Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Something To Talk About" / Bonnie Raitt

Meg Griffin played this this afternoon on Sirius Disorder, and I immediately felt a rush of warm feelings -- towards Bonnie, toward Meg, and even toward Sirius for hiring a DJ like Meg who will play this sort of music.

When I was in college, Bonnie Raitt was just starting out -- all we knew was that this chick had dropped out of Harvard to go play blues guitar (which even in 1973 seemed quintessentially pure and cool ) -- and one afternoon there she was, playing at the outdoor amphitheater at my school. Can you imagine, opening your dorm window and hearing Bonnie Raitt playing live 200 yards away? Well, I suppose it could be annoying if you were studying for finals, but I wasn't -- it was a warm spring Saturday afternoon and I had a cold six-pack (my junior year, I was trying to cultivate being a beer drinker) and I just popped a brew and climbed out on the roof outside my room and dug it. Ah, those were the days.

Now jump forward to the summer of 2007, when three girlfriends and I met up in Central Park to hear Bonnie in concert. Well, actually we went to hear her opening act, the divine Keb' Mo' (I have a deeply irrational thing for Keb' Mo'), but by the time Bonnie sauntered out on stage, we were so primed to hear some kick-ass blues, we couldn't have been a more eager audience. And I was just
pulverized by the entire gestalt of Bonnie Raitt -- this flame-haired beauty in blue jeans, ripping off mean licks on her guitar, leaning so casually into the mike and wailing unbelievably passionate vocals. I hazily recall making all sorts of secret feminist pacts with myself that night; well, maybe not so secret, since my girlfriends and I repaired afterward to a bar and misbehaved disgracefully. No matter. Bonnie still represents to me some shining Follows Her Own Muse ideal that I'm still very far from attaining.

This song? I have to admit, it's not one of my favorite Bonnie Raitt songs, probably since it was the theme song for a Julia Roberts movie. I know that's not fair -- the movie was inspired by the song, not the other way around, and anyhow I have never been able to justify my Julia Roberts aversion (jeez, the woman was married to Lyle Lovett once, there's got to be something good in her). But it's more likely my old prejudice against Top 40 hits. When I think about it, this song expresses just exactly the same saucy, self-possessed attitude that I love Bonnie for. (A lot more so than the woman-as-victim anthem "I Can't Make You Love Me," Bonnie's other big hit -- which, I don't care, I still love).

And listening to it in the car this afternoon, I heard whole new dimensions I'd never noticed. Yeah, it's about an affair, but we're catching it right on the threshold, still charged with danger and eager excitement. In the first verse, she's viewing how other people see them ("We laugh just a little too loud / We stand just a little too close / We stare just a little too long") and I don't know, there's something awfully sexy about that -- as if she's been so deep into the laughing and standing close and staring that she had
no idea where it was leading. We're catching her right at the tipping point -- "It took a rumor to make me wonder / Now I'm convinced I'm going under" -- and her reckless vocals and woozy bluesy guitar give it an extra hell-yeah juiciness. It's very clear where this thing will end up, but it's not there yet -- things are still throbbing and vibrating between them.

I'm thinking now of Keats' "Ode On a Grecian Urn" (sorry, but I wrote my senior thesis on Keats and it
stuck) -- about the poignance of freezing a moment in time. In the world of this song, these lovers will always have the hots for each other -- they won't have to deal with pissing each other off, or finally noticing each other's flaws, or betraying other people. We, of course, know that all that crap is bound to ensue. We sympathetically exult with them, at the same time as we cringe for them.

All that, in one pop song?
Why not?

Something To Talk About sample

Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Travelling Alone" / Ron Sexsmith

Suddenly I'm inundated with new releases. There's Paul Weller's 22 Dreams (baffling but brilliant, on first listen), The Hard Way by the amazing British retro soul singer James Hunter, Last Days at the Lodge by Amos Lee (produced by Don Was, who brings out Lee's soul side to the max), the Old 97s Blame It On Gravity, John Hiatt's cantankerously marvelous Same Old Man, and a new outing by those adorable Fratellis (my son's still hogging that CD, but I hope to get my hands on it soon. I knew there was a reason I should never have cultivated his great taste in music).

But we are here tonight, oh my brothers and sisters, to sing the praises of Canada's greatest gift to songwriting, Mr. Ron Sexsmith. Yes, I say that with all due respect for Fred Eaglesmith and Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot and Jesse Winchester and even Neil Young. But come on, folks, Ron Sexsmith. If you don't know this guy's work, get your butt right now over to Amazon or Rhapsody or iTunes or wherever you shop for music these days. He's got a new album out called Exit Strategy of the Soul, and it's a gorgeous thing indeed.

It's not just because Ron is a Ray Davies fan (the twelve words of conversation I've ever had with the man were almost all about our mutual worship of the King Kink). And it's not just because two of my personal musical gods, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, have covered Sexsmith's songs. Those may be the avenues which led me to discover his music, but by now I've acquired most of his albums (I do tend to get on a roll sometimes) and I can say unequivocally that this guy touches my soul the way few other artists do. He just seems like a beautiful human being, and that's refracted through all of his tender, thoughtful, incredibly melodic music.

Exit Strategy of the Soul is, like the title suggests, more about spirituality than about getting a girl to sleep with him -- which makes it a refreshing change of pace. (Ron's been waltzing around religious issues for years, though always delicately.) "Traveling Alone" could be a brooding, gloomy meditation on human isolation, but he's done something brilliant instead -- matched it with a gently loping rhythm and an upbeat melody full of bright vocal trills that tempers the existential message with a sort of Buddhist acceptance.

"With my free hand I'll flag it down / This oncoming day/ I hitch a ride far from this town / Be on my way," he begins, setting us up for the metaphor of life as a journey that runs through the song. (Songwriting Craftsmanship 101: Pick a line of imagery and stick with it.) But rather than focus on the machismo loner, almost at once he's searching the faces of his fellow travelers, with a gentle melancholy that really gets to me. ("In this world of beginners / Singled out, their faces unknown / These saints and these sinners /Agendas of their own / All traveling alone." Later, he depicts them on a train -- "This train is full of folks who keep to themselves /These faces in windows, heading out for places unknown" -- such a poignant snapshot, it reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel's "America".

Human fellowship? Don't count on it, Sexsmith tells us gently -- "We're in this together / With hangups of our own" (I love how he lets that paradox hover, unresolved). And later in the song, "It's one on one -- /You and your soul, and nobody else." But there's no scolding here, just Ron's warm, sympathetic vibrato, soothing female back-up vocals, and a comforting repeated riff doubled on guitar and electric piano.

It's an intriguing dialectic, between the tough-love message and the sweet folky arrangement. He's not going to hand us off some cheap tripe about human fellowship: "Though lives intermingle / Our thoughts are left to roam / All traveling alone."

It's easy to listen to Ron Sexsmith's choirboy voice and lush melodies and think he's a saccharine optimist, but nothing could be farther from the truth. His matter-of-fact approach to this human loneliness is pretty bleak, when you really think about it. But of course you do have to think about it (heavens!). Maybe they should put a warning label on this album: CAUTION -- MAY CAUSE YOU TO CHANGE YOUR VALUE SYSTEM. There used to be a time, you know, when music was supposed to do that.

Traveling Alone sample

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"She Loves the Sunset" /
The Old 97s

Here they are again -- didn't I write about these guys, like, two weeks ago? But I've been doing a little housecleaning on my iTunes, and when I got to the Old 97s' most recent album, Blame It On Gravity, I found it just about impossible to prune down the numbers of tracks I'm keeping on my hard drive. And I'll let you know, I'm generally ruthless when it comes to editing the music on my hard drive.

"She Loves the Sunset" is the kind of song you want to play LOUD out the window on a summer afternoon like today. That cha-cha-cha beat is irresistible, though the pedal steel keeps it twangy; Rhett Miller's vocals lay on just enough ironic exaggeration to keep the alt in their sound. What's it about? Why, nothing much -- loving a girl who loves the sunset is about the extent of it. But the guy sounds so exhilarated, so dumbfounded by his own good luck, that it gets by on charm alone.

The more I listen, though, the more complicated this blissed-out love seems. First of all, the girl's got some issues: "She loves the sunset / She loves the cocktail bell / She loves the trembling, that evening brings, / Or might as well" -- he knows perfectly well that she's a teensy bit of a head case. (Aren't we all?) But he still loves her. Now I'm nervous -- is this love reciprocated? But no, verse two tells us: "She loves the sunset / She loves me also" (whew!). They seem well-matched -- "She loves me trembling, /And everything, oh I can tell / There is no other man in her dreams / Although every so often it seems -- " Then he breaks off, unable to complete that thought; instead he stubbornly repeats, "I love a girl / She loves the sunset."

"Oh, it’s the simple things," he declares in the bridge, " oh, but simple things are scarce / You’ve got to figure out / About what, and for whom, you care." Tangled grammar aside, he's getting at something important -- sometimes the best course in love is just to close your eyes and go with it.

In verse three, he stubbornly declares, "Let's say the trembling / That evening brings, / Is just the cold." (I love the way he carries that loaded noun "trembling" through all three verses -- that's craftsmanship.) Yep, he's made up his mind to be in love, and nothing's going to stop him. "I hope I’ll always be by her side," he adds, slowing down gingerly as he reflects, "Even if I’m just along for the ride . . . ." You can almost see him shake himself, then launch back into "I love a girl / She loves the sunset." It's the power of positive thinking.

A final cha-cha-cha and one last echoing twang, and they're outta here. Perfect.

She Loves the Sunset sample

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"Love Me Dead" / Ludo

The first couple of times I heard this song on the radio, I wasn't sure I liked it -- the lead singer's voice was whiny and neurotic, a little like John Linnell of They Might Be Giants crossed with Freddie from Freddie and the Dreamers. "I love you, you're awful," he's yelping to his girlfriend; "You're hideous, and sexy." Well, make up your mind! I wanted to tell him.

Then I saw the video, and realized that Ludo's front man/songwriter Andrew Volpe is completely digging the comedy. Dressed in a sort of PeeWee Herman gray suit, he's sitting anxiously on a sofa, emoting extravagantly as he sings. It's not exactly a novelty number, but it's tongue-in-cheek all right. And...well, what can I say? He wears glasses. I have a long history of falling for singers in glasses.

I've read a few disparaging reviews of Ludo's current album, You're Awful, I Love You, that claim that Volpe has sold out, gone commercial, lost his quirky indie integrity. But I don't know; I like several tracks from this album, even more than the earlier ones on iTunes. Since when was being accessible a bad thing? They're tuneful, rhythmic pop, smartly packaged. Maybe it's that Midwestern sense of humor I love (most of the band is from St. Louis), which sails right past some critics.

The lyrics are still subversively clever. From that very first alliterative line -- "Love me cancerously / Like a salt-sore soaked in the sea" -- you know you're dealing with a snarky sensibility. He throws plenty of nasty adjectives at his, um, love interest -- "gluttonous," "narcissistic," "parasite, psycho, filthy" -- but he delivers it in such a drama-queen manner, you just know he's hung up on her anyway. "Kill me romantically," he pleads, as if writhing in exquisite torment; "Fill my soul with vomit / Then ask me for a piece of gum. / Bitter and dumb / You're my sugarplum. / You're awful, I love you!" Even as he lambasts her, he's making an ironic spectacle of himself.

In the chorus, he almost sounds as if he's seguing into something a little more tender: "She moves through moonbeams slowly / She knows just how to hold me / And when her edges soften...," only to flip it around suddenly with a rhyme: "her body is my coffin." And off he goes on another paranoid tangent. This cracks me up.

The arrangement is funhouse loony, too, with jabbing minor-key organ chords, ominous backup harmonies, and a lockstep marching rhythm that just hints at delirium. You almost expect a wheezy ocarina and maniacal giggling -- more than a little Rocky Horror Picture Show. This is fun, folks, a goofy way to express the sick ambivalence of an unhealthy love affair, taking the "Cruel to Be Kind" concept down some dark side alley. I perk up when it comes on the radio now. At any rate, it makes a nice change from the endless round of Coldplay.

Love Me Dead sample

Monday, July 21, 2008

"Can't Stop Thinking About Her" / The Red Button

I go back and forth on this group. When my friend Frank suggested I listen to their song "Cruel Girl," I liked it instantly, and their other songs sounded so good (at least in 30-sec0ond preview bites), I decided to download the whole album. Just the sort of catchy, melodic pop I tend to like.

Then I googled around and learned a little more about the band. It's really two guys, Seth Swirsky and Mike Ruekberg, a pair of veteran L.A. songwriters/session men. (Mike's the one with the glasses; I'm a sucker for rockers in glasses.) I dig the fact that they've bonded over their love of classic pop love songs, but somehow it troubles me that these guys are seasoned pros and not some callow kids. Maybe it's because these songs celebrate the kind of exuberant over-the-top love that only adolescents believe in (and frankly, these days even adolescents seem to know better). These songs just don't seem to come from the heart -- but hey, I could be wrong.

I can't help being pulled in by well-crafted lyrics like these: "She’s stuck in my head like a beautiful song /I’ve tried to fight it, now I’m singing along," or "She holds my attention, she breaks my resolve / She poses more problems than I’ll ever solve." If anybody ever described me with phrases like "her impossible hair, her curious mouth /She’s a jigsaw puzzle that I can’t figure out" I'd be damn flattered. But does it really say anything new about love? (Am I asking too much?)

And it's such a lusciously produced track -- a dense tapestry of jangly guitar and floaty vocal harmonies -- there isn't a whiff of anything neurotic about this guy's obsession (just compare it to the tantalizing sickness of Elvis Costello's "I Want You" or the Police's "Every Breath You Take"). Sorry, but I can't help longing for a little modern neurosis. Even Marshall Crenshaw lets a little neurosis seep in under the surface of his retro pop songs.

Then there's the question of borrowed riffs. The guitar intro to this song gets me all primed to hear the Byrd's "Mr. Tambourine Man" -- I feel a flicker of disappointment when it isn't. Call it "homage" if you like, but the echoes of other artists on this album end up just distracting me -- the Buckinghams and the Beatles and the Association and the Lovin' Spoonful all dance through the Red Button's sound. They even throw in some Herb Alpert-style horns here and there. The result sounds great -- but are they creatively re-using tried-and-true pop elements, or triggering a knee-jerk aural response by recyling familiar riffs?

And yet, and yet, and yet -- am I too jaded? This is an incredibly sunny, tuneful number, and it's stuck now in my head good and proper. Like the singer croons so earnestly in the bridge, "I was hoping to use my head today / For anything else instead today / But there’s only room for her." I can't get this happy tune out of my head, either. For that alone, the Red Button deserve a high-five.

Can't Stop Thinking About Her sample

Monday, July 14, 2008

“One On One” /

Daryl Hall & John Oates

I hadn’t thought about Hall & Oates for years. Then someone sent me a link to Daryl Hall’s webcast “Live From Daryl’s House” -- basically an at-home jam session with whatever guest star he’s invited over. The session I saw was with Nick Lowe (well, why else would someone send me a link?), and it was dynamite -- and not just because I love Nick. The harmonies Daryl laid onto Nick’s songs were simply divine. Daryl went way beyond what Nick’s bandmates sang on “Cruel to Be Kind” – he added syncopations and modalities no one had ever dreamed of before, a complete revelation. His voice is still angelically pure, and soulful as hell.

I found myself flashing back to 1972, when I first heard Hall & Oates’ debut album, Whole Oats, a beautiful hybrid of folk and Philly soul. When they hit their commercial groove in the late 70s I felt letdown, though like everyone else I was eventually seduced by their catchy pop hooks and videogenic shag haircuts. I even interviewed them in the early 80s, when I was a green young journalist, and they were perfectly pleasant, just a pair of decent working musicians milking the money cow until she ran dry. They had timing and luck on their side, but they also had the talent to keep cranking out hits. Their big singles -- “She’s Gone,” “Rich Girl,” “Kiss On My List,” “You Make My Dreams,” and “Maneater” – are still fine pop confections.

Of all those radio hits, the one I keep coming back to is “One on One,” from 1982’s H2O album. With true professional songcraft, John Oates (generally the songwriter) sets up his main metaphor, one-on-one basketball being a stand-in for sex. “I'm tired of playing on the team / It seems I don't get time out anymore / What a change if we set the pace face to face / No one even trying to score.” Think back to the fevered pre-AIDS singles scene of the eighties and this is even more apt. Laid against Barry-White-ish percussion and vibrating stabs of keyboard chords, it’s perfect lounge lizard music.

As usual with Hall & Oates, though, the chorus is the money shot, and this is a positively creamy one. Daryl’s choirboy countertenor insists, pleads, demands, “One on one, I wanna play that game tonight.” The melody ping-pongs between two notes, tightening the sexual tension, until it ripples downward, thrillingly, on “tonight.” Not only is that a great hook, it’s a hook that very few singers but Daryl Hall could pull off. (Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, maybe Marvin Gaye -- that’s pretty impressive company.)

Daryl scats around at the end of the chorus, till it dissolves into a sax solo. The ending is a hypnotic mélange of the stabbing chords, Daryl’s scatting, John’s back-up echoes, swirls of synthesizer – pure cheese, of course, but damn sexy.

In the 80s I never got beyond H&O’s MTV hits, because I resented them abandoning their early sound. Now I’m scrolling through those 80s albums and hearing lots to like in their back tracks. Their “comeback” albums in the early 2000s? More to like there. And I’m hankering after digital versions of all that 1970s stuff that never topped the charts. Jeez, this could get expensive. I should send Nick Lowe the bill – after all, it’s all his fault.

One on One sample

Sunday, July 13, 2008

“Love It All” / The Kooks

You have to love a band that names its sophomore album after Konk, the recording studio Ray Davies and the Kinks set up in North London. Granted, these kids were just paying customers in the studio – Ray didn’t produce the album or anything – but it’s nice to see that they’re properly appreciative of the Kink heritage.

Not unusually for a second album, Konk shows the Kooks going for a “fuller” sound – which just means that now they’ve got enough money, they’re not stuck with bare-bones garage-band arrangements. Personally I liked the uncluttered bounciness of their earlier songs like “You Don’t Love Me” and “She Moves In Her Own Way.”

Luckily they’ve hung onto that buoyant tone. “Love It All” shuffles along with a reggae-tinged rhythm that harks back to the Police, only with a little more jangly guitar. Sure, Luke Pritchard’s yelping Cockney-inflected vocals have adolescent anxiety all over them, but the lyrics connect the two: “See I've got this woman here / She loves me all the time / No need for excuses / No pressures in my mind.” This is unfamiliar territory for him, maybe (in verse two he declares “My heart was living down / And I’ve been pushed over the line”), but he’s just beginning to believe in her gospel.

His friends help out with lush cascading harmonies in the chorus, repeating “She said: love it all, love it all, love it all” over and over. (Great for concert singalongs, too, I’ll bet.) I love how rapidly they flip off those “love it all’s,” like a determined little mantra. Pritchard repeats it solo at the end, as if he’s still trying to convince himself – like Dorothy repeating “There’s no place like home” at the end of The Wizard of Oz.

It’s upbeat, yes, but not with cheap optimism – it feels to me like he’s fending off an undertow of disillusion and battered hopes the whole time. It’s one thing to do a simple song, quite another thing to make it satisfying. Having a bigger budget doesn’t do that for you; working in a legendary studio doesn’t do it either. But knowing who your musical forbears are, and honoring them -- that’s the ticket.

Love It All sample