Monday, December 29, 2008

"Travelin' Man" / Ricky Nelson

I've been intending to get hold of some Ricky Nelson tunes for months now. I don't know what triggered this . . . maybe listening to Paul McCartney's cover of "Lonesome Town" on Run Devil Run; maybe an article discussing legendary guitarist James Burton, who did some of his finest work with Ricky; maybe it was the unexpectedly large trove of Ricky Nelson artifacts at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last summer? But there I was this afternoon in an FYE record store, sifting through bins and bins of post-holiday discounted CDs, and this Ricky Nelson greatest hits compilation just jumped out at me. For two bucks, I figured, I couldn't lose. I've been playing it all afternoon, and I'm truly digging it.

I was too young for the Elvis Presley thing (in my household, Elvis definitely means Costello), but I do have fuzzy early memories of Ricky Nelson on the old black-and-white Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. I swear, even as a little kid, I cynically assumed that Ricky only got to sing on TV because his folks owned the show. Sure, his records sold, but teenage girls were bound to buy them -- Ricky Nelson at 16 was just about the most gorgeous thing that television had ever offered. Even I could tell that.

It took me years to realize that Ricky Nelson was a credible rockabilly artist; if anything, being a TV personality probably worked against him getting the respect he deserved. (Well, that and the fact that he still had to release a certain number of soppy ballads for the teenage idol market. )

I remember watching his performance of "Travelin' Man" from 1961 -- a segment that's been called the first music video, a montage dropped into the end of the show to promote Ricky's new single. It worked, evidently, because this single shot to #1. (The fact that the flip side was "Hello Mary Lou" couldn't have hurt, either. ) Apparently the songwriter, Jerry Fuller, first wrote this song for Sam Cooke, and oh man, he'd have done a lovely job with it, I can just imagine. But Ricky snapped it right up, and his version is pure gold.

The Beach Boys' "California Girls," and by extension the Beatles' "Back in the USSR," lead straight back to this song, a rockin' atlas of love in three verses plus chorus. Yes, it's a Tin Pan Alley conceit, about all the girls that this footloose guy has stringing along; even Ricky's ultra-sincere delivery can't entirely subdue the caddish subtext, as he lists these adoring women from Mexico to Alaska to Germany to Hong Kong to Polynesia to Hawaii (what a 50s list of hotspots that is!). It isn't exactly autobiography, but after all Ricky did have a world-wide legion of adoring fans by then -- that had to add a little spark of authenticity to the single.

Know what? This song still works. That liquid melody, laid over a light cha-cha-cha beat, with the doo-wop backup chorus -- it glides along with such a light, suave touch. I love how the key shifts upward, longingly, for that chorus: "Oh my sweet Fraulein down in Berlin town / Makes my heart start to yearn / And my China doll down in old Hong Kong / Waits for my return." Sexist? Yeah, probably, and racist too. Come to think of it, Sam Cooke might have detected those darker undertones; maybe that's why he passed on this song. But smooth-faced Ricky Nelson, with those innocent blue bedroom eyes -- he totally got away with it.

Okay, so youthful rebellion wasn't his thing; he wasn't selling himself as a dangerous wildcat. Ricky Nelson was the safe alternative to Elvis, the one the nice girls preferred; his honey-like voice didn't have the jolt, or the guttural snarl, that Presley had. (Think of him as Paul to Elvis' John.) On the other hand, Ricky Nelson didn't need to have the camera fixed rigidly above the waist -- hell, the guy barely even moved his lips when he sang, let alone swivel his pelvis. He made rock and roll palatable to anxious middle-class parents across the nation; if Ozzie and Harriet could let their beloved youngest son dabble in this new music, maybe it wasn't so dangerous after all.

Little did they know where all that would lead...

Travelin' Man sample

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"In These Shoes?" / Kirsty MacColl

It's a bittersweet thing, to discover the wonderful music of someone you never knew about before -- and then to learn that he/she has already died. The more I explore this woman's music, the more poignant her death(she was hit by a speeding powerboat while scuba diving in Mexico in 2000) seems to me.

From what I can work out, Kirsty had lousy career timing and luck (nearly as bad as the Kinks on that score). Her cheery 1979 pop hit "They Don't Know" was instantly familiar to me, but I'll bet it was Tracy Ullman's 1983 cover that I really remember; Kirsty never got a lot of airplay in the States, despite high-profile collaborations with the Pogues and the Smiths. Somehow I never even heard her cover of the Kinks' "Days," which would definitely have got me interested. Those guest appearances on the French and Saunders show? I never saw those either, not until recently.

The album of hers I've mostly been listening to lately is her last one, Tropical Brainstorm, which had just been released at the time of her tragic death. It's full of sambas and other world music sounds, which combine very nicely with her sly, tart wit. The sort of chuckle in her voice as she sings "In These Shoes?" strikes a perfect balance -- on one hand, it seems she's making fun of fashion victim women in stilettos, but on the other, she's relishing their power to short-circuit male mind games.

Each verse is a different scenario, with some Indiana Jones/James Bond type marching up and asking Kirsty to go climb a mountain, ride off on a horse, or walk geisha-like on his back. I can just imagine the droll crook of her eyebrow as she replies every time, "I said 'In these shoes? / I don't think so' / I said 'Honey, let's do it here.'" Her velvety mezzo-soprano glides over the bossa nova beat, caressing each word with just a hint of irony ("I once met a man with a sense of adventure," "In walks a guy with a faraway look in his eyes," or "Won't you walk up and down my spine, /It makes me feel strangely alive.") But her invitation to "do it here" gets just the right sexy purr -- and you can bet they're gonna take her up on her offer. She just skewers these macho guys, lounging back and remaining totally, femininely in control.

There's something confiding and knowing in Kirsty MacColl's voice that makes me feel like I'm dishing the dirt with a girlfriend; she's not the competition, she's sharing the joke with me. I've got several of her songs now on a playlist I call simply "Chicks" -- it's full of tracks like this, sung by smart, confident women who aren't afraid to be who they are. (Bonnie Raitt, Aimee Mann, Jill Sobule, Thea Gilmore, Jenny Lewis, Susan Cowsill, Cyndi Lauper, Annie Lennox, Dusty Springfield -- those kinds of chicks.) After a great weekend with my special fangirl girlfriends, I'm hungering for this kind of company. Kirsty seems like she'd have been fun to hang with -- I'm so sorry I never got the chance.

In These Shoes sample

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Lonesome for You Now" / Greg Trooper

What, you've never heard of Greg Trooper? Well, it's time to rectify that error. Forget the fact that iTunes classifies his music as either folk or country; this guy can easily cut loose with a rocker or slide into a mellow R&B groove when the spirit moves him. His musical heroes from early on? Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, and Hank Williams -- now there's a trinity for you. Frankly, the country label's the one I think fits him the least; I suspect it's been slapped on him because he lives in Nashville, and because artists like Steve Earle and Vince Gill and Robert Earl Keen have recorded his songs (then how do you account for the fact that Billy Bragg has too?).

Here's how neglected this cat is: Amazon doesn't have mp3s available for any of his three in-print albums; his first three CDs, of course, are out-of-print and there just aren't that many copies floating around. He plays smaller venues, and performs sporadically; why, he's still bookable for house parties, and he has been considering doing his next album (which I gather he's recording right now) as a privately-financed endeavor. If this isn't proof that the record industry is messed up, I don't know what is.

So even though you'll have to scramble to find his music (the more recent albums are at least on iTunes, thank goodness), I promise you it'll be worth it if you appreciate some high-quality Americana. This particular song -- from his 2005 album Make It Through This World -- is the sort of track I love more every time I hear it.

The tempo's relaxed and weary, a sort of waltzy two-step that's like one long exhalation. It's a song from the road, the lament of a touring artist who just want to go home and be with his sweetheart (read wife) -- he's been at this long enough, the charm of life on the road has pretty much worn off. "The sun is shining / On the Belfast road today," he begins this tour diary, and the melodic phrases rise hopefully, it seems things are going well -- "Now folks are lined up / To hear the music play" -- but the next line drops in the undertow of reality: "And I'm so lonesome for you now." Right alongside the glimmer of success on the horizon is the dull pain of missing her, and right now that's the only thing that really matters to him. Oh, sure, he's aware of his career: "I'm more than flattered / Someone finally knows my name / There's a red carpet / I've never stood so close to fame / And I'm so lonesome for you now." It's like a toothache, and it just won't go away.

What I love is the balance of this song; he's completely aware that life isn't black and white. He's happy that his concerts are starting to sell out, especially after being at it so long. In the third verse, he indulges in a little imagery: "Down the mountain / A glacier makes its way / Eyes can't see / The progress it makes / It's a long journey / But I found out the ice will break" -- but you know by now what that last line of the verse has got to be: "Still I'm so lonesome for you now."

I love the hoarse, plangent edge to Trooper's voice (I sure do hear Otis Redding in this). I love how patient that tempo is, nothing frantic or overheated at all. It's taken him a long time to get even this smidgeon of fame, and he's sure not taking it for granted. But still -- hey, he's human. And he loves her. Somehow, that manages to be incredibly sexy.

Don't be fooled by that easy soulful tempo or the ruminating lyrics -- this is less-is-more songwriting at its finest, that deft light touch, the disciplined structure, the ruthless hewing to a single conceit. And here's the mark of a skilled songwriter: it doesn't even sound like he's working too hard at it. This song is like butter.

PS I couldn't find a sample of this particular track, but check out Greg Trooper's website for various audio clips -- you won't be sorry!

Friday, December 19, 2008

"You Want Her Too" /
Paul McCartney & Elvis Costello

Well, if anything's gonna knock Ray Davies out of my head, this double-whammy should do it. I'm fascinated by the all-star friendship between these two guys, two of the major forces in my rock fan life; when they started collaborating with each other in the late 80s, it blew my mind. The night I went to Carnegie Hall to see the American debut of Paul's Ecce Cor Meum, when I looked back at Paul's box and saw Elvis sitting there as his guest, I just about LOST IT.

Once upon a time, Elvis and Paul represented two competing eras to me, but as time has passed, the difference between British Invasion and New Wave seems irrelevant. What these guys have in common matters more -- incredible virtuosity, insatiable musical curiosity, and an uncritical enthusiasm for show biz. Sure, Elvis has managed to preserve a degree of hipster cool (even duetting with Burt Bacharach in an Austin Powers movie couldn't shake that) while Paul . . . well, he wrote "Silly Love Songs" -- need I say more? But when all is said and done, he was a Beatle. Nothing in the world could ever be cooler than that.

One of my favorite tracks on Elvis' Spike is their co-written song "Pads, Paws, and Claws," but their work together on Macca's 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt is the stuff that really gets me. This album helped to restore McCartney's critical reputation after a run of pretty lackluster albums, and I can't help but think that Costello was responsible for knocking Paul back into this better groove. (Later, I'm convinced, Elvis helped pull Paul out of his grief after Linda's death by getting him to record Run Devil Run.) Well, clearly I spend an unhealthy amount of time speculating about the private lives of these two men; but hey, if this is what it takes to make me stop thinking about Ray, so be it.

But back to the song. This one's a proper duet, most of it call-and-response, with both singers also principal characters in the story. Like the title suggests, they're both lusting after the same woman, which charges the whole thing with dramatic tension. After a jittery synth intro (it sounds like a string section playing frenzied chase music), it launches into an aggressive 3/4 tempo, like some kind of manic waltz, underlaid with whacking drums; Paul soulfully wails the main melody, while Elvis carries on a sarcastic patter underneath. "She makes me go so wrong," Paul begins, drawing out those long vowels, then Elvis butts in nastily, "yeah, you kept me awake, you know you did" (I picture them talking all night, drunk, on some crappy sofa). "I've loved her oh so long," Paul goes on moping, and I can just see Elvis rolling his eyes as he interjects, "so why don't you come right out and say it, stupid?" Paul is in full-throated Oh! Darling mode, while Elvis has got on his muttering I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea attitude -- and yet, yoked together this way, it totally works.

In verse two, there's even more face-off: "My intentions are quite sincere," the ever-sincere cute Beatle declares, but Elvis snipes, "that's not what you said the other night"; hurt and annoyed, Paul comes back with, "And all you can do is sneer," to which Elvis sneers, "Go ahead and kid yourself you're right." They're worse than Joey and Chandler on Friends.

It seems Paul has the edge with the chick. (Well, duh!) In the bridge, he even says so -- "I've got a better chance than you do" -- but is he just trying to convince himself? He lashes back at his snarky friend by telling him, in a patch laid down with oddly Beatlesque exotic texture, "You're such a hopeless romantic / She told me you're so predictable and nice, / She only did you a favour once or twice, / Once or twice." A favor? Ouch. But that "once or twice" is suspiciously vague, isn't it? I mean, let's be honest, once is a favor -- twice is something else.

Back to the waltz, and the guys are at each others' throats: "She makes me go so wrong / (so why don't you lie back and enjoy it)? / My conscience is clear and strong / (Yes, she says I'm just the boy for it)." By the third time the chorus rolls around, when Paul sings, "She makes me do things I don't want to do," I really believe it. The weird thing is, I pick up plenty of affection between these two guys, but neither of them really seems to like the woman at all. The worst thing she makes him do is to keep on torturing his lovesick buddy with this crap, and yet there he goes again -- "I don't know why I should be telling you / I know that you want her too." What kind of a woman is this -- and why is it that the bitches always get the cute boys??

You Want Her Too sample

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Maybe After He's Gone" / The Zombies

If I was too besotted with the White Album in 1968 to pay attention to The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, there was no way I would have been aware of Odessey & Oracle. Oh, yeah, I'd bought the Zombies' first single, the haunting "She's Not There," but they never made much of a dent in the American market, and I soon lost track of them. By the time Odessey & Oracle was released, the discouraged Zombies had officially disbanded. With no band to promote it, the album languished in obscurity, except for one single, "Time of the Season," which scored a fluky burst of posthumous success.

Over the years, though, this "forgotten" album gathered a cult reputation. (To mark its 40th anniversary, all four surviving Zombies reformed in March 2008 to perform the album in its entirety at the Shepherd's Bush Empire Theatre -- what a show that must have been!) When I listen to these songs, though, there's no haze of nostalgia coloring them -- after all, I only discovered the album a few years ago. But in a blind listening test, I'm not sure I'd pick it as a late 60s record. This music sounds anything but dated.

Just listen to this third track, "Maybe After He's Gone," which was written by the Zombies' bassist, Chris White (the same guy who wrote "You Make Me Feel Good" and "I Love You" and "Beechwood Park," among my favorite Zombies songs). That moody minor-key melody grabs you from the very beginning, as the singer (Colin Blunstone) recalls, his voice plaintively soft over acoustic guitar, "She told me she loved me / With words as soft as morning rain." The tempo lags anxiously after the beat; that fugitive melody skips and dodges all over the place, though Blunstone's acute sense of pitch hits every note. You just know there's a "but" coming, and here it is: "But the light that fell upon me / Turned to shadow when he came," ending with a chillingly dissonant chord. It's a story of love lost, in full folk mode.

And then suddenly, abruptly, it changes; the song explodes with a burst of lush major-key harmonies, backed by drums and a driving electric piano, as the singer (and friends) declare, "Maybe after he's gone / She'll come back and love me again / Maybe after he's gone / She'll come back and want me again." That dense texture is almost dizzying in contrast; curiously, it sounds more like the Beach Boys, circa Pet Sounds, than like any other British band of the time. It may be sheer bravado -- do we really believe for a moment that she'll ever come back? -- but the emotion is intoxicating.

Pensively, Colin goes on in acoustic mode, "I remember joy and pain / Her smile, her tears are part of me." (Lovely parallelism.) A background vocal weaves around in counterpoint, as if to underscore how divided his consciousness is. "I feel I'll never breathe again / I feel life's gone from me" -- the breathiness of Blunstone's choirboy voice was never more appropriate. As the song rambles on, there's no story to be told, no striking details to convey -- it's all atmosphere and mood, all grief and baffled desire. And every time that frenzied chorus breaks out -- even at the end, when it goes a cappella -- the idea that she'll come back seems less and less likely.

What a cruel irony -- that their swan song released a flood of creativity the Zombies would never follow up on; and that it had to compete head to head against the White Album, of all records. I wonder what I'd have made of it in 1968; now I'll never know. Still, better to find it late than never!

Maybe After He's Gone sample

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Village Green Preservation Society" / The Kinks

Forgive me for being a little out of the loop over the past few days -- but after last weekend's show, I'm deep in Ray Davies World, and once there it's always very hard to get out. So please forgive me one last Kinks-related post.

I really didn't expect to hear this song last Friday night. Ray has often enough sung the pensive ballad "Village Green" from the same 1968 album, but this title track is much more of an oddity. Forget music hall; this song goes all the way into military brass band territory, minus an oompah here or there. (The only thing that keeps it in the rock repertoire at all is Dave Davies' guitar licks, and some loony Beach Boy-ish oohs in the middle eight.) It's the earnest chirpy anthem of the village green's defenders, and I can almost imagine it done a la Monty Python, sung by men in tweed caps and women in twin sets and sensible shoes.

If you've ever seen Ray Davies live, you know that he really doesn't let you escape without singing along to every song -- and stumbling through the lyrics last Friday, I realized how hard it is to keep straight all the many aliases Ray claims for the Kinks: the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society, the Draught Beer Preservation Society, the Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium, the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular, the Office Block Persecution Affinity, the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate. (I think there really is a Draught Beer Preservation Society, isn't there?). Those last two are like lead-ins to "Muswell Hillbillies," those cookie-cutter towers where the relocated villagers are asked to move. The fact that Fortis Green -- the North London neighborhood where the Davies brothers grew up -- is hardly an idyllic English village is beside the point.

We did a little better with all the retro items that we are requested to help save: Donald Duck, Vaudeville, Variety, strawberry jam (and all the different varieties), Mrs. Mopp, Old Mother Riley, Fu Manchu, Moriarty, Dracula, Tudor houses, antique tables, billiards, and (my favorite trio) "little shops, china cups, and virginity." Some of this is incredibly arcane, but those three fragile items tucked lovingly in there are just too precious. And the cleverest rhyme of all? To rhyme with "consortium", "God save the George Cross and all those who were awarded 'em." You really have to be quick to get all those syllables in.

It's all about "preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you / What more can we do." What more can we do, indeed? These things needed preserving in 1968; it's even more urgent nowadays. This song should be dated, but it isn't at all -- in fact, Ray's still pleading the case of the dying High Street in "Working Man's Cafe," which came out just this year. It fit into Friday night's show just fine.

It must be amazing to have a catalog this deep. Ray can keep reaching into that treasure trove and pull out new songs for every tour; for every show, practically. I never thought I'd see him sing this song (or "Starstruck" or "Shangri-La"); we got all three Friday night. No wonder I'm still dazed!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Working Man's Cafe" / Ray Davies

Darn! I came on here this morning, all charged up to write about two of my favorite Kinks songs, which Ray Davies performed last night at this over-the-top fabulous show at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I never thought I'd hear either of them performed live, and there they were, more glorious and wonderful than I could ever have expected. But lo and behold, I've already written here about Shangri-La and Starstruck. (Well, I said they were two of my favorites, didn't I?) Then I was gonna write about The Getaway, one of my favorites among Ray's solo tracks -- but guess what? I wrote about that one last March, the last time I saw Ray live.

But never fear -- Ray's got a million of 'em! And now I realize I haven't yet gushed sufficiently about "Working Man's Cafe," the title song from Ray's most recent album. (It's impressive how Ray can perform this new solo stuff alongside the vintage Kinks classics, and it fits right in.) Last night Ray prefaced this one with an anecdote about trying to meet his brother Dave for a chat at some cafe Dave knew about, and when Ray got there, it had disappeared. Anytime one of Ray's songs references Dave, you know it runs deep -- that tortured relationship he has with his little brother is all tangled up in his own ambivalence about being true to his working-class roots and yet being a rich and celebrated artist.

So on the surface, yes, this song is a passionate cry against the loss of the English High Street, to be replaced with samey chain stores and those bland wannabe-American mini-malls. (Check out my book 500 Places To See Before They Disappear for my own lament on this topic.) But as always, Ray goes introspective and brings his personal conflict into this song. He sounds genuinely lost and befuddled as he begins, "Looking for the working man's café / In the shopping centre of the town / Looking for somewhere to fit in / In among the retail outlets." I love how those lines toggle melodically back and forth between two notes, like he's looking for a chord that fits; he sings it so plaintively, too. He can cope just fine in this brave new world, but a sense of loss still haunts him -- " Bought a pair of new designer pants /Where the fruit and veg man used to stand /I always used to see him there /Selling old apples and pears / Chatting up the pretty girls /With knocked-off goods in the van." Now you tell me, which type of store has more character?

Ray's even willing to admit that this is progress: "We've really come a long way down this road / Improving our surroundings as we go / Changing our roots and culture / But don't you know..." This is more nuanced than the anti-modernization protests of "Village Green Preservation Society" (another amazing song he sang last night). Now, Ray plumbs the situation for all its poignancy, raising a howl of sorrow as he swings into the chorus: "Long ago / There was a working man / Don't you know / We were all working men." And what's lost is the gentle humanity of that past, when "we'd sit and pass the time of day / At the working man's café."

Next verse, he's trying to meet up (with his brother, we now know, via cell phone), and the rhymes disappear, the melodic line falters, as he stumbles uncertainly: "I thought I knew you then, but will I know you now / There's gotta be a place for us to meet / I'll call you when I've found it / I only hope that life has made us a little more grounded / Hey man, I see you now." Later on, he gets more topical, though still bemused, as he sings about loans and mortgages (hmm, he does that in "Shangri-La," too -- financial dealings really do make Ray nuts) and contrasts the working man's cafe to the internet cafes that have replaced it. And then he bursts out in a poignant self-assertion -- "I'm the kid with the greasy spoon / Firmly held in my hand." That is, in the end, who he wants to be; at any rate, he never wants to lose that part of himself.

With some performers, at this stage in their career, this would just be a pose. Does anybody believe the common-man attitudes the Rolling Stones and Bruce Stringsteen still crank out? (I buy it from Paul McCartney, because I think he's deluded enough to really believe he's still an ordinary guy.) But Ray? He's not trying to sell us a bill of goods; he's just fretting over whether he's working-class anymore. Of course he isn't; what's important is that he wants to be (well, sometimes at least). That sense of loss, and that struggle, make this song so much more interesting than a simple diatribe against malls.

Introspection, irony, poignancy -- this is why Ray Davies is my favorite songwriter. In case you're wondering.

Working Man's Cafe sample

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"She Loves You" / The Beatles

In this book I've been reading, Please Please Me, Gordon Thompson does a fantastic job of analyzing Lennon & McCartney's songwriting process (for that alone this book is worth reading, and I haven't even gotten yet to the section on Ray Davies). But there was one thing Thompson wrote that's really bugging me. He mentions that "She Loves You" -- one of those early Beatle hits that's so familiar, I hardly ever listen to it anymore -- was patterned after a snazzy Tony Hatch song, recorded by Bobby Rydell, called "Forget Him" ("Forget him, if he doesn't love you / Forget him, if he doesn't ca-a-a-are..."). Thompson then describes "She Loves You" as a message song, in which the narrator is at a psychological distance from the relationship he's talking about. Now, hold on, Mr. T -- am I missing something?

The way I've always heard this song, the narrator is NOT at a distance from this relationship. When he sings, "With a love like that / You know you should be glad," I hear envy just hissing out his ears. That's certainly the scenario in the Rydell song -- the punch line of the chorus is "Forget him and please come home to me." In "She Loves You," though, the soap opera's a bit more complicated. The narrator been turned into a go-between -- "You think you lost your love? / Well, I saw her yesterday / It's you she thinking of / And she told me what to say." I see him as a sort of Cyrano here -- he's delivering the message, but even as he advises them on how to get back together, a part of him wishes desperately he could get her for himself.

Lennon & McCartney underscore that rhythmically and harmonically; "with a love like that" comes out all punchy and staccato, on a dissonant C minor sixth chord, only to melt longingly into the fluid, sinous line "you know you should be glad," which shifts from D to D7 and finally resolves into G, like an escaping sigh of desire. It's as if he's saying, "what's wrong with you, you jerk, that you don't appreciate this amazing girl?" And just hear that lonesome E minor chord on the first "She loves you" -- this news that they're getting back together does not makes him happy. I'm betting that when he saw her yesterday, he was getting ready to make his move -- until she started confiding in him, and there he was, stuck in the role of a comforting shoulder to cry on. Love can be cruel.

This kind of emotional complexity was a big part of what made the Beatles special. "If I Fell" is full of dark warnings about to his potential new girlfriend about not hurting him the way his ex did. "Another Girl" is all about the old girl, really. And I can't think of a pop song that gets all the ugliness of a dying relationship down as well as "For No One." And here's the kicker -- I don't even think they were conscious of doing it. John and Paul were always madly scribbling these songs, in the front parlor or on a tour bus or in a hotel room. (Like Paul's grandfather describes their existence in Hard Day's Night: "I've been in a car and a train and a car and a room and a room and a room..."). These weren't intensely polished, conscious literary creations; this was just what came out.

Man. I forget sometimes how great they were. Then I start listening to them again and I'm completely blown away, all over again.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Cleaning Windows" / Van Morrison

Still reading that book about 1960s British pop, and the author mentioned a song by George Formby called "When I'm Cleaning Windows" as a typical example of British songwriting before the Beatles. Now, I know hardly anything about George Formby except that he played the ukelele and sang corny music-hall-style comedy numbers in the 1930s and 1940s; he was apparently a real national icon, though. The only song of his I recognize is "Leaning On the Lamppost," which later became a sort of novelty hit for Herman's Hermits in the US (in the UK, they'd never have gone for it). But as soon as I read that song title "When I'm Cleaning Windows," I thought of this copasetic track from Van Morrison. I'll bet anything Van knew that Formby song, but what he did with it is worlds away from a plinking ukelele and yuk-yuk comedy.

Infuriating as Van Morrison can be, I'm still willing to forgive him everything when he swings like this. This is from his 1982 album Beautiful Vision (though I'll admit I only know it from a greatest hits collection -- I'm no Van completist). It lands squarely in his "I'm just an ordinary guy" line of songs, which are completely contradicted by his Celtic mystic songs, but so be it. The recurring line that seems to be the heart of this song is in the chorus, a swiftly rapped-out bit of Formby-esque patter: "I'm a working man in my prime / Cleaning windows."

But the only thing Van's song shares with Formby's, really, is the subject and a certain sort of chirpy upbeat tempo. I'm guessing that Van really did work as a window cleaner at some point in his life; whereas Formby was all about the window cleaner leering through the glass for naughty glimpses of people's lives, Van's has the ring of experience in the jaunty way he describes carrying ladders past wrought-iron railings, or cleaning a lady's fanlight. More than anything, though, it's a testament to a slacker lifestyle. Sure, he's got this menial job, but in his spare time he's having a damn good time. "I went home and listened to Jimmie Rodgers / In my lunch-break / Bought five Woodbines at the shop on the corner / And went straight back to work....We went for lemonade and Paris buns / At the shop and broke for tea ... I was blowing saxophone on the weekend / In that down joint." He doesn't even bother to make things rhyme; this is more like a diary than a crafted song. He cheerfully insists that he's happy cleaning windows -- but it's not all that he's about.

We've all had periods like this in our lives, haven't we? Golden times when we were content to live in the moment. I'm thinking back to a summer in Indianapolis when I worked the cash register at Lobraico's Rexall pharmacy and wrote at nights for my friends' start-up magazine, InCity; I didn't know at the time how rare that carefree little interlude in my life would be.

In the second verse, Van lays out chapter two of his musical autobiography in a nutshell: "I heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon / On the street where I was born / Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, Muddy Waters singing 'I'm a rolling stone' / I went home and read my Christmas Humphrey's book on Zen / Curiosity Killed the Cat / Kerouac's Dharma Bums and On the Road." It's like he turned to his turntable and nightable and just transcribed what was sitting there. It's poignant to think of this kid in Belfast greedily sucking in American blues and beat lit, as if real life was gonna happen somewhere else. But there's no mistaking how deeply he absorbed that stuff; this song has such an irresistible R&B groove, with delirious flourishes from a tight horn section, and Van's voice is a rare and beautiful thing, the way it shades from growl to croon to bark to flutter to howl.

"What's my life?" he triumphantly announces; "I'm a-happy cleaning windows / Take my time / I'll see you when my love grows ." You can just hear the grown-up rock star yearning back to that innocent, uncomplicated time; hell, he's making me nostalgic for it, and I've never set foot in Belfast. This is wonderful stuff indeed -- who needs George Formby?

PS: I'm assuming there's some major Van Morrison career retrospective box set going to come out soon, because so many of the early albums and even the earlier "best of" compilations seem to be discontinued on Amazon. Listen to the sample on iTunes, though, if you're so enabled -- it's a blast.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

"Hurdy-Gurdy Man" / Donovan

I'm deep into a new book called Please, Please Me: Sixties British Pop Inside Out by Gordon Thompson, so all I can think about right now is UK pop from the 1960s (I know, I know, that's hardly a change for me). While this doesn't have all the salacious details about rock star lives that I was kinda hoping for, it's great on stuff like who engineered which track, how they created certain sound effects, how various songs evolved, and who really played the drums for the Dave Clark Five. And I'm just enough of a record geek to care.

I was too young when these records first came out to pay attention to technical stuff like this, but according to Thompson, "Hurdy-Gurdy Man" has been called by some sources the first Led Zeppelin recording, because most of the members of the band -- which hadn't yet formed -- were called in for the recording session. Thompson insists that this wasn't the case. John Paul Jones, Led Zep's eventual bassist -- at the time a very in-demand session musician -- was the musical director for the session. But instead of having John Bonham on the drums, Jones called in Clem Cattini, who'd long been his go-to drummer, and he hired Alan Parker for guitar instead of Jimmy Page (another popular session man, though his claim to have played Dave Davies' part on early Kinks recordings is apocryphal).

Well, I'm no Led Zep fan, so the exact personnel doesn't really matter to me. Still, I couldn't stop listening to this track after reading this. It's such a fantastic number, moody and ominous in a way that Donovan's early folky music hadn't been. There's the minor key, of course, and the hynotically repeated, downward-sliding melodies; there's the exaggerated tremble of Donovan's voice, sounding almost artifically distorted. When this came out in 1968, that psychedelic texture was still something novel and exciting. Sure, Donovan had already given us "Sunshine Superman" and "Mellow Yellow," so we knew that our sweet Scottish flower child was exploring the wonderful world of drugs. But the darkness of "Hurdy Gurdy Man," the disconnected groping for meaning, was a whole new dimension.

"Thrown like a star in my vast sleep," he begins, in a hushed and haunting voice, "I open my eyes to take a peep /To find that I was by the sea / Gazing with tranquility." But there's no tranquility here; a military drum fill erupts, then an exotic Indian tambura, then that insinuating sliding guitar line, like a foghorn moaning through the night. "Twas then when the hurdy gurdy man / Came singing songs of love," Donovan intones, but it sure doesn't sound like a song of love. "Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, gurdy he sang," Donovan repeats, like he's in a trance. Whatever this mind-blowing message of the hurdy gurdy man is, it comes off as mumbled nonsense.

What's a hurdy gurdy man doing here? I visualize an Italian street-corner musician with a handlebar mustache, hardly the groovy hippie image you'd expect. and Wikipedia tell me that the song was in fact written as a gift for Donovan's mentor Mac MacLeod, whose band was named Hurdy Gurdy, but once the song was written Donovan decided not to give him the song and recorded it himself. Too bad -- that prosaic explanation takes all the fun out of it. I like to imagine the Hurdy Gurdy Man as a mysterious figure like the Fool on the Hill, a magus who has all the answers, while we unenlightened souls can only hear it as gibberish.

It gets even more portentous in the next verse: "Histories of ages past / Unenlightened shadows cast / Down through all eternity /The crying of humanity." When you see the words printed out baldly like that, it's pretty silly, isn't it? But not when it's sung, over that insistent drum beat in that spooky echoey voice. And then the hurdy gurdy man becomes, for no discernible reason, a "rolypoly man -- roly poly, roly poly, roly poly, poly he sang . . . " It should sound cute and cuddly, but it's anything but. You just want to dive into those tangled skeins of sound and lose yourself.

Hurdy Gurdy Man sample

Monday, December 08, 2008

"Gravity Rides Everything" / Modest Mouse

Why haven't I written about Modest Mouse before? Probably for the same reason that I still haven't downloaded We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Every time I hear one of their songs, I think to myself, "I really like this band; these guys are seriously good." And yet, somehow, they haven't become One of My Bands. It's a mysterious process, why you take one band to your heart and not another.

And yet, and yet . . . I do love this song. Those weird distorted throbbing sound waves of the opening (just a guitar and bongos played backwards, no?) -- they sound so "modern," but in a retro Sputnik way, and right from the start I'm feeling disoriented and jumpy. Then Isaac Brock's vocals slide in over a tense strumming acoustic guitar, like a landing jet: "Ohhhhhhhhhhhh / Gotta see, gotta know right now." Yep, we are stockpiling anxiety already, and his distinctive flat quaver expresses it perfectly. "What's that riding on your everything?" he asks, edgily, then reassures himself in a sort of kneejerk singsong: "It isn't anything at all." But he isn't really comforted; immediately he swoops back into "Ohhhhhhhh / Gotta see, gotta know right now."

Don't expect narrative, or concrete desciption, but if what you want is postmodern moodiness, well they've got that in spades. He goes on queruously, "What's that riding on your shelf / In the bathrooms / And the bad motels?" Strictly speaking, this means nothing, but it's all code for rootlessness and impermanence. "No one really cared for it at all, " he adds, "Not the gravity plan." What in the hell is a gravity plan?

Well, that's where the second verse comes in. The guitar part turns jangly electric and more insistent as he continues, "Early / Early in the morning / It pulls all on down my sore feet / I wanna go back to sleep." Whatever this "It" is, he sure doesn't want to face it. And now we finally see the bad relationship, or at any rate the not-working-out relationship: "In the motions and the things that you say / 'It all will fall, / Fall right into place.'" (I love how he double-tracks the vocals to mimic her talking.) I can just see this woman, in a groggy sort of slow-mo scene, gesticulating, and the suck of inevitability pulling him further into this liaison. Then undertow of panic and helplessness starts to overwhelm him, because this is the "gravity plan" -- "As fruit drops, flesh it sags," he warily describes it. Swiftly, the singsongy doubled vocals chime in, "'Everything will fall/Fall right into place.'" As if that's a good thing.

To me, this is the epitome of indie rock. It's absolutely saturated with neurosis, fear of commitment, emotional ambivalence, obsession with death and decay, the whole nine yards. The lyrics are cryptic, and don't even rhyme. But that hypnotic rhythm, with its odd syncopations and harsh sonic textures, tells you more than the lyrics about how trapped this guy feels. It has nothing to do with relating to the situation; I hear this song and for four minutes and twenty seconds, I too feel weirded out and longing to escape from a sterile entanglement. And then the song's over and I go back to being me. Now there's musical magic for you.

Gravity Rides Everything sample

Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Dear Boy" / Paul McCartney

I'm still mad at the Beatles for breaking up. How dare they?! The only consolation I had back in 1970 was that at least Paul McCartney was still making records, and of course I loved them. I was obsessed for months with his first solo effort McCartney, his handmade homemade one-man show with that spilled bowl of cherries on the front and the scrapbook of happy family snapshots inside (man, how jealous I was of Linda McCartney!). Totally unlike the Beatles' densely crafted LPs, it seemed wild and unpolished and vital and divine. And it wasn't long before the prolific Mr. McCartney cranked out another one, the equally primitive Ram.

I suppose if I listened to these records now for the first time, I'd think they were silly. So many of these songs are little more than fragments, scraps of private meanderings that only Paul could decipher. But I'll never know what my honest critical reaction would have been; all I know is that I love love love these records to death.

McCartney was recorded before the Beatles broke up (in fact it precipitated the break-up); Ram was written and recorded after all that brouhaha, and therefore this is the one we have to look to for "messages" about the Beatles. That photo of two beetles screwing each other on the back of the album cover is hard to miss, isn't it? And the song "Too Many People" seemed pretty clearly aimed at the other Beatles. But apparently John Lennon smarted when he first heard "Dear Boy," too, thinking it was written about him ("Guess you never knew, dear boy, what you had found...Hope you never know, dear boy, how much you missed.") Paul, though, has said it was written to Linda's ex-husband, marveling that anyone would have let such a woman go. That does make more sense out of lines like "she was just the cutest thing around" and "When I stepped in, my heart was down and out, / But her love came through and brought me round / Got me up and about." Of course, that didn't stop John from going off and writing the supremely nasty, bitter "How Do You Sleep?" in retaliation.

Well, anyway, back to the song McCartney did write. Forget the lyrics; it's the melody and the syncopation that make this song so irresistible. A pounded piano takes the place of the signature McCartney bass line, climbing darkly up beneath a tripping melody; that capricious rhythm keeps you delightfully off balance as the minor-key melody circles around. It's a simple song, but he keeps layering on more textures, with guitars and drums and backing harmonies and a vocal counterpoint. I could make up all sorts of reasons why this dense tapestry of sound suits the theme of the song, but this is Paul McCartney after all; he probably just did it because he liked the way it sounded. Well, when you've been blessed with the amount of sheer musical instinct this guy has, you can afford to operate like that.

It sure sucks me into its vortex, anyway. The melody's so restless, the rhythm so edgy, it makes me almost intoxicated. I know that the very sound of this man's voice sends me into a special zone; there's no accounting for the way I love McCartney's music. But really, anyone but the worst kind of music snob has to admit this is fine stuff indeed.

Dear Boy sample

Saturday, December 06, 2008

"Girls Talk" / Dave Edmunds

Elvis Costello himself admits (in the CD insert for the Rhino reissue of Get Happy) that he gave this song to Dave Edmunds "in a moment of drunken bravado." I'd sure like to have been a fly on the wall witnessing that moment in rock history. Edmunds wound up with a UK #2 hit, whereas Elvis -- whose career was just beginning to spin away from being the critics' darling -- never could quite get the song right. Listen to his anxiety-addled version on the bonus disc of Get Happy; Dave, however, nudged the tempo down a notch and gave the whole thing a genial, bouncy rockabilly twang that works perfectly. Yeah, he knows that all the girls are gossiping about him, and he knows he'll end up screwed by it. Still, you get the feeling he loves the girls anyway. As a girl myself, I know whose record I wanted to buy.

The lyrics do have that devilish Costello double-meaning twist; I can't help but giggle when I hear some of these lines. "There are some things you can't cover up / With lipstick and powder," he begins accusingly. "Thought I heard you mention my name / Can't you talk any louder?" (Love the sarcasm.) Then he shifts through a series of uneasy chromatic chord shifts, as if circling and edging his way around the room -- "Don't come any closer / Don't come any nearer / My vision of you can't / Come any clearer." But at the end, Dave's honey-sweet voice lands almost joyfully on the final line, "Oh, I just wanna hear girls talk." He can't keep away from them.

The lyrics swirl around with a lot of vague insinuation; you never really find out what the girls are saying, or who the victim of their gossip is.
"If they say that it's so / Don't they think that I'd know / By now" -- what does that mean? Of course, it wouldn't be an Elvis Costello song if there weren't a vicious jab or two, like "You may not be an old-fashioned girl / But you're gonna get dated" (and the way the line lands darkly on that "dated," you know he's steering you towards the uglier of the two meanings). At one point he hauls out some really odd charges: "Was it really murder / Were you just pretending / Lately I've heard you / Are the living end." It's all fairly baffling, that's for sure.

I don't know whether the girls are making him sour on a girl he was interested in, or whether they've tainted his girlfriend's mind against him, or whether he just feels bad that the girls are putting his girlfriend down. But hey, that's the way overheard gossip and hearsay makes you feel -- even when you don't get the facts straight, you react to the underlying malice. Yet somehow Dave Edmunds rises above the bile-spewing nature of this song and turns it into a upbeat pop gem.

Of course, I'm a little prejudiced in Dave's favor. This track appears on 1979's
Repeat When Necessary, which is, after all, the sort of partner album to Nick Lowe's Labour of Lust. (Edmunds' back-up band, Rockpile -- in which Nick played bass -- at the time was contractually required to play only on Edmunds' or Lowe's solo albums, not on their own.) You can hear Nick's voice chanting "Girls talk" in the back-up chorus. Ah, you knew I'd get to the Nick Lowe connection eventually, didn't you? But I swear, I'd have loved this song anyway. Listen to it; who could help but love this song?

Girls Talk sample

Monday, December 01, 2008

"Human" / The Killers

Please get this one out of my head! These guys were on Saturday Night Live (not even a new show, but a repeat) last weekend and I've been trying to dislodge this song ever since. The thing that bugs me most about it is the refrain -- the grandiose statement (underlaid with self-important synthesized strings), "Are we human? / Or are we dancers?" Well, um...last time I checked, it was entirely possible to be a human and a dancer at the same time. (Oddly enough, one of the internet lyrics sites interprets this line as, "Are we human/ Or are we denser?" But perhaps that is the lyric -- in Sweden.)

For some reason -- and it's not just the grandiosity -- this record sounds to me like Coldplay. And I'm sorry, to me that's not a good thing. Maybe it's the lead singer's yelpy voice, maybe it's the anthemic melody, or maybe it's the cloudy allusions of those lyrics. I think it's a break-up song; at least, that's what all those lines like "cut the cord" and "wave goodbye" hint at. But it doesn't relate to any relationship I recognize. I have to assume that the author/singer/narrator (is this guy's name really Brandon Flowers?) is writing about a real love affair and doesn't want to get too specific. But jeez, could you at least give us something concrete? All this chitter-chatter about "platforms of surrender" and "grace and viritue" and "your systems" -- it's just plain baffling. And boring.

But man, that dance hook works.

And here I am, singing along. "Are we human? / Or are we dancers? / My signs are vital / My hands are cold." It just keeps building and building, like a U2 fever dream, or REM at its most grating and strident. "And I'm on my knees / Looking for the answer --" wait, yes? The answer to life? Does Brandon Flowers really possess the answer to all human existence? He must, he must, because the synths are really going to town now. And here it is, the Secret of Life: "Are we human? / Or are we -- dancers?" HUNH?

Human sample