Friday, July 31, 2009

"Nervous Breakdown" / Eddie Cochran

This came blasting out of the car radio yesterday, knocking me completely ass over teakettle. What a hoot this song is! Up to now, the only song of Eddie Cochran's I could identify was "Summertime Blues," and even that I only know from a K-Tel compilation disc called Summer Blast or something dumb like that. Eddie Cochran's one of those guys that 60s British rockers were always citing as one of their heroes, but I regret to say he was before my time. He's just wasn't around that long, either -- tragically, he died at age 21 in a taxi crash in England (Gene Vincent was in the taxi with him but survived). It's amazing that so much of Cochran's music survives. The guy must have been a music-writing machine. A seminal guitar god, too, Wikipedia tells me (what would we do without Wikipedia?), but it's all about how he tuned down his third string and that means absolutely nothing to me -- I'll just take Wikipedia as gospel and run with it.

The minute I heard this song, though, I knew I'd heard it before, in that glorious audial soup of my childhood. I just had no idea it was Eddie Cochran. It's incredibly primitive -- just a chugging guitar line, simple drums, and handclaps, behind Cochran's exitable rockabilly vocals. You've got to love how he camps it up, emitting little squeals and gasps on words like "shiver" and "quiver" and "jitter." (Whoo-wee! Going all Jerry Lee Lewis on us.) "I'm a-havin' a nervous breakdown / A mental shakedown," he moans, vibrating his voice on "nervous." It reminds me of that novelty song from the 60s, "They're Coming To Take Me Away" -- totally tongue in cheek. I can so hear the echoes of this in Roger Daltrey's stutter in the Who's "My Generation."

In the verse, he goes to see his doctor -- still to the same jiving rhythm -- and old doc gives him the word: "Hey, boy, you just gotta slow down / You can't keep a-traipsin' all over town / After givin' you a physical check /I've come to the conclusion you're a total wreck." He plays this like it's woeful news, but the subtext is, Hey, it's medically confirmed -- I'm a total wild man! And that lugubrious tone is all a pose -- he likes being a wild man, that onanistic guitar riff and the knee-jerk handclaps tell you he's still at it. He's pure adolescent id, convinced of his own immortality and self-absorbed to the max.

Oh, yeah, in the third verse, he declares he's going to reform: "I've made up my mind I'd better change my ways / My shattered nerves have seen better days." But how long can it last? "No more girls for a week or two," he promises, getting high on renunciation; "No more runnin' 'round with the usual crew / No more movies or stayin' out late." Yeah, like going to the movies is what's ruining his health. "My baby 'll have to find herself another date," he adds, shaking his head -- the sacrifices I have to make!
What a drama queen.

Wikipedia tells me that this record only became a hit after his death, when I guess they were dredging up everything he'd ever recorded (he only had released one album when he died). This all happened only a year after Buddy Holly and Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died. Early rock 'n' roll sure lived up to its live-fast-die-young image, didn't it? But even now, the irrepressible energy of this song practically burns its way through the speakers. God, rock 'n' roll used to be fun. When did it start taking itself too seriously?

Nervous Breakdown sample

Monday, July 27, 2009

"How Deep Is The Red" / Elvis Costello

Of course I like Elvis Costello's new album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. You should know by now, I've adored Costello for over 30 years; he's HUGE in my personal rock pantheon, maybe one of my Top 5. Despite his many strange digressions (I can't say I listen to The Juliet Letters very often, or that album with Anna-Sophie Mutter), something about his oddly-textured voice and his snarky wit and his surprising melodies has always perfectly met my music-listening requirements.

I saw Elvis sing a few tunes from this album at a dress rehearsal for Prairie Home Companion a couple months ago, and I knew instantly I'd like it. I so dig it when Elvis gives into his love of American country music -- King of America has always been one of my favorite EC albums -- and here he's going even more old-school, with bluegrass fiddles and Dobros and finger-pickin' banjos straight out of O Brother Where Art Thou?

I reckon some anonymous poster's gonna come on here and bitch and moan about how lazy Elvis has become -- he just banged out this album in 3 days, sitting around a Nashville studio with T-Bone Burnett and a bunch of topnotch session men. He co-wrote a couple of new tunes, 2 with T-Bone ("Sulphur to Sugarcane" and "The Crooked Line") and one with Loretta Lynn ("I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came"). (Wish I coulda fly-on-the-walled that songwriting session.) He recycled a couple of songs he wrote for Johnny Cash, "Hidden Shame" and "Complicated Shadows," the latter of which he'd already used on All This Useless Beauty. He covered an old Bing Crosby chestnut, "Changing Partners," and then threw in 4 songs he wrote for a yet-unfinished opera about (get this) Hans Christian Andersen, commissioned by the Royal Danish Opera. That means that Elvis himself only penned 3 new songs for this LP. You could say he's like a grocer with his finger on the scale, shorting his customers with every sale.

But you've got to remember, Elvis is a graduate of the old Nick Lowe
"Bash it out now and tart it up later"school of recording -- and he seems to be getting back to those roots lately. His previous album, Momofuku, was another of these sit-down-and-crank-it-out all-at-one-go efforts, and though it's uneven, there's pure creative joy running all through that record. Elvis is too prolific for his own good -- I wish I could do one of those Young Frankenstein brain drains with him and Nick Lowe, exchange a little of Nick's scrupulous self-editing for Elvis's willingness to throw anything against the wall and see what sticks. But EC's boundless energy, confidence, and enthusiasm are a wonderful antidote to the cautious, premeditated, over-produced major-label crap being pushed at us these days.

After a day or so of listening to this album, the track that's haunting me is one of the songs cribbed from the Andersen opera, "How Deep Is the Red." From Elvis' cryptic notations, I'm guessing this song is supposed to be a hymn sung by Andersen's love interest, the famed Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. The way Elvis & Co. perform it here, though, it's anything but hymn-like.

The deliberately archaic lyrics remind me of something Colin Meloy might have written for the Decemberists: "Is this not a pretty tale? / Is this not a riddle? / A bow shoots arrows through the air / A bow drags notes from a fiddle." Well, that play on words is distinctly Elvis, I guess -- the man cannot pass up a pun. In tried-and-true folk ballad style, Elvis goes on to describe various red objects -- a soldier's tunic, a rose's thorn, and the blood of Christ. I suppose that's the bit that would make it a hymn, though Elvis, with his Catholic upbringing, often gets hung up on religious imagery. "How deep is the red our redeemer bled, the debt of our sins to settle?" -- I can see the gory blood streaming from a crucifix right now.

On the surface, this song's not even ironic -- maybe in the opera, it's meant to be a straightforward hymn. But Elvis gives it a dark spin by using a minor key, and adds a mournful fiddle and Dobro to his fiercely strummed acoustic guitar. The melody is peppered with octave drops that almost seem shivers of woe. Over and over, in a drawn-out coda, he keeps questioning, "How deep is the red?" His "pretty tale" feels damn bleak, with all those soldiers and pricking thorns and suffering Saviours. It's more a crisis of faith, or a vision of endless sorrow. And at the end, as he softly reiterates the first verse, he slows it to an ominous tempo, his voice punching "deep" hard before dropping sorrowfully to "is the red."

So why is this song sticking in my head? Dunno, it just is. It's haunting me, in fact. The passion, the dumb hurt throbbing through it -- they have nothing to do with the lyrics and everything to do with the performance. So who cares whether Elvis wrote new songs or not?

How Deep Is the Red sample

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Let Me Roll It" / Paul McCartney & Wings

I myself can't believe I've waited this long to write about the Paul McCartney concert at CitiField last Tuesday night. I guess I was just hoping to tuck it under my pillow for a few more nights. Okay, we were several rows back -- but still on the floor! -- and rain kept falling intermittently. But it was a fabulous concert, with Paul singing and playing for nearly three hours, without even taking a drink of water. No flitting off stage to change shirts, either (at one point, when he took off his black jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt, he grinned and said, "Time for a costume change -- and that'll be the only one tonight.") We're talking old school. Except for the brilliant videos playing on the backdrop, and an impressive set of fireworks on "Live and Let Die," this was just Macca and his band, playing nonstop rock and roll.

Just Macca and his band. Ha!

I have to give our Paulie credit, he has the confidence to bracket himself between two hot young guitarists (the one on his left looking eerily like my old friend Tom Gallagher), knowing full well that all eyes would still be riveted on himself. What a kick-ass band he's assembled! Check out these clips here.

My only quarrel -- and it seems churlish even to mention this -- is that he only played the hits. And sheesh, when you've got a catalog like Paul McCartney's, there are so many hits to choose from. I call this "the Lola Syndrome," derived from the fact that my heart always drops a little when Ray Davies launches into "Lola" -- knowing that most of the audience expects it -- while we hard-corers at the front of the house are rooting instead for "This Time Tomorrow" or "Sitting In My Hotel," which I have yet to hear live, Ray, godammit. Screw "Lola." Really, Paul, I promise you, I wouldn't have gone away disappointed if you hadn't sung "The Long and Winding Road" or "Yesterday." Seriously. But "Magneto and Titanium Man"? "Cafe on the Left Bank"? "Single Pigeon"? Man, one of those would have been fun for a change.

(I make it sound as if I've seen McCartney live so many times I've lost count. No way -- this is only the second time. Already jaded? Please.)

Well, he had to spread the love around -- a handful of Beatle classics, some Wings stuff, some solo tracks, even a song off his recent Fireman album Electric Arguments. (Personally my favorite thing he's done recently, even more than Chaos and Creation or Memory Almost Full.) But he did dwell a bit extra on Band On the Run, probably his most successful post-Beatles LP. Why not? It's a brilliant record, and I was thrilled when he launched into "Let Me Roll It."

Let's remember, Paul McCartney is a bassist, and the slow lunging funk of this track puts the bass front and center. Oh, yes, there are those delicious curlicue guitar licks punctuating each line, but that bass line carries the song. God knows the lyrics aren't much -- "You gave me something / I understand / You gave me lovin' in the palm of my hand" -- it's hardly literary stuff. But hey, you don't go to Paul McCartney for lyrics. You know me, I'm usually a lyrics girl, and even I don't go to Paul McCartney for the lyrics. "I can't tell you how I feel / My heart is like a wheel / Let me roll it / Let me roll it / Let me roll it to you." Oh, how profound.

What I do go to Paul McCartney for is much more visceral. This song reminds me a lot of "Helter Skelter" in the way it translate physical movement into musical phrases and textures. The tension between that lounging bass line and those spasmodic quivers of guitar is incredibly sexy, especially when those whacking drums are added in, and the long slow exhale of the organ. Paul's vocal wanders through, a little tinny and distant, searching vaguely for words, erupting into glissandos of ecstasy. This singer is not in control of the song -- only the bass line is, that prodding pulse marching the song inexorably along to its, er, climax.

I remember sitting by my little fold-up stereo in my college dorm room, listening to this album over and over, usually in the dark, and being thrilled by this song in ways I still couldn't fathom. But to hear it live? To hear it live played by Paul himself? The song simply washed over me, overwhelmed me. There I was in CitiField with tens of thousands of other fans, and I was completely transported just by the bass line on this song. Who needs fireworks or costume changes when you can work that kind of magic?

Let Me Roll It sample

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"I Don't Want to See You Again" / Peter and Gordon

R.I.P. Gordon Waller, 1945-2009

I'll admit, this death has hit me a lot harder than Michael Jackson's. True, it was his partner Peter Asher who was my hearthrob back in 1964 (in the brief intervals when I despaired of Paul McCartney ever falling in love with me) -- a strawberry blond mop and black-framed specs, who could resist? But even then I knew perfectly that the sweetly earnest voice carrying the tune was all Gordon.

Granted, how could they lose, when Peter's sister's boyfriend Paul was handing them tunes like this to record? This is possibly the tenderest kiss-off song in the history of pop. In fact, that title phrase -- "I don't want to see you again" -- doesn't even come from our singer; he's just ruefully quoting what his girl said to him. Talk about a deft switcheroo. And he's such a sweetheart, he's just aching . . . which makes your average teen girl with her ear pressed to her transistor radio yearn to comfort the poor guy. A second switcheroo!!

As we girls all know, guys are emotional amateurs. Right now, our protagonist is gobsmacked by the break-up. "I hear that love is planned," he begins -- he's bought the pop party line on love-ever-after -- and he's confused, poor baby. "How can I understand / When someone says to me, / 'I don't want to see you again.'" Can't you just see the winsome pout?

But the folk-tinged sincerity of P & G's voices -- well-bred schoolboys still, with perfect enunciation -- keeps it honest. Push it just a little further, and it could have sounded like self-pity, or egotistical complaint. But no, not our boy -- he's crying at night, ladies, still mournfully rehearsing her cutting words in his ears.

Only in that thrumming bridge does the slightest bit of accusation edge into their voices: "As you turned your back on me / You hid the light of day / I didn't have to play at being / Broken-hearted." (Who said he was "playing"? Lemme at her.) Listen to how they shift in and out from unison to harmonies; whenever their voices divide, I feel more complex emotions burbling up. Just a touch of strings to schmaltz it up, and that doleful-yet-perky instrumental break -- is that a mellotron? a clavinet? whatever it is, it sounds like honking sobs. The production on this number is spot-on, isn't it? I assume it was George Martin at the helm (having a Beatle in-law was tremendous luck for these kids), but knowing that Peter Asher went on to be such a gifted producer himself, I'm willing to believe they had a hand in it themselves.

By the third verse, we already can detect a hint of perspective creeping in: "I know that later on / After love's / Been and gone / I'll still hear someone say / 'I don't want to see you again.'" Ah, well the first cut is the deepest and all that. I suppose we knew this was all cliche -- maybe Peter and Gordon knew it too (I'm betting Paul was always a true believer, at least when in songwriting mode). But as a distillation of teen heartbreak, this little number is nearly faultless. It's unironic pop magic, pure and simple, and we'll never see the likes of it again.

I Don't Want to See You Again sample

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Sunday Blues" / Marshall Crenshaw

When I got home from vacation, a lovely little present was waiting for me -- the new Marshall Crenshaw album Jaggedland. Now at last, when I can listen to my own music without all my family listening in -- it's Marshall Crenshaw time.

As my longtime readers may recall, Marshall Crenshaw lies in a very special circle of my heart -- a fellow Midwesterner, my exact same age, following most of the same musical heroes, he's like my musical doppelganger. I loved his first album (1982's Marshall Crenshaw) but then lost track of him for years; rediscovering Marshall has been one of the great musical joys of the past few years for me. What a revelation it's been to discover that, even as Marshall faded from the public ear, his music just kept on getting better and better -- tenderer, suppler, with crafty grooves and heart-stopping little plunges of emotion. My favorite record of his is probably his 1999 album #447, unless you count 2003's What's In the Bag?; and now here comes Jaggedland to blow them both out of the water.

On first listen, Sunday Blues seems a gently syncopated meditation -- brunch anyone? -- with Marshall's jazzy guitar riffs and a touch of mellow strings lounging around. But just under the surface, it's much more discomfiting. The lyrics meander fretfully, only occasionally stumbling into rhymes -- "I wish I could / Go walking / Walk out of this place / Maybe see a friendly face, but it's / Raining / And raining, I'm / Looking down below from a thirteenth-floor window." There's a brief shadow of suicidal thoughts there, but just a whisper. "The sky is ugly grey / In here or down there / Right now it's bad news either way."

Not much happens in this song. He stands at the window -- I'm guessing a hotel room, on the road -- brooding, watching the rain, feeling cooped up, restless, bitter. (Still, not too bitter -- that finger-snapping beat and the sweetness of his vocals keep things copasetic.) Those stuttering phrases are like fragmented thoughts -- it's the musical equivalent of Cubist art, an effect he repeats in several tracks on the album (no wonder it's called Jaggedland). Nothing much seems to happen -- it's all internal drama. IN A POP SONG.

Well, that's why you gotta pay attention. Just glancingly he mentions in the long second verse, "I tried to call you on the phone"; he doesn't say that's why he's feeling so crappy, but we can read between the lines. In the third verse, he grouses, "I'm on the wrong side of Sunday / Can't get away from dark thoughts today / I've been made blue / Been lied to" -- betrayed by that woman who doesn't answer the phone? Again, he just implies -- we're way beyond Everly Brothers simplicity here.

"But enough's enough," he adds, wearily, "I don't need this stuff, ok?" And just when you'd expect him to vent, instead he does the zen thing: "Regret and rage, just go back underground / Mean old Sunday blues, I've had it with you hanging 'round." The last verse shrugs philosophically, "Everyone now and then has to play and lose / So I'll waste no more time on last year's news." I can just see him putting on his hat (Marshall's trademark hipster fedora) and heading out the door, taking that therapeutic walk anyway, damn the rain. And as he swings the door shut behind him, the wry chuckle of the last line: "'Til the next time around with the Sunday blues." He's been here before; he knows the psychological pattern.

What is this -- adult emotional complexity in a rock & roll song? Yes indeedy, and that's what really gets me. Okay, I also love the shuffling jazziness, the intriguing musical intervals, the arresting chord progressions -- they suit Marshall's yearning voice, that earnest boyish quality that's still there, belying the spiky sentiments he favors. This jazzy sound dovetails seamlessly into the vintage rock & roll bedrock of Marshall's sound. (Remember, this is a guy who got his show-biz start playing John Lennon in Beatlemania, once played Buddy Holly in a movie, and also wrote the title track of the mock rock biopic Walk Hard).

Remembering those peppy retro pop gems of his 1982 debut -- so fresh, so lively, so eager -- I find it astounding that MC has ripened into a true original, with a distinctive sound and with lyrics that resound deeply. This is good stuff, just amazingly good stuff. Why isn't Marshall Crenshaw at the top of every critic's "best of" list?

By all rights, Jaggedland will finally earn Marshall Crenshaw the accolades he deserves. Here's hoping (but hey, at my age, I should know better...)

Sunday Blues sample