Sunday, September 30, 2007

"Shama Lama Ding Dong" / Otis Day and the Knights

Flying home from Milwaukee in a post-Nick Lowe euphoria yesterday (more on that to come), I was seated next to an ineffably cool gentleman with long graying dreadlocks, obviously a musician -- the fact that everyone in his party was carrying a guitar case was a dead giveaway. It turns out that he was Gemi Taylor, guitarist for Otis Day and the Knights, en route to Orlando to play a Disney World gig. Ever since our delightful plane conversation I've had this song in my head -- no, not "Shout", which is the song Otis sings in the famous toga party scene in Animal House, but the one they sing later in the film, in the roadhouse scene, where Boon ecstatically greets the singer with the famous line, "Otis -- my man!"

Otis Day and the Knights, it turns out, was a band concocted specifically for the movie; DeWayne Jessie was an actor hired to play Otis, who'd never even sung professionally before. (I haven't fully researched this yet, but it looks like someone named Lloyd Williams actually sang the vocals used in the film.) But folks phoned up to offer them gigs once the movie was released, so of course they took them -- and they haven't stopped touring since.

Everybody knows "Shout", a pumped-up Isley Brothers hit that's perfect dance party material. "Shama Lama Ding Dong" is much mellower, with a groove just dripping with honey. I now learn that it was originally written by Otis Redding, which makes perfect sense -- that cha-cha rhythm, the supple melody, were Redding's stock in trade. But what I most love about this song is its light-hearted lyrics, which half the time seem to mean nothing at all: "Cause you shama lama / In the rama lama ding dong / Baby, you put the ooh mau mau (oh, oh, oh, oh) / Back into my smile child." Do "shama lama" and "rama lama" mean something specific in street slang? Does it matter? You can imagine what he means, and it's best left unspoken.

You almost have to dance, working your way into that bridge: "That is why / That is why-y-y / You are my sugar dooby doo." I love how Otis cascades over those extra syllables in the "why's." This thing is just so damn smooth it hurts.

Shama Lama Ding Dong sample

Monday, September 24, 2007

"I've Got To See You Again" / Norah Jones

Come Away With Me was one of those breakthrough albums that was played everywhere for a season. I was crazy about that CD at first, until the PR saturation made it turn sour for me. It happens sometimes.

But now I finally can hear Norah Jones fairly again. I'm not saying she's a great singer -- her voice is a little too breathy and nasal for that -- but she pulls off a nice dramatic range of textures, from kitten coyness to langorous vamp, and she delivers lyrics with real intelligence. (It helps that her lyrics are intelligent, and nicely understated.) Add to that some jazzy piano technique and a talent for blending genres, and -- well, how could I dislike Norah Jones? Is it her fault if her record company overexposed her?

"I've Got To See You Again" is an addictive little treat, with a samba-like rhythm, a sweetly scolding fiddle counterpoint, and a story line that recalls that old Roberta Flack classic, "Killing Me Softly With His Song." From what I can tell, it's about a woman hanging around a performer, going back to see his show night after night. ("Just to watch you be seen...No I won't go to share you with them.") It's just cryptic enough to tantalize me; I love it when a song is so deep inside the emotion, it doesn't spell out all the particulars. He's certainly older than she is -- the very first line of the song refers to "the lines on your face" -- but somehow that seems to be part of his charm, part of the mysterious hold he has on her.

Whether or not she's actually slept with him isn't clear -- she certainly moans with pleasure as she recounts him "dancing over me" and rhapsodizes about touching his skin, but she also says "I could almost go there / Just to live in a dream." Jeez, any fangirl worth her salt has fantasies so vivid, you'd mistake them for reality. Am I right, girls?

Maybe I'm imposing my own meaning on this song -- but I'm digging it so much, don't stop me now. It's like Norah used to be the homecoming queen I despised, but lately she's sitting next to me in English class and we've discovered we have a lot in common. She's speaking for me now, and I love it.

I've Got To See You Again sample

Sunday, September 23, 2007

“Sweetest Somebody I Know” / Stevie Wonder

One evening I was walking around Midtown, killing time before a show – and suddenly, a block away, I saw a scrum of flashbulbs and reporters, and in the middle of it all was STEVIE WONDER, his face all lit up with that iconic grin. My heart leapt up to see him again, after all these years.

That night I realized it had been years since I’d heard a new Stevie Wonder album. But hey, Stevie Wonder produced more brilliant music by age 30 than most artists can ever expect to do in a lifetime -- if he never sang another note, he’d still be way ahead of all his peers. “Superstition,” “Sunshine of My Life”, "For Once In My Life," "Part-Time Lover," the lush and haunting "Lately" -- most artists I know would kill to have written even one of these.

Then last summer, sitting in a paella restaurant in Barcelona, I finally heard a new Stevie Wonder song (from his 2005 album A Time To Love, actually, but still new to me.) I recognized him at once; not just the voice, but the phrasing, the melodic and rhythmic freeness, the whole marvelous flow. “Sweetest Somebody I Know” is simply drenched in Brazilian samba. Whatever cat is playing the guitar on this is suave as can be, and in the middle eight, Stevie cuts loose with perfect exuberance on the harmonica. I find myself grinning like a complete sap every time I hear it.

Stevie’s voice hasn’t changed one bit. Listen to that joyful quality, as if he just had to burst into song, his heart was so full. He plays cat-and-mouse with that syncopation, a man who lives so deep inside the rhythm that every hesitation or anticipation is meaningful. I hang breathlessly on every beat, even when he's dancing repeatedly on the same note, waiting for him to soar upwards with that boppy melody. It just makes me feel happy.

Stevie Wonder’s not a polished wordsmith; in fact his stuff reads like it’s from somebody who didn’t bother much with English class. (Given that Stevie Wonder was an established Motown star by age 12, that may well be the case.) This one’s got a couple tortured lines, like “And it would behoove me and my soul if I did state my case,” or “In a time when people are on with making sure that they're okay / You pour out your love every second, every minute, every hour of the day.” But somehow with Stevie, those stuffed-in extra syllables, the stilted grammar, don’t matter one bit. It's such a beautiful outpouring of love, I can’t quibble.

Being a star early turns some people into complete jerks. I get the idea that with Stevie, however, fame kept him innocent, buffered from the world by his own celebrity. His idealism, his pure musicality, have never been damaged. I don’t know this for sure; maybe he kicks his dog and cheats on his wife and screams at his assistant like any other hot shot. But just don’t tell me about it. Leave me with my faith in Stevie Wonder; it's one of the things that makes life worth living.

Sweetest Somebody I Know sample

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"Have You Ever Had It Blue" / Style Council

I've got a playlist on my iPod called simply blue; this song's the second track, and today when it came on it took me by surprise, the way a song sometimes does when you least expect it. I've been humming it ever since, and snapping my fingers too, because it's the sort of groovefest you must snap your fingers to.

I picked up "Have You Ever Had It Blue" up off the soundtrack for Absolute Beginners, that quirky 1986 Julien Temple film about the birth of teen culture in Britain. I have to admit, the main reason I own this soundtrack is because of its one delicious Ray Davies track, "Quiet Life," but I soon grew intrigued by this Style Council thing too.

I had no idea when I first heard it that Style Council was a Paul Weller project. Frankly, listening to this, who'd ever think this was the same guy who was in the Jam? It's chock-full of jazzy horns and samba rhythms and back-up singers, a total Big Production Number that fit the movie's 1950s time frame perfectly. (Can anybody tell me if this single was written for the movie?) But I guess I should have suspected something; after all, didn't the Jam do a song called "Absolute Beginners" in 1981?

Those image-laden lyrics are a fair indicator of what an evocative lyricist Weller can be: "Have you ever chased the night / That sailed in front of you / On a boat that's bound for hope / But left you in the queue / With your shouting waving / Taunting flaunting friends as crew." That's what I call developing an line of imagery, the mark of a true pro. I love that string of gerunds describing the friends -- "taunting flaunting" in particular is a nifty phrase. "Have you stood upon that dock / Have you ever had it blue ooh?" he wails urgently, with those percolating rhythms desperately popping away behind him. Time waits for no one.

The next verse is equally well crafted: "Have you ever woke to find / The morning didn't come / Undelivered with the papers / Stolen by someone / Found the milkman bound and gagged / And the shackles round the sun." It's a wonderful sustained metaphor, full of urban glints and hungover grogginess. And it pays off splendidly: "And the holder of the keys / Turns out to be the one / The girl you had your heart set on." Oof -- yeah, that's blue all right.

The soundtrack version is over five minutes, with a long dissonant jazz intro (a bit disorienting when it's piped into your ears on an iPod). I gather that the single version was more compact; the single didn't make much of an impression over here, though. I never heard of it, at any rate, outside of the movie. Not knowing who Style Council were, I assumed it was a period jazz piece when I first saw the film -- that's how effectively Weller switched genres.

And now I've Googled up this tasty black-and-white video to go with it: Have You Ever Had It Blue video. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

"Somebody More Like You" / Nickel Creek

A few weeks ago I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing this alt-bluegrass trio perform in Central Park (see here for my review). I love it when you take a chance on a band whose music you've never heard, and they turn out to be GREAT.

Nickel Creek (not to be confused in any way shape or form with Nickelback) consists of fiddler Sara Watkins, her brother Sean on acoustic guitar, and their friend Chris Thile on mandolin. They've been playing professionally since they were about 10, but they're 20-somethings now and they've evolved from traditional bluegrass into this wonderful hybrid that's indie rock one minute, folk the next, quirky downtown pop the next. This track is one of Sean's (you'll find it on their 2005 album Why Should The Fire Die?) and it really sold to the crowd that night in the park.

It starts out so earnest, with a folky guitar line and Sean's wistful tenor, backed up by Sara's harmonies and mournful fiddle solo. "I didn't hear you / Say you're / Sorry," he begins, adding "the fault must be mine." At first I take that remark at face value, but the song soon enough slides into snarkiness, as each repeated melodic phrase edges down the scale. "I wish you all the best of luck / In finding somebody more like you." As the song develops, it becomes plenty clear that being like her is NOT something he admires.

"You said you'd love me / Always / Truly," he reminds her, adding ironically "I must have changed." Yeah, right -- I can just imagine him rolling his eyes. And in the bridge, he really lets her have it -- "I hope you meet someone your height / So you can see eye to eye /With someone as small as you." Ouch.

It's a rueful minor-key melody, delicately syncopated and sparely arranged. Their bluegrass roots are still there, in Sean's nimble guitar picking and Sara's singing fiddle, but that bongo-like percussion (which I seem to recall was Chris tapping on the body of his mandolin) plants a foot in alt-rock. It's hypnotic, smart, subtle --- just the sort of thing I like.

Song after song from these folks that night kept wowing me. I walked out afterward simply buzzing with happiness, my faith in modern music restored.

Somebody More Like You sample

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"Little Black Ache" / Bishop Allen

And here's another sly bunch of popsters waiting in limbo for the success they deserve. Bishop Allen is a quirky Brooklyn-based indie band -- the songwriting duo Justin Rice and Christian Rudder, college friends, who have been accumulating more collaborators with each (tiny) increment of success. These prolific guys actually cranked out an EP every month throughout 2006, a completely mad undertaking that finally began to get them a fan base and some press notice. (And I thought the Baskervilles' one-single-a-month project was ambitious!)

At the end of all that, Bishop Allen released last July a new CD, The Broken String, which has generated molto buzz; I've just picked it up. But this track is from Charm School, their 2003 debut effort. Charm School has a stripped-down sort of D.I.Y. charm, like it was cooked up in a railroad flat with a bathtub in the kitchen. These guys sound like people you'd know -- maybe the guy in the next cubicle at work, the one with the pasty complexion and skinny jeans and thrift-store tweed jacket.

In fact, this song is a lot like The Baskerville's "Prowl" that I wrote about last night -- the urban singles scene, the slightly unhinged narrator, the crisp hooky beat. Tonight's loser is hapless indeed: "Chasing my excuses to the end of the night / Tried to make a friend but it ended with a fight / I don't know why and I don't know when / But my keys have found a way to lock me out again." This is almost Buster Keaton territory, and the strained warble of the lead vocal makes it even funnier. "Sleeping on the subway in my interview tie," he goes on (I love that image), "Wander through the rain, sit and wonder why / Haven't got a plan, I haven't got a clue / I only got one lonely thing that's gonna see me through. "

Now here comes the chorus, a jaunty call and response (and listen for that synthesized echo snuck in as well): "I got my little black ache (won't fade) / What you got? / I got my little black ache (won't fade) / What you got? / I got my little black ache (won't fade) / What you got? / My little black ache won't fade." Pitiful as it is, it's also true -- we love our own neuroses, don't we? And sometimes they're the only company we have. ("I know I had some friends, I can almost hear their names," he whines later on.)

Against all odds, he seems to score when he stumbles into a bar: "Lovely little girl, crowded little place / I swear on this old Bible that I've never seen her face." But of course he blows it -- "She talks like I know what she's talking about / So where's this door that's got to let me out." Yep, that's panic's plenty familiar too.

Charm School is one of those albums I instinctively liked the first time I heard it, and I only learned about it because someone I met cared enough to recommend it. Let's all vow to recommend likeable new bands to each other, as soon as we learn about them. Give the new guys a chance!

Little Black Ache sample

Monday, September 10, 2007

"Prowl" / The Baskervilles

Yet another sign that the music business has its head up its butt: A delightful indie band like the Baskervilles, who for 10 years have been turning out catchy songs with a skewed sense of humor, still haven't been picked up by a major label and promoted to the skies. This is the kind of music people like, oh ye record company powers-that-be, and if you can't discover and nurture talent like this, then you deserve to go sliding into oblivion.

Full disclosure here: I happen to know a member of the Baskervilles, Rob Keith, and I know he's an enthusiastic Kinks fan -- always a mark of exquisite musical taste in my book. But I believe I'm thoroughly objective when I say that this band's sound is tuneful and fresh; they have an artsy downtown edge but no off-putting hipster snobbery.

For the past month or so their loopy video "Midnight at the Underground Club" has been a YouTube favorite around my house, and I've just gotten hooked on "Prowl," the latest of their monthly mp3 free downloads. I dig its bouncy synthesizer fills, that slaphappy drumbeat, the slightly ditzy psychedelic texture -- and, of course, the little "fa-fa-fa" thrown into the lyrics (shades of "David Watts").

The narrator of this is a modern Prufrock, an insecure neurotic (or perhaps a borderline psychotic -- the very first line announces "There's a voice talking in my head"). He's lurking in a bar hoping to meet a nice girl: "Three seats down is someone with a rum and coke / Under my bed is where the serpents go / Three seats down is someone too gorgeous to know / You might say that anxiety's kicking in." Scoff at him or be creeped out by him, but admit it, there's a bit of this loser in all of us too.

And there's something very sweet as he declares in the second verse: "I'm not afraid of the dark / Not afraid of the spider." (I get a flash of David Bowie on that line.) "I'm not afraid of falling," he adds, earnestly, "I won't be afraid of you / 'Cause I know / You can love me forever / And I know / I can love you forever." Hey, that innocent faith in true love -- that's what pop music is all about, isn't it?

So check out the Baskervilles -- their 2003 CD and 2005 EP are both available on Amazon as well as on iTunes, and there's a new CD coming out this spring, which should include "Prowl." And if you like them, spread the word.

Prowl download

Friday, September 07, 2007

"Tears Been A-Falling" / Joe King Carrasco

One of the best organ riffs ever, a perky funhouse ripple of sound that always makes me smile. Maybe this track lacks that Tex-Mex quality that allowed Joe King Carrasco to trademark his music as Nuevo Wavo , but it's still cheeky and danceable and irrepressibly fun.

I never heard of Joe King Carrasco back in the late 70s-early 80s, when he played the New York clubs and joined Stiff Records' traveling show. That's a pity -- I would have loved to cram into a dank little club and groove to songs like this and "Perfect Spot" and "Buena." Looking back on my musical tastes at the time, I was always more easily seduced by the fun groups -- the B-52s, Jonathan Richman, Devo, Blondie, even the early Talking Heads (before David Byrne's terminal artsy pretension set in). Joe King Carrasco & the Crowns would have fit in just fine.

The lyrics are pretty elementary -- "Tears been a-falling / Since you've gone away / Tears been a-falling / Please come back to me," and so on. He slops around his house all day and cries himself to sleep; he just can't believe she's really gone, his tears fall like rain, the usual pop sentiments. You could write such words yourself, in five minutes; they don't even rhyme. But the extra syllable he has to throw in -- "Tears been A-fallin'" -- is proof positive that this number is really all about that catchy shuffling rhythm, punctuated by Kris Cummings' winsome organ fills. In fact this song, from Carrasco's 1983 album Party Weekend, was a reworking of his own earlier "Tears Been Falling," a much more pedestrian rocker. Without that syncopation, this song is nothing; with it, it's magic.

Frankly, this guy doesn't sound too terribly broken-hearted; it's more like a sort of numb slacker woe. My girlfriend's gone, what a bummer. Pass me that Corona there, will ya? Joe King's voice can't help but sound playful and adolescent, like a guy you might have had a crush on in high school. Nothing angst-y there, nothing menacing, nothing earth-shaking -- but someone you'd sure have fun hanging out with. I can't imagine why that girl ever left him . . . but take my word for it, he won't stay lonely for long.

Tears Been A-Falling sample

Thursday, September 06, 2007

"Whip It" / Devo

Back in 1980, a new cable channel called MTV desperately needed music videos -- that's the only explanation why a crudely produced film snippet by this oddball Cleveland-area cult band got such heavy airtime. That Marlboro Man rancher, lashing the clothes off of his frontier wife -- was that kinky or what? Some folks would say that MTV "made" Devo's career; on the contrary, I think Devo was responsible for making a whole generation want our MTV. You absolutely HAD to get wired for cable, because where else on 80's TV could you see stuff like that?

Normally I don't go for high-concept bands, but I bought Devo's package one hundred percent. Devo stood for "de-evolution," synonymous with mindless conformity, which we Devo fans were supposed to combat by being free-thinking individuals. How hard is it to get 20-somethings to buy into an agenda like that? And Devo carried it off in perfect deadpan style, dressed in hazmat coveralls with industrial goggles and inverted flowerpots strapped to their heads; their robotic stage movements matched those jerky synthesized arrangements (only Devo could cover "Satisfaction" and "Working In A Coal Mine" with all the blues drained out of them). Everything, down to the album covers, was executed with retro flair; Devo was post-modern long before it became a hipster cliche.

At the time, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale were perfectly happy to let their audiences think "Whip It" was all about S&M (either that or whacking off). But Casale now says he wrote those lyrics to imitate the parody poems Thomas Pynchon scattered throughout Gravity's Rainbow. (Since I'm currently slogging through Pynchon's most recent novel, Against the Day, I have to giggle over that info.) And it's true, the song is packed with a rousing Horatio Alger/Dale Carnegie can-do spirit -- consider the jerky phrases of the chorus: "Now whip it / Into shape / Shape it up / Get straight / Go forward / Move ahead / Try to detect it / It's not too late / To whip it / Whip it good." Yessirree!

Mark Mothersbaugh has a real gift for aural texture (no wonder he's done so well as a soundtrack composer -- his work on Rugrats alone proves his genius). This track's got an absolutely driven drumbeat, an obsessive-compulsive guitar riff, and a completely daffy synth motif; it's so tight, so uptempo, it sounds just like it came off an assembly line -- and that's the point. I love those twin vocals, finishing each other's sentences in the verses: "Step on a crack / Break your momma's back" or "When a problem comes along / You must whip it" or "No one gets away / Until they whip it" -- god forbid anyone should try to think for himself. No, we're in group-think mode here. "Crack! That! Whip!" (followed by those slapping whip cracks, calibrated precisely to a millisecond behind the beat).

Unfortunately, "Whip It"'s MTV-fuelled success so outstripped the rest of the Devo oeuvre, they're often called a "one-hit wonder." Those of us who were there at the time know better. Devo was unabashedly American in an era when the U.K. seemed to OWN New Wave music; I adored all those British acts, but I was glad we had at least one band from our side of the ocean -- and a lunatic bunch of Midwestern nerds at that.

Whip It video

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

"Casino Royale" / Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass

This song has had its way with me lately, ever since a Best of Saturday Night Live special reminded me of that hilarious sketch with Will Forte and Peyton Manning, where Forte goes into an absolutely inspired goofball dance to this 1967 instrumental hit. But it took me a while to track down the exact name of the song; even though I recognized it instantly, it was one of those numbers playing in the background, working its way insidiously into my consciousness -- part of the soundtrack of my adolescence.

I knew it was Herb Alpert, though -- who else could have produced that snappy, percussive trumpet sound, backed by that not-quite mariachi ensemble, heavy on the marimbas? I just didn't know whether it was "Tijuana Taxi" or "Spanish Flea" or "Whipped Cream" or "Bittersweet Samba" or whatever. One Herb Alpert song I knew it wasn't: "This Guy's In Love With You," a mellow Burt Bacharach number where Alpert actually sings (and not so badly, either). In 1968, when "This Boy's In Love With You" was topping the charts, my then-boyfriend took me to see the Tijuana Brass at the Coliseum in Indianapolis. An excellent show, as I recall.

"Casino Royale" was the theme song for the first James Bond movie of that name, a baffling comedy that couldn't hold a candle to the excellent recent remake with Daniel Craig. It's yet another Burt Bacharach composition (did this guy write every pop song of the early 60s?), performed as a jaunty instrumental with loads of pizzazz. Now that I think about it, I have no idea why it's done with a Mexican accent -- wasn't Casino Royale supposed to be in Monaco? I must have heard it seventy-umpteen times in my life, but I guess I never truly paid it any attention.

And yet every nuance of it is totally familiar to me -- every suspenseful shift in volume, every slippery horn flourish, every zigzag of the backing strings, every time-tapping drum bit. The rhythm is so infectious, it REQUIRES head-bopping, knee-bouncing, and shoulder-wiggling. Fact is, everybody secretly wants to respond with the same kind of stupid dance moves Forte pulls out in that sketch, if only we were uninhibited enough to let it all hang out.

Yes, it's true, the Latin-Lite sound of the Tijuana Brass is kinda cheesy. The whole thing reeks of Sixties-style bachelor-pad suaveness; I can almost smell the after-shave. (Let's not forget the provocative cover of Whipped Cream and Other Delights, with its luscious brunette babe wearing nothing but a ton of Reddi-Whip.) This thing is very much of its time -- and maybe that's the main reason I dig it. It's upbeat, uptempo, and sunny as a south-of-the-border holiday. Go ahead and dance; you know you want to.

Casino Royale sample