman, why he loves her, where they've been together (except that she's left him before, and come back, apparently). We're in the moment with him, negotiating as hard as he can for her to stay. This song is pure cornball emotion -- but Ray Charles never was one to back off from emotion. Let's just go for it; why not? And if it makes you get a little choked up, well, good -- that's the way it's supposed to work.

Crying Time sample

Thursday, August 16, 2007

“Walk Away Renee” / The Left Banke

I’ve really been poking around in my mental music vault a lot lately – I don’t know why – and I keep coming back to this 1966 single by the shoulda-been-bigger band The Left Banke. (Extra letters tacked onto words in a band name are a sure marker of the 60s.) I owned this 45 years ago, and played it to death. It was just the sort of song that an adolescent girl would moon over, a classic expression of tremulous young love.

Now I find out that the song was written by the band’s keyboard player, Michael Brown, who was only 16 at the time – and it was written about the bassist’s girlfriend, Renée, on whom Brown had a giant unrequited crush. So that’s why it captures so perfectly the whiny anguish of love lost! Brown apparently also wrote my other favorite Left Banke number, “Pretty Ballerina,” about Renée. (I guess we can assume that the bassist knew Brown longed to cut in on his girl.) The story goes that Brown was about to record his harpsichord part when Renée herself walked into the studio, and his hands shook so badly, he couldn’t play. I love that story.

Using a girl’s name in the title was no doubt inspired by the Beatles’ similarly yearning hit, “Michelle,” just as the classical touches in the arrangement came out of “Yesterday” (though the flute in the middle also reminds me of “California Dreamin’,” another recent hit record at the time). It’s very much a song of its time – and yet it’s timeless, too, all that angsty emotion. It still chokes me up.

The odd thing, when you realize it, is that the singer isn’t begging her to come back – in the chorus, he’s not saying “Don’t walk away, Renée,” he’s saying “Just walk away, Renée / You won’t see me follow you back home.” This unrequited love is too much for him to bear, and he needs out of it -- there’s passion for you. Without any details, these lines somehow summon up a vivid scene; I can just see the girl’s back as she walks away. We’ve all watched someone we love walk away like that. We know how it rips your heart out.

But for a 16-year-old, Brown pretty shrewdly pinned down the life-altering power of this emotion: “And when I see the sign / It points one way / The life we used to lead / Everyday.” There’s no going back, is there? “The empty sidewalks on my block / They're not the same” (though he does cut her a break, adding “You're not to blame”). Here’s my favorite verse: “Your name and mine inside / A heart on a wall / Still finds a way to haunt me / Though they're so small.” Was there ever a sweeter lyric about lover’s graffiti?

So we leave poor Mike Brown, fumbling blindly on his harpsichord, “Now as the rain beats down / Upon my weary eyes / For me I cry.” Yeah, that’s it, that’s the perfect note of self-pity. You nailed it, man.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

“Last Train to Clarksville” / The Monkees

I wonder what people who never saw the Monkees’ TV show think when they hear their music. These guys really were a good band; their songs deserve much more respect than they’re usually given. But I am helplessly subjective, because in 1966 I was the PERFECT age to be a Monkees fan. I tuned into that show faithfully each week; I read every magazine article I could find about the Monkees; I had endless debates with my friends about which Monkee was cutest. (Davy Jones, absolutely, no contest.)

It was a brilliant TV show, with delirious energy and that same subversive, cockeyed wit that had made A Hard Days’ Night so groundbreaking. It’s easy now to assume that network TV was cynically packaging youth culture, but those were more innocent times; I prefer to believe that a scared bunch of network execs knew they needed something fresh and turned over the reins to young mavericks like Bob Rafelson to save their butts. For one brief, shining moment the inmates were allowed to run the nuthouse, and it was wonderful.

So forgive me if I love these Monkees songs more than they deserve. There’s history there. I can’t hear “Last Train to Clarksville” (their debut single) without visualizing Mickey Dolenz singing so earnestly behind his drum kit. That sibilant tambourine? That was Davy, working the percussion accessories for all he was worth. And Mike Nesmith, always in that dumb wool knit cap, wryly raising his eyebrows as he peeled off those guitar riffs; Peter Tork (rhymes with ‘dork’), brow furrowed as he concentrated on his repeated bass phrase.

Network resources did allow the Monkees to buy songs from the best songwriters around, in this case Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Those pros knew right where to go to rip off a great sound – the melody is patterned after the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and the harmonies are straight outta “Paperback Writer.” Mickey and Davy couldn’t play their instruments yet when this was recorded, but they were both fine vocalists (Davy came fresh from playing the Artful Dodger in the London production of Oliver!) and there was no faking those harmonies. Those nifty “dih-dih-dih-dihs” in the middle eight, backed by the tambourine, have an exotic Eastern sound, very au courant for ’66.

The scenario for “Last Train to Clarksville” is familiar: it’s a classic phone call song. “Take the last train to Clarksville, / And I'll meet you at the station. / You can be there by four thirty, / 'Cause I made your reservation.” But the key to the song is at the end of the chorus: “And I don’t know if I’m ever coming home.” As a kid, I didn’t worry about what that line meant; I was certain this song was about a touring musician. However, Boyce and Hart were trying to slip political protest past the network suits – they wrote it as a song about a soldier shipping out to Vietnam, but kept it intentionally vague. (Clarksville was an Air Force base in Arizona, where Hart grew up.) This gives more meaning to the lines “'Cause I'm leaving in the morning / And I must see you again / We'll have one more night together / 'Til the morning brings my train”; it makes the anguish in Mickey’s singing all the more apt. The fact that it’s the last train becomes doubly poignant now.

I love the line “We'll have time for coffee-flavored kisses / And a bit of conversation” (shades of Rod McKuen – but that’s what I thought poetry was in 1966). And then, of course, there’s the plaintive “Now I must hang up the phone. / I can't hear you in this noisy / Railroad station, all alone / And feeling low. / Oh, no, no, no!” Mickey’s phrasing on this is just great; you can just imagine the poor dumb draftee choking up.

So you tell me – do I just love this song because of my girlhood crush on Davy Jones, or is it really a great track? I’ll be waiting at the station for your answer.

Last Train to Clarksville sample

Monday, August 13, 2007

“Out of Time” / Chris Farlowe

I’ve never been all that impressed with the songwriting skills of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – that is, unless their songs are sung by Chris Farlowe. And then suddenly I dig them, big-time.

I didn’t even know who Chris Farlowe was until a couple years ago – his records never hit big in the States (I guess since we already had Otis Redding, the suits figured we didn’t also need a white English guy singing “Mr. Pitiful”). But I recently acquired a 2-CD set of Farlowe’s 60s recordings, and I’m astounded that he wasn’t a bigger name over here. I for one would have eaten him up, just like I did Eric Burdon and Van Morrison.

There are plenty of Stones covers on these discs, which is no coincidence -- Farlowe was managed by the Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who used Farlowe to extend their franchise. But in my opinion that trick backfired on Oldham; Farlowe’s versions only expose the Stones’ limitations. He positively sizzles on “Satisfaction” and “Paint It Black”; he gives “I’m Free” a hoarse gasp of release that totally transforms it.

The first track of Farlowe’s I ever heard was another Jagger/Richards number, “Out of Time” (1967), which I found on a British Invasion anthology. Despite the girl-groupish arrangement – the opening riff copies the Shirelles’ “Soldier Boy”-- I suppose I recognized it from the Stones’ rendition (it was dropped off the US version of Aftermath but we got it eventually on the compilation Flowers, which my brother owned). But as I recall, Jagger brayed this with a snide swagger that I instinctively disliked.

Farlowe, however, gives it a shiver of empathy -- you really believe that he’s sorry for this old girlfriend who’s suddenly resurfaced -- and that turns it into a whole different song. “You don't know what's going on,” he tells her, gently, “You've been away for far too long / You can't come back and think you are still mine” – he not only feels sorry for her, he feels sorry for himself, too. She meant something to him once, damn it, and as his heart swells, his voice rises to a passionate howl. “You're out of touch, my baby / My poor discarded baby / I said, baby, baby, baby, you're out of time.” I can just see him, sorrowfully caressing her cheek.

“You thought you were a clever girl,” he says huskily in the second verse, “Giving up your social whirl / But you can't come back and be the first in line, oh yeah.” The sentiment is brutal in Jagger’s hands, but with Farlowe it’s just the way of the world; things change, people change, you can’t help it. His timing is exquisite -- those little millisecond pauses he slips in, expressing so much reluctance and regret. “You're obsolete my baby / My poor old favorite baby / I said baby, baby, baby you're out of time.” I love how he chokes up on that word “favorite” (changed from the critical “old-fashioned” in the original, you notice).

I’m grooving on Chris Farlowe for the same reasons I’ve always grooved on Dusty Springfield, the way she drank in those American r&b classics as if she’d been dying of thirst. It’s not just the power of their voices, it’s the smoky timbre, the phrasing, the emotional delivery – they sang these songs like souls possessed. With the Rolling Stones, I’m always aware that they’re white Brits posing as bluesmen – with Chris and Dusty, skin color and national origin become irrelevant. The music’s all that matters, and the music is sublime.

Out of Time sample

Friday, August 10, 2007

“Blue Flame” / Joe Jackson

Volume 4 is such a superb album, it justifies all the bends in the road that brought Joe Jackson here. I’m not just talking musically, though it's an exquisite fusion of rock and jazz and Latin music and cabaret and everything else. But what really takes my breath away is how his songwriting has matured – those melancholy melodies, the poetic imagery of the lyrics, the psychological depth of the storytelling. Music for grown-ups, again -- and you know how I love that.

I realize I’ve already worked over “Awkward Age” and “Love At First Light”; now add “Blue Flame” to the list of songs from this 2003 album that completely wrench my heart.

It wastes no time, but plunges right in, mid-conversation: “I’ve got some walls around me too / But they’re not much, compared to your house / Fifty feet high, with barbed wire / Guards on the top, aiming rifles at your lovers one by one / And friends too.” Don’t you just know people like that? And the way that melody meanders in and out of minor keys, piano chords hanging unresolved, the drumbeat clicking along like a ticking clock – it’s so wistful, so sorrowful, you have to take it seriously.

“I’ve come with hands above my head,” he declares, carrying on the metaphor, but he’s brutally honest about his own hang-ups: “But I’m damned if I’ll try to break your door down / If you ever come out, just call me / I’ll still be armed with the memory of one evening when you smiled / At something.” It’s so little to go on, but at a certain point in our lives we realize that may be all there is. Taking a risk gets so damn hard – but NOT taking the risk, that’s death.

Yes, this hoped-for lover is a hard case – “You tell me women get you down / And as for men, well they’re all bastards / I wonder what world you call home,” he mutters, shaking his head. Later, he can’t resist an edgy snipe: “Yes, it was nice to see you too / Although I’m never sure you mean it.” Yes, he can see perfectly clearly his would-be lover’s faults. Leading into the second chorus, he’s talking as much to himself as to his lover when he remarks, “Bitterness is a black hole.” But somebody has to bend.

So why is this lover worth pursuing? He lays it bare in the chorus: “There’s a blue flame inside of you, so beautiful and rare / Love’s not something we decide to do / You’d be so hard to love / If love was not just . . . there.” Of course; they're already entangled, more than either of them can afford to admit. Who ever said love was easy?

Here’s the kicker – we have NO idea how this affair will turn out. If a happy ending is what you’re hanging around for, prepare to be disappointed. The romantic and the realist in Joe Jackson are always locked in their hopeless dance; neither one will ever win. That’s the world according to Joe Jackson . . . and I for one can’t get enough of it.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

"Jack, You're Dead!" / Joe Jackson

I guess a lot of people were baffled, even turned off, by the directions (jazz, classical, movie soundtracks) Joe Jackson went after his big mid-80s success. Not me -- because I knew he'd also recorded Jumpin' Jive in 1981. Although I didn't discover it until a few years later, Jumpin' Jive connected the dots for me; it completely explains how he got from Look Sharp! to the jazziness of Night and Day.

The story, as Jackson tells it, makes complete sense; his original band broke up and Jackson needed a break after a few years of non-stop touring; then he was ill with glandular fever (mononucleosis, for us Yankees). He revived his spirits by listening to a lot of old jump-blues and swing records and eventually put a band together to work up a few gigs. Which of course turned into complete tours and an LP.

Even though these aren't Jackson original compositions, even though it was recorded earlier, for me this album represents Joe Jackson's "lost" years -- "lost" only if you have no taste for anything but rock and roll. I happen to love jazz and classical music too, so for me Joe was never lost. In the late 80s and 90s, he was just expanding his repertoire, and when he finally came back to rock 'n' roll, his music was all the richer for it.

Wry hepcat humor is a big part of all these jump-blues numbers (so that's why it runs through Joe's rock songs too) and "Jack, You're Dead" is ripe with it. Just dig the first verse: "When you've got no more assurance / Than a great big hunk of lead / You don't respond to romance -- / Jack, you're dead! / When a chick is smiling at you / Even though there's nothing said / You stand there like a statue -- / Jack, you're dead!" Bopping along brightly, with a sizzling horn section going nuts, this is the antithesis of Rat Pack cool. You feel like you should be wearing a porkpie hat just to listen to this stuff.

Clearly this is NOT drawn from the English suburban experience -- "You been always kickin' / But you stub your toes / When you ups and kicks the bucket / Just like old man Mose." On one hand, it's not about the language of the lyrics anyway, it's about those whaling horn solos and Joe's enthusiastic vocals. But on the other hand, it IS about the lyrics, and about that jaundiced, rueful frame of mind they express -- a frame of mind that seems to fit Joe Jackson like a glove. "When you get no kicks from lovin' / And the news begin to spread / All the cats will holler 'Murder!' / Jack, you dead" -- how different is this, really, from "It's Different For Girls" or "Take It Like A Man"?

The main thing, though, is that these guys seem to having a GREAT time playing this music, and you can't help but have a great time yourself listening to them. They're not working it with hipster irony; they're just excellent musicians happily exploring new territory. So maybe, in the end, Joe Jackson isn't Cab Calloway or Louis Jordan. Who cares? He's still a skinny English white guy, but he's a skinny English white guy in a porkpie hat, and he can play the piano like nobody's business. Gotta love it.

Jack, You're Dead sample

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

"Steppin' Out" / Joe Jackson

Night and Day was the first Joe Jackson album I fell in love with, and I mean IN LOVE -- I played it night and day, indeed. The Cole Porter reference in the title always seemed particularly appropriate; there's a certain champagne-cocktail sophistication here that was new for a Joe Jackson album. I had just moved to New York and I loved the downtown elegance of this record, a quirky thing in 1982 when all the other New Wave types were going for downtown grit and squalor. Yes, it does have that techno-synth pulsing like traffic in the rhythm track -- a very 80s touch -- but it feels totally different here; it just makes the tone sparkle even more. And that vibraphone chattering away, like street lights glinting off chrome taxi bumpers -- perfect.

Joe Jackson must have absolutely huge hands; these are big chords he's playing here, pounding out octave spans in rapid-fire succession. All those key shifts make me think of a car shifting gears, or perhaps the way a synchronized series of traffic lights down the avenues change color in tandem (the electric piano makes this even more metallic and glittery). It gives this song a sweep and majesty that's truly thrilling.

Playing against all of this comes the tender poetry of these lyrics: "Now -- the mist across the window hides the lines / But nothing hides the colour of the lights that shine / Electricity so fine / Look and dry your eyes." So there's been a fight, or some sort of upset, and this whole foray is meant to cheer her up -- how sweet. He coaxes her gently, "We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives / With no more angry words to say, can come alive, / Get into a car and drive / To the other side." Will they really get to the other side just by driving? Maybe not, but the way those chords keep fighting upward makes me root for them (for us) with all my heart.

"We are young but getting old before our time," he admits, and I love that rueful line, that world-weary note which makes the retro feel of this album so perfect. "We'll leave the TV and the radio behind / Don't you wonder what we'll find / Steppin' out tonight?" It's an adventure, and old as they feel, they CAN be young again: "You can dress in pink and blue just like a child / And in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile/ We'll be there in just a while / If you follow me." I think of John Hiatt's "Have A Little Faith In Me," which holds out its hand with the same sort of determined we-can-make-it trust. It's a transforming, life-affirming song with no false promises.

The chorus, with its soaring short phrases, says it all: "Me babe / Steppin' out / Into the night / Into the light / You babe / Steppin' out / Into the night / Into the light." Two people, heading into darkness, staking everything on finding something brighter and better.

In 1982 I wasn't much of a grown-up yet myself, but I could tell this was music for grown-ups -- I could tell it was a song I would never outgrow. Twenty-five years later, it sounds as fresh and modern as it did the day it was recorded. I knew then that Joe Jackson was the real deal . . . and that I'd just have to wait and see how he'd surprise me next.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

"Fools In Love" / Joe Jackson

This coming Saturday, August 11, is Joe Jackson's birthday (he'll be 53), so I'm declaring the rest of this week Joe Jackson Week. And what a pleasure it will be to write about Joe Jackson; he's one of those wonderful artists I never listen to as much as I could. I forget how much I like him, until a song comes up on my shuffle and is just so glorious it stops me in my tracks.

Like this one, from his 1979 album Look Sharp! -- as soon as that slouching ska intro begins, I sit up and grin. That ska accent is a dead New Wave giveaway, but Joe was never a knee-jerk New Waver, and soon this song sidles into jazz territory, where Joe's pianistic skills can really shine. "Fools in love," he starts off, confidingly, as though shaking his head -- "Are there any other kind of lovers?" Dropping his voice lower, he rattles off a list of the annoying symptoms, in finger-wagging tempo: "Everything you do / Everywhere you go, now / Everything you touch, / Everything you feel / Everything you see, / Everything you know, now / Everything you do, you do it for your lady love / Your lady love, your lady love," repeated fiercely with big twanging strums on the guitar. Tsk-tsk. "Fools in love," he sings, returning to the verse, "are there any creatures more pathetic?" flinging off that last adjective with such fastidious scorn, you can't help but agree.

But in the chorus, a little more earnestness creeps into his voice and he rises to a higher register, almost yelping: "Fools in love, they think they're heroes / Cause they get to feel no pain / I say fools in love are zeroes / I should know" -- then, with a dramatic pause, he caustically turns the whole thing on its head. "I should know because this fool's in love." Just by sticking in an apostrophe, he changes the whole meaning of the title. Brilliant.

Self-hatred is an underexplored emotion in rock 'n' roll, and nobody expresses self-hatred with as much delicious flair as Joe Jackson. It sits very well on him -- tall, gawky, bony, pale, balding, he looks like a guy who just might have self-esteem issues. Whether he actually does or not is totally irrelevant; somebody in pop music needs to speak for the sensitive geeks among us. He never buys us off cheap by pretending it's going to be all right, either. And as he rips off that cathartic, elegant piano solo in the middle eight, he absolutely vindicates himself. Man, I'll listen to this fool in love any day.

Fools In Love sample

Friday, August 03, 2007

"Is That Love" / Squeeze

I'm all psyched because I've got tickets to go see Squeeze tonight!! Even better, the opening act is Fountains of Wayne; now that's a double bill I couldn't resist. I'm a little bummed that this Squeeze reunion tour doesn't include Paul Carrack -- I think the period when he was with them was their best -- but so long as both Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook are on stage, it counts as Squeeze.

I never really consider Squeeze a New Wave band -- they were always more fun and clever than serious New Wavers like the Talking Heads or even their pal Elvis Costello. I put them in a camp with Joe Jackson and XTC, irresistible popmeisters with a gift for hooks, riffs, and melodies you can't get out of your head. Just listen to the breathless energy of "Is That Love" -- it almost distracts you from the fact that this is one jaundiced view of the war between the sexes.

It's a pretty snarky catalog of domestic wrongs -- "You've left my ring by the soap...You cleaned me out, you could say broke...You won't get dressed, you walk about...A teasing glance has pushed me out" -- each one followed by the wistful complaint, "Now is that love?" But it seems like this guy is perfectly capable of fighting back, as he relates in the bridge: "Beat me up with your letters, your walk-out notes, / Funny how you still find me right here at home. / Legs up with a book and a drink / Now is that love that's making you think." I can just see him, coolly waiting for her return, acting like it's no big deal. (Why, I've pulled that one myself.) Nothing like taking the hot air out of a melodramatic scene to really piss off somebody.

So what is love? Hanging in there, forgiving, being patient -- "The better better better it gets / The more these girls forget / That that is love," or as he sings the third time around, "It's the cupid cupid cupid disguise / That more or less survived / Now that is love." But the brisk finger-wagging tempo doesn't exactly sound patient and loving, and the melody keeps taking testy dips into minor keys. There's plenty of edge to this track, just like I like it.

Difford and Tillbrook were often billed as "the next Lennon & McCartney" -- a pretty daunting label for anybody to live up to. The similarities are clear, given their bouncy melodies and deft wordplay. To me, though, they are just as much the heirs of Ray Davies; the best Squeeze songs are perfectly crafted little short stories, full of psychological complexity, just like the best Kinks songs. I get such a sense of this couple, the way they're gritting their teeth and taking sly swipes at one another. No one's throwing the telly through the window, at least not yet (just compare this to the marital warfare in Dr. Feelgood's "Don't Wait Up"). But hey, that could start any minute now -- fasten your seatbelts!

Is That Love sample

Thursday, August 02, 2007

"I've Been Loving You Too Long" / Otis Redding

I saw a fabulous documentary on PBS last night about the history of Stax Records, which got me to thinking Otis Redding thoughts. Every shot of him in that film showed an exuberant smiling face glowing with life and love of the music; all over again I felt sad that he died so young, just when his big crossover success was about to happen.

The Stax sound was tougher, sweatier, and just plain funkier than the Motown I was raised on; the AM radio stations I listened to in Indianapolis were willing to play Stevie Wonder and the Supremes but I sincerely doubt I ever heard this track as a kid. We got nothing, really, until "Sitting On the Dock of the Bay," and by then Otis had already gone down in that tragic plane crash. Ah, well, I wouldn't have known what to do with this song then anyway. It's absolutely drenched with desire and pain and a whole lot of other things that Otis Redding's shivery grit-edged voice could express better than anybody else.

The title's a little misleading -- "I've been loving you too long" sounds like he's bored and ready to give it up, but in fact the full line says "I've been loving you too long / To stop now." This is guy hooked on his woman, hooked bad, and the way Otis's voice pauses, then trembles in agony, you know he's not simply amortizing his investment. There's something almost dreadful about that weary tempo, those hammering piano chords, the dogged shifts from major to minor keys. He CAN'T stop loving her; she's become a "habit" to him, and I'm guessing more like a drug addiction than a Henry Higgins "I've grown accustomed to her face" sort of habit.

And now comes the hard part: she's NOT in love the same way. "You are tired and you want to be free...You are tired and your love is growing cold" -- he can see it all too well. It's killing him. So he's here, putting EVERYTHING on the line to hold onto her. If this doesn't justify a crescendo of Memphis horns, I don't know what would.

I love how Otis backs off some of those lyrics, as if he's in too much pain to face it (even the guitar seems to flinch and get tentative). He wails full force on "My love is growing stronger" then chokes his way through "as our affair, affair, grows old." I absolutely believe him when he testifies "Don't make me stop now / No baby / I'm down on my knees / Please, don't make me stop now / I love you, I love you, I love you with all of my heart." This is not a song with tight clever lyrics; it's almost like improv, and I picture Otis Redding literally dropping onto his knees, swaying and swooning, getting all worked up the way Sam & Dave or James Brown used to do. God, I wish I'd been lucky enough to see this man perform live.

This song is simply the essence of soul -- an artist's heart and naked essence laid out on stage, no holding back. Even though Stax had a stable of excellent songwriters -- Isaac Hayes among them, before he made it as an artist -- Otis Redding was one of those rare soul artists who wrote his own material (this song he co-wrote with Jerry Butler) and I suspect that helped him pour that extra throb of passion into his songs. Who else could pull this off? I could never buy the Stones' cover, though Chris Farlowe's is suprisingly close to the mark.

It's an undeniably great track, and I'm VERY happy to have it in my head today.

I've Been Loving You Too Long sample

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"I Walk The Line" / Johnny Cash

Last night at Yankee Stadium, one of the trivia quizzes between innings involved the Yankees voting on their favorite Johnny Cash song. This song won hands-down, of course. Well, maybe the New York Yankees aren't the most reliable music experts in the world, but since "The Beast In Me" wasn't an option, I'd have gone for "I Walk The Line" too; it's a riveting track, full of piss and vinegar, and I've always loved it.

I grew up with a deep-dyed prejudice against country music, but somehow I never included Johnny Cash in there. The country label never fit him, anyway; he sat right at the crossroads between country and rock, blazing his own trail. In a blind taste test, if you played Cash's "Cry, Cry, Cry," "Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely", Ray Charles' "Crying Time", and Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" together, I bet you wouldn't be able to tell which were country and which were rock and which were R&B -- but you'd sure enjoy it all.

Cash's persona was always that of a caged tiger, and this song snarls proudly from behind those frail and fragile bars. The tempo is just a little faster and more breathless than you remember it, as if hanging on for dear life; that bass line is brisk and relentless, the drum brushes chuffing along to keep up. "I keep a close watch on this heart of mine," Cash informs us in his gravelly baritone, "I keep my eyes wide open all the time / I keep the ends out for the tie that binds." There's too much crackling energy to his voice for him to be the sort of uptight dude who'd act this way, but we soon find out why he's being so good: "Because you're mine / I walk the line." And the way his voice lands with a grateful shiver on the deep note of "mine" -- well, that's love for you.

Being good for the sake of a woman means a whole lot more coming from a confirmed hellraiser; that's the measure of his commitment. Fidelity? Piece of cake -- "I find it very very easy to be true / I find myself alone when each day is through." Constant attention? "I keep you on my mind both day and night." And he doesn't even try to take the credit for it: "You've got a way to keep me on your side / You give me cause for love that I can't hide." This has to be one of the most well-adjusted love songs in the history of pop music.

It's Cash's delivery that gives it all the tension, of course; that trademark growl, the occasional gruff quiver in his voice. Despite the lyrics, I get the feeling that walking that line is a daily battle for this guy. And yet he does it, without a word of regret or blame or demand -- nothing but strength and courage and unequivocal passion, coming at us so intently, I need to draw a VERY DEEP BREATH when this song has hurtled to its close.

This is how a man in love ought to act, dammit. Whew! I better go sit on the porch now and cool off.

I Walk The Line sample