Monday, September 28, 2009

"Mr. Fool" / George Jones

Country music. Growing up in Indiana, I had to declare myself on one side of the fence or the other, and I definitely went for the rock 'n' roll side. Damn, I'd even go for soul over country. (Motown was very big in Indianapolis.) You cannot understand this unless you know what it was like to have to suffer through Midwestern Hayride when there was nothing else on TV, back in the days when there were only four channels.

One of the reasons it took me years to discover John Hiatt -- even though I knew the kid from my neighborhood growing up -- was because he was working in Nashville, and I assumed that meant he was writing country music and I didn't want to hear about it. Can you believe that? For years, there was Johnny Hiatt writing this incredible music, and I remained ignorant of it because of my old country music prejudices.

But here's another thing I have to thank Elvis Costello for. On that very same compilation CD where I discovered Nick Lowe, Elvis also included this track by George Jones. Now, I had relaxed my anti-Nashville bias by 2005; I even saw Tammy Wynette (George Jones's ex) in 1976 when I was in graduate school at Oxford, in England. So somehow this George Jones song wriggled onto my playlist. And before long Elvis's 1981 album Almost Blue and Van Morrison's 2006 Pay the Devil served as my crash course in all the country classics I'd closed my mind to all those years. Finally, I could let my ears accept the fact that, mixed in with all the cynical Nashville dreck, there is a hell of lot of great music out there, classified as country.

There's a kind of purity to this recording, which is early George Jones (I can't find the original album release, though it's on compilations of his Mercury years, 1955-1962, as well as an import called Don't Stop The Music, which I can imagine Declan MacManus hearing as a kid in Liverpool). "Mr. Fool" is a classic honky-tonk two-step, complete with twanging pedal steel intro, plangent fiddles, and a slight yodel in George's vocals. I don't want string sections in my country music; I want a slide geetar and fiddle. And "Mr. Fool" obliges, thank you very much.

As far as the sentiments go, this song is the most basic human stuff -- universal loss, humiliation, and heartache -- and the lyrics trot out a string of romantic cliches, all scattered tears and shattered dreams and broken vows. No doubt they seem even more cliched now, after 50-odd years of pop music have worked the same few rhymes to death. But such cliches became cliches because, when all is said and done, this IS the way love works.

And this song is craftier than it appears, a psychologically acute portrait of how past, future, and present vibrate together at moments of pain. In a low, confidential voice, George starts out by projecting into the near future: "I've got a feeling / You'll soon be leavin'" (I love the slide in his voice, replicating that sickening feeling). Then he loses control, as his voice soars, "But I won't beg you not to go." You can tell he wants to beg, but his mind flashes to the past, remembering how he's been burned before: "Because I've always been / A fool to cry for you" (get that woeful strain of his voice on the word "fool"). There's so much history in this song -- all those "alwayses" and "nevers" and "befores" and "no mores" -- it doesn't take much for us to reconstruct the needy, pleading slob he's been. Listening to George Jones reminds me that singing isn't just about timber or volume; the genius stuff is all phrasing and technique, those artful wobbles and snags that betray where the passion really lies.

Taking his own emotional temperature, George assesses his present frame of mind in the second verse: "I know this time it's / Really over." That being the case, there's only one thing he can cling to: The last shreds of his dignity. I picture him with his hands jammed in the pockets of his jeans, kicking a little dust up with the toe of his cowboy boot, as he proclaims, "No one can ever call me Mr. Fool no more." Hey, at least he's got his pride. Right?

In the final verse, he draws a breath (the slippery fiddle solo in the middle eight) and fixes a smile on his face. Now he projects his emotions farther into the future -- "For time will heal a heart that's sore." (Listen to the hopeful -- but not quite convinced -- lift of his voice on "heal"). Scarred and battered, he's ready to move on, "And I will never be the fool I was before / No one can ever call me Mr. Fool no more." Okay, lovely, good luck with that.

Because frankly, what lasts in my mind is the image of Mr. Fool, not the image of no-more-Mr. Fool. I've never been one for the tough guys anyhow; I like a man who can throw his heart into the ring. And you know what? If he really does heal, we'll know it when he becomes Mr. Fool again over some new woman.

Mr. Fool audio

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"What's Shakin' On The Hill" / Nick Lowe

So indulge me. Just one more Nick track, this one from his criminally neglected 1989 album Party of One. Much is made of Nick's comeback "trilogy" (they've actually been repackaged as a box set called The Brentford Trilogy), which includes The Impossible Bird (1994), Dig My Mood (1998), and The Convincer (2004). But in my humble opinion, the comeback really began with Party of One, where he first began to move into the more subtle, wry, laidback groove that's been his territory ever since. Party of One was the first Nick Lowe album I could get my hands on after the Great Awakening of spring 2005; it's the one that confirmed my suspicion that this guy's music was all I'd been waiting for.

It's hard for me to believe that "What's Shakin' On the Hill" was written 20 years ago. Nick still sings it in concert (along with the priceless "All Men Are Liars," also from this album), and it doesn't sound one bit dated -- although truth to tell it never sounded like an 80s song to begin with. That simple opening riff -- a series of descending thirds, falling lazily just behind the beat -- eases us into the song like a stroll down a country road. And indeed, it begins with a pastoral scene -- "There's a cool wind blowin' in the sound of happy people" (that internal rhyme of "wind" and "blowin' in" swings us along). Curious, we move toward that sound, already picturing the venue: "At a party given for the gay and debonair." He adds more details, in shorter lines that don't quite complete that signature melodic line: "There's an organ blowing in the breeze / For the dancers hid behind the trees" -- just offstage, so tantalizing. But then comes the cruel reality, as the last two lines work their way down to the resolution of the melody: "And I ain't never gonna see / What's shakin' on the hill."

So why not? I'm dying to know. He's brought us so close, only to snatch it away. In verse two he explains himself, ruefully, his awkward grammar betraying the sting of rejection: "That I someday may be joining in / Is just wishful thinking / Cause admission's only guaranteed / To favored few." And Nick, apparently -- in his classic role as the wistful loser -- isn't on that guest list.

In the bridge, he owns up to the truth: "I'm too blue to be played with / And I get heartaches / So they tell me, 'No dice'." (The casual cruelty of that "no dice" -- what a slap in the face!) If he were younger, he might pin the blame on one girl, one heartbreak, but no, he's old enough by now to admit it's his own melancholy temperament at fault. Like Ray Davies in "Waterloo Sunset," he's forever on the outside, a mere observer of life. With a defensive shrug, he notes, "It isn't allowed / In that carefree crowd / To be seen with tears in your eyes." Well, as soon as Nick tells me that, I realize I don't want to be with that carefree crowd either. Bunch of shallow hedonists. The "gay and debonair" -- HA! No, I want to be outside with Nick, "Kicking cans 'round / While that happy sound / Keeps cracking on." That image of the lonely kid kicking cans around -- how that wrings my heart.

But self-pity's not on the agenda -- no, not tonight. Stuck outside in the shadows, he confesses honestly, "Though I long so strong to be inside / With the blues is where I do reside," letting the melody crest upwards on "where I do reside." And after the instrumental break and one last go of the chorus, he peters out, muttering "what's shakin'" over and over, like he can't quite tear himself away, no matter how resigned he is to his fate.

Who needs visual details? Somehow Nick makes me imagine my own scene -- golden lights gleaming through the trees, shadows pooled around parked cars, an empty roadway gleaming pale in the moonlight. The far-off clink of glasses and ripples of disembodied laughter. Assured in his craft, Nick no longer overworks his metaphors, but we know that it's not just a party he's missing -- that hill could represent social acceptance, career success, critical acclaim, domestic happiness, religious faith, whatever.

What kills me is the light touch of this song -- the liting jazzy tempo, the major key, the skipalong melody. (It's really at its best sung solo and acoustic.) He's not slamming angrily against that barred door, nor curdled with bitterness, nor drowning in woe. He's accepted his place on the sidelines of life, though he still feels twinges of envy and regret. It's goddamn Keatsian, that's what it is, delicately maintaining a fragile equipoise between love and loss, between sorrow and acceptance, between now and then and someday.

Or maybe it's just a pop song, you daft fangirl you. Well, that too.

What's Shakin' on the Hill video
What's Shakin' on the Hill audio

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"I'm A Mess" / Nick Lowe

Hrmpphh! Not only did Levon Helm not sing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" at last night's taping of Elvis Costello's show Spectacle -- Levon himself didn't sing at all. Elvis assured us that it's not a question of Levon's throat cancer recurring, simply vocal strain from too much performing lately. Still, he was under doctor's orders to do nothing more than drum (at least we got the pleasure of watching him do that), while no less a ringer than Ray LaMontagne filled in with Levon's vocals on the show's finale, a rendition of (I should have guessed) "The Weight."

But was I disappointed? Oh, no, my brothers and sisters, for by the time Levon came on stage I was already in a state of utter bliss. Yes, I enjoyed watching the ever-droll Richard Thompson and superlatively elegant Allen Toussaint do their parts of the show. But there was really only one reason why I'd venture up to 125th Street on a weeknight, and that was -- sigh -- Nick Lowe.

And so I officially enter the time of year I call Nick Lowe Season. For the past couple of years, Nick has been kind enough to swing through town round about this time of year (generally on his way to sing at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival -- you lucky West Coast dogs), and I have not missed seeing him. Are you kidding? Me miss Nick Lowe? And while I think I do a pretty good job the rest of the year of pretending to be interested in other artists, when Nick Lowe Season is upon us, I am simply a besotted basket case. So apologies in advance, but a fangirl's gotta do what a fangirl's gotta do.

Last night, Nick -- who was looking dapper as ever in black trousers, a black jumper, snappy black Converse kicks, and his new hipster black-framed eyeglasses -- began by ripping my heart out of my chest with his rendition of "Lover Don't Go"; please read my earlier post, which already says all I need to say about why that is a brilliant song. After his "interview" with Elvis -- Elvis playing the eager boy reporter, Nick deadpanning self-deprecatory remarks to the crowd -- he went on to slay us even further with "The Beast In Me." (Which he wryly introduced with the remark, "I don't know why I seem to be doing all the dreary songs tonight. I actually do have some upbeat numbers, really I do.")

So to prove Nick's point, I figured it was a good time to write about one of Nick's upbeat songs -- THE song, in fact, that first made a Nick Lowe fan out of me. Appropriately enough, I have Elvis to thank; he included this track on a Starbucks compilation disk of "what I'm listening to now," the sort of easy-cheesy promotion that Elvis seemingly can't pass up. I knew who Nick Lowe was, without really having a clue as to what he'd been doing lately, musically speaking. I began listening out of mild curiosity; three minutes and eleven seconds later, I was practically hanging from the chandelier.

Upbeat? Well, uptempo, at least, and wickedly funny, in its own droll dry sly way. With no intro at all, Nick announces, "I'm a mess!" a numb and disoriented squawk of complaint. Then, after a few beats of silence, he explains: "I should be filling rooms / with the sweet smell of success" -- and no doubt there's a touch of autobiography there, Nick's own confession that his once-bright career somehow got off track. Ruefully he admits, "I'm a mess / Look at what I've been reduced to," accompanied by Geraint Watkins' wheezing organ and Bobby Irwin's slow ticking drums. As if shaking his head in regret, he addresses his ex: "I don't blame you for saying no / when you should have said yes," but if he may be permitted one last twist of the knife, lapsing miserably down the scale: "But darlin' darlin' darlin' /Look at me now, I'm a mess."

That lovable loser pose has served Nick well; it's a venerable country music conceit, though considering how often it appears on this album -- 2004's The Convincer -- it suspect it had some basis in Nick's own life. This "character" could easily be drawn from his life, as he complains, "the smart set / I used to run around with are invisible now / They cut me loose / When one said that what I've got might just rub off on them somehow." (Forget about having the same number of syllables in each verse -- our singer is too glum to worry about scanning right now.) Though by this time Nick was well past the bottom he hit in the early 1980s, when drink and divorce had left him on the rocks, the residue of that misery still seeps into this song.

And yet it IS an upbeat song, because Nick's poking such delicious fun, objectifying himself into a character, and winking at us to join in with him. Even he knows this is only a phase -- as he says in the second verse, "Some of these days I'm gonna get back on my feet / And quit this blue address" (lovely compressed image there).
He's already pulled hmself together enough to write this song, hasn't he? And his country crooning drawl, the slight cheesinsess of the organ, are so damn companionable, you can't imagine why this slob would be ostracized. Drowning lazily in self-pity (men are such babies), he's a parody of lovesick loss.

What brilliant songwriting this is, skillfully nudging at the boundaries of classic pop structure. The melody pretends to be rambling and disjointed; each verse collapses into that woeful reiterated"Darlin' darlin' darlin'," as if he's too lost to articulate anything more. (How rare, to make the repetition of a chorus something more than just formal necessity.) And with less-is-more economy, Nick leaves us curious about so many details. Is he just wallowing in his own sorrow? Is this simply a shrewdly calculated bid to win her sympathy? Does he even want the girl back?

The emotional complexity behind the lyrics -- rendered in his slightly battered, real-guy vocals -- devastated me at first listen. Frankly, it made me want to swim the ocean to comfort this hapless broken-hearted chump. (Did I even know what Nick Lowe looked like? Did it matter?) But here's the mark of Nick's genius: This song just keeps getting better and better, every time I listen to it. And when you think how many songs the man has written that are just this good -- well, that why I welcome Nick Lowe Season more eagerly every year.

I'm a Mess sample

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" / The Band

I'm getting psyched -- tomorrow night I'm going to the taping of a segment of Elvis Costello's interview show Spectacle. The guest line-up is pretty amazing (more on that tomorrow), but just for starters, I'm eager to see Levon Helm.

I'll admit, I was only a casual fan of The Band. I ignored them for years -- the Dylan connection, the country-tinged American sound, the fact that my older brother loved them -- all worked against them for me. But while I was living in England, I became obsessed with the movie Mean Streets, so naturally I went to see The Last Waltz when it came out in 1978 (I'd just moved back to the States and was living in Washington DC). I was captivated by The Band, especially Rick Danko, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Robert DeNiro in Mean Streets. Seeing Levon Helm's poignant performance in Coal Miner's Daughter a year or so later sealed the deal for me. My DC roommate had a couple of The Band's LPs, and I borrowed them so often, she eventually gave them to me.

This video link from The Last Waltz brings it back all over again. Unfortunately, I'd fallen for a band that had already broken up -- story of my life -- and my attraction never grew into full-fledged fangirl-dom. These days, I rarely think of listening on purpose to a Band track. But like a lot of familiar songs that you half-listen to, floating around you in the background soundtrack, every once in awhile I find myself paying attention to one of their songs, and I remember all over again what a great band this was.

My favorite Band songs tend to be the ones where Levon Helms sings lead; I just love his honey-edged crooning wail. True, the Americana quality of this song is a little trumped-up -- it's a fake Civil War ballad, and practically a history term paper, studded with general's names and battle places. Still, there's something momentous about that first line as Levon announces, "Virgil Caine is my name" -- even if the name was probably chosen just for the closing pun, "You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat."

For years I assumed that the event this song celebrates -- the "night" of the title -- was some pivotal battle, a turning point of the war, "the night the South was lost." But recently it hit me that it's really set just after the war, when Virgil, our Confederate veteran, is watching the funeral cortege of Robert E. Lee, the embodiment of Old Dixie. Somehow that makes it more wistful and less woeful; it's an outsider's song, sung by a rebel who's been forced underground (the South will rise again!).

It should be a downer, yet you can't beat that singalong chorus, erupting into full harmonies: "The night they drove Old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing, / The night they drove Old Dixie down, and the people were singin'. / They went, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La, La..." The old-timey piano flourishes, Levon's military-style snare-drum rolls, make it feel authentic, like one of those old Matthew Brady phtographs. Its loping rhythms lurch along like a ragtag soldier limping home. The funny thing is, Levon was the only true son of the south in this band; the rest are all Canadians. But they sure fooled me with this song.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Heretics" / Andrew Bird

I forget how this song leaked into my iTunes -- I think it was on some radio station sampler ID, or maybe a cache of free MP3s I was sent for ordering tickets through TicketBastard. I'm just enough of a sap to actually listen to every track on things like that. After all, if it hadn't been for a Starbucks compilation album, I'd never have re-discovered Nick Lowe (who in turn led me to John Hiatt and Ron Sexsmith and Robyn Hitchcock and about half of the music currently on my iPod...).

Apparently I liked "Heretics" enough for it to survive several periodic iTunes purges (I'd have 10,000 songs on there if my laptop didn't have such a small hard drive). But I can't say I was gobsmacked by it; it's not like I ran off to buy all of Andrew Bird's albums. No, this song crept up on me, riff by riff, phrase by phrase. For months I would look at that lone Andrew Bird track on my iTunes list and wonder, "How does that one go?" Or it would shuffle up while I was exercising, and, baffled, I'd go into contortions to read my iPod screen. Other days, I'd hear a fragment of it in my mind, over and over, and be stumped trying to remember which song that was.

Then again, simple-minded catchiness isn't always the point, is it? Bird, who's 36, is a bit of a musical chameleon, constantly evolving from his roots as a classical violin prodigy through jazz and trad folk into indie-rock. This song comes from his 2007 album Armchair Apocrypha, which layers a host of musical influences into a dense tapestry of sound, with verbose, cryptic lyrics. His songs (I've downloaded a few now) wash over you, slip into the side door and tease your brain.

On one level, "Heretics" seems to be speaking as The Voice of His Generation, but on another level, it's tentative, riddling, unwilling to commit (come to think of it, that sums up his generation, doesn't it?) Though he begins grandly -- a long musical lead-in, building from a lone guitar riff up to a dense electronic wall of sound with a chorus of ahh-ooooohs -- it's thrown off kilter by a raga-like motif of strings, sliding around drunkenly. And then Andrew begins talk-singing in a breathy voice: "Born host through our tongues / To sing a song about it / Held our breath for too long / Till we're half sick about it." He's no major vocalist, that's for sure, but then neither was Bob Dylan; the earnest, amateur charm of Bird's voice makes it oddly persuasive.

This is no rebel statement; he sounds almost plaintive as he asks, "Tell us what we did wrong / Then you can blame us for it / Turn a clamp on our thumbs / We'll sew a doll about it." (Sew a doll? Yep, that's how the lyrics page of his fan site transcribes this. Quirky image; it combines skinny-jean geekiness with voodoo.) "We're so in doubt about it," he laments, and "How about some credit now / Where credit is due?" In the second bridge, he stops singing entirely to exclaim, "Wait just a second now / It's not all that bad / Are we not having fun?" But the question is very much a question.

There's no story, no neat three-verse-and-a-chorus design, just a string of arresting phrases -- like "You're making mountains of handkerchiefs / Where the mascara always runs" and "You know the kind of sign you hang on the door / Saying, "We'll be back." What a crack!" I feel hypnotized by the chorus: "Thank God it's fatal / Thank God it's fatal / Not shy / Not shy and fatal, not shy and fatal / Thank God." The chorus's melody, ping-ponging between two close notes, and the shifting accents of the beat -- it's almost incantatory. I forget to ask, "What is fatal? What's shy?"

"Heretics" isn't what you'd call a pub singalong; its most seductive quality is those interweaving textures, the woozy ebb and flow of its eclectic musical effects. (As Bird himself confessed in a blog written for the New York Times, "I’m really an instrumentalist who sings words and if you care to pay attention you might enjoy them.") Somehow Andrew Bird reminds me of Sufjan Stevens, whose songs I can never remember either. The brilliance of their music is never in question. And yet somehow, I don't think it'll ever touch me the way I'm touched by "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You," or "Waterloo Sunset." That's just me...

Heretics sample



Thursday, September 10, 2009

"And Your Bird Can Sing" / The Beatles

Okay, I can feel myself sliding right into the marketing trap. The new Rock Band game, the remastered studio albums, the monaural box set -- yep, the hottest band in the world right now is suddenly a half-dead quartet from Liverpool. On top of all that, I've got tickets burning in my pocket to see the great Beatles tribute band the Fab Faux tonight, performing Revolver straight through. (I saw them do the White Album a couple years ago; I can't wait to hear what they do with Revolver.) So I might as well abandon myself to it, and let my 16-year-old self -- the one who ate, drank, and slept Beatles for months at a time -- out of the box.

The opening of this song -- that doubled guitar riff, swirling down the scale and up again, a rare Paul-George guitar duo -- hits my ear like a long-lost friend. I remember this as the opening song on the Beatles cartoon show, a crassly commercial rip-off that was ten times better than it needed to be. (I can still hear the Ringo character's Scouse giggle -- "huh-huh-huh, yeah.") Although now it's a track on Revolver - the remastered albums all follow the UK track listings -- as a kid I had the US albums, so this song was on Yesterday . . . And Today; that's where my ears expect to find it, right at the beginning of side 2, before "If I Needed Someone."

This just feels like a John Lennon song to me -- that whiff of snide contempt (a la "Think For Yourself") as he describes the poseur he's singing to: "
You tell me that you've got everything you want / And your bird can sing / But you don't get me, / You don't get me." (Love how he pauses on that last line, just before voices explode into harmony on "me".) There are lots of theories about what this song means, but I like to believe that it was written to Mick Jagger, whose girlfriend -- his "bird" -- Marianne Faithfull was also a singer. We were so used to the term "bird" meaning "girl," it took a few listens before we realized "and your bird can sing" played on the original meaning as well.

The verses all read like a coded conversation, flipping off the guy's egotistical boasts ("You say you've seen seven wonders," Tell me that you've heard every sound there is"), showing off his "green" bird who can "swing." (That verb "swing" distracts some listeners into thinking this is about Frank Sinatra, who famously expressed scorn for the Beatles.) Whoever he's singing to, John shrugs him off, sarcastically declaring, "you don't get me //You can't see me, // You can't hear me." Notice how each verse hews to its own line of imagery -- possession, sight, sound -- the sort of writerly discipline that always marked the Beatles as professional songsmiths.

He does offer a sort of olive branch in the bridges (unusually, the bridge is repeated twice, with different lyrics, bracketing a nifty guitar solo). If the guy runs into trouble -- "When your prized possessions start to weigh you down" or "When your bird is broken, will it bring you down" -- John offers, "I'll be round." That touch deftly rescues this song from mean-spiritedness.

Notice how, in the verse, whenever John "quotes" the other guy's words, the rhythms are straightforward quarter notes, clinging to a nice major chord, with falsetto back-up harmonies; but as soon as he speaks in his own voice, he sings solo, with slippery backbeat rhythms and minor chords. And in the bridge, as the emotions get more complicated, so do the rhythms and the chords (augmented, 7ths, and sharped keys), though the melody keeps anchored to a repeated B note. I've read that Lennon loved to throw exotic chords into a song, with classic wiseguy bravura. But instinctively -- he'd never studied music theory, couldn't even read music -- Lennon knew how to use such musical effects, not just to show off but to enhance a pop song's drama. That's genius shining through.

So bring on the wordlwide media hype; I'm ready for it. I figure, any excuse to hear Beatle music has to be good.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

"Why Modern Radio is A-OK" / Roman Candle

So just how DO we learn about new music? I remember having my ear glued to the radio when I was a kid, drinking in every new release the DJs touted -- a listening strategy that could be surprisingly satisfying, if you had a decent local station. Naturally that station would be attuned to your musical tastes; those tastes were molded by the station in the first place. College years were no problem, either; we were in and out of our friends' rooms, rifling through their record collections (a milk crate full of well-loved LPs, those with gatefold covers in front for easy access when it was time to roll a joint).

Nowadays, though, you really have to work at finding new music. I think that's why my kids restlessly trawl around the internet -- they've got to chase YouTube links and MySpace band sites to find music they like, often a hit-or-miss proposition. Just about the only way I get turned on to something new these days is when somebody whose taste I trust tells me to listen to something (lacking such friends in my day-to-day life, I find them on the internet). Meanwhile, the record companies have their heads up their backsides, pouring all their promotion into proven moneymakers and taking no chances with new talent.

A wonderful young band like Roman Candle is so likely to fall through the cracks. Their first album (The Wee Hours Review) languished on the shelf for nearly 3 years before it was released. Meanwhile they toured relentlessly, opening for quality acts like Aimee Mann and the Indigo Girls and the Psychedelic Furs, captivating audiences wherever they played. When the album finally came out in 2006, critics raved, but did Roman Candle become a household name? Nope. By all rights their superb new album, Oh Tall Tree in the Ear, should make them stars at last, but I'm too cynical to expect miracles like that.

So it should come as no surprise that Roman Candle's personnel -- brothers Skip and Logan Matheny, plus Skip's keyboardist wife, Timshel -- would have a cynical take on this themselves. The evidence: track 3 on the new album, "Why Modern Radio Is A-OK," a nifty bit of talking blues. The setting is deliberately lowbrow, as befits their twangy rootsy sound (they started out, after all, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina): "I was down at my favorite watering hole / With a buddy of mine that was out on parole / And we were flipping through the jukebox, / Talking how we’d been and how we are." I love the casualness of that scene; these aren't music geeks, they're just guys in a bar. The parolee gets a notion to play some Neil Young, an artist he'd learned about from a friend in prison. Our singer, however, panics: "Now he didn’t know, but while he was in jail, / I’d had my heart broken by a woman too wondrous to tell / And we‘d fallen in love to half the songs that jukebox played." I can just see this scene unfolding, can't you?

The action comes to a peak: "So when he flattened his dollar on the side of the machine / and I saw “Comes a Time" come on the karaoke screen / I realized there was a couple things I had forgot to say." The visceral heave is palpable. Then they launch into the chorus: "Don’t play Neil Young / Don’t play Van Morrison / Just let some high school emo band start versing and chorusing / Because there’s no way it will break my heart as far as I can see." (That Morrison/chorusing rhyme kills me.) The irony makes me giggle-- here's a guy singing his heart out, like a born follower of Neil or Van, saying he doesn't want to hear them? Ah, yes, because they're real, they touch the heart, and right now he can't handle that. With a deft twist, his last line slams the satire home: "And that’s why modern radio is A-OK with me."

The music itself is straightforward, a jovial bar-band rollick -- guitar, drums, organ, and Skip Logan's earnest, down-to-earth vocals. That title line practically begs the audience to sing along. I described this as "talking blues," and it does echo early Dylan -- that harmonica interlude is no accident -- but it also makes me think of Don McLean's "American Pie," that radio hit you could not escape in the winter of 1972. And like "American Pie," it name checks a list of musical greats -- John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, "Johnny and June" (Cash and Carter), even Merle Watson (no doubt chosen for the rhyme, "They just trade some Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham for a broke-down Datsun"). His bar companion the ex-con begins to wax poetic, urging him to "think of a winter afternoon when you fell in love / And ten songs on a record sounded like a string of pearls." But our heartbroken hero is too raw to appreciate the poetry: "Now my buddy rattled on till an hour'd gone by / And I thought to spit a mouthful of Beam in his eye."

Such a deft little piece of irony, and a great way to honor their musical heroes, artists whose music isn't soulless and tiny-hearted. Roman Candle may be a young band, but they've paid their dues, and they respect the masters who came before them. These guys sure sound like the real deal to me. So why doesn't modern radio know about them? Hmmm?

Why Modern Radio is A-OK

Monday, September 07, 2009

"Two Weeks" / Grizzly Bear

Sorry, I've been away for a few days, packing my eldest up and sending him off to college. (Wistful moment, eh?) One of his last requests before we left home was for me to do a blog post on Grizzly Bear, one of his favorite new bands. How could I refuse a last request like that? And then, lo and behold, when we got to campus, there were posters all over advertising a Grizzly Bear concert in two weeks. That totally seems like the big finger from the sky pointing out that he's gonna love college.

I think Hugh first discovered this band when they were opening for Radiohead (Hugh has incredibly good ears for new music; he has a history of liking opening acts better than the headliners). At any rate, they're one of those groovy Brooklyn indie bands that all the hipster kids know; their first album,* Yellow House, won all sorts of kudos. This song is from their second,* released this year, which has the weird name Veckatimest. Don't ask me.

Hugh and I were on a Fleet Foxes kick this summer (and just for the record, I was the one who bought that CD first, Hugh, so make sure you didn't take it to college with you). The first thing he told me about Grizzly Bear is that they're into vocal harmonies, just like Fleet Foxes -- that was a hook I couldn't resist. I've also seen them referred to as psych-folk, and that intrigued me too, promising all sorts of Robyn Hitchcockian delights. Well, the psych part I get, with the gauzy, floaty textures of this song, the ebbing and flowing waves of vocals pouring over a loose-jointed syncopation. The lyrics aren't quite as deliciously absurd as Hitchcock's, but they're appealingly disjointed, tentative fragments of inarticulate phrases flung like frisbees into the wall of sound. (Here's the chorus: "Would you always / Maybe sometimes / Make it easy / Take your time.") Another thing I love about this song is the way they layer on a wall of sound and then periodically arrest the process -- the musical equivalent of biting their nails -- peeling the song back to the bare essentials: bass, drums, that pulsating electric piano. (Repeat after me: the piano is a percussion instrument.) It's an intensely textured song, and right now I'm into texture.

I have to say, the band I most think of when I listen to this song is the Smiths. In my book, that's a HUGE recommendation. Maybe it's the odd harmonic intervals that the singer hits, leaping up to his falsetto range; but I think it more that emotionally fragile quality, that neurotic yearning that Morrissey made his trademark. The singer is clearly agonizing over a relationship that's threatening to fizzle. At the end of every verse, he reiterates, "Just like yesterday / I told you I would stay." What can't she get about that promise? Phrases like "a routine malaise" and "momentary phase" edge nervously into the verses, and in the last verse he frets, "Every time you try / Quarter half the mile."

Modern relationships are so much work, dammit, and all too often it's only one half of the couple that's doing all the work. We ladies like to think it's usually us doing the heavy lifting, but along come these skinny-jean males with the glossy, floppy hair, who protest that they're the ones doing the emnotional heavy lifting. And maybe they are, maybe they are. So long as they can harmonize like this, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Two Weeks sample

* If you don't count the solo album Ed Droste put out before he formed an actual band.