Friday, January 30, 2009

"Don't Want To Know" /

John Martyn

As the record reviewer for my college newspaper, I bagged a continual stream of free LPs I wouldn't have even heard about otherwise. One of the best surprises was John Martyn's Solid Air, a moody folk-jazz record that was so good, I couldn't believe I'd never heard of the guy before--or ever heard much about him again.

Well, I read Martyn's obituary today -- dead at age 60, a complete physical wreck thanks to years of heavy drinking -- and while it doesn't make much of a ripple in the general world, I'm sad. Like his friend Nick Drake (the song "Solid Air" was written about Drake, before his untimely death), Martyn was unfairly pigeonholed into 60s folk-rock. But where else would you put him? His lyrics were more impressionistic than Dylanesque-clever, his songs tinged with jazz and reggae when everybody else was aping the blues. Then there was his soft husky high tenor, mopey and fretful and slurred with pain. Not for everybody, I guess, but when it worked, it was a seductive formula.

All the obits mention "May You Never," the Martyn song beatified by an Eric Clapton cover; lest you think John Martyn was a one-hit wonder, here's another track worth remembering. "Don't Want to Know" is a melancholy minor-key samba, the dogged iteration of a stubborn romantic. "I don't want to know about evil / Only want to know about love," he declares from the start, and then he repeats it right away. It's like he's sticking his fingers in his ears, singing la-la-la to block out the crap he doesn't want. Which, of course, makes us more aware of that evil than ever.

That's the chorus; the verses are one long complaint about modern life, soaked with self-pity and paranoia: "All around the cold is glistening / Making sure it keeps me down to size . . ."; "I'm waiting for the planes to tumble / Waiting for the towns to fall / I'm waiting for the cities to crumble..."; "All around that gold is glistening / Making sure it keeps us hypnotized." Standard-issue protest rock stuff.

What makes it work is the way the waves of misery keep cresting and falling, with shivering electric piano trills making icy echoes and a flicker of Latin percussion whispering underneath his acoustic strums. (And this song doesn't even make the most of his inventive guitar playing, his greatest contribution to music.) Every syncopated hiccup of his rhythm seems hobbled with regret; he may say he only wants to know about love, but does he ever describe a single detail of love? No. Still, it's such a richly-textured tone poem, it transcends all his morose maunderings. All this crap is happening, weighing him down, but pure music prevails.

I gather there was nothing fragile or ethereal about John Martyn; he was a self-destructive egotist, a train wreck from the get-go, and probably it was his own fault that he never became a bigger star. Still, you look at clips of him performing -- fat and bloated in his old age, down to one good leg -- and when he starts to play the guitar, it's like the angels are singing.

Don't Want To Know sample

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"Kylie from Connecticut" /
Ben Folds

I've got me a nice pile of shiny Christmas CDs to work through, and right at the top is this new thing from Ben Folds, Way To Normal. It's a pretty wondrous thing from start to finish, full of that peculiar Ben Folds mix of keen-edged social satire and bittersweet tenderness. Folds really has become our poet of middle-class suburban American life, just like Ray Davies was for English suburbs forty years ago; he chronicles our neurotic consumer culture with a suitably jaundiced eye. Anybody who wants to get a good dose of snarkiness only has to listen to "The Frown Song" or "The Bitch Went Nuts," or his Elton John tribute "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head" to know that Ben lets no one off easy.

Later on in the CD, however, he gets more reflective, winding up with this heartbreaking track. Like Elvis Costello's "Long Honeymoon," or like Ben's own "Annie Waits," it's written from a woman's perspective, but it's not the Kylie of the title -- Kylie never appears in this song at all, in fact. She's just a name on a phone message slip that our heroine finds among her husband's things, reading: "Kylie is calling from Connecticut / She says you've got the number." That's all the note says, but once she's seen it, the wife can't get it out of her mind.

"She believes there are things you shouldn't know about / When you've been married for 35 years," Ben tells us. Wow, these people have been married for 35 years? Not likely subjects for a rock song -- but then, Ben Folds' music isn't really rock. This track is mostly just Ben's nasal everyman tenor and a piano, although, granted, Ben Folds' piano is as good as an orchestra (I can't think of anybody but Joe Jackson who can take the piano in so many directions). The melody strains urgently upward when he sings out Kylie's name, but otherwise it hurries around fretfully, brief little breathless surges of anxiety, while his fingers churn restlessly up and down the keyboard. How else should a song about despair and disappointment sound?

And soon the plot thickens. Our nameless (and neglected, I'll bet) heroine plays this don't-ask-don't-tell game for her own reasons: "And her heart belongs to a man that she hadn't seen / Since a magical night when the children were small." How do you read that line? Is there an old lover in her past? That would explain why she can smell infidelity in that simple note. But another possibility strikes me: Is that man she hasn't seen for so long her husband -- or rather, the side of her husband that she loves, which has long disappeared? I can't tell you which of those two options makes me sadder.

Ben knows it's sad, and he starts to layer on shimmery bursts of drums, then melancholy strings; by the musical interval, it's morphed into movie soundtrack music, with emotion-wringing dissonant cellos, the whole moody works. Overdone? I don't think so; it just shows that he takes this ordinary woman's silent misery seriously. Meanwhile, she goes on agonizing: "It keeps coming back as she's reading old letters / That she left in the closet with the pictures she cherished / That she kept to herself for a good 30 years." What a fruitless little hell she's driving herself into.

There's a whole world in this song; a whole life in it. And yet nothing really happens --a woman reads a slip of paper and then broods about it. How Ben Folds manages to pack so much into this tiny event astounds me; there's all sorts of melodrama trying to rush in and take over, but he manages to keep it just out of reach. (I have to admit, this song makes "Eleanor Rigby" look positively cheesy.) Above all, I marvel that he invests so much in a scenario about a middle-aged suburban housewife. But after all, why not?

Kylie From Connecticut sample

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Yes I Will" / The Hollies

I'd completely forgotten about this song -- I didn't even remember that I'd put it on my iTunes. When I think of the Hollies, I think mostly of "Bus Stop" and "Carrie Anne," those fresh-sounding mid-60s hits, and maybe "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," their 1970 single that proved they were still relevant. By then, though, I was starting to mix them up with Bread, who came along with the same kind of soft-edged vocal harmonies (remember "Make It With You"? How about "It Don't Matter to Me" and the truly awful "Baby I'm-A Want You"? Yeah, I know, I wanted to erase those from my mental hard drive too.) Honestly, by the time the Hollies came out with "The Air That I Breathe," it was easy to confuse them with Bread.

But back when backbeat pop was still bright and brisk and clean, before everything got sludged up with pomposity and overblown emotions, there were their 1965 hits "Yes I Will" and the folky "Look Through Any Window." Man, this was good stuff. Was it Graham Nash jumping ship in 1968 that sent the Hollies south? Was it just standard-issue 70s excess? Or was it the desperation of a singles band trying to survive in the new world of album-oriented rock?

The Hollies website tells me that this song was written by Gerry Goffin and Russ Titelman, one of the few songs Goffin wrote with someone besides his then-wife and songwriting partner, my homegirl Carole King (for Tapestry alone I'll always love her). This is not one of Gerry's brightest efforts; the lyrics are, I hate to say it, borderline inane. Take that first verse: "I'll be true to you, yes I will / I'll be true to you, yes I will / I won't look twice / When / The other girls go by / I'll be true to you, yes I will." Okay, okay, we get the point.

Still, though I say I forgot about this song, I certainly didn't forget this song. The minute it shuffled up on my player, I knew every word, every harmony, every glorious mushy chord shift. In a world that was speedily going cynical, the Hollies were still offering earnestness, ardently sustaining those long rhyming notes in the third line of each verse: "My heart is sure / You're / The girl I've waited for." It's breathtakingly simple, and dead sincere.

The bridge gets a little more complex: "I used to be the kind / Who said that every girl's the same, and / Love was just a game for having fun." I perk up here; I know that guy. And schmaltzy as the next lines are -- "But when I looked at you / I knew that I was wrong, and that I / Really could belong / To only one" -- I have to admit I fall for it. Notice how the lines spill over (technical term: enjambment) to link a long complex thought, then resolve in short-line simplicity. (Note the same-game and wrong-belong internal rhyme, too.) I'm guessing the tune suggested this to Goffin, but give him credit for having the chops to do something with it.

We know now that it's totally unrealistic, all this love-at-first-sight and true-love-forever nonsense. This is the bill of goods pop music sold us for years -- how many thousands of disastrous marriages have Top 40 radio to blame? But in 1965, the Hollies could still deliver it without a trace of irony -- that faithful drumbeat, the spangly guitar strums, and above all the gorgeous harmonies. You only have to hear the Monkees' cover to marvel at the perfection the Hollies brought to this (and hey, I like the Monkees). For 2:57 I believe in it all over again.

Yes I Will sample

Thursday, January 08, 2009

"Please Send Me Someone To Love" / The Animals

For Christmas I got one of those turntables that's supposed to convert vinyl to digital tracks (yeah, I know, I got one of those last Christmas, but they swear the technology's different now and it will really work this time). But before I opened that snazzy present, I'd already caved in and ordered a CD version of my old Animals LP Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted, mostly because I just had to have this track.

Now, when I say "old" Animals LP, I don't mean dating back to their first appearance in the early 1960s (I don't count Eric Burdon and the Animals as the same band -- in fact, I only consider them the Animals if Alan Price is on board, and he was the first member of the original band to bail). No, this LP popped up in 1977, when for some reason the original band decided to re-unite. I guess that reunion fizzled, but they tried it again in 1983, when they not only released another album, Ark, but even supported it with a tour. That's when I finally saw them live, here in New York at the Beacon Theater. I remember that night very well; Eric Burdon's singing was awesome, but there wasn't enough of Alan Price in the show for me -- they let him sing a couple songs from O Lucky Man! but otherwise wanted to keep him confined to the keyboards, which had been the problem in the first place. I guess that second reunion was doomed to fail too.

The Animals may have gotten bogged down in ego and politics, but there's no question they were a brilliant band, and this reunion album has some brilliant stuff on it. Now that they weren't anymore hungry young kids being manipulated by cynical pop producers, they could indulge themselves with all the bluesy stuff they'd always loved to perform. This old Percy Mayfield standard dates back to 1950 and has been covered by everyone from Pat Boone and Peggy Lee to the Grateful Dead, but this is the version I know and love the best. I love the drawling tempo they take it at, taking its own sweet time, much lazier than Mayfield's original (Count Basie's version, with Joe Williams on vocals, sounds a lot closer) ; I love how Eric Burdon's voice climbs gradually from growl to howl.

The song starts out almost like a gospel number, some sort of blues benediction -- "Heaven please send to all mankind / Understanding and peace of mind / But if it's not asking too much / Please send me someone to love." Talk about restraint -- almost all of the song follows this same disciplined pattern, nattering on about world peace and harmony, but the singer can't help it, at the end of every chorus he just has to sneak in his own selfish plea. He's trying to focus on the big picture, he really is, and he doesn't want to feel sorry for himself . . . but there's only so much self-restraint a guy can take. "Just because I am in misery / Well I don't beg for no sympathy," he claims, the chords shifting doggedly upward, but eventually he gets carried away; the notes crest over the top, underlaid with an uneasy diminished chord, as he blurts out, "Well if it's not asking too much / Please send me someone to love." It's subtle, but that underlying tension between his high-minded pretense and his real motives charges up this whole song.

Of course Alan Price's electric piano riffs are wonderful; to my ear they make the song. (That middle eight solo is so lovely and laidback -- it's great to see the mature Animals letting themselves be so mellow). But even I will admit that this is a superb Burdon vocal. His confident phrasing just makes you beg for the lyrical pay-off, and he has the guts to lets himself go flat and slide dirtily into those low notes, then do a bravura glissando up to the top of his range. It's the voice of experience, all weathered and assured.

It took ages for this record to be re-issued on CD; even now it's hard to find, and I couldn't even dredge up an on-line sample to link to. Sorry, but you'll just have to take my word for it. Even better, get your own hands on this record -- it's a bittersweet reminder of how good the Animals might have been if their prickly personalities hadn't gotten in the way. Well, at least we've got this latter day bonus -- and now I've got it on CD, I'm a happy camper.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"The Future Freaks Me Out" /
Motion City Soundtrack

"I'm on fire / And now I think I'm ready / To bust a move . . . ." It's not exactly this whole song that's been in my head -- just this impetuous, dissonant, frantic opening. Justin Pierre jumps right into this with no intro, and hardly any instruments behind him; the words make him sound all Mr. Confident, but just listen that anxious yelp on "ready." "Check it out, I'm rocking steady," he insists, but he's tripping over his own rapid-fire words. If indie angst's what you after, look no further than Motion City Soundtrack.

There's this girl in the song, Betty, that he's involved with -- which is a polite way of saying they're hooking up (they're sure not in love). "I try to compensate her lack of love with coffee cake," he tells us, "Ice cream and a bottle of ten dollar wine she says hey." Then we get a whiff off their disjointed slacker conversation -- "I’m footloose in my Velcro shoes / What’s up with Will and Grace? / I don’t get drum and bass" -- no wonder he ends that verse with "The future freaks me out." If my life were this random and pointless, the future would freak me out too.

Verse two, beneath the thrashing beat and the hard-edged synths, is poignant: "Betty can’t quit carving question marks in my wrist / How come we’re so alone / We waste away the days with nicotine and television samples / From an era we hate to admit we embrace." He knows he's a misfit, that he's not going anywhere, but turning his life around would just take so much effort. "We fail to represent / We fail to be content / We fail at everything we ever even try to attempt" -- man, this song would be depressing if it didn't have so much spunky energy.

So why are they even together? Because he's on fire, and he's ready to bust a move, and she's available -- and hooking up with her is better than being alone. In fact, she's totally undemanding, narcotized by sugar and caffeine and junk pop culture. This is Sex With No Strings, and though he knows it's worthless, anything's better than being lonely. Self-pity creeps in for a moment: "Betty it’s so hard to relate / To the whole human race / I don’t know where to begin." Jeez, they're coming close here to having a Simon & Garfunkel moment -- ah, but that's just the sugar crash talking, and luckily it soon goes south. "Betty, I’m a dreamer / I’m not a vicious schemer / Oh Betty won’t you.. ah fuck it." Trying to solve the meaning of life requires more focus than he can muster.

This song is from their 2003 debut album, I'm In the Movie. In a sea of emo soundalikes, these guys had their own dark and snarky groove going from Day One, apparently. They actually seem to have some existential perspective on life, though it probably sails over the heads of most of their fans. It's nice to see someone in the indie pack with a little wit.

The Future Freaks Me Out sample

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

"She Moves In Her Own Way" /
The Kooks

This song has been haunting me lately, and sometimes when I find myself humming it, it takes a minute for me to recall what decade it dates from -- that's proof of how well these guys channel the 60s Beat sound. I thought it was just me, but then today on the supermarket muzak, right between Freda Payne's "Band of Gold" and Jackson Browne's "Doctor My Eyes," up popped this catchy-as-hell track by the Kooks. Talk about your instant classics . . .

So even though I've already writtten about the Kooks here, I've got to give them an encore. The version I have on my iTunes, actually, isn't the album track from 2006's Inside In/Inside Out -- it's an acoustic version, from the Kooks' appearance on that Live At Abbey Road TV program. (Some day I've really got to watch that show.) The simpler recording works better, I think; the essence of this song is its crisp, light-hearted bounce. Its skiffle-like backbeat rhythms, the exuberant octave jumps in the melody, were born to be sung over guitar strums. (A ukelele would even work, come to think of it.)

I have to admit, the subtext of this song is baffling. Does he love the girl he's singing about/to? He can't even get his pronouns straight -- sometimes she's "you," sometimes she's "she" -- or are there two girls in the picture? In the verses, she sounds like a pain in the butt, with her "tiresome paper dreams," her "tempered furs and spangled boots," her attempts to "pull his strings" ("So at my show on Monday / I was hoping someday / You'd be on your way to better things" -- that sounds like he'd be glad to get rid of her). But in the chorus he insists, "Well, uh oh, I love her because she moves in her own way / But uh oh she came to my show just to hear about my day." Hmm, now he seems to dig her.

If this is the same girl he's talking about both places, she's really got him in a tailspin. At one point, he tells her, "So won't you go far / Tell me you're a keeper"; in the last verse he's saying, "Yes I wish that we never made it." Or is he talking there about wishing the band had never become famous? Beats me. Way too many young songwriters think they can dash off opaque lyrics, full of you-had-to-be-there references, and expect their listeners to go along for the ride. Someone needs to go take Ray Davies' songwriting course and learn a bit about song structure and clear storytelling.

But this song is just too perky to be about a girl he hates, or about a suffocating relationship, or the perils of show-biz fame. The minute it comes on, I get caught up in that happy-go-lucky beat; Luke Pritchard's boyish tenor delivery is intensely likeable (I can't help hearing a little Peter Noone in his guttural accent, though it's probably more like the Arctic Monkeys than like Herman's Hermits).

Still, those 60s echoes keep coming through. When he sings "moving on to better things," immediately I think of the Kinks' "Better Things"; the line about "It's not about your make-up / Or how you try to shape up" calls up the Beatles' "For No One" ("she wakes up / she makes up / she takes her time and doesn't feel she has to hurry / she no longer needs you"). Even that "paper dreams" phrase evokes the old Traffic song "Paper Sun" (with a melodic nod to "Coloured Rain" as well). These guys clearly know their early BritPop classics; I just don't think this is accidental.

Between the lazy navel-gazing lyrics and the footnotable references to other music, this track is a whole lot more postmodern than it seems. It's got way more style than substance. Still, as we used to say on American Bandstand, it has a great beat and I can dance to it. And when it comes to rock & roll, hey, that's mostly what counts.

She Moves In Her Own Way sample

Monday, January 05, 2009

"Rush Across the Road" /
Joe Jackson

I'm not big on end-of-year "best of" lists. Imagine lumping together two such different albums as Vampire Weekend's debut album and Ray Davies' Working Man's Cafe, just because they were released in the same year -- what's the point?

Still, if I did do a Best Records of 2008 list, I know one album that would be on it: Joe Jackson's Rain. The first time I played it, I was shattered by its searing emotions, and it only goes deeper every time I've listened since. The song cycle traces the downward spiral of a flawed love affair; and then suddenly, on track eight, comes this totally joyous song about finding new love, just when you least expect it.

Joe Jackson's never fit easily into the rock mold; he's always veering off into jazz and classical and Latin music, even old-fashioned lush movie scores (gotta love the reference to Casablanca in this song's first line: "Of all the streets in the world / You walk down this one.") It's wonderfully cinematic, as he pans the urban wideshot then zooms in for a close-up: "And I see three hundred girls / But just want to kiss one." But this is no love at first sight -- it's an old love rediscovered, like a gift from God ("I never thought you'd floor me again"), an appropriate fit for the complex midlife emotions Jackson's wrestling with.

Ever noticed what great melodies Joe Jackson writes? Partly I think it's because he's a pianist; he doesn't get hung up on chord progressions, he just flows all over the keyboard, and with his wide vocal range he can soar and dive at will. Still, even for Joe Jackson this is an achingly lovely tune. The chorus flings notes around with joyous abandon, pouncing eagerly on love as he sings, "Rush across the road /Leave my heavy load behind." He flies upward ecstatically on "It just takes a second / To know your mind," then pushes it even farther, shifting keys upward, for "And do what you've got to do." You can almost hear him bestilling his heart as he concludes, "I'll rush across the road / To catch up with you," then adds, almost in dazed wonder, "Catch up with you."

In verse two, he mulls over why this relationship never took off in the past ("Some things come to an end / Before they're done with") and you suspect he's been fretting over this lost love for years. He can only dimly recall the fights they used to have -- "And I've had enough of tears anyway" (yeah, we've seen that in tracks one through seven). But ripeness is all, as Shakespeare says; maybe it wasn't until this moment that he was ready for this love to take off.

It almost goes into movie slow-mo in verse three -- "Funny how the blink of an eye / Can last forever" -- I find myself rooting for him to get the timing right at last. He trembles suspensefully on the brink for another few lines: "And how we think ourselves dry / When it's now or never / If I wait for one more sigh / You could turn and see me / Then I'll never know what I would have done . . . " Oh, no, Joe, don't blow it this time -- you need this love so badly now.

And of course, you know what he does; he leaps into that chasm of love again, rushing across the road to catch up with her. Scarred and battered as he is, he's still going for it. This is, after all, the same guy who thirty years ago sang "Fools in love / Are there any other kinds of lovers?" He's never been able to put the brakes on his heart -- why should he start now?

The arrangement feels like a whole orchestra; it's amazing to realize it's just Joe on piano and Dave Houghton's drums, then a little touch of Graham Maby's bass in the middle eight. Joe Jackson always gets more notes out of the piano than you'd think humanly possible; this song couldn't feel more exuberant. It just bursts out of the CD, blowing inside-out all the heart-wringing of the earlier tracks. Gorgeous as this song is on its own, it's even more gorgeous as part of the CD's dramatic flow. Shocking, really -- an album that was made to be listened to as a whole, in this age of single-track downloads. But then, when did Joe Jackson ever really fit into modern times?

Rush Across the Road sample

Sunday, January 04, 2009

"Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" / Wings

The songs from Electric Arguments, the new Fireman album, haven't yet grooved sufficiently in my brain -- but I'm sure that playing that album was what sent me off on this Band on the Run jag. Oh, there were months of my life (and not just in 1973, when it first came out) when this LP never left my turntable; playing it again feels like coming home. I still insist it's the best post-Beatles solo album by any of the Fab Four.

This track takes off like a rocket, with insistently stabbing syncopated chords on the electric piano, dark and minor-key; it's always made me think of movie chase music. (I guess that's part of the album's theme, though I never really consider this a coherent concept album.) The piano pumps on for quite a while, getting your pulse racing, before Paul even starts singing. That's the main thing, of course, Paul ripping loose with his rock-n-roller vocals (only topped on this album by the bluesy howl of "Let Me Roll It"). I'm suspicious of anybody who says Paul McCartney is all sappy sweetness; clearly they haven't listened to enough Paul McCartney.

At first glance the lyrics aren't what I'd call stellar -- "Oh no one ever left alive in nineteen hundred and eighty-five will ever do / She may be right, she may be fine / She may get your love but she won't get mine / 'Cos I got you." I really do wonder how Linda McCartney felt when she heard Paul singing this musical homage: "Well I just can't get enough of that sweet stuff / My little lady gets behind." Eeeeek.

Wait, what am I saying? Paul McCartney can write lyrics like that about me any time he wants to. Even better is verse two, when he marvels, "My mama said the time would come when I would find myself in love with you / I didn't think, I never dreamed, that I would be around to see it all come true." I think of poor motherless teenage Paul, insatiable for love and approval, and it gets me right here, especially knowing how many years he would enjoy connubial bliss with the lovely Linda. You've got to say this for McCartney; he's not embarrassed to lay his emotions on the line. I love Ray Davies and Nick Lowe, but face it, their love songs are so guarded and complicated -- a girl does like sometimes to hear her idols sing straight-out love songs. Bless you for this, Paul.

I dig that arresting little interlude, an abrupt shift in musical texture, where the boogie-woogie piano and drums are replaced by woozy "ooohhs" and synth strings and stately organ sustains. I don't know why it's there -- maybe that was just Paul being arty, like he does every third or fourth album, after the critics have taken him to the cleaners and he feels he has to prove something. (Paul, you don't have to prove anything to this critic.) Still, it wouldn't be the same song without it; it adds dimension, and sets us up for the layered build-up of the climax. Remember, this song follows "Picasso's Last Words (Drink To Me)"; I suspect that McCartney was consciously making this song a big sound collage. After all, this was 1973, a particularly bloated era in rock, and the song does go on for five minutes plus. But I have to admire Paul for making the cacophony actually go somewhere -- adding first some grunts and moans, then a curling guitar riff, then crashing orchestral chords, a supple clarinet line, sawing strings, and ominous synthesizers -- all to end with a sudden sharp cut-off and distant reprise of the "Band on the Run" refrain.

Yes, I know 1985 is the year following 1984, George Orwell's fictional landmark; maybe this is Paul's half-baked attempt at literary reference. But except for a faint whiff of futuristic doom in the arrangement, this song has nothing to do with Orwell. It certainly took nerve to write a song about a date only 12 years away, especially when you're still in your 30s; he wasn't exactly planning ahead, was he? We're way past 1985 by now.

But McCartney's such a right-brained genius, he never sweats the logical details. It's just music about music -- exuberant, and simply delirious with love. Me, I love it. The days when Band on the Run is running through my brain are good days indeed.

Nineteen Hundred Eight-Five sample

Saturday, January 03, 2009

"Why Not Me" / Locksley

The opening act for Ray Davies on his most recent tour was this effervescent young indie band out of Madison, Wisconsin, by way of Brooklyn. I for one was pleasantly surprised by Locksley's infectious music. With their bright, bouncy backbeat sound, these guys make no secret of their debt to British beat bands like the Beatles and the Kinks. In classic Britpop style, it's a four-man group -- two guitarists (Jesse and Kai), a drummer (Sam), and a bassist (Jordan, who's also Jesse's brother -- how's that for following the Kinks' example?). Bottom line: I loved 'em, and after the show I made sure to buy their self-released CD Don't Make Me Wait (available at a bargain price on their website if you should be so inclined).

Crowded into the Hammerstein Ballroom, there was a flock of teenage fangirls behind us who clearly weren't there for Ray. In no time we were slipstreaming on their Locksley infatuation. (Locksley's front man Jesse, in his stovepipe trousers and Spanish boots and shaggy haircut, is pretty damn adorable.) The sound was unfortunately muddy so I couldn't catch all the lyrics, but these guys know how to work a hook, and soon we oldsters were singing right along too.

This song was a clear highlight for me, with its punchy syncopated repetitions: "Oh, talk talk talk / Oh, shut your mouth / A little kiss kiss kiss, / Come on and help me out." While some of Locksley's songs are earnest pop confections, this one has a little more grit and angst to it, as if you'd thrown a little Replacements into that Britpop mix. Skipping along through simple major chords, it's upbeat and yet urgent -- or as the next lines put it, "Desperate times call for desperate measures, / and desperate desires lead to desperate pleasures."

Hormones seem to be raging, and the emotional landscape is muddled and confused: "You know? / Oh yeah, you know don't you? / Oh god, you don't? / Oh no, you don't, do you?" It's not just sex putting him in a tailspin, but social identity issues as well: "Won't you teach teach teach me if you can / How to be more cosmopolitan / Who needs class when you got money? / Well I've got cash, but you've got everything else."

As the song pogos along, seduction becomes less important; what really matters is matching this girl's ineffable coolness: "Oh, it's so easy for you to be, / Just what everyone wants to be. / So, why not me? / Tell me, why not me?" Sneaky shifting verbs show just how malleable his identity can be: "Now listen to me, listen to me, /You're what I should be, what I could be....I'm willing to pay, begging to pay . . . get me a break, give me a break?" and eventually the pronouns start morphing as well: "Oh what can you do, what can I do, / To make you like me, make me like you?" That robust rhythm section, though, keeps him from sounding too neurotic -- that and Jesse's energetic, flirtatious vocals.

Will these guys make it? They were sure working their asses off that night, doing the most enthusiastic meet and greets out in the lobby, signing everything in sight. In this MySpace/Facebook age, self-promotion may be more important than having a label; for the moment, Locksley seems to be on the rise, getting attention from MTV and, well, opening for Ray Davies. They just may be the future of rock and roll -- I wish them well.

Why Not Me sample