Monday, October 29, 2007

"You're Asking Me"/Ray Davies

Sorry I checked out for a few days; I got seriously distracted by the release of Ray Davies' new album, Working Man's Cafe. Of course, getting my hands on it required tenacious sleuthing -- at first there were three tracks on Ray's MySpace page, but they soon disappeared (they've since materialized again, but who knows for how long?). Then all 12 tracks were available on iTunes, but only for 48 hours. For weeks it was listed on Amazon as a pricey import, but last I checked you could only get in the queue to be advised when it was available (hopefully this means that a deal with a US label is pending -- cross your fingers!).

Luckily for me, I grabbed the MySpace tracks early on, downloaded the rest during that fleeting window of opportunity on iTunes, and last week received the CD itself as pre-ordered from a UK on-line record store, CD Wow. I also had friends in England poised to scoop up an extra copy of the free 10-track promo given away with the 21st October Sunday Times. (GIVEN AWAY FOR FREE -- why can't American newspapers do giveaways like this!!?) But how many of Ray Davies' potential US listeners would do all this to finagle a copy of Working Man's Cafe?

Well, I've been a Ray Davies fan a long time -- by now I should be used to his perplexing marketing logic. It's business as usual in the bizarro world of Kinkdom. If the music wasn't so damn good, we'd never put up with this, that's for sure.

And this music is gooooooooood. The WMC track I'm currently obsessed with is called "You're Asking Me," a particularly snarky little number in which Ray Davies irritably shrugs off the mantle of Wise Old Man. I'm not sure whom he's addressing in this song -- a daughter pleading for fatherly advice? a younger musician eager to learn at the feet of the master? a youthful girlfriend, leaning on Ray for wisdom and guidance? Whoever it is, he's having none of it. "If you're asking me, don't take my advice!" he snaps at the end of every other verse.

Sure, part of this is simply Ray dodging away from emotional entanglement (the latest in a long line of songs, dating back to "Stop Your Sobbing"). "Don't make me responsible / For you living your life," he warns her. "It’s up to you to go and make / Your own mistakes / Have a go and break a leg but / Please don’t come home crying when you do." There's genuine panic in his voice as he repeatedly spits out, "Get a life, get a life, GET A LIFE!"

But it's also the bafflement of a man who's been around long enough to know that there are no easy answers. In the bridge, against a rueful Beatle-ish background of wistful "oohs" and strummed seventh chords, Ray laments: "Do we learn from all the questions that we ask? / Do we listen to the past? We never do." In verse two, he puts these words in her mouth: "Because I’ve been around, I have the insight / And I was there the first time / So I must know what it’s like." But he turns that misconception on its head in verse three: "Because I’ve been there before / Doesn’t come to pass / That I have all the answers." I love those falsetto doubled vocals when he "quotes" her. Ray's voice here bears an eerie resemblance to David Bowie -- those punched-out syllables of "cry-ing when you do" and "noth-ing left to fear," the octave-jump flourish on "ad-vi-hice!" Only fitting, of course, since Bowie imitated Ray like crazy in the early years of his career.

There are no answers, and if there were, Ray'd be the last bloke to have them. "First time around it was really grand," he admits in the second bridge, "But inside something said to me / 'Go get a life, get a life.' / Now that I’m here I can’t understand / Why anyone is asking me -- if I could give a damn." That last part's important. He just doesn't care about being anybody's guru. I can't help thinking of John Lennon, wearily singing "a working-class hero is something to be." Who wants the responsibility of so many dreamers hanging on his every word?

Lennon, though, used that melancholy ballad to blast away at the constricting tangle of modern society. Ray just seems . . . well, pissed-off. That twiddling guitar riff at the beginning sounds exactly like someone slithering out the door; the tempo skips around like a boxer bobbing and weaving, and behind those snide "get a life's" there's an aggressive flailing of drums and crunchy guitar. It's gritty and astingent -- definitely not the sound of a mellow old man. Ray has found his own way to grow old, and it's anything but graceful. But Ray Davies has never been like everybody else -- why start now?

Monday, October 22, 2007

"Some Dusty Things" / Ron Sexsmith

My thing for Ron Sexsmith has been growing exponentially since I saw him open for Nick Lowe out in the Midwest a couple weeks ago. At the show, I bought his latest CD, Time Being, a wonderful album I've been playing pretty constantly ever since. It just happens to be a very spiritual, very consoling album -- and consolation's what I've needed lately.

So of course I took Time Being with me on a road trip last weekend -- and left it in the rental car when I turned it in. Somewhere, some Avis renter in Pennsylvania is now discovering the magic of Ron Sexsmith. Well, so it goes. I've got my replacement copy ordered already, and luckily I'd downloaded it all onto my computer to get me through.

"Some Dusty Things" is perfect proof of how Ron Sexsmith's music can heal the soul -- there's no proselytizing here, no haranguing, just a tender rumination on life's fleeting joys, set to a gently rocking acoustic beat. It starts out taking a cosmic view: "The world is a very small place / And before we know / We're back in our own space" (not like personal space, but some hazy spirit-matter limbo). So what anchors us in the here and now? "Some dusty things to remind us all / Of our time on earth," Sexsmith declares, "How sweet and precious it was / And we will never be the same." It's so simple, and so perfect.

At first I picture an attic full of dust-furred relics, trunks and scrapbooks and old rocking chairs. (And of course that obligatory dressmaker's dummy, featured in every cartoon attic.) But Ron never gets specific about those "dusty things" -- until I begin to realize he means US. As in ashes to ashes, dust to dust -- we are the dusty things that human hearts attach to. In verse two, he adds: "For love is a very small word / It's easy to say, but seldom is heard / Above the war that lives on and on / In the hearts of men." And in verse three, he narrows it down even more: "The world is a very hard place / When lost in a crowd, you search for a kind face / Some trusting soul to confide in, / Arms we can hide in, too." I'm getting verklempt.

The melody soars yearningly into the bridge: "Have no fear, / We are nearing the end / We'll just drink to old friends." Ron's high choirboy vocal cracks just a little here and there, which is so damn endearing I can't stand it. (That little trill on "small place," "small word," and "hard place" gets me too.) What's so great about Ron Sexsmith's music is how the whole package matches up, emotive tunes and soulful lyrics and that exquisitely sweet voice. Magic, indeed.

I read in an interview that when Ron was writing Time Being, a couple of his friends died, and the album is at least partly his response to those deaths. As you'd expect, there's not a false emotional note here -- just a modest, genuine reflection on this mortal coil. In the grip of grief, it's just what we need.

Some Dusty Things sample

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"Strangers" / The Kinks

It's not as if I haven't written about the Kinks before -- but here, for a change, is a Dave Davies original, which has been echoing in my brain ever since I saw the Wes Anderson film The Darjeeling Limited last weekend. The Darjeeling Limited is about three brothers and their complicated love-hate relationship, so how perfect is it to use songs by the warring Davies brothers. ("This Time Tomorrow" and "Powerman" are the other two Kinks tunes on the soundtrack.)

"Strangers" is one of those songs I tend to forget about, and not just because it's a Dave song -- with that heavy guitar strum, the distant echoing vocals, the lurching rhythm, it has a folky vibe I don't often associate with the Kinks. It could almost be a track from the Band; Dave's lonesome vocal here is distinctly Levon Helm-like. And the riddling question-and-answer lyrics definitely feel like a folk ballad: "Where are you going? / I don't mind / I've killed my world and I've killed my time / So where do I go, what do I see? / I see many people coming after me." I get a fugitive image there, for sure -- those people coming after him could easily be a posse riding him out of town. A classic folk ballad image, the exiled wanderer.

It's folky, yes, but apocalyptic too, and Dave is in truth-seeking mode here. Later on he says, "So you've been where I've just come / From the land that brings losers on / So we will share this road we walk / And mind our mouths and beware our talk / 'Till peace we find..." Whatever guru or messiah beckons at the end of this road, he's on some kind of a spiritual journey. (Though, as Owen Wilson says matter-of-factly late in the film, "We came here on a spiritual journey...but that didn't pan out.")

As the song lurches on, Dave begins to rebel against the whole spiritual shtick: "In a promised lie you made us believe / For many men there is so much grief / And my mind is proud but it aches with rage / And if I live too long I'm afraid I'll die." That's more like the Dave I know. I think back to 1970, when this song was released on the album Lola Versus Powerman and the Money-go-round Part One (by the way, Dave and Ray, we're still waiting for Part Two), and I recall George Harrison and all the hazy Eastern philosophy going around London's music world at the time. And there stands bad boy Dave Davies, wanting to believe in all this peace-and-love stuff, yet at the same time hating the idea of jumping on anybody else's flower-festooned bandwagon. Powerman is an album full of songs that reject accepted orthodoxies --labor unions, record company executives, music promoters, lawyers, bankers -- so why not kick back against religion while you're at it?
Still, the plaintive way Dave sings the chorus make his yearning for connection seem totally geniune. The quest still beckons, and it isn't a quest anyone should undertake alone. "So I will follow you wherever you go / If your offered hand is still open to me," Dave declares, leading into the refrain, "Strangers on this road we are on / We are not two we are one." It's a gorgeous hook, with its fluid, rippling triplets morphing from one key to another; I love how the voices split into harmony on the line "We are not two we are one," finally resolving on a major chord. Of course it's about the brotherhood of man, but for some reason I've never been able to hear this line without also thinking of Ray and Dave and their intense love-hate bond. Like it or not, it's been the one constant in their turbulent lives.
So what in the end does this song mean? I haven't got a clue. But then, neither does the singer of his song; he's just sitting at the side of the road, rubbing his aching feet and musing wistfully. The drums slap wearily along, an organ sighs like an exhaled breath. And somehow, all of this manages to come out haunting and evocative and tender. The moment when it bursts into the film, about two-thirds of the way through --well, I won't give away the plot, but it's a beautiful moment of acceptance and enlightenment, and this is the perfect song for that moment. Kudos to Wes Anderson for an absolutely inspired choice.

Strangers sample

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"Simple Twist of Fate" / Bob Dylan

This one goes out, through the spiritual ether, to Tom Gallagher. Tom and I agreed about a lot of music but, pig-headed as I can sometimes be, I always refused to share his love for Bob Dylan. You've gotta know I was just being contrary, reacting against the knee-jerk Dylan worship of my generation. Of course Bob Dylan's a brilliant songwriter -- he just doesn't speak to me.

He spoke to Tom, though. Tom was a true believer, and respecting his musical opinions as I did, I always cut Dylan extra slack just for Tom's sake. So here I am tonight, missing Tom like hell, and one thing that comforts me is spinning a little Dylan in his honor. A story song, of course -- one of Dylan's little novels-in-song -- this one from Blood On The Tracks, an album that even I am forced to admit is freaking genius.

Just follow Dylan's loser lovers, fumbling their way through a doomed affair: "They sat together in the park / As the evening sky grew dark, / She looked at him and he felt a spark / Tingle to his bones." Soon enough they're in a hotel, and not just any hotel, but "a strange hotel with a neon burnin' bright" where he "felt the heat of the night / Hit him like a freight train." Funny how just that abrasive singing voice, the strummed guitar, a wheezy harmonica interlude, can draw you into their world and suddenly turn sexy like that.

It's an iconic American scene, like an Edward Hopper painting: "A saxophone someplace far off played / As she was walkin by the arcade. / As the light bust through a beat-up shade / Where he was wakin up, / She dropped a coin into the cup / Of a blind man at the gate." Now there's poetry for you, so cryptic it's almost Biblical. (Yeah, I know, I strongly suspect it's all smoke and mirrors and means nothing, but it sure does sound good.) I love how he soars upward on those final rhymes, breaking loose from the talking-blues monotone.

Then of course the girl disappears, he realizes too late that he misses her, and he's left to wander the lonely byways by himself. In verse four, okay, Dylan stretches for a few extra rhymes: "He hears the ticking of the clocks / And walks along with a parrot that talks, / Hunts her down by the waterfront docks / Where the sailors all come in." But you have to admire him for trying that aaab rhyme scheme; in this case, more is more. In the last verse, he finally drops the third-person mask and comes clean: "I still believe she was my twin, / But I lost the ring. / She was born in spring, / But I was born too late / Blame it on a simple twist of fate." I don't know, that goofy last verse endears itself to me. That's part of its folky charm.

If everybody I know didn't revere Bob Dylan, I'd find it a lot easier to be a fan. There's nothing keeping me from it but my own cussed nature. But just tonight, Tom, I'll let down my guard and love Dylan with you. Somewhere, I know you're listening too, and digging it.

Simple Twist of Fate sample

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"I Wanna Make It Alright" / Paul Weller

I've been feeling in desperate need of a pick-me-up song -- so thanks, Paul Weller, for tap-dancing into town with this one, from his marvelous mature 2005 album As Is Now. (Man, I sure do dig rock stars who know how to age gracefully.) What a simple confection this is, a perfect example of less being more. It's just one musical phrase -- two notes, repeated in different keys, varied only occasionally by a seventh jump upward at the end -- but oh, how that dogged repetition gets his point across.

What's the plot here? I'm guessing it's one massive apology song, a clear-the-boards-and-start-fresh thing -- that soft husky vocal of the beginning sounds pretty humble to me. Patiently he repeats, "I want to make it alright / Alright between us two / I want to put things right on this ground / Before our time is through." Whatever he's done, he knows it came damn close to killing the whole affair. But, he protests, his intentions are thoroughly honorable --"I want to be the kind / You want to come home to" (what woman doesn't want to hear that?) -- though, oh yes by the way, there's a healthy dose of lust as well: "I want to be the one who gets to / Make it with you" (just a bit of gasp and shiver there.) Because we need both.

On the whole, Weller insists, he's a stand-up guy: "Try to love you better than / I ever done before / I wanna stand up and say / I'll always love you this way." How sweet is that? It's clear he's hurt her somehow, but he's sorry sorry sorry: "I don't want you feeling blue / At the end of the day / Try to put some goodness back / Before this good thing goes." Jeez, the fact that he knows it's a good thing puts him well ahead of most guys I know.

I love the comforting spirit of this song; it gives me the same warm vibe as Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing." Those sibilant brushstrokes on the drums, the lilting little piano glissandos, keep the whole thing bright and good-hearted; the laid-back syncopation is sexy and yet reassuring, especially with that pleading quiver in his slightly gritty voice. (In the bridge, he sounds almost like Joe Cocker's long-lost brother.) It's amazing how physical this song is; I can almost feel his strong arms circling me, can almost smell the starch in his shirt. How does he pull this off?

I'm still not sure why this song lifts my spirits so -- after all, how does an apology from Paul Weller sort my life out? Who knows? All I know is that this track is one big easy chair I can snuggle up in for the afternoon. Some days that's the most we can hope for.

I Wanna Make It Alright sample

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"Don't Be A Stranger" / Tom Gallagher

As if we need a reminder that life is not fair, here comes the devastating news of the death of my dear Kinks friend Tom Gallagher. The fact that Tom's enormous musical talent had never scored him a record contract was already high on my list of "life is not fair" examples -- and now this. He was a magnificent soul and he'll be sorely missed in the realms of Kinkdom.

So in honor of Tom -- or Major TAG, as we knew him best -- I'm turning my thoughts to this track from his unreleased masterpiece Age of the Wheel. When Tom's songs shuffle up on my iPod, they never strike my ear as amateur tracks; his guitar work is so assured, the songwriting such top quality, that I find myself grooving to the song for quite a while before I realize it's not some classic album track that any casual listener would recognize. "Don't Be A Stranger" has confidence in spades, from the raspy guitar strum to the pouncing melodic line to Tom's prickly, passionate vocals. And then there's that killer hook -- "Don't be a stranger / Don't let me feel so strange" -- that deft little bit of word play seals the deal.

There are so many musicians out there whose music doesn't truly make a dent -- listen to the radio for hours and they all begin to sound the same. The real gift is to make music that sends your personality out there, and personality is what makes Tom Gallagher's music special. Listening to this track, you can just tell that it's sung by someone with fierce intelligence, high standards, and a slightly dangerous edge; sure, there's darkness here, but that's what makes it compelling. This is rock and roll music, not wimpy emo.

From the very first verse, this is the song of a natural loner longing to make a connection, and there's a heartbreaking anxiety running beneath the usual I-wanna-get-you-girl plotline. Small talk and romantic games don't do it for him; he wants something real, and yet he's wary ("turn away, turn loose, but don't turn on me"). Tom sings this with consummate skill, navigating brilliantly between snarl and seduction and wounded howl. "Shed light so I can see / Shine your light down on me / Don't be a stranger / Come around, come again."

I can personally testify that we ladies are suckers for this kind of rock 'n' roll proposition. There's nothing we like better than comforting a bad boy who's been hurt. If any record company had ever been smart enough to sign Tom Gallagher, they'd have had a star on their hands for sure. Did I mention that he was also drop-dead handsome?

Once you knew Tom, though, you didn't think of him as a good-looking guitar god -- he was just Tom: moody, brilliant, wicked, kind, generous, quick to argue and just as quick to make peace. I feel blessed to have known him. Love on ya forever, Major Tom.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

"Season of the Witch" / Donovan

The thing I love about this track is, it's not what you'd expect from Donovan Leitch, the Scottish flower child -- fact is, it smoking rocks out. That guitar line is full of slouchy blues attitude, and Donovan wails away with gusto on the refrain, "You've got to pick up every stitch!" I've never had the slightest idea what he means by that (I flash to a baffling image of Donovan knitting a Fair Isle sweater), but by God, I love it.

I know people who consider Donovan a lightweight because of that fey quality in so many of his songs -- "Mellow Yellow", "Sunshine Superman," "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" -- but when this record came out in 1966, the rock world was careening straight for the Summer of Love, psychedelia was the flavor of the month, and Donovan took to it like a duck to water. There's something trancelike in these riddling repeated phrases, the hovering two-chord progression, the floaty syncopation. It makes me high just to listen to it.

"When I look out my window," Donovan starts out, with a campy sort of off-beat emphasis, "Many sights to see. / And when I look in my window, / So many different people to be." Heavy, man. The second verse offers more of the same mirrors-within-mirrors concept: "And when I look over my shoulder, / What do you think I see ? / Some other cat looking over / His shoulder at me." It's the sort of thing that can seem very profound when you're in a certain, well, chemically enhanced frame of mind. Best not to enquire too closely, though -- by the time he gets to the "rabbits in a ditch" and the "beatniks out to make it rich" lines, I'm not hung up on the logic any more; I know they're there just for the sake of the rhyme. The video to this would definitely include abstract iridescent color puddles spreading and mutating, like slides from biology class, or a reel of film burning up in the projector. Turn on the black light and strobes now.

Trust Donovan to embrace the hippie zeitgeist so totally that he makes it his own. "Season of the Witch" has a haunting minor-key edge, but thanks to its mellow loose-limbed rhythm, it never gets too eerie or disturbing. No bad trips here, man. This song doesn't sound dated at all to me; on the contrary, between that curlicuing guitar and the noodling organ fills, it just grooves away, uncomplicated, enthusiastic. Sure, there's a witch here, but a mystical Druid-type witch, not a scary toothless warty Halloween hag. Light a candle, draw a pentagram on the floor, and see where she'll take you.

Season of the Witch sample

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"Long Limbed Girl" / Nick Lowe

I'm beginning to realize that I am never going to come down from this Nick Lowe high. After seeing him last week in Milwaukee, and actually getting him to sign my copy of his new album At My Age, I'm pretty seriously addicted. As if I weren't before.

I went to sleep last night with this number styling away in my brain; woke up and it clicked right back in. For all I know, I probably dreamed about it in between, too. But you see, that's a good thing. This song ripples right along like a mountain stream, with a lilting beat and deceptively crafty phrasing (a Nick Lowe trademark, those little stutters and inversions that continually mix things up). On the album it's done with a charming retro pop arrangement, upbeat and yet laidback, but I'm thinking of the way I heard it in Milwaukee, just raggedy Nick and an acoustic guitar. When you've got a song this solid, you don't need anything more than that.

The premise is simple: a guy's going through some old papers and photos, he comes upon a snapshot of an old girlfriend, he takes a moment to wonder what's become of her since. But oh, what Nick does with it! There's the glint of admiration in his voice as he recalls her, "tall and slender / as a willow tree," and the flash of longing when he notes "and she had her arms round me." I imagine him sitting back and lighting a cigarette, taking a long contemplative drag. He's not just lusting after Girl As Object; he's yearning for the relationship, the sort of relationship you can only have when you're young and carefree. "So young and foolish / And so in love," he remarks, marveling all over again. It's his lost youth he misses, more than the girl herself.

That gentle rollicking rhythm is significant: Nick's not kicking himself over losing the love of his life, he's just idly musing. He goes on to speculate: "well, I wonder about you / And if you made it through / And had all your dreams come true / Or has it been a long and bumpy road." How subtle and brilliant is this? I immediately guess that the girl was too restless to stick around; and that it's been a long and bumpy road for him since, so naturally he assumes it was for her too (later on he changes the "bumpy" to "bitter," also very telling). And all done with so few words, a veteran songwriter's sleight of hand. Less is more indeed.

Nick's vocals sound so warm and relaxed, we just know he's come though things all right. The whole thing is painted in sepia tones -- "the edges are starting to curl" -- because he can put it into perspective now. It's just so damn confident, so mature. There's part of me that's jealous as hell of whoever that long-limbed girl was, for sure. But another part of me is pulling out a photo of a tall dark-haired guy with hazel eyes and wondering...

Long Limbed Girl sample

PS You haven't bought this album yet? What are you waiting for?