Friday, November 30, 2007

“Dime A Dozen Guy” / Marshall Crenshaw

Wait a minute – here I’m writing about all these upbeat Marshall Crenshaw songs, and you may be thinking the guy’s a sap. He most definitely is not, let me tell you. And just to prove it, here’s a crafty little number from his 1999 CD #447 (possibly my favorite MC album ever).

Marshall Crenshaw does jealousy and betrayal extremely well too (see here what I wrote a few months ago about “You Should’ve Been There”). This song’s another mini-drama along the same lines, a guy prowling around town in the wake of his girlfriend – only this time, he actually sees her in the company of her new flame. “I saw her Sunday / Down by the Breakers,” he opens his story, in brooding minor key, and later, “First they're at the Forum / Then they're at the drive-in.” I can just see her buzzing past like Tuesday Weld in a Chevy convertible, a satisfied smile plastered on her face by the wind. All those specific references make this so vivid. I remember doing the circuit around Indianapolis as a teenager, chasing the word on who was where with whom. “I asked my buddies / And they all said It's no lie / She's tearin' up the town / With that dime-a-dozen guy” – having this play out in public makes it smart even more.

Seething with jealousy, MC protests “He’s not good looking / At least I don't think so / I just can't figure / Any earthly reason why / A girl like her would choose / That dime-a-dozen guy.” His pride is stung most of all by the fact that he’s losing her to someone so ordinary. He’s so baffled by this, he doesn’t focus on the rest of the story, but in the bridge he drops a crucial bit of info, in a sort of stuttered atonal squawk: “Guess I was thoughtless, careless too / I disappeared on her it's true.” WHAT? Why didn’t you tell us that before?

Even though he declares, “Now I realize I / wasted something / That I cared about / That's why I'm blue,” those phrases stagger woefully down the scale, knowing all is lost. “Is there something about him / That my eyes aren’t seeing?” he moans. Well, YEAH – the new guy hasn’t ditched her like you did, you dope. Sure, our hero is paying for his sins – “Right now it’s feeling pretty grim / To hang my heart out on this limb” – but I really don’t expect her to come back. That’s life, my friend.

I love the fuzzy guitar licks here – guest guitarist Pat Buchanan lays down a retro jazz sound straight out of Peter Gunn or The Fugitive. Between growing up in Detroit and paying his dues in New York City, Marshall Crenshaw’s got an urban edge to his sound, under all its pop brightness; bongos slap like tires on pavement, the stand-up bass thrums like a V-8, guitar chords shift like a manual transmission (shades of Beach Boys car songs), as the singer cruises around town on his heartsick mission. It’s a droll, rueful little comedy, pulled off with style and assurance. And I guarantee if it suddenly came up on your car radio, you’d be MESMERIZED.

Dime A Dozen Guy sample

Thursday, November 29, 2007

“What Do You Dream Of?” / Marshall Crenshaw

By the time of 1996’s Miracle of Science, Marshall Crenshaw was no longer a major-label kind of artist. In the post-Nirvana musical landscape, “power pop” was a shopworn concept, and anyway, a guy in his 40s couldn’t sell it like a bunch of kids in skinny jeans (think Fountains of Wayne) could. But that just set Marshall Crenshaw free to relax into his own gifts -- like he does in "What Do You Dream Of?"

When you’re first in love with someone, you fixate on all the ways you’re alike -- two hearts beat as one, and all that. But years down the road, you run up against the inexorable truth: your two hearts are still beating separately. In fact, there’re things about this other person you will never understand. In a similar song, Ben Folds’ “Trusted,” the singer’s outraged that the lover he thought could read his mind was really just snooping through his diary. In Lyle Lovett’s “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind,” the singer anxiously wonders what his elusive girlfriend is planning next. These are painful songs, worn and wise and experienced.

“What Do You Dream Of?”, though, gives us the flip side of such experience. This lilting backbeat number kicks off with light, folky fingerpicking – low-key and intimate, just like two lovers who’ve been together a while. “Just last night when we were in bed,” he muses, “This thought came into my head / I would give anything, girl – “ and he hangs there for a moment, with a few extra discordant strums – “If I could steal a look into your secret world / What do you dream of?” Not that there’s anything in particular he wants to know – he just wants to understand her better.

“I’ll never know what really lies / Behind your sleeping eyes,” he admits, in stairstep modulations like little tugs of frustration, wavering from the major key of the verse. But where another writer might act jealous or possessive, MC is solicitous: “Can you leave your worldly cares behind / Or do they rule your mind?” He senses she’s struggling with life, and he’d like to help – “Close your eyes, you know it feels fine / To let yourself finally unwind / From fighting hard to stay in the game / For all your trouble and time, you're getting more of the same.” And if she needs some shelter from the storm, he's right there. Jeez, we all could use some of that.

Clearly, he’s crazy about her – that shimmers through the shifting, unresolved chords in the self-rhyming line “When I see you smile, / I've got a reason to smile.” For that fleeting moment, they do seem connected as one. But the next time around, that same modulation conveys nagging uncertainty, as he admits, “I'll never solve / All of your mysteries.” Sorry, honey.

Happy? Basically, yeah – it’s only once in awhile, he says, that this stuff puzzles him. With its gently rocking syncopation, its blithe melody, this song just radiates domestic contentment. On the surface, this may be a realistic song about the distance between two lovers – but what really hits me is how close they are. And how his heart soars, watching his wife sleep quietly beside him. She’s one lucky woman, that’s all I can say.

What Do You Dream Of? sample

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

“For Her Love” / Marshall Crenshaw

Then there’s this other side to Marshall Crenshaw – the unabashed romantic. Very few songwriters deliver such convincing happy-in-love songs as MC does (okay, Paul McCartney, but whom else can you think of?). For example, take “For Her Love,” on his 1983 album Field Day -- this thing just bowls me over. Instead of the stripped-down rock& roll of his earlier songs, here he deftly pulls off another classic pop sound: the wall of sound, with a dense production quality that buoys up his reverb guitar and boyish vocals on cresting waves of love.

I’m not talking glorified moon-in-June stuff – no, this feels like a real love between two real people, woven out of little moments and everyday details. “Laughing out loud to no one,” he starts out, “thinking ‘bout the things I’ve done / For her love / For her love / For her love.” The echo-chambered vocals here are a canny choice, because it’s internal dialogue, a guy musing to himself -- not just some stud making rash vows to lure a chick into bed. “Knowing how wrong I’ve been / And how I’d do it all again / For her love” – he admits he’s made mistakes, and that he’s flawed, but the sunny melody -- all broken major chords -- reassures him (and us) that it’s OKAY to be human. And those back-up singers, chiming in on the repeated “for her love’s” – they ratify everything he says.

There’s no swagger, no showing-off – and no sexual posing. As the melody blossoms in the bridge, we get only a discreet glimpse of their intimate moments: “I can’t compare anything I’ve known / To what I feel when we’re all alone.” Yes, of course the little throb in his voice on "all alone" tell us that he means "in bed," but it’s private, folks – we don’t need all the details of hungry lips and roving hands, do we? That’s where today’s girl singers get it wrong, IMO – explicit doesn’t necessarily equal sexy.

Instead, MC sounds simply over-the-moon, with that kind of tenderness you get in certain Ricky Nelson and Pat Boone songs, the best ones. (“April Love,” come on, that was a great pop song.) “And we’ll keep having our fun, wait and see,” he promises, “even if it makes demands on me.” Now there’s where my eyes bug out. This is NOT your typical rock sentiment, and frankly, as a woman, I find it the sexiest line in the whole song.

Then he goes cinematic – “I’m riding on a subway train / And running through the driving rain / For her love.” Maybe that verges on soft-focus Clairol-commercial montage (“We walk together on a summer night”, even more so), but sung in his earnest, straightforward voice, I buy it totally. “I close my eyes and I feel all right,” he adds, still not quite believing his good luck, “And we’ll keep having fun, heart to heart / Even if my whole world falls apart.” In other words, for richer, for poorer – the kind of love you build your life on.

When you think of what else we were listening to in 1983 – the cyncism of Blondie, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello, the deviant goofiness of Devo and the B-52s – the pop purity of this song is even more amazing. There isn’t a cloud of doubt or blame or despair spoiling it. He loves her, she apparently loves him, and they’ll be together for life. It seems so simple, but you have to be a true believer to pull it off without sounding sappy. Marshall Crenshaw’s a true believer -- God bless him for it.

For Her Love sample

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"The Usual Thing" / Marshall Crenshaw

Hey wait, what? I forgot Marshall Crenshaw's birthday? Damn. I was planning to dedicate a whole week of entries to him, just like I did for all my other musical heroes. Marshall's birthday was November 11th, which was Sunday this year, and also Julie's birthday (happy birthday again, Jools!), and somehow he got lost in the mix. But better late than never.

One of the great mysteries of rock and roll, to my mind, is why Marshall Crenshaw isn't absolutely a huge star. What's not to like? He's an appealing singer, great guitarist, and a severely underrated songwriter. Nobody does power pop better than MC, carrying on that noble tradition that goes back to Buddy Holly, Bobby Fuller, and the Everly Brothers. And yes, he's influenced by the Beatles, like all of us who were born in 1953 -- he even played John Lennon in a road company of Beatlemania in the early 80s. But through the years he's honed his craft and gone ever deeper into that classic mode of songwriting, working in a little rockabilly and jazz and R&B and anything else that'll make these songs sparkle.

This guy had it right from the beginning, on his 1982 debut titled (duh) Marshall Crenshaw. It's packed with instant classics: "Someday, Someway," "There She Goes Again," "She Can't Dance," "Cynical Girl," "Rocking Around In N.Y.C" -- even if you don't recognize the names, once you hear them, you realize, yeah, I know this song.

"The Usual Thing" is particularly contagious, shot through with rockabilly guitar licks and Everly-worthy harmonies and a giddy tempo like a joyriding teenager on a Saturday night. It declares itself with a burst of youthful energy: "Don't want to know about the usual thing / I never bother with the usual thing / And I only wanna shout / Wanna shout / Wanna feel alive / Do whatever I wanna do." I love how those "shouts" skip up the scale, building to thrilled yelp of "feel alive." This song makes me feel seventeen again, every time I hear it.

We all know what it's like to feel that way -- but when you're in that impetuous teenage moment, you also have to feel different, new, SPECIAL. At least, that's how I felt when I was seventeen (in the same vein, I love the Kinks' "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" and the Replacements' "Bastards of Young"). Marshall catches this nonconformist spirit, too. "Just forget about the usual thing," he advises the girl he's wooing, "I never bother with the usual thing / And if I didn't think you were a little bit out there too / I just wouldn't bother with you." Isn't that what we're all looking for -- someone who sees how we're different?

Hearing "The Usual Thing" back in 1982, I felt as if Marshall was somehow a close friend -- not just a rocker to admire, but someone completely sympatico. Over the next 25 years, he's just kept on proving it time and again. That's why his CDs sit on the special shelf in my collection; that's why he deserves a whole week here. And if you don't know his music, check in over the next few days -- I think you'll like what you'll hear.

The Usual Thing sample

Monday, November 26, 2007

“Seeing Other People” / Belle & Sebastian

Back in the 60s, pop songs raved about loving someone forever. Not any more. Alt rock is full of quizzical songs about infidelity, or the joyless pursuit of multiple sexual partners. It may not be progress, but you’ve got to admit, those are much more complex frames of mind to explore.

Exhibit A: Belle & Sebastian, that arty folk-tinged combo from Glasgow, and this nifty track I've been listening to from their 1998 album If You’re Feeling Sinister. On the surface it’s a bright, uptempo number about “friends with privileges,” but I hear something dark and disappointed woven in too. Stuart Murdoch’s breathy, slightly fey tenor clips heartlessly through the song’s word-crammed lyrics, melody swooping up and down, accents falling in odd places. That piano line ripples briskly along, all jazzy key shifts, uncertain and unreliable – I don’t know, but it feels like nobody’s happy here, not really.

We start with a fumbling love scene – “We lay on the bed there / Kissing just for practice / Could we please be objective? / Cause the other boys are queuing up behind us,” which reminds me of way too many junior-high parties. And for all its innocence – “Well if I remain passive and you just want to cuddle / Then we should be okay” – the main thing is to look like you’re having hot sex. Actual desire is beside the point.

Of course, as the shrinks warn us, detachment is often just a pose: “Cause we're seeing other people / At least that's what we say we are doing.” Awkwardly, he probes his partner’s state of mind: “How are you feeling? / I don't think you can be dealing / With the situation very well,” with a lack of connection that’s pathetic. For all the talk of lovers and dirty weekends, he winds up feeling sleazy, like some kind of gigolo, instead.

It’s a riddling song about self-absorption (“You're kissing your elbow / You're kissing your reflection”) and watching your back (twice he mentions the “other boys” who are crowding in). It’s also rife with sexual confusion (“You're going to have to change / Or you're going to have to go with girls / You might be better off / At least they know what they're doing.”) But let’s face it, the boys aren’t the only ones who don’t know what they’re doing. Everybody’s lost.

I’m reminded of a much older song, an 80s number by Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” that pulled off a similar trick, layering regret and melancholy under a funky, strutting disco pose. This song may profess to be celebrating casual sex, but it’s saturated with a crying need for plain old love. Hunh. Human nature hasn’t changed since the 60s -- we’re just telling ourselves different lies, that’s all.

Seeing Other People sample

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"She Turns My Radio On" / Jim Ford

Jim Ford? you're asking. Well, I don't suppose I would have known who Jim Ford was either, if it hadn't been for Nick Lowe. Nick and his Brinsley Schwarz buddies worshipped Ford and recorded a couple of his songs -- "Nikki Hoeky," Juju Man," "36 Inches High" -- which are about the only Jim Ford songs I really knew. That's if you don't count "Ode to Billie Joe," which Ford apparently wrote but let his then-girlfriend Bobbie Gentry take the credit for.

Thanks to Nick's recommendation, I did eventually buy The Sounds of Our Time, a Jim Ford compilation that includes his one studio album -- 1969's Harlan County, named after the Kentucky region where Jim was born -- plus a number of other tasty rarities. "She Turns My Radio On" is a demo Jim made in preparation for a second album that never was completed; someone much later happened to find the tape cassette in a box and saved it. That's the sort of thing Jim Ford's legend is made of. Moody, brilliant, careless, generous, unpredictable, a notorious hell-raiser -- by all accounts he was a law unto himself, and a world-class squanderer of his own enormous talent.

Swamp rock, country soul, roots funk -- there isn't really one phrase that could sum up the Jim Ford sound. Suffice it to say that this is what the Band and Creedence Clearwater were trying to sound like, if they could only have gotten grittier and more authentic. Jim Ford, though, he makes me want to set on my porch steps and drink something home-brewed out of a Mason jar.

A lazy, kicked-back guitar lick leads off this song; then comes Ford's croaky vocal, as he commences to sing: "Every morning 'bout dawn / Sun shines through my window and a new day's begun /Every evening, 'bout sundown / My whole world changes, Lord, when she comes around." That's mostly what this song is about, being satisfied by his woman -- and it's utterly convincing. The chorus puts it thusly: "She comes and turns my radio on / Gives me all day music, I got an all night song / I'm gonna sing till the cows come home / I'm really glad you turned my radio on."

Sexual metaphor? Well, shoot, what do you think? Of course it is, but he doesn't feel he has to get clever with it. "Turn the dial with a smile" he urges her at one point; he mumbles something else about writing a song with harmony, melody, rhapsody. But the guy sounds so contented, he can't be bothered to push it any further. And anyway, it IS also about how music makes him happy, and that's cool too.

Jim Ford died last Sunday, broke and obscure. Maybe that's how he wanted it. But I've got to think he'd be glad to know that people were still listening to his music, and grooving to it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

“Let Him Dangle” / Elvis Costello

I’m so besotted with Elvis’ relationship songs (very few of them are really love songs, I’m afraid), I tend to overlook his political numbers. But there are plenty to choose from—Accidents Will Happen is loaded with them—and this morning, this chilling example from Spike popped into my head and just wouldn’t go away. Well, it’s been that sort of day.

“Let Him Dangle” is about a specific miscarriage of justice, a celebrated 1952 case where two teenagers breaking into a Croydon warehouse shot and killed a police officer. The 19-year-old, Derek Bentley, was hung for the crime, even though he didn’t shoot the gun; the shooter, Chris Craig, was only 16 so could not be executed under English law. Bentley was borderline retarded and probably not competent to be tried. Much of the case hinged around the fact that when the officers apprehended the kids on the warehouse roof, Bentley shouted “Let him have it, Chris” – which could have meant either “give him the gun” or “shoot him.” We'll never know.

Bentley was hung in 1953, before either Elvis or I was born, but the gruesome case lived on in tabloid culture. I saw a disturbing 1991 movie about it called Let Him Have It; Elvis’s song recites all the same names and details—“Bentley had surrendered, he was under arrest, / When he gave Chris Craig that fatal request / Craig shot Sidney Miles.” Still, the song’s about more than this one horrible case. “Well it's hard to imagine it's the times that have changed,” Elvis points out, with venom in his voice, “When there's a murder in the kitchen that is brutal and strange / If killing anybody is a terrible crime / Why does this bloodthirsty chorus come round from time to time?” It’s a savage rant against the death penalty, and against the mob hysteria that arises around certain cases.

And just to make sure no one escapes with their complacency intact, Elvis lets fly a final bridge that indicts the present age as well: “From a welfare state to society murder / Bring "back the noose" is always heard / Whenever those swine are under attack / But it won't make you even / It won't bring him back.” Bentley was finally granted a royal pardon in 1993 (four years after this song, two years after the movie), and the conviction was overturned in 1998—but he’d already been dead 45 years. Fat lot of good that did him.

The verses are minor-key, brooding, with a menacing sort of finger-snapping syncopation that feels very Fifties to me. There’s a distinctive Marc Ribot guitar riff wailing through it like a police siren, and Benmont Tench hammering wearily on the piano; somebody’s even whacking on a hubcap in the background, adding to that gritty urban texture. Elvis scornfully spits out the repeated word “dangle” in the chorus, following it up with a grim “doo-doo doo doo doo” that sounds to me like skeletons dancing.

Nobody else does political outrage like Elvis Costello. Dylan turns snide, Neil Young falls back on mottos, but Elvis takes no prisoners -- he just comes tangoing into the room like a Jesuit on a mission, and serves up this cocktail of vitriol and passion. Whew.

Let Him Dangle sample

Thursday, November 15, 2007

“That’s How Strong My Love Is” /
Alan Price and Georgie Fame


I love Alan Price. I love Georgie Fame. So imagine how bowled over I was when I learned that the two of them recorded together for a while in the early 1970s. They even had a TV show together; I’ve seen a few clips from it (of course we never heard of it in the States). It is kinda surprising that they’d team up, considering that they’re both keyboard players, but I guess they just hit it off and thought, “Why not?”

Listening to their 1971 album Fame & Price Together (which I only got hold of years later—it’s hard work being an American Alan Price fan), I deal out most of the tracks as being either Georgie songs or Alan songs. This one, though, is definitely a duo effort—they sing in equally balanced harmony for nearly the entire thing, with Alan’s smoky voice on the lower part, Georgie’s wispy tenor going falsetto. Alan’s hitting the electric organ in majestic sustained chords (exactly the same sound he’d pull out later on O Lucky Man!) while Georgie counterpoints with splashes of honky-tonk piano. The result is magic.

Otis Redding did this song first, in 1965, but I’d never heard his original when this Price-Fame cover got planted on my turntable. The Rolling Stones did their own bluesy version on Out of Our Heads, but I didn’t know that one either. (I was a true-blue Beatle girl, remember?) Both Otis and the Stones make it snappy, playful and seductive; Alan and Georgie, however, drive theirs into a fervent gospel sound – which inevitably comes off like something you’d hear in a damp church basement in Northern England. In other words, just my cup of tea.

Okay, maybe it’s because this is the version I know best. Or because the very sound of Alan Price’s voice renders me weak-kneed. But you can’t deny it, this one’s a much more earnest pledge of devotion, as if the singers really do believe all their extravagant promises: “I'll be the moon when the sun goes down / To let you know I'm still around”; “I'll be the rainbow when the sun is gone / Wrap you in my colors and keep you warm”; and in that momentous bridge, Alan’s solo vocal, “I'll be the ocean, so deep and wide / I'll dry the tears when you cry / I'll be the breeze when the storm is gone / To dry your eyes and keep you warm.” Sure, so that string of nature images (that’s all this song is, really) is a little hokey, half Metaphysical poetry and half Tin Pan Alley. But those stately organ chords sell it to me just fine.

In my opinion, anybody who does a cover version of any song should bring something new to it. Price and Fame simply transform this song, and I think for the better. Oh no -- a cover version better than Otis? Believe it, oh my brothers and sisters.

That's How Strong My Love Is sample

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

“Solitary Man” / Neil Diamond

I’m on the fence about Neil Diamond. I know plenty of folks who despise him, who see him as a mere commercial hit-machine. Still, like the Four Seasons, he’s too much a part of my life’s soundtrack to reject. “Holly Holy” of course -- I had that song played for me way too much, for obvious reasons – but also “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Song Sung Blue,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” (blech), and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (double-blech): a string of overproduced anthems that never seemed sincere, no matter how intense his delivery. But he was a big star, and his music was played all over the radio, and it still sets off a Pavlovian response in me.

At a bat mitzvah a couple weeks ago, I heard a hip-hop-ized version of “Sweet Caroline,” and was appalled. Jeez, I never thought I’d be defending the honor of “Sweet Caroline” (frankly I’m amazed anybody bothered to redo it), but there it was, and it was awful. Shame on somebody.

Then yesterday I heard this 1966 track on the radio, and it took me by surprise. It almost sounded like folk-rock, the arrangement was so restrained (well, restrained for Neil Diamond – mostly guitar and drums and a few tasteful horns, if you don’t count that faint smarmy choir in the chorus). Its tempo ticks along briskly, playing against a backbeat melody, and his voice sounds vulnerable, yearning, engaging. I listened intently the whole way through, and you know what? I liked it.

This is the closest Neil Diamond ever got to Bob Dylan, recounting a string of relationships that fizzled out (leaving him – da-da da da da-da – a solitary man). The verses are all in a brooding minor key, which shifts to major for the chorus: “Don’t know that I will / But until I can find me [nice internal rhyme there] / A girl that’ll stay / Who won’t play games behind me / Then I’ll be what I am / A solitary man.” That restless, critical spirit – how did Neil Diamond lose that later on?

Idealism usually feels overhyped in Neil Diamond songs, but verse two I buy completely: “I’ve had it to here / Being where love’s a small word / Part-time thing / Paper ring.” That almost sounds Beatlesque, doesn’t it? Well, Neil can’t keep it up; he wraps up the verse weakly with “I know it’s been done, / Having one girl to love you / Right or wrong / Weak or strong” – but let’s pretend he meant those last two lines to sound like a cliché, and move on.

Granted, Johnny Cash's cover of this blows Neil's version out of the water. Johnny does it all stripped down, and his gruff vocal is totally convincing as the voice of a disappointed loner. But I don't know, I kinda miss those horns.

The thing is, Neil Diamond had a decent voice and really knew the value of a great hook. I defy you to read the list of song titles above without wanting to sing them out loud. There’s nothing arty or introspective or groundbreaking about Neil Diamond songs; they’re just mainstream American pop, well-crafted and calculated to please. But what’s wrong with that?

Solitary Man sample

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

“Wedding Bell Blues” / Laura Nyro

“BILL!” the girl singer cries out, extending it for two, then three measures – “I love you so / I always will,” she insists. But . . . but . . . BUT . . .

I knew this song first from the Fifth Dimension’s 1969 cover version, but once I got hold of Laura Nyro’s original (from her 1966 debut album), that was it for me. It helped, of course, that I had a crazy mad crush on a guy named Bill for the second half of high school, a guy who seemed interested but never would commit. When I think of the hours I wasted dreaming about him, with Laura Nyro egging me on . . .

I was 15, just the perfect age to sit hunched on my bedroom floor, teaching myself to blow smoke rings and pondering the romantic mess that my life would be IF I could ever move out of my parents’ house and start living it. Teen angst – we all go through it. And Laura Nyro was an ideal companion, with her smart barbed lyrics, her soulful jazz-tinged art songs, and her fierce piano playing. Sure, “Wedding Bell Blues” is about a girl who’s dying for her boyfriend to propose, which even in 1966 ran against all feminist principles. But the way Nyro handles it makes all the difference

She spins through a litany of romantic clichés -- “the passion eyes of May,” “a choir of carousels” – and declarations familiar from dozens of girl-group songs: “I never scheme or lie Bill, there's been no foolin'”, “I was the one who came runnin' when you were lonely / I haven't lived one day not lovin' you only.” (We even have the traditional back-up girls echoing those rhymes.) These are the articles of faith by which this poor female has lived -- and now this schmuck isn’t living up to his part of the bargain, dammit. “Oh, but am I ever gonna see my wedding day?” she howls, panic-stricken, and the melody howls and droops right along with her.

“I love you so, I always will,” she insists once more in verse three. “And though devotion rules my heart, I take no bows / But Bill you're never gonna take those wedding vows.” The rhythm punches out those words, like a furious girlfriend pounding on her boyfriend’s chest. She knows in her heart that he’s the wrong horse to put her money on – but she’s too hung up to move on. “Oh, come on, Bill,” she moans, urgently. “Oh come on, Bill!”

It’s the old tug-of-war between desire and social convention. Nyro’s heroine feels desire, all right; you can hear it every time she groans Bill’s name, giving it an extra trill of excitement. But she wants to know it’ll last – which in her limited world means marriage. “But kisses and love won't carry me / Till you marry me Bill!” she explodes, the line working its way up the scale and building in volume. “I’ve got the wedding bell blues!”

At fifteen, I didn’t really want to marry anybody – but I did want something to happen in my safe little suburban life. Laura Nyro gave voice to all my inchoate longing, in dozens of songs like “Billy’s Blues”, “And When I Die,” “Time and Love,” “Emmie,” “He’s A Runner” – the list is long. I wore the grooves off those records. Being a teenage girl is never easy, but thanks to Laura Nyro, I made it through -- though come to think of it, I never did perfect the smoke ring.

Wedding Bell Blues sample

PS Bill, if you read this -- call me.

Monday, November 12, 2007

“She’s Already Made Up Her Mind” / Lyle Lovett

Is there any sound in the world lonelier than the drawn-out twang of a pedal steel guitar? I’m listening here to this song from Lyle Lovett’s 1992 album Joshua Judges Ruth, and there’s a single quavering note, repeating over and over like a faraway train whistle, that just give me goosebumps.

I used to think Lyle Lovett was a country singer. After Joshua Judges Ruth, that image was shattered forever. Despite that pedal steel, this track features an elegant piano counterpoint that’s way more jazz lounge than roadhouse; the acoustic guitar and drums are held firmly in the background, letting Lyle’s hushed, melancholy vocal shimmer on its own. The lyrics are brooding, reflective, artfully unrhymed, plunging us into a fraught mood rather than telling a story. “She said something about going home,” he launches into it, adding uncertainly, “she said something about needing to spend some time alone” (almost whispering “alone,” as if he can barely choke it out). That word “something” is so arresting; the details are irrelevant, because he knows as well as she does that going home is just an excuse. “She wondered out loud what it was she had to find,” he continues, then stoically, softly, concludes, “She’s already made up her mind.”

Made up her mind to do what? Lyle never tells us, but this whole song is steeped in regret (all those diminished chords); I have to guess it’s the end for them. His friends have been predicting it (she’s too young, they warn), and even the standard folk-ballad vocabulary (“There is nothing so deep as the ocean / And there is nothing so high as the sky / And there’s nothing so unwavering as a woman / Who’s already made up her mind”) clue us in to how inevitable that farewell is.

And yet he resists saying it out loud, for that would destroy his last shred of hope. I love how Lyle portrays himself, hanging on her every word, trying desperately to guess what’s going on inside her head. He’s like a private eye, hunting for evidence: “Now she’s sitting at one end of the kitchen table / And she is staring without an expression / And she is talking to me without meeting my eyes / She’s already made up her mind.” That last line falls like a sentence of death.

Can we ever really read somebody else’s mind? Tons of love songs have been written about “my baby thinks this” and “my lover wants that,” just perpetuating the great romantic lie. And now here’s Lyle, admitting freely that a) he hasn’t got a clue, and b) he knows he never will – not because he’s stupid, but because the woman he loves is a separate person. The very fact that he recognizes that, and respects it, makes him a hundred times more sensitive than any guy who claims to be a mind reader.

It’s a perfect song for Lyle’s supple, edgy voice; it’s a perfect song for his wary, introspective persona. (Lyle may be a Texan, but he's never seemed like a good ol’ boy.) And when that pedal steel sends out that one sorrowful note, like a shooting star across the wide East Texas skies -- well, it’s perfect, and perfectly heartbreaking.

She's Already Made Up Her Mind sample

Friday, November 09, 2007

"Ever Present Past" / Paul McCartney

I've had Sir Paul on the brain lately, big time. He's been on the gossip pages lately, for one thing; for another, there's been an ongoing Beatles vs. Kinks discussion on the Kinks Digest, with the anti-Beatle forces stooping to a lot of vitriolic Paul-bashing, which really gets me steamed up. And for a third thing, I got a chance to hang out yesterday with my fellow Kinkette Nancy, who's always good for a mutual Macca swoon. (A lady of great taste, there.) So happy birthday, Nancy -- this one's for you.

I realize that I didn't give Memory Almost Full its due when it came out this summer -- it was released the same day as Nick Lowe's At My Age, a coincidence which overloaded my circuits for a few days. But I could tell from the very first listen that Paul had hit another one out of the park, and this track in particular jumped straight onto my list of all-time favorite McCartney numbers (granted, that's a long list).

It's irrepressibly sunny, an aspect of McCartney that turns off some folks -- but not me, no way. It's his fundamental take on life, and always has been. Get that melody, for one thing, so distinctively McCartneyish, a joyous roller-coaster ride from the very first note. The first line of the verse swoops downward, with just one little syncopated hitch halfway; the second line sweeps buoyantly back up, followed by a diving third line and a fourth line that climbs one last mini-peak to resolve the whole thing. Whatever the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (and he's had a few lately), somehow Macca manages to end on a major chord. The arrangement is seamless pop, a fluid stream of synthesizers and guitars that verges on sounding dense and overproduced -- definitely more Wings than Beatles -- but it never tips over into glossiness or bombast.

I have to admit, I always search McCartney songs for coded autobiography, and this one comes out with it right away: "I've got too much on my plate." (Imagine the sorrowful pout on that low note of "plate"). But when he adds,"Don't have no time to be a decent lover," I know he's waiting for us female fans to protest. We're hanging on his every word, and yearning for the promise of "I hope it isn't too late / Searching for the time that has gone so fast / The time that I thought would last / My ever present past." Now, I'll be honest, I have no idea what he's referring to --his late wife Linda? his insurmountable Beatle reputation? the tabloid-dogged shame of his messy divorce? All of the above? I do love how it evokes the jumbled emotions and memories of middle life (I refuse to call it middle age). Life's still happening, but you've got a lot of baggage by now. Why did we ever think this aging thing would be simple?

The tune gets even perkier in the chorus, as he flicks through a string of vague profundities: "The things I think I did / I do, I think I did / The things I think I did / When I was a kid." No specifics, just what it felt like to be one of rock 'n' roll's most fortunate sons. Macca was always a great chameleon, who could play any instrument and sing in any genre so long as someone would listen. And while he was busy tap-dancing, life slipped past. "I couldn't understand a word that they were saying," he admits in the bridge, "But still I hung around and took it all in / I wouldn't join in with the games that they were playing / It went by, it went by, in a flash / It flew by, it flew by, in a flash." That stunned repetition is wonderful, a humble groping for truth rather than pompous sermonizing. I may be old, but I haven't got all the answers, he's admitting -- in fact, I haven't got ANY answers. Sounds a lot to me like Ray Davies' "You're Asking Me."

The rhythm is unpredictable, another McCartney trademark (bassists do love to play with rhythm), energized by a propulsive tempo. Somehow this song always seems to be running away with itself, and Macca's hanging on for dear life, though with an insouciant smile. Well, life's a slippery proposition. Plenty of older artists ponder this truth with despair and gloom. Not Paul McCartney -- he's still tap-dancing; that all he knows how to do. And he's the best.

Ever Present Past sample

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"Eight Miles High" / The Byrds

At first (I'm talking ancient days here, 1965 and 1966), I liked the Byrds. I bought both "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn, Turn, Turn" as singles; I'm pretty sure my brother owned that first album, the cover looks so familiar to me. Their hootenanny harmonies were lovely, and though it was apparently an electric guitar that Roger McGuinn was playing, he still seemed to be picking it folk-music-style (that "Mr. Tambourine" line about the "jingle-jangle morning" seemed completely apt, didn't it, given the metallic clang of McGuinn's guitar?). It didn't really register in my Beatlemaniac mind that these guys were Americans -- their sound fit right in with the rest of the British Invasion stuff I loved.

And then, in the middle of 1966, they came out with this strange new song, "Eight Miles High." That jangly guitar was now spinning crystalline strands of dissonance, and the close harmonies suddenly sounded less earnest, more...confused.

Young as I was, I knew perfectly well that the word "high" in the title had nothing to do with an airplane taking off. It was the first undeniably psychedelic song I'd ever listened to, and while I could pretend that the Beatles' "Rain" and Donovan's "Season of the Witch" meant something else, there was no pretending with this one. I was just a kid; it scared me. I did not buy that single, or anything else by the Byrds, ever again.

And I never gave this song another thought -- until a few months ago, when I saw Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 perform it as part of their encore set. In Robyn Hitchcock's hands, of course, psychedelia is a good thing. Suddenly I GOT this song. It's not just vague and dislocated; it's about vagueness and dislocation, and a drug user's surreal disconnect with reality.

"Eight miles high," the chiming vocals solemnly intone, climbing up a succession of minor chords, "and when you touch down / You'll find that it's / Stranger than known." Sure, that's weird grammatical usage, but we know what he means. Nothing around him makes sense: "Signs in the street / That say where you're going / Are somewhere, just being their own." That peculiar drug-induced dyslexia, turning letters into meaningless hieroglyphics, that's accurately noted all right.

Beneath those gliding, constantly shifting harmonies, the lyrics muddle around in hazy social commentary about the square (read straight) citizens who flit past, "afraid of losing their ground." Like a surreal silent film, the images unspool, a nonsensical street scene of huddled people "Some laughing, some just shapeless forms." A black limousine glides past. The guitars begin to get very busy, heading no one knows where, indulging in the musical equivalent of navel-gazing -- notes for the sake of notes. I've never had much patience for extended guitar solos, and I find myself spacing out during this part. But now I know that's what you're supposed to do during the solo. Of course!!

What this song really has -- which I never fully appreciated before -- is texture. We were just coming out of a monoaural era, full of music that sounded best spilling out of a transistor radio on AM frequencies. Here at last was music that begged to be played in stereo, with dense layers of different sounds -- hums, scrapes, throbs, thuds, murmurous whines and wheezes, and knifing through it all a reverberating cascade of notes from that juiced-up 12-string. It seems to go on a whole lot longer than three minutes and thirty-eight seconds, doesn't it? It makes me picture heavy swirling paisley draperies, and dark rooms lit with candles, and a definite smell of patchouli. Ah, it's the pure essence of the late Sixties, distilled into one little record. Mighty fine.

Eight Miles High sample

Monday, November 05, 2007

"Put A Penny In the Slot" / Fionn Regan

When I'm sent an album to review, I get nervous -- I really don't want to hate it, I don't want to write a negative review. And nobody's sending me big-name CDs to review, they're sending me debut efforts by unknown artists, hoping to get a little press for their fledgling talent. The chances are fairly good that those CDs are gonna suck.

But every once in awhile I strike gold -- like with Fionn Regan. I recently posted a rave review of this Irish singer-songwriter's debut CD, End of the World, on blogcritics.org, and I can promise you, every word of it was sincere. This guy sounds great, and his songs really stick in my mind, long after I've stopped listening to the records for review purposes.

Sure, he's quirky -- but quirky is what I like. His music is a little bit folk, a little bit alt-rock, even a little bit jazz; given the lightning-fast picking of his acoustic guitar work, you could almost say it's a little bit bluegrass as well. His lyrics are wonderful, a loquacious flood of imagery and cryptic references that peg him as yet another acolyte of professors John Lennon and Bob Dylan, only blessedly free of all the snideness and politics.

"Put A Penny In the Slot" isn't exactly typical of Regan's work -- he's got too much breadth to have anything "typical" yet -- but it's certainly a sharp little tour de force. That title image calls to mind an old nickelodeon in a penny arcade, where you could peer through a brass viewer to watch herky-jerky silent shorts. That's as good a parallel as anything else to the absurd existence he describes, peppered with references to Hennessey cognac, FedEx, Saul Bellow, Paul Auster, Rhodesian ridgebacks, Beckenham Park, high-rise blocks, furniture shops, church candles, charoplanes, stinging nettles, and the rock pools of the County Wicklow coast. It's like a page out of James Joyce, the way he rattles through these disconnected events, adrift in a senseless modern world.

Though it's a delicate, folky sort of talking ballad, this song moves at a swift clip over nimble acoustic guitar playing. As his beguiling lazy tenor bops along, we piece together a sort of story, about a girlfriend who "will not let you be her lover" -- dashing off to find a taxi, not answering her phone -- and the way she's jerking him around has left him dizzy. "Put a penny in the light and make an artificial li-ii-ight shine" he warbles from time to time, "Leave go / My golden arm"; he knows he's a sap for her demands, but she pushes every button he's got, and he's hooked. (The Man With the Golden Arm, wasn't that the old Sinatra movie about a drug addict?) "Put a penny in the slot and watch the drunken sailor dance...Put a penny in the slot and count the swans through a te-eh-lescope / I can't help from crying / I wish you were mine." Forget that skipping tempo, the chipper croak of Regan's breathy vocal -- this song is so plangent, it just kills me.

Check the kid out. I think you'll like.

Put a Penny In the Slot video

Saturday, November 03, 2007

"Let My Love Open the Door" / Sondre Lerche

Yeah, yeah, I know Pete Townshend wrote this song. The trouble is, Pete Townshend's version is too bouncy, careless and confident -- there isn't a bit of pleading to it. I've always felt this song should be a whole lot more desperate and plaintive.

Last night, watching the movie Dan In Real Life, I finally heard the song the right way. It's a pivotal scene in the movie -- Steve Carell is accompanying his brother (played by Dane Cook) while singing this song, and the heartsick Carell slows it down and sings it so yearningly, it wins over Juliette Binoche. Carell's version is adorable; even better is this recording by Sondre Lerche, the Norwegian wunderkind who performed most of the film's brilliant soundtrack. Mark this up with Once and The Darjeeling Limited as three recent movie soundtracks that turn good movies into genius movies.

I knew nothing about Lerche, but I went straight home and listened to loads of his stuff, and I adore it. He totally gets the value of a spare arrangement -- Pete Townshend should take lessons from this kid. On "Let My Love Open the Door," behind Lerche's warm, endearing tenor he gradually layers in an acoustic guitar, then a cello, then the full string quartet, and finally a burst of handclaps. It builds, sure, but it never gets overblown.

It helps that Lerche's voice still has a trace of adolescent quiver and squawk -- it gives this song urgency, as well as sweetness and sensitivity. The old hackneyed truths about love still seem fresh to him -- "When people keep repeating / That you'll never fall in love / When everybody keeps retreating / But you can't seem to get enough / Let my love open the door." Repeating that phrase, as if hammering on a literal door, he allows just a little yelp on "open", matched by a heart-melting vocal crack on "To your heart."

I'm here to tell you, no woman is won over by a man who claims to have ALL the answers. Pete Townshend sounded like he thought he had all the answers; Sondre Lerche sounds like he doesn't even know that there are questions. In verse two, the line "I'll give you a four-leaf clover" always made me think Townshend was scraping for a rhyme to "all over"; Sondre Lerche delivers it so innocently, I can envision him picking the damn clover. He barges through all the song's wild claims -- "I have the only key to your heart, / I can stop you falling apart", "It's all I'm living for," "Only one thing's gonna set you free / That's my love" -- and I actually buy it. Not that I believe he'll deliver, but it's just so sweet that he thinks he can.

He even has the sense to hush and slow down the final verse: "When tragedy befalls you / Don't let them bring you down / Love can cure your problem / You're so lucky I'm around." (Another winsome crack as his voice rises to "I'm around".) He's just figured out that there is tragedy in life; it still sobers him up. But not for long -- love will find a way to fix everything. And at least for two minutes and twenty-seven seconds, I'm willing to believe it too.

Let My Love Open The Door sample

Friday, November 02, 2007

"Crawl Back (Under My Stone)" / Richard Thompson

Even though it's not January 1, I've made a New Year's resolution: I don't have to make a Big Fan Commitment to every artist I come across. Richard Thompson, for example -- I've kept putting off falling in love with Richard Thompson, because I know it'd be falling into a black hole. This guy's so good, with such a long, convoluted career, I could easily get obsessed. There just isn't room in my life for ANOTHER artist like that.

But really, I could get to know a few songs by the guy, couldn't I? I'll skip the Fairport Convention years (they were too folky for me back then) and the years he recorded with his then-wife Linda -- that still leaves a lot of material to browse. Thanks to a wonderful elf in Milwaukee, I have a CD of handpicked Thompson tracks, every one of which went straight onto my iPod. This stuff is Kwality with a capital K. This particular song comes from his 1999 album Mock Tudor, which I'm now tempted to buy in its entirety (somebody stop her -- it's gonna be John Hiatt all over again!).

In my new spirit of restraint, I refuse to think about Thompson as an ace guitarist ("Sacrilege!" I hear you guitar geeks cry.) There are plenty of nimble riffs here; I love how they interweave with the organ lines; that's all I have to say. What I want to talk about is his songwriting -- that supple melodic line, how it winds neurotically around, matched to a fretful, scolding syncopated rhythm. This is a particularly vicious break-up song, and the tune fits perfectly.

I would NOT want to be on the receiving end of this song. "This time you hurt me, you really did it this time, / You did," he starts out testily, adding, "Did you count your fingers after shaking my hand / God forbid?" Yeesh, that's pissed off; these wounds he's licking are still pretty fresh. He peevishly recalls the latest insult -- "'Riff raff / Crawling from the slums' / Right there / In front of all your chums" -- and declares: "I swear by the pricking of my thumbs / I'll make your day / And melt away." (Love that Macbeth reference, by the way -- nothing makes a woman look worse than being compared to Lady Macbeth, does it?)

It all builds up to a spitting-mad chorus, as he insists three times: "I'll crawl back (crawl back) under my stone." But before he crawls back, he's still determined to have the last word: "But you won't have to stand next to me / You won't have to introduce me / You won't have to think about, talk about, care about me." (Later on he dredges up more snide verbs for what she's been doing to him -- "You won't have to ask about, fuss about, discuss about / You won't have to mind about, swear about, forget about me.")

This isn't just a break-up song, it's a song about snobbery and class. The stone he's crawling back under is the primitive cave she considers he's come from ("rude," "scruffy," those are her terms he's quoting). When he tells us in the bridge "I want to be middle class / Floors and ceilings made of glass," the class thing is heavily freighted. (I just sat here for five minutes thinking about that glass floor, how we're just as paranoid about what's below us as above us.) "Somehow I gave myself away," he adds in the third verse, voice curling with disgust, "Some code, some word I didn't say / I missed one line in the play / And the trap shut tight / And you did me, all right." He never had a chance with this chick, did he?

And so, of course, we take his side. He's skewed our picture of the relationship so thoroughly, we have no choice. He could have been a total boor (albeit one who quotes Shakespeare and can play genius guitar); all we see is her finicky disdain. So he's just going to leave quietly and not bother her anymore . . . except for this little song. Note to self: never break up badly with a song writer this good. He'll get you, he'll get you in the end.

Crawl Back (Under My Stone) sample