Thursday, April 29, 2010


"If You Don't Know Me By Now" /
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes

I must have heard this song a million times without ever knowing who sang it. That name, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes has such a vintage ring to it, and not by accident -- Harold Melvin formed his first version of the Blue Notes way back in the mid-1950s, the doo-wop era, which explains those multilayered vocal harmonies. But the sound is so modern, with that sexy slow tempo and the rich production, that I'd never have associated this song with an ancient doo-wop group. If you'd asked me a week ago if I'd ever heard of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, I'd have said no. But the songs? Oh, yes, I know them very well.

And now that I've read up on them, I'm convinced that somebody oughta make a movie about this band -- it's like Dream Girls all over again. From 1954 on, Harold Melvin steered his band through numerous personnel changes and label shifts, scoring a handful of regional R&B hits. Melvin had gradually ceded lead vocal duties; in the late '60s his lead singer was a guy called John Atkins. On tour with a band called the Cadillacs, however, Melvin was impressed with the Cadillacs' young drummer, Teddy Pendergrass -- so impressed that he lured him over to join the Blue Notes' backing band, and when Atkins left in 1970, Melvin swiftly promoted Pendergrass to the job. With his soulful baritone, Pendergrass was a natural star. It wasn't long before the kingmakers of Philadelphia, Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble, came a-calling.

A string of hits followed -- "If You Don't Know Me By Now," "Don't Leave Me This Way," the uptempo "The Love I Lost" (often cited as the first true disco recording) -- finally bringing crossover acclaim to Melvin's band. And of course -- anybody see this coming? -- eventually Teddy Pendergrass got tired of being in a band with another guy's name at the top and went solo in 1976. Harold Melvin & the Blues Notes left the Gamble-Huff empire and continued to record and tour for years, but their heyday was over, while Teddy Pendergrass became a genuine sex symbol and crossover music star.

I never liked "The Love I Lost" -- to me, that was heading into Commodores territory, and the clicking beat seemed at odds with the stated subject of the song. Or maybe it was just too much of an earworm, and I hated having my brain taken over by that hooky refrain. But "If You Don't Know Me By Now" stays on the sweet side of soul, and I love it.

It's actually a brilliant formula, the way the backing vocalists keep repeating that title line over and over, while Pendergrass croons and emotes over it. He's practically rapping here, if you think about it. Drenched in a shimmer of strings, the doowop chorus is like the part of his brain that just can't get past this heartbreaking thought, that maybe his woman really never will trust him. Counterpointed against that is his freeform lead vocal line, the agitated conversation he's having with his woman, pleading, admonishing, protesting.

It's the tried-and-true Philly combo of the sensitive male with his leonine masculinity and wounded male pride. Listen to the outrage and despair encoded in Pendergrass's voice, that little rasp at the edge. Wowie.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


"Only The Strong Survive" / Jerry Butler

The Ice Man. The Dream Merchant. If anybody could embody the smooth strength of the Philly Sound, it would be Jerry Butler.

Funny thing is, once I started to research Jerry Butler, I got all confused, because Jerry Butler isn't even from Philly. (Neither are the Spinners, I discovered to my chagrin -- in the UK they're even known as the Detroit Spinners, and they started out as a Motown group.) Jerry Butler is apparently a Chicago man through and through -- grew up in the Cabrini projects, got his start there in the late 1950s with the Impressions. He still lives in Chicago; he's even a city alderman, believe it or not. But in 1967, when Butler switched to Mercury Records, he teamed up with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and the rest was Philly soul history.

Butler came to the partnership with plenty of hits under his belt, mind you. His first song, "Your Precious Love," which he wrote himself, went gold in 1957; in 1962 he scored a huge hit with Bacharach & David's "Make It Easy On Yourself," long before Tom Jones came along; hell, the guy even co-wrote "I've Been Loving You Too Long" with Otis Redding in 1965. But the association with Gamble and Huff led to Butler's finest work -- his golden era, so to speak. The mainstream AM stations I grew up with didn't play his stuff as much as they did the Delfonics and the Stylistics and the O'Jays, but the more I listen to it, the more I'm loving it.

As far as Philly soul classics go, Butler's 1968 album The Ice Man Cometh set a gold standard that Philly artists would strive to equal for years. It snared three Grammy nominations and produced four hit singles. The fourth, "Only The Strong Survive" -- which Butler wrote with Gamble and Huff -- hit #1 on the R&B charts in the spring of 1969, and even climbed to #4 on the regular pop charts. It was HUGE.

Talking intros don't always work in pop records. The Shangri-Las pulled it off beautifully ("You get the picture?" "Yes, we see"), but I think of Barry White's spoken interludes and just shudder. On this song, though, it totally works -- I love how it begins with Jerry talking, confiding in us, passing on the words his mother comforted him with after his first heartbreak.

And as he segues into singing, Butler's voice is so smooth, so suave, we're swept right along. Yet he knows when to betray a little catch in his throat, or an intake of breath that's just this side of a moan. Even while he's counseling the need for manly strength, we realize what a sensitive soul he is, feeling every twinge of hurt in his romantic troubles.

It would have been so easy to make this song bombastic or sorrowful -- give it the full-on gospel treatment -- but no, this is a soul record, so Gamble and Huff set a lightly tripping jazzy tempo. Light is the key word: The arrangement here (courtesy of Thom Bell, who'd soon become a powerhouse producer himself) is a model of taste and restraint. Wonderful offbeat curlicues of guitar accent the end of lines, and a vibraphone pings in the background, setting up a rhythmic counterpoint. Back-up singers reiterate softly, like the echo of memory, and strings provide only a gentle underlying hum. Percussion is almost nonexistent; the bass only steps in for the chorus. The whole thing glides confidently along, a perfect demonstration that he's already learned the lesson his momma taught him. He's like an elegant tap dancer, one long fluid motion from his shoulders and wrists to his lightning quick feet.

At this point in his career Butler was such a pro, such a seasoned singer, that he really could just sit back, as relaxed as Nat King Cole or Perry Como, and let the song pour out. He fiddles just enough with his phrasing, with the textures of his vocal, to paint all the emotions he needs. That's why I love this video clip (that set looks so familiar -- the Mike Douglas Show?), so we can see his ultra-cool stage delivery in action. The Ice Man indeed.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'll get back to Philly Soul Week. Later today, in fact. But I enjoy these Wednesday spins around my iTunes too much to skip it...

1. "Blackbird" / The Beatles
From the White Album (1968)
Paul McCartney, an acoustic guitar, and the tapping toe of a Spanish boot. (At least that's how I imagine that beat -- I read somewhere it was a metronome, but I don't care, I still picture Paul's boot tapping away.) That insanely beautiful melody never needed anything more. We all know it's a civil rights metaphor, possibly Paul's response to the King assassination, but somehow it rises above being a mere protest song. I always forget about the bird chirps and whistles in the middle eight; they're like a glorious surprise, nature bursting into the song, every time.

2. "Goodbye Nashville, Hello Camden Town" / Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers
From Bongos Over Balham (1974)
Lovely little pub rocker, banjos and all. Chilli Willi was one of the funnest bands playing their scruffy brand of country rock in the pubs of London -- a geographic irony not lost on this band, as this song's title suggests. They didn't last long (two years, two LPs), but then neither did pub rock. Footnote: Their manager was Jake Riviera, soon to found Stiff Records, and their drummer was Pete Thomas, who'd soon join Elvis Costello's Attractions. Small world.

3. "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" / Vampire Weekend
From Vampire Weekend (2008)
How to dance to an Afro-Pop beat while wearing Topsiders and J. Crew. (What's that line about "It feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel too"? Peter Gabriel doesn't feel THAT unnatural.) Brisk, bright, and totally irresistible.

4. "Magdalene" / Guy Clark
From Workbench Songs (2006)
That sweet spot between folk and country-western pretty much belongs to Mr. Guy Clark. A story, of course -- there's always a story in Guy Clark songs -- he's sneaking out in the dead of night with his lover, probably a married woman, skipping town before they get caught, escaping their suffocating small town. "Don't forget your passport, Magdalene," he murmurs huskily just before the fadeout. Achingly tender, with a loping gait and just enough twang -- oh, I sure do love Guy Clark.

5. "Slave Chain" / The Fortunate Sons
From The Fortunate Sons (2008)
From Scotland? You gotta be kidding me! This debut album by a youthful crew from Glasgow totally has the Delta sound down -- it's almost eerie. Don't get them mixed up with the Creedence revival band of the same name; these kids write their own stuff, and it's gooooood. This song reminds me of Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang" (dig the clanks and lugubrious hums of the intro), though here it's a a metaphor for being trapped in a demanding love affair. A great tripping guitar line, some sweet fiddle, and a wailing lead singer with a killer falsetto.

6. "How Deep Is the Red" / Elvis Costello
From Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane (2009)
Elvis does the Depression-era blues.

7. "Scum of the Earth" / The Kinks
From Preservation Act 2 (1974)
The apex of Ray Davies' theatrical period...

8. "Modern Love" / David Bowie
From Let's Dance (1983)
And speaking of theatrical . . .

9. "Like A Freight Train" / John Hiatt
From The Open Road (2010)
Back to faux-vintage blues, apparently the Shuffle Theme of the Day. Here it's updated with wry humor by my fellow Hoosier John Hiatt. "I used to roll through here like a freight train / But my wheel's come off..." It's Hiatt's strategy for aging, with a sardonic chuckle and a mean riff.

10. "Spy Vs Spy" / Dr. Feelgood
From Classic (1987)
"I'm checking on you, you're checking on me / The moment we walk out the door..." Dr. Feelgood's last Stiff album, full of R&B wail and punk snarl, featured several tracks co-written by their former producer Will Birch (Kursaal Flyers, the Records). A scathing portrait of a poisoned relationship, but with a damn snappy beat.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


"Didn't I (Blow Your Mind?)" / The Delfonics

Yesterday's song, "Expressway to Your Heart," may have been an uptempo funkfest, but here's the flip side of Philly soul: The lushly produced, grindingly slow love ballad, paving the inevitable road to Barry White.

Having this song come on at a school dance was every girl's secret terror, at least if her date for the evening was a guy she wasn't really interested in. (Oh, yes, my children, that used to happen, back in the days before obligatory hook-ups took all the fun out of dating around.) You simply cannot dance to this song without some serious pelvis shifting, and it ALWAYS turns out to be slower than I remember. The thing that saves it is the sweet earnestness of Wilbert Hart's tenor. As he leads off the song (his brother William will soon take over with his urgent falsetto), he's laying it all on the line -- "I gave my heart and soul to you / Didn't I do it baby, didn't I do it baby?" It would be so easy to turn this into a put-out-or-shut-up demand, but the Delfonics keep it safely on the side of a lovestruck plea.

Naturally, it being 1970, the phrase "blow your mind" already had its drug connotations, though the Delfonics pretty much skirt that too, apart from a stoned shimmer of xylophones and harps and strings. My two favorite bits: the insistent dit-dit-dit of horns after the chorus, before his heart bursts into the repeated title phrase of the refrain; and the sadder-but-wiser anguish of the last verse, as he ruefully tells her, "Ten times or more, yes, I've walked out that door / Get this into your head, there'll be no more." Despite all that heavy breathing, it's definitely a break-up song, edged with bitterness. For a long time I thought he was blowing her mind with his marathon lovemaking (eeeuw, gross!); now I realize that what really shocks her is that he's found the strength to walk out on her. Doormat no more.

This song was enough of a crossover hit -- #3 on the R&B charts but also #10 on the pop charts -- that it got plenty of play on the AM radio stations I listened to in 1970. I clearly remember singing along to all those lagging "didn't I's?". Yet I don't think I could have told you who sang this song -- I could never tell the Delfonics apart from their soon-to-be-developed imitators, the Stylistics and the Spinners. (Developed, in fact, by the Delfonics' soon-to-be ex-producer Thom Bell, another giant of the Philly scene, who wrote this song with William Hart.) The Delfonics were the originals, however, and the prize horses in Bell's stable for a while, ever since their 1968 single "La-La (Means I Love You" had gone gold.

From the mid-70s on, the Delfonics were a revolving door of talent, with sometimes two competing line-ups performing simultaneously -- one starring William Hart and the other Wilbert Hart. (Brother bands -- need I say more?) The sound quality of the video below isn't great, but it gives you an idea of their stage act, with the two Hart brothers and their high school friend Randy Cain trading off vocal honors, then blending their voices together into a dazzle of harmony.

I hadn't heard this song in years; I was surprised how well it's held up. Oh, sure, it sounds dated -- for one thing, it's way too clean for modern radio. But the musicianship of this track is incredibly solid, and it's a benchmark of studio finesse. If the Beatles could hole up in the studio and turn out dense layered masterpieces, why couldn't the folks at Cameo Studios in gritty Philadelphia? After all, they already had the dance moves down.

Monday, April 26, 2010


"Expressway to Your Heart" / Soul Survivors

Why Philly Soul Week? Why not? I've had this particular song stuck in my head for several days, and when I went to the iTunes store to download it, I got sidetracked by all these other artists I had completely forgotten about. A full week's worth of cool tracks!

But let's begin with "Expressway" -- one of those records I remember hearing on the AM radio back in 1967, dancing to, singing to, without ever fully appreciating. Funkier than Motown, edged with urban grit, it would have been a hard sell for me in 1967, still in my British invasion haze and trending more and more toward psychedelia and California sunshine pop. I was way too young, and too suburban, to enjoy the raw energy of a song like this. But that the beauty part of music -- you come to the older stuff when you come to it, no questions asked.

Oddly enough, the core of this band was white -- the Ingui brothers, Richie and Charlie. (Go here for a video of Richie and Charlie Ingui reminiscing about their part in the Philly soul scene.) You sure couldn't tell that by listening to them, though. I always had the impression that the Philly scene was more integrated than Detroit, maybe because of an interview way back when with white boys Daryl Hall and John Oates, who grew up in its shadow. At any rate, it was the genius of songwriters/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff -- both black -- that moulded the Ingui brothers and their band into a tight soul unit. This was Gamble and Huff's first really big hit, paving the way for a decade at the top of the charts -- not a bad place to start.

I love how the sections alternate -- that funky bass-propelled verse ("I been trying to get to you . . . " pivots on the beat of a drum into a sweet exhalation of organ and tambourine, as Richie's urgent chant melts into Charlie's velvet bass croon ("I was wrong, mmm, I took too long . . ."). How Righteous Brothers is that? And I love how the bridge -- again, practically a capella -- repeats the back-up singers' "too crowdeds" until they sound like car horns themselves.

Gamble and Huff knew how to work a metaphor, and this one is sheer brilliance. The idea is that our hero couldn't get to his girl's house in time, and another guy showed up instead and stole his girl's heart. (That rhyme of "I got caught in the rush hour" with "A fellow started to shower / You with love and affection" is so bad it's good.) Meanwhile our hero is stuck in traffic, getting steamed -- "I thought I could find a clear road / But I found stoplights instead." I've been stuck in traffic in Philly myself, crawling along on those snaking expressways that promise to funnel you out of the grimy inner city. It's torture.

So what kind of girl betrays her boyfriend just because he's late? The answer is, no kind of girl. Of course this isn't real, it's just a metaphor for how hard it is to get through to a popular girl. Maybe he realizes too late that he didn't try hard enough -- he didn't deliver all the "love and affection" he might have. (Some men never do understand the simple power of, oh say, flowers and chocolate, or at least plenty of sweet talk.) He got distracted by outside forces, and now she won't give him the time of day.

But that gear-shifting bass, the hiss of percussion, those honking "too crowdeds" all underscore the traffic metaphor to a T. Forget GPS, Sirius Radio, power windows, and climate control; this is the Traffic Jam from Hell. I can't think of another song except "Summer in the City" that so perfectly evokes asphalt and trash and un-airconditioned swelter. Listening to this song, I almost break into a sweat; I suspect if I wiped my brow, flecks of burnt rubber and black exhaust would come off.

The Soul Survivors weren't entirely one-hit wonders -- they're still performing, with a different line-up, and had some modest chart success with a couple of later songs. Still, they never topped this debut single, and it's been covered by just about everybody. On youTube, I even found a clip of Bruce Springsteen singing this, which IMHO is just wrong. (Funk does not come naturally to The Boss.) All the covers lack something, somehow. The genius wasn't all Gamble and Huff -- the Inguis & Co. simply blistered out this song. Now that I live in a city -- or more importantly, now that I drive in a city -- I know exactly where they're coming from.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reverb Thursday

As time has passed, I have gone public with certain, erm, prejudices of mine when it comes to music. One fact I coyly omitted when I wrote about this song three and a half years ago: Nick Lowe happens to be playing bass on this track. I'd love it anyway, but still...

Friday, October 27, 2006

"Just About Glad" / Elvis Costello

Oh, Elvis, forgive me for I have sinned. I spent about 15 years of my life as an apostate from the Church of Elvis. Granted, some bad things happened in my life from 1989 through 2005 (trust me, you don't want to know) and listening to your angry snarl just didn't make me feel any better. But hallelujah, I have seen the light, and now I'm back in the fold -- in fact more passionate than ever.

It's been expensive, replacing my vinyl on CD (those Rhino reissues are so freaking fine) and then buying all the CDs I missed during the Wilderness Years. But I knew it was all worthwhile the afternoon I finally listened for the first time to Brutal Youth -- or to be even more specific, the moment when I heard "Just About Glad."

There's no intro: Elvis' raspy yelp launches into the first line before the initial drumbeat falls, and then a simple guitar riff skips in; a few bars further a straightforward bass line begins, and eventually you hear the nimble accents of Steve Nieve's organ. It's stripped down, punchy, upbeat -- the perfect setting for Elvis's snarky lyrics.

I don't recall ever hearing another song with exactly this take on things: he's singing to a girl he once almost slept with, saying how lucky it was things turned out that way. Oh, yes, in hindsight he's glad things never went that far -- well, just about glad, and right there in that little prevarication lies the real story. Because as he blithely lists all the things that didn't happen -- "I'm the greatest lover that you never had" -- an edge of resentment creeps in and it's obvious that this unconsummated affair still tantalizes both of them.

His voice curdles and his syntax gets downright devious as he protests too much: "I'm just about glad that we never did that thing we were going to do..." My favorite line: "Although the passion still flutters and flickers/ It never got into our knickers." Yeah, right. Tell me another.

There's nobody like Elvis for parsing the neurotic twists and turn of modern love. I never feel that these tormented vignettes are autobiographical; he's always playing a character, but a guy too tangled up in vanity and hostility and hurt to give you the whole picture. It's your job to piece together the story and figure out whether he's a bastard or a victim. (Or both.)

Maybe it's perverse, but I find these nasty little short stories comforting; they console me for the fact that my own life doesn't always work out right. (Does anybody's?) At the end of a hard day, playing Elvis Costello loud is sometimes the best medicine. It's like going to confession; a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers and your conscience is clean again. Why did I forget that for all those years?

P.S. Doncha just love this album cover? That has just got to be a childhood picture of Elvis (a.k.a. Declan McManus). Adorable even then!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wednesday Shuffle

I did get a new iPod Shuffle this week -- an absurdly tiny device, in neon green metal, that only holds about 500 songs. Half of the thing consists of a steel clip (engraved with my name!) on the back, a definite clue that it was developed mainly to carry gym music. So yeah, I loaded all my uptempo tracks on there -- but don't worry, today I'm spinning tunes from the full library, just like always...

1. "I've Got to See You Again" / Norah Jones
From Come Away With Me (2002)
Steamy slow samba about an affair, probably illicit, and definitely with an older man. (Older than Norah, that is.) The main thing is the refrain, "I can't help myself / I've got to see you again." I love how she groans, just a little, on that line -- it's simply dripping with desire.

2. "Laurel Canyon" / Jackie DeShannon
From Laurel Canyon (1968)
Was Jackie DeShannon America's answer to Dusty Springfield? No way, but I do enjoy her California soul take on the late 60s, with hippieism just beginning to creep in. ("I'm sewing flowers on my blouse...") The laidback boogie of this ode to her hip L.A. neighborhood paints a pretty inviting portrait -- almost enough to make me want to move there. Almost.

3. "Grass" / XTC
From Skylarking (1986)
Ah, the sublime Andy Partridge. I sure do dig this slidey melody (and how the guitars and synths slide around too). Even though he sings, "Over and over let us flatten the clover," I suspect I know which kind of grass this song is about. Bird effects at the end, too -- how springlike!

4. "White Blank Page" / Mumford & Sons

From Sigh No More (2010)
Though these guys are from London, they sure remind me of the Wood Brothers or Fleet Foxes or the Avett Brothers -- must be the banjo, the fiddles, and the saturated harmonies. Their homespun folky sound sure works for me, though this album is kinda heavy on downer songs. There' s plenty of passion to rescue this tune about an affair gone sour -- it simply aches with love denied.

5. "Oh Me Oh My (I'm Fool For You Baby)" / Lulu
From New Routes (1969)
This was probably the only other Lulu song we ever heard in States, after "To Sir With Love," and its R&B sound was so authentic, I always thought it was a cover. (Maybe because Aretha sang it a couple years later.) Turns out it was written for Lulu by a songwriter from her native Glasgow -- go figure. At least they recorded it at Muscle Shoals. "I'll stage a ballet on a tabletop" is a great line, but even better is the next verse, "We'll blow a genie from a cigarette / And then we'll take a magic carpet ride." Why, Lulu!

6. "Love Song" / Brinsley Schwarz
From Despite It All (1970)
Vintage Brinsley tune, a quite serviceable imitation of forgettable country-rock (Brewer & Shipley, anyone?). But hey, it's written by Nick Lowe, so you know it's loveable. "This here is a love song / I got to get back to my baby's heart again / This here is a love song / I got to sing it till I get back home." By the last verse, we find out she's broken up with him, but this does not seem to dim his conviction one bit. Hang in there, Nick!

7. "Back to the War" / John Hiatt

From Two-Bit Monsters (1980)
We just had early Nick Lowe, now we've got early John Hiatt -- from the days when he was being promoted as "the American Elvis Costello." Trying to live up to that comparison, John let no metaphor go unexplored, and all relationships were by definition nasty and contentious. "I've got this dynamite / I know you're sitting tight / Waiting for news / Well, I'm lighting the fuse." I didn't discover Hiatt until much later, when he'd settled into his own groove, but as a sophomore effort this still ain't bad.

8. "Keep It Simple" / Keb' Mo'
From Keep It Simple (2004)
"Two cars, three kids, six loans / A whole lot of confusion in my home / Six hundred channels on my TV screen / Six hundred versions of the same damn thing." Oh, sure, Keb's music sounds like the most ancient dirt-caked Delta blues -- but do not be misled. It's sly, funny, and totally perceptive social commentary, just topped off with a little pedal steel. "Decaff latte cappucino, said the cashier / Gimme a small cup of coffee, I said, and get me outta here!"

9. "Everything But a Heartbeat" / The Searchers
From Play For Today (1980)
Though it's late Searchers, the sound is solid British Invasion gold, in the jangly-guitar vein of their classic "Needles and Pins," thanks to songwriter Will Birch (of Kursaal Flyers and the Records), who also penned "Hearts In Her Eyes" for them. It's a skewering Bad Girlfriend song, from a guy who's fully prepared to twist the knife (a Will Birch specialty). She's got a great smile, a great way of walking, all the pop cliches -- "But I want to tell you what she's all about / She'll wind you up and then she'll spit you out." Ouch.

10. "Ashes to Ashes" / Steve Earle
From Jerusalem (2002)
No, not the Bowie hit -- a pity, because that's the one I really like. Instead, this is a twangy sort of talking blues, as Steve Earle slouches towards Bethlehem, spewing political aspersions and dark apocalyptic visions. I know Steve Earle is supposed to be a great songwriter. Hell, he probably is, I just haven't heard the right tracks. Why is this one even on my iTunes?

Pity it had to end on that note -- the next track would have been Wanda Jackson's "I Forgot to Remember to Forget Him", a much more appropriate sign-off for this chick-lit cluster of songs. Oh, well, the Shuffle genie apparently had other plans...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Fire Escape" / Fanfarlo

Another new band you kids might enjoy.

Based in London (although their front man Simon Balthazar is from Sweden, land o' hipsters), Fanfarlo takes its name from a Baudelaire novel, which sounds a weeny bit pretentious, I must say. I suppose it's a fair cop -- there's more than a whiff of Belle & Sebastian-style fey poetry about these folks. Stylistically, though, their music has a deliciously wide range, venturing out of the indie-folk spectrum into punk, electronica, and world-beat territory. Hey, any band that incorporates clarinets, musical saws, and glockenspiels gets my vote.

I've got this particular track -- from their 2009 debut album Reservoir -- on my workout playlist. I have to say, I get a surge of energy the minute I hear those rippling (and yes, borderline cheesy) keyboard arpeggios. That uptempo brightness is just the thing to counterbalance Balthazar's reverbed vocals -- numb, slightly haunted vocals that somehow perfectly fit this song's setting.

The singer teeters tentatively on a fire escape (think cold metal, think exposed to the elements, think you could fall and break your neck) contemplating his next move. The picture's kinda bleak, with broken glass and sirens and a cruel winter. It's a moment of decision -- "When you’re still midway / It’s not too late to just turn back" -- rather, of indecision. Our hapless hero is a misfit (what a surprise! an indie song about a misunderstood outsider!) and he's none too sure of himself -- "I think I slipped, I think I fell."

But that youthful spirit of hope keeps bubbling up, with those rippling keyboards and the sweet trumpet solo in the instrumental break. "The future is not down there," he declares, willing himself to move ahead. And in that cryptic last verse -- "We were raised by strangers / The life that you had in mind / Was just a moth and a light" -- I read an expression of fearless plunging into the great unknown, the great Why Not?

And just when you think it's all over -- there's whistling. Far as I'm concerned, there's not enough whistling in modern music (must be the closet country fan in me coming out again). Whistling in the dark? Maybe. But that tune is just too damn cheerful to be a downer. When all else fails, whistle a happy tune, right? It really does work.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Love Is The Thing" / The 88

A band has to be good to carry off opening for Ray Davies. Come on -- you know a packed house full of antsy Kinks fans cannot be an easy audience. But still, this peppy L.A. band pulled it off surprisingly well on Ray's last solo tour. The 88 (that's the number of keys on a piano, the number of constellations in the sky, the symbol for infinity, and all sorts of other deeply significant meanings) harks back to classic British beat pop, but with an indie edge. They're so cool, they even recorded a single on their iPhones -- to wit:

Okay, I have to say, I could care less if they recorded this song on their iPhones. Nevertheless, it's a bright little pop number, with that insistent keyboard hook, and lead vocalist Keith Slettedahl has a very appealing voice. It's a four-man group, principally Slettedahl and his high school buddy Adam Merrin, who does the keyboards (the band's sound relies VERY heavily on those poppy keyboards -- Slettedahl tends to switch back and forth between guitar licks and vocal phrases), with a changing roster of other band members over the years since they formed in the dark ages of 2002. This is one of their newer numbers, coming from their 2009 CD This Must Be Love, but that sassy tunefulness runs through all four of their albums.

I can't quite put my finger on which British band this most sounds like -- Small Faces? Zombies? The Searchers? (there's a definite "Love Potion Number Nine" resemblance). The lyrics are almost negligible, just several giddy iterations of how fab love is. "Love is the thing, the thing you ought to try / The thing you ought to try / No need to ask me why. . . "

The iPhone gimmick proves these guys are smart and ambitious -- they've backed everybody from the B-52s to the Pixies to Smashing Pumpkins, and their songs are all over TV, with "Coming Home" being used on Target and Sears commercials and "At Least It Was Here" being the theme song to the NBC comedy "Community." (Oh, so that's who does that song.) There are a lot of busy little pop groups out there right there, busting their humps to be big stars, and I can't be bothered to keep up with them all, not with all the classic tunes occupying my gray matter. I have my standards, after all. These guys, though -- I'd say they've got a good chance of making it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thursday Reverb

I promised I'd tell you the story of How I Learned to Love Lyle Lovett. Here's most of it, to which I will add that after this show I hung around the stage door -- in waist-high snowfall, mind you -- to say hi to John Hiatt. But John had already left for his hotel; the only one of the four songwriters who came out for the meet and greet was Lyle Lovett, who stood chatting pleasantly -- snow soaking into his cowboy boots -- for at least half an hour. I was already smitten with him from the show; standing there in the snow that night, he completely melted my heart.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"Nobody Knows Me" / Lyle Lovett

Growing up in Indianapolis, I was hard-wired to hate country music -- it seemed all HeeHaw and Midwestern Hayride to me, strictly Not The Thing My People Listen To. Between that, and his extra-terrestrial appearances in Robert Altman films (not to mention that inexplicable marriage to Julia Roberts), Lyle Lovett had no chance of getting onto my playlist. But then I saw him live, doing an accoustic songwriter show with John Hiatt and Guy Clark and Joe Ely, and whoo boy, the scales fell from my eyes.

For one thing, I realized Lyle Lovett is NOT a country artist. He is a Western singer, and unapologetically so. Sure, there's folk in there, and blues, and tent-revival gospel, and dance-hall swing -- all Good Stuff. What he doesn't have are those corny cliches, reactionary pieties, and trumped-up drawls that ruin country music for me; apparently he has spent his entire career, 20-some years now, tactfully bucking the country-music stereotype and inventing his own genre.

In this particular song, for example, as he spins a description of a lazy weekend morning -- "I like cream in my coffee, I like to sleep late on Sundays...I like eggs over easy, with a flour tortilla" -- I just have to picture it in Texas, from that acoustic guitar, the tinny piano, the wheeze underneath that could be a cello but could just as easily be a squeeze-box -- and yet the folky tenderness of it, the jazz-like counterpoint, you'd never expect on a country-music station. And of course I want to be waking up in that sun-drenched house, smelling that coffee, frying those eggs for this man.

Surprise No. 2: That unhurried, mellow voice of his is a much more marvelous instrument than I'd expected; as effortless as his singing seemed, he overpowered those other three guys on the stage that night. In this song, on the repeated line "Nobody knows me like my baby," I love the way his voice soars hopefully on the long o's of "nobody" and "knows", gives a protective flutter over "like my," then cracks wistfully on "my baby." I don't really care whether he's thought this all out or just intuited how to deliver the song; it's just about perfect.

Revelation Three: Lyle Lovett in person is one of the most magnetic individuals I've ever seen. His odd, off-kilter manner simply reads as shyness, reinforced by a refreshing politeness -- gentlemanly to a fault. The long square jaw, the deep grooves either side of his mouth, the taut watchful eyes, even that improbable mass of curly hair on top his head -- in a photo he looks straight out of one of those James Agee WPA photos, but in person he is dead sexy. Just take my word for it.

So this has become The Thing I Listen To now; I play these songs over and over again. I like having Lyle Lovett in my head...I like it A LOT.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wednesday Shuffle

Wednesday again already? Yippee! I've just loaded a bunch of new stuff on my iTunes, too -- wonder if any of it will show up in the next 10 songs on my shuffle...

1. "Crippled Inside" / Widespread Panic

From the John Lennon charity tribute album, Instant Karma
Throw in a little slide guitar, some boogie woogie piano, and castanets, and one of John Lennon's snidest songs turns into a glorious rollicking lark.

2. "You Loser, You Fool" / The Tokens

From Intercourse (1971)
An odd little album, in which this classic Brooklyn doo-wop band (remember "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"?) goes psychedelic. Really, I'm not kidding. Some rockin' harmonica on this, overlapping vocals, and trippy lyrics. Could have been awful. Was kinda fun.

3. "Straighten Up and Fly Right" / Lyle Lovett
From Smile: Songs From the Movies
I was born a Nat King Cole fan; becoming a Lyle Lovett fan was more of an accident. (John Hiatt, a road trip, a blizzard -- well, that story's for another day). So imagine my delight to find this cover of the old Nat King Cole song -- which Lyle originally recorded for the 1996 movie Dear God (go figure) -- on an album I dug out of a record store bargain bin. Plenty of other treasures on here too, I must say. Forget about typing Lyle as a country artist -- this track alone proves he's got ultra-smooth jazz chops.

4. "She's A Mover" / Big Star
From Radio City (1974)
No, not "She's About a Mover," but if I can't get Doug Sahm I'm happy to take this psychedelic flavored beauty from Alex Chilton's second band. Those interweaving guitar lines are fuzzy and funky at the same time -- ooooWEE!

5. "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" / Bill Withers

From Just As I Am (1971)
It's like R&B meets folk-rock, steamy and mellow and sexxxxyyy. Best part: I know I know I know I know I know...

6. "Lonely Town" / Paul McCartney
From Run Devil Run (1999)
Paulie's covers album of old rock and roll gems is a delicious showcase for his most emotive vocals. Here he covers a 1958 Ricky Nelson beauty I've loved for years; knowing that Paul recorded this soon after his wife Linda's death makes it just that much more poignant. Paul can't help syncopating the hell out of it, which is an interesting idea but . . . well, I don't like anybody messing with Ricky Nelson. Not even Paul.

7. "Good Bad Boy" / Joe Jackson

From Rain (2008)
How happy this album made me on first listen; it's a deep deep thrill to find Joe Jackson still in top form. There are certain things that no other artist can do quite so well -- the tortured complex emotions, the passion poured into his piano playing -- it simply sizzles. I would NOT want to be the ex-lover he's ripping into in this song.

8. "Six O'Clock" / Lovin' Spoonful
From Everything Playing (1967)
John B. Sebastian -- wonderful singer, even better songwriter. Okay, so this is late Spoonful, after Zal had left -- still, who can say this isn't a wonderful little folky pop song? And yeah, maybe they were too deliberately trying to follow up "Summer in the City," one of the great singles of all time. But this one has its virtues too -- that relentless timeclock beep of the electric piano, John B.'s anxious repetition "Six o'clock, six o'clock . .. " as he waits for the girl to show.

9. "We The Cats Shall Hep You" / Joe Jackson
From Jumpin' Jive (1981)
More Joe Jackson!!! I must have been a good girl. Here's the other side of the divine Joe J. After a long illness, Joe cured himself by listening to jump music from the 40s and 50s for hours on end, until he just had to do this tribute album (thereby driving away most of the fans he'd won with Look Sharp!). This snappy number was originally by Cab Calloway -- remember him from The Blues Brothers? It's a toe-tapper that just won't quit.

10. "Up on Cripple Creek" / The Band
From The Band (1969)
I was never a Band fan, until I saw The Last Waltz. Well, I'm still not much of a Band fan, but who could fail to love a loose-limbed, country-funk gem like this? Levon Helm's singing just brims over with good humor, and then there are those wobbly Rick Danko harmonies -- and that Jew's harp. Twannngggg!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Always Greener" / Graham Parker

As promised. This new Graham Parker CD, Imaginary Television, is such a sneaky little surprise. The sound is so bright and bouncy, so incontrovertibly POP, that it's easy to pass it off as a lightweight effort by an aging rocker trying to stay relevant. But oh, that would be missing the point.

According to the advance press, the germ of this album was a theme song that Parker wrote for a projected TV show. Though the song was never used, the effort set Parker's juices flowing. He wound up writing an entire album of songs that could have been used as TV theme songs, if those shows had ever existed. Snappy little numbers, most of them -- as TV theme songs tend to be -- but as set-ups for the shows, they turn out to be dark and slightly twisted. Yesssss -- the kind of shows I wish TV had more of.

Currently this is my favorite track on the album: "Always Greener." The sound so perfectly evokes your classic perky TV theme melody, it's a kick when you realize that its characters are deep in mid-midlife crisis, and probably heading for splitsville. (Add this to that Dial D for Divorce playlist, along with the Talking Heads' "Once In a Lifetime," Nick Lowe's "People Change," and Dr. Feelgood's "Don't Wait Up.") The tune promises zany, madcap adventures week after week, but then you listen to the words and -- ouch.

One of the things I loved most about the Rumour's 1979 album Squeezing Out Sparks -- to my mind still one of the finest albums of that New Wave era -- was Parker's ability to see both sides of an emotional crisis. Here too, he sympathetically portrays these people and their frustration, their fear that life has passed them by. ("Three kids, two cars, a wife / I guess that defines him . . . ") Yet he doesn't let them off the hook. He's not judging them exactly, but he isn't buying their excuses either.

Listen to that bridge, where he slips into metaphor: "I know there's cherries and a pear / So I will pull that handle / Pull that handle, pull that handle, pull that handle . . ." (as the tempo slows meaningfully, like the slot machine's wheels whirring to a stop). Should they be gambling with their lives like this? Is life only a game of chance? Somehow I don't think Graham Parker wants us to pull that handle -- but how subtly he casts his aspersions.

Earworm? Yes indeedy -- I found myself irresistibly chirping along with the refrain, "The grass is always greener / The grass is always greener / Always greener / Always greener." I swear, I even did that thing where you tip your head gaily from side to side. There's a real black comedy to this ironic juxtaposition. The very carelessness of that tune and tempo makes a pretty snarky statement about how careless we've become with our commitments -- and yes, we're all complicit, the minute we start singing along.

I don't remember Graham Parker being this wickedly funny back in the old days with Graham Parker and the Rumour -- but hey, I suspect anybody who used to hang out with the Nick Lowe-Stiff crowd had to have a great sense of humor. Granted, the great bluesy rasp in Parker's voice -- and oh, what a voice it was -- has degenerated into a sort of mellow but crochety wheeze these days. But with songwriting this sharp, it's a fair trade-off.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Best TV Theme Songs

I've got this new Graham Parker album (yes, a new Graham Parker!) in my CD player, and it's quite a trip -- titled Imaginary Television, it's meant to be a collection of theme songs to hypothetical TV programs. Given Parker's snarky humor, you can just imagine how offbeat some of those shows would be if they ever were filmed.

Well, I promise to write about the CD in the next day or two, but I kinda got lost in musing over my favorite television theme songs. No, not the campy jingles from shows like The Addams Family and Mr. Ed, but theme songs that had the feeling of being real songs you might actually want to hear all the verses of, not just the 10-second snippet to open the show.

This is a purely subjective thing, I know -- there's a Pavlovian thing going on, in which it's easier to get excited about the theme song from a show you love. There's perhaps no other way to explain my fondness for The Patty Duke Show theme ("Meet Cathy who's lived most everywhere / From Zanzibar to Berkeley Square / But Patty's only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights / What a crazy pair") or the theme from Bewitched (even though they never sang the words, which ran something like "Bewitched, betwitched, you've got me in your spell). Why else should I prefer the theme from Laverne and Shirley over the American Graffiti-inspired theme for Happy Days?

Everybody loves "Everybody Knows Your Name," a.k.a. the theme from Cheers, and "I'll Be There For You," the inescapable theme song for Friends. But I've got a soft spot in my heart for -- I hate to admit it -- the ultra-suave Three's Company theme song ("Come and knock on my door....") and naturally -- NATURALLY -- the theme songs from The Monkees ("Here we come, walkin' down the street / We get the funniest looks from everyone we meet") and The Partridge Family. After all, if your show's going to be about musicians, having a decent theme song should be a no-brainer. (Advice that the producers of Hannah Montana should have taken.)

Way too often, TV theme songs were just a set-up for the show's premise -- that's the thing that always grates on me about The Brady Bunch and Green Acres and Gilligan's Island songs. Beyond the trivia contest value of being able to sing all the verses, are they really songs you'd ever want to hear? Immediately, though, I can think of a couple exceptions to this rule, the prime one being The Beverly Hillbillies song ("Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed / A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed..."). That one was saved by the pickin' and grinnin' of Flatt and Scruggs, who as I recall even made a guest appearance on one episode. Of all the rash of black sit-coms that came along in the 70s, the best theme song had to be Ja'net DuBois' gospel-drenched "Moving' On Up" from The Jeffersons (and while you're at it, check out this goofy fan video.) And you just can't deny the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's opening rap could charm the pants off anybody, but then -- Will Smith. Need I say more?

But what I'm really talking about are the theme songs written by honest-to-god songwriters -- songs you might sing along to even if you never watched the show. Songs like "Welcome Back" by John Sebastian, which was used as the theme song for Welcome Back Kotter. Or "Best Friend" by Harry Nilsson, the theme song for The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Chico and the Man's theme song, written and sung by Jose Feliciano. "Stand" by R.E.M., which graced a short-lived and truly oddball sit-com starring Chris Elliott, Get A Life. "You're Not the Boss of Me," the They Might Be Giants song that leads off Malcolm in the Middle; or the Bare Naked Ladies' theme for the current show The Big Bang Theory.

Occasionally -- just occasionally -- there'd even be an instrumental theme song so good, you'd have to sing along. Hawaii 5-O -- performed by the Ventures -- is the classic example, but what about the groovy urban vibe of Bob James' theme from Taxi, or the deliciously funky Sanford and Son theme by Quincy Jones? (Incredibly, a song that sounded exactly as scruffy as Redd Foxx looked.) And my sentimental favorite in this category is the theme from The Andy Griffith Show, known in reruns as Andy of Mayberry. The simplicity of that whistling and finger-snapping tells you most of what you need to know about the gestalt of that show. (Here's even a vocal version, with Andy Griffith himself singing lyrics I never knew existed.)

So many hours of my life wasted in front of a television set -- and it was those songs, like a snake-charmer's flute, that drew me in. I'm sure I'm forgetting some other great ones, too. And I'm sure you'll remind me of them!

Thursday, April 08, 2010


Way back in the early days of this blog, when I hadn't a clue how to post the music I was writing about, I didn't get much response when I waxed eloquent about some of my more obscure music choices. A darn shame, really. Optimistically, I'll blame it on the fact that you couldn't hear the song in question, so I'm giving it another shot -- this time with one of my homemade videos attached. Trust me, you don't have to know who Jill Sobule is to get a kick out of this particular number . . .

Monday, January 01, 2007

"Guy Who Doesn't Get It" / Jill Sobule

Jill Sobule's like this great girlfriend you can sit up late with, drinking margaritas and eating Doritos and giggling and getting slaphappy. Her songs are so perky, her voice so kittenish, you don't realize at first how snarky her lyrics are; then suddenly you catch her winking at you and you're in on the joke and you love it. She's like the patron saint of insecure misfits and underdogs, with a Geiger counter in her brain that ticks wildly at every absurdity. Even when life doesn't work out for her -- like in this brilliant song from the Pink Pearl album (2000) -- she can't help but sketch it with sick, dry humor.

The joke here is not that the girl singing the song is suicidally depressed -- although she is -- it's that her obtuse boyfriend hasn't got a clue. "Can't you see that I am dying inside?", she starts singing, in that sweet-and-innocent voice, even before the listless acoustic guitar and bored-sounding drums lurch in -- "Can't you hear my muffled cry?" On the second verse, a lazy slide guitar joins in as she wearily elaborates: "Don't you know my life's a quiet hell? / I'm a black hole, I'm an empty shell / Does it occur to you that I might need help?/ You're the guy who doesn't get it."

Okay, that's the premise; we've all known/dated/married men like this, and we're smiling in recognition and shaking our heads. But then, Jill being Jill, she keeps on pushing the scenario further: "Say I'm in the tub with a razor blade / You'd walk in and ask me "How was your day?" / Then you'd lather up and start to shave / As I bleed on the new tile floor..." The NEW tile floor; that's the detail that grabs me -- trust a woman to notice, even as she's slitting her wrists, that the blood's going to ruin her nice new floor.

"I'm sure that you really care for me / And your heart's as big as Germany," she goes on, and of course the word Germany is not idly chosen: "But you're as blind as they were back in '33 / You're the guy who doesn't get it." Sure, it's stretching the point a bit to compare the guy to a Nazi collaborator, but what the hey -- he's not listening anyway, is he? She could say anything and he'd never notice. She hauls out one more melodramatic scenario, upping the ante for shock value: "Say the car exhaust engulfs my brain/ The Nembutol is racing through my veins / You come in and ask "Are you okay?"/ As I close my eyes forever." And still . . . no reaction.

A plunking piano ambles in next, slapping down a few discordant notes, as if it's not even worth the effort to get them right. Jill tries the chorus one last time, asking wryly, "What's going on inside those vacant eyes?" And of course she has no answer -- none of us do. None of us ever do. But sometimes, the only thing that keeps you sane is knowing that at least your girlfriends know just what you're talking about.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Wednesday Shuffle

It's that day again -- so hold onto your hats and see where my shuffle takes me . I've put in links to take you to some of my earlier posts as well, so you can get a little more background on these artists. Just one of the many services I provide!

1. "As Far As I Know" / Paul Westerberg
From Folker
I really backed into being a Replacements fan -- I started out with Paul Westerberg's solo stuff, thanks to Nick Hornby's Songbook, this album being my starting point. In some ways it's still my favorite side of Westerberg. "I'm in love with a girl that doesn't exist . . ." I love the jangly pop bounce of this song.

2. "Tom Courtenay" / Yo La TengoFrom Prisoners of Love Anybody see the movie Billy Liar? One of my favorite early 60s British black-and-white movies, starring Tom Courtenay as a nebbishy dreamer and Julie Christie as his fantasy girl. (Another "girl who doesn't exist" -- really, I think the hamsters in my computer who choose the shuffle have a great sense of humor). I dig Yo La Tengo for their quirky smarts anyway, but anybody who'd write a song about an actor as eccentric as Tom Courtenay totally has my vote.

3. "Has She Got a Friend?" / Nick Lowe
From a 2001 BBC recording of a London Palladium concert
Me and my Nick Lowe bootlegs. What can I say? Classic Nick Lowe humor, with a country twang. By the way, guys, if you're ever in a bar with Nick Lowe and he's looking to get fixed up -- you know my number.

4. "Leave" / Glen Hansard and Marketa IrglovaFrom Once
Wonderful, wonderful, WONDERFUL little movie about a Dublin street busker and the Czech house cleaner who jumpstarts his music career. Hasard sings with such fierce passion, it's almost scary. In the movie, he's always toting around the most scarred-up acoustic guitar you've ever seen; I could just imagine the wild strumming that guitar had endured. After the movie came out, these two became "an item" and started recording as The Swell Season. I was quite a fan until Nick Lowe appeared on Austin City Limits, and the producers edited his performance down to a half hour so they could stuff in The Swell Season as the other half of the show. Not Glen and Marketa's fault, but still.

5. "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" / Georgie Fame
From Somebody Stole My Thunder
One of the many Bob Dylan songs I prefer when somebody else sings it. My old flame Georgie Fame gives it a boogie-woogie groove it was sorely missing. Dig those sweet Memphis horns!

6. "The State I Am In" / Belle and Sebastian
From Push Barman to Open Old Wounds
Stuart Murdoch doesn't always sound this much like Donovan, does he? A great marriage of folk and pop, with the sort of fey lyrics that the skinny-tie set (including my college freshman son) simply eats up.

7. "I Know (You Don't Love Me No More)" / The Alan Price Set
From a bootleg tape of Top of the Pops appearances
Funny to have one of Alan's songs cycle up right after his old performing partner Georgie Fame. Not technically Alan's song, though -- the original was a 1961 hit for Barbara George. Though this appearance dates from the mid-60s, Alan Price has always had a penchant for pulling out these R&B standards, just so he could layer on some amazing keyboards and pour his husky Geordie vocals into it.

8. "Chocolate on My Tongue" / The Wood Brothers
From Ways Not To Lose
Oooh, I do love these boys. Real brothers, one of them the bassist for the jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood, the other the guitarist for the southern rock band King Johnson. This record was their first collaboration, and it's an extraordinary thing, one of my favorite new discoveries of the past couple of years.

9. "We Were Both Wrong" / Dave Edmunds
From Repeat When Necessary
Basically, this was a Rockpile record, though Dave and Nick Lowe were signed to different labels so they just had to play on each other's records. Great old rockabilly number by Bill Murray (no, not that Bill Murray). I love that slouchy rhythm, with the twangy guitar and loping bassline.

10. "You Don't Know Me" / Ben Folds and Regina Spektor
From Way To Normal
When this album came out last summer, this catchy little duet got tons of airplay. But it's only the tip of the iceberg -- the rest of the album is full of snarky satire and aching emotion, a winsome mix that only a songwriter as talented as Ben Folds could pull out. Anybody see him hosting that TV reality competition with the a capella groups? (I think it was called Sing Out America.) He was so smart, so focused, so kind, the complete antithesis of those tacky American Idol judges. He always seemed like a guy it would be fun to hang out with. So guys, if you're ever in a bar with Ben Folds -- well, you know the drill.

Monday, April 05, 2010

"Maybe I Know" / Lesley Gore

Watching the T.A.M.I. show DVD last night, I was mesmerized by many things -- Gerry Marsden's earnest delivery of "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying"; the anxious expression on Brian Wilson's face as he sang "Surfer Girl"; how handsome Marvin Gaye was in 1964, like a tall black Ken doll; the sheer unstoppable energy of that perpetual motion machine, Mr. James Brown; and after James Brown's act, how spastic Mick Jagger's dancing looked in comparison. (Not that the screaming teenagers in that 1964 Santa Monica audience seemed to mind one bit.)

Probably my least favorite part of the whole show was the segment with 17-year-old Lesley Gore, her red hair lacquered into a stiff Barbie-doll flip, wearing a pale knit suit and high heels that wouldn't have been out of place at a Junior League meeting. By this time Lesley Gore had already had one #1 record, a genuine sensation called "It's My Party"; she was only 16 when she sang that 1963 song, in which she stamps her foot and pouts at her own party because her boyfriend Johnny is over in the corner making out with a girl named Judy. (She followed it up immediately with "Judy's Turn to Cry" -- Lesley Gore's handlers never missed an opportunity.) Growing up in the Midwest, I wanted to feel as if Lesley Gore was speaking for me, but there was this scrim of New York suburban spoiled JAPpiness that I couldn't quite penetrate. (I had the same problem years later with Joyce Maynard, writing as "the voice of her generation," when it was clear to me that she was only the voice of a kid whose parents had publishing connections I lacked.) Maybe that's what put me off about Lesley Gore. I wasn't just jealous of her precocious success -- after all, I adored Alex Chilton, Lulu, Laura Nyro, and Peter Noone, all equally young when they burst onto the scene. It's just that . . . she never really felt like an authentic teenager to me.

And yet here I am today, hooked on another song Lesley Gore sang that night.

"Maybe I Know" was probably her brand-new single at the time of the T.A.M.I. show, coming from her fourth album Girls Talk. Eventually it would climb to #14, a respectable showing (though not so high as her earlier single from 1964, "You Don't Own Me" -- which Dusty Springfield soon would claim her own). I have to admit, this song is perfect early 60s Girl Pop, with a bouncy ponytail-swinging beat that makes me wish I still had my old white go-go boots.

It's no surprise that this hit was written by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, the Brill Building's A-team, songwriters with an infallible ear for a pop hook. The verses are almost negligible compared to that irresistible boppy refrain: "Maybe I know that he's been a-cheatin' / Maybe I know that he's been untrue ooh-ooh / But what can I do." Listen to how those uneasy minor chords gradually, stubbornly, work their way into major-key resolution. It perfectly mirrors this girl's determination to stick with her cheating boyfriend and love him anyway. Produced by Phil Spector with his vintage wall of sound arrangement -- doubled vocals, handclaps and all -- it's a seamless pop product, guaranteed to pour effortlessly out of your transistor radio.

It was a shrewd choice for her to record, because it has one hallmark of a classic Lesley Gore song -- that acute sense of the swirl of teen gossip. Listen to the verses: "I hear them whispering when I walk by" -- "I know it's me they're talking about / I bet they all think I'll never find out" -- "My friends are telling me that he's no good" -- et cetera. Remember what it was like in junior high and high school, how all romantic affairs were conducted in the fishbowl of public opinion? Notes passed in class, whispered conferences by the locker, evenings spent gabbing on your Princess phone instead of doing homework -- it's a wonder any of us got into college.

I'm glad to see I'm not alone in admiring this song -- here's a YouTube video of They Might Be Giants' cover, which they love to pull out for their encore set. This totally cracked me up when we went to see TMBG a year or so ago. The Johns have a great ear for Forgotten Pop Gems -- at various times they've also resurrected "Yeh Yeh," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," and the old traffic safety ditty "In the Middle, In the Middle, In the Middle." ("Don't cross the street in the middle in the middle in the middle in the middle of the block..."). Hey, what's the point in having a brain stuffed full of this trash if you can't amuse your friends and family with it from time to time?

Friday, April 02, 2010

"Wonder of Love" / John Hiatt

While I've been blogging about the classics, the pile of new CDs on my desk has been growing and growing. Time to stop keeping these treasures to myself.

Top of the stack has to be The Open Road, the brand-new release from the old master John Hiatt, one of America's most underrated songwriters. Yeah, yeah, I know he gets plenty of acclaim -- but I still think it's not enough. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, then you just haven't listened to enough John Hiatt.

Let's start with the words (I always start with the words). Hiatt's lyrics are full of arresting phrases, not just clever word play but swiftly-drawn images that crystallize truths about the human heart. Somehow, though -- and this is the genius part, the place where many songwriters go astray -- he does this without getting all fake poetic on us. His language is the language of real people. The opening verse of "Wonder of Love" is a prime example:

Other half of last night's cigar
A couple of Pop Tarts
Cold cup of coffee
There's a fine new start

Now that just makes me grin.

But you know what else? John Hiatt's songs are ABOUT SOMETHING. They're not just about "ooh baby you're so fine" (not that there's anything wrong with that). This album seems to me to be chock full of songs about mortality and morality, about understanding the sap that runs through our lives. I'd say it was a spiritual album, except that would make folks run the other direction. I know, me too -- there's nothing that turns me off faster than the self-congratulatory pieties of some country music. But when I say spiritual, I don't mean gauzy and other-worldly -- I mean spiritual as in "trying to find a higher meaning." That's been a hallmark of Hiatt's music since at least 1995's Walk On (I hear it as far back as 1988 in Slow Turning). Hiatt being Hiatt, of course, he delivers that along with sneaky guitar licks, a bluesy rock groove, and grizzled vocals full of bite and sass. You're so busy rocking out, it's entirely possible to enjoy it without having to get that spiritual dimension.

Back to "Wonder of Love," then. It's entirely possible to enjoy this as a romantic love song -- when he sings, "I'm gonna find you / If it breaks my heart," naturally we assume he's talking about finding his woman. But then you get a verse like the third one, where he sings (in his gravelliest voice), "I'm afraid if I go with you / Won't come back again / What would we be leaving / This breakfast of champions." Maybe he's talking about death, maybe not -- I don't know. But could be.

He follows that up with one of those tender domestic scenes Hiatt does so well: "I've been looking for you all these years / Sittin' across this kitchen table here / You pass the sugar and suddenly it all comes clear / It's the wonder of love that' s showin'." Now there, he is clearly singing about his wife. (Who else but Hiatt writes so convincingly about married happiness? Okay, Marshall Crenshaw, but who else?) But then it strikes me -- maybe he is singing about both. They aren't mutually exclusive -- in fact, it could be that his happy home convinces him of the presence of God.

Listen to the prayer scene in the final verse. "I got down on my knees last night / And I thanked someone / For the chance for two people / To try and live together and not run." It sounds like so little -- but it is a huge thing to be grateful for. Only somebody who's got it -- and who's been through hell getting there -- knows what a gift true love can be.

Okay, he's not ramming it down our throats. If you want to see this just as a love song to his wife, go ahead. That's a fine enough thing. It's enough just to enjoy the humorous, quirky rasp of Hiatt's voice, the slouchy shuffle of the song's changeable rhythms, those sweet yearning chord shifts. Like he says in the chorus, "It's a wonder of love / Keeps me up above ground / The wonder of love / Keeps me looking all around" -- love keeps you rooted to this earth, curious about what's next. And if John Hiatt's taking the journey with us, hey, I know I'll enjoy it just that much more.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Reverb Thursday

Call me lazy -- but I've now written blog posts about more than 10 percent of my music library, and it seems a shame not to revisit them from time to time. (Especially for those of you who joined this program when it was already in progress.)

Yesterday I received a very special package from my crack dealers at The new DVD edition of The T.A.M.I Show, a 1964 rock and soul extravaganza in London starring everybody from the Rolling Stones to the Supremes. I've been longing for a version of this iconic concert for ages, ever since -- for better or worse -- this song put the T.A. M.I. Show bug into my brain . . .

First published Thursday, February 15, 2007

"When The World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around" / The Police

So now the Police are getting back together (whether or not they still hate each other seems to be irrelevant) and no doubt they will cash in big-time on the Aging Rock Stars Sold-Out Arena Tour circuit. How lovely for them. . . . I'm tempted to get tickets for one of their August shows at Madison Square Garden, although if history is any guide, I probably won't do anything about it until it's too late to snag even a rafter-level seat with an obstructed view of the jumbotron.

For the past few days as well, I've noticed an exponential increase in the number of Police hits I hear on the radio, on TV soundtracks, in shopping-mall musak, and it's making me nostalgic. I was a HUGE Police fan back in the day; it's impossible to convey what a breath of fresh air these guys were, mixing up reggae and pop and jazz with just a whiff of punk attitude, stripping it all down to the essentials of a guitar, bass, and drums (granted, a guitar, bass, and drums played by virtuosos who could vamp in any style). In an era driven by music videos, theirs were loose and goofy and had a sense of humor. Imagine, MTV was actually witty back then . . .

I had all the Police albums -- vinyl, of course -- but when it came time to shift my music collection to CD, the Police didn't make the cut. By then I'd been put off by Sting's pretentious politics and fatal self-seriousness. Eventually I bought one Greatest Hits compilation and thought that would suffice. It doesn't.

I don't have to go to the Garden, though, do I? I don't have to wait until August to get my Police fix. I can just get out my turntable and put on Zenyatta Mondatta. This was hands-down my favorite Police album, the one on which success had freed them to indulge in a little more jazz and world music. The big hit single was "Don't Stand So Close To Me" -- a fun track, but a safe commercial choice, with that irresistible chorus. This third track, however, is the one that has me mesmerized at the moment (and "mesmerized" on vinyl means lifting the needle and setting it down again -- you only do that when a song really has its hooks into you).

At first the song seems downright monotonous, with the same progression of four harsh metallic chord strums repeated over and over, Sting's vocals more or less chanted over them (okay, the so-called chorus has four different chords). And yet that wonderful clockwork drumming, the hypnotic bassline, the thrumming guitar, all lock together to make a textured piece of music that's completely entrancing.

The lyrics he's chanting are odd, affectless and surreal -- just the thing I loved back in 1980, after total immersion in the Talking Heads for a season or two. Still, they make some weird sort of sense, as the singer describes his daily routines, hunkering down in survival mode: "Turn on my V.C.R. / Same one I've had for years / James Brown on the TAMI show / Same tape I've had for years..." His car is the same one he's had for years; ditto for his stereo, with just one Otis Redding record; he plays the same movie over and over too ("Deep Throat"). He never goes out, has no one to talk to on the phone, and eats the same canned food day after day. Hates it? Sure he does. But "when the world is running down / You make the best of what's still around / When the world is running down / You make the best of what's still around."

Now, tell me what to make of this guy. He could be a Howard-Hughes-like recluse; he could also just be an ordinary guy who's developed agoraphobia or obsessive compulsive disorder... or a right-thinking fellow reacting against the cheapness of recent culture. (Or a newly-minted celebrity who can't go out and enjoy normal life anymore.) Whatever the scenario, he's on auto-pilot, just like the music. It seems like a joyless existence . . . except it's not a joyless song. That backbeat rhythm is just too bouncy, with Sting's slightly pinched voice (kept well back in the mix) lifting chirpily at the end of every line. Talk about making lemonade when life serves you lemons.

I have a sinking feeling that the Police Reunion Tour 2007 will be a greatest hits sort of affair. I sincerely doubt they'll write new music for it, let alone perform back tracks like this one. And yet it was on the back tracks that they allowed themselves to be creative and a little loopy. That was the side of the Police I liked best, and I don't think it'll be visible from the rafter seats at the Garden. Too bad.