Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Merry Christmas, Baby" / Charles Brown & Bonnie Raitt

I'm all juiced for Christmas songs. I love it all, carols and schmaltzy Tin Pan Alley standards and endless rounds of The Nutcracker, the whole shebang. 'Tis the season to hear Elvis croon "Blue Christmas," Dion rock around the Christmas tree, and Nat King Cole yearn for chestnuts roasting on an open fire. It's worth wading through all the sticky-sweet "Silent Nights" and "White Christmases" to find gems like Johnny Mathis's "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and -- yes, I'll confess -- James Taylor's ultra-sappy "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." I even get a thrill from hearing Dean Martin slosh his merry way through "Baby It's Cold Outside," or -- a true test of the Christmas spirit -- the infamous duet of Bing Crosby and David Bowie on "The Little Drummer Boy." Bring it on.

Of course, a little rock 'n' roll sass can do wonders for even the silliest holiday standards. My three favorite Christmas albums of all time have to be the Phil Spector Christmas album (long live the Ronettes' "Frosty the Snowman" and Darlene Love's "Marshmallow World"!), a seriously rockin' compilation of vintage R&R called Hot Rod Holiday, and Christmas With the Beach Boys (dig that magic moment when "Little Saint Nick" almost morphs into "Run Run Rudolph"!). Granted, a lot of dreck has been served up over the years as well. Apparently you couldn't be signed to the Motown label without turning out at least one LP of holiday cheese, and over the years every Nashville star had to ladle out a serving of Christmas treacle at some point. Don't even mention that Bob Dylan Christmas album to me, either. But what really leaves me cold are those self-righteous Very Special Christmas all-star charity things. Do we really need to hear Madonna sing "Santa Baby" or Sting twiddle his lute on "I Saw Three Ships"? Okay, I take it back about Sting; that boy does English folk like nobody's business. But all those Bon Jovi and Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow over-achieving renditions of the same old carols and standards -- let's kick it up to eleven! -- are just too tedious.

Here's the exception, though. The old R&B standard "Merry Christmas, Baby" (not the same song as the Beach Boy's "Merry Christmas Baby") is performed on the second Very Special Christmas album by singer/pianist Charles Brown, the same guy who did the original back in 1947 with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers (Johnny Moore wrote the song with Lou Baxter). A top ten hit in 1947, this song has been covered by everybody from Chuck Berry and B. B. King to Hanson and Bruce Springsteen (also on one of these Very Special Christmas discs). But the song really belongs to Charles Brown, and it's a joy to hear him update his recording. He's paired up with Bonnie Raitt, who spearheaded a revival of his career in the late 1980s; they recorded this track in 1992, a few years before his death in 1999. I'm betting this wouldn't have qualified for this all-star project without Bonnie's presence, but she brings enough blues cred with her that nobody dared mess with the old-school groove of this track.

Like a lot of modern Christmas songs, this one hasn't got a thing to do with Jesus; even Santa only makes a brief off-screen appearance. Mostly it's a love song, a contented jazzy stroll by a man who wakes up Christmas morning happy with his baby. (Translation: He got some holiday nookie.) It's so laidback, I don't even feel my usual impatience with the long solos in the instrumental break -- it's Christmas morning, we've got the day off, who's rushing anywhere? Bonnie and Charles turn it into a duet, which works great -- I love the bit where he sings, "I would love to kiss you baby" and she replies, invitingly, "Well, I'm standing right here underneath the mistletoe."

Christmas trappings? Who needs 'em? All this couple has is "good music on my radio" and each other. Yeah, there are presents there, but they're almost irrelevant; they're simply proof of affection. It almost doesn't matter what's inside the tinsel and paper. There's no decorations, no big fancy dinner, no floods of friends and relatives to raise the stress levels. It's just the two of them, and it's bliss.

In the last verse, he lazily sings, "I haven’t had a drink this mornin’ baby / But I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree." I love that image. So here's my Christmas wish for all of you -- whatever it takes, may you be lit up like a Christmas tree on Friday. Joy to the world indeed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Tell It Like It Is" / Aaron Neville

I finally got to see Pirate Radio the other day -- went by myself to an afternoon showing down in the East Village, only two other people in the theater -- this movie seems doomed for obscurity. I loved it, though. How could I not love a movie with "All Day and All Of the Night" blasting over the opening credits?

Along with all the British Invasion classics on the soundtrack -- the Kinks, the Who, Dusty Springfield, the Hollies, the Troggs, the Tremeloes, the Easybeats -- there was loads of American music of the era as well. I came straight home from the movie intent on downloading Otis Redding's super-soulful "These Arms of Mine." But then I got lost wandering around the archives of early 60s soul; when I woke up, this Aaron Neville song was glued to my brain instead.

Not that I'm complaining. Forget the Neville Brothers; I love Aaron's small-label stuff from the early 60s. Everybody covered this song eventually -- Percy Sledge, George Benson, Etta James, even Otis himself -- but Aaron's original 1966 recording is still the definitive version. Note how the low-fi production values muted Neville's distinctive vocal stutter, so it was just texture instead of an annoying tic.

Aaron's tenor vocal coats this song in caramel, skimming lightly over unstressed words, hitting the main verbs and nouns like a hammered dulcimer. That langorous beat is the ultimate slow dance tempo, yet the lyrics follow the rhythms of conversation (it's only one step from here to Barry White's bedroom murmur). He's speaking intimately to his lover, chiding her: "If you want / Something to play with / Go and find yourself a toy / Baby my time / Is too expensive / And I'm not a little boy." That last line dives right into sexiness; sure, his voice is high as a boy's, but that trembling quaver tells you he's got a man's passion, and he will not be denied.

The saying "Tell it like it is" got picked up as the Sixties wore on, becoming a political catch-phrase, but in this song, it seems like the singer's speaking out not from courage but from desperation. He oscillates back and forth between accusing ("If you are serious / Don't play with my heart / It makes me furious") and cajoling ("But if you want me to love you / Then a baby I will, / Girl you know that I will"). This girl is driving him crazy. He may be playing the lord and master, but she's the one who holds the cards.

In the bridge, he falls back on the tried-and-true carpe diem argument that men have used for centuries to lure a woman into bed: "Life is too short to have sorrow / You may be here today and gone tomorrow / You might as well get what you want / So go on and live, baby go on and live." Horns moan in the background, cranking up the temperature.

So what is it that makes this song so sexy? Sure, there's the emotive tremor of Aaron Neville's vocal, but don't overlook that lagging stroll tempo, the shuffling drums, or those repeated unresolved chords, holding off chord resolution time and again, while desire builds underneath. He's quivering on the threshold, like a time bomb set to go off. Speed the thing up and you lose it; get too raw and raunchy and you've lost it again. Listening to this song, I am reminded that soul music first got its name from the deep emotion it expressed. I grew up on the slick products of Motown -- and I'll never stop loving them -- but man, this is the real thing: A guy, a girl, and raging hormones. That's telling it like it is.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Magic Marker" /
Monsters of Folk

I bought this CD in early October, but I lent it to my college-age son -- and presto, just like magic, it disappeared into his music collection. I finally retrieved it at Thanksgiving, but by then I was deep into a self-induced Kinks coma and couldn't listen to anything else. In fact, thanks to the hangover from Kinks Month, I still haven't been able to listen to much new music lately. But I left Monsters of Folk on rotation on my CD player, and this week it suddenly jumped into the forefront. I'm digging it now, just as I suspected I would.

Background: Monsters of Folk is what's nowadays called a "side project" -- what we used to call a "super group" -- composed of Matt Ward (who records as M. Ward), Jim James from My Morning Jacket (herein given the endearingly goofy pseudonym Yim Yames), and Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes. I already had all of them on my iTunes, but I'd never have thought of mixing them together -- Bright Eyes' breathy pop cleverness, My Morning Jacket's rootsy earnestness, and M. Ward's snarky existential indie-folk seem to live in different realms. The first few spins, I felt compelled to tag each song as a Matt song, a Conor song, or a Yim song. But now I've relaxed into its overall genial vibe -- their collaboration seems more like Travelin' Wilburys than, say, Little Village -- and as each talent steps up to the mike, I can enjoy his distinctive idiom for what it is.

"Magic Marker" -- one of the Yim songs -- feels like the heart of the album for me. It's such a mellow, retro-sounding song, the first time I heard it I thought it was a cover of some well-loved old favorite (from some reason, I keep imagining it's late Graham Parker). Acoustic, with a gently rollicking rhythm, it pours out like maple syrup on pancakes. Like a lot of James' songs, the lyrics are a little opaque, but I like that; that laidback simplicity is deceptive.

There's something deeply reassuring about the chorus: "Ordinary don't mean nothin' no how / Look what's ordinary now." (I imagine Yim, in his flannel shirt and beard, flicking around the TV channels in disgust.) Who would want to be "normal" in a world where Lady Gaga and Russell Brand can appear on network TV? And I love the chorus's next image: "It's got a magic marker stain / On its face and it needs a shower." I can look around my desk right now and see papers defaced where some Sharpie has bled through. It's a striking visual detail that perfectly defines the soiled, spoiled nature of modern culture. Yim may be a Young Codger, but he's awfully sincere.

The first couple of verses baffle me, as if I just stumbled into an ongoing conversation. He's talking about some "frozen kid" (himself?) who's feel ostracized; it seems that he's gone out on a limb to impress somebody (a girl?) -- as he puts it, "All the freaked-out measures / I took, tryin' to make you sick of smilin'". But in the third and fourth verses, he hits his stride, with his central image of a Tootsie Roll Pop: "There's something sweet waiting in the center / Taste and see. . . . How many licks does it take to get / To the center where there's something sweet." Underneath all the poses, he promises her, is something geniune and wonderful; he's urging her to work a little to find his real self.

Okay, so that's all there is to it. Two arresting images -- the Magic Marker bleed-through and the Tootsie Pop -- and that dumbstruck remark "Look what's ordinary now," which gets repeated over and over, in Yim's hushed and husky vocal. Every verse more sounds get layered in -- another guitar, a dobro, a bass, synths, backing vocals, finally even drums -- but it remains gentle and light. With a minimum of fuss, Yim spins us through the shallowness of modern relationships, the tackiness of our mass culture, and the importance of being real -- and all without one bit of preaching or poeticizing. That hook seems so gentle, but it ingratiates itself until you wake up singing it. Like I said, syrup on pancakes. It's a winner.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"These Roads Don't Move" / Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard

What's with all these "side projects"? Back in the day, you were either in a band or you weren't. Remember how Eric Clapton had to break up Cream before he could be in Blind Faith? But now you've got guys like Jack White, who can do White Stripes and the Raconteurs and who knows how many other bands all at the same time. Or those guys in Monsters of Folk, Conor Oberst and M. Ward and Jim James, all of whom belong elsewhere. Jeff Tweedy dances in and out of Wilco, Golden Smog, and Loose Fur, then records with Billy Bragg, the Minus 5, 7 Worlds Collide -- jeez, when the guy wakes up in the morning, does he even know who he's working with today?

So yeah, I was skeptical about this One Fast Move project. It began as the soundtrack for a documentary about Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur, enlisting Jay Farrar -- the alt-country pioneer of Uncle Tupelo and then Son Volt -- and Benjamin Gibbard of the indie pop band Death Cab for Cutie (not to mention his side project Postal Service). The pairing is hardly obvious. Sure, they both exhibit a depressive streak, but with Gibbard, the depression comes out like your seventh-grade boyfriend's wistful poetry; Farrar's brand of melancholy is hard-bitten and adult, best suited to grubby barrooms and high-plains truck stops. Marry all this to lyrics taken straight from Kerouac's scouring prose -- well, watch out, sister.

But to my surprise, I loved this album. (Read here for my Blogcritics review.) Forget the film, forget even the book: This album is on my permanent playlist for its musical merits alone. Dark as some tracks may be, they're balanced by exhilarating songs like "These Roads Don't Move." Admittedly, I'm a sucker for traveling songs, especially when they're a metaphor for getting a fresh start. But I love the central image of this song -- "These roads don't move, you're the one who moves" -- an almost Zen-like koan about how travel offers a glimmering hope of change.

Throughout the album, I love how Farrar's flexible melodies accommodate the extra syllables of Kerouac's prose, imposed on bedrock rhythms that make up for the lack of rhyme scheme. Different melodies convey different moods, and Gibbard takes the lead vocal on the more tuneful, hopeful songs (which better suits his voice anyway). The passage Farrar chose for "These Roads Don't Move" is a rare island of optimism in the novel: "There is no need to say another word / It will be golden and eternal just like that / Something good will come of all things yet / Simple golden eternity blessing all." If there's irony there, it's dramatic irony; at this moment in the novel, Kerouac does believe in redemption and clean slates and all that sort of stuff. Notice how the melody soars upward at the end of lines, or nestles in a comforting little glissando phrase. And as the chorus repeats that "These roads don't move, you're the one who moves" mantra, it does so with a tuneful hook that swings you right down the road with it.

Verse two is more explicit about his journey: "Now get my ticket and say goodbye / And leave San Francisco behind / Go back home across Autumn America / And it'll all be like it was in the beginning." Verse three casts a shadow -- mentioning "dark torturous memories" and "irrational mortal loneliness" -- but by then we're just sailing along on that steady, wheeling beat, uptempo and bright. Yeah, there's the Western loneliness of a slide pedal steel guitar, but there are also shuffling drums (who knew Ben Gibbard was also a drummer?) and a brisk guitar strum to keep our narrator skipping right along.

I'm guessing this side project will be a one-time deal; Farrar and Gibbard are both too much in demand. If Kerouac hadn't brought them together, who would have imagined this? Yet Gibbard's honey and Farrar's grit add up to a beautiful and haunting album. I highly recommend.