Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Till I Hear It From You" /
The Gin Blossoms / Marshall Crenshaw

You know what? I love Marshall Crenshaw. Love the music; love the man too. I don't write about him often here, but I tell you, every time a song of his cycles up on my iTunes, it makes me happy. I was just reading about him in the paper today, in an article about an annual John Lennon tribute he often performs in (besides being a lifelong Beatle fan, Marshall got his show-biz start playing Lennon in Beatlemania). That inspired me to dial up my Marshallmania playlist, and it's been a beautiful day ever since.

But I have to apologize -- I can't post a sample of Marshall's version of this song. This one he co-wrote with the Gin Blossoms' Jesse Valenzuela and Robin Wilson, and while it became a hit for them -- it appears on their 1996 EP Follow You Down, on the the soundtrack of the movie Empire Records, and on both their "greatest hits" compilations -- Marshall's recording of it is more or less a rarity. I can't even remember how I got hold of that track; some illegal swap with another Crenshaw fan, I suspect. But to my ears, that soaring melodic line is quintessential Marshall Crenshaw, so I'm really sorry you'll have to make do with the Gin Blossoms' version.

Wait, that sounds snotty. The Gin Blossoms' version rocks! It's just that Marshall's is so much simpler and sweeter. First of all, he does it just with acoustic guitar and a contrapuntal fiddle (or is it a cello?) -- that homemade quality is perfect, like it's just a kid sitting in his bedroom feeling miserable. Then there's the matter of Marshall's voice, which after all these years still conveys adolescent bewilderment better than anyone, save Colin Blunstone of the Zombies (I mean, c'mon, "She's Not There" is the purest expression of adolescent yearning ever).

This is, after all, a song about trembling on the verge of heartbreak. The guy is singing it to his girlfriend -- although she isn't even there -- and stubbornly insisting that their relationship is not over. The more he protests, though, the more you know it's doomed. Apparently someone, or several someones, have been filling his ears with stories about her, which of course -- loyal sweetheart that he is -- he refuses to believe. "I didn't ask," he starts out, and "they shouldn't have told me," he adds. (He's got the teen code of ethics down just right, hasn't he?)

So what did she do? I can't help it, I'm dying to know. But he never tells us what they've told him (now there's a cagey bit of songwriting -- what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a McGuffin), maybe because he just can't face it. It's pretty clear that, whatever it is, it should kill the relationship. But he doesn't want to believe it, so he just digs in and shuts it out. "I don't want to take advice from fools," he tells us in the chorus, "I'll just figure everything is cool / Until I hear it from you / Until I hear it from you." He's either a total sap, or a glorious romantic -- I opt for the latter.

That melody is so plaintive, you just know what's gonna happen. The stories will be true; she's already ditched him. The quaver in Marshall's voice tell us that he knows this all perfectly well; he's just hanging on for the last few days, hours, minutes, forestalling heartbreak. The whole past, present, and future of this teenage love affair is telescoped into this one simple little plangent tune. It's heartrending, really.

The thing is, when you know Marshall Crenshaw's catalog, this is the kind of magic he works in song after song. Whatever the Gin Blossoms' input may have been (yeah, yeah, someday I really mean to listen to that band's music, I know I should), this is classic Crenshaw in all the ways that matter. The man's a treasure.

Till I Hear It From You sample

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Apeman" / The Kinks

More Kinks? Hey, I don't choose the songs, they choose me. I can't even remember why we burst into singing this tonight at the dinner table, but as we sang it -- hearing in our minds the full arrangement from Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One -- I found myself falling in love with this brilliant track all over again.

This may be Ray Davies' most perfect escape fantasy. On one level it's a comedy song, with a stream of deft patter laid over a goofy calypso beat. The electric piano imitates a Caribbean steel band, the bass line is soaked with reggae, and at points the pounding drums sound straight out of Africa. But it is a Kinks song, after all, and that means there's so much else going on here.

When Ray writes an escape fantasy, it's never just about where he's escaping to, it's also about what he's escaping from -- that's why it leads off with that anxiety-provoking sound effect of honking cars. His stress levels are clear from the very first verse: "I think I'm sophisticated / 'Cos I'm living my life like a good homosapien / But all around me everybody's multiplying / Till they're walking round like flies, man." (Notice how his vocals are almost lost in the mix at first, as if he's too overwhelmed to speak up for himself.) I love how Ray rattles off those polysyllabic words, accenting odd syllables, very Jamaican; he does it even more in the second verse: "I think I'm so educated and I'm so civilized / 'Cos I'm a strict vegetarian / But with the over-population and inflation and starvation / And the crazy politicians" ("pol-i-tih-see-ans", priceless!). Later in the song, he practically squawks as he sings, "I look out my window but I can't see the skies / The air pollution is a-fogging up my eyes." (Only it never sounds to me like he's saying "fogging," but something a little more, er . . . fricative.)

In the second half of the verse, his voice rises, sounding slightly strangled and desperate, as he laments, "I don't feel safe in this world no more / I don't want to die in a nuclear war / I want to sail away to a distant shore / And make like an ape man," underscored with a hammering bass piano scale and a few emphatic drum whacks from Mick Avory.

The chorus is a lilting but urgent chant, with seductively shifting syncopation: "I'm an ape man, I'm an ape ape man /I'm an ape man / I'm a King Kong man, I'm an ape ape man / I'm an ape man." You just about have to start pounding some flat surface when that rhythm gets going. I can almost imagine Ray sitting in a chair in North London, eyes screwed shut, rocking back and forth, trying to convince himself of his animal nature; I love the hysterical flutter in his voice as he declares, "'Cos compared to the sun that sits in the sky / Compared to the clouds as they roll by / Compared to the bugs and the spiders and flies / I am an ape man."

Then there's the bridge, a spoken-word interlude which Ray narrates in his best BBC nature documentary voice: "In man's evolution he has created the cities and the motor traffic rumble / But give me half a chance and I'd be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle." Then that desperate voice bursts out again: "'Cos the only time that I feel at ease / Is swinging up and down in a coconut tree / Oh what a life of luxury / To be like an ape man."

That coconut tree is a complete fantasy, isn't it? He can't help but shift musical styles as he adds a little sex to his fantasy: with brother Dave spinning off Chuck Berry guitar licks, he delivers yet a second bridge (always more for your money with the Kinks!), an Elvis Presley-style plea: "Come on and love me / Be my ape man girl / And we'll be so happy / In my ape man world." This whirlwind dip into rockabilly cracks me up every time.

In the last verse, he finally incorporates her in his mental movie, with one of the song's funniest -- and yet somehow sweetest -- lines: "I'll be your Tarzan, you'll be my Jane / I'll keep you warm and you'll keep me sane." That's all he really wanted anyway, wasn't it? Someone to keep him sane in this crazy world. Well, I'm happy to volunteer, Ray. Just keep those bananas coming!

Apeman sample

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"I Used to Say I Love You" /
Robyn Hitchcock

I just saw Robyn last night, at the Symphony Space here in Manhattan, performing his oddball 1984 "psych-folk" album I Often Dream of Trains in its more-or-less entirety to be filmed for an upcoming documentary. Now, those of you who read this blog regularly know what a sucker I am for Robyn Hitchcock -- for his floppy gray hair, his loud shirts, his spaced-out free association stage monologues, his haunting melodies, his wicked sense of humor, his absurdist lyrics about death, sex, and decay. Last night's show was a delight from start to finish, even the moments when he blew a line or played the wrong chord and, with a nonchalant "take 2", redid it. I sincerely hope the film's editors don't cut out all the bits he prefaced by saying, "This is the part they'll edit out," because with Robyn Hitchcock those are definitely the choicest moments.

You know how sometimes at a concert you hear a song you think you know well, and suddenly in performance it simply explodes with new significance? That's what happened last night with "I Used to Say I Love You." A simple acoustic number, floating along on a deceptively childlike melody, it came across last night as a real spellbinder, a wondrously acute dissection of human emotion.

With an opening line like that, anybody else's song would be a wistful reminiscence about love lost. Not Robyn Hitchcock. "I used to say I love you," he begins, only to follow it up with "It wasn't really true" (sliding up teasingly to the note at the end of the line, a trick of his that's unsettlingly charming, I must say.) But before you brand him a liar, he adds, "I wanted to believe it / And now I almost do."

How many of us have done that, talked ourselves into love? But even that is a simplification of what Robyn's on about. The second verse navigates through even finer shades of meaning: "I used to say I love you / I said it as a threat / Or maybe as a promise / To see what I could get." He doesn't even know what his motives are, or were, anymore, and he probably never will.

Forget about deciding whether the love was genuine or not; in the bridge, he ruefully sketches the sea change in his feelings: "But my heart doesn't break anymore / No my heart doesn't ache anymore / 'Cause it just couldn't take any more." The way each line keeps climbing the same three notes, only to fall back again, is a pretty good imitation of how emotions keep surging fruitlessly in a not-quite-right love affair. And when he ends with "And I've lost my illusions about you now," you can't help feeling the melancholy in that disillusionment.

Sure, on one level he was just manipulating this girl -- he'll admit as much: "I used to say I love you / It wasn't what I meant / What I really meant was / Come on in my tent." (Though, honestly, the way he utters "tent" makes it sound awfully damn inviting.) "But you were reluctant / Although I was so hot" (hmmm, I always have to catch my breath as he breathes that last word). "Now I understand it / But back then I did not." By the time he's got to this line, it's so loaded with give-and-take, even that simple rhyme is packed with complexities.

Okay, quick recap: This was one of those tug-o-war relationships, where vows were sworn and promises broken and nothing ever really meshed, despite a lot of hopeful chemistry. But it's all in the past, and now things are in limbo: "And now if I should see you / Or call you on the phone / I wonder who's that person / I could never call my own." There's an epiphany for you -- that moment when you strip away all the baggage you loaded onto somebody and realize you never really knew that person at all. It's a strange hollow feeling, much different from the way you'd hate someone who actually betrayed you. "Although I kind of like you / I'll never understand / Why I got so excited / Each time that we held hands." Again, the words are simple, just like that tripping melody, but the weird dislocated emotion he describes is anything but simple.

It seems like a featherweight song, and done differently it could be quite snide and snarky. But he keeps it so tentative -- a rhythm regular as rain dripping off the eaves, a fluttery tempo that avoids dwelling too long on any of these perplexing truths. There's a sadder-but-wiser quality here, but also a bone-deep loneliness, because the part of him that longed to be in love has wound up with nothing. And the side of him that didn't want to be in love? That side's feeling emptier than ever.

So I sat there in the audience and felt this song unspool, and I was simply gobsmacked. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. Thanks again, Robyn.

I Used to Say I Love You sample

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Happy 40th Birthday, Village Green Preservation Society!

On November 22, 1968, there was only one album I was thinking about, and it was white with a gatefold cover. I was so deep into my Beatle love, everything else seemed meaningless. I didn't even know the Kinks still existed; having pissed off American concert promoters, they hadn't been touring the US at all, and they'd vanished from our airwaves. I'm sure I wasn't the only American who had no idea that the Kinks had released a new album -- and with their usual fatal timing, released it the same day as the Beatles' masterwork.

Well, so it goes. Maybe I wasn't ready for The Village Green Preservation Society in 1968, anyway. Not that it was "too English" (hunh? that was just my cup of tea) or too folky -- that folky acoustic quality would have been a definite plus for me at the time, considering how newer bands like Cream and the Doors were beginning to nudge rock music toward hard rock, a disturbing development as far as I was concerned. But when you listen to VGPS, it's so steeped in nostalgia and radical conservatism, how could an adolescent like me ever have gotten it? After all, this is an album where the title track proclaims, "God save little shops, china cups, and virginity" -- in the midst of the free love 1960s, that was a baffling message indeed.

"Do You Remember Walter?"is the wistful musings of a middle-aged man, reuniting with a boyhood chum ("I bet you're fat and married/ And you're always home in bed by half past eight / And if I talked about the old times / You'd get bored and you'd have nothing more to say" -- and he sounds sad about it, not scornful of the complacent old fart). He eulogizes the old-time rocker "Johnny Thunder" and the obsolete locomotive of "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains." There's not one but two songs about how we cling to photos as souvenirs of our lives, the slouchy happy "Picture Book" and, at the end of the LP, the restless satiric "People Take Pictures Of Each Other." This is an album obsessed with loss and memory, hardly what I had on my agenda when I was 15.

Love songs? Well, Ray Davies has never done simple love songs. Instead you get "Starstuck," his bemused portrait of a dazzled groupie, and the deliciously Caribbean-flavored "Monica," a fond ode to a world-weary hooker. They fit right into his gallery of misfits and oddities, a cast of eccentric beings who'll be left behind in the shiny-new modern world the VGPS abhors. There's trippy "Phenomenal Cat," a flute-embellished fable about a magical cat that outdoes even Donovan in terms of flower-child feyness; "Wicked Annabella" is another fairy tale, this time a dark portrayal of a witch worthy of Hansel and Gretel, with a supremely ominous bass line. The Kinks' version of pastoral is the escape fantasy "Animal Farm" ("This world is big and wild and half insane / Take me where real animals are playing"), a loping rocker that doesn't feel blissed out at all. For that you need the loose-limbed softshoe of "Sitting By The Riverside," with its wheezy accordion and plinky piano, and even that laidback number morphs for me somehow into the comic patter song "All of My Friends Were There," with its woozy, boozy waltzing chorus -- get too relaxed and you'll end up drunk and embarrass yourself in front of everybody you know.

And who's running this whole quirky world? Well, there's the distant Supreme Being of "Big Sky" -- "Big Sky looked down on all the people looking up at the big sky / Everybody pushing one another around /Big Sky feels sad when he sees the children scream and cry / But the Big Sky's too big to let it get him down." I still can't always get my head around what Ray Davies means with that song, especially since he seems to find it comforting that Big Sky doesn't get involved in this petty world's problems.

The heart of the album is the minor-key "Village Green," with its anachronistic harpsichord and harmonium; in a precise, almost mincing delivery, Ray delivers yearning memories of some mist-swathed Ye Olde Englishe village -- church steeple, oak tree, and all -- that never existed except in his imagination. Of course, it's already been ruined, gentrified, marketed to tourists, and his old love Daisy is now married to the grocer's son Tom (who's no doubt as fat and complacent as his boyhood mate Walter). Far from a savage rant, though, this song mentions the loss only vaguely in passing, and he seems convinced that someday he and Daisy will have tea there again. This song isn't about Ray's own loss, it's about the universal emotions of loss and regret and memory. No way I would have gotten this in 1968. What's amazing is that Ray himself felt this in 1968, when he was how old? 24? Precocious doesn't even begin to cover it.

In their own ways, though, each song is a gem. The range of musical styles the Kinks explore on this album is just as broad as what the Beatles explored in the White Album; the Kinks were just working in more delicate brushstrokes, that's all. And somehow this exercise in memory released some of Ray Davies' most poignant melodies, wittiest lyrics, and deftest storytelling; his fellow Kinks turned in some of their finest performances as well.

I still think the White Album was a genius record; I'm not going to deny it just because I eventually rediscovered the Kinks. But this isn't like marriage, where you're expected to forswear all others. I don't have to choose -- I can love them both. I'm just glad that, though I missed it in 1968, I've been lucky enough to get to know The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society in the years since. It may not be for everyone, but it sure is for me.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

RIP Sirius Disorder Radio

Okay, now I'm really good and pissed off. Yesterday I'm driving to the service station and I turn on the car radio to my favorite station, Sirius Disorder -- and what do I see on the screen but "Led Zeppelin Radio." Led Zeppelin Radio?!?!?!? What do we need Led Zeppelin Radio for? Sirius already has Elvis Presley Radio, Bruce Springsteen Radio, AC/DC Radio, Grateful Dead Radio (okay, maybe that one I can understand), and Rolling Stones Radio. How could you possibly derive an entire station's programming from Led Zeppelin? True, I'm sure I could fill 24 hours a day with programming based on the Kinks' music; in fact, I'd love it if somebody gave me that opportunity. But you and I know very well that nobody is going to devote an entire satellite radio station to the music of the Kinks. Led Zeppelin, though, that apparently is another story.

Well, I don't begrudge Zep their slice of the airwaves, honestly I don't. However, the station it displaced -- Sirius Disorder -- was the main reason why I got Sirius installed in our car in the first place. That was MY station. You never knew what was going to come on next -- soul, jazz, classic rock, opera, indie alt, reggae, country, folk, a symphony, it was all open territory. I loved that eclectic approach. Even more important was the fact that Disorder had real DJs, people with personality like Vin Scelsa, Meg Griffn, Rick Allison, Larry Kirwin of the Black 47s, The Kennedys, David Johansen. Whereas several other Sirius stations just play pre-programmed set lists of the same cache of tracks over and over, on Sirius the DJs were individuals with personality, who would come on and tell stories and play the quirkiest stuff imaginable. I dug it so much.

Some afternoons Meg Griffin would hit a run of 12 or 15 songs in a row that I have on my iPod, as if she were borrowing my playlists. I was in heaven. Where else was I gonna hear Nick Lowe and John Hiatt and solo Ray Davies along with Sam Cooke and Dusty Springfield and Bob Marley and Coltrane and Sinatra? Who else ever plays Ron Sexsmith or Robyn Hitchcock or Thea Gilmore or Marshall Crenshaw or Jill Sobule? And sometimes I'd get them all in one show.

I should have known that Disorder was going to be Sirius's stepchild station. They kept moving the number all over the dial, every few months, without warning. Now they say the Sirius concept has been absorbed into a new station called The Loft, on channel 29. The Loft promises all sorts of groovy artist interviews and guest DJs and a whole show every week about roots music, and they're keeping Vin Scelsa and my girl Meg and David Jo (a.k.a. Sri Rama Lama Ding Dong), even though they're moving Johansen to some godawful midnight to 3am shift. They're keeping the Lou Reed Show, too (which, I regret to say, is a bit of a bore). But where is Larry Kirwin going? Because I was really starting to enjoy hanging out with his Celtic Crush show every Saturday. I had a relationship going with that show.

But do the suits care? They do not. It's all about hitting the big demographics; quality, and taste, and deep attachment are nothing if they don't score the numbers. They'd rather please my 13-year-old by playing the same 29 songs over and over on Alt Nation. It's a no-brainer.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Wrapped in Grey" / XTC

From what I've read and heard, XTC was even more dysfunctional than the Kinks. Continual personnel changes, internal snits, on-stage breakdowns, disastrous record deals -- they did it all. Some of their music is just plain genius, but they blew their own chances at every turn, pretty much guaranteeing they'd wind up as art-rock cult favorites. Still, there's something to be said for having a devoted cult (and I mean devoted -- just check out I'm not sure I've got enough time to join it -- my fangirl soul is pretty deeply mortgaged at the moment -- but every once in awhile one of their deliciously quirky tracks pops up on my shuffle, and I ponder an alternate universe where I could easily be obsessed with Andy Partridge.

In that alternate universe, this might be my favorite song today. (I know myself; even if I were an XTC devotee, I wouldn't prefer the obvious big hits like "Making Plans for Nigel" or "Senses Working Overtime.") First of all, I dig that it's in 3/4 time, tripping along briskly with flamboyant surges of volume that almost sound distorted, even psychedelic. Then there's the lush strings and double-tracked vocals, with California-esque falsetto counterpoints twining around -- it's pretty darn romantic sounding. Not lovey-dovey romantic -- XTC never seems to go for simple love songs -- but romantic as in passionate about nature and the imagination and Big Ideas.

The central conceit has to do with painting: "Some folks see the world as a stone /Concrete daubed in dull monotone /Your heart is the big box of paints /And others, the canvas we're dealt." I swear, with all this flower child imagery, this song sounds more like it was written in 1972 than 1992. He claims that the flowers are talking to him -- and why not? -- bursting into the rhapsodic chorus, "Awaken you dreamers /Adrift in your beds /Balloons and streamers /Decorate the inside of your heads." The flowers advise him, "Please let some out /Do it today /But don't let the loveless ones sell you /A world wrapped in grey." It's classic Us Vs. Them thinking, the nonconformist vs. those People in Grey that Ray Davies is always warning us against.

You have to love the lyrics Partridge comes up with for the second chorus: "Awaken you dreamers /Asleep at your desks /Parrots and lemurs /Populate your unconscious grotesques." LEMURS? Name me another pop song that's got lemurs in it. That line thrills me right to the bone. And then there's the ending, where the tempo completely changes so that Partridge can tack on this mischievous coda: "And in the very least you can /Stand up naked and /Grin."

It's hard to believe this song was released in 1992 -- it's got this sort of gauzy innocence that's really amazing for the era. All those layers of sound remind me of late Beach Boys, or early Association, or some bits of the Moody Blues. Meanwhile, here in the States we were already listening to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by this time. It just boggles the mind.

Wrapped in Grey sample

Sunday, November 16, 2008

“When You Walk in the Room"
“Everything But a Heartbeat" /
The Searchers

Back at the height of the British Invasion, I knew the Searchers’ hits "Needles and Pins" and "Don't Throw Our Love Away." I even owned their cover of "Love Potion No. 9." (The single had an orange label; I can picture it still.) But by 1966, I never stopped to wonder what had become of them, the same way I didn't wonder about Gerry and the Pacemakers or Billy J. Kramer or any of the other Liverpool artists that had slipstreamed behind the Beatles’ success. In the end, I guess, constant comparisons to the Beatles may have worked against these guys, who were neither teen-idol material nor strong original songwriters. Once the Beatles moved past Merseybeat, so did I.

But on every British Invasion anthology I've bought over the past few years -- and I'm a sucker for British Invasion anthologies -- the Searchers really stand out from the pack. They've got a winning combination of crisp 12-string guitar and fat vocal harmonies, a sound that morphed over time from skiffle into folk-rock, even before there was such a thing. I never bought their albums back in the 1960s (had to save all my pennies for Beatles LPs) so when I finally ponied up for the 2-disc 40th Anniversary Collection, I was amazed at the depth of the Searchers' catalog.

Take their 1964 hit, “When You Walk In the Room,” a cover of a song by the seriously underrated Jackie De Shannon. (Note to self: Get hold of more Jackie DeShannon music.) What a well-crafted pop number it is. Verse 1: the singer describes his physical reaction to the girl walking into the room (“I can feel a new expression / On my face / I can feel a glowing sensation / Taking place.”). Verse 2: he drifts off and imagines what it would be like to be with her (“I see a summer’s night with a / Magic moon.”). Bridge: he admits he’s never had the nerve to talk to her. Verse 3: She appears again, and “Trumpets sound and I hear thunder boom / Every time that you [beat, beat, beat, beat] / Walk in the room.”

The percussion is all antsy snares and high-hats, and a jangly guitar hook keeps cutting through the mix, like the tingle of adolescent desire. Like the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” and the Kinks’ “Something Better Beginning,” this song just teeters on the threshold of teenage lust – fantastic.

And then lo and behold, I get to disc 2 of the collection, and I find out that the Searchers did not vanish from the scene in 1967, but continued to crank out solid music. Here’s this power pop gem from 1979, written by no less than Will Birch of the Kursaal Flyers and the Records (this guy is the Zelig of 1980s UK pop, I swear). A much more bitter song, as befit the times; “Everything But a Heartbeat” is absolutely drenched in disillusionment. Each verse follows the same tight pattern: It starts out promisingly, with a bouncy melody and glowing descriptive details – “She may possess the best dress / She’s got the looks to match”; “She’s got a smile like sunshine / On a cloudy day” – but then the verse pivots halfway through to tell you, in anxious minor chords, the flip side of her story, “She will chew you up and then she’ll spit you out,” “She will wind you up / And then she’ll spin you around.”

In the bridge, he confirms our suspicion that he’s talking from experience: “She’ll use you any way she can / I can tell you so / And when she kicks you out again / You’ll be the last to know.” Underlaid with furious pulsing drums, the hooky chorus sums it all up: “She’s got everything but a heartbeat / She’s as cold as stone / Everything but a heartbeat / And a heartbeat matters so.” Sure, the guy’s been hurt and he’s hungry for revenge. But that doesn’t mean he’s not telling the truth. If I were you, I’d stay away.

This is another of those Songs of Innocence/Songs of Experience duos -- the ecstatic naive song from the outset of the relationship, pitted against a cynical post-heartbreak diatribe. Once she made your pulse race; now she just makes your blood boil. Ain't love grand?

When She Walks In the Room sample

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Easy To Say Bon Temps Rouler" /
Geraint Watkins

The veteran keyboardist of Nick Lowe's longtime unofficial band -- which isn't exactly what you'd call a full-time job these days -- Geraint Watkins hasn't done much solo work, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn he's released a new album only (only!) 4 years after his under-the-radar gem Dial W for Watkins. This new one's titled In a Bad Mood, but that's quite an understatement -- Geraint's gone off on a deeply rueful tangent this time, with song after song lamenting love lost, chances missed, and screw-ups regretted. Luckily, he hasn't lost the easygoing rollick of his soul- and Creole-flavored pub-rock sound.

Though he's a Brit -- a Welshman, in fact -- Watkins seems to have drowned in a vat of Sazeracs as a kid and emerged an honorary bayou crooner. He leads off this opening track with a reluctantly drawn-out guitar flourish, then mournfully recites his main verse -- "You can dance the night away on every single Saturday / You go out and have your fun, and I'll just be the lonely one," in a morosely moseying downward melody. There's just enough of a wink in there that you don't mind the cliched lyrics -- this song is all subtext. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound -- here's he moping around, while his ex is partying away, and watching her makes him feel even crappier. You've got to wonder if she's laying it on especially thick just to punish him.

And soon, as if the song can't help itself, it sidles into a shuffling two-step zydeco tempo, with a vibed-up lead guitar that would work just fine at a backcountry Louisiana roadhouse. He says he's too miserable to subscribe to the unofficial New Orleans motto ("let the good times roll," for those of you who don't parler francais) -- for him it's more like "let the heartaches begin / Let the teardrops fall" -- but it sure sounds to me as if the music is already curing him. "'Let the good times roll'? / Hollow is my soul," he protests, adding "I'll never dance again / Not even now and then / No never never no more." Meanwhile, the song is jigging merrily along -- he's dancing already.

Geraint's got this warm gravelly voice that's perfect for this sort of song -- it's a lived-in sort of voice, like a relic of too many cigarettes and too much rotgut whiskey. A great piece of songwriting? I don't know, but it's catchy as hell, and the performance is so genial, you can't help loving it. This guy is one of the most likeable artists I know of -- check him out.

Easy To Say Bon Temps Rouler sample

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"The Bad Thing" / Arctic Monkeys

Don't be put off by idiot music critics who try to puff these guys up as the best band since the Beatles -- honestly, the Arctic Monkeys are good enough that they don't need that kind of overblown hype BS. I truly dug their first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (what a great hype-deflating title), and since their Favorite Worst Nightmare came out last year, it's been growing on me even more. I love its feisty, aggressive energy, those unapologetically broad Sheffield accents, and the surprising range of sounds they pull off within that punk-inspired groove. Worthy heirs to the Jam's mantle, indeed.

This song blasts out of the gate with an urgent howl of desire -- "Dooooooo / the bad thing" -- followed by the impatient demand "Take off that wedding ring," clipped off in staccato syllables that march fiercely down the scale, with an extra scornful twist on the w of "wedding ring." On he goes, in a jittery rush of equivocating argument -- "But it won't make it that much easier /It might make it worse." Meandering around in murky moral territory is something these guys do very well indeed, and even if they aren't navigating it too successfully -- and really, who does? -- at least they have the grace to admit it makes them feel bad.

You know how people talk in a bar, or at a party, when they know they're about to give in to their worst impulses? That's how Alex Turner delivers the verses of this song, all in a hurried monotonic jerky mutter: "Oh the night's like a whirlwind, / Somebody's girlfriend's / Talkin' to me, but it's all right, she's sayin' that / 'He's not gonna slap me or try to attack me, /He's not the jealous type.'" He's not really buying it, but hormones are flowing and he's not sure he wants to get away, but he still could, but will he? The suspense is killing me.

"And all these capers make her too forward to ignore, / Well, she's talkin' but I'm not entirely sure" -- not sure of what? Not sure of anything, it seems, not sure of anything in this whole nasty addled scene. As he says later, "I'm struggling to think of an immediate response, / Like , 'I don't mind,' 'be a big mistake for you to wait,' and 'let me waste your time, / Really, love, it's fine, /Really love it's fine." But he doesn't actually say any of those things, does he?

The really telling line comes in the third verse: "And then the first time it occurred that there was something to destroy" -- really, this is astonishingly mature thinking from a guy in his 20s standing at a bar with deep cleavage and a flash of ripe thigh being dangled in front of him. You're listening to those whomping drums and the skittering guitar riffs, and the last thing you expect is clear thinking. But there it is. "I knew before the invitation that there was this ploy," he reminds himself, "Oh, but she carried on suggestin', a struggle to refuse, / She said, 'It's the red wine this time,' but that is no excuse." It's practically Victorian, really.

Baffled romantics, that's what the Arctic Monkeys are. Lost boys, wandering through the sleazy modern world with a jacked-up tempo and their amps turned up to 11. They've got a great sound PLUS a surprising bit of substance, and I'm betting they're not just a flash in the pan. As good as the Beatles? Well, let's not go overboard -- even the Beatles weren't as good as The Beatles when they started out. But it's nice to have something to look forward to.

The Bad Thing sample

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"You Can't Always Get What You Want" /
The Rolling Stones

It goes with the territory -- you just can't be a serious Kinks fan and a lifelong Beatle fan, as I am, and still like the Rolling Stones. It's not just a question of being forced to choose sides, although that was certainly required back in 1965. It's more than that, it's a question of what I want out of music. All the things my soul craves from the Kinks and the Beatles -- their winsome melodies, poetic lyrics, playful wit, serious political commentary, sharp-edged social satire -- have zero to do with the Stones.

Still, in the new bipartisan spirit of our times, I'm willing to cross the aisle this evening. I caught a fragment of this song on the soundtrack of some random TV show tonight, and it sank its hooks into me instantly. It wasn't even the part where the Stones themselves are performing, it was just the intro with that starchy vocal chorale, intoning, "You cahn't always get what you want . . . " I had to giggle, and immediately I was tuned in, waiting through the French horn interlude for Mick Jagger to saunter casually in and pick up the beat.

I guess the idea here was to try some Dylanesque talking blues -- in verse after verse, Jagger sketches surreal social scenes, from a chi-chi wine sipping reception to a rowdy street demonstration to the hipster King's Road hangout The Chelsea Drugstore (though apparently that verse was actually written about a drugstore in Excelsior, Minnesota, that Mick wandered into the morning after a show in Minneapolis). If Dylan had written this, of course, the three verses would have related to each other, but come on, thematic development has never been Jagger & Richards' strong suit as songwriters. The drug references strung throughout are the only theme I can find, and in 1969, you were practically required by law to include at least 3 drug references in every rock song, weren't you?

Besides, the real point of this song is how it builds and builds until they've left folk blues way behind. One by one, they layer on those great syncopated drums, splashes of honkytonk piano, deliciously curling electric guitar riffs (was this Mick Taylor or Keith?), mad maracas, frenetic Farfisa organ licks, layers of choral oohs and ahhs, and Jagger's own shivering howls of something that's either ecstasy or anguish and probably both. It runs on and on for seven minutes plus, and even though I'm generally someone who gets bored after 2:58, I have to admit this is one grandiose production that works. Not until "Hey Jude" would we have such another irresistible singalong, one that everybody in the pub just has to chime in on, whether they can carry a tune or not.

And if you're looking for a life motto, you could do worse than adopt this. You can't always get what you want, we all have to grow up and accept that. But trust Mick and Keefe to flip that sage advice over and gleefully add, "But if you try sometimes / You just might find / [drum roll] You get what you need!" There's the Stones attitude to life in a nutshell. These guys have been pretty much always getting what they need -- and what they want -- for over 40 years now. Like John Candy says to his little brother Tom Hanks in Splash: "Hey, when I get something that works, I stick with it."

You Can't Always Get What You Want sample

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Something to Talk About" /
Badly Drawn Boy

No, this isn't a cover of the Bonnie Raitt song, although I like that too. (Believe me, Bonnie and I go way back.) It's the theme song from a quietly brilliant little film from 2002, called About a Boy, starring Hugh Grant and based on a novel by Nick Hornby -- combine those two and how could you miss? I'm crazy about the both of them, no use pretending otherwise, and although I'd never heard of Badly Drawn Boy before, I fell in love with the charming soundtrack immediately. Later I found out that it was written by Damon Gough, who is Badly Drawn boy, in one of those I'm-one-guy-but-I-pretend-to-be-a-whole-band deals, a la Dashboard Confessional or Iron and Wine. So be it, I'm willing to keep an open mind. I'm vaguely aware that he dresses like Mike Nesmith gone grunge, but so what? And he cites his favorite artists as Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Buckley, and the Pixies -- well, two out of three ain't bad, as Meat Loaf used to say. (Or still says, for all I know.)

Man, am I cutting this kid slack. But really, let's face it, if the songs are good who cares about the rest? And the songs are good.

Acoustic guitar, a little spatter of keyboards, simple drumbeats, syncopated melody -- this is clean classic pop, married to quirky lyrics that would make Nick Hornby proud. (Have I ever told you guys about my Nick Hornby fixation? How his book Songbook changed my life? Remind me sometime.) The gist of the story -- which like any good story shouldn't be simplified -- is about a slacker cad (my man Hugh Grant) getting gradually entangled with a gawky adolescent and his awkward mother (the brilliant Toni Collette) and discovering that life's all about human connections. I know I know, it sounds like you'd retch at the cliches, but trust me, it works on screen, thanks to brilliant direction by the Weitz brothers Paul and Chris, and also a snarky smart screenplay by Peter Hedges (though from now on they should let Nick write his own screenplays because he's a genius and should get all the money. And Nick, really, if you google yourself and read this, email me because we need to talk).

But back to Badly Drawn Boy. What I love about this song is not only it's stop-and-start rhythmic pattern, which is so engaging, but the great throw-off quality of the lyrics, which matches the slacker sweetness of this movie. It's pretty much all embodied in the middle verse, which is the one I tend to sing to myself at random moments: "Ipso / Facto / Using up your oxygen / You know I'm shallow / Calling out for extra help / You've got to let me in / Or let me out." Well, that 's the movie in a nutshell, and there's some serious genius about getting a soundtrack that really marries to the storyline like that.

Plus, I don't know, but I love Gough's earnest folky voice. Sure, this is laid over with back-up oooh's and a kinda glossy arrangement (it's like a wall of sound writ small), but I find this warm and appealing, the same way as all the songs from the movie Garden State. Which is a whole 'nother story.

Let's cut to the last verse, which sums it all up: "I've been / Dreaming / Of the things I learnt about a boy who's / Leaving / Nothing else to chance again /You've got to let me in / Or let me out." Which is really the quandary we all face, isn't it? How do we manage to still be cool (as you all are) and remain engaged -- which you have to be, face it, to be cool these days. There's no checking out any more. What I love about Badly Drawn Boy is how he plays the groove between emotion and cynicism, understanding how hard it is to commit to lyrical impulse these days. This is a very narrow sector of the listening audience, I appreciate that. But hell, I'm there, and I'm hoping you are too.

Something To Talk About sample

Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Sex on Fire" / Kings of Leon

All those years of training my children to like rock music, and what do I get? I'm now forced to listen to Sirius Radio's Alt Nation channel every time we take a car trip. Of course, some of Alt Nation's artists are fabulous, but I also have to endure such tripe as that screamer in Rise Against, or the endless narcotizing techno riffs of LCD Soundsystem, or worst of all, the Ting Tings, a horrible British duo that's basically the B-52s without a sense of humor (and the whole point of the B-52s was their sense of humor). Not only that, but listen to Alt Nation long enough and you will hear the exact same 37 songs played over and over in exactly the same order.

Do I sound enough like my parents yet?

But at least that means that every 37 songs I got to hear the Kings of Leon again. This is a completely addictive track, and excellent driving music, too; you absolutely have to pound the steering wheel when it comes on. The title is stupid, I'll agree, like something Justin Timberlake would write, and it's extra embarrassing to listen with your adolescent daughter to what's basically a song about a blow job. But so far she hasn't caught on, so we're safe. For a while, still.

Let's get one thing out of the way: The opening riffs of "Sex on Fire" are stolen straight from Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark." Still, that seems to be standard operating procedure on Alt Nation; Fall Out Boy's latest single is a complete rip-off of "Spirit in the Sky," and since two out of the three Alt Nation listeners in my car had never heard "Spirit in the Sky," my guess is that Fall Out Boy will get away with it. Anyhow, the opening riff is the only really good thing about "Dancing in the Dark," so let's just call the Kings of Leon's version an "homage" and move on.

They get extra points from me for being another brother band -- in fact, they beat out the Davies brothers, because there are not two but three Followill brothers in the band, as well as their cousin. It makes more sense to compare them to the Allman Brothers, or the Black Crowes' Robinson brothers, or Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars, because these guys are classic Southern rockers. That borrowed riff becomes a propulsive motor for this song, cruising lustily around the curves without braking for a moment. But while the crisp drums and hopped-up bass and chugging guitar never let up, Caleb Followill's hoarse high vocals howl and soar and swoop all over the place, adding a great jittery nervous energy.

The lyrics are ambiguous, of course, and vaguely poetic, as in "Hot as a fever / Rattling bones" or "The dark of the alley / The break of the day / Ahead while I'm driving / I'm driving." (Or is it "a head while I'm driving"?).

There's one little rhythmic trick they pull off that's sheer genius. At the end of every verse, they repeat the last phrase of the last line -- as in "feels like you're dying, you're dying" -- standard pop technique, right? But nooooo, they make you wait for it, stuffing in an extra measure while the song's motor keeps pulsating, and even when you get the repeat it still idles anxiously on a minor chord. What did you expect, resolution? No way; they just downshift gears and accelerate into the next verse. The spasmodic tension this creates is just brilliant. Like I said, it's a song about a blow job (not only that, but a blow job in a moving car) so it's a perfect case of art imitating nature.

Well, the road trip's over, and I'm happy to go back to my own little quirky playlist of cute aging British rockers. But I've "borrowed" my son's Only By the Night CD and downloaded a few of the Followill boys' tracks -- after all, you never know when you'll need a little steamy Southern alt smut.

Sex on Fire sample

Thursday, November 06, 2008

"You Didn't Have to Be So Nice" /
The Lovin' Spoonful

Once I get into that Sixties groove, it's only a matter of time before the Spoonful pops up. I guess if I'd been older in 1966 -- more serious, more sophisticated -- I might have preferred the Byrds. But I'm sorry, no one in the Byrds was as adorable as John Sebastian in a striped boatneck shirt, peering out through those wire-rim glasses, cradling that autoharp on Hullabaloo (or was it Shindig?). It was no contest.

Autoharp? Come on, who else played an autoharp? There was no macho swagger to the Lovin' Spoonful, just loads of impish charm. Still, you always knew they were red-blooded males, not wimpy flower-child troubadors. They sang songs about ditching a girl for her sister ("Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?"), coolly breaking a girl's heart ("Didn't Want to Have To Do It"), and going on the urban prowl ("Summer in the City"). In "Darling Be Home Soon," he wants his woman home so urgently, I never believed it was only about "the great relief of having you to talk to." And how sexy they made it sound to get caught in a downpour in "Rain on the Roof" (I love that meaningful pause after "Maybe we'll be caught for hours / Waiting out the sun . . . "). Yep, you knew these guys would never miss a chance to get a little action.

So even as a dopey adolescent, I sensed that "You Didn't Have To Be So Nice" was saturated with lust. Oh, sure, it's bouncy and light-hearted, like their previous hits "Do You Believe in Magic?" and "Daydream," and Sebastian's breathy singing is all cuddly teddybear. But John B. admits right up front that pursuing this woman has nothing to do with her "nice" personality. ("Nice" as in "not bitchy" -- I never even considered it could mean "not slutty.") He's clearly on the make -- "they said the time was right for me to follow you / I knew I'd find you in a day or two"; why, he's practically stalking her. And he seems helpless to resist this animal attraction: "I knew that it would be that way / The minute that I saw your face." The backing singers echo everything he says, just egging him on.

Maybe it's just me, but somehow I get the idea that her niceness is a problem for him. Like all he wanted was a little making out -- "if you had kissed me once or twice /Then gone upon your quiet way" -- and instead he finds himself getting entangled with someone he knows deserves to be treated well. There's a stubborn reluctance here; he's not entirely sure that he wants to put his caddish ways aside. When you think about it, this song could easily be Part One to the story that ends with "Didn't Want to Have to Do It."

But even so, I loved this song back in 1966. I was way too young to be in love with anybody real, so in my mind this was the song that Paul McCartney (or was it Peter Noone?) would sing someday when he finally met me. Or maybe it was John B himself, glasses and autoharp and paisley shirt and all. I was young; the possibilities were endless. But thanks to this song, at least I knew it was safe to be nice.

You Didn't Have To Be So Nice sample

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"On the Road to Find Out" /
Cat Stevens

Apropos of nothing -- or maybe apropos of everything -- I've been stuck on this song ever since it popped up on my shuffle today. There are days when I can't remember what the Sixties felt felt like, but boy, yesterday sure wiped all the rust and dust off those Sixties ideals.

Suppose you were making a movie and you wanted to slap something on the soundtrack that says 1970; you couldn't go wrong with any song from Tea for the Tillerman. Okay, I know Hal Ashby already pulled that trick with Harold and Maude, but Tea for the Tillerman is so much more than just Harold and Maude for me. I was precisely the right age, and precisely the right target demographic, to think that this was the wisest and most beautiful album ever (at least for a few months, until Carole King's Tapestry came out). It seemed to be playing everywhere I went -- maybe not on Top 40 radio or on the musak at the mall, but at every party and at every friend's house. That folkie acoustic guitar, Stevens' quavery voice, the flower child conceits, the romantic loner alienation -- how better to appeal to us hippie wannabes?

"On the Road To Find Out" is your classic spiritual quest song, and we -- the generation that made Siddhartha a cult classic -- liked our spiritual quests, and the vaguer the better. The singer starts out by leaving his happy home "to see what I could find out," "with the aim to clear my mind out," et cetera et cetera et cetera, all very soft-focus and high-minded. It isn't all easy going -- he mentions snow, frost, thunder, howling winds -- and worst of all, human loneliness hits: "Then I found myself alone, hoping someone would miss me / Thinking about my home, and the last woman to kiss me (kiss me)." Still, he perseveres, as the chorus tells us over and over: "So on and on I go, the seconds tick the time out / There's so much left to know, and I'm on the road to find out." This is more Easy Rider than The Searchers, that's for sure.

Cat lays this down with swelling and climbing melodies, a distant chorus cheering him on, drums and a touch of bass and organ building up that folky guitar ever so subtly until it almost feels EPIC. We are totally with him -- or are we? Because I'll bet that ninety percent of the kids who wore the grooves off this LP still think it's about running away from home -- whereas, I now realize, it's about the folly of running away. Like he says in the last verse, "Then I found my head one day when I wasn't even trying / And here I have to say, 'cause there is no use in lying / Yes, the answer lies within, so why not take a look now? /Kick out the devil's sin, pick up, pick up a good book now." (Or is it "the Good Book" he's talking about? Knowing that Cat eventually became a serious Muslim, changing his name to Yusuf Islam, you've got to wonder.)

PICK UP A BOOK? That wasn't the message we wanted to hear -- that's like something the school librarian would tell you. And what we wanted was to go out of state to college and smoke dope and drop acid and live in communes until we found The Answer. It almost didn't matter what Cat Stevens was trying to tell us, we heard what we wanted to.

And you know what? It still doesn't matter. I still get that yearning to hit the road when I hear this song. And even if the answer lies within, I still want to believe there is an Answer. Yesterday gave me hope again that there is.

On the Road To Find Out sample

Monday, November 03, 2008

"Sitting in the Midday Sun" /
The Kinks

I've finished the book. I've finished the book. And yes, I know there'll be queries to answer, and proofs to read, and all that crap down the line, but I'VE FINISHED THE BOOK, and now I can get back to business here at last!

Frankly, while I was working there were no songs in my head. Well, only one song, Nick Lowe's "I Live On A Battlefield," which I've written about before, and besides I reckon you're tired of hearing me go on about Nick Lowe. I'm tired of hearing me go on about Nick Lowe. So this is how I know I've really finished the book; today I woke up singing this dreamy little Kinks tune, one of my favoritest mellow lazy tunes ever.

Ray Davies loves to play the quizzical observer of life, and so he's given us a passel of these "sitting" songs. First there was 1965's "Sittin' On My Sofa," a morose moan from a shellshocked guy whose girlfriend's left him. Next came his sly 1968 satiric hit "Sitting By the Riverside," about a wealthy guy blindsided by financial distress (how apt these days!). In 1972 we got the plaintive "Sitting In My Hotel," an (I assume) autobiographical track about a lonely celebrity isolated by fame, and one of my favorite Kinks songs ever.

Preservation Act I came along in 1973, one of Ray's forays into rock opera, a road which many of his former fans didn't "get." (Ray's still trying out musical theater -- he's got a new play in London right now called Come Dancing that I've heard is simply brilliant.) But I love both of the Preservation albums, and one of my favorite characters in this story is the Tramp, the narrator/observer of the play's action. He kinda disappears in Act II, but in Act I he gets all the best songs -- the wistful love song "Sweet Lady Genevieve," his nostalgic take on Swinging London, "Where Are They Now," and this little charmer.

It's a real musical theater tune -- you could almost do a soft shoe to it -- with its soaring woodwind intro, the ripply glockenspiels, and the Beach Boys-ish falsetto harmonized "ooohs." Of course it's a little ambivalent -- this wouldn't be Ray Davies without a little ambivalence -- but surely we're supposed to side with the Tramp. The guy's got nothing, as verse 2 tells us: "Everybody say I'm lazy / They tell me, 'Get a job you slob' / But I'd rather be a hobo, walking 'round with nothing / Than a rich man scared of losing all he's got" (echoes of "Sitting By the Riverside"). He freely admits, "I haven't got a steady occupation / And I can't afford a telephone / I haven't got a stereo, radio, or video" -- OR "A mortgage, overdraft, or bank loan." (I love how deftly Ray spins that list around.) Wouldn't we all like to be in that situation, especially nowadays? Suddenly this song is totally relevant.

"So I'm just sitting in the midday sun," he muses lazily, "Just soaking up that currant bun." (It took me years to find out that "currant bun" is Cockney rhyming slang for "sun.") And then, ever so casually, he points out, "Everybody thinks I'm crazy / Everybody says I'm dumb / But when I see the people shouting with each other / I'd rather be an out-of-work bum." So here I am, the night before the election, with nothing to do except finally clean my apartment and go walk my dog. Okay, today the weather's gray and overcast and a little chilly, but I'm heading outdoors anyway -- gotta go soak up that currant bun for a change.

Sitting in the Midday Sun sample