Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"You Inspire Me" / Nick Lowe

Somewhere here in London -- or rather out in the suburbs, west of where I am sitting in my cramped little hotel room tonight -- Nick Lowe is celebrating his 60th birthday. Sixty is now officially Not Old At All, not if the delightful Mr. Lowe is that age. Don't let his shock of silver hair fool you; this man is in the prime of his life, and at the top of his musical game.

And here's the Nick Lowe song that's been streaming in my brain since I woke up this morning. It's from his 1998 album Dig My Mood, one of my favorites (but what am I saying? ALL Nick Lowe albums are my favorites), the second in his recent quartet of mellow, mature albums. "Country-soul" is the label most often tacked onto Nick's latter-day output, but this song is more jazz than anything else, a laidback two-step with cocktail lounge piano fills and brushed drums. Smooth, sophisticated, effortlessly relaxed, "You Inspire Me" is like the driest of dry martinis, shaken not stirred.

I was thrilled to read in a recent MOJO interview that Nick grooved on his parents' Nat King Cole records when he was a kid; the very first time I heard this track I thought of Nat King Cole. I can just imagine Cole launching into those opening words: "You -- in-- spire me," delivered slowly and grandly, almost like a sweet jazz trumpet. (Come to think of it, Miles Davis could have done a pretty amazing cover of this tune too.)

The song's premise is breathtakingly simple: This woman's very existence somehow saves him, over and over. "You inspire me," he declares over and over, letting his voice creak just so as he describes "When my eyes begin to glaze," or "When I'm on the ground," or "When my well is almost dry," lagging despairingly behind the beat. Her effect is almost magical, as far as he can tell -- "You seem to know / How to pull the blessings down / And spread them all around," his voice soaring as the melody crests on "pull the blessings down." God, I wish someone would write a song like this about me.

Crazily enough, my favorite part of this song is the snazzy little coda, a couplet tacked on to the end of the song: "I don't have to wish upon a star / That's how inspiring you are." Sure, it echoes half a dozen songs from the 50s (Perry Como, anyone?) but there's no more brilliant thief than Nick Lowe. I love how that first line works its way up the scale, the second line curls back down for "that's how inspiring," hangs fire for a beat, then jumps up a dissonant interval on "you are." Instead of neat chord resolution, it bursts out into a new orbit, taking us by surprise -- just the same way her love has surprised him. It's unexpected, and totally dazzling.

Happy birthday, Nick. May you go on writing songs like this for years and years and years.

You Inspire Me sample

Monday, March 16, 2009

"London Song" / Ray Davies

I'm leaving tomorrow evening for a week in London, so I may not be posting for a while. Oh, my hotel over there purportedly has Wi-Fi and all, but I doubt I'm going to want to waste my time in the Big Black Smoke blogging. I may even miss my usual Nick Lowe Birthday post -- and on his 60th birthday, yet! -- but rest assured I'll be celebrating in my own way.

So before I go, I wanted to share this with you. It's definitely one of my favorite odes to London, written by that quintessential Londoner Ray Davies. Part travelogue, part potted history, it's little more than a stream of London placenames, from Chiswick Bridge to East Ham (mostly outlying places that only resident Londoners know), as well as names of famous Londoners, both real (William Blake, Charles Dickens) and fictional (Dick Whittington, Sherlock Holmes). But don't expect some perky tourism promotion -- done as a sort of spoken word set to a jazzy staggered syncopation, it's in a brooding minor key, totally befitting a city Ray describes as "a dark place, a mysterious place" (back-up singers add "it's a cruel place, it's a hard place").

Ray begins with an almost cinematic panning shot: "There's a room in a house in a street in a manor in a borough / That's part of a city that is generally referred to as London." He employs the same device twice more, tracing the course of the river ("there's a tap by a reservoir, leading to a stream, that turns into a river estuary that eventually opens to the sea") and again celebrating its mercantile power ("there's a docker by a wharf, sending cargo overseas,
unloading foreign trade from a large ocean vessel /In the mighty metropolitan port of London"). But this is no Brittania Rules the Waves vision -- the spooky way he enunciates "London" loads the city up with typical Daviesian ambivalence. Or, as he says towards the end of the song, "There's a part of me that says 'Get out' / Then one day I'll hear somebody shout / 'Sounds to me like you come from London Town'."

My favorite parts of this song happen to be the two details that Ray repeats. I love how he winds up his roll call of celebrated Londoners by adding, with an ominous echo effect, "And don't forget the Kray twins," referring to a pair of 1950s-era gangster siblings who terrorized the city in their day. I've been creeped out by these guys ever I saw the 1989 film The Krays starring the Kemp brothers of Spandau Ballet. (You may know the Krays better as the inspiration for Monty Python's Doug and Dinsdale, the Piranha Brothers.) The British Tourist Authority does not push the Kray Twins in their brochures, needless to say -- but to me, the Kray Twins are an essential part of why I'm drawn to this teeming metropolis.

And then Ray elevates the whole song with this sweeping panorama, pushing to his highest range, singing an unsettling series of jumpy intervals: "But if you're ever up on Highgate Hill on a clear day / You can see right down to Leicester Square." The second time he sings it, he adds, with a mysterious little trill, "I'll be there." Love it or hate it, he can't leave the place; it exerts its restless fascination upon him still, and always will. Well, me too, and you can bet I'll be up on Highgate Hill to get that same view sometime in the next week.

I love this London Song video, because whoever made it went to all the places Ray mentions, dredged up images of all his famous Londoners, and put it all together on screen. The version behind the video is a live acoustic version from Ray's Storyteller show; the Storyteller album is where you can pick up this London Song sample. If you want a more rocking version, of course, here's a clip of Ray performing the song on Conan O'Brien's show.

As one of my favorite Londoners would say, "It's all good."

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Dimmer" / Bishop Allen

It must have been 5 years ago now that the carpenter working on our apartment told me I had to get hold of Bishop Allen's debut album, Bishop Allen -- and just as he promised, our kids (pre-teens, then) loved it as much as we did. Of course, since then the kids have grown into indie-snob teenagers who wouldn't be caught dead listening to the same music as their parents. Oh, it's okay if we put Vampire Weekend on our iPods, so long as they get explicit credit for having found the band first. But admit that they actually like Robyn Hitchcock or Elvis Costello or Paul Weller or Nick Lowe -- those "old guys" who just happen to still be releasing records -- no way. They get apoplectic when I "out" them in front of their friends for having loads of Kinks and Beatles on their playlists.

So I imagine we will have to pretend that they were the ones who first heard about Bishop Allen. After all, these guys live in hipster Brooklyn, sell their music directly from their own website, challenged themselves to an EP-a-month project in 2006, and were featured in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. What better indie creds could you have?

A few days ago I was fretting over the opacity of the Shins' lyrics; Justin Rice and Christian Rudder, the two Harvard classmates who are the core of Bishop Allen, are too smart to think that incomprehensibility equals intelligence. There's enough riddling allusions in their songs, but at least you can tell what's going on. At the moment my favorite song on this new album Grrr... (released March 10) is something called "Tiger, Tiger," but since my preferences change hourly, let's talk about the album's opening track, a winsome little meditation on identity and impermanences that's easily available on their website.

"Am I dimmer every day?" Rice blurts out (I love songs that start right away with just a vocal), in that distinctively plaintive voice. "Am I just a little glimmer /Like a tiny bobbing head /Of an ocean swimmer?" That receding image, with its suggestion of drowning, nails the mild growing panic of this song. "Olly olly oxen free," he yelps: "Can you see me?"

So where is he disappearing from? It might be a love affair that's inexorably petering out; it might be Bush-era paranoia about having no political weight; it could be intimations of mortality. (Somehow I suspect these guys have read their Wordsworth.) Whatever it is, they're willing to go surreal with it: Verse two wonders, "Do I slowly get erased /As I slowly eat my dinner?, and verse three frets, "Am I shrinking, am I shrinking? /Can you recognize my thoughts? /Do you care what I am thinking?" For whatever reason, he's starting to feel faceless and inconsequential. Doncha just hate it when that happens?

Still, he's got hope -- the boppy pop melody is too cheery for despair. The motor of light drums and guitar, with some goofball marimbas in the middle-eight and flourishes of strings, signals irrepressible optimism. In the bridge, he accepts his role as a rebel misfit, with a metaphorical horse race going on: "I would choose the darkest horse /That's the horse I'd ride." Being the long shot makes his eventual victory all the sweeter, of course. ("You wouldn't need binoculars /You'd see it with your own two eyes.") And in the fourth verse, he wraps it up by imagining, "You see me now /But it takes a lot of squinting." Well, at least that's something.

I just read a review that described Bishop Allen's music as "Kinksian." Gadzooks, I thought -- am I that predictable? And now I see, it's so obvious -- the shade of campiness in Rice's vocals, the unorthodox instruments, the la-la-la embellishments, the deeply tuneful melodic line. But hey, comparing something to the Kinks just means that the writer thinks the songcraft is dead solid, and indeed it is.

Of course, once my kids hear that this sounds like the Kinks, they may not listen to Bishop Allen anymore -- not publicly, that is. Sshhhhh, don't let them know.

Dimmer sample

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Phenomenal Cat" / The Kinks

On the Kinks Preservation Society on-line digest, this obscure track -- track 11 of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society -- recently provoked a flurry of discussion; it's been on my mind ever since. Granted, "Phenomenal Cat" is the sort of song only Kinks Kultists would pay much attention to. To most other listeners, it's just a fey nursery-rhyme tune, the sort of thing Donovan was turning out by the bushel back in 1968, rife with gauzy flower-child sentimentality.

But we Kultists know that Ray Davies never cashed in mindlessly on a fad. Even if this song is on one level a parody of those hippie fairy tales, it's not just a cynical send-up. By the time Ray Davies was done with it, he'd created a marvelous sly bit of satire.

It doesn't sound at all like a rock song -- that jazz flute intro reminds me of a 50s TV theme, maybe for an afternoon cartoon show. It's followed by a slightly creepy mellotron, each wheezy note sounding like a stealthy paw-tread, accompanied by offbeat tambourine whacks, like a rattlesnake. The prancing melody of the verse is dead simple, like something a kindergartner would play at his first piano recital; the opening lines are pure Brothers Grimm: "A long, long time ago, / In the land of idiot boys, / There lived a cat, a phenomenal cat." I picture Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat, as Ray no doubt expected us to.

Carroll's cat is a perverse character, and so is the Kinks' -- the first descriptive detail we get tells us that he "loved to wallow all day." (As Ray sings it, the vowel play of "wallow all day" is enchanting.) This cat sits contentedly in his tree, placidly gorging himself: "He just lived to eat 'cause it kept him fat, / And that's how he wanted to stay." Oh -- so this is a Fat Cat, lording it over those idiot boys. If you're paying attention -- if you haven't been mesmerized by that sing-song rhythm and the insinuating mellotron -- you should impose a new face on that Cheshire Cat, like maybe Rupert Murdoch, or Warren Buffet, or Donald Trump.

Which makes the rest of the song's seeming nonsense fall into line. As the bridge morphs into a sinister minor key, we learn "Though he was big and fat, /All the world was good to him." The world IS good to these Masters of the Universe, without a doubt. Then we get a gazetteer of his far-flung travels, to "Cowes, Sardinia, Kathmandu, / The Scilly Isles and Sahara, too." As people on the KPS Digest so cleverly parsed these lines, Cowes is there because cows produce milk, which cats love -- but Cowes is also a yachters' haven, as are the Scilly (silly?) Isles. Sardinia (sardines, kitty?) is another posh getaway spot, while Kathmandu (pun with cat) and Sahara are just expensively exotic. Add to that the assonance and alliteration of all those hard c's and s's and short a's and you've got sheer brilliance.

At last -- voila! -- the cat himself deigns to speak, though all he says, in a weird strained chant (did I read somewhere that that's Mick Avory singing, on a speeded-up tape?), is an inscrutable "Fum, fum, diddle-um di." The wavery tones of the mellotron, that echoing voice, give the song a surreal edge in this section, though it never blooms into to full-scale psychedelia; that was never the Kinks' bag.

In the second bridge, Ray reveals the source of the cat's power: Long ago -- "Once when he was thin" -- he learned the secret of life in Hong Kong. That mysterious Far East connection makes our fat cat even more suspect, as if there was some smuggling or opium trafficking along the way. And whatever the secret of life is, the selfish cat's keeping it to himself; all he'll say is another round of "la-la-la's" and "Fum, fum, diddle-um di."

For all I know, Ray wrote this song about someone in particular that he wanted to skewer (some record executive? the Beatles? At this rocky junction in his career, Ray must have had a mile-long list of people he had it in for). Whatever or whoever the inspiration was, what we're left with is a peculiarly charming little oddity, tucked in among all the other eccentric portraits on VGPS. Minor song? Well, there are plenty of other artists who would have made a whole career out of a song this beguiling. Overshadowed it may be by the Kinks' greater songs, but it's the little-known gems like this -- and you'll find them on all their albums -- that make me a Kinks fan.

Phenomenal Cat video

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Australia" / The Shins

All right, I know, it will never measure up to the Kinks song of the same name, on their classic album Arthur. But I've had the Shins on my mind for the past few days, ever since re-watching the movie Garden State, which first introduced me to them via the song "New Slang." (If you haven't seen it, Natalie Portman and Zach Braff meet cute in the waiting room of a neurologist's office when she hands him her earphones to listen to the Shins, assuring him that it will change his life.) And as soon as I put on their 2007 album Wincing the Night Away, this is the song that I've been singing.

Like the Kinks' "Australia," this song seems upbeat, drenched in Beach Boy-ish falsettos, perky Sputnik-style guitar riffs, skippy syncopation, and upwards charging melodic phrases. Yet while the Kinks gave us a neat parody of a government sales pitch luring post-war Brits to resettle in Australia, the Shins are up to something totally different beneath that buoyant sound. Their trademark off-kilter lyrics feature allusive shards of words that create a mindset rather than tell a story, and the mindset this song creates is so much darker than that blithe la-la-la surface suggests.

James Mercer, who writes all the Shins' songs, packs in the clever, baffling lyrics so quickly, it's almost impossible to pin down what he's on about. (What it has to do with Australia, I have no idea; how literal-minded of me even to ask.) Basically, he's beckoning a girl who yearns for happiness, pointing out with just a tremble of neurotic sympathy, "Been alone since you were twenty-one, / You haven't laughed since January, / You try and make like this is so much fun, / But we know it to be quite contrary." He coaxes her to run off with him and his free-spirited kind, escaping a conventional existence ("They're gonna buy your life's time," with the "selfless fool who hoped he'd save us all" (Jesus?) holding her down). "You'll be damned to pining through the windowpanes," he predicts, "You know you'd trade your life for any ordinary Joe's."

Just for good measure, he adds a carpe diem note of warning: "Well do it now or grow old, / Cause your nightmares only need a year or two to unfold," and "Will you be pulled from the ocean, / But just a minute too late," and he adds in the last verse, "You don't know how long I've been / Watching the lantern dim, / Starved of oxygen." Wow, talk about a fun-killer.

But his "us" group doesn't seem to have the answer, either: "You'll be damned to be one of us girl / Faced with the dodo's conundrum" (later it becomes the "android's conundrum"). His view of human existence? "We come in doing cartwheels / We all crawl out by ourselves." Okey-dokey.

But you gotta give the Shins credit -- they make their audience think, and the dialectic between the light-hearted, jangly pop music and those droll-yet-bleak lyrics is irresistible. Maybe it's just a knee-jerk neurotic indie-band frame of mind; maybe it's all tongue-in-cheek; maybe Mercer himself is a nut case. (Wouldn't be the first.) Either way, to me the happy-go-lucky lilt of this song wins out in the end. "So give me your hand," he sings merrily in the last verse, "And let's jump out the window." A break for freedom -- or suicide? Well, let's hold hands and give it a go.

Australia sample

Australia video

Sunday, March 08, 2009

"Raining Raining" / Nick Lowe

Well, it's raining outside, so I guess it's officially spring. I've just come in from the park, walking my dog, and the song "Rhythm of the Rain" -- you know, that old 1962 hit by the Cascades -- popped into my brain. It doesn't take much to drum this one up: "Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain / Telling me just what a fool I've been," with that downward skipping cha-cha-cha melody, perfectly imitating pattering raindrops. It's lovesick and saccharine and a real ear worm.

But when I sat down to my computer, my eyes fell on the new Nick Lowe box set that just arrived yesterday (thank you, YepRoc, for filling my order early!) and I got diverted. Titled Quiet Please: The New Best of Nick Lowe, it's a loooong overdue compilation, updating the old Best of Basher by adding all the marvelous stuff Nick's done in the 1990s and beyond. Considering how much of Nick's finest work has been out of print (criminal, really), it's a breath of fresh air to have this now.

"Raining Raining" comes from his as-yet-to-be-reissued (cross your fingers) Nick the Knife, originally released in 1982. The liner notes are vague about who played on this track -- was it Bobby Irwin or Terry Williams drumming? Martin Belmont or Billy Bremner on guitar? That nifty bit of Hammond organ in the instrumental break could have been Paul Carrack or Nick's then-wife Carlene Carter or even Steve Nieve (I'm betting on Carrack). Given the players' now-hazy memories of the time, we may never know.

It's such an unassuming track, I'm delighted to see that it made it onto this compilation -- that just shows how smart the selection was. I love the loping rhythm of this piece, which was already heading toward the country-soul sound Nick favors nowadays. The central conceit's brilliantly simple -- "It's sunny and dry, with not one cloud in the sky / But here inside it's raining." The rain's all in the singer's head, or rather in his heart, presumably because his girl has left him. In fact, though, he never explains why -- you've got to read between the lines. That's classy songwriting.

In each of the three verses, the first two lines contrast the fine weather to his internal misery; lines three and four spy on happy lovers doing typical loverly things -- they "go for a stroll, dressed up in summery clothes"; they "walk around without one foot on the ground"; they're "out back intent on sharing a snack." I can just imagine this doleful guy, peering furtively out the window, groaning as he watches a blissful couple popping strawberries in each other's mouths. It slams right into his gut: "But here comes the crack, / And it's raining."

Okay, maybe his girl didn't leave him. Maybe he's just lonely, longing to find true love. Maybe they're separated by forces beyond their control (away on tour, maybe?). Set up whatever scenario you need. The main thing is the misery, and you can feel it throbbing throughout this song, still so raw it's inarticulate. "It's raining so hard, oh lord I wish it would stop / Raining, raining / Raining" -- that's all he can say. No poetry, just dull dumb pain.

And yet Nick, god bless him, doesn't overdo it -- he stops short of self-pity, doesn't get all morose, doesn't rail against fate. The tempo's easy, the guitar riffs relatively chipper (the intro teasingly similar to "What's Shakin' On the Hill"), and clubby backing harmonies keep him company. Don't worry, this guy's not gonna off himself for love. But today, this moment, he's depressed, and out of sync with the world.

Back in the 1960s, the Cascades went for the easy nature-mirrors-my-life metaphor; Nick Lowe's rainfall is something subtler, and whole lot more interesting.

I gotta love this man.

Raining Raining sampler

NOTE: This mp3 link will start working on March 17th when the album's released. BTW, someday I've really got to figure out out how to post mp3s . . . .

Saturday, March 07, 2009

"Put A Little Love In Your Heart" / Jackie DeShannon

This just didn't fit in my recent Month of Love Songs -- those were all about romantic love, while Jackie DeShannon's singing about brotherhood and fellowship and harmony and all those other hippie-dippy ideals. But it sure fit into the soundtrack of 1969, with lines like "Think of your fellow man / Lend him a helping hand"; "We won't let hatred grow"; "Kindness will be your guide"; and "And the world will be a better place" (why does this line make me want to buy the world a Coke?). I listen to this and suddenly I want to rummage around in my closet for that embroidered bleached linen tunic I threw away 25 years ago. Peace out, man!

Jackie DeShannon intrigues me. This is a woman who dated Elvis Presley, was Jimmy Page's main squeeze, wrote songs with Randy Newman, had Ry Cooder as her guitarist and Barry White as a back-up singer (not at the same time, but still). Among the hits that other artists had with her songs were "When You Walk In the Room" (the Searchers), "Come and Stay With Me" (Marianne Faithfull), and "Bette Davis Eyes" (Kim Carnes). Yet the industry folks envisioned her as a girl singer, the American equivalent of Dusty Springfield, or at least of Petula Clark or Sandie Shaw; her first two hit singles, "Needles and Pins"(1963) and "What the World Needs Now Is Love" (1965), were both by other songwriters. I have this one 1967 album by her on which she even sings standards like "Night and Day" and "When I Fall In Love," as if no one knew what to do with her. Here was this wide-eyed blond with perfect features and a sylph-like figure -- no wonder they kept trying to force her into a pop mold.

"Put A Little Love In Your Heart" was the song where it all came together for her, a hit record that she wrote herself, and one of the indelible tunes of that eventful year of 1969. Though Jackie was thought of as a white soul singer, she was really more of a white girl singing soul songs for crossover appeal. "Put A Little Love In Your Heart" certainly has a Stax-like rhythm line, but her vocals sound more country than soul to me, with all the twang of her native Kentucky. On that upward swoop of "love" and "world," I swear there's a little yodel in her voice, and the guitarwork is distinctly twangy. A touch of goopy strings and horn accents doom this forever to a Top 40 pop sound. The gospel choir call-and-response on "And the world (and the world) / Will be a better place" hits the spot, though, especially on the suspenseful repeated notes of "for you (for you) and me (and me) You just wait (you wait)," erupting at last into the joyous "And see!" You can't help getting caught up in it.

Like so many other 1969 songs, this one carries shadows of social unrest ("You see it's getting late / Oh please don't hesitate"; "Another day goes by / And still the children cry"). Although DeShannon's voice is more bell-like than throaty, she still manages to inject this with urgency. But it's so much more upbeat and positive than other anthems of this era -- think of "For What It's Worth" and "Spinning Wheel." And given the temper of the time, maybe that wasn't a plus.

I keep hoping for Jackie DeShannon to be a better songwriter than she is; the lyrics on this are predictable, the melody limited to a few repeated musical phrases. I guess it was no surprise that she'd soon be swept aside by rawer girl singers like Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, and Cass Elliott. But I can't help liking her, and liking this song.

Put A Little Love In Your Heart sample

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

"Hurry For the Sky"
/ Robyn Hitchcock
& the
Venus 3


Turning 56 today, Robyn Hitchcock -- a.k.a. "eccentric British rocker Robyn Hitchcock," as the music mags like to label him -- happens to have a new album out, Goodnight Oslo, which he recorded with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Bill Rieflin and the Minus 5's Scott McCaughey, performing under the name The Venus 3. Their last outing together, 2006's Ole Tarantula!, was where I first jumped on the Hitchcock fan wagon, and it's been a joyride for me ever since. I've now seen him four times in concert, though only once with the Venus 3; I have to say, I do love the way they stir up the rocker in him.

This two-chord song sounds to me like the theme from some absurdist western; underneath it all runs the insistent shush-shush of brushed drums and strummed guitar, clipping along at a hustling pace like a steam train, while lonesome steel guitar twangs whistle in and out like tumbleweed. All very Ennio Morricone, minor-key and moody. In fact, the song it first made me think of was "Perfect Crime," my fave track from the Decembrists' The Crane Wife album; and lo and behold I discover that the Decemberists' singer Colin Meloy is doing a guest-turn here on backing vocals. Niiiice.

Like many a Robyn Hitchcock number, though, "Hurry For the Sky" is not clearly about anything. Verses one and three are all platitudinal self-help advice ("Knock yourself out yesterday / Tomorrow will be fine"; "You can easily confuse / Money with success.") It helps, of course, to imagine the dark-eyed glitter with which Hitchcock is wont to deliver such adages; they're not meant to be taken seriously, except when they are. And just to throw you off course, verse two takes a sharp left turn into the Egyptian imagery that's a familiar Hitchcockian leitmotif: "Pharoah's tomb is empty now / You can come right in / Bandage up your grin / Bandage up your sin." I can imagine him writing that one after watching The Mummy on late night TV -- that "bandage up your grin" line kills me.

"Oh I," he intones in the chorus, his nasal voice sliding teasingly into that sustained note (another trademark device), "I'm in a hurry for the sky." I see big western horizons, and a silhouetted cowboy galloping into it; but no, wait, I also picture a cartoon heaven of fluffy white clouds and this reckless soul landing abruptly at St. Peter's gate. (I also think of the Kinks song "Big Sky," but maybe that's just me.) Whether he's hurling himself toward big dreams or the Big Sleep, he's clearly a restless questing spirit. While we're still riddling over that evocative phrase, he repeats it, this time swooping upward on "sky-eye," resolving the chord. But the way the tempo hurtles on without missing a beat, it doesn't feel resolved at all.

The final verse contains yet more koan-like teases: "Number two said to number one/ You fix this up or you're finished son / Number three said to number two / I wish I could trade boots with you / Number four said to number five /How does it feel to be eaten alive" -- who are these "numbers," threatening and cajoling each other? Naturally I recall The Prisoner, the cult 60s TV show, with its creepy group-think The Village inhabited by numbered strangers, all out to get each other. And somehow it loops back into the chorus: "Number five said / Oh I / I'm not an integrated guy / Oh I / I'm in a hurry for the sky." Not an integrated guy -- this from the fellow who brought you the song "Uncorrected Personality Traits" -- you gotta love it.

I don't care about "solving" this song, in the end. It's about mood, and the almost Cubist clash of images; it's about the song's texture, the faint sneer at the edge of Hitchcock's voice, and that hypnotic thrumming groove. For reasons I can't begin to explain, this song lifts me right out of myself, re-orders my thought patterns, and sets me down again in an ever-so-slightly altered state, not visible to the naked eye. But I know now.

Hurry for the Sky sample

Monday, March 02, 2009


I tried to resist, Betty, I really did. But how could I pass up an assignment like this? Here they are, for your delectation:

1. A Hard Day’s Night /The Beatles – my first album ever, from the band that sealed my fate as a rock & roll fan. The red cover is falling apart by now, mended clumsily with masking tape; those black-and-white head shots are suspiciously smudged, especially the one of Paul, the great love of my pre-teen life. I know the UK release was all Beatles tracks, but I still prefer my US version -- when “And I Love Her” ends, the schmaltzy easy-listening instrumental of “Ringo’s Theme” MUST come next.

2. Bookends / Simon & Garfunkel – Poetry, social commentary, and Existentialism Lite – just what I needed in the spring of 1968 (meanwhile over in the UK the Kinks were recording The Village Green Preservation Society -- who knew?). I took up smoking because of the line from “America”: “Toss me a cigarette / I think there’s one in my raincoat.”

3. The White Album
/ The Beatles – Christmas vacation, 1968. I had begun to think I had outgrown the Beatles. I was wrong. I may have outgrown my teenybopper crush on Paul, but this was something Much More Important. (Not that I haven't since dog-eared the head shot of Paul that was included inside that radical bare white cover.) My copy isn’t so white anymore, and side 4 is a scratched to hell from being played backwards during the Paul Is Dead uproar. But who needs to play it anymore? I’ve got the entire thing hard-wired in my brain.

4. McCartney
– That bowl of cherries, the photo of bearded Paul with his baby inside his parka – I was in heaven. There WAS life after the Beatles! FYI, he wrote "Maybe I'm Amazed" for me, too. He just thought he'd written it for Linda.

5. Tapestry
/ Carole King // Sweet Baby James / James Taylor – Forever yoked in my heart. I saw Carole and James perform spring 1971 at the Indianapolis Coliseum, confirming my conviction that I was the hippest 17-year-old in Indy. (The rest of the audience were just extras in my head-movie.) The next fall I got to college and discovered that every freshman in my dorm owned both records. I had finally found my people.

6. Everybody’s in Show Biz
/ The Kinks – it arrived one day in my slush pile of records to review for the college newspaper. “Hmm, the Kinks – they’re still around?” One listen and I knew I had found my band for life. I went out the next day and bought every Kinks album available in Amherst, Mass. (unfortunately, a grand total of two) and became a card-carrying Kinkster forever.

7. O Lucky Man! / Alan Price – Summer of 1973, my first trip to London. As a Malcolm McDowell fan, I had to see this film in its debut run at the Leicester Square cinema. I went in a Malcolm McDowell fan, I came out an Alan Price fan. Serious, serious obsession for many years. Driven by groupie-love, I finagled my way to England for grad school; finally saw him perform live in 1975. (Saw him next 30 years later, igniting my Music Renaissance – see #11 below).

8. This Year’s Model / Elvis Costello – my first few months in New York City, my friend Craig invited me to his walkup in the East Village one afternoon to hear his new discovery. We listened all the way through in rapt silence, trying in vain to decipher all those clever lyrics, rattled off at lightning speed. Hostile wit from a skinny nerd with glasses – oh, I was so ready for New Wave.

9. More Songs About Buildings and Food
/ Talking Heads // The B-52s – The apogee of my New Wave mania: seeing these two bands on a double bill at SummerStage in Central Park, summer of 1980. Skinny little David Byrne wore a short-sleeved plaid shirt and nearly disappeared behind his tightly-clutched mic stand; the B-52s recreated an Athens frat party on stage, with Kate and Cindy in full beehive and Fred at his lounge-lizard best. Absurdist fractured lyrics delivered to a dance-party beat – priceless.

10. Get Happy!
/ Elvis Costello – My cubicle neighbor at work, Susan, was my music soul mate in 1979; we went out at lunchtime to buy this album at Sam Goody’s the day it hit the bins. Those savage R&B-drenched tracks, flung out feverishly one after another (20 tracks on one LP, nearly all of them under 3:00) – it was too good to be true. The critics panned it, but we knew better. My fave EC ever.

11. Artist’s Choice: Elvis Costello
– fast forward to March 2005. I’m in a Starbucks in Park City, Utah. After two decades in the woods, musically speaking, I am in the first throes of my Music Renaissance (see #7 above). I casually pick up this album from the cash register display, thinking, “Now what has Elvis been up to?” Track 9 is “I’m a Mess,” by Nick Lowe. I listen to it at the ski condo in front of my whole family, and pretend it’s just another song. It is not just another song. I’m a goner.

12. The Convincer
/ Nick Lowe – It’s the only Nick Lowe I could find in the record store in New York, the minute I got home. White-haired Nick doesn’t even resemble the guy I remember seeing in sloppy, raucous Rockpile, opening for Van Morrison back in 1979. Now, armed with an iPod, I can listen to this record constantly and my family won’t even know how deeply, deeply I have fallen in love.

13. Other People’s Lives
/ Ray Davies – next step in my Music Renaissance; re-connecting with the Kinks. I see a TV documentary about Ray Davies and go on-line for info about the Kinks (who have been dormant for 10 years). Six months later, I’m standing for hours in the chill November rain with my new Kinks fan club friends, waiting to see Ray preview his first solo album. It’s a masterpiece.

14. Bring the Family
/ John Hiatt – I learn that Nick Lowe was in a band called Little Village with John Hiatt. Johnny Hiatt? The fat kid who went to the Catholic school across the street from mine in Indianapolis? Can’t be. Out of curiosity, I look up Hiatt on iTunes. The song “Your Dad Did” tells me exactly what Johnny Hiatt’s been doing since the Immaculate Heart days. It's Music For Grown-Ups -- which means it really is OKAY to be a grown-up music fan.

Ole Tarantula / Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 -- On impulse, I go with my Kinks buddy Dave to see these guys play at the Knitting Factory. I haven’t heard a single song of Hitchcock’s and know nothing about him. He rambles out on stage, tosses his gray mane, and starts to free-associate on stage. I am simply gobsmacked. Might as well stand and face it -- the fangirl is back with a vengeance.