Friday, March 28, 2008

“People Change” / Nick Lowe


Now here it comes: Nick Lowe’s philosophy of love. Given the title of this 2007 album, At My Age, you’d expect it to be full of sadder-but-wiser reflections on human relations; what I didn’t expect was how snappy and snarky he still can be at his age.

On the one hand, there’s the mellow, rueful “Love’s Got a Lot to Answer For”; but it's balanced by “People Change,” a much more hard-bitten appraisal of love’s vagaries. I couldn’t even tell you what genre this is; with that uptempo strum, the meaty horn section, and the back-up vocals, I guess retro pop is the best label. Nick’s voice is particularly velvety here – confiding, well-worn, sincere.

At his age, Nick’s become an incredibly economical songwriter: two succinct lines and you’ve got the whole set-up: “Storybook love, made for one another / Now she treats you just like a brother.” He hangs fire for a moment, strumming away, while the contrast sinks in, then plunges on, with two hurried lines that meander melodically: “And you don’t know what you’ve done / Or even how to make it right.” I can just see the baffled bloke, nodding in recognition. Yeah, yeah, that’s how it is, man. So tell me, what do I do?

Nick ashes his cigarette – or the instrumental equivalent thereof – and then delivers his counsel in the chorus. The lyrics are straightforward -- “People change / That’s the long and short of it / Prepare yourself for it / Or get bit / People change” – but he keeps it dancing, with staggered rhythms, dodgy shifting chords, and an edgy swooping melodic line. Nick’s sudden double-octave drop from “bit” to that last growly “people change”, that’s the song in a nutshell.

Those chipper horns add sympathy to what’s basically a tough-minded credo. “Save your tears, you’re gonna need ‘em,” he warns at one point; “cut yourself a slice of reality,” he adds later. We’ll have no whining here. But it’s not classic British stiff-upper-lip-itude; Nick’s deft phrasing gives the song a stinging undertone, a slight defensive hitch of the shoulder.

Chrissie Hynde generally annoys me (I still haven’t forgiven her for breaking Ray Davies’ heart), but her hard-edged nasal backing vocals here are just right. She’s like the woman in the picture, who’d be happy to chime in with her side of the story -- and it wouldn’t be pretty. With her still haunting him, he can’t get away with self-pity or excuses. All he’s got left is a shrug and two words of advice: “People change.”

Well, I'm already lost in the novel behind that motto. When you get to be Nick Lowe's age, you're bound to have a story or two. And me, I could sit up all night listening.

People Change sample

Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart" / Nick Lowe


The Convincer -- my god, what an album, simply saturated with excellence. There are so many landmark tracks here -- "I'm A Mess," "Let's Stay In and Make Love," "Has She Got A Friend," "She's Got Soul" -- that I didn't even pay proper attention to this modest gem for ages. Time to right that wrong.

"Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart" has that classic late Lowe combination: weary wisdom fighting against a stubborn romantic streak. The story line's simple, an all-too-familiar plot, laid out in downward-rambling musical phrases -- "Why do I go on fooling myself / When I know you love somebody else" -- but the title refrain puts a shrewd psychological spin on it: "Only a fool breaks his own heart." This isn't some adolescent drowning in self-pity; on top of feeling lovelorn, he's beating himself up for feeling lovelorn -- really, at his age, he should know better. And yet, for all his wisdom, we know he's going to go right on ahead with this fool's game. It's not like he can't help it; he chooses heartbreak. Now there's a self-aware romantic for you.

"I have to admit," he adds in the bridge, full of unresolved chord changes, "Even though it hurt me so / I can't forget." Then he musters his good intentions: "If I'm a man / I'll let you go." I hear a very big If there, though -- listen to how uncertainly that line climbs up to its trembling last note (also unresolved, anything but triumphant). With a sort of sigh, he stumbles back into the third verse: "There's no sense in holding on / To an old love that's gone wrong / Only a fool breaks his own heart." He may be the Convincer, but right now he's not even convincing himself.

The whole arrangement is full of rueful, resigned weariness -- the shuffling two-step tempo, the plodding piano and drums; hear that wheezy organ in the break, and that hypnotic circular guitar riff. How many times has this hapless lover gone over these same arguments? He's sick of them himself by now. But he's still not ready to give up the girl.

Now, a lesson in fangirl psychology: There is nothing sexier than a man who's hopelessly in love with another woman. Since it's hopeless, of course, she's no competition; meanwhile he's demonstrating enormous ardor, always a great qualification. And of course, you want to mother him; you want to be the one who heals that broken heart of his. I'm dizzy already. Have another cup of coffee, Nick, and tell me all about it . . .

I can think of a dozen artists who could do a great job with this song -- the late great Johnny Cash, of course, and while we're dreaming, why not Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles or Marvin Gaye? Willie Nelson would do a killer version of this. I'd love to hear it in Guy Clark's hands. Peter Wolf, Mark Knopfler; shoot, even Rod Stewart. (Just trying to drum up songwriting royalties for you, Nick.) It should be a classic. And, of course, it probably never will be. That's injustice for you.

Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart sample

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Freezing" / Nick Lowe


Like Harold Pinter plays, Nick Lowe songs are sometimes all about the silences. It's amazing to think that the same guy who wrote frenetic songs like "Heart of the City" and "I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll" could have crafted such a jazzy, laid-back, copasetic thing as "Freezing."

You'll find it on Dig My Mood, a 1998 album that genre-hops even more than Jesus of Cool -- and shows Nick a master of every one of 'em. This track is something Mel Torme could have written, a wintertime classic from the first line -- "It's freezing / Freezing / Wind chill is twenty below / Whole town is under snow" -- with pianist Geraint Watkins layering on delicious frosty glissandos, and the lightest crash of icy cymbals. Nick draws out "freezing," making it fill a whole line, and lets long pauses fall between the lines, full of wonder at the winter cold, as if he's shaking a snow globe. There's plenty of room to shiver here.

"Mercury's falling, it just won't quit / What are you doing out in it?" Nick wonders, hesitates for a moment, and then gently beckons, "Come inside love / Into the warm." As seductions go, it's effortless, but dig the tender curl of that last melodic phrase, the slight groan of contentment in his voice -- that's what I'd call an irresistible invitation. "It's freezing," he reminds us again, tenderly chiding: "Inside's where you should be / Don't try to argue with me." Well, erm -- who's arguing?

We slide next into a sultry sax solo, the next best thing to a fire crackling in the fireplace, and just as I'm snuggling in and getting comfy, Nick returns, tucking a hearth rug in place: "Inside's where you should be / Don't try to disagree / Come in and set me free from this yearning." And that one word, that "yearning" is all we need to kick the whole thing onto a metaphorical plane. In this cold cold world, the only shelter worth seeking is love -- not stressful, anxiety-ridden longing, but this perfect restful haven Nick Lowe's offering, drowsy with desire.

Nick's not out in the cold himself, mind you -- he's like a cat curled on the hearth, stretching lazily. Talk about efficient love songs. It's a shame, really, that Nat King Cole wasn't around to do a cover of this; that would've been delicious indeed. But if Nick's door is open, I'm happy to duck inside, any time of year.

Freezing sample

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"Lover Don't Go" / Nick Lowe


This song absolutely devastates me. This wasn't the song that first made me love Nick Lowe, but it sure does seal the deal. On this album, Impossible Bird, Nick Lowe finally figured out how to cast aside the giddy rocker persona and reinvent himself as a grown-up, and much as I love the goofy youthful Nick, this seasoned crooner gets to me even more.

First of all, it's the way he sings it -- that slightly ragged, weathered texture to his voice, the soulful shiver he brings to that long drawn-out "go" and anguished downward slide on "please" -- the love-drunk adolescent of "Without Love" is long gone, replaced by a grown-up man who knows whereof he speaks.

And the clever wordplay is set aside, too, as it should be. When you're really and truly miserable, who has time to play around with words? There is a very gentle echo in the first verse lines: "There's a hollow in the bed / Where your body used to be / Like the hollow in your heart /Where the love once was for me." But it's that powerful, intensely physical opening image that draws the attention, not the double meaning; I can just picture the crumpled bedclothes, the cruel slant of daylight through the blinds. That millisecond pause before "bed" -- there's phrasing for you.

With brilliant restraint, he then lets fewer syllables do the work. "It's still warm," he notes numbly (can't you just see him running his hand over the bed, in shock?), then ruefully adds, "But it won't be for long." He's been around long enough to know how these things go. And even though he moans, "Lover, don't go / Please, lover don't go," I'm pretty sure the door has already slammed behind her.

Oh, she may still be there -- but he's no fool; he can tell she's already checked out. "I can feel it coming on /With the pounding of my head/ An emptiness inside /Like a nameless dread." He's mourning an honest-to-god relationship between two people who really had connected once, and don't anymore. In the bridge, we get the idea that they had some miles behind them, too: "What about the plans we made / And all the funny games we played / Can you really turn your back / Please . . . . " He can't even finish the rhyme.

He staggers through a few more fragments of the earlier verses, disintegrating as we listen. "It's still warm," he repeats, fixated dazedly on the physical details -- and that warmth in the bed suddenly stands for all the love lingering in his heart.

I'm drawn into this little drama absolutely -- I'm fretting, wondering what woman could ever walk out on Nick, when he clearly is so hung up on her. And yet he accomplishes all this with astonishing economy. The tempo is halting, and the arrangement wonderfully spare -- mostly just acoustic guitar strum and the drawn-out sigh of an organ, though in the bridge he adds echoing back-up vocals and the dejected kick of drums. All pretense has been stripped away, leaving just those emotions, welling up in the emptiness of that deserted bedroom. My heart's aching, that's for sure.

Lover Don't Go sample

Monday, March 24, 2008

"Without Love" / Nick Lowe


Yes, indeed, it's that time of year again -- Nick Lowe Week, when I celebrate the birthday of my favorite aging British rocker with a full week of blog posts. I know, I seem to pay tribute to Nick every other week on here -- but to paraphrase Lesley Gore, it's my blog, and I'll gush if I want to.

When people complain that Nick's gone too country in his old age, I wonder -- were they actually listening all those years? This song's from 1979's Labour of Lust (why this brilliant album is out of print, I just can't fathom) and it's as country as they come, a twangy upbeat number with a nifty rockabilly guitar solo in the middle.

Yet the theme is the Number One Pop Theme of All Time -- romantic love. In fact, Nick takes this to the nth degree; this isn't even a song about a girl, but a song about love itself. "Without love," Nick declares, "I am half human / Without love, I'm a machine / Without love, there's nothing doing / I am dying without love." That's just about as pure a statement of generalized lust as you'll ever hear. But the twang gives Nick plenty of room to wink (and he throws in vocal slides and hiccups to underscore the point) . Ironic understatement is more often Nick's line of attack; not here -- he goes full-tilt into Opry-style emotional extravagance.

My favorite line, though, is one I can't imagine being written in Nashville: "Without love, I am an island / All by myself in a heartbreak sea." John Donne reference and all; that's damn deft. And then there's the bridge: "Now there is nowhere I can run / And there is no hiding place / Stickin' out like a sore thumb / By the gloomy look upon my face." Bit by bit, he nudges this song into his own inimitable self-pitying loser mode, until I'm thinking, Aw, poor guy, such an incurable romantic, it would be a shame to leave him all alone... And that dogged brisk rockabilly tempo -- it's like he's on a relentless treadmill he can't get off. Oh, yes, he's dyin' without love. Maybe there's something I could do to help...

No doubt this is one of the songs Nick's thinking of when he says that he can't perform his earlier material anymore. He can't get away with playing the jumpy obsessed adolescent these days. But there really isn't such a distance between this and "Has She Got A Friend?" or "I'm A Mess," is there? It's all good, Nick.

Without Love sample

Friday, March 21, 2008

"Walking On the Moon" / The Police
"Walkin' On the Sun" / Smash Mouth

A two-for-one for you today, because I feel so guilty that I've gone AWOL this week (big book deadline hanging over my head...)

Now, I don't have anything against the Police. I used to love them, in fact, in the olden days, though I couldn't follow Sting down the many avenues of egotism and pomposity he's trod since then. The idea that Elvis Costello should be their opening act this summer, however (all right, he's not the opening act, he's the "featured guest artist"), bothers me. Much as I love Elvis, I don't think I want to spring big bucks to see him in an arena setting just because the Police are coming on afterward.

But all that is neither here nor there. "Walking On the Moon" is from the vintage Police era (1979, Regatta de Blanc), so it's still on my playlist. Great reggae beat, nice spangly space-agey guitars, and those high, strangulated, dislocated Sting vocals--it's going all Arthur C. Clarke-y on us. It's unusually surreal for the Police -- "Giant steps are what you take / Walking on the moon / I hope my legs don't break / Walking on the moon," even though it's not really about space travel at all but about the euphoria of being with his girlfriend. I've always imagined this as being sung by a guy who's just lost his virginity, and how strange the world seems all of a sudden--that hypnotic sense of wonderment is pretty durn effective.

Still, given a choice, I'd prefer this Smash Mouth track. Were they thinking of the Police song when they did this? I wouldn't be surprised. Maybe that explains the delicious funkiness (a lot more so than most of the Smash Mouth songs I've heard), along with a samba-like syncopation and some boppy organ riffs that sound straight out of the British Invasion (think Yardbirds, Zombies, Traffic...). But I'm still trying to figure out what's going on in this song; Smash Mouth songs tend to be so crammed with words, it always take a while to sort out what (if anything) they're on about.

It's definitely putting down media saturation and trendoids ("I'd like to buy the world a toke / And teach the world to sing in perfect harmony"; "If you got the goods they'll come and buy it just to stay in the clique," "So don't delay, act now / Supplies are running out") but then it starts to ruminate on history. "Twenty five years ago / They spoke out and they broke out / Of recession and oppression and together they toked / And they folked out with guitars around a bonfire" -- hey, that's my generation you kids are talking about! "Just singin' and clappin' / Man what the hell happened" -- I keep asking myself that very same thing.

Given their penchant for cover songs -- the Monkees "I'm A Believer," Steely Dan's "Do It Again," the Kinks' "Father Christmas," War's "Why Can't We Be Friends" -- I'm assuming these guys listen to a LOT of old music and dig it. But they're also speaking for restless slackers who can't get with the mass merchandised culture; they're baffled by the devolution of those 60s ideals, and scornful of how we boomers have betrayed our noble intentions. And you know, they've got a point. This band has always struck me as acute social critics, even though they wrap it all up in in-your-face skatehead hostility.

Anyhoo, it's a nifty little number, despite -- or maybe because of -- those borrowed riffs. I highly recommend. If the Police intend to make a comeback, they could do worse than have these guys as their "featured artists" (and leave Elvis to headline his own shows, please). Only catch is, the Police would really have to bring their game up to outdo the kids.

Walking On the Moon sample

Walkin' On the Sun sample

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Dance This Mess Around" /
The B-52s

Good news, America -- the B-52s will be releasing a new album on March 25th, their first in 16 years. I take that as a sign that, despite all signs to the contrary, life on Planet Earth will prevail. You know, when you think about it, they first surfaced in the late 70s and early 80s, another crummy era in American history -- maybe there's some correlation. Alls I know is, we need the B-52s' special brand of F-U-N now more than ever.

Nowadays, if a band this wacky appeared on the scene (yes, Panic! at the Disco, I'm looking at you), you'd suspect they were crafted and market-tested. But when I first saw the B-52s pony out onto the stage in Central Park in 1979, it never crossed my mind that they were anybody's shrewd invention. Those beehive wigs on Kate and Cindy, Fred with his lounge-lizard slink, and above all that strange spaceage-retrobop sound -- it worked because they themselves were having more fun than anybody else at the concert. Sure, there was a big wink to everything they did, but it was never a smirk. Anybody who wanted to jump up and do all 16 dances along with them was welcome into the tribe.

Their debut album started out with four songs that were just killers: "Planet Claire," "52 Girls," "Dance This Mess Around," and then "Rock Lobster," each one a little weirder than the one before it. It was a whole party on one convenient black vinyl disc -- indeed, every party I went to in those days started and ended with it. Even now, I have a hard time hearing one track without expecting the next one to follow.

On one level, "Dance This Mess Around" is just another catchy jukebox filler, the bratty younger sibling to "Land of a Thousand Dances." Mentioning all those outmoded dances was a no-brainer, given their 60s-style visual look. For the record, here are all the dances they list: the Shu-ga-loo, the Shy Tuna, the Camel Walk, the Hip-o-crit, the Coo-ca-choo, the Aqua-velva, the Dirty Dog, the Escalator...even if you throw in the Hippy-Hippy-Shake and the Shake-Bake from the chorus, that's not 16. But who's counting? They could have made them up for all I know, or care. But they sure looked great on stage.

There's a completely phony haze of nostalgia laid on for good measure -- "Remember when you held my hand / Remember when you were my man / Walk talk in the name of love / Before you break my heart" -- classic girl-group crap. But there's no wall of sound here, just a spare surf-guitar line and lockstep drumming and occasional snaking around on the keyboards (this song had electronica down way before anybody gave it a name) and Cindy's stylized screams -- Ronnie Spector would never have done that to her voice. And Fred Schneider's, um, singing -- yeah, that was something new, all right.

Somewhere halfway through, there's a long section -- this song does seem longer than it is, but in a good way -- where Cindy keeps repeating "Why don't you dance with me? / I'm not no limberger!" For the longest time, I couldn't believe she was singing about smelly cheese; I assumed she was singing, "I'm not a limber girl." But of course, limberger was exactly what Cindy felt like, so why not?

That big Why Not? -- that was the essence of the B-52s. I always had the idea that they knew they were a novelty act, and never wanted to be anything else. The first time I saw them they shared the bill with the Talking Heads, who were still in their art-school geek phase, and both acts were smart and post-modern and extremely danceable. Then David Byrne had to turn himself into a Serious Artiste . . . well, I'm forever grateful to the B-52s for sticking to their dance-pop guns. The idea that they're still around, still turning every concert into a big goofy party, makes me very happy indeed.

Now doesn't that make you feel a lot better? (What you say?) I'm just askin'!

Dance This Mess Around sample

Friday, March 14, 2008

"Drive South" / John Hiatt

Sometimes when a John Hiatt song comes up on my iPod, I wonder why I ever listen to anybody else. My homeboy Hiatt has a way of pouring straight into my heart and soul and guts, and I'm utterly resistless.

One of the things I love about "Drive South" is that it's a car song and a love song, where the crazy joy of hitting the road is perfectly mingled with the crazy joy of being in love. He wants the girl, hell yeah, but he also really wants the car. The tempo has energy, but it's still relaxed enough to give you a smooth ride, and those drums tick along like a well-tuned carburetor. Sonny Landreth's little fills on the steel guitar flick in and out like tree branches and fence posts whipping past. And when John slides into that chorus -- "C'mon baby, drive south / With the one you love" -- he lands on "south" and "love" with such soaring relief, it's like stepping on the gas. I get images of old Chevy commercials from the 60s, back in the days when we didn't worry about how many miles per gallon a car got.

And it's got that great ordinary folks touch that made this whole album, Slow Turning, such a keeper. It's perfectly realistic -- "I didn't say we wouldn't hurt anymore," he tells her from the get-go (love that miserable yelp on "hurt"), and he keeps bringing it up -- "We were always looking for true north" or "We've been trying to turn our lives around / Since we were little kids / It's been wearing us down." Sure, the trunk of their car is full of baggage. But that doesn't mean you have to give up, he insists. "We don't have to feel like dirt anymore / Though love's not earned, / Baby, it's our turn." John Hiatt understands more about how grace operates than most theologians, doesn't he?

Sure, there's a little defiance here -- "Gonna take our stand / In this Chevy van" -- but he tempers it with an infectious hunger for happiness: "Windows open on the rest of the world/ Holding hands / All the way to Dixieland." There's something old-fashioned and sweet there that really gets to me.

But the part that really gets to me? It's in the bridge, when John adds, in his growly register, "We could go down with a smile on / Don't bother to pack your nylons / Just leave those pretty legs showing / It gets hot down where we're going!" Whew. You know, I don't have my usual fangirl crush on John Hiatt -- I just love his music, honestly -- but every once in a while, he comes off with a line that just explodes with sexiness, and I'm thrown seriously off course. Oh, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny . . . let's hit the road, darlin'.

Drive South sample

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Yesterday" / Marvin Gaye

Usually, Beatles covers are disappointing things to me -- the Beatles did those songs up right the first time, and they just can't be topped. True, I'm not very objective on this subject. Those were the songs I lived on throughout my formative musical years; every riff and drumbeat and vocal flutter is engraved on my heart.

Occasionally, however, I'm forced to make an exception--and this is one of them. I found it on an CD called Motown Meets the Beatles, most of which is just as embarrassing as you'd expect. Did the world really need to hear the Supremes murder "A Hard Day's Night," or Smokey Robinson over-emote his way through "And I Love Her"? But there are a couple revelations on there -- like when Gladys Knight frees the gospel that was always lurking inside "Let It Be," and Stevie Wonder takes "We Can Work It Out" all the way to Funkytown and back. Delicious.

The one that really surprised me, though, is this Marvin Gaye rendition of "Yesterday." Now you know I'm a tough audience for "Yesterday" -- my memory of watching Paul McCartney sit on a stool with an acoustic guitar and croon that on the Ed Sullivan Show is . . . ummmm . . . excuse me, what was I saying? Oh, yes. Well, Paulie stole my heart forever with that song, which was (little known fact) written just for me. It's OUR SONG, and nobody else is supposed to touch it. And yet here comes Marvin Gaye, whose outsized talent I've never quite been able to process, and he dug right down into that lovely little folk-rock ballad and re-invented it as a quintessential soul song. And you know what? It works.

First off, he slows down the tempo, gives it some slinky syncopation, and underlays it with a supremely laidback twangy guitar line. Suddenly there's room to slip in interstices of regret between the phrases -- I can just picture Marvin pausing to shake his head, bite his lip, still trying to sort out why today isn't the same as yesterday. At first his voice floats lightly over the lyrics -- " Yesterday / All my troubles seem so far away" -- it still hasn't sunk in. But by verse two, he's flinging his voice ahead of the tempo, and embellishing Paul's simple sincere lyrics: "Suddenly, people, / I ain't half the man I used to be, no, / There's a heavy, heavy shadow hanging over me-e / Yesterday came all too suddenly."

Self-pity? You bet. But it unleashes a falsetto wail on the bridge: "Oh-oh-oh why-y did she have to go? I don't know / I say I don't know, the little girl wouldn't say / I must, I must have said something wrong / Now I long, long, long for yesterday . . ." And in the same vein, on the third verse, he's writhing with pain, "Now I nee-eed, I need a place to hide away." I certainly believe him. This was given the full Motown Important Song treatment, with swelling strings and xylophones, but it never gets overdone, and the passion in Marvin's exquisite supple voice more than lives up to the production values.

Now, I'm not saying it's better than the McCartney version -- that would be sacrilege. But the point of being a great songwriter should be that your songs stand on their own, that other artists can find different depths in them. (Look at how many fantastic Kinks covers are out there, for example.) I guess the Beatles just cast too long a shadow over their songs, even the minor ones. It's hard for other artists to ignore that definitive Beatle rendition and make it their own. But Marvin Gaye was never short of confidence -- he must have known he had the voice to pull this one off. And oh, what a glorious thing it is.

Yesterday sample

Friday, March 07, 2008

"Beautiful Shock" / Robyn Hitchcock


Trolling around, looking for samples to post for you good folks, I discovered -- gadzooks! -- a new Robyn Hitchcock album was released last month. How could this have happened without my knowing about it? You can't turn your back on this man for a minute.

I can only admire the unfiltered creative impulses that allow Robyn Hitchcock to record and release so much material. (If only Ray Davies and Nick Lowe were this prolific.) True, not all of it is polished, tight songwriting, but then that's never been Robyn's strong suit anyway.

I've only just downloaded this album, Shadow Cat (couldn't wait for the physical CD to be delivered), and I'm still getting acquainted with it -- still testing the beds, turning on the faucets, poking into its closets. I've found with Robyn Hitchcock that the songs that eventually become my favorites don't necessarily hook me on the first listen; his music tends to enter my consciousness by mysterious passageways. Still, my first impressions tell me I'm going to like this album A LOT.

It's definitely a solo album, mostly just Robyn with an acoustic guitar. "Beautiful Shock," though, goes electric. When you listen to the lyrics, you see that was the only way, since the song is all about electricity. (A song about electricity? What is it with Robyn Hitchcock and science?) "Electricity doesn't bother me at all," Robyn starts out, his vocal breathy and conspiring. "You can turn it on / And it flows out of the wall / You can fry a man with the law on your side" -- that makes me sit up and take notice; electricity is dangerous, for true.

But from there on, it turns into a love song, and a pretty cool one, with a softly exultant chorus: "What a beautiful shock / Every moment I've got /I'm with you." Verse two is especially winning: "How did I get here? I was staring at your hair / Next thing I recall we were sharing the same bed / And the bathroom too, and the garden outside as well / Electricity was just lurking inside." Isn't that just the way love happens? I mean the long-term kind of love, the kind that doesn't usually lend itself to rock songs (not unless you're Marshall Crenshaw or Paul McCartney).

Robyn gives it his usual fresh twist, of course: "I remember you, even though you haven't gone / I remember you, you were someone remote from me / Now you hold my hand very naturally." Those deeper connections--sure, they evolve gradually, but there are moments when it takes you by surprise, and it IS a beautiful shock. There's such a giddy energy to this track, with a jubilantly jumpy melodic line and pulsating jangly guitar strums. A few clangy riffs beam in from time to time too, vibrating like radio signals. It's a very . . . well, electric number.

But hey, I've gotta go, kids. I've got a new album to explore.

Beautiful Shock sample

Thursday, March 06, 2008

"Give It To the Soft Boys" / The Soft Boys


When necessary, of course, Robyn Hitchcock can rock out like nobody's business. Exhibit A: this 1:36 track from 1977, when he was with a sorta-punk band called the Soft Boys. I say sorta-punk because their music's just too goofy to fit the punk mold; it was stripped-down and loud, but without all that baggage of rebel angst and political defiance. I mean, who could take seriously a punk band called The Soft Boys? I read somewhere a description of them as psych-punk. That fits as well as anything, I'd say.

This song doesn't have much to it except a very catchy repeated bass hook, a primitive drum beat, and occasional passages of chugging guitar strums; Robyn lets loose with a couple of manic primal squeals as well. Beyond that, it's Robyn reeling through the sort of non-sequiturs that have become his stock in trade: "Feel like asking a tree for an autograph / And I feel like making love to a photograph / Photographs don't smell." I guess you could make a case for that being punk; it's anti-social, all right -- that is, it would be if Robyn sounded halfway serious. Which he doesn't.

Verse three pretends to explain things, but it just goes off into wacky-land: "Well hard boys groove and white boys masturbate / But them soft boys wind up with, uh, Dr. Messerschmidt / He just one-o-nines 'em." Whaa--? It might make sense if we knew who Dr. Messerschmidt was; maybe he's a shrink, maybe a tense German doctor with a duelling scar, an expert in torture methods that don't show bruises. And does anybody have any idea what "109-ing" someone is? I don't, but plenty of weird things come to mind.

Nevertheless. This song is way too gleeful, too madcap, to resist. "Give it to the Soft Boys!" he crows in the chorus, after that oddball scream. Give what to the Soft Boys? Whatever you want.

NOTE: This Give It To the Soft Boys sample is the best I could find, but it's a live version done 30 years later by Hitchcock with the Venus 3, not nearly the pared-down little beauty you'll find on Can of Bees or that must-have Soft Boys compilation 1976-1981. Still, you get the bass riff and the scream.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

“I’m Only You” / Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians


As if his lyrics weren't weird enough, Robyn Hitchcock's knack for hypnotic riffs has a way of divorcing me from reality even more. Like this cut, from the marvelously baroque album Fegmania: It's Robyn at his psych-folk best, and I love how its curling riffs intertwine, with just enough dissonance to send me swirling.

The Egyptians were Robyn's band in the 1980s, after the Soft Boys and before his current mates the Venus 3; that's about all I know about them. (And no, I'm not going to Google them; the whole point of my Robyn Hitchcock journey is that it just happens as it happens.) It's still Robyn playing that jangly descending riff, I assume, and Robyn's breathy, longing lead vocal.

At least it's breathy and longing on the--well, you can't really call it a verse, it's just an unrhymed string of self-descriptions, shapeshifting images like "I'm a willow bending in your mind" and "I'm a house that burns down every night for you" and "I'm a liquid you're dissolving in" and "I'm a finger drawing on a frosty window pane." (The pair that resonate the most for me: "I'm a policeman working in an empty house / I'm a distant steeple on a long-deserted plain" -- strictly speaking as a fangirl, I find those incredibly sexy). These lines float upward, spinning off into space like milkweed puffs. It's intoxicating.

But then periodically, Robyn flips over to a more driving electric riff and a snider, harder singing voice to deliver a more conventional pop line: "Sometimes when I'm lonely, / Baby, then I'm only / You." That only/lonely rhyme may be the whole point of this song, but the more I think about it, the more bizarre it seems. Only you? Wow, how many pop songs have been written declaring that the guy loves the girl so much, they become each other, forever and ever? And now here's Robyn Hitchcock saying that happens only when he's feeling lonely, and even then, it's a grudging, limited phenomenon. I'll admit it, that piques my interest. After all, aren't the really interesting people in life the ones like this, who can't be pinned down?

I suppose he could be saying that when he gets lonely, he completely submerges his identity in her -- as in, "when I'm lonely there's nothing else of me but the part that's you." That's a nice thought, too (though my gut tells me it's too mushy, given the harsh vocals and the downward scoops of the melody). But while I'm pondering this, the guitar line and organ are getting all tangled and mystical and I lose my train of thought. This song makes me want to stare into a candle flame, or lie on my back under a sky full of stars, or ride a train at night past the lit windows of people I'll never meet. It's pretty heady stuff.

Now what I can't figure out is, why am I so enthralled with this? Usually I like my pop music in three verses and a bridge, preferably three minutes or less, with a tight framework of images and metaphor and a clear line of development from verse one to verse three. I'm a girl who hates long rambling instrumental solos. But I could listen to this guy ramble on until the cows come home. It's a mystery, sure 'nuff -- a wondrous mystery.

I'm Only You sample

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"I Saw Nick Drake" / Robyn Hitchcock


I myself have never gotten on the Nick Drake bandwagon, but if Robyn Hitchcock tells me to, I will.

In my first frenzy of discovering Robyn Hitchcock, I downloaded this acoustic track from his 2000 release A Star for Bram; I must admit I can't tell you what the rest of the album is like. (I'm trying so hard not to get all completist and crazy about Robyn Hitchcock). But here's Robyn
in acoustic mode, impersonating a folkie singer-songwriter--just like, oh I don't know, Nick Drake? Considering that Robyn's just the right age to have "discovered" Nick Drake as a teenager, and to have been shattered by his early death (there's a Cambridge connection as well), this homage makes perfect sense. What's especially lovely is that it doesn't try to "define" Drake, it's just (another) slightly off-kilter Robyn Hitchcock meditation on life and art.

Part the genius of this song is that wistful acoustic riff that dances through it; that's the bit that sticks in my mind the most. I won't try to convince you that Robyn Hitchcock is an underrated guitarist -- don't expect blistering solos or turned-up-to-eleven power chords from him -- but certain little things he does guitar-wise seem just brilliant to me.

I read somewhere that Robyn wrote this song while riding on a barge down the Thames, which makes sense of the opening line: "I saw Nick Drake / At the corner of time and motion." (I think he's referring to Einstein's explanation of relativity, though let's face it, Robyn probably doodled his way through high school science and doesn't understand relativity any more than I do.)
In this dreamlike alternate universe, Nick and Robyn catch each other's eye, and Robyn blurts out just the sort of thing any of us would say on meeting our heroes for the first time: "I said 'You're tall' / He said 'No taller than tomorrow's ocean.'" See the river flowing into the ocean? As an old English major, if I ran into this line in Baudelaire or John Ashbery I could interpret the hell out of it. That's the mark of a real poet, that Hitchcock knows not to mess with a line like that.

In our next scene, Robyn sees Nick Drake again,"As we were carrying the ice together." There's a party going on, maybe, but there's death in that "ice" too. "I saw his face / Beneath the glass," Robyn adds -- already Nick is slipping into another dimension (that glass could be ice, or the water's surface). Next there's a lovely riddling nostalgic line: "He lived in sound / And all the strawberries of English weather." We're sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun, and evanescent shadows are flitting all around us, and jeez, I'm beginning to miss Nick Drake too, to miss him like crazy.

"The habits of a lifetime / Will lay you low / Into your grave," Robyn muses in the last verse -- a reference, I guess, to poor depressive Nick Drake's death, a drug overdose/suicide. At this point, I don't know if the song's about Nick Drake or about Robyn himself. I just know that it's oddly uplifting, as if Nick Drake's benificent spirit could come floating through our lives again at any time.

So now which do I do -- go order the complete works of Nick Drake, or download the rest of A Star For Bram? It's a toss-up...

I Saw Nick Drake sample

Monday, March 03, 2008

“Furry Green Atom Bowl” / Robyn Hitchcock


Today Robyn Hitchcock turns a cool 55, so, you guessed it, here comes my First Annual Robyn Hitchcock Week. Just think, a year ago I didn’t even know who Robyn Hitchcock was, and now I’m a completely rabid fan. (Don’t come too close or I’ll bite.)

Forget about the hits -- as if he had ever had any– the beauty of Robyn Hitchcock lies in the weirdest tracks on his most obscure albums. Like right now I’m listening to “Furry Green Atom Bowl,” from his 1984 acoustic album I Only Dream of Trains, just one of the five tasty discs in his recent box set I Wanna Go Backwards. This song isn’t just acoustic, it’s a capella, and with a crew of mates singing the call-and-response (either that or Robyn double-tracking his own nasal, half-tuned voice). Whoever's singing, the fact that the song makes no sense doesn’t seem to faze anybody.

Ready for the lyrics? Fasten your seat belt. It starts out with a gross-out image -- "Furry green eye /In a furry green hole / It's a furry green atom bowl." And so on and so forth, a disgusting slide show of dust and verdigris and dead bugs and exploding casseroles. I'm starting to picture that old yogurt I took out of my fridge last week, the one that was a month past the sell-by date. Eventually the devil shows up, sniffing the casserole, and then "The black was hungry when it came down / So it ate the world for miles around." (Love the vocal klaxon effect on "around.") Now there's an apocalyptic vision for you.

"Sticky black meat / Will flood your street / Sticky black oil / Will boil your soil" - now he's just having fun, in his wicked droll way, playing with whatever rhymes. "Furry green eggs / On furry green legs" -- Dr. Seuss couldn't have done better. And while there's not much to be said for the melody, I can't help but get sucked into its singsongy cadences (it feels like men going off in the woods to smear mud on their faces and beat drums). "Gonna shake my pie, / Gonna bake my soul / It's a crusty old pie / But it's a crusty old world" and then we go beneath the earth's crust for gross close-ups of roots and bulbs, which somehow transmogrifies into the repeated chant "there's roots in the earth and kidneys in the body" over and over. And, er, that's where it ends.

It's one-third Le Chien Andalou, one-third a science-class film strip, one-third the Zappa-esque ramblings of that pothead down the hall from you in college. He even sings in funny voices, like characters out of Firesign Theater. If the guy was trying to be arty, it would be obnoxious -- but he's just being Robyn, free-associating and messing around, and finding a peculiar jazzy pleasure in it. Why I love it, I don't know, but I do.

Furry Green Atom Bowl sample

Saturday, March 01, 2008

"Because" / The Dave Clark Five

In memory of Mike Smith, 1943-2008

Sure, they weren't the Beatles, but in those first few months after the British Invasion hit America, we seriously thought of the Dave Clark Five as the Beatles' main competition. They were turning out catchy, melodic hit singles with nice vocal harmonies and punchy drumming (Dave Clark himself was the drummer), and until it became clear that they hadn't the Beatles' range, we were ready to buy them. Speaking strictly as a pre-teen fan, the Dave Clark Five met my chief requirement: they had a cute lead singer with a powerful, gritty voice. (I'm just realizing that my Patrick McGoohan crush was based on how much he looked like Mike Smith.) If I had abandoned the Beatles, it would have been because of Mike Smith.

Mike Smith died of pneumonia last Thursday, the last of many complications from a spinal cord injury he sustained in 2003. Heartbreakingly, that injury occurred only a few months after he'd returned to performing, and then lost his only son in a scuba diving accident. Yeesh. I contributed to the worldwide Mike Smith relief effort by attending a benefit concert here in New York in summer 2005 (Peter & Gordon, the Zombies, Denny Laine, the Fab Faux -- a truly fantastic concert). Every band on the bill performed a different DC5 hit, which really brought home to me how many there had been -- four Top Ten singles in 1964 alone. "Because" was the fourth, and the first to try a softer, more ballad-like approach. I guess when your band leader is a drummer (Clark even set up his drum kit at the front of the stage, ahead of Smith's keyboards), you emphasize the drum-heavy dance numbers.

"Because" is a lovely change of pace; maybe they should have done more of this sort of stuff. The sentiment is simple, unclouded, and straightforward, in a way that Lennon-McCartney love songs rarely were (compare this to "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You"): "It's right that I should care about you / And try to make you happy when you’re blue / It’s right, it’s right / To feel the way I do/ Because, because / I love you." There's a hint of friction in the bridge, but in the second verse, his devotion is back on track: "Give me one kiss and I’ll be happy / Just, just to be with you / Give me, give me, / A chance to be near you / Because, because / I love you." Mike even got to do an organ solo in the middle.

I love the shifting chord progressions of the vocal harmonies on those repeated phrases, the "it's right's" and "give me's" and, of course, the repeated "because's." It's not like Roger Daltry's stutter in "My Generation," more as if by saying it twice, the guy can convince her how sincere he is. But the thing that really sells this song is Smith's slightly husky voice, the urgency underlying every crescendo. As a love song, it just works.

I'm surprised this track isn't featured on more British Beat compilations; I had a hard time finding a source for you to listen to it, though the source I finally found -- Dave Clark's website -- has a cool jukebox that'll let you listen to lots more DC5 material. Clark was always a sharp businessman, and possibly he's controlling the rights to these tracks so tightly, he may have cheated this band out of their rightful place in the 60s pantheon. The Dave Clark Five is finally due to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 10; Mike came so close to getting there at last. It makes me sad all over.

"Because" on the Dave Clark jukebox