Monday, December 29, 2008
I've been intending to get hold of some Ricky Nelson tunes for months now. I don't know what triggered this . . . maybe listening to Paul McCartney's cover of "Lonesome Town" on Run Devil Run; maybe an article discussing legendary guitarist James Burton, who did some of his finest work with Ricky; maybe it was the unexpectedly large trove of Ricky Nelson artifacts at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last summer? But there I was this afternoon in an FYE record store, sifting through bins and bins of post-holiday discounted CDs, and this Ricky Nelson greatest hits compilation just jumped out at me. For two bucks, I figured, I couldn't lose. I've been playing it all afternoon, and I'm truly digging it.
I was too young for the Elvis Presley thing (in my household, Elvis definitely means Costello), but I do have fuzzy early memories of Ricky Nelson on the old black-and-white Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. I swear, even as a little kid, I cynically assumed that Ricky only got to sing on TV because his folks owned the show. Sure, his records sold, but teenage girls were bound to buy them -- Ricky Nelson at 16 was just about the most gorgeous thing that television had ever offered. Even I could tell that.
It took me years to realize that Ricky Nelson was a credible rockabilly artist; if anything, being a TV personality probably worked against him getting the respect he deserved. (Well, that and the fact that he still had to release a certain number of soppy ballads for the teenage idol market. )
I remember watching his performance of "Travelin' Man" from 1961 -- a segment that's been called the first music video, a montage dropped into the end of the show to promote Ricky's new single. It worked, evidently, because this single shot to #1. (The fact that the flip side was "Hello Mary Lou" couldn't have hurt, either. ) Apparently the songwriter, Jerry Fuller, first wrote this song for Sam Cooke, and oh man, he'd have done a lovely job with it, I can just imagine. But Ricky snapped it right up, and his version is pure gold.
The Beach Boys' "California Girls," and by extension the Beatles' "Back in the USSR," lead straight back to this song, a rockin' atlas of love in three verses plus chorus. Yes, it's a Tin Pan Alley conceit, about all the girls that this footloose guy has stringing along; even Ricky's ultra-sincere delivery can't entirely subdue the caddish subtext, as he lists these adoring women from Mexico to Alaska to Germany to Hong Kong to Polynesia to Hawaii (what a 50s list of hotspots that is!). It isn't exactly autobiography, but after all Ricky did have a world-wide legion of adoring fans by then -- that had to add a little spark of authenticity to the single.
Know what? This song still works. That liquid melody, laid over a light cha-cha-cha beat, with the doo-wop backup chorus -- it glides along with such a light, suave touch. I love how the key shifts upward, longingly, for that chorus: "Oh my sweet Fraulein down in Berlin town / Makes my heart start to yearn / And my China doll down in old Hong Kong / Waits for my return." Sexist? Yeah, probably, and racist too. Come to think of it, Sam Cooke might have detected those darker undertones; maybe that's why he passed on this song. But smooth-faced Ricky Nelson, with those innocent blue bedroom eyes -- he totally got away with it.
Okay, so youthful rebellion wasn't his thing; he wasn't selling himself as a dangerous wildcat. Ricky Nelson was the safe alternative to Elvis, the one the nice girls preferred; his honey-like voice didn't have the jolt, or the guttural snarl, that Presley had. (Think of him as Paul to Elvis' John.) On the other hand, Ricky Nelson didn't need to have the camera fixed rigidly above the waist -- hell, the guy barely even moved his lips when he sang, let alone swivel his pelvis. He made rock and roll palatable to anxious middle-class parents across the nation; if Ozzie and Harriet could let their beloved youngest son dabble in this new music, maybe it wasn't so dangerous after all.
Little did they know where all that would lead...
Travelin' Man sample
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
It's a bittersweet thing, to discover the wonderful music of someone you never knew about before -- and then to learn that he/she has already died. The more I explore this woman's music, the more poignant her death(she was hit by a speeding powerboat while scuba diving in Mexico in 2000) seems to me.
From what I can work out, Kirsty had lousy career timing and luck (nearly as bad as the Kinks on that score). Her cheery 1979 pop hit "They Don't Know" was instantly familiar to me, but I'll bet it was Tracy Ullman's 1983 cover that I really remember; Kirsty never got a lot of airplay in the States, despite high-profile collaborations with the Pogues and the Smiths. Somehow I never even heard her cover of the Kinks' "Days," which would definitely have got me interested. Those guest appearances on the French and Saunders show? I never saw those either, not until recently.
The album of hers I've mostly been listening to lately is her last one, Tropical Brainstorm, which had just been released at the time of her tragic death. It's full of sambas and other world music sounds, which combine very nicely with her sly, tart wit. The sort of chuckle in her voice as she sings "In These Shoes?" strikes a perfect balance -- on one hand, it seems she's making fun of fashion victim women in stilettos, but on the other, she's relishing their power to short-circuit male mind games.
Each verse is a different scenario, with some Indiana Jones/James Bond type marching up and asking Kirsty to go climb a mountain, ride off on a horse, or walk geisha-like on his back. I can just imagine the droll crook of her eyebrow as she replies every time, "I said 'In these shoes? / I don't think so' / I said 'Honey, let's do it here.'" Her velvety mezzo-soprano glides over the bossa nova beat, caressing each word with just a hint of irony ("I once met a man with a sense of adventure," "In walks a guy with a faraway look in his eyes," or "Won't you walk up and down my spine, /It makes me feel strangely alive.") But her invitation to "do it here" gets just the right sexy purr -- and you can bet they're gonna take her up on her offer. She just skewers these macho guys, lounging back and remaining totally, femininely in control.
There's something confiding and knowing in Kirsty MacColl's voice that makes me feel like I'm dishing the dirt with a girlfriend; she's not the competition, she's sharing the joke with me. I've got several of her songs now on a playlist I call simply "Chicks" -- it's full of tracks like this, sung by smart, confident women who aren't afraid to be who they are. (Bonnie Raitt, Aimee Mann, Jill Sobule, Thea Gilmore, Jenny Lewis, Susan Cowsill, Cyndi Lauper, Annie Lennox, Dusty Springfield -- those kinds of chicks.) After a great weekend with my special fangirl girlfriends, I'm hungering for this kind of company. Kirsty seems like she'd have been fun to hang with -- I'm so sorry I never got the chance.
In These Shoes sample
Sunday, December 21, 2008
What, you've never heard of Greg Trooper? Well, it's time to rectify that error. Forget the fact that iTunes classifies his music as either folk or country; this guy can easily cut loose with a rocker or slide into a mellow R&B groove when the spirit moves him. His musical heroes from early on? Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, and Hank Williams -- now there's a trinity for you. Frankly, the country label's the one I think fits him the least; I suspect it's been slapped on him because he lives in Nashville, and because artists like Steve Earle and Vince Gill and Robert Earl Keen have recorded his songs (then how do you account for the fact that Billy Bragg has too?).
Here's how neglected this cat is: Amazon doesn't have mp3s available for any of his three in-print albums; his first three CDs, of course, are out-of-print and there just aren't that many copies floating around. He plays smaller venues, and performs sporadically; why, he's still bookable for house parties, and he has been considering doing his next album (which I gather he's recording right now) as a privately-financed endeavor. If this isn't proof that the record industry is messed up, I don't know what is.
So even though you'll have to scramble to find his music (the more recent albums are at least on iTunes, thank goodness), I promise you it'll be worth it if you appreciate some high-quality Americana. This particular song -- from his 2005 album Make It Through This World -- is the sort of track I love more every time I hear it.
The tempo's relaxed and weary, a sort of waltzy two-step that's like one long exhalation. It's a song from the road, the lament of a touring artist who just want to go home and be with his sweetheart (read wife) -- he's been at this long enough, the charm of life on the road has pretty much worn off. "The sun is shining / On the Belfast road today," he begins this tour diary, and the melodic phrases rise hopefully, it seems things are going well -- "Now folks are lined up / To hear the music play" -- but the next line drops in the undertow of reality: "And I'm so lonesome for you now." Right alongside the glimmer of success on the horizon is the dull pain of missing her, and right now that's the only thing that really matters to him. Oh, sure, he's aware of his career: "I'm more than flattered / Someone finally knows my name / There's a red carpet / I've never stood so close to fame / And I'm so lonesome for you now." It's like a toothache, and it just won't go away.
What I love is the balance of this song; he's completely aware that life isn't black and white. He's happy that his concerts are starting to sell out, especially after being at it so long. In the third verse, he indulges in a little imagery: "Down the mountain / A glacier makes its way / Eyes can't see / The progress it makes / It's a long journey / But I found out the ice will break" -- but you know by now what that last line of the verse has got to be: "Still I'm so lonesome for you now."
I love the hoarse, plangent edge to Trooper's voice (I sure do hear Otis Redding in this). I love how patient that tempo is, nothing frantic or overheated at all. It's taken him a long time to get even this smidgeon of fame, and he's sure not taking it for granted. But still -- hey, he's human. And he loves her. Somehow, that manages to be incredibly sexy.
Don't be fooled by that easy soulful tempo or the ruminating lyrics -- this is less-is-more songwriting at its finest, that deft light touch, the disciplined structure, the ruthless hewing to a single conceit. And here's the mark of a skilled songwriter: it doesn't even sound like he's working too hard at it. This song is like butter.
PS I couldn't find a sample of this particular track, but check out Greg Trooper's website for various audio clips -- you won't be sorry!
Friday, December 19, 2008
Paul McCartney & Elvis Costello
Well, if anything's gonna knock Ray Davies out of my head, this double-whammy should do it. I'm fascinated by the all-star friendship between these two guys, two of the major forces in my rock fan life; when they started collaborating with each other in the late 80s, it blew my mind. The night I went to Carnegie Hall to see the American debut of Paul's Ecce Cor Meum, when I looked back at Paul's box and saw Elvis sitting there as his guest, I just about LOST IT.
Once upon a time, Elvis and Paul represented two competing eras to me, but as time has passed, the difference between British Invasion and New Wave seems irrelevant. What these guys have in common matters more -- incredible virtuosity, insatiable musical curiosity, and an uncritical enthusiasm for show biz. Sure, Elvis has managed to preserve a degree of hipster cool (even duetting with Burt Bacharach in an Austin Powers movie couldn't shake that) while Paul . . . well, he wrote "Silly Love Songs" -- need I say more? But when all is said and done, he was a Beatle. Nothing in the world could ever be cooler than that.
One of my favorite tracks on Elvis' Spike is their co-written song "Pads, Paws, and Claws," but their work together on Macca's 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt is the stuff that really gets me. This album helped to restore McCartney's critical reputation after a run of pretty lackluster albums, and I can't help but think that Costello was responsible for knocking Paul back into this better groove. (Later, I'm convinced, Elvis helped pull Paul out of his grief after Linda's death by getting him to record Run Devil Run.) Well, clearly I spend an unhealthy amount of time speculating about the private lives of these two men; but hey, if this is what it takes to make me stop thinking about Ray, so be it.
But back to the song. This one's a proper duet, most of it call-and-response, with both singers also principal characters in the story. Like the title suggests, they're both lusting after the same woman, which charges the whole thing with dramatic tension. After a jittery synth intro (it sounds like a string section playing frenzied chase music), it launches into an aggressive 3/4 tempo, like some kind of manic waltz, underlaid with whacking drums; Paul soulfully wails the main melody, while Elvis carries on a sarcastic patter underneath. "She makes me go so wrong," Paul begins, drawing out those long vowels, then Elvis butts in nastily, "yeah, you kept me awake, you know you did" (I picture them talking all night, drunk, on some crappy sofa). "I've loved her oh so long," Paul goes on moping, and I can just see Elvis rolling his eyes as he interjects, "so why don't you come right out and say it, stupid?" Paul is in full-throated Oh! Darling mode, while Elvis has got on his muttering I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea attitude -- and yet, yoked together this way, it totally works.
In verse two, there's even more face-off: "My intentions are quite sincere," the ever-sincere cute Beatle declares, but Elvis snipes, "that's not what you said the other night"; hurt and annoyed, Paul comes back with, "And all you can do is sneer," to which Elvis sneers, "Go ahead and kid yourself you're right." They're worse than Joey and Chandler on Friends.
It seems Paul has the edge with the chick. (Well, duh!) In the bridge, he even says so -- "I've got a better chance than you do" -- but is he just trying to convince himself? He lashes back at his snarky friend by telling him, in a patch laid down with oddly Beatlesque exotic texture, "You're such a hopeless romantic / She told me you're so predictable and nice, / She only did you a favour once or twice, / Once or twice." A favor? Ouch. But that "once or twice" is suspiciously vague, isn't it? I mean, let's be honest, once is a favor -- twice is something else.
Back to the waltz, and the guys are at each others' throats: "She makes me go so wrong / (so why don't you lie back and enjoy it)? / My conscience is clear and strong / (Yes, she says I'm just the boy for it)." By the third time the chorus rolls around, when Paul sings, "She makes me do things I don't want to do," I really believe it. The weird thing is, I pick up plenty of affection between these two guys, but neither of them really seems to like the woman at all. The worst thing she makes him do is to keep on torturing his lovesick buddy with this crap, and yet there he goes again -- "I don't know why I should be telling you / I know that you want her too." What kind of a woman is this -- and why is it that the bitches always get the cute boys??
You Want Her Too sample
Thursday, December 18, 2008
If I was too besotted with the White Album in 1968 to pay attention to The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, there was no way I would have been aware of Odessey & Oracle. Oh, yeah, I'd bought the Zombies' first single, the haunting "She's Not There," but they never made much of a dent in the American market, and I soon lost track of them. By the time Odessey & Oracle was released, the discouraged Zombies had officially disbanded. With no band to promote it, the album languished in obscurity, except for one single, "Time of the Season," which scored a fluky burst of posthumous success.
Over the years, though, this "forgotten" album gathered a cult reputation. (To mark its 40th anniversary, all four surviving Zombies reformed in March 2008 to perform the album in its entirety at the Shepherd's Bush Empire Theatre -- what a show that must have been!) When I listen to these songs, though, there's no haze of nostalgia coloring them -- after all, I only discovered the album a few years ago. But in a blind listening test, I'm not sure I'd pick it as a late 60s record. This music sounds anything but dated.
Just listen to this third track, "Maybe After He's Gone," which was written by the Zombies' bassist, Chris White (the same guy who wrote "You Make Me Feel Good" and "I Love You" and "Beechwood Park," among my favorite Zombies songs). That moody minor-key melody grabs you from the very beginning, as the singer (Colin Blunstone) recalls, his voice plaintively soft over acoustic guitar, "She told me she loved me / With words as soft as morning rain." The tempo lags anxiously after the beat; that fugitive melody skips and dodges all over the place, though Blunstone's acute sense of pitch hits every note. You just know there's a "but" coming, and here it is: "But the light that fell upon me / Turned to shadow when he came," ending with a chillingly dissonant chord. It's a story of love lost, in full folk mode.
And then suddenly, abruptly, it changes; the song explodes with a burst of lush major-key harmonies, backed by drums and a driving electric piano, as the singer (and friends) declare, "Maybe after he's gone / She'll come back and love me again / Maybe after he's gone / She'll come back and want me again." That dense texture is almost dizzying in contrast; curiously, it sounds more like the Beach Boys, circa Pet Sounds, than like any other British band of the time. It may be sheer bravado -- do we really believe for a moment that she'll ever come back? -- but the emotion is intoxicating.
Pensively, Colin goes on in acoustic mode, "I remember joy and pain / Her smile, her tears are part of me." (Lovely parallelism.) A background vocal weaves around in counterpoint, as if to underscore how divided his consciousness is. "I feel I'll never breathe again / I feel life's gone from me" -- the breathiness of Blunstone's choirboy voice was never more appropriate. As the song rambles on, there's no story to be told, no striking details to convey -- it's all atmosphere and mood, all grief and baffled desire. And every time that frenzied chorus breaks out -- even at the end, when it goes a cappella -- the idea that she'll come back seems less and less likely.
What a cruel irony -- that their swan song released a flood of creativity the Zombies would never follow up on; and that it had to compete head to head against the White Album, of all records. I wonder what I'd have made of it in 1968; now I'll never know. Still, better to find it late than never!
Maybe After He's Gone sample
Monday, December 15, 2008
Forgive me for being a little out of the loop over the past few days -- but after last weekend's show, I'm deep in Ray Davies World, and once there it's always very hard to get out. So please forgive me one last Kinks-related post.
I really didn't expect to hear this song last Friday night. Ray has often enough sung the pensive ballad "Village Green" from the same 1968 album, but this title track is much more of an oddity. Forget music hall; this song goes all the way into military brass band territory, minus an oompah here or there. (The only thing that keeps it in the rock repertoire at all is Dave Davies' guitar licks, and some loony Beach Boy-ish oohs in the middle eight.) It's the earnest chirpy anthem of the village green's defenders, and I can almost imagine it done a la Monty Python, sung by men in tweed caps and women in twin sets and sensible shoes.
If you've ever seen Ray Davies live, you know that he really doesn't let you escape without singing along to every song -- and stumbling through the lyrics last Friday, I realized how hard it is to keep straight all the many aliases Ray claims for the Kinks: the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society, the Draught Beer Preservation Society, the Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium, the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular, the Office Block Persecution Affinity, the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate. (I think there really is a Draught Beer Preservation Society, isn't there?). Those last two are like lead-ins to "Muswell Hillbillies," those cookie-cutter towers where the relocated villagers are asked to move. The fact that Fortis Green -- the North London neighborhood where the Davies brothers grew up -- is hardly an idyllic English village is beside the point.
We did a little better with all the retro items that we are requested to help save: Donald Duck, Vaudeville, Variety, strawberry jam (and all the different varieties), Mrs. Mopp, Old Mother Riley, Fu Manchu, Moriarty, Dracula, Tudor houses, antique tables, billiards, and (my favorite trio) "little shops, china cups, and virginity." Some of this is incredibly arcane, but those three fragile items tucked lovingly in there are just too precious. And the cleverest rhyme of all? To rhyme with "consortium", "God save the George Cross and all those who were awarded 'em." You really have to be quick to get all those syllables in.
It's all about "preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you / What more can we do." What more can we do, indeed? These things needed preserving in 1968; it's even more urgent nowadays. This song should be dated, but it isn't at all -- in fact, Ray's still pleading the case of the dying High Street in "Working Man's Cafe," which came out just this year. It fit into Friday night's show just fine.
It must be amazing to have a catalog this deep. Ray can keep reaching into that treasure trove and pull out new songs for every tour; for every show, practically. I never thought I'd see him sing this song (or "Starstruck" or "Shangri-La"); we got all three Friday night. No wonder I'm still dazed!
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Darn! I came on here this morning, all charged up to write about two of my favorite Kinks songs, which Ray Davies performed last night at this over-the-top fabulous show at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I never thought I'd hear either of them performed live, and there they were, more glorious and wonderful than I could ever have expected. But lo and behold, I've already written here about Shangri-La and Starstruck. (Well, I said they were two of my favorites, didn't I?) Then I was gonna write about The Getaway, one of my favorites among Ray's solo tracks -- but guess what? I wrote about that one last March, the last time I saw Ray live.
But never fear -- Ray's got a million of 'em! And now I realize I haven't yet gushed sufficiently about "Working Man's Cafe," the title song from Ray's most recent album. (It's impressive how Ray can perform this new solo stuff alongside the vintage Kinks classics, and it fits right in.) Last night Ray prefaced this one with an anecdote about trying to meet his brother Dave for a chat at some cafe Dave knew about, and when Ray got there, it had disappeared. Anytime one of Ray's songs references Dave, you know it runs deep -- that tortured relationship he has with his little brother is all tangled up in his own ambivalence about being true to his working-class roots and yet being a rich and celebrated artist.
So on the surface, yes, this song is a passionate cry against the loss of the English High Street, to be replaced with samey chain stores and those bland wannabe-American mini-malls. (Check out my book 500 Places To See Before They Disappear for my own lament on this topic.) But as always, Ray goes introspective and brings his personal conflict into this song. He sounds genuinely lost and befuddled as he begins, "Looking for the working man's café / In the shopping centre of the town / Looking for somewhere to fit in / In among the retail outlets." I love how those lines toggle melodically back and forth between two notes, like he's looking for a chord that fits; he sings it so plaintively, too. He can cope just fine in this brave new world, but a sense of loss still haunts him -- " Bought a pair of new designer pants /Where the fruit and veg man used to stand /I always used to see him there /Selling old apples and pears / Chatting up the pretty girls /With knocked-off goods in the van." Now you tell me, which type of store has more character?
Ray's even willing to admit that this is progress: "We've really come a long way down this road / Improving our surroundings as we go / Changing our roots and culture / But don't you know..." This is more nuanced than the anti-modernization protests of "Village Green Preservation Society" (another amazing song he sang last night). Now, Ray plumbs the situation for all its poignancy, raising a howl of sorrow as he swings into the chorus: "Long ago / There was a working man / Don't you know / We were all working men." And what's lost is the gentle humanity of that past, when "we'd sit and pass the time of day / At the working man's café."
Next verse, he's trying to meet up (with his brother, we now know, via cell phone), and the rhymes disappear, the melodic line falters, as he stumbles uncertainly: "I thought I knew you then, but will I know you now / There's gotta be a place for us to meet / I'll call you when I've found it / I only hope that life has made us a little more grounded / Hey man, I see you now." Later on, he gets more topical, though still bemused, as he sings about loans and mortgages (hmm, he does that in "Shangri-La," too -- financial dealings really do make Ray nuts) and contrasts the working man's cafe to the internet cafes that have replaced it. And then he bursts out in a poignant self-assertion -- "I'm the kid with the greasy spoon / Firmly held in my hand." That is, in the end, who he wants to be; at any rate, he never wants to lose that part of himself.
With some performers, at this stage in their career, this would just be a pose. Does anybody believe the common-man attitudes the Rolling Stones and Bruce Stringsteen still crank out? (I buy it from Paul McCartney, because I think he's deluded enough to really believe he's still an ordinary guy.) But Ray? He's not trying to sell us a bill of goods; he's just fretting over whether he's working-class anymore. Of course he isn't; what's important is that he wants to be (well, sometimes at least). That sense of loss, and that struggle, make this song so much more interesting than a simple diatribe against malls.
Introspection, irony, poignancy -- this is why Ray Davies is my favorite songwriter. In case you're wondering.
Working Man's Cafe sample
Thursday, December 11, 2008
In this book I've been reading, Please Please Me, Gordon Thompson does a fantastic job of analyzing Lennon & McCartney's songwriting process (for that alone this book is worth reading, and I haven't even gotten yet to the section on Ray Davies). But there was one thing Thompson wrote that's really bugging me. He mentions that "She Loves You" -- one of those early Beatle hits that's so familiar, I hardly ever listen to it anymore -- was patterned after a snazzy Tony Hatch song, recorded by Bobby Rydell, called "Forget Him" ("Forget him, if he doesn't love you / Forget him, if he doesn't ca-a-a-are..."). Thompson then describes "She Loves You" as a message song, in which the narrator is at a psychological distance from the relationship he's talking about. Now, hold on, Mr. T -- am I missing something?
The way I've always heard this song, the narrator is NOT at a distance from this relationship. When he sings, "With a love like that / You know you should be glad," I hear envy just hissing out his ears. That's certainly the scenario in the Rydell song -- the punch line of the chorus is "Forget him and please come home to me." In "She Loves You," though, the soap opera's a bit more complicated. The narrator been turned into a go-between -- "You think you lost your love? / Well, I saw her yesterday / It's you she thinking of / And she told me what to say." I see him as a sort of Cyrano here -- he's delivering the message, but even as he advises them on how to get back together, a part of him wishes desperately he could get her for himself.
Lennon & McCartney underscore that rhythmically and harmonically; "with a love like that" comes out all punchy and staccato, on a dissonant C minor sixth chord, only to melt longingly into the fluid, sinous line "you know you should be glad," which shifts from D to D7 and finally resolves into G, like an escaping sigh of desire. It's as if he's saying, "what's wrong with you, you jerk, that you don't appreciate this amazing girl?" And just hear that lonesome E minor chord on the first "She loves you" -- this news that they're getting back together does not makes him happy. I'm betting that when he saw her yesterday, he was getting ready to make his move -- until she started confiding in him, and there he was, stuck in the role of a comforting shoulder to cry on. Love can be cruel.
This kind of emotional complexity was a big part of what made the Beatles special. "If I Fell" is full of dark warnings about to his potential new girlfriend about not hurting him the way his ex did. "Another Girl" is all about the old girl, really. And I can't think of a pop song that gets all the ugliness of a dying relationship down as well as "For No One." And here's the kicker -- I don't even think they were conscious of doing it. John and Paul were always madly scribbling these songs, in the front parlor or on a tour bus or in a hotel room. (Like Paul's grandfather describes their existence in Hard Day's Night: "I've been in a car and a train and a car and a room and a room and a room..."). These weren't intensely polished, conscious literary creations; this was just what came out.
Man. I forget sometimes how great they were. Then I start listening to them again and I'm completely blown away, all over again.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Still reading that book about 1960s British pop, and the author mentioned a song by George Formby called "When I'm Cleaning Windows" as a typical example of British songwriting before the Beatles. Now, I know hardly anything about George Formby except that he played the ukelele and sang corny music-hall-style comedy numbers in the 1930s and 1940s; he was apparently a real national icon, though. The only song of his I recognize is "Leaning On the Lamppost," which later became a sort of novelty hit for Herman's Hermits in the US (in the UK, they'd never have gone for it). But as soon as I read that song title "When I'm Cleaning Windows," I thought of this copasetic track from Van Morrison. I'll bet anything Van knew that Formby song, but what he did with it is worlds away from a plinking ukelele and yuk-yuk comedy.
Infuriating as Van Morrison can be, I'm still willing to forgive him everything when he swings like this. This is from his 1982 album Beautiful Vision (though I'll admit I only know it from a greatest hits collection -- I'm no Van completist). It lands squarely in his "I'm just an ordinary guy" line of songs, which are completely contradicted by his Celtic mystic songs, but so be it. The recurring line that seems to be the heart of this song is in the chorus, a swiftly rapped-out bit of Formby-esque patter: "I'm a working man in my prime / Cleaning windows."
But the only thing Van's song shares with Formby's, really, is the subject and a certain sort of chirpy upbeat tempo. I'm guessing that Van really did work as a window cleaner at some point in his life; whereas Formby was all about the window cleaner leering through the glass for naughty glimpses of people's lives, Van's has the ring of experience in the jaunty way he describes carrying ladders past wrought-iron railings, or cleaning a lady's fanlight. More than anything, though, it's a testament to a slacker lifestyle. Sure, he's got this menial job, but in his spare time he's having a damn good time. "I went home and listened to Jimmie Rodgers / In my lunch-break / Bought five Woodbines at the shop on the corner / And went straight back to work....We went for lemonade and Paris buns / At the shop and broke for tea ... I was blowing saxophone on the weekend / In that down joint." He doesn't even bother to make things rhyme; this is more like a diary than a crafted song. He cheerfully insists that he's happy cleaning windows -- but it's not all that he's about.
We've all had periods like this in our lives, haven't we? Golden times when we were content to live in the moment. I'm thinking back to a summer in Indianapolis when I worked the cash register at Lobraico's Rexall pharmacy and wrote at nights for my friends' start-up magazine, InCity; I didn't know at the time how rare that carefree little interlude in my life would be.
In the second verse, Van lays out chapter two of his musical autobiography in a nutshell: "I heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon / On the street where I was born / Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, Muddy Waters singing 'I'm a rolling stone' / I went home and read my Christmas Humphrey's book on Zen / Curiosity Killed the Cat / Kerouac's Dharma Bums and On the Road." It's like he turned to his turntable and nightable and just transcribed what was sitting there. It's poignant to think of this kid in Belfast greedily sucking in American blues and beat lit, as if real life was gonna happen somewhere else. But there's no mistaking how deeply he absorbed that stuff; this song has such an irresistible R&B groove, with delirious flourishes from a tight horn section, and Van's voice is a rare and beautiful thing, the way it shades from growl to croon to bark to flutter to howl.
"What's my life?" he triumphantly announces; "I'm a-happy cleaning windows / Take my time / I'll see you when my love grows ." You can just hear the grown-up rock star yearning back to that innocent, uncomplicated time; hell, he's making me nostalgic for it, and I've never set foot in Belfast. This is wonderful stuff indeed -- who needs George Formby?
PS: I'm assuming there's some major Van Morrison career retrospective box set going to come out soon, because so many of the early albums and even the earlier "best of" compilations seem to be discontinued on Amazon. Listen to the sample on iTunes, though, if you're so enabled -- it's a blast.
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
I'm deep into a new book called Please, Please Me: Sixties British Pop Inside Out by Gordon Thompson, so all I can think about right now is UK pop from the 1960s (I know, I know, that's hardly a change for me). While this doesn't have all the salacious details about rock star lives that I was kinda hoping for, it's great on stuff like who engineered which track, how they created certain sound effects, how various songs evolved, and who really played the drums for the Dave Clark Five. And I'm just enough of a record geek to care.
I was too young when these records first came out to pay attention to technical stuff like this, but according to Thompson, "Hurdy-Gurdy Man" has been called by some sources the first Led Zeppelin recording, because most of the members of the band -- which hadn't yet formed -- were called in for the recording session. Thompson insists that this wasn't the case. John Paul Jones, Led Zep's eventual bassist -- at the time a very in-demand session musician -- was the musical director for the session. But instead of having John Bonham on the drums, Jones called in Clem Cattini, who'd long been his go-to drummer, and he hired Alan Parker for guitar instead of Jimmy Page (another popular session man, though his claim to have played Dave Davies' part on early Kinks recordings is apocryphal).
Well, I'm no Led Zep fan, so the exact personnel doesn't really matter to me. Still, I couldn't stop listening to this track after reading this. It's such a fantastic number, moody and ominous in a way that Donovan's early folky music hadn't been. There's the minor key, of course, and the hynotically repeated, downward-sliding melodies; there's the exaggerated tremble of Donovan's voice, sounding almost artifically distorted. When this came out in 1968, that psychedelic texture was still something novel and exciting. Sure, Donovan had already given us "Sunshine Superman" and "Mellow Yellow," so we knew that our sweet Scottish flower child was exploring the wonderful world of drugs. But the darkness of "Hurdy Gurdy Man," the disconnected groping for meaning, was a whole new dimension.
"Thrown like a star in my vast sleep," he begins, in a hushed and haunting voice, "I open my eyes to take a peep /To find that I was by the sea / Gazing with tranquility." But there's no tranquility here; a military drum fill erupts, then an exotic Indian tambura, then that insinuating sliding guitar line, like a foghorn moaning through the night. "Twas then when the hurdy gurdy man / Came singing songs of love," Donovan intones, but it sure doesn't sound like a song of love. "Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, gurdy he sang," Donovan repeats, like he's in a trance. Whatever this mind-blowing message of the hurdy gurdy man is, it comes off as mumbled nonsense.
What's a hurdy gurdy man doing here? I visualize an Italian street-corner musician with a handlebar mustache, hardly the groovy hippie image you'd expect. Songfacts.com and Wikipedia tell me that the song was in fact written as a gift for Donovan's mentor Mac MacLeod, whose band was named Hurdy Gurdy, but once the song was written Donovan decided not to give him the song and recorded it himself. Too bad -- that prosaic explanation takes all the fun out of it. I like to imagine the Hurdy Gurdy Man as a mysterious figure like the Fool on the Hill, a magus who has all the answers, while we unenlightened souls can only hear it as gibberish.
It gets even more portentous in the next verse: "Histories of ages past / Unenlightened shadows cast / Down through all eternity /The crying of humanity." When you see the words printed out baldly like that, it's pretty silly, isn't it? But not when it's sung, over that insistent drum beat in that spooky echoey voice. And then the hurdy gurdy man becomes, for no discernible reason, a "rolypoly man -- roly poly, roly poly, roly poly, poly he sang . . . " It should sound cute and cuddly, but it's anything but. You just want to dive into those tangled skeins of sound and lose yourself.
Hurdy Gurdy Man sample
Monday, December 08, 2008
Why haven't I written about Modest Mouse before? Probably for the same reason that I still haven't downloaded We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Every time I hear one of their songs, I think to myself, "I really like this band; these guys are seriously good." And yet, somehow, they haven't become One of My Bands. It's a mysterious process, why you take one band to your heart and not another.
And yet, and yet . . . I do love this song. Those weird distorted throbbing sound waves of the opening (just a guitar and bongos played backwards, no?) -- they sound so "modern," but in a retro Sputnik way, and right from the start I'm feeling disoriented and jumpy. Then Isaac Brock's vocals slide in over a tense strumming acoustic guitar, like a landing jet: "Ohhhhhhhhhhhh / Gotta see, gotta know right now." Yep, we are stockpiling anxiety already, and his distinctive flat quaver expresses it perfectly. "What's that riding on your everything?" he asks, edgily, then reassures himself in a sort of kneejerk singsong: "It isn't anything at all." But he isn't really comforted; immediately he swoops back into "Ohhhhhhhh / Gotta see, gotta know right now."
Don't expect narrative, or concrete desciption, but if what you want is postmodern moodiness, well they've got that in spades. He goes on queruously, "What's that riding on your shelf / In the bathrooms / And the bad motels?" Strictly speaking, this means nothing, but it's all code for rootlessness and impermanence. "No one really cared for it at all, " he adds, "Not the gravity plan." What in the hell is a gravity plan?
Well, that's where the second verse comes in. The guitar part turns jangly electric and more insistent as he continues, "Early / Early in the morning / It pulls all on down my sore feet / I wanna go back to sleep." Whatever this "It" is, he sure doesn't want to face it. And now we finally see the bad relationship, or at any rate the not-working-out relationship: "In the motions and the things that you say / 'It all will fall, / Fall right into place.'" (I love how he double-tracks the vocals to mimic her talking.) I can just see this woman, in a groggy sort of slow-mo scene, gesticulating, and the suck of inevitability pulling him further into this liaison. Then undertow of panic and helplessness starts to overwhelm him, because this is the "gravity plan" -- "As fruit drops, flesh it sags," he warily describes it. Swiftly, the singsongy doubled vocals chime in, "'Everything will fall/Fall right into place.'" As if that's a good thing.
To me, this is the epitome of indie rock. It's absolutely saturated with neurosis, fear of commitment, emotional ambivalence, obsession with death and decay, the whole nine yards. The lyrics are cryptic, and don't even rhyme. But that hypnotic rhythm, with its odd syncopations and harsh sonic textures, tells you more than the lyrics about how trapped this guy feels. It has nothing to do with relating to the situation; I hear this song and for four minutes and twenty seconds, I too feel weirded out and longing to escape from a sterile entanglement. And then the song's over and I go back to being me. Now there's musical magic for you.
Gravity Rides Everything sample
Sunday, December 07, 2008
I'm still mad at the Beatles for breaking up. How dare they?! The only consolation I had back in 1970 was that at least Paul McCartney was still making records, and of course I loved them. I was obsessed for months with his first solo effort McCartney, his handmade homemade one-man show with that spilled bowl of cherries on the front and the scrapbook of happy family snapshots inside (man, how jealous I was of Linda McCartney!). Totally unlike the Beatles' densely crafted LPs, it seemed wild and unpolished and vital and divine. And it wasn't long before the prolific Mr. McCartney cranked out another one, the equally primitive Ram.
I suppose if I listened to these records now for the first time, I'd think they were silly. So many of these songs are little more than fragments, scraps of private meanderings that only Paul could decipher. But I'll never know what my honest critical reaction would have been; all I know is that I love love love these records to death.
McCartney was recorded before the Beatles broke up (in fact it precipitated the break-up); Ram was written and recorded after all that brouhaha, and therefore this is the one we have to look to for "messages" about the Beatles. That photo of two beetles screwing each other on the back of the album cover is hard to miss, isn't it? And the song "Too Many People" seemed pretty clearly aimed at the other Beatles. But apparently John Lennon smarted when he first heard "Dear Boy," too, thinking it was written about him ("Guess you never knew, dear boy, what you had found...Hope you never know, dear boy, how much you missed.") Paul, though, has said it was written to Linda's ex-husband, marveling that anyone would have let such a woman go. That does make more sense out of lines like "she was just the cutest thing around" and "When I stepped in, my heart was down and out, / But her love came through and brought me round / Got me up and about." Of course, that didn't stop John from going off and writing the supremely nasty, bitter "How Do You Sleep?" in retaliation.
Well, anyway, back to the song McCartney did write. Forget the lyrics; it's the melody and the syncopation that make this song so irresistible. A pounded piano takes the place of the signature McCartney bass line, climbing darkly up beneath a tripping melody; that capricious rhythm keeps you delightfully off balance as the minor-key melody circles around. It's a simple song, but he keeps layering on more textures, with guitars and drums and backing harmonies and a vocal counterpoint. I could make up all sorts of reasons why this dense tapestry of sound suits the theme of the song, but this is Paul McCartney after all; he probably just did it because he liked the way it sounded. Well, when you've been blessed with the amount of sheer musical instinct this guy has, you can afford to operate like that.
It sure sucks me into its vortex, anyway. The melody's so restless, the rhythm so edgy, it makes me almost intoxicated. I know that the very sound of this man's voice sends me into a special zone; there's no accounting for the way I love McCartney's music. But really, anyone but the worst kind of music snob has to admit this is fine stuff indeed.
Dear Boy sample
Saturday, December 06, 2008
Elvis Costello himself admits (in the CD insert for the Rhino reissue of Get Happy) that he gave this song to Dave Edmunds "in a moment of drunken bravado." I'd sure like to have been a fly on the wall witnessing that moment in rock history. Edmunds wound up with a UK #2 hit, whereas Elvis -- whose career was just beginning to spin away from being the critics' darling -- never could quite get the song right. Listen to his anxiety-addled version on the bonus disc of Get Happy; Dave, however, nudged the tempo down a notch and gave the whole thing a genial, bouncy rockabilly twang that works perfectly. Yeah, he knows that all the girls are gossiping about him, and he knows he'll end up screwed by it. Still, you get the feeling he loves the girls anyway. As a girl myself, I know whose record I wanted to buy.
The lyrics do have that devilish Costello double-meaning twist; I can't help but giggle when I hear some of these lines. "There are some things you can't cover up / With lipstick and powder," he begins accusingly. "Thought I heard you mention my name / Can't you talk any louder?" (Love the sarcasm.) Then he shifts through a series of uneasy chromatic chord shifts, as if circling and edging his way around the room -- "Don't come any closer / Don't come any nearer / My vision of you can't / Come any clearer." But at the end, Dave's honey-sweet voice lands almost joyfully on the final line, "Oh, I just wanna hear girls talk." He can't keep away from them.
The lyrics swirl around with a lot of vague insinuation; you never really find out what the girls are saying, or who the victim of their gossip is. "If they say that it's so / Don't they think that I'd know / By now" -- what does that mean? Of course, it wouldn't be an Elvis Costello song if there weren't a vicious jab or two, like "You may not be an old-fashioned girl / But you're gonna get dated" (and the way the line lands darkly on that "dated," you know he's steering you towards the uglier of the two meanings). At one point he hauls out some really odd charges: "Was it really murder / Were you just pretending / Lately I've heard you / Are the living end." It's all fairly baffling, that's for sure.
I don't know whether the girls are making him sour on a girl he was interested in, or whether they've tainted his girlfriend's mind against him, or whether he just feels bad that the girls are putting his girlfriend down. But hey, that's the way overheard gossip and hearsay makes you feel -- even when you don't get the facts straight, you react to the underlying malice. Yet somehow Dave Edmunds rises above the bile-spewing nature of this song and turns it into a upbeat pop gem.
Of course, I'm a little prejudiced in Dave's favor. This track appears on 1979's Repeat When Necessary, which is, after all, the sort of partner album to Nick Lowe's Labour of Lust. (Edmunds' back-up band, Rockpile -- in which Nick played bass -- at the time was contractually required to play only on Edmunds' or Lowe's solo albums, not on their own.) You can hear Nick's voice chanting "Girls talk" in the back-up chorus. Ah, you knew I'd get to the Nick Lowe connection eventually, didn't you? But I swear, I'd have loved this song anyway. Listen to it; who could help but love this song?
Girls Talk sample
Monday, December 01, 2008
Please get this one out of my head! These guys were on Saturday Night Live (not even a new show, but a repeat) last weekend and I've been trying to dislodge this song ever since. The thing that bugs me most about it is the refrain -- the grandiose statement (underlaid with self-important synthesized strings), "Are we human? / Or are we dancers?" Well, um...last time I checked, it was entirely possible to be a human and a dancer at the same time. (Oddly enough, one of the internet lyrics sites interprets this line as, "Are we human/ Or are we denser?" But perhaps that is the lyric -- in Sweden.)
For some reason -- and it's not just the grandiosity -- this record sounds to me like Coldplay. And I'm sorry, to me that's not a good thing. Maybe it's the lead singer's yelpy voice, maybe it's the anthemic melody, or maybe it's the cloudy allusions of those lyrics. I think it's a break-up song; at least, that's what all those lines like "cut the cord" and "wave goodbye" hint at. But it doesn't relate to any relationship I recognize. I have to assume that the author/singer/narrator (is this guy's name really Brandon Flowers?) is writing about a real love affair and doesn't want to get too specific. But jeez, could you at least give us something concrete? All this chitter-chatter about "platforms of surrender" and "grace and viritue" and "your systems" -- it's just plain baffling. And boring.
But man, that dance hook works.
And here I am, singing along. "Are we human? / Or are we dancers? / My signs are vital / My hands are cold." It just keeps building and building, like a U2 fever dream, or REM at its most grating and strident. "And I'm on my knees / Looking for the answer --" wait, yes? The answer to life? Does Brandon Flowers really possess the answer to all human existence? He must, he must, because the synths are really going to town now. And here it is, the Secret of Life: "Are we human? / Or are we -- dancers?" HUNH?
Sunday, November 30, 2008
The Gin Blossoms / Marshall Crenshaw
You know what? I love Marshall Crenshaw. Love the music; love the man too. I don't write about him often here, but I tell you, every time a song of his cycles up on my iTunes, it makes me happy. I was just reading about him in the paper today, in an article about an annual John Lennon tribute he often performs in (besides being a lifelong Beatle fan, Marshall got his show-biz start playing Lennon in Beatlemania). That inspired me to dial up my Marshallmania playlist, and it's been a beautiful day ever since.
But I have to apologize -- I can't post a sample of Marshall's version of this song. This one he co-wrote with the Gin Blossoms' Jesse Valenzuela and Robin Wilson, and while it became a hit for them -- it appears on their 1996 EP Follow You Down, on the the soundtrack of the movie Empire Records, and on both their "greatest hits" compilations -- Marshall's recording of it is more or less a rarity. I can't even remember how I got hold of that track; some illegal swap with another Crenshaw fan, I suspect. But to my ears, that soaring melodic line is quintessential Marshall Crenshaw, so I'm really sorry you'll have to make do with the Gin Blossoms' version.
Wait, that sounds snotty. The Gin Blossoms' version rocks! It's just that Marshall's is so much simpler and sweeter. First of all, he does it just with acoustic guitar and a contrapuntal fiddle (or is it a cello?) -- that homemade quality is perfect, like it's just a kid sitting in his bedroom feeling miserable. Then there's the matter of Marshall's voice, which after all these years still conveys adolescent bewilderment better than anyone, save Colin Blunstone of the Zombies (I mean, c'mon, "She's Not There" is the purest expression of adolescent yearning ever).
This is, after all, a song about trembling on the verge of heartbreak. The guy is singing it to his girlfriend -- although she isn't even there -- and stubbornly insisting that their relationship is not over. The more he protests, though, the more you know it's doomed. Apparently someone, or several someones, have been filling his ears with stories about her, which of course -- loyal sweetheart that he is -- he refuses to believe. "I didn't ask," he starts out, and "they shouldn't have told me," he adds. (He's got the teen code of ethics down just right, hasn't he?)
So what did she do? I can't help it, I'm dying to know. But he never tells us what they've told him (now there's a cagey bit of songwriting -- what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a McGuffin), maybe because he just can't face it. It's pretty clear that, whatever it is, it should kill the relationship. But he doesn't want to believe it, so he just digs in and shuts it out. "I don't want to take advice from fools," he tells us in the chorus, "I'll just figure everything is cool / Until I hear it from you / Until I hear it from you." He's either a total sap, or a glorious romantic -- I opt for the latter.
That melody is so plaintive, you just know what's gonna happen. The stories will be true; she's already ditched him. The quaver in Marshall's voice tell us that he knows this all perfectly well; he's just hanging on for the last few days, hours, minutes, forestalling heartbreak. The whole past, present, and future of this teenage love affair is telescoped into this one simple little plangent tune. It's heartrending, really.
The thing is, when you know Marshall Crenshaw's catalog, this is the kind of magic he works in song after song. Whatever the Gin Blossoms' input may have been (yeah, yeah, someday I really mean to listen to that band's music, I know I should), this is classic Crenshaw in all the ways that matter. The man's a treasure.
Till I Hear It From You sample
Monday, November 24, 2008
More Kinks? Hey, I don't choose the songs, they choose me. I can't even remember why we burst into singing this tonight at the dinner table, but as we sang it -- hearing in our minds the full arrangement from Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One -- I found myself falling in love with this brilliant track all over again.
This may be Ray Davies' most perfect escape fantasy. On one level it's a comedy song, with a stream of deft patter laid over a goofy calypso beat. The electric piano imitates a Caribbean steel band, the bass line is soaked with reggae, and at points the pounding drums sound straight out of Africa. But it is a Kinks song, after all, and that means there's so much else going on here.
When Ray writes an escape fantasy, it's never just about where he's escaping to, it's also about what he's escaping from -- that's why it leads off with that anxiety-provoking sound effect of honking cars. His stress levels are clear from the very first verse: "I think I'm sophisticated / 'Cos I'm living my life like a good homosapien / But all around me everybody's multiplying / Till they're walking round like flies, man." (Notice how his vocals are almost lost in the mix at first, as if he's too overwhelmed to speak up for himself.) I love how Ray rattles off those polysyllabic words, accenting odd syllables, very Jamaican; he does it even more in the second verse: "I think I'm so educated and I'm so civilized / 'Cos I'm a strict vegetarian / But with the over-population and inflation and starvation / And the crazy politicians" ("pol-i-tih-see-ans", priceless!). Later in the song, he practically squawks as he sings, "I look out my window but I can't see the skies / The air pollution is a-fogging up my eyes." (Only it never sounds to me like he's saying "fogging," but something a little more, er . . . fricative.)
In the second half of the verse, his voice rises, sounding slightly strangled and desperate, as he laments, "I don't feel safe in this world no more / I don't want to die in a nuclear war / I want to sail away to a distant shore / And make like an ape man," underscored with a hammering bass piano scale and a few emphatic drum whacks from Mick Avory.
The chorus is a lilting but urgent chant, with seductively shifting syncopation: "I'm an ape man, I'm an ape ape man /I'm an ape man / I'm a King Kong man, I'm an ape ape man / I'm an ape man." You just about have to start pounding some flat surface when that rhythm gets going. I can almost imagine Ray sitting in a chair in North London, eyes screwed shut, rocking back and forth, trying to convince himself of his animal nature; I love the hysterical flutter in his voice as he declares, "'Cos compared to the sun that sits in the sky / Compared to the clouds as they roll by / Compared to the bugs and the spiders and flies / I am an ape man."
Then there's the bridge, a spoken-word interlude which Ray narrates in his best BBC nature documentary voice: "In man's evolution he has created the cities and the motor traffic rumble / But give me half a chance and I'd be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle." Then that desperate voice bursts out again: "'Cos the only time that I feel at ease / Is swinging up and down in a coconut tree / Oh what a life of luxury / To be like an ape man."
That coconut tree is a complete fantasy, isn't it? He can't help but shift musical styles as he adds a little sex to his fantasy: with brother Dave spinning off Chuck Berry guitar licks, he delivers yet a second bridge (always more for your money with the Kinks!), an Elvis Presley-style plea: "Come on and love me / Be my ape man girl / And we'll be so happy / In my ape man world." This whirlwind dip into rockabilly cracks me up every time.
In the last verse, he finally incorporates her in his mental movie, with one of the song's funniest -- and yet somehow sweetest -- lines: "I'll be your Tarzan, you'll be my Jane / I'll keep you warm and you'll keep me sane." That's all he really wanted anyway, wasn't it? Someone to keep him sane in this crazy world. Well, I'm happy to volunteer, Ray. Just keep those bananas coming!
Sunday, November 23, 2008
I just saw Robyn last night, at the Symphony Space here in Manhattan, performing his oddball 1984 "psych-folk" album I Often Dream of Trains in its more-or-less entirety to be filmed for an upcoming documentary. Now, those of you who read this blog regularly know what a sucker I am for Robyn Hitchcock -- for his floppy gray hair, his loud shirts, his spaced-out free association stage monologues, his haunting melodies, his wicked sense of humor, his absurdist lyrics about death, sex, and decay. Last night's show was a delight from start to finish, even the moments when he blew a line or played the wrong chord and, with a nonchalant "take 2", redid it. I sincerely hope the film's editors don't cut out all the bits he prefaced by saying, "This is the part they'll edit out," because with Robyn Hitchcock those are definitely the choicest moments.
You know how sometimes at a concert you hear a song you think you know well, and suddenly in performance it simply explodes with new significance? That's what happened last night with "I Used to Say I Love You." A simple acoustic number, floating along on a deceptively childlike melody, it came across last night as a real spellbinder, a wondrously acute dissection of human emotion.
With an opening line like that, anybody else's song would be a wistful reminiscence about love lost. Not Robyn Hitchcock. "I used to say I love you," he begins, only to follow it up with "It wasn't really true" (sliding up teasingly to the note at the end of the line, a trick of his that's unsettlingly charming, I must say.) But before you brand him a liar, he adds, "I wanted to believe it / And now I almost do."
How many of us have done that, talked ourselves into love? But even that is a simplification of what Robyn's on about. The second verse navigates through even finer shades of meaning: "I used to say I love you / I said it as a threat / Or maybe as a promise / To see what I could get." He doesn't even know what his motives are, or were, anymore, and he probably never will.
Forget about deciding whether the love was genuine or not; in the bridge, he ruefully sketches the sea change in his feelings: "But my heart doesn't break anymore / No my heart doesn't ache anymore / 'Cause it just couldn't take any more." The way each line keeps climbing the same three notes, only to fall back again, is a pretty good imitation of how emotions keep surging fruitlessly in a not-quite-right love affair. And when he ends with "And I've lost my illusions about you now," you can't help feeling the melancholy in that disillusionment.
Sure, on one level he was just manipulating this girl -- he'll admit as much: "I used to say I love you / It wasn't what I meant / What I really meant was / Come on in my tent." (Though, honestly, the way he utters "tent" makes it sound awfully damn inviting.) "But you were reluctant / Although I was so hot" (hmmm, I always have to catch my breath as he breathes that last word). "Now I understand it / But back then I did not." By the time he's got to this line, it's so loaded with give-and-take, even that simple rhyme is packed with complexities.
Okay, quick recap: This was one of those tug-o-war relationships, where vows were sworn and promises broken and nothing ever really meshed, despite a lot of hopeful chemistry. But it's all in the past, and now things are in limbo: "And now if I should see you / Or call you on the phone / I wonder who's that person / I could never call my own." There's an epiphany for you -- that moment when you strip away all the baggage you loaded onto somebody and realize you never really knew that person at all. It's a strange hollow feeling, much different from the way you'd hate someone who actually betrayed you. "Although I kind of like you / I'll never understand / Why I got so excited / Each time that we held hands." Again, the words are simple, just like that tripping melody, but the weird dislocated emotion he describes is anything but simple.
It seems like a featherweight song, and done differently it could be quite snide and snarky. But he keeps it so tentative -- a rhythm regular as rain dripping off the eaves, a fluttery tempo that avoids dwelling too long on any of these perplexing truths. There's a sadder-but-wiser quality here, but also a bone-deep loneliness, because the part of him that longed to be in love has wound up with nothing. And the side of him that didn't want to be in love? That side's feeling emptier than ever.
So I sat there in the audience and felt this song unspool, and I was simply gobsmacked. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. Thanks again, Robyn.
I Used to Say I Love You sample
Saturday, November 22, 2008
On November 22, 1968, there was only one album I was thinking about, and it was white with a gatefold cover. I was so deep into my Beatle love, everything else seemed meaningless. I didn't even know the Kinks still existed; having pissed off American concert promoters, they hadn't been touring the US at all, and they'd vanished from our airwaves. I'm sure I wasn't the only American who had no idea that the Kinks had released a new album -- and with their usual fatal timing, released it the same day as the Beatles' masterwork.
Well, so it goes. Maybe I wasn't ready for The Village Green Preservation Society in 1968, anyway. Not that it was "too English" (hunh? that was just my cup of tea) or too folky -- that folky acoustic quality would have been a definite plus for me at the time, considering how newer bands like Cream and the Doors were beginning to nudge rock music toward hard rock, a disturbing development as far as I was concerned. But when you listen to VGPS, it's so steeped in nostalgia and radical conservatism, how could an adolescent like me ever have gotten it? After all, this is an album where the title track proclaims, "God save little shops, china cups, and virginity" -- in the midst of the free love 1960s, that was a baffling message indeed.
"Do You Remember Walter?"is the wistful musings of a middle-aged man, reuniting with a boyhood chum ("I bet you're fat and married/ And you're always home in bed by half past eight / And if I talked about the old times / You'd get bored and you'd have nothing more to say" -- and he sounds sad about it, not scornful of the complacent old fart). He eulogizes the old-time rocker "Johnny Thunder" and the obsolete locomotive of "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains." There's not one but two songs about how we cling to photos as souvenirs of our lives, the slouchy happy "Picture Book" and, at the end of the LP, the restless satiric "People Take Pictures Of Each Other." This is an album obsessed with loss and memory, hardly what I had on my agenda when I was 15.
Love songs? Well, Ray Davies has never done simple love songs. Instead you get "Starstuck," his bemused portrait of a dazzled groupie, and the deliciously Caribbean-flavored "Monica," a fond ode to a world-weary hooker. They fit right into his gallery of misfits and oddities, a cast of eccentric beings who'll be left behind in the shiny-new modern world the VGPS abhors. There's trippy "Phenomenal Cat," a flute-embellished fable about a magical cat that outdoes even Donovan in terms of flower-child feyness; "Wicked Annabella" is another fairy tale, this time a dark portrayal of a witch worthy of Hansel and Gretel, with a supremely ominous bass line. The Kinks' version of pastoral is the escape fantasy "Animal Farm" ("This world is big and wild and half insane / Take me where real animals are playing"), a loping rocker that doesn't feel blissed out at all. For that you need the loose-limbed softshoe of "Sitting By The Riverside," with its wheezy accordion and plinky piano, and even that laidback number morphs for me somehow into the comic patter song "All of My Friends Were There," with its woozy, boozy waltzing chorus -- get too relaxed and you'll end up drunk and embarrass yourself in front of everybody you know.
And who's running this whole quirky world? Well, there's the distant Supreme Being of "Big Sky" -- "Big Sky looked down on all the people looking up at the big sky / Everybody pushing one another around /Big Sky feels sad when he sees the children scream and cry / But the Big Sky's too big to let it get him down." I still can't always get my head around what Ray Davies means with that song, especially since he seems to find it comforting that Big Sky doesn't get involved in this petty world's problems.
The heart of the album is the minor-key "Village Green," with its anachronistic harpsichord and harmonium; in a precise, almost mincing delivery, Ray delivers yearning memories of some mist-swathed Ye Olde Englishe village -- church steeple, oak tree, and all -- that never existed except in his imagination. Of course, it's already been ruined, gentrified, marketed to tourists, and his old love Daisy is now married to the grocer's son Tom (who's no doubt as fat and complacent as his boyhood mate Walter). Far from a savage rant, though, this song mentions the loss only vaguely in passing, and he seems convinced that someday he and Daisy will have tea there again. This song isn't about Ray's own loss, it's about the universal emotions of loss and regret and memory. No way I would have gotten this in 1968. What's amazing is that Ray himself felt this in 1968, when he was how old? 24? Precocious doesn't even begin to cover it.
In their own ways, though, each song is a gem. The range of musical styles the Kinks explore on this album is just as broad as what the Beatles explored in the White Album; the Kinks were just working in more delicate brushstrokes, that's all. And somehow this exercise in memory released some of Ray Davies' most poignant melodies, wittiest lyrics, and deftest storytelling; his fellow Kinks turned in some of their finest performances as well.
I still think the White Album was a genius record; I'm not going to deny it just because I eventually rediscovered the Kinks. But this isn't like marriage, where you're expected to forswear all others. I don't have to choose -- I can love them both. I'm just glad that, though I missed it in 1968, I've been lucky enough to get to know The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society in the years since. It may not be for everyone, but it sure is for me.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Okay, now I'm really good and pissed off. Yesterday I'm driving to the service station and I turn on the car radio to my favorite station, Sirius Disorder -- and what do I see on the screen but "Led Zeppelin Radio." Led Zeppelin Radio?!?!?!? What do we need Led Zeppelin Radio for? Sirius already has Elvis Presley Radio, Bruce Springsteen Radio, AC/DC Radio, Grateful Dead Radio (okay, maybe that one I can understand), and Rolling Stones Radio. How could you possibly derive an entire station's programming from Led Zeppelin? True, I'm sure I could fill 24 hours a day with programming based on the Kinks' music; in fact, I'd love it if somebody gave me that opportunity. But you and I know very well that nobody is going to devote an entire satellite radio station to the music of the Kinks. Led Zeppelin, though, that apparently is another story.
Well, I don't begrudge Zep their slice of the airwaves, honestly I don't. However, the station it displaced -- Sirius Disorder -- was the main reason why I got Sirius installed in our car in the first place. That was MY station. You never knew what was going to come on next -- soul, jazz, classic rock, opera, indie alt, reggae, country, folk, a symphony, it was all open territory. I loved that eclectic approach. Even more important was the fact that Disorder had real DJs, people with personality like Vin Scelsa, Meg Griffn, Rick Allison, Larry Kirwin of the Black 47s, The Kennedys, David Johansen. Whereas several other Sirius stations just play pre-programmed set lists of the same cache of tracks over and over, on Sirius the DJs were individuals with personality, who would come on and tell stories and play the quirkiest stuff imaginable. I dug it so much.
Some afternoons Meg Griffin would hit a run of 12 or 15 songs in a row that I have on my iPod, as if she were borrowing my playlists. I was in heaven. Where else was I gonna hear Nick Lowe and John Hiatt and solo Ray Davies along with Sam Cooke and Dusty Springfield and Bob Marley and Coltrane and Sinatra? Who else ever plays Ron Sexsmith or Robyn Hitchcock or Thea Gilmore or Marshall Crenshaw or Jill Sobule? And sometimes I'd get them all in one show.
I should have known that Disorder was going to be Sirius's stepchild station. They kept moving the number all over the dial, every few months, without warning. Now they say the Sirius concept has been absorbed into a new station called The Loft, on channel 29. The Loft promises all sorts of groovy artist interviews and guest DJs and a whole show every week about roots music, and they're keeping Vin Scelsa and my girl Meg and David Jo (a.k.a. Sri Rama Lama Ding Dong), even though they're moving Johansen to some godawful midnight to 3am shift. They're keeping the Lou Reed Show, too (which, I regret to say, is a bit of a bore). But where is Larry Kirwin going? Because I was really starting to enjoy hanging out with his Celtic Crush show every Saturday. I had a relationship going with that show.
But do the suits care? They do not. It's all about hitting the big demographics; quality, and taste, and deep attachment are nothing if they don't score the numbers. They'd rather please my 13-year-old by playing the same 29 songs over and over on Alt Nation. It's a no-brainer.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
From what I've read and heard, XTC was even more dysfunctional than the Kinks. Continual personnel changes, internal snits, on-stage breakdowns, disastrous record deals -- they did it all. Some of their music is just plain genius, but they blew their own chances at every turn, pretty much guaranteeing they'd wind up as art-rock cult favorites. Still, there's something to be said for having a devoted cult (and I mean devoted -- just check out www.xtcidearecords.co.uk). I'm not sure I've got enough time to join it -- my fangirl soul is pretty deeply mortgaged at the moment -- but every once in awhile one of their deliciously quirky tracks pops up on my shuffle, and I ponder an alternate universe where I could easily be obsessed with Andy Partridge.
In that alternate universe, this might be my favorite song today. (I know myself; even if I were an XTC devotee, I wouldn't prefer the obvious big hits like "Making Plans for Nigel" or "Senses Working Overtime.") First of all, I dig that it's in 3/4 time, tripping along briskly with flamboyant surges of volume that almost sound distorted, even psychedelic. Then there's the lush strings and double-tracked vocals, with California-esque falsetto counterpoints twining around -- it's pretty darn romantic sounding. Not lovey-dovey romantic -- XTC never seems to go for simple love songs -- but romantic as in passionate about nature and the imagination and Big Ideas.
The central conceit has to do with painting: "Some folks see the world as a stone /Concrete daubed in dull monotone /Your heart is the big box of paints /And others, the canvas we're dealt." I swear, with all this flower child imagery, this song sounds more like it was written in 1972 than 1992. He claims that the flowers are talking to him -- and why not? -- bursting into the rhapsodic chorus, "Awaken you dreamers /Adrift in your beds /Balloons and streamers /Decorate the inside of your heads." The flowers advise him, "Please let some out /Do it today /But don't let the loveless ones sell you /A world wrapped in grey." It's classic Us Vs. Them thinking, the nonconformist vs. those People in Grey that Ray Davies is always warning us against.
You have to love the lyrics Partridge comes up with for the second chorus: "Awaken you dreamers /Asleep at your desks /Parrots and lemurs /Populate your unconscious grotesques." LEMURS? Name me another pop song that's got lemurs in it. That line thrills me right to the bone. And then there's the ending, where the tempo completely changes so that Partridge can tack on this mischievous coda: "And in the very least you can /Stand up naked and /Grin."
It's hard to believe this song was released in 1992 -- it's got this sort of gauzy innocence that's really amazing for the era. All those layers of sound remind me of late Beach Boys, or early Association, or some bits of the Moody Blues. Meanwhile, here in the States we were already listening to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by this time. It just boggles the mind.
Wrapped in Grey sample
Sunday, November 16, 2008
“Everything But a Heartbeat" /
Back at the height of the British Invasion, I knew the Searchers’ hits "Needles and Pins" and "Don't Throw Our Love Away." I even owned their cover of "Love Potion No. 9." (The single had an orange label; I can picture it still.) But by 1966, I never stopped to wonder what had become of them, the same way I didn't wonder about Gerry and the Pacemakers or Billy J. Kramer or any of the other
But on every British Invasion anthology I've bought over the past few years -- and I'm a sucker for British Invasion anthologies -- the Searchers really stand out from the pack. They've got a winning combination of crisp 12-string guitar and fat vocal harmonies, a sound that morphed over time from skiffle into folk-rock, even before there was such a thing. I never bought their albums back in the 1960s (had to save all my pennies for Beatles LPs) so when I finally ponied up for the 2-disc 40th Anniversary Collection, I was amazed at the depth of the Searchers' catalog.
Take their 1964 hit, “When You Walk In the Room,” a cover of a song by the seriously underrated Jackie De Shannon. (Note to self: Get hold of more Jackie DeShannon music.) What a well-crafted pop number it is. Verse 1: the singer describes his physical reaction to the girl walking into the room (“I can feel a new expression / On my face / I can feel a glowing sensation / Taking place.”). Verse 2: he drifts off and imagines what it would be like to be with her (“I see a summer’s night with a / Magic moon.”). Bridge: he admits he’s never had the nerve to talk to her. Verse 3: She appears again, and “Trumpets sound and I hear thunder boom / Every time that you [beat, beat, beat, beat] / Walk in the room.”
The percussion is all antsy snares and high-hats, and a jangly guitar hook keeps cutting through the mix, like the tingle of adolescent desire. Like the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” and the Kinks’ “Something Better Beginning,” this song just teeters on the threshold of teenage lust – fantastic.
And then lo and behold, I get to disc 2 of the collection, and I find out that the Searchers did not vanish from the scene in 1967, but continued to crank out solid music. Here’s this power pop gem from 1979, written by no less than Will Birch of the Kursaal Flyers and the Records (this guy is the Zelig of 1980s
In the bridge, he confirms our suspicion that he’s talking from experience: “She’ll use you any way she can / I can tell you so / And when she kicks you out again / You’ll be the last to know.” Underlaid with furious pulsing drums, the hooky chorus sums it all up: “She’s got everything but a heartbeat / She’s as cold as stone / Everything but a heartbeat / And a heartbeat matters so.” Sure, the guy’s been hurt and he’s hungry for revenge. But that doesn’t mean he’s not telling the truth. If I were you, I’d stay away.
This is another of those Songs of Innocence/Songs of Experience duos -- the ecstatic naive song from the outset of the relationship, pitted against a cynical post-heartbreak diatribe. Once she made your pulse race; now she just makes your blood boil. Ain't love grand?
Friday, November 14, 2008
The veteran keyboardist of Nick Lowe's longtime unofficial band -- which isn't exactly what you'd call a full-time job these days -- Geraint Watkins hasn't done much solo work, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn he's released a new album only (only!) 4 years after his under-the-radar gem Dial W for Watkins. This new one's titled In a Bad Mood, but that's quite an understatement -- Geraint's gone off on a deeply rueful tangent this time, with song after song lamenting love lost, chances missed, and screw-ups regretted. Luckily, he hasn't lost the easygoing rollick of his soul- and Creole-flavored pub-rock sound.
Though he's a Brit -- a Welshman, in fact -- Watkins seems to have drowned in a vat of Sazeracs as a kid and emerged an honorary bayou crooner. He leads off this opening track with a reluctantly drawn-out guitar flourish, then mournfully recites his main verse -- "You can dance the night away on every single Saturday / You go out and have your fun, and I'll just be the lonely one," in a morosely moseying downward melody. There's just enough of a wink in there that you don't mind the cliched lyrics -- this song is all subtext. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound -- here's he moping around, while his ex is partying away, and watching her makes him feel even crappier. You've got to wonder if she's laying it on especially thick just to punish him.
And soon, as if the song can't help itself, it sidles into a shuffling two-step zydeco tempo, with a vibed-up lead guitar that would work just fine at a backcountry Louisiana roadhouse. He says he's too miserable to subscribe to the unofficial New Orleans motto ("let the good times roll," for those of you who don't parler francais) -- for him it's more like "let the heartaches begin / Let the teardrops fall" -- but it sure sounds to me as if the music is already curing him. "'Let the good times roll'? / Hollow is my soul," he protests, adding "I'll never dance again / Not even now and then / No never never no more." Meanwhile, the song is jigging merrily along -- he's dancing already.
Geraint's got this warm gravelly voice that's perfect for this sort of song -- it's a lived-in sort of voice, like a relic of too many cigarettes and too much rotgut whiskey. A great piece of songwriting? I don't know, but it's catchy as hell, and the performance is so genial, you can't help loving it. This guy is one of the most likeable artists I know of -- check him out.
Easy To Say Bon Temps Rouler sample
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Don't be put off by idiot music critics who try to puff these guys up as the best band since the Beatles -- honestly, the Arctic Monkeys are good enough that they don't need that kind of overblown hype BS. I truly dug their first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (what a great hype-deflating title), and since their Favorite Worst Nightmare came out last year, it's been growing on me even more. I love its feisty, aggressive energy, those unapologetically broad Sheffield accents, and the surprising range of sounds they pull off within that punk-inspired groove. Worthy heirs to the Jam's mantle, indeed.
This song blasts out of the gate with an urgent howl of desire -- "Dooooooo / the bad thing" -- followed by the impatient demand "Take off that wedding ring," clipped off in staccato syllables that march fiercely down the scale, with an extra scornful twist on the w of "wedding ring." On he goes, in a jittery rush of equivocating argument -- "But it won't make it that much easier /It might make it worse." Meandering around in murky moral territory is something these guys do very well indeed, and even if they aren't navigating it too successfully -- and really, who does? -- at least they have the grace to admit it makes them feel bad.
You know how people talk in a bar, or at a party, when they know they're about to give in to their worst impulses? That's how Alex Turner delivers the verses of this song, all in a hurried monotonic jerky mutter: "Oh the night's like a whirlwind, / Somebody's girlfriend's / Talkin' to me, but it's all right, she's sayin' that / 'He's not gonna slap me or try to attack me, /He's not the jealous type.'" He's not really buying it, but hormones are flowing and he's not sure he wants to get away, but he still could, but will he? The suspense is killing me.
"And all these capers make her too forward to ignore, / Well, she's talkin' but I'm not entirely sure" -- not sure of what? Not sure of anything, it seems, not sure of anything in this whole nasty addled scene. As he says later, "I'm struggling to think of an immediate response, / Like , 'I don't mind,' 'be a big mistake for you to wait,' and 'let me waste your time, / Really, love, it's fine, /Really love it's fine." But he doesn't actually say any of those things, does he?
The really telling line comes in the third verse: "And then the first time it occurred that there was something to destroy" -- really, this is astonishingly mature thinking from a guy in his 20s standing at a bar with deep cleavage and a flash of ripe thigh being dangled in front of him. You're listening to those whomping drums and the skittering guitar riffs, and the last thing you expect is clear thinking. But there it is. "I knew before the invitation that there was this ploy," he reminds himself, "Oh, but she carried on suggestin', a struggle to refuse, / She said, 'It's the red wine this time,' but that is no excuse." It's practically Victorian, really.
Baffled romantics, that's what the Arctic Monkeys are. Lost boys, wandering through the sleazy modern world with a jacked-up tempo and their amps turned up to 11. They've got a great sound PLUS a surprising bit of substance, and I'm betting they're not just a flash in the pan. As good as the Beatles? Well, let's not go overboard -- even the Beatles weren't as good as The Beatles when they started out. But it's nice to have something to look forward to.
The Bad Thing sample
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The Rolling Stones
It goes with the territory -- you just can't be a serious Kinks fan and a lifelong Beatle fan, as I am, and still like the Rolling Stones. It's not just a question of being forced to choose sides, although that was certainly required back in 1965. It's more than that, it's a question of what I want out of music. All the things my soul craves from the Kinks and the Beatles -- their winsome melodies, poetic lyrics, playful wit, serious political commentary, sharp-edged social satire -- have zero to do with the Stones.
Still, in the new bipartisan spirit of our times, I'm willing to cross the aisle this evening. I caught a fragment of this song on the soundtrack of some random TV show tonight, and it sank its hooks into me instantly. It wasn't even the part where the Stones themselves are performing, it was just the intro with that starchy vocal chorale, intoning, "You cahn't always get what you want . . . " I had to giggle, and immediately I was tuned in, waiting through the French horn interlude for Mick Jagger to saunter casually in and pick up the beat.
I guess the idea here was to try some Dylanesque talking blues -- in verse after verse, Jagger sketches surreal social scenes, from a chi-chi wine sipping reception to a rowdy street demonstration to the hipster King's Road hangout The Chelsea Drugstore (though apparently that verse was actually written about a drugstore in Excelsior, Minnesota, that Mick wandered into the morning after a show in Minneapolis). If Dylan had written this, of course, the three verses would have related to each other, but come on, thematic development has never been Jagger & Richards' strong suit as songwriters. The drug references strung throughout are the only theme I can find, and in 1969, you were practically required by law to include at least 3 drug references in every rock song, weren't you?
Besides, the real point of this song is how it builds and builds until they've left folk blues way behind. One by one, they layer on those great syncopated drums, splashes of honkytonk piano, deliciously curling electric guitar riffs (was this Mick Taylor or Keith?), mad maracas, frenetic Farfisa organ licks, layers of choral oohs and ahhs, and Jagger's own shivering howls of something that's either ecstasy or anguish and probably both. It runs on and on for seven minutes plus, and even though I'm generally someone who gets bored after 2:58, I have to admit this is one grandiose production that works. Not until "Hey Jude" would we have such another irresistible singalong, one that everybody in the pub just has to chime in on, whether they can carry a tune or not.
And if you're looking for a life motto, you could do worse than adopt this. You can't always get what you want, we all have to grow up and accept that. But trust Mick and Keefe to flip that sage advice over and gleefully add, "But if you try sometimes / You just might find / [drum roll] You get what you need!" There's the Stones attitude to life in a nutshell. These guys have been pretty much always getting what they need -- and what they want -- for over 40 years now. Like John Candy says to his little brother Tom Hanks in Splash: "Hey, when I get something that works, I stick with it."
You Can't Always Get What You Want sample