Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"She Won't Be Back" / Bill Lloyd

Usually I steer away from tribute albums -- I'd always prefer to hear the original artists perform their own songs. But I'm too curious not to bite when the tribute's to Ray Davies or Nick Lowe. After all, the first Nick Lowe song I ever heard was a cover, Elvis Costello's "What So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding." If it hadn't been for Ray Davies tribute albums, I'd never have discovered Ron Sexsmith, Fountains of Wayne, Matthew Sweet, Yo La Tengo, or Bill Lloyd. (Both Lloyd and Sexsmith covered the same relatively obscure Kinks song, "This Is Where I Belong".) You gotta figure, any artist who's eager to cover Kinks songs knows where it's at.

But it took me a while to dig deeper into Bill Lloyd's work -- somehow I got the notion he was a country artist (because of his late 80s work in the duo Foster and Lloyd) and left it at that. Then I noticed he'd collaborated with Marshall Crenshaw on MC's wonderful album #447, co-writing the mesmerizing "Ready Right Now." That jumped Lloyd right to the head of the Artists I Should Investigate queue. And when I learned that his 1999 album Standing On the Shoulders of Giants was an homage to the 60s British bands who'd formed his musical taste -- well, I was in.

Lloyd's got an amazing list of collaborators on this album, including Crenshaw, Al Kooper, and another Nashvillean who should be better known, Greg Trooper. (Trooper and Crenshaw have both also added their licks to Nick Lowe tribute albums - do I love these guys or what?) I drove myself crazy the first few times I listened to this record, trying to identify all the familiar riffs weaving in and out -- echoes of the Searchers, the Byrds, the Who, the Hollies, and Badfinger, as well as the Kinks and the Beatles (songs like "Dr. Roberts' Second Opinion" and "Turn Me On Dead Man" are only the most obvious references). Lloyd's songs may not equal their models, but they're tuneful and full of smart pop energy.

Leading off with a Kinky riff ("Set Me Free," appropriately enough), "She Won't Be Back" writhes with pre-break-up anguish -- the singer's lying bed waiting for his girlfriend to come home, with a sinking feeling that she won't. "The clock shows 5 AM / Could she be wondering where I am? / Well, I'm the one who's lying in our bed." But in this scenario, he knows he's the one to blame. "She gave me every chance," he admits in verse two, "to give her more than just a song and dance / And now it's too late to change my tune." He's riddled with middle-of-the-night doubt and agony: "And so I watch the clock / Hoping she's just circling round the block / But that's an empty wish that won't come true." It's a bitter moment of self-honesty and guilt, piled on top of a stomach-heaving sensation of loss.

So far, it's a caustic set-up Davies or Lennon might have written -- but that second bridge is distinctly modern: "She always talked about a trip out west / Now she's got the time I guess / I never listened to her dreams / But now I know how much that means." We've come a long way from Lennon songs like "Run For Your life" or "Girl", though I guess McCartney and the Zombies were ahead of their time when it came to being sensitive males (or at least pretending to be).

Lloyd's slightly reedy voice isn't your classic British Invasion blues imitation, but the song works just fine without it. The song winds up with a nifty guitar solo by Pat Buchanan, heard most recently on Ray Davies' new album Working Man's Cafe -- talking about closing the circle. This song may not be "Yesterday" or "Days," but it's a lot better than "Sexy Back." Add Bill Lloyd to my roster.

She Won't Be Back sample

Monday, April 28, 2008

"Memphis in the Meantime" / John Hiatt

Some good news from Nashville: in September, John Hiatt will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association, following in the footsteps of Willie Nelson, John Prine, and Guy Clark -- a well-deserved honor, because in my opinion nobody defines Americana like John Hiatt does. That, together with the news that John's got a new CD coming out May 27th -- wryly titled Same Old Man -- has got me deep in a Hiatt groove today. That's never a bad thing.

Sampling from country, R&B, alt rock, bluegrass, folk, and whatever else you've got that sounds good, Hiatt's wonderful body of work can't be boxed into any one genre -- the grab-bag term "Americana" kinda had to be invented to describe what Hiatt does. It probably hasn't helped his career that he's so hard to slot in any one niche (his buddy Lyle Lovett suffers from the same thing.) But that's what "Memphis in the Meantime," one of many great tracks from his breakthrough 1987 album Bring the Family, is all about. Sure, it's a driving song, a perfect bookend to "Drive South." But propelled by a speedy, funky beat (dig that rhythm section, with Jim Keltner on drums and Nick Lowe on bass), it's also about music, and how you've got to mix things up to keep from going stale.

This is a great springtime song, busting out with energy and longing for a fresh start: "We've been hanging around this town / Just a little too long a while . . .But if I don't get outta here pretty soon / My head's going to explode." He hangs on that "explode" for a dizzy extra beat; you can almost hear the blood pulsing in his temples. He's got Ry Cooder chipping in on guitar too; those riffs snap, crackle, and pop with nervous energy.

Hiatt lives in Nashville now (he grew up in my neighborhood in Indianapolis) but that doesn't mean he has to worship all the time at the church of Ryman and the Opry. "Sure I like country music / I like mandolins," he admits in the lead-in to the chorus, "But right now I need a Telecaster / Through a Vibro-lux turned up to ten." (I love how Hiatt defines it all through those specific details.) And so he invites his girlfriend to hop in the car and breeze down the highway to Memphis. Hiatt's got a long-standing romance with the open highway, another prime Americana quality (and hey, it's the Indy connection too). They're not going forever -- it's just for the "meantime" -- but dang, sometimes you need a change.

In his early days Hiatt was packaged as the American Elvis Costello, which ended up being more of a curse than anything else -- both were forced to act like angry young men a little too long -- but as far as witty lyrics go, Hiatt deserved the comparison. Here he deals out image after image to contrast the Nashville and Memphis scenes: "I wanna trade in these ol' country boots / For some fine Italian shoes . . . Forget the mousse and the hairspray, sugar / We don't need none of that / A little dab'll do ya, girl / Underneath a pork pie hat," and in the final chorus, "One more heartfelt steel guitar chord / Girl, its gonna do me in / I need to hear some trumpet and saxophone / You know sound as sweet as sin." Oh, yesssss.

Sure, he knows this won't be his long-term route to success -- "I don't think Ronnie Milsap's gonna / Ever record this song" (these days in concert I recall he sings "Kenny Chesney" instead). Eventually he'll dutifully toe the Nashville line again -- "And after we get good and greasy / Baby we can come back home / Put the cowhorns back on the Cadillac / And change the message on the code-a-phone." But it's spring, and he's itchy, and change is always invigorating: "If we could just get off-a that beat little girl / Maybe we could find the groove / At least we could find us a decent meal / Down at the Rendezvous." Hey, a good meal is reason enough to hit the road, especially now that the dogwoods are in blossom. Put this track on in your car next time you go road tripping -- you may end up in Memphis yourself before you realize it.

Memphis in the Meantime sample

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"My British Tour Diary" /
Of Montreal

To begin with, Of Montreal isn't from Montreal at all -- they're from Athens, Georgia. And calling them "they" is a bit of a stretch, since the only person who's been in every incarnation of the band is front man and songwriter Kevin Barnes. That's most of what I know about this indie band, except that their (okay, his) songs are devilishly catchy and danceable.

This track from 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic gives you a good idea of their crisp pop spirit. Granted, the lyrics are self-referential ("Hanging out with Steven Drew, Theo, / Paul and Sorrel too / Eating at Welcome Breaks daily / We danced in Leeds with Brit Pop Haley") but it's propelled by a cheery backbeat rhythm that's hard to resist. That bass line is so darn funky, it really betrays their Athens roots. Barnes' boyish vocals let him get away with murder, really: "On our trip to England I noticed something obscene / People still actually give a shit about the Queen." Oh, you irreverent Yanks.

One thing he does capture in this song is the surreal quality of life on tour, mixed up with a dose of culture shock: "Left alone to drive ourselves on the opposite side / Man it was a miracle that nobody died"; "Bitching because Steven booked us / On such early flights / Always in a foggy haze / Because we hadn't slept for days." I have a feeling that everybody in the band remembers incidents like "Every single one of our London cabbies played / The most truly repellent techno music ever made / But they'll drop you without hesitation / If you try changing the station." I imagine it as a scene out of Hard Days Night, mixed with a little Trainspotting.

"Up to our necks in crisps and litter / In the van we dubbed the Gary Glitter," he recalls at the end, almost fondly. This is what it's like to travel with your bandmates when being a rock musician is still exciting and new, and I dig being brought along for the ride. Despite the electronic gloss of their sound, they've got too much youthful energy to sound like robots. Apparently there are other Of Montreal albums where Kevin Barnes gets depressive -- but if that's so, I'm happy to stick to this one. (Other favorite tracks: the wistful psychedelic "Will You Come and Fetch Me?" and the jazzy "Spike the Senses.") It's a mere pop confection --but some days, that's just what I want.

My British Tour Diary sample

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" / The Smiths

Watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall over the weekend, I caught this song faintly in the background as the lead character (hard to call him a hero) moped around his house after being dumped. An obvious soundtrack choice, but I wish it had been played up more; that adolescent self-pity vibrating through Morrissey's vocals completely pegged what was going on with that guy, and I've been humming the song ever since.

I missed the Smiths -- but then again, most of us in the States did. Face it, the Eighties were a strange musical limbo, with the great stuff (there was great stuff, I now know) floating around the ozone while records like Thriller and Like a Virgin and Kissing to Be Clever were repeatedly blasted at us. No wonder we sucked up the Police and Dire Straits like fresh water in the desert. If it hadn't been for that vacuum, maybe we wouldn't have had Springsteen to deal with today.

But coming to the Smiths late is better than never discovering them at all. While I dig Morrissey's more recent stuff too, the idiosyncracies of the Smiths really get me where I live. Being a Ray Davies fan, I'm not put off by Morrissey's fey vocals at all; in fact I love them. Few songwriters can get away with throwing rhymes out the window, but Morrissey pulls it off, maybe because he also doesn't care how many syllables are in a line. That quirky mix of Brechtian songspiele with a backbeat and Johnny Marr's catchy guitar riffs was genius.

Our singer's condition is something we can all secretly identify with: "I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour / But heaven knows I'm miserable now / I was looking for a job and then I found a job / And heaven knows I'm miserable now." None of the conventional cures really work for this guy. As the melody ricochets wearily between two notes, occasionally flipping up into a mournful falsetto, we're sucked into his passive-aggressive paralysis.

His general misanthropy kicks in too -- "In my life / Why do I give valuable time / To people who don't care if I live or die" (great self-pitying wail there) or "Why do I smile / At people who / I'd much rather kick in the eye" -- we all know how that feels. But how English is that knee-jerk politeness, not to mention all the resentful baggage it carries with it? His girlfriend is useless: "What she asked of me at the end of the day / Caligula would have blushed." That line cracks me up, especially given the drama queen flutter he gives "blushed." "Oh, you've been in the house too long, she said" -- I bet she did -- "And I naturally fled." Naturally. Really, he may feel sorry for himself, but I've got news for you, man, she's not the problem.

So what are we supposed to make of this guy? Morrissey sees how ridiculous he is, for sure, but he's not totally putting him down; there's some sneaky sympathy there too. (It's the same slippery perspective Ray Davies has been using for years.) We're free to see aspects of ourselves in his whiny despondency, or not. Whatever. It's better than a trip to the shrink, in my opinion, and a hell of lot more fun.

Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now sample

Monday, April 21, 2008

"Don't Think About Her" / Nick Lowe

"Don't Think About Her When You're Trying To Drive" / Little Village

Little Village was such a great idea -- a supergroup comprised of Nick Lowe, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, and Jim Keltner, who'd worked before on Hiatt's brilliant 1987 album Bring the Family. Unfortunately, something inexplicably weird happened as they were recording their one and only album and the group never went any further. And at the time, I was living in some alternate universe and had no idea all this was going on.

This is the sort of thing I can spend hours thinking about. Who pissed off whom, and who was to blame? Though I'm tempted to side with Nick and John and assume it was all Ry Cooder's fault, I suspect there's no real answer.

"Don't Think About Her When You're Trying To Drive" is my favorite track from this album, with Hiatt ripping into some of his most soulful vocals ever. Yeah, I know, the song sounds like a goof, but the guy who's singing it isn't laughing -- he's barreling down a highway half-blinded with tears. There's something crazy and all-out romantic about it, and with Hiatt's full throated rendition on that chorus -- "Don't think about her / Move on, you're lucky just to be alive / You'll live without her / Just don't you think about her / When you're trying to drive" -- you really get the sense of a guy just barely holding it together.

So imagine my delight and surprise to find an early version of this song in the Nick Lowe box set The Doings (it's on disc four, the rarities disc). It's an 1989 demo, just Nick on an acoustic guitar, and except for that refrain it's a whole different song. The tempo's faster, and the tune's got a retro feel that wouldn't be out of place in a 1950s movie theme song. "It's just a heartache that soon will pass / Given time there will be a light at last / It's a beating you'll survive / But till that day arrives / Don't think about her when you drive." He's trying to make light of it, but he's just as heart-broken and obsessed as Hiatt's singer -- he's just deeper in denial. Only in the bridge do you really begin to realize how fixated he's become: "Think about her while you're leaving here / Think about her while you're selecting gear / Think about her before you cross the tracks / But don't think about her when you're driving back."

Okay, I know Nick's song is a throwaway. Once Little Village got hold of it, all the images were reworked and tightened up to make it a driving song from start to finish. "She don't know who you're missing / Driving down that lonesome road tonight / Looking for one starlight glowing / Or her face, shining in the dashlight." Hiatt sings of Natchez and Memphis; his tires squeal, the clutch misses; he stops to phone her and then hangs up. It's a classic country-tinged song, and it deserved to be a big hit -- if only anybody could've figured out in 1991 what genre to file this under.

But you know what? I'm totally besotted with Nick's version. Now that it's been rewritten, it'll never get trotted out again; those few, erm, awkward turns of phrase won't ever get fixed. Nick's so self-critical, he can throw things like this away and never look back. (Completely the opposite of his buddy Robyn Hitchcock, who'd happily release an album of his lawn clippings.)

Well, I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall watching the drama of this song being rewritten. I could write a whole novel about that.

Don't Think About Her sample

Don't Think About Her When You're Trying to Drive sample

Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Any Day Now" / Alan Price

Apparently Mr. Alan Price turns 67 today, which I just can't believe; anybody who's seen him in concert lately (I had that privilege a little over 3 years ago) knows that he can still wail the blues and tear up and down a keyboard like nobody's business.

Price's career has followed a funny road, from those early days with the Animals through collaborating with Georgie Fame, covering loads of early Randy Newman songs, providing peerless soundtracks for most of Lindsay Anderson's films, and gigging away as a versatile singer-songwriter. Most folks in the States have no idea who he is, which is why so few of his albums are even available on Amazon -- there were about a dozen tracks I wanted to honor on this occasion, but couldn't locate MP3s for.

Still, there's no need to apologize for introducing you to "Any Day Now," if you don't already know this honey of a song. It was one of his early hit singles (1965) with his first post-Animals outfit, the Alan Price Set, a band that deliberately aimed for a non-Animals sound with a full horn section -- and no competing lead singer. With the Alan Price Set, Alan finally moved into the spotlight and up to the mike, and anybody who doubts that he deserved to sing more with the Animals only has to listen to the vocals on this number.

Written by Burt Bacharach (though with lyrics by Bob Hilliard instead of Hal David), "Any Day Now" was a 1962 hit for American R&B singer Chuck Jackson. The song's about a man anticipating being left by his restless girlfriend, and Jackson's version is underlaid with dread and regret. In Price's hands, the whole song brightens up, with a perkier tempo, brass fanfares, and a cha-cha organ syncopation. Jackson sounds like he's laying a guilt trip on the girl; Price is putting her on a pedestal, glorying in her free-spirited nature. (Think Julie Christie in Darling.) Now tell me, ladies, which would you rather hear?

And then there's Price's vocal performance, which is smoky and incredibly sexy. Enhanced by echo effects, he plays up his huskiest tones, dropping down to a whispery hush on the lines "goodbye my love," "meet someone new" or "you'll call it off," giving a throaty flutter to the words "bird" and "flown." "Any day now / I will hear you say / 'Goodbye my love' / And you'll be on your way" -- he knows what's coming, but he's fatalistic about it; he accepts that that's the price a man pays for spending any time with such a lovely creature.

"I know I shouldn't want to keep you / If you don't want to stay / Until you'll gone forever / I'll be holding on for delight / Holding you this way / Hoping you will stay," Price tells us in the bridge, the heart of the song. With that hint of gruffness in his voice, he sounds earnest and earthy all at once, and I get lost in dreaming about what "holding you this way" means.

Well, I know it's an old song -- Alan Price was in his early 20s when he did this, and he's now in his late 60s. (Still hard to believe.) But believe me, he's still got the magic. Happy birthday, Alan, and many many more.

Any Day Now sample

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Angel" / The Wood Brothers

"The Wind Cries Mary" / Robyn Hitchcock

I've got nothing against Jimi Hendrix -- it's just Jimi worshippers who annoy me. You know, the guys who go on and on about what a genius he was, greatest guitarist ever, blah blah blah. Jimi's like the rock-n-roll equivalent of James Joyce or T.S. Eliot -- a wonderful unique talent who led all his successors down an artistic blind alley. I blame Jimi for every long-winded tedious guitar solo I've suffered through in the past 40 years, and just for good measure, I'll blame most of the drum and organ solos on him too. Come on, since when was puttting a lit match to your guitar a creative act? I'm with John Hiatt on the arrogance of wrecking a perfectly good guitar.

I'm having to backtrack a little on my Jimi rejection lately, though, thanks to these two addictive new Hendrix covers. I strongly believe that a cover version of any song should bring something new to it; that was always hard to do with Hendrix tracks. Maybe we just needed this much time to pass before musicians could feel free to re-imagine his songs.

The Wood Brothers are one of my new discoveries, a totally captivating duo who combine Oliver Wood's thumping jazz acoustic bass with brother Chris's crunching buzzsaw of a Southern rock guitar. The result is sorta folk, sorta bluegrass, sorta roots-rock, and one hundred percent enchanting. They cover Hendrix' song "Angel" on their new album Loaded, and it's a revelation. I remember "Angel" as a langorous sex plaint encrusted with show-off riffs; the Wood brothers give it a light-hearted zydeco strut that's like turning devils-food cake into angel food cake.

They've roped in Amos Lee to share singing duties with Oliver, and the contrast between Oliver's distinctive raspy tenor and Amos' honey-and-buttermilk vocals is delicious indeed. The backing arrangement is mostly drums, some syncopated organ chords for shimmer, and just a few jangly strums on Chris' guitar. Freed of Jimi's ponderous tone, the song takes off joyfully, putting the poetry back into this "story about the love between the moon and the deep blue sea."

Then there's Robyn Hitchcock's version of Jimi's "The Wind Cries Mary" on his new album Shadow Cat. (If I haven't mentioned it, I have such a crush on Robyn Hitchcock it isn't funny.) The psychedelic imagery of this song is right up Robyn's alley -- "After all the jacks are in their boxes / And the clowns have all gone to bed / You can hear happiness staggering on down the street" sounds just like something Robyn might have written himself.

Delivering absurdist lyrics is second nature to this man, and he layers on the breathy vocals, exaggerating a groan or a growl here and there. There's a knowing wink behind it all, turning a heavy trip into phantasmagoria. Hitchcock prowls through this song like a cartoon cat; though he replicates that classic riff of Jimi's, Robyn's acoustic version is hushed and stealthy rather than sinister. Somehow he draws me into this bizarro landscape more deeply than Jimi ever could; I never even noticed the lyrics before. But then Jimi was never about lyrics, was he?

Neither the Woods brothers nor Robyn Hitchcock seem too awed by Jimi's godlike stature to take a few liberties. Well, it's about time.

Angel sample
The Wind Cries Mary sample

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"Breakfast in Bed" / Dusty Springfield

Dusty Springfield is no role model for little girls. Helplessly addicted to bad relationships, hung up on men who don't deserve her, inclined to jump into bed on carnal impulse -- I'm telling you now, don't let your daughters listen to Dusty Springfield. The next thing you know, they'll be Paramore fans and then where will you be?

On the other hand, Dusty was one of the great female voices of the 20th century, and one of the smartest song stylists ever -- a girl could do worse than cut her musical teeth on this.

Here's a quintessential Dusty track, from her classic 1969 album Dusty in Memphis. For Dusty, going to Memphis was more about recording in the superb Stax studio with Memphis session musicians than it was about going country -- still, "Breakfast in Bed" has a fair amount of twang, despite all the horns and strings. And the story, that's a perfect Dusty tale, featuring her as The Other Woman.

"You've been crying," she starts out, breathy and sympathetic -- I can just see her, standing in her doorway, her blond bouffant hair and mascaraed eyes just a little rumpled. "Your face is a mess / Come in baby / You can dry your tears on my dress." The dress is such a specific detail, I can't help but picture that too, him sinking to his knees at her feet. Yes.

It's not the first time she's laid out this welcome mat: "
Don't be shy, you've been here before / Pull your shoes off, lie down / And I will lock the door." Yeah, we're in the world of secrets and lies, and the way Dusty's voice caresses those lines makes it damn provocative. "And no one has to know you've come here again," she promises, her voice rising and shivering with passion. She is NOT a disinterested party -- she's been counting the days since his last visit. "Darling, it will be like it's always been before." How many times? Best not ask. "Come on over here," she invites him, huskily. I see him sinking onto the mattress with enormous relief.

Just in case there was any doubt about it, the chorus makes it clear just how Dusty plans to comfort this hurt soul. "Breakfast in bed /
And a kiss or three," she offers (love that "or three" -- so who's counting?). The horns are getting nice and blowzy by this point; she's not just a shoulder to cry on, she's woozy with lust. "You don't have to say you love me," she adds, almost shyly (the title of another great Dusty song, by the way). That's pure Dusty, that pathetic refusal to make any demands on this guy. She's such a creature of passion, she can't help herself.

And despite the confident sexuality of the opening, by the last verse Dusty's neediness starts showing. "What's your hurry? / Please don't eat and run / You can let her wait, my darling." He's already pulling away, and she knows it. "It's been so long / Since I've had you here," she moans. "You will come again / Darling it will be / Like it's always been before." And that's the sad thing -- it WILL be like it's always been before; he will still go home to his wife in the end.

Usually I hate The Other Woman. (That Avril Lavigne song, the one about doing it better than your girlfriend, makes me puke.) For Dusty, though, I'll make an exception. Dusty may be The Other Woman, but she's still a love slave and victim, with a throaty shiver to her voice that just won't quit.

Breakfast in Bed sample

Monday, April 14, 2008

"The Getaway (Lonesome Train)" / Ray Davies

Today I finally finished this book I've been slaving over for months -- HOORAY!! So what song popped directly into my head? Well, first of all it was the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun" (always my go-to song for cranking up the first sunny day of spring) but then Daddy took the T-bird away and I fell into a more meditative groove.

I saw Ray Davies perform last week (even in the midst of a deadline crunch, who could pass up Ray?) and while I adored hearing his new tunes from Working Man's Cafe (not to mention Kinks Klassics like "Sunny Afternoon," "Dead End Street," and "Waterloo Sunset" -- whooHOO!), being the greedy person I am, I was sorry he didn't sing much from Other Peoples' Lives this time around. I saw him quite a few times when he was touring to support that 2006 album, and hearing this song live was a near-religious experience.

Not typical Ray, of course -- at times it sounds like he's channeling Neil Young (not that that's a bad thing) -- but the underlying message is pure Daviesian romantic longing. I buy one-hundred percent into the notion that Ray Davies is a fragile, lonely soul who can't handle the stresses of modern life and wants to escape it all. Other artists would just write an escapist song; not Ray, he's stuck in tortured longing. Though the track starts out with a laidback rootsy riff, moseying along a railroad track, watching a train rumble past, eventually Ray whips himself up into an impassioned cry: "It's time you made your / Getaway." It's torn from the heart, and it gets me where I live.

Mind you, nothing actually happens in this song -- it's all in the singer's mind. "It might hit you on a sunny afternoon" -- nice self-reference there -- "Without a warning, there's a thought that just comes over you / And is a shadow on the sidewalk, / Someone like you / In the blink of an eye, waving goodbye." Shadows, thoughts, fleeting gestures, that's all he's working with. It's not even him who's breaking free, it's some nameless stranger -- not even that, it's just someone he's imagining -- but it's enough to make him intensely jealous and totally miserable. The individual phrases waver up and down hopefully, yet "Someone like you" drops downward with a sigh of despair. In the break, there's a crazed electrified jangle of sound (God love Mark Johns, Ray's guitarist on this album) that perfectly embodies his wrenched emotions. He wants to jump on that train, but he can't quite do it -- and that's why he's singing the blues.

Class A neurotism? Could be. But that's what I love about Ray. He's all about the interior life, which is never simple territory to navigate. (He does the same thing in his new song, "In A Moment"; it's not about losing love, it's about watching yourself lose love.) For some of us, working up the courage to break free is a monumental task. Most musicians would be on that train already, reaching down a hand -- or even worse, thumbing their nose as they pull out of the station. Not Ray. He's right beside me on the platform, chewing his nails, agonizing. God bless him.

The Getaway (Lonesome Train) sample

Monday, April 07, 2008

"I Want To Tell You" / The Beatles

A simple little tune from Revolver -- except there are no simple tunes from Revolver. It could so easily have been a pop confection about adolescent romantic confusion ("I want to tell you / My head is filled with things to say /When you're near / All those things they seem to slip away"), but instead it becomes something infinitely more complex. And I love love love it.

How did they pull it off? Well, to start with, it's not hormones that's confusing this singer -- the arrangement's just too psychedelic to be anything else but drugs. Listen to how it fades in at the beginning, those hammering piano discords, that snake-like shimmer of tambourines that sneaks in here and there. The harmonies are like a haunted cry for help -- "I feel hung up and I don't know whyy-yyy" -- and then there's that scolding guitar riff (how many times did the Monkees rip that one off?). This isn't the warm glow of a teenager in love; it's the paranoid distress of a man who's losing his grip on reality.

The lyrics are all subject and verbs, and no direct objects -- "I want to tell you" -- tell you what? "Sometimes I wish I knew you well / Then I could speak my mind and tell you" -- tell you WHAT? "Maybe you'd understand." Well, maybe I would, but at the moment I sure don't. What he wants to tell her is "things" and "words," but it's also "things" that start to drag him down and get in the way.

He seems frustrated ("I feel hung up and I don't know why") but he can't even sustain that; he's too spaced out to care ("I don't mind / I could wait forever / I've got time", or my personal favorite: "It's all right / I'll make you maybe next time around"). I don't know if you've ever tried to have a serious conversation with a seriously stoned person, but, well, this is what it's like. And in the coded culture of 1966, anyone who got this dimension of the song would have felt part of the Beatles' special club. Granted, there were hundreds of thousands of people in that special club, but very few of them were your parents.

And yet underneath it all, it comes off as a touching plea for human connection. The singer (George, sliding along those chromatics as woozily as possible, hanging just behind the beat) is trying his damnedest to fight off his hazy lethargy , and you get the feeling he really does want to make her next time around -- please understand, girl.

I think it's telling that John is represented on this album by "I'm Only Sleeping" and "She Said She Said" ("She said 'I know what it's like to be dead') while Paul gives us positive and perky tracks like "Good Day Sunshine" and "Got to Get You Into My Life." Now that I think about it, Paul's song "For No One" -- one of the crispest lyrics he's ever turned out -- could easily have been about his relationship with John, about how John was beginning to lose focus and slip away from Paul. ("She wakes up, she makes up / She takes her time and doesn't feel she has to hurry / She no longer needs you" -- that's heartbreaking.) And maybe George's response is this song, about how he'd like to communicate with the vanishing Lennon himself but he gets hung up and he doesn't know why.

Of course that's just my theory. I tend to spend more time thinking about the inner history of the Beatles than is strictly healthy. But hey, everybody needs a hobby.

Friday, April 04, 2008

"Moving to L.A." / Art Brut

Here's a sharp little number from a British band I know next to nothing about, but they certainly give me hope for the future of rock and roll. Put together a bouncy pop beat, some nice Beatle-y guitar riffs, and a lead singer who half-talks the lyrics in a broad Cockney accent (shades of Ian Dury, or Damon Albarn in "Park Life") and you've got a song that couldn't be more BritPop -- so of course it's about the United States. Or rather, a knee-jerk English fantasy about the United States; it's just too snarky-funny for these guys to be taking it seriously.

"There's not much glamour about the English weather," the singer starts -- fair enough (and of course I think of the Beatles' "sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun"). But that gloomy weather's enough to inspire this guy to move away, as he brightly announces: "I think I've got it sorted / I'm going to get myself deported." Which, considering that he sounds like a right Essex git, makes no sense -- how can he be deported out of England? But somehow I don't think we're dealing with a clear thinker here.

"I'm considering a move to L.A." he announces brashly, then repeats it three more times, with his mates echoing the lines in a warbly falsetto. There's your chorus. And then he goes on to fantasize about that SoCal lifestyle, where he'll be hanging around with Axl Rose and "drinking Hennessey / With Morissey." For that line alone I love this song.

"Everything is gonna be just fine / I hear the murder rate is in decline," this incurable optimist declares. He goes off in a rambling monologue in the bridge about taking off his shirt, riding a Harley down the Strip, getting a tattoo -- sure, that could happen. "My problems are never going to find me, I'm not sending even one postcard home." Yeah, okay, love ya miss ya bye.

It's like the Blur song, "Magic America" -- that popular image of the States seems so perfect, that it almost doesn't matter whether it has any basis in reality. It's like that character in Love Actually, the skinny toothy goofball who keeps saying he's going to America because the women all look like models and they'll sleep with him just because of his accent. When it actually happens, that's the joke.

I remember having this same kind of fatuous fantasy about London, back in the Sixities. I suppose I knew it couldn't be true, but it was awfully delicious. Nowadays, I suppose, any British youngster with sense despises the United States, given the mess our leaders have made of things -- but drinking Hennessey with Morissey...well, that would still a trip, wouldn't it?

Moving to L.A. sample

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

"What Am I Living For?" /
Alan Price

My iTunes has been scolding me lately, reminding me that I have been ignoring Alan Price. That simply will not do. I still owe Alan Price for the approximately ten years, 1973-83, when he was my top fangirl obsession; I also owe him for February 23, 2005 (remember, Alan?). And so my shuffle has been taunting me today, pulling out all the most devastatingly bluesy Alan Price tracks, things that still make me catch my breath and feel faint.

After pulling off one of the most notorious switcheroos in the history of rock music -- getting his name down as arranger on the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun," thus snagging all the songwriting royalties (I reckon he's still living on those) -- Alan for years wrote all the songs on his albums. Some of that material, particularly the brilliant soundtrack for O Lucky Man! and the autobiographical LP Between Today and Yesterday, still ranks among my favorite music in the world. But -- let's face it -- Alan wasn't above padding his albums out with some dreck (I refer to this as the McCartney Syndrome), especially during the Disco Era. I mean, only a truly obsessed fangirl like myself could really like "Don't Stop" or "Let Yourself Go" (which still make me pant, by the way -- I've never claimed that my critical faculties were infallible).

Later in his career, though, when he'd lost any hope of being considered a Major Contender, Alan reverted to doing what he probably should have done all along: Covering old blues songs. That's what made albums like A Gigster's Life For Me, Covers, and Travellin' Man worth all the time it took me to find them on eBay. (Based On A True Story is another story altogether -- who knew Alan had that vein of jazzy genius still waiting to be tapped?)

Which leads us to "What Am I Living For?" This appears on both A Gigster's Life and Covers, though the Amazon mp3 link I'm providing leads you to an anthology album called I Put A Spell On You -- not a bad place to start if you don't know who the hell this guy is.

This blues standard, written by Fred Jay and Art Harris, was recorded by tons of people -- Wanda Jackson, Chuck Wills, Solomon Burke -- I reckon it was in the Animals' repertoire early on, considering what a blues maniac Eric Burdon was. So here's Alan Price pulling it out 30 years later, which is kinda cool. I haven't listened to many of the other versions; this one is the one I know and love. I sink happily into the smoky texture of Alan's vocals, those scatting organ solos, the lazy syncopation of the arrangement (let's give a shout out to the beautiful Bobby Tench on guitar, and Martin Wild's emphatic drumming). I love how Alan caresses the lyrics, from the husky quaver on "I want your lips on mine" to the wail of "I wanna ho-old you tight." Let's face it, this is a slow dancin' make-out song; it has absolutely NO OTHER PURPOSE IN THE WORLD. But I could sit here all night, visualizing Alan's fingers flying over that keyboard, imagining...

Where was I?

You know what? I like being a fangirl. It adds a certain dimension to music that you male fans may never entirely understand. I don't have to prattle on about what guitar strings or mixing boards were used on this album; I don't have to parse the music industry circa 1992, or discuss how Alan's keyboard technique was derived from his boyhood playing the church organ in Jarrow. I can just say this: his voice makes me quiver and shiver. Always has, always will. I'm sorry I've neglected you, Alan; you know I still love you. And we'll always have Cheltenham.

What Am I Living For? sample