Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Tobacco Road" / The Nashville Teens

Heard this on Sirius a couple days ago -- one of those moments when a song suddenly jumps into your mental spotlight. Sure, I knew this song – it was a radio staple in the mid-60s. But I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about who recorded it and what was going on in the song.

And when I finally started to Google around, I was surprised. First of all, despite the name, the Nashville Teens were a British band -- from Surrey, in fact, not even gritty Liverpool or Newcastle. Jeez, their American accents were convincing -- much better than most Brit singers. The band itself had a revolving door of band members, none of them big names, and they never had any other big hits, though they were around for 10 years or so; I wouldn't call them one-hit wonders. (They backed up Jerry Lee Lewis at the Star Club in Hamburg, apparently an epically great live performance.) But “Tobacco Road” was – here’s your telling detail – produced by hitmaker Mickie Most, who worked similar magic for the early Animals among other bands. If they only hit gold with this track in 1964, it was no fluke.

They didn’t write the song; it was by John D. Loudermilk, one of Nashville’s most sterling songwriters, who’d released it as a single himself in 1960, to little success. I took a listen to Loudermilk's version, which is slower and more doleful; it mines the song for struggle and sorrow, which you'd think would be the meat of this song about a hardscrabble country Carolina upbringing. ("I was born in a trunk / Mama died and my daddy got drunk...") The Teens, though, speeded it up, added a percussive backbeat and tons of reverb, and came up with a hit. Country? Yeah, the guitars have a little twang to them, and there's those honky-tonk keyboards in the bridge -- but the song it most resembles is The Blues Magoos' "We Ain't Got Nothing Yet." Go figure.

Okay, it ain't "The House of the Rising Sun," though I'll bet that was exactly the sound Most was reaching for. Those hammering electric piano chords are taken straight from the Alan Price playbook (the keyboardist was John Hawken, later to resurface in Renaissance), and there's a similar threatening bass line and bluesy guitar riff as well. According to Gordon Thompson's invaluable book Please Please Me, the guitarist was Jim Sullivan, although Wikipedia claims that Jimmy Page was playing guitar -- which should give any Kinks fan a good laugh, seeing as how Jimmy Page is still trying to take credit for all the early Kinks records too.

The master touch -- the thing that makes this a great single -- is the reverb on those harmonized vocals, which makes them sound extra lonely as the singer recalls his miserable childhood ("left me here to die alone"; "Growin' up, rusty shack / All I had was hangin' on my back") . At the end of every verse, the singers -- Arthur Sharp and Ray Phillips -- sing "In the middle of Tobacco Road" totally a cappella, mournfully drawing out "road" like howling wolves. That fierce two-beat accent that breaks up each line of the verse is a great touch too, channeling all the singer's throbbing resentment and his ambition to break out of poverty. In the last verse, when he declares, "Bring that dynamite and a crane / Blow it up, start over again," it's got all the rebel intensity of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."

With no songwriters in the band, the Nashville Teens were probably dependent on their producers snagging them good material; later producers like Shel Talmy and Andrew Loog Oldham may not have given them the kind of attention they needed. I listened to some snippets of their other songs and their musical sound was all over the place, which isn't unusual when you've got a bunch of technically skilled musicians with no strong identity. But this track? It still blasts onto the radio with such cheeky energy. You gotta love it.

Tobacco Road video

Tobacco Road sample

Saturday, August 29, 2009

"Can't Find My Way Home" / Blind Faith

I've tried to resist all this Woodstock anniversary nostalgia -- no point in feeling fake nostalgia for a festival I never attended. But I broke down the other morning and snuck off to see Taking Woodstock, the new Ang Lee film. And really, I was more thinking of it as a Demetri Martin film; he's a stand-up comedy god in my household.

Demetri's character, Elliott, was the guy who hooked up the festival's producers with Max Yasgur's farm, which is about all the plot line you need. He doesn't spend much time at the festival itself, and never gets close enough to see the acts -- which saves us from the spectacle of watching, say, Mos Def impersonate Jimi Hendrix or Zooey Deschanel play Grace Slick. A fair amount of the famous music is played on the soundtrack, though, triggering all the Pavlovian responses. So what if, as we recently learned, some of the original Woodstock album was "sweetened" with better cuts of those same songs, culled from other concerts? The point is, you hear certain songs, you think "Woodstock." And then a beatific smile spreads over your face.

When this song came spooling through the movie, I thought, "Oh, yeah, another great Woodstock number." Trouble is, this song wasn't played at Woodstock. I guess it was thrown in because, in the movie, Elliott is slogging through the mud and the crowds, trying --get it? -- to find his way home. Engrossed in the movie, I didn't even register what song it was or who sang it; I just knew it sounded right.

Later on that day, I tried to track down that song, with its distinctive mad psychedelic swirl. "It's gotta be Traffic," I decided, "nobody sings that high and clear except Stevie Winwood." But a little research and I discovered that Traffic wasn't at the festival; Traffic didn't even exist in the summer of 1969. Dummy me, I hunted through all the other Woodstock bands before I realized I'd been right all along. It was Stevie Winwood, but with his next band, the "super-group" Blind Faith. And the song was from the summer of 1969, all right -- the only summer Blind Faith existed.

A lot of bands thought that a psychedelic song had to have imagistic lyrics -- gardens of Eden and cellophane flowers and white rabbits and all. Not Blind Faith. There are just two images in this song's lyrics -- the "throne" in the first line ("Come down off your throne and leave your body alone") and the "key" at the end of the verse ("You are the reason I've been waiting so long /Somebody holds the key"). But neither of these are arty images; they're things anybody would say in normal speech. And how about that last couplet: "But I'm near the end and I just aint got the time / And I'm wasted and I can't find my way home." Forget the coded drug messages everybody else was messing around with; this guy's telling you straight out what's up with him. He's high, okay?

As if anybody listening to this song could be in any doubt. The melody weaves around like a series of ocean waves, with a series of descending arcs -- cresting over the top, surging and receding, washing up on shore. There's only the one verse, anyway; after that it's just fragments of repeats, as if he's getting loster and loster. Then there's the undertow of nimble guitar picking that Eric Clapton lays down around those words -- more complication to get lost in. The samba-like rhythm pulses along, punctuated with an occasional shimmering cymbal bash from Ginger Baker, like the waves hissing onto the sand.

Despite the words, he isn't pleading; he just sounds bummed out and a little petulant. The woman he's trying to make love to is probably getting really pissed off by now, though I have to say, Winwood's boyish voice (winsome Winwood, I always call him) would be way too sweet for me to stay pissed off at him.

A gem of a song, an absolute gem. So what if it wasn't actually performed at Woodstock? Ang Lee wasn't about to get hung up on details like that. It's the sound of the summer of 1969, and a perfect evocation of the spirit of Woodstock. All this Woodstock nostalgia is fake anyway -- let's make it as hazy and groovy and far out as we can, okay?

Can't Find My Way Home sample

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Be My Baby" / The Ronettes
In Memoriam: Songwriter Ellie Greenwich

There's a fantastic moment at the opening of Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, one of my favorite movies of all time. Harvey Keitel sits up in bed with a jolt, waking up from some bad dream. He stumbles to the mirror, wipes the night sweats from his face, then sinks wearily back onto the bed. As his head falls back onto the pillow, we're assaulted by whomping drumbeats: Bomp buh-bomp, bump, bomp buh-bomp, bump. Then Ronnie Spector's shivery girlish voice swoops in: "The night we met I knew I / Needed you so / And if I had the chance I'd / Never let you go . . . ." Scorsese's soundtrack choices are never accidental; "Be My Baby" was throwing down a gauntlet for his hero. It spins us right into a world of single-minded passion, the sort of passion that Keitel's conflicted character, Charlie Boy, just can't summon up. There's the movie's conflict in a nutshell, laid right out in the opening sequence without a word of dialogue. You gotta know the songs, that's all.

I loved those 60s girl groups, and the Ronettes were at the top of the heap. I was still pretty young in their heyday, but those girl-group songs are an indelible part of my earliest music consciousness. I didn't yet have any "ideas" about music -- I just took it all in, with no prejudice about what I should be listening to. I wasn't even aware enough to know, a few years later, how many songs of the British Invasion groups were taken from the girl groups, with the genders switched -- Manfred Mann's "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy," Herman's Hermits' "I'm Into Something Good," and a host of album back tracks. I only knew that it had a beat and I could dance to it.

How many years of feminist education are undone as soon as a song like "And Then He Kissed Me" or "Leader of the Pack" comes on? I turn right back into an empty vessel waiting for a boy's love to complete me. Wrong, I know -- but I'd be lying if I didn't confess it was true. (As the Phil Spector murder trial showed us, that fantasy was dangerous even for the girl singers themselves. It took years for Ronnie Spector to come clean on how her Svengali, Phil Spector, abused her.)

And yet those song, those songs. The cool thing was that most of them were written by women -- or rather, by two husband-and-wife songwriting teams: Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. It just makes sense that female songwriters would "get" how a girl in love feels, even within the confines of mid-century pop traditions. It's even cooler that both those women songwriters went on to greater acclaim after they were divorced from their creative partners. When Carole King resurfaced as a singer-songwriter in the mid-1970s, she gave a second life to songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"; every girl in my freshman dorm owned her album Tapestry. Likewise, her counterpart Ellie Greenwich found a niche on Broadway, with the 1980s revue Leader of the Pack.

Ellie's classic "Leader of the Pack" was an amazing song in its own right, a mini-novel in song -- complete with sound effects! -- about a girl who loves a "bad boy" (haven't we all, ladies?) who dies in a motorcycle crash. But "Be My Baby" is the song that whooshed first into my head when I heard the news today of Ellie Greenwich's sad death, at only 68 years of age. Maybe it's that great whomping beat -- part cha-cha, part doo-wop -- loaded up with maracas and handclaps, with a schmear of schmaltzy strings in the bridge. "I'll make you happy, baby/ Just wait and see / For every kiss you give me / I'll give you three" -- it ain't profound, but the way Ronnie sings it, oh, is it heartfelt.

The chorus isn't quite call-and-response, but a clever hybrid -- call it repeat-and-embroider. "Be my, be my baby," the Ronnettes sing three times, while Ronnie adds, like the swirl of icing on the top, "Be my little baby," then "Say you'll be my darling," and "Be my baby now." Listen to how her voice slices right through Phil's wall of sound -- sassy, assured, knowing. This may not be feminism, but I'll lay my money on this chick getting whatever she wants.

"Da Doo Ron Ron," "Chapel of Love," "Hanky Panky," "I Can Hear Music" -- Ellie Greenwich cranked them out, song after song, in the great Brill Building tradition. They gave form to a generation of inchoate female yearnings, with their BFFs right there to add the back-up vocals. (Just listen to those girls confab in "Leader of the Pack": "'Get the picture?' / 'Yes, we see.'") And let's be honest: Ellie and Carole weren't that far off the mark. "Oh, since the day I saw you / I have been waiting for you / You know I will adore you / Till eternity" -- that's the gospel according to Ellie Greenwich.

Be My Baby sample

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Stand" / R.E.M.

Talk about earworms. This song came on the radio today, and I couldn't help singing it -- and singing it and SINGING it, long after it had played out its three minutes on the air. It's not just that it reminds me of 1989, when you couldn't escape this song on radio and MTV. (I'm not sure I want to remember 1989, anyway -- worst year of my life.) It's not even that it was the deliciously idiotic theme song of the ultimate slacker TV show, Get a Life, starring that underrated genius Chris Elliott. Hey, I even love Weird Al's parody version, "Spam" -- which, unlike a lot of Weird Al's devious take-offs, doesn't ruin the original for me at all. With its backbeat groove and upbeat melody, "Stand" is just a fun song. Period.

Now I've gone onto Songfacts (a really nifty site for background on various tracks of music) and discover that Michael Stipe calls this the stupidest song R.E.M. ever did. Intentionally so. He recalls that his guitarist (whom I always refer to as The Divine Peter Buck) came up with such a stupid guitar riff, Stipe decided to write the stupidest lyrics he could come up with, to match the riff.

But you know what? That stupid riff plugs into some vein of pop gold; it may be a cliche, but it works. And those "stupid" lyrics of Stipe's are so opaque (Stipe's trademark) that it's easy to find a message in them. "Stand in the place where you live," he begins, which I can't help reading as "make a moral stand in your hometown." "Now face north," he orders, the three monosyllables marching along sternly. Okay, that's about getting a new point of view, even in a familiar place. "Think about direction / Wonder why you haven't before," he counsels. Well, why don't we think about our directions in life? Are we too caught up in our daily routines?

Stipe goes on to advise the same for the place where you work, only here you're instructed to face west. Then, some tips for wilderness survival in the bridge: "If you are confused check with the sun / Carry a compass to help you along" -- and of course I end up imagining a moral compass, not just a dial with a magnetic arrow. Stating the obvious, he goes on, "Your feet are going to be on the ground / Your head is there to move you around." Simple? Yes. But true, and sometimes in life it helps to be reminded of the glaringly obvious. Keep your feet on the ground, and use your head to think clearly. We all need to be reminded of this from time to time.

Another cool thing about this song is the way that the lines alternate -- the first and third lines stay on the beat, like a kids' marching song, while the second and fourth lines hit the offbeats, styling around like a samba. Just as in life, you have to keep changing your rhythms, tripping over yourself. Not only that, the key shifts upward when the chorus repeats, like a truck changing gears as it roars uphill. It implies effort, growth, progress, modulation -- all part of the process of engaging in your own life.

Okay, I may be stretching this. But the thing is, R.E.M. have that anthemic vibe going for them -- Stipe's braying vocals sound preachy, no matter what he's saying, and their jangly, revved-up sound couldn't seem reflective or wistful even if it wanted to. And when a song sounds like a battle hymn or a protest song, you just naturally expect it to be about something.

Which begs the question -- if Stipe didn't envision a deeper meaning for this song, is it there or not? What matters: the writer's intention or what the listener gets out of it? R.E.M. have also gone on record as saying that the song is about people becoming involved in their communities (the video showed folks recycling and volunteering etc.), which may have been some after-the-fact back-pedaling. But if that's what the audience got out of it, why CAN'T it be the meaning of the song?

Stand sample

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Ragged Wood" / Fleet Foxes

I guess it's good that there aren't so many record stores around anymore. Whenver I do walk into one, I'll impulse buy a dozen CDs at once, often on the flimsiest pretexts -- like, I heard one track on Sirius radio and liked it. (Of course, I'm probably more susceptible just because walking into a record store is such a rare event now.) That's how I acquired this debut album by the Fleet Foxes -- which then sat on my desk, unopened, for three months. No offense, guys, I just was overloaded.

By the time I finally listened to Fleet Foxes, I couldn't remember what they sounded like -- so when this gorgeous thing burst upon my ears, it took me totally by surprise. With Hollies-like harmonies and a rootsy, folk-inflected vibe (they almost outdo the Decemberists in their arty English ballad lyrics), they're much more romantic than I'd expected.

The third track on the album, "Ragged Wood" is a sweetheart. It hits you right off with a wall of harmonized vocals -- "Whoa-oh-oh" -- for a split second I think it's gonna be Billy Joel's "For The Longest Time," that's how classic that doo-wop opening is. (Maybe it's the reverb, too -- taking a page from My Morning Jacket, boys?) But once the verse gets under way, we're in folk territory, with Robin Pecknold freewheeling through a jaunty melody: "Come down from the mountain, you have been gone too long / The spring is upon us, follow my only song." Vintage pastoral, that. They're not afraid of using metaphor, that's for sure: "Settle down with me by the fire of my yearning," he urges her. "You should come back home, back on your own now" -- Pecknold's plaintive vocal sells this for all it's worth. I like the fact that it's the woman who's roaming here, the man who's fretting by the fireside (shades of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Darling Be Home Soon," one of the sexiest songs ever.) "Darling, I can barely remember you beside me," he sighs in verse two. We're talking urgent.

The song structure is more jazzlike than traditional pop, though. After two verses, they shift into a bridge, the reverbed vocal harmonies sounding almost a cappella over a light finger-picked guitar. And they're going full-bore poetic: "In the evening light, when the woman of the woods came by / To give to you the word of the old man" -- wait, who are these people? He doesn't explain, nor does he explain the characters in the next couple: "In the morning tide, when the sparrow and the seagull fly / And Jonathan and Evelyn get tired." But seeing the old people in twilight, the young lovers at dawn, has a lovely poetic resonance; it's like he's tracing the arc of his own relationship. And if his girl doesn't get home, they'll never get to be the old folks in the picture.

Morphing into an instrumental break, the song hushes down to a simple syncopated guitar lick (I love how it circles dizzily around, repeating like a tic), gradually layering on vocal ohs, then a bass line, then cymbals. By the time we get the whole drum kit, they've shifted into yet another melody, a series of cautiously climbing chord shifts -- with harmonized vocals, naturally -- "Lie to me if you will / At the top of Barringer Hill." (I'm assuming there's a girl somewhere who knows Barringer Hill perfectly well.) Then the melody crests and spills over, "Tell me anything you want, / Any old lie will do / Call me back to you." Oh, he's helpless in love, all right. Mama likes that.

Jeez, if these guys are this distinctive-sounding on their first album, I can't wait to see where they go next. No wonder they generated such viral My Space action and drew concert crowds way before they even secured a record deal. Who needs label PR when you've actually got a sound?

Ragged Wood mp3

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Wordless Chorus” / My Morning Jacket

Okay, I’ll admit I was wrong. I saw My Morning Jacket in 2006, opening for Ray Davies at the Taste of Chicago festival, and I was not impressed. Granted, they had two things working against them – 1) the sound system was atrocious, and 2) I couldn’t wait for Ray to get on stage. I noticed a small throng of MMJ devotees crowding the stage, garbed – like the band – in what looked like Neil Young’s cast-off ragged jeans and combat jackets. For the life of me I couldn’t get the attraction. I was just glad they cleared out in time for us to grab the front row seats.

It’s taken me this long to give them a second listen. (I’ll admit that for a while, I confused them with My Chemical Romance – another strike against them.) But I’ve been driving a lot this summer, and every time My Morning Jacket came on the radio, I liked what I heard. Really liked it. The debt to Uncle Neil is still clear – Jim James’s voice can't help but sound like Neil Young -- but they’ve got many more cards up their rumpled sleeves.

This 2005 album, Z, is probably what they were playing when I saw them (yeah, like I remember), and it’s a treasure. This song kicks off the album with a whoosh, grooving along on a funked-up reggae beat. (So much for the alt-country label.) The same syncopated melodic line repeats, trance-like, throughout the verse, dipping down and then gently levitating upward. Like a latter-day Marvin Gaye, Jim James soulfully muses, “So much going on these days / Forget about instinct, it's not what pays.” Ah, but that copasetic groove, it’s all about instinct, isn’t it? My irony detector’s beeping already, and it goes into overdrive when he adds, “A carton of eggs think it's all worthwhile.” (I kinda like the egg-carton image, weird as it is.) Looking askance at the me-too pursuit of the Next New Thing, he adds, “Tell me, spirit, what has not been done? / I'll rush out and do it -- or are we doing it now?”

Then, with a single cut-off beat, the song shifts gears, morphing into a lush wall of sound, a full bank of shifting vocal harmonies singing . . . well, “Ahh – wahh ahh – whoa-oh ahh.” Aha, the wordless chorus of the title. James wheels around on top with some falsetto yips and howls, and you’re carried away on the sheer soulfulness of it.

In verse two, he bucks the trend, declaring, “But you know all of this can change / Remember the promise as a kid you made.” Considering the throwback honesty of their sound, this stuff about original intentions makes perfect sense to me. And after another repeat of that wordless chorus, he plants his flag: “We are the innovators, they are imitators.” Pretty bold talk for such a young band, but by this point, in my opinion he’s earned the right to say it.

Apparently Jim James -- the singer, the songwriter, and pretty much the soul of the band -- fell off a stage in 2008 and the band hasn't performed much since. He has, however, recently released an album with Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, and M. Ward (more on him soon), performing as the Monsters of Folk. I like the track or two I've heard; I also like the bits I've heard of James' solo EP of George Harrison covers, Tribute To, which is a benefit for Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. But already I'm torn, wistfully hoping My Morning Jacket will survive too. And to think, six months ago I made gagging noises whenever anybody mentioned this band to me. Well, anybody can make a mistake!

Wordless Chorus sample

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Stay Together for the Kids" / Blink 182

I guess I knew Blink 182 had broken up. I mean, I knew one of the guys split to form Angels & Airwaves, while the other two had become +44. And then there was the news of drummer Travis Barker in that awful plane crash, with horrible burns covering his much-tattooed body. I figured that was it for Blink 182. Not exactly the end of civilization as we know it.

When the news of Blink 182’s re-forming hit the airwaves, I barely noticed. But you see, my daughter is 14 and can’t go to rock concerts by herself – and the opening acts for Blink’s reunion tour were Panic! At the Disco and Fall Out Boy. So there I was, a week ago, jammed into the ComCast Center outside of Boston, six rows back from the mosh pit. Panic! was adorable as usual (though they’re in the midst of a schism themselves), and even Fall Out Boy was surprisingly engaging. I’d have been happy if we’d left the concert after FOB.

But who knew Blink 182 would be so fantastic? I was completely mesmerized. This is a band of only three guys – count ‘em, three – but thanks mostly to Barker’s truly insane drumming, their sound is so big, so brash, so hopped up, it felt like a whole punk orchestra. While he thrashes around on the drums, bassist Mark Hoppus and guitarist Tom DeLonge peel off a few riffs and trade off whiny, neurotic vocals – the perfect expression of teen angst. They rip into their songs – hits like “What’s My Age Again?” and “All the Small Things” and “Adam’s Song” – twice as fast and thirteen times louder than they are on the albums, with goofy non sequiturs for stage banter.

The thing is, despite that headbanging sound these guys really are good songwriters. Their lyrics absolutely nail what it feels like to be 14 and insecure, while the jerking rhythms and yowling refrains tap into the pent-up frustrations of adolescence. Being the kings of punk pop, of course, they can’t stray too far from toilet humor and inarticulate rage, but they do get “serious” every once in a while – like this song from 2001’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket. Tom DeLonge – who seems to be their chief songwriter – wrote this one, about (no kidding) his parents’ divorce, seen from the point of view of (naturally) the kids.

It starts off with the apt metaphor of a house: “It's hard to wake up / When the shades have been pulled shut / This house is haunted / It's so pathetic.” This is a family in emotional lockdown; no wonder the kid’s depressed. I love how Hoppus sings the verse, breathless and earnest, over a tentative, almost folky guitar riff. But no one’s asking him how he feels, and his voice begins to sound strangled as he says, “I'm ripe with things to say / The words rot and fall away” – a deft bit of image development there, eh? “If a stupid poem could fix this home,” he adds bitterly, “I'd read it every day.”

Then DeLonge explodes into singing the chorus, sneering “So here's your holiday / Hope you enjoy it this time” – hitting those aspirate h’s with real venom. “You gave it all away,” he lashes out at his parents, adding “It was mine / So when you're dead and gone /Will you remember this night, twenty years now lost?”

Back to Hoppus, notching it down for verse two, like the kid’s repressing his emotions for fear of combusting the situation further. “Their anger hurts my ears,” he complains – you can almost see him bury his head in his arms to shut it out. “Been running strong for seven years / Rather than fix the problems, they never solve them.” Seven years is a long time in a kid’s life, plenty long enough to see the patterns of a relationship. “If this is what he wants and this is what she wants,” he wonders, the melodic phrases circling warily, “Then why is there so much pain?”

And the answer? DeLonge blasts into that chorus again, pouring out all his fury. This is how it feels, he remembers; this is how it feels. And it’s still raw.

Well, I for one am curious to see what these guys will do next – how they’ll solve the question of growing up and still remaining true to their punked-up roots. I suspect that they split to search for new musical directions, but Barker’s accident shocked them back to their foundations. (They looked deliriously happy to be playing together that night.) But there’s enormous talent there, and they’d better do something with it. The Clash never got a chance to; Kurt Cobain never gave Nirvana a second chapter; look at what Paul Weller’s been doing since the Jam. Blink 182 may be the guys to finally solve this equation. I’m rooting for them.

Stay Together For the Kids video

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

"Tuesday Afternoon" / The Moody Blues

I never gave the Moody Blues a chance, I'll admit it. When Days of Future Passed came out in 1967, my older brother and his friends couldn't stop talking about how it was the greatest album ever -- and I shut my mind tight like a steel trap. Maybe I was too young to get it (translation: too young to be taking the drugs you'd need), or maybe I was just unwilling to admit that my darling Beatles could be bypassed by more experimental bands. "Nights in White Satin" seemed humorless and pompous to me.

Of course, now when I hear "Nights in White Satin" and "Tuesday Afternoon," I'm totally manipulated by their rich swirl of sound -- it puts me straight back into the crazy soup of 1968. So when a friend gave me the soundtrack to the period film Bobby, this track wound up on my iPod. What's the harm in having a 1968 flashback every once in a while?

The trouble is . . . I don't think I ever listened properly to the lyrics. The other night I finally did -- and they are silly. Oh, not over-the-top silly, just wet-behind-the-ears silly. The setting is vaguely pastoral (emphasis on vague): "Tuesday afternoon," he begins -- that's specific, good so far. But then it gets lost: "I'm just beginning to see" (see what?) "Now I'm on my way" (way WHERE?) "It doesn't matter to me" (WHAT doesn't matter to you?) "Chasing the clouds away" (Who is chasing the clouds away -- and how?).

I know, I know, I'm being picky. These words should be listened to in the spirit intended, which is a questing heart on a journey of personal discovery. There should be a sense of mystery to it, a feeling of being on the verge of something momentous. "Something / Calls to me," he announces in verse two. "The trees are drawing me near" -- a visual image at last! But then Justin Hayward's vocal starts to go histrionic, with an urgent little slide: "Got to find out why / Those gentle voices I hear / Explain it all with a sigh." I suppose the gentle voices could be the wind, or some generalized murmur of nature, but I'm sorry, all I can imagine is overhearing a bunch of dippy hippies sitting in a grove mumbling about their mind-blowing philosophies.

Then the abrupt change of pace in the bridge perks me up for a moment; the song morphs suddenly into a jazzy shuffle, leaving behind the dreamy aural tapestry of the verse. Dare I hope for a thematic development? The singer for a moment seems to have a little more perspective: "I'm looking at myself, reflections of my mind / It's just the kind of day to leave myself behind." But despite the different tempo, there's no dramatic shift in the bridge, just more of the same hazy imagery: "So gently swaying through the fairyland of love, / If you'll just come with me and see the beauty of / Tuesday afternoon." And here comes the warbly synthesizers again -- watch out!

These lyrics aren't fatally bad, really. The Moody Blues could have gotten away with it if they'd done the song in a simple, folky style, like Donovan in his flower-child period, or even early Cat Stevens. But no, they had to layer on all those synthesizers and flutes and crashing cymbals etc. (That reedy waver in Hayward's voice doesn't help, either -- nowadays a producer would have done something to steady and fill out those vocals.) After all, that was their sound; lose that, and it wouldn't hardly be the Moody Blues. But the self-importance of that big dense sound promises so much more than the words deliver.

There are plenty of other reasons to dig this song. The Moody Blues pushed the frontiers of rock music, no question about it; the complex textures of this song, the instrumentation, the dense production, were all incredibly persuasive. I am, however, gratified to know that I never did believe in this band, not really. If I had, would I be able to pick this song apart like this?

Tuesday Afternoon sample

Sunday, August 02, 2009

"Mr. Dyingly Sad" / The Critters

Talk about pure pop gems. When this song came out in the summer of 1966, all I knew was that it had that swoony sound I'd loved in Chad & Jeremy's "Willow Weep For Me." Hey, I was a drippy adolescent girl; this was just the sort of song I wanted to play on long summer nights, mooning over some boy who didn't know I existed.

And then the song disappeared . . . and the band disappeared . . . and the Summer of Love hit and I forgot all about "Mr. Dyingly Sad." (Apparently spelled "Dieingly," or so the internet tells me, though that would be wrong -- if I could only find my old single I'd prove it!) When I heard it again about a year ago, it hit my ears like a whiff of Oh De London! cologne -- by which I mean, the pure distilled essence of the mid-60s. Now I learn what happened: that half of this band -- a bunch of high school friends from New Jersey, several of whom went to Villanova together -- got shipped out to Vietnam before their first album was even released. There's a classic case of bad timing for you.

The song was written by lead singer Don Ciccone (who years later did a tour of duty as bassist with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons -- once a Jersey boy, always a Jersey boy). God, his tenor voice was perfect for this song, mellifluous and earnest and just slightly breathy. It's like one of those Clairol commercials with sunshot women in white dresses running slow-mo through a meadow, their blond tresses bouncing (as opposed to the Tampax ads where they caper in white slacks down a beach). "Just a breeze will muss your hair," he begins adoringly, over a gentle samba beat with a touch of Latin percussion. "But you smile away each little care / And if the rain should make you blue / You say tomorrow is anew." It seems all so perfect. SO WHY IS HE SAD?

Yes, she's the perfect girl, as he describes in affected poetical word order ("Blue be your eyes, blonde your hair"). But underneath this portrait of WASPy perfection, the diminished and seventh chords, the achingly sweet backup harmonies, hint at something fragile and evanescent. Sure, she may be "mystifyingly glad", but there he is, her rhyming opposite: "I'm Mr. Dieingly Sad." And that dichotomy gives this song all the tension it needs, like a grain of sand grinding away inside the oyster shell.

It's the change of seasons, you see -- part of that time-honored pop tradition of the end-of-summer song ("See You In September," Chad & Jeremy's "Summer Song," "A Summer Place," "All Summer Long" by the Beach Boys). He already knows it's coming, and he can't get his mind off it -- because the end of summer inevitably means being separated from her. (That's the beauty of summer romances -- they always end too soon, before life cruds them up.) "And when the leaves begin to fall / Answering old winter's call / I feel my tears, they fall like rain / Weeping forth the sad refrain." Okay, so it's self-consciously poetic -- but that slots right into the adolescent mindset. "Blue, dark, and dim it may seem," he moans, depressive-in-training that he is; "You mark a grin, a moonbeam / Brightens your smile." Forget the stilted grammar; the images are hazy, soft-focus beautiful, underscoring the cruel irony: The happier she gets, the sadder he gets. He just can't stand it that she's not miserable about the impending end of summer. The impending end of their time together.

The bridge slides into even more minor chords, as he mournfully resists her attempts to cheer him up: "You say, 'Take my hand and walk with me / Wake this land and stop the sea / Show me love, unlock / All doors / I'm yours." She's doing everything she can, offering her body to him -- and all he can do is mope. What a sensitive guy!

"Then the tide rolls up to shore," he sets the scene for his final verse; "I whisper low, 'I love you more / More than even you could know'." He's finally ready to take her up on her offer -- solemnly, of course, because he's a nice guy, not some cad who'll take advantage of her. (Thirteen-year-old girls cannot resist this line.) "Adore me, do, so I could show / I'm so mystifyingly glad / Not Mr. Dieingly Sad." Yes! What a neat resolution! It's within her power to transform him! What girl doesn't love that idea?

I know, I know, I can't help making fun of it -- all the pop cliches, falling neatly into line. But you know what? The song still works. For all its lush dopiness, that yearning vocal and those falsetto harmonies weave their end-of-summer spell all over again. Let's suspend our cynical selves for just a minute and admit it: Running along a beach hand-in-hand with someone you love is still a bittersweet thrill. I love a tough-minded relationship analysis as much as the next person, but the soaring melody here, paired with those rueful close-clustered chord changes, works its emotional magic. Don Ciccone may not be a genius, but he struck gold with this little number.

Mr. Dyingly Sad video

Saturday, August 01, 2009

"O'Hare" / Amy Rigby

Inexplicable. All these years, how did I never hear about Amy Rigby before now? She moved to New York City about the same time I did -- 1979 -- and was around all those same years, playing in bands like The Shams and the Last Roundup before going solo in 1996 (after divorcing her drummer husband) with the exquisitely titled album Diary of a Mod Housewife, an album that sounds scarily like my life. Of course, all those years she was hanging downtown with the cool punk music people while I was in Midtown with the not-so-cool publishing people -- and by 1996 I didn't even go south of 86th Street if I didn't have to. So it's safe to say that my paths and Amy Rigby's would very rarely have crossed in this great teeming metropolis. And as all the reviewers seem compelled to point out, she never got the exposure she deserved -- maybe because her ironic lyrics and country-tinged sound were too subtle for the punk world, and too punky for the Lilith Fair singer-songwriter girls. That Diary of a Mod Housewife is out-of-print by now; even the iTunes pickings are slim.

So how does she finally enter my consciousness? I start listening to Nick Lowe's old Stiff labelmate Wreckless Eric, am gobsmacked by how good he was, then discover that he's still performing and recording -- and has just released a new album with his new wife . . . Amy Rigby. The reviewers mention her like a name I should know, and I get to researching, and --

Eric and Amy's new album is intriguing, but it does sound more like Eric -- who's spent many years in the musical wilderness -- than like Amy's best work. Maybe it'll just take a few more listens for me to get into it. But I can safely say that Amy's earlier solo stuff has jumped straight to the head of my queue. It's like when I first discovered Jill Sobule or Kirsty MacColl -- like some sister had been reading my diary and writing it up in these great funny and absolutely true songs.

Surfing around, I've picked this one practically at random, from her 2003 album, Till the Wheels Fall Off. Strumming an acoustic guitar, she hits us right off with a real grabber of an image: "We've been circling each other like a couple planes at O'Hare / With nowhere to land." I love the wry curl of her voice, half talking, with just a little plangent country twang. You can almost hear her sigh as she notes, "And if we did, no place to go from there." That well-worn note of despair, that's no 17-year-old talking.

Next killer image, same verse: "And you're talking to me like you're handling the Dead Sea Scrolls" -- well, if you haven't faced that kind of clumsy male diffidence, more power to you, sister. She can barely restrain the eye-roll as she asks, "Do you think we're gonna figure this out before we both get old?" I mean, c'mon already!

In a master stroke of concise scene-setting, she slides into the bridge, "Tick tock they're closing for the night," and I can just see her, at that back table in the bar, sagging in weary frustration -- "I'm shell-shocked, giving up the fight." How many times has she gone through this rigamarole?

Rigby knows female desire, and she's not about to apologize for it, strutting into her twangy chorus. By now, she's lost the ladlylike acoustic and she's swinging into full roadhouse jangly electric guitar, with punchy loping drums, like the impatient tapping of her boot. "Come on, I need you to hold me," she urges him, drawing out the long o of "hold" with a little yelp. "What are you waiting for?" She has no time to waste or play fragile, you can tell, and she ruefully adds, "You can't break a heart that doesn't work no more / And I'm tired of trying like I did before." This is a woman with history -- what a novel concept! Frustrated, she moans, "I wanna lay down" -- another deft stroke, for laying down could be giving up, or it could be getting (at last!) into bed. Now there's songwriting for you.

"You can take off the kid gloves now, lose the finesse," she counsels him, knowingly, in the second verse. She's no ballbuster, but if he needs her to take control (and he clearly does), she will. "Yes, there's no secret technique in separating me from this dress." (Did I say she was funny or what?) Closing in on her evening's deal, she remarks, numbly surprised, "Something's moving in my chest" -- but no, "It's nothing, I just need some rest." She not about to get fooled into thinking that this bar hook-up is true love. Although it might turn out to be . . . well, you never know . . .

O'Hare sample