Friday, May 30, 2008

"Our Time" / John Hiatt

I got me some new John Hiatt, and oh, it sure is fine.

I say new because this album, Same Old Man (I love that self-deprecating title), was released last Tuesday. On first listen it's deeply familiar, like a pair of already broken-in jeans -- the twangy rhythms, the countrified blues of the guitars (whether it's him or Luther Dickinson at any given moment), the weathered gruffness of John's soulful voice, all the the trademark elements are here. But the more I listen, I realize that this is new Hiatt territory. He may be the Same Old Man at heart, but he's not resting on his laurels.

Hiatt often tells interviewers that Bob Dylan was one of his first influences, but I've never heard much Dylan resonating in Hiatt's music -- until now. Suddenly Dylan's DNA seems all over the place (I'm talking the good fun Dylan, like Nashville Skyline). You can hear it in "Our Time", a slightly surreal sketch of scenes from a relationship. Hiatt describes it with wonderful economy of detail -- a Sunday morning reading the papers in a New York loft (not your usual Hiatt setting), devouring Chinese takeout in bed, sharing a pupu platter in Nashville -- jump-cutting from episode to episode with the hallucinatory logic of memory. "I wrapped myself up in it like a cold beef roast," he recalls, "fell asleep, was cooked medium and placed on a dining table in Brooklyn." We have no idea if they're still together, but I'm betting they aren't sure either.

And like Dylan often does, he crams in the lyrics like crazy, overstuffing the beats of the line. "I flashed back to you giving dollars to homeless men on the Bowery," he rambles, "Not before they convinced you it was for sandwiches and not for wine." And in another verse, "I woke up in a cold sweat and realized we'd never cooked one meal together" -- a fact that seems irrelevant, except that nothing seems irrelevant to two people inside a relationship. It's those odd details that put us inside the relationship, a Dylan trick if there ever was one.

On the other hand, its air of tender nostalgia is much more Hiatt than Dylan -- and that's what really hooks me in. Though it's got a talking-blues texture, the melody lifts to a lovely crooning wail in the middle of each verse; John half-misses the note, but somehow that works with the sincere huskiness of his singing. It's all tucked up in an acoustic package, with a folky two-step syncopation, and embellished with mandolin (Luther Dickinson again). I love the fact that John Hiatt knows when to leave well enough alone -- this song simply is what it is, and that's totally charming.

Our Time sample

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Oxford Comma" / Vampire Weekend

I'll admit it, I'm a grammar geek; the very idea that anybody would call a song "Oxford Comma" thrills me. True, the song is a vicious put-down of a grammar geek girl who cares about the Oxford comma, but that doesn't stop me from loving it. (The song I mean. Well, and the comma too.)

Vampire Weekend has to steer very carefully around being pretentious -- a bunch of Ivy League kids who met at Columbia, they label their music as Upper West Side Soweto because it mixes Western classical and African pop (dig their song "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" for instance). They dress up like preppies in cashmere pullovers, polo shirts, and neck scarves, and they refer to Cape Cod constantly in their songs. Yet among their indie creds are a tour opening for the Shins and a March 2008 cover shot on Spin where they were featured as the year's best new band. I could hate them already.

And yet, their music is pretty irresistible. Those Afro-pop rhythms are infectious, their lyrics are funny and fey, and the strings and horn section actually make sense in the musical context. But just in case, they make it quite clear in this song that they're not pretentious -- not pretentious at all! "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?" the singer (Ezra Koenig) protests in rat-ta-tat rhythm. "I've seen those English dramas / Too-oo / They're cruel," he notes, with goofy octave-jump yodels to underscore his point. The drums rap along briskly, accompanied by bleepy stabs of organ; a plinky guitar solo in the bridge sounds more like ukele or mandolin. It's just a tad precious, but then so are the Shins.

The truth is, this pretension stuff is all relative. I don't blame him for dissing this girl, with "all your diction dripping with disdain" -- but he's still into the one-ups-manship himself: "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma? / I climbed to Dharamsala / Too-oo / I di-id / I met the highest lama / His accent sounded fine / To me, / To me." We're not talking a man of the people here -- the mere fact that he knows what an Oxford comma is betrays him. (Raise your hand if you have absolutely no idea what an Oxford comma is.)

Too clever by half? Yeah, they are, but that's not such a bad place to start. (Elvis Costello was too clever by half when he started out, as I recall.) I hugely enjoy this first album of theirs; I'm curious to see where they'll go next. And I'm dying to know what their SAT verbal scores were.

Oxford Comma sample

Thursday, May 22, 2008

"Hold Me Down" / Motion City Soundtrack

The headliners the other night were Panic at the Disco, who I love, but the big surprise for me was the second-billed act, Motion City Soundtrack. Amidst the skinny-jeaned emo crew, they added a bracing dose of teddy-bear charm, especially lead vocalist Justin Pierre -- a born front man, with a wild thatch of dark hair and geeky glasses and a penchant for non-sequitur stage babble (you know how I love that).

Sure, they can do the rapid-fire polysyllabic lyrics of emo pop, everyone pogoing around the stage and yelping earnestly. But these guys have a good deal more range, as I discovered when I came home and listened again to their CDs (which were mysteriously already in the apartment). Well, what do you expect, they're all on the cusp of 30 -- you can't stay a kid forever. And they are from Minneapolis, land of Paul Westerberg; it's entirely possible that a knack for writing smart, offbeat rock songs is in the water up there.

This poignant midtempo number from their 2006 CD Commit This To Memory does a lot of things all at once -- dissects a relationship, conveys the squeamish drama of splitting up, and defines a whole generation's problem with commitment. It's written in the form of a letter, though who wrote it and when it was left remain murky -- "I found a letter that said:" the song begins, so I assume everything that follows is the body of that devastating break-up note. But maybe not. (Now that's some deft songwriting.)

Clearly, the writer of the note (him? the girl who just dumped him? a long-ago ex?) is a total coward -- "I'm sorry that you were asleep when I wrote these words down," he mentions, with a weaselly squirm. Blame is laid on a chronic lack of communication: "Save for a few of those late-night episodes / Missed opportunities and I-don't-cares / There's not a lot that I feel obliged to share or talk about." (Let's get real; this has got to be a guy speaking.) At any rate his/her brothers will be stopping by to pick up his/her stuff -- "just make sure that you're not there" -- and the writer concludes, with all sincerity, "I love you, however / You hold me down."

Despite the earnest vocals, for some reason I think the writer of this song (songs are credited to the whole band, but this one feels way personal) knows darn well what a lousy shit this person is. The melody feints and curls around, and the sound is full and just a tad muddy -- the various instruments (crunchy guitar, splatting drums, whiny synth) weave in and out uneasily, and a wheeze of uncertain vocal harmonies underlying the lyrics. It's the perfect aural equivalent of the messy break-up. Brilliant.

That verse is followed by an astonishingly lyrical bridge: "You're the echoes of my everything / You're the emptiness the whole world sings at night / You're the laziness of afternoon / You're the reason why I burst and why I bloom. / How can I break the news to you?" Somehow I get the idea he's now describing another relationship -- a much finer one -- which is, surprise surprise, following the same fatal pattern. Which can only mean it's his fault.

Now here's a really shrewd touch: the second time, he adds to the bridge "You're the leaky sink of sentiment / You're the failed attempts I never could forget / You're all the metaphors I can't create / To comprehend this curse that I call love." It's as if he's talking himself out of this love right before our eyes. Don't we all know men like this? In particular I'm thinking of a friend (ex-friend) who's just sidled out of a marriage he never deserved in the first place, who's still madly spinning his position to anyone who'd listen. Un-frigging-believable.

Well, I for one eat up songs like this, songs that give us a little meat to chew on. Motion City Soundtrack is the sort of band that gives emo a good name. (Though I doubt MCS would call themselves an emo band.) The cliches are beside the point; this is real-life stuff. Sons of Paul indeed.

Hold Me Down sample

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Flutter and Wow" / Elvis Costello & the Imposters

Damn, but I love it when Elvis goes soulful on us. This track off his latest, Momofuku, lounges and strolls along with bone-deep syncopation, and his passionate vibrato yelps and shivers all over the place. It almost doesn't matter what he's testifying about, does it?

The gospel that Elvis is preaching here, though, is love sweet love, and that makes it even more delicious. Between that hip-shifting rhythm and the propulsive honky-tonk piano, it's a seductively physical number, just like the earthshaking attraction that he's describing. Forget the trademark Costello hostility; this is rhapsodic, romantic, and very very sexy.

As the chorus puts it, so caressingly: "I can't believe that / This is happening / You make the motor in me / Flutter and wow." That's a metaphor that really works for me.

He does set it up as a dramatic scene, a twilight moment when he's first dumbstruck by this physical attraction, but it isn't exactly a short story. Well, except for one lovely cinematic instant: "My voice got stuck in my throat / Pulled my hand up into the sleeve of my coat / So you'd never know how it was shakin'." The vulnerability of that is rare indeed for Elvis, and I love him for it.

Then he scats around a bit, while bassist Davey Faragher and guitarist David Hidalgo croon in the background (I do love the Imposters). "You make the motor in me / Flutter and wow / Flutter, and how / Flutter and wow / Flutterin' now..." It does my heart good to hear Elvis this loose and joyful. I could listen to this song all night. In fact I probably will.

Flutter and Wow sample

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"No Sunlight" / Death Cab for Cutie

While I'm still digesting Elvis' new CD Momofuku -- something wonderful and strange and new -- this other new release slipped in the back door. I've always liked Death Cab for Cutie, anyway, not only for their dark and ever-so-twisted sensibility, but for the undeniably tuneful grooves they lay down.

Apropos of nothing, I discovered over the weekend where their oddball name comes from -- they named themselves after an obscure track from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Britain's answer to the Mothers of Invention. For that alone I have to love these guys.

So here's track three on the new CD Narrow Stairs, an upbeat, highly danceable song about the loss of innocence and the death of idealism. (Typical DCFC material.) Who says you have to sound gloomy about losing your ideals? I was sucked in immediately by its classic guitar hook, something I swear could have been ripped off from Bobby Fuller.

The arc from innocence to experience is clearly laid out: " When I was young / Lying in the grass / I felt so safe / In the warming bath / Of sunlight / Of sunlight." But it's all downhill from there -- "With every year / That came to pass / More clouds appeared / 'Til the sky went black, and there was / No sunlight / No sunlight." Doncha just know the feeling? Totally William Blake.

Granted, they can't resist underlining the meaning in the bridge: "And it disappeared at the same speed / As the idealistic things I believed / The optimist died inside of me." But it doesn't go on and on about it, just keeps up that bouncy syncopated chant of "no sunlight." The drums bash away, the sparkly guitar coasts along, and Ben Gibbard's boyish vocals hop around the cheery melody. He has just enough of an emo quiver in his voice to sell this subversive little tune perfectly.

You've gotta respect this band's confidence. They've got their sound down now, taking that bright indie tone and fleshing it out, without getting seduced by over-production. Their music is just as witty as their lyrics; not show-off witty, just smart and tight and together. Best of all, they've never fallen into the trap of taking themselves too seriously -- a saving grace if there ever was one.

No Sunlight sample

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Whole Wide World" / Wreckless Eric

I'll admit right now, this is the only song I know by Wreckless Eric, his 1978 debut single and the obvious BIG HIT that most people know. (At least, those who've heard of Wreckless Eric -- which is fewer people in this country than in the UK, I'd guess). I have no excuse except that there's so much music in the world to listen to, and only 24 hours in a day to listen to it.

Still, it's easy to see why this song has such legs. It's not your typical Stiff Records release, at least not that hushed opening (it does build to punk angst by the end) -- it's wonderfully tender, even in the loud and growly parts. I've just discovered that Nick Lowe plays not only the bass but most other instruments on this track, while Ian Dury bangs on the drums -- no surprise, since Nick was Stiff's house producer in those days and Ian one of their marquee stars.

This as an undying-love song, but with a twist -- undying love for a girl he hasn't met yet (think Macca's "I Will" from the white album, which BTW he wrote specifically for me). That accounts for the wistful undertow of loneliness; no wonder he's sounding desperate and frantic by the last verse. "When I was a young boy / My mama said to me," he begins, a classic folk-music opener -- but then it goes south: "'There's only one girl in the world for you / And she probably lives in Tahiti." Yikes! But you've gotta admire the kid's determination: "I'd go the whole wide world / I'd go the whole wide world / Just to find her." Now there's a romantic soul.

On Eric's website, he jokes that he's never checked out the geography for fear he got it wrong all those years ago. Don't worry, Eric, you're close enough. "Or maybe she's in the Bahamas / Where the Caribbean sea is blue / Weeping in a tropical moonlit night / Because nobody's told her 'bout you." There's a nice touch, the idea that the girl's lonely and longing too. Though the buzzy guitars and smackdown drums have kicked in by now, and Eric's getting a leetle paranoid, as he reiterates, "I'd go the whole wide world / Find out where they hide her."

The tune -- if you can call it that -- is just as dogged and single-minded as his quest. The rhythm's a slogging sort of march, and the verses repeat over and over the same two-note rising phrase; the chorus repeats a downward four-note scale, with that hopeful little line "Just to find her" surging hopefully at the end. But it suits Eric's mumbly wail just fine, and as the song's motor kicks into successively higher gears, he punches out those repetitions with lovestruck ferocity.

Verse three and four are particularly fun -- he pictures himself "hanging around in the rain out here / Trying to pick up a girl" compared to his Ms. Right "lying on a tropical beach somewhere / Underneath the tropical sun / Pining away in a heatwave there." He caps it off with a verse five vision of happiness, imagining himself "lying on that sun-soaked beach with her / Caressing her warm brown skin / And then in a year or maybe not quite / We'll be sharing the same next of kin." Sure, it's a conventional happy ending, but with enough wit and charm to make the cliche very satisfying. Besides, by the time he gets here, he sounds so stressed out, I'm yearning too for him to get what he wants.

I've just checked out iTunes and there are a ton of covers of this song, including ones by the Monkees, the Proclaimers, and a particularly nice revved-up version by Phon Roll (anyone heard of that band before?). All very nice, but I'm still glued to Wreckless Eric's. I swear, it's not just the Nick Lowe connection, though Nick's infallible ear as a producer often pulled out the best work from Stiff artists. (I'll admit I am prejudiced.) Clearly I've got to check out more of this guy's stuff. Any suggestions?

Whole Wide World sample

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"I Think We're Alone Now" / Tommy James and the Shondells

Okay, so I'm still stuck in 1967. But I'm really fascinated right now by all these songs that hung in the ozone back then -- pouring from the car radio, blasting in the background at every teen dance. I'm talking about the commercial pop rock, a sound that hovered somewhere between Frankie Valli and the Doors. In that watershed year, rock music was just starting to take itself seriously -- it's crazy to realize that this tune came out the same year as Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" (so self-consciously poetic) and Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth" (so earnestly political). But what Tommy James and the Shondells were up to was blessedly simple: making pop music you could dance to at parties. And they did it perfectly.

These guys were no one-hit wonders. Singles like "Hanky Panky" and "Mony Mony" established their dance party creds, and they hit the psychedelic note toward the end of their chart-topping days with "Crimson and Clover." But "I Think We're Alone Now" will always be my favorite Tommy James song. It sums up so perfectly the great burning issue on all pubescent minds: Where can we get some privacy to make out?

Tommy James grabs his audience from the very first line. "'Children behave' -- that's what they say when we're together," he complains with a petulant whine. "'And watch how you play' -- they don't understand." That's a pure adolescent sense of injustice. The verse builds earnestly, layering on guitars and drums and organ, almost a military march: "And so we're running just as fast as we can / Holding on to one another's hand / Trying to get away into the night." A noble bid for freedom indeed. But being teenagers, they quickly get to the real business: "And then you put your arms around me and we tumble to the ground and then you say / 'I think we're alone now...'"

Isn't this one of the sexiest choruses ever? There's such urgency in those staccato lyrics, and the sudden drop in volume, stripping away all the backing instruments, is riveting. Hear the quivering hush in his voice as he sings, "I think we're alone now / There doesn't seem to be anyone around." Hear the speeded-up pulse of that rapidly plucked guitar -- "I think we're alone now / The beating of our hearts is the only sound' -- that thump-thump heartbeat on the drums should be corny, but it's perfect. (Dig the nighttime cricket sound effects filling the silence behind it.) They're in the woods! They're lying down and making out! It's HOT!

The same year, you'd find the Rolling Stones, with their usual subtlety, blatantly proposing "Let's Spend the Night Together" (famously changed to "let's spend some time together" on the Ed Sullivan show). Brian Wilson would give it a romantic gloss, musing like a Boy Scout, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up / In the morning when the day was new..." But Tommy James left it sweaty and furtive and hormonal -- and yet somehow naive. There's no battle of the sexes here, no seduction; this is completely consensual. The two kids are totally on the same wavelength, wrapped up in their private world. If you were in a couple at the time, you sympathized from experience; if you weren't in a couple, you hungered for it.

When this song came on at a party, everybody had to sing along. You huddled together to whisper that complicit chorus -- which also meant you could really let loose on the "running just as fast as we can" part. Courtesy of Tommy James, we were all in on the Big Teen Secret. Ah, youth culture.

I Think We're Alone Now sample

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"(We Ain't Got) Nothing Yet" / The Blues Magoos

Apparently I'm stuck in a 1967 groove, but I can't say I mind. That was one hell of a year for music. What a tasty morsel of psychedelia this single was, for instance -- not too far out for AM radio, mind you, but loaded up with dizzying organ riffs and sibilant percussion and double-tracked vocals. It seemed exotic, and that was enough in 1967.

The Blues Magoos were just a bunch of teenagers playing the Greenwich Village folk clubs when they scored with this hit record; they even got to tour with the Who and Herman's Hermits, and to party with the Doors. Youthful enthusiasm percolates through this whole song, through the hustling skip of its syncopation and the slightly ragged chiming-in harmonies (reminds me of the Tremeloes). The sound may have been psychedelic, but there's no wink-wink drug message -- those lyrics are totally high on life: "Nothin' can hold us and nothin' can keep us down / And someday our names will be spread all over town / We can get in while the getting is good / So make it on your own, yeah, you know that you could." Sure, it's in a minor key, but despite that it's giddy and upbeat all the way.

It's not a love song -- that was still pretty unusual for 1967. Instead it's passing around a life philosophy, of sorts: "One day you're up and the next day you're down / You can't face the world with your head to the ground / The grass is always greener on the other side, they say / So don't worry, boys, life will be sweet some day." And it's friends that will get you through -- that chorus is downright raucous, perfect for boozy singalongs: "Oh, we ain't got nothin' yet / No, we aint' got nothing ye-et..." followed by a climbing guitar riff that takes off like a booster rocket. It's that "yet" that's important -- they're absolutely positive they will have something someday.

It's fitting that these guys toured with The Who, purveyors of youth anthems like "My Generation" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," but this song's cheerier and less apocalyptic -- it's only one step from this to "Hey, Hey, we're the Monkees" (not a criticism in my book -- I loved the Monkees). These kids aren't preaching anything -- not mind-expanding drugs, not the rise of youth culture, not overturning the establishment. They're just charged up with being young and having their whole lives ahead of them.

It's wonderfully innocent, even dolled up in all those paisley psychedelic swirls. I was even younger and more naive than the Blues Magoos in 1967; they seemed like pied pipers, leading us into some brave new world that still seemed fresh and exciting. On a fine spring day like today, it's tempting to believe it all over again.

(We Ain't Got) Nothing Yet sample

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Kind of a Drag" / The Buckinghams

I hadn't thought about this song in ages. When it was at the top of the charts, in the winter of 1967, I was smack in the middle of junior-high love angst, pining for a tall skinny basketball player who barely knew I existed. Yet with exquisite adolescent logic, I thought the lyrics to this electric pop confection fit my situation exactly.

That title phrase was groovy 1966 teen-speak -- "Kind of a drag / When your baby don't love you, / Kind of a drag / When you know she's been untrue." That air of cool understatement was all a fraud, of course; the singer is frantic about her cheating on him. Or is he? Despite those mournful lyrics, it's too uptempo to be a downer. The arrangement simply sparkles, a slick amalgam of pop traditions -- soul horns, doo-wop harmonies, shimmery surf rock drumming, a muddy Tejano organ solo in the interval, and the mumbly R&B drawl of lead singer Dennis Tufano. It hit all the bases.

Nevertheless, it vibrates with pubescent sexual tension. Listen to those jazzy chords mounting and modulating in the bridge, as Tufano's voice rises in inarticulate urgency: "Oh, listen / To what I've gotta say," while the back-up vocalists fill in a staccato chatter underneath ("Listen to me when I'm speaking / 'Cause you know the words I'm thinking"). It all builds to the crooning climax: "Girl, I still love you, /I'll always love you /Anywaa-ay, / Anywa-aay, / Anywa-aay." Yee-OW!

What makes this such a great teen song is that it resolves nothing. He can sing this song all he wants, but he's still stuck in the same inchoate misery. Like most adolescent misery, it's totally self-induced. Sure, the girl's cheated on him, but this song is really about how HE feels -- what a drag this situation is, how he's feeling blue, how he wants to cry, and above all, that dramatic protest of undying love. He's getting off on his own image. If it were a grown-up love song, three verses and a bridge would lead him to realize that she doesn't deserve his love. But no, that's a different universe.

I didn't want to be talked out of my mooney crush on that basketball player, either. (I mooned over him for the next four years, whenever I was between real boyfriends. He was my default love interest.) Who else could I have sighed over when a song like this came on the radio?

Kind of A Drag sample

Friday, May 09, 2008

"Show Me The Way" / Peter Frampton

Waiting at the garage for my car to be serviced this morning, I was actually paying attention to the muzak for once, when what to my wondering ears should appear but this embarrassing bit of late 70s cheese. I'll come clean: I owned Frampton Comes Alive back in 1976, on cassette of course (the medium of the future!). Even worse, I played it over and over, until that little tape was nearly shredded. I was addicted to this song, this and "Baby I Love Your Way." And I was old enough to know better.

I can't even blame it on a fangirl crush -- though Peter Frampton undoubtedly was cute, with that flowing golden hair, those full lips, the cheekbones, the shirt provocatively unbuttoned to the waist. It wasn't his plangent boyish voice that suckered me in, either. It was those guitar riffs -- the talking guitar effect, those other-worldly howls and twangs. And me, usually I hate onanistic guitar solos.

And yet this song was like catnip to me (and, admit it ladies, you too). It had all the bombastic pyrotechnics of a Who track, sugared up with McCartneyeque bounce, shellacked into a densely layered glam product -- but without irony. No, what you had here was straight-on adolescent longing, spilling over into obsession (all those repeating phrases, the dizzying circles of the up-and-down melody). It spoke to two kinds of fans: girls who were hypnotized by the panting lyrics and virtuoso riffs; and pimply boys who were convinced that if they could just play the guitar like this, they'd get laid.

I already had a degree in English literature -- how could I have been taken in by these lyrics? "I wonder how you're feeling / There's ringing in my ears / And no one to relate to 'cept the sea." Hunh? He's relating to the sea? With a fine disregard for grammar, he declares, "There has to be a force / Who do I phone?" (thus linking Star Wars and Ghostbusters in one stroke). No wonder he adds, "There has to be a fool to play my part." It even gets mildly creepy for a minute: "I watch you when you're sleeping / And then I want to take your love" -- a clear case of date rape. In verse two, he sings, "I wonder if I'm dreaming /I feel so unashamed," which suggests an amazing lack of perspective. And what does it all build to? This marvelously articulate chorus: "Oh won't you show me the way (everyday) / I want you me the way / I want you day after day..." Yeesh.

Well, I can scoff all I want . . . but to be honest, I fell under this song's spell this morning all over again. I could chalk it up to nostalgia, to the powerful way it brought back the inchoate dreams of an entire limbo summer. But I suspect the reason it still sounds great to me is because it is actually a classic jazzy pop track. Frampton opted for the unbuttoned shirt and tight satin pants, but that doesn't mean he couldn't play guitar. There have been worse idiots in rock and roll, and sometimes even an idiot gets it right.

Show Me The Way sample

Thursday, May 08, 2008

"Along Comes Mary" / The Association

Everybody "knows" that the Mary in this song refers to marijuana. (Except, of course, people who are convinced it refers to Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary.) Granted, the songwriter, Tandyn Almer, never admitted that he tucked in a coded drug message, but the word on the street helped send this debut single by an unknown California band to #7 on the U.S. charts in the summer of 1966.

The thing is, the words were packed in so thick and fast, most folks had no idea what the singer was singing. I owned this 45 and listened to it endlessly, and I still couldn't get them all. Sure, I got the opening -- "Every time I think that I'm the only one who's lonely /Someone calls on me" -- a perfect adolescent sentiment, kicked up with internal rhyme. I've always been a sucker for internal rhyme, and this song has it all over the place (lines like "Or maybe rather gather tales of all the fails and tribulations" or "When vague desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks / Whose sickness is the games they play "). You get the idea that he'd say anything so long as it rhymed, whether it made sense or not. But that vague half-logic made it seem even more like a drug song. Far out, man.

For several patches throughout the song, I had to fake it; I had no idea what they were singing. It wasn't because they were mumbling, either; it was just a barrage of language, the words tripping over each other. I did get the verse ending: " When we met I was sure out to lunch / Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch" -- I love how the harmonies kick in abruptly on the last word "punch." And then there were other fragments that stood out, like "and when the masquerade is played" and "the psychodramas and the traumas."

But I totally missed apocalyptic lines like "And when the morning of the warning's passed, the gassed / And flaccid kids are flung across the stars." (The Mary Magdalene camp believes that The Warning is a specific event, like The Rapture; I guess they've been waiting for it since 1966.) If this was a drug song, it was a paranoid freaked-out drug song, more about the perils of drugs than their virtues. Nevertheless, a generation of druggies enthusiastically adopted this song as their anthem.

The main deal, anyhow, is that soaring chorus: "And then along comes Mary / And does she want to set them free, and let them see reality / From where she got her name." The way those harmonizing vocals climb up that title phrase gets me every time. Whatever the song said, you knew it was dark and portentous, with that minor-key melody, spooky organ, shivering tambourines, and layered triple-echoed harmonies. Hovering at the threshold of psychedelia, it's lush and dark at the same time, and undeniably haunting.

Like their generic corporate-sounding name, the Association never projected much personality -- they were practically anonymous (fairly or not, I always mixed them up with Bread and Chicago). Can you name anybody who was in this band? I can't. Their complex production values, multi-instrumental versatility, and vocal richness counted for nothing compared to the raw honesty and energy of the artists who defined that age, like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. And over the next couple of years, the Association proceeded to blow their coolness quotient with honey-dripping numbers like "Cherish" and "Never My Love." (If only they'd remained a one-hit wonder!) As the rock scene swiftly evolved, any band that had even a whiff of wholesome AM-radio pop about them were shunned by the hippie generation.

But still, you've got to get them credit; this song was awesome.

Along Comes Mary sample

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"Fantastic Planet of Love" / Marshall Crenshaw

Life's Too Short is one of those Marshall Crenshaw albums that just kinda sorta never got any notice (unfortunately, it's not the only one). I kept meaning to buy it, to fill in that last hole in my MC collection, but it took me a while. Now that I've finally bought it and listened to it, I'm astonished. Why in the world would an album this tuneful and tight ever languish in obscurity?

There's not a single song on here I'd ever heard before, but it didn't take more than one listen to get attached to certain tracks -- like the third cut, "Fantastic Planet of Love." That title seems to promise tongue-in-cheek irony (Robyn Hitchcock would do it that way), but this track is way beyond irony. It's a giddy love song, all charged up with finger-snapping rhythm and curling surf-guitar licks. Even though he frequently invites other guitarists to guest on his albums, Marshall Crenshaw has over the years developed into a kick-ass guitarist, one of the few whose instrumental tracks I'll sit still for -- maybe because his guitar solos are all about soul and melody, not braggart speed and head-butting volume.

The emotions of this song aren't complicated -- it's straight-ahead love and devotion -- but I'm intrigued by the reasons he gives for loving her. It's not just because she looks good walking down the street, or because she "does it" better than anybody else. No, it's because she lifts his spirits when life gets him down. "The way you smile / Even when heartbreak / Is closing in around you / You know that's one thing / I ought to learn how to do." That's something real to admire in a woman, and it comes bundled up with a real-world knowledge of how rough life can be. "Just this morning I felt like trouble's plaything," he says in verse two; and in the bridge,"I feel something closing in around me / It's in the headlines of the tabloids / And I heard it on TV." All the more reason to cling to somebody who can help you weather all this tribulation.

The way this melody dances up and down, the unsettled jazzy chord changes, all contribute to the song's sense of life as a tightrope walk. Played slower, it might come off as dark; instead, Marshall delivers unbridled ecstasy. "It's only when I'm next to you / That I ever dream of / A fantastic planet of love," he exults, and sure, it's a dorky expression -- that's what's so endearing about it. He's too transported by happiness to care about seeming cool or mature. He tosses in some fuzzy space age sound effects in the interval, too, just for fun. It's like: Yes, I read comic books and watch sci-fi movies! And I don't care who knows it!! And I'll use a thousand exclamation points if I have to!!! Because my woman makes me feel good about life!!!!!!!!!

Gotta love it.

Fantastic Planet of Love sample

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

"Something Better Beginning" / The Kinks

One of the joys of being a Kinks fan is that you never run out of songs to obsess over. Their catalog is not only immense, it's gold all the way through. Who needs to dwell on just the hits when you've got "minor" tracks as good as "Something Better Beginning"?

You'll find this gem on Kinda Kinks, a wonderfully uneven album recorded in a hurry at the end of 1964 and beginning of 1965. Pye Records was breathing down the Kinks' necks, hoping to wring one more LP out of a quirky band of youngsters that the record execs feared had already spent their fifteen minutes of fame. The pressure the Kinks were under is obvious, given song titles like "Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight," "Don't Ever Change," "You Shouldn't Be Sad," and one of my all-time favorite Kinks titles, "Nothin' In the World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl."

These sessions produced the jittery "Come On Now," recorded as a B-side to the bone-weary "Tired of Waiting," as well as the anxious "Everybody's Gonna Be Happy" (nobody in this song is or ever will be happy) and its fretful flip side, "Who'll Be The Next in Line?" -- which pretends to be about a romantic break-up, but I'll bet it was inspired by Ray Davies' fear of the Kinks being supplanted by the next hot band. The plaintive "Set Me Free" and "See My Friends" would follow soon after in the spring of 1965. Ray has always been a bit of a head case, but there's no disguising the neurosis of this period.

Still, there's one upbeat song on Kinda Kinks -- "Something Better Beginning." Though it was one of the first tracks recorded for this album, it comes last in the track order, as if trying to end the album on a hopeful note. Its note of tentative, wary optimism is classic Ray Davies (you'll hear it again and again in later songs like "Better Things," "Good Day," "Don't Forget to Dance," "Stormy Sky," "Lost and Found," even Ray's solo efforts "Things Are Gonna Change" and "One More Time).

On the surface, "Something better Beginning" doesn't sound like klassick Kinks -- especially not for 1965, when their signature power-chord sound had been defined by "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All Of The Night." It's standard-issue British Invasion, a mono track with echoing vocals, spangly guitars, and a wistful scenario about blossoming love at a school dance. The Searchers, the Hollies, or the Zombies could have done this song and no one would have been surprised.

But for me, it's a real sleeper. I think of it alongside the Beatles' "If I Fell"-- both singers standing on the brink of a new love affair with the same wounded wariness. Compared to "If I Fell"'s subtext of threats ("I must be sure from the very start / That you would love me more than her") and revenge ("and that she will cry / When she learns we are two"), the Kinks give us fragility and insecurity.

We can just picture him sighting her across the room, the lights dimming and the crowd parting like something out of West Side Story, their tender first dance, their moonlit walk home. It's a marvelously cinematic bit of romance -- except that he's haunted by bad memories, as he repeats in every chorus: "Is this the start of another heartbreaker / Or something better beginning?" Even in the bridge, where he rhapsodizes about how great he feels when he's with her, he nervously adds, "I wonder how long it will last?"

It isn't until the last verse that he speaks directly of his past: "I've known this joy once before, / But it came to an end / Just as it had began." But that defensive tic underlies everything else in this song -- the nervous flutter of Ray's vocals, the stop-and-go rhythm, the shivering little swoops and dips of the melody, the unresolved chord changes. What seems like a simple song is in fact absolutely riddled with complex emotion.

Hold a gun to most young songwriters' heads and you'd get crap. Hold a gun to young Ray Davies' head and you got stuff like this. I don't suppose the Pye guys even appreciated it; they wanted another power-chord hit single, and then whatever else could pad out the rest of the LP. Hah. Padding? I think not.

Something Better Beginning sample

Thursday, May 01, 2008

"Beechwood Park" / The Zombies

I've got a new dog, so I'm out walking him in the park a lot. A LOT. (Thank god for my iPod.) I can't deny, though, that Central Park is gorgeous this time of year; we've got flowering trees all over the place, dogwood and redbuds and cherry trees, and the grass is thick and fresh. So when this song cycled up on my iPod today, I hit replay several times, and hardly noticed how long I had to wait for the pooch to do his bidness.

Talk about bad timing -- in 1968 the Zombies decided to break up right after they finished recording their album Odessey & Oracle. Their career had been on the slide for several months and half the band was too discouraged (and too broke) to keep on; songwriters Rod Argent and Chris White were already mentally onto their new project, the band Argent. Singer Colin Blunstone started working in insurance, that's how sick of the pop world he was.

But Odessey & Oracle was one of the great albums of the late 60s; its single "Time of the Season" turned out to be the Zombies' biggest hit -- everywhere except Britain, that is. It wasn't enough to save the Zombies (only recently have Argent and Blunstone reunited in a revived Zombies); many music fans, me included, missed this album at the time. With no band left to support it, Odessey & Oracle didn't get much promotion, but over time it's become regarded as a classic: a masterpiece of psychedelia filtered through the lush romantic sound that was always the Zombies' hallmark.

Listening to "Beechwood Park" is still a trip. The sinuous melody and slightly draggy beat make it downright woozy, as Colin Blunstone's ethereal tenor floats above Rod Argent's minor-key baroque organ arpeggios; Paul Atkinson gets a strange shimmery reverb out of his electric guitar, matched by the echoing falsetto harmonies. The lyrics are gloriously romantic too, all about a guy and a girl cavorting through a leafy suburban park, or rather --important distinction here -- his memories of them cavorting in the park. The wistful haze of nostalgia is the perfect final touch. "All roads in my mind / Take me back in my mind / And I can't forget you / Won't forget you / Won't forget those days / And Beechwood Park." A subtext of loss haunts this song -- you've gotta figure he's lost her and has been regretting it ever since.

It's ripe with nature images -- "Do you remember summer days / Just after summer rain / When all the air was damp and warm / In the green of country lanes?" You could get away with that soft-focus sort of thing in the late 60s, talking about the breeze in a girl's hair and counting evening stars. (Rod McKuen made a fortune with this kind of pseudo-poetry.) But it wasn't just the time period; the young urgency of Blunstone's voice makes me buy this one-hundred percent. No other band of that era had such a romantic, earnest aura. The Zombies never sounded like bluesmen; they sounded just like what they were, nice middle-class English boys. Maybe that's why they were always more popular in the States than at home -- to us they sounded exotic, to other British people they just sounded . . . wet.

Sure, it's a period piece. But the cool thing about "Beechwood Park" is that it doesn't sound dated -- it simply transports you back to 1968. The vagueness of it is perfect; everybody had a Beechwood Park, didn't they? (Mine was Holiday Park in Indianapolis -- I can still summon up the sound and smell of that place.) For two minutes and forty-five seconds you too can go back in your mind to that summer world. You don't even have to drop acid to get the high.

Beechwood park sample