Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Well, here we are again. Or rather, here you are again, since I am somewhere else, remotely blogging from some rocky New England beach. (Lobster dinner, anyone?) But so long as I don't get my iPod waterlogged...

1. "The Colour of Your Eyes" / Dusty Springfield
From Dusty . . . Definitely (1968)
Written by Dusty's partner Norma Tanega, this shimmering tone poem may not rank up there with Dusty's great soul numbers, but for pure late 60s schmaltz -- turn on the strings! hear that quivering flute! -- it's pretty darn lovely.

2. "Be My Love" / Geraint Watkins
From Dial W for Watkins (2004)
Maybe I first discovered this guy's work because he plays keyboards for Nick Lowe. So what? That's Watkins' dilemma --he's so in demand as a session man, somehow he never got around to the solo career he deserves. "Come on, little darlin' / Be my love" -- Geraint trips pleadingly down the scale, dropping into a throaty coax. There's just a whiff of zydeco in the rhythm, and a touch of twang in the chugging chorus -- pitch-perfect Americana, served up by a Brit.

3. "I Want to Break Free" / Queen
From The Works (1984)
Of course I listen to Queen -- what are you, some kind of rock snob? I love the over-the-top drama, Freddie Mercury's histrionic vocals, the synthesizers, even the arena-rock guitars. (Only when Queen is doing it, that is -- they're just having so much fun.)

4. "Pieces of What" / MGMT
From Oracular Spectacular (2007)
Reverbs, synths, the whole electronica package, mixed up with yelping vocals that sound just amateur enough to make this endearing. In fact, I sometimes mistake this for a Minus 5 song when it first comes up -- that's how loose and genial it is. I enjoyed this debut album so much more than I expected.

5. "Wine Do Yer Stuff" / Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen
From Lost in the Ozone (1971)
Why, oh why, oh why didn't I discover these guys back in the 70s? I would have had SO much fun listening to this in college. Laidback country-rock, topped off with a little psychedelic druggie culture -- Americana begins here.

6. "Solar Sex Panel" / Little Village
From Little Village (1990)
I amuse myself, when listening to Little Village tracks, by imagining which one of the talents in this all-star project contributed what. The piled-on puns have to be Nick Lowe, but I'm betting John Hiatt was right there, throwing in all those car puns. Yes, it's ultimately a stupid song, hardly worthy of their talents. But Hiatt sings it as if it mattered.

7. "Six-Fingered Man" / Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint
From The River In Reverse (2006)
Elvis gets funky -- as who wouldn't, with Allen Toussaint sitting over there at the piano, tossing off those elegant little riffs? It's a wonderful swampy stew.

8. "I Think We're Alone Now" / Tommy James and the Shondells
From I Think We're Alone Now (1967)
THE perfect groping teen make-out song.

9. "Ten Girls Ago" / Graham Parker
From Struck By Lightning (1991)
Resurrecting a perky New Wave beat, my (new) idol Graham Parker trotted out this endearing track on Struck By Lightning, one of the best albums I've ever heard. He's not slamming that old romance, more poking fun at himself (and grateful that now he's in a better place). The sound, though, takes me back to my own crazy 80s. "It was just a crazy thing / Flying an airplane made of string / Sweet pain of a needle's sting / Ten girls ago...."

10. "Woman In a Bar" / Lloyd Cole
From Antidepressant (2007)
Here you go, Uncle E -- I am listening to Lloyd Cole. And I like it. Witty, articulate lyrics and a sweetly rocking beat.

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Big Sky" / The Kinks

R.I.P. Pete Quaife 1943--2010

I'm well and truly gutted. For several years now, the Kinks were the last of the great British Invasion whose original members were all still alive, which was probably why that reunion rumor kept rearing its head. But the clock was ticking, and we all knew that bassist Pete Quaife -- the first to quit the band, back in 1969 -- had been in failing health for quite a while. Still, when news leaked out yesterday that Quaife had finally passed away, it truly felt like the end of an era.

Going through the Kinks' catalog, there were any number of songs with great bass parts I could showcase. "Waterloo Sunset," "Sunny Afternoon," "Picture Book" -- none of these iconic tracks would have been the same without Pete Quaife's commanding bass lines.
And how tempted I was to feature the elegaic song "Days" -- a song which, an apocryphal story claims, Quaife rechristened "Daze" as he sat for endless hours in the recording studio, his own part already recorded, while Ray Davies made the entire band wait until the song was tweaked to his obsessive satisfaction. Trouble is, there's very little emphasis on the bass in that song (which must have made Quaife's enforced captivity even more frustrating).

In the end, I felt I had to choose a track from The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society -- not just because it was Quaife's last outing with the band, but because his playing was never stronger or more melodic. On this album as no other, track after track allowed the bassline to come to the fore, adding depth to the songs. Just think of the slouchy underpinning of "Last of the Steam Powered Trains," the tuba-like bloops of "All of My Friends Were There," the brooding menace of "Wicked Annabella," the steel-band skipping rhythms of "Monica." It's all done with the bass.

So how could I resist writing about "Big Sky"?

(Dig that photo of Pete tuning his bass!)

Theologically, it's a perplexing song, depicting a distant, uninvolved supreme being -- the Big Sky of the title -- calmly looking down on all the insignificant humans scurrying around, looking like frenzied ants. Ray Davies adopts an odd half-sung voice, almost like a BBC newscaster, as he describes Big Sky looking down on all the people. It's hardly a comforting worldview. People are pushing each other, children are screaming, adults sit depressed with their heads in their hands -- it's practically a scene out of Hieronymous Bosch.

And in the chorus, in a syncopated sort of fanfare, Ray declares, "Big Sky too big to cry." This deity barely sees what's going on, and though he feels some vague sorrow and sympathy, he's unable to do anything about it. Gloomy, eh? That melodic leitmotif is the riff that Pete repeats over and over, cutting through the rest of the song like the trumpets of heaven (or of hell -- it's not clear which).

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . against all odds, the bridge somehow lifts the spirits, as Ray sings, "One day we'll be free, / We won't care, just you see / 'Til that day can be, / Don't let it get you down." The melody floats over the drumbeats, the vocals go high and sweet -- and somehow everything feels better. That theme of freedom, of a longed-for escape, runs throughout Ray Davies' songwriting, but rarely does it feel so liberating, so consoling, as it does here.

I have to say, I'm a little baffled by the next part of the bridge, as Ray adds wistfully, "When I feel that the world is too much for me, / I think of the Big Sky, and nothing matters much to me." Hunh? How can he feel better because God doesn't care? But I have to say, the song truly feels lighter and happier there. And when I think about it, it IS better to believe in a detached God than in a malicious, eye-for-an-eye type.

If this were the Beatles -- whose White Album was released the same week as VGPS, thereby knocking it cleanly out of the charts -- they'd be offering "I'd love to turn you on." But in "Big Sky" Ray Davies accomplishes his own kind of Nirvana, without drugs. If the petty toils of this life don't matter to Big Sky, then why should they matter to us? Detach, detach, detach -- that's the sort of philosophy that made sense in 1968. (Who says VGPS wasn't an album of its era?)

For a minute, as the vocals float high and vague, we can be like Big Sky ourselves, gazing down serenely on the rat race. (It's just like Ray's character watching the people swarm into Waterloo Underground, while he gazes on the Waterloo sunset -- and he is in paradise.) I like to imagine Pete Quaife up there in the Big Sky now, looking down on us with a genial, wry smile.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Funny thing about my iPod -- almost all the songs on it have some subtle Nick Lowe connection. Just for fun, let's see if I can do Six Degrees of Nick Lowe for everything that shuffles up today.

1. "This Boy" / The Beatles
From Past Masters, Vol. 1 (compilation)
Okay, I'll admit, I was a Beatle fan LONG before I ever heard of Nick Lowe. (Flash to the instrumental version of this song, in A Hard Day's Night, when Ringo is wandering around down the docklands, communing with the street urchins.) But Nick's first band Kippington Lodge recorded several Beatles covers, and then Brinsley Schwarz toured with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney's band Wings. I think it's safe to say Nick was a Beatle fan as a teenager. With lush harmonies and a fox-trot tempo, this song sounds to me like a bid to charm our parents, so they'd let us listen to the frantic rock & rollers. But you know what? Even when they were trying to do schlock the Beatles could do no wrong.

2. "String Pull Job" / John Hiatt
From Two Bit Monsters (1980)
Obvious Nick link, since Nick produced and played bass on Hiatt's breakthrough album Bring the Family, then joined him in the band Little Village. (Even though I knew Hiatt as a kid, growing up in the same neighborhood, it was the Nick link that finally led me to Hiatt's grown-up music [smacks self on forehead].) But here's a bonus connection -- listen to this song's jerky tempo, the brittle grating guitar, the hostile lyrics ("She's doing that jerk, she's pulling it tight-err..."). During this period, Hiatt styled his music to fit being marketed as "the American Elvis Costello" -- and we all know that Nick was Elvis's first producer.

3. "Trouble in Mind" / Merle Haggard
From Down Every Road (compilation)
Here's a 180-degree turn from Hiatt's edgy early days, closer in spirit to Hiatt's current sound. A shuffling two-step full of twang, with a fiddle solo in the first break, honkytonk piano in the second, and Merle's dreamy vocals. Far from his outlaw image, here Merle sounds positively laidback -- even though his life's going wrong, he seems to know it'll all straighten out some day. Nick Lowe connection? Well, Nick just recorded this Merle Haggard song on Bill Kirchen's latest album.

4. "Baby My Heart" / Bobby Fuller Four
From Never To Be Forgotten: The Mustang Years (compilation)
Clean, uncomplicated rock & roll, circa 1966, with crunchy guitars, strict time cymbals, and loads of reverb on Fuller's boyish vocals. "You gotta baby my heart / Treat it gentle and kind . . . " IMHO, Bobby Fuller was the missing link between Ricky Nelson and fellow Texan Doug Sahm -- if only he hadn't died young in a tragic car crash! In the liner notes to Nick Lowe's Wilderness Years CD, he sets up his song "I Don't Want the Night to End" thusly: "With the ghost of Bobby Fuller riding shotgun, this one composed in the back of a Queensgate-bound mini-cab sometime in 1977."

5. "Run" / Vampire Weekend
From Contra (2009)
The diametric opposite to Bobby Fuller -- jump forward 40 years, to East Coast privileged smart kids with a knack for complex rhythms and world-beat sounds. Dig those layered keyboards, alternately stabbing and shimmering, laid over a slapping drum track. Textures like crazy, from the anxious tension of the verse to the waterfall of sound in the chorus, to the poppy syncopation of the bridge "(honey it's you /oo / oo / And a battery radio)"... I am coming up empty on any Nick Lowe connection for this one, I have to admit.

6. "That's Not the Way That It's Done" / Minus 5
From Down With Wilco (2003)
Several members of this band are also in the Venus 3, musical collaborators of Nick's label-mate and sometime opening act Robyn Hitchcock. I love the slightly boozy, woozy good-times vibe of this band. Picture graying beards and flannel shirts, with a sweetly snarky sense of humor. All he's trying to do is put her in the mood for love...

7. "Black Lincoln Continental" / Nick Lowe
From Pinker and Prouder Than Previous
Yippee!! Graham Parker's rockabilly romp, as faithfully rendered by Nick Lowe on one of his most obscure and underrated LPs. Grrrr-EAT organ counterpoint by Paul Carrack. This track is so adorable I could eat it up. (Sorry, Graham, but I actually think I prefer Nick's version...)

8. "Sing A Song For Them" / Jenny Lewis
From Acid Tongue (2008)
I loved Jenny's autobiographical, country-inflected debut album; I never warmed to this self-consciously poetical second one, despite all the guest artists -- INCLUDING the aforementioned Nick Lowe colleague Elvis Costello. (Though getting Elvis Costello to sing on one track of your album is apparently not that difficult these days.)

9. "Pistol on the Shelf" / Eggs Over Easy
From Good 'N' Cheap
Ah, the band that gave birth to pub rock and inspired Nick's band Brinsley Schwarz -- a bunch of American visitors to London, led by the much beloved Austin DeLone (that's him on the piano), who later played in the Moonlighters with the aforementioned Bill Kirchen. Mellow, mellow, MELLOW country-rock, with not a jot of angst.

10. "Ordinary Millionaire" / Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3
From Propellor Time (2010)
Speak of the devil! Keep this on the Q.T., but some days I'm nearly as besotted with Robyn Hitchcock as I am with Nick Lowe, though it was the Nick connection that first led to Robyn. I never 100% know what's going on in an RH song -- it seems like there's always a little novel hidden in it, which only Robyn has read -- but this one sounds like a love affair running aground on mistrust and thwarted ego. "I don't know where you've gone from me / I know you don't belong to me / I only know you're there." But man oh man, the sinuous melody, the fluid rhythms, the shifting key changes -- I'm hyp-mo-tized!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tuesday Guest Blogger

"The Cave" / Mumford & Sons

By Hugh Ward, Guest Blogger

Mumford & Sons seems like a simple band. Comprised of a guitar, acoustic bass, keyboards, and banjo, this London band -- formed in 2007 -- nevertheless creates an overwhelming sound with an acoustic approach. Their method for creating such a large sound comes from passion. The band's energy, especially that of singer and guitarist, Marcus Mumford, vibrates throughout their debut album, Sigh No More. This aspect really makes Mumford & Sons stand out in a crowd of folk sound.

"The Cave" leads off with one of my favorite guitar lines, a riff that creates a soothing sound as Mumford starts to sing with an equal tone. Ben Lovett eventually comes in with light piano chords that highlight the melody, and Ted Dwane begins his bass line. As the chorus comes around, however, Mumford changes his pleasant guitar riff into abbreviated chords, conveying a mood change. Backing vocals pour in to fill out the sound.

After this, the featured sound shifts from guitar to banjo, played by "Country" Winston. The, after another short verse, comes the best part of the song: when all band members yell out the lyrics while they bash away at their instruments. The song, at least for me, is most appreciated when performed live. Take a look at the video for an intimate, live performance by the band.

Mumford & Sons have really found their vocal niche. All four of the band members belt out choruses like they were born to do it. Just as in my last week's post about Arcade Fire, today's song's lyrics carry a lot of emotion. The song starts on a depressing note: "It's empty in the valley of your heart." This sentiment continues through the verse as Mumford sings about famine and defeat. But as the chorus comes around, hope is restored: "But I will hold on hope / And I won't let you choke / On the noose around your neck". The rest of the song switches between the verse emotion and the six lines of the chorus. Much as I love the musical qualities of this song, the lyrics are my favorite part -- they carry the passion that energizes Mumford & Sons' music.

If you like folk music, listen to Mumford & Sons -- they offer folk music with an extra surge of passionate conviction. It's not just this track, either; Sigh No More is a very consistent album, filled with fantastic tracks. No two songs sound alike, but the quality is high, track after track.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Black Is Black" / Los Bravos

Summer of '66, this song was a constant presence on Indianapolis' WIFE-AM ("Home of the Good Guys"!). With my ear glued to that radio, I knew what it was instantly, from the very first bass notes. That tripping bass line, the feverish organ, the soulful horn section -- it sounded totally Stax to me. Just the right steaminess, just the right racing pulse for a hit summer record.

Only years later did someone -- a Spaniard, in fact -- inform me that this band was from Spain. You'd think he'd know, but even so I had to look it up to be sure, that's how surprising this was. I mean, I knew there were rock groups in European countries doing spot-on covers of the big rock hits of the day -- but to record an original song that would pop to the top of the UK (#2) and US (#4) charts? No European bands had hit records, not until Abba. I'll bet that the Good Guys on WIFE didn't know it themselves -- otherwise it would have come up time and again in their inane between-songs chatter.

After finding this out, I listened again, with new ears. And it's still amazing to me. The lead singer, Mike Kogel, was the one member of the group who wasn't Spanish, but even stranger, he was German, which shoots to hell my theory that this song merely applied Latin heat to the rock 'n' roll formula. But Kogel's voice is a pitch-perfect copy of Gene Pitney -- so good, that apparently Pitney himself went back to check his records, puzzled that he couldn't remember recording it. The echo effects, the whining urgency, the sliding yelps -- play this record for someone who's never heard and see if they don't guess it's Gene Pitney.

To increase the international profile, the song was written by an English team, Tony Hayes, Michelle Grainger, and Steve Wadey. Los Bravos, who sang pretty much exclusively in English, just had to learn the lyrics, not write them. And the lyrics aren't exactly Shakespeare. "Black is black / I want my baby back" (the Johnny Hallyday version in France changed that to "noir c'est noir," which doesn't have quite the same percussive kick). The color imagery carries on: "Gray is gray / Since she went away, oh no, / What can I do? / 'Cause I-I-I-I-I, I'm feelin' blue." The cleverness goes downhill in later verses ("If I had my way / She'd be back today," "I can't choose / It's too much to lose," and the from-hunger last verse, "Bad is bad / This fella is so sad.") No wonder we never hear of this songwriting team again.

Apparently, the BBC ignored this obscure track by a foreign band; it wasn't until pirate radio latched onto it that the record became a hit. (Yay for pirate radio!). With the driving beat and the Memphis-style arrangement, this was catnip to those pirate DJs. And once it had become a hit in the UK, getting tons of US airplay was no problem. British listeners may have loved it because it sounded American, but as far as American listeners were concerned, it just sounded like music -- and good music indeed.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

"Having My Baby" / Paul Anka

I couldn't write about this in 80s Cheese Week because -- well, cheesy as it undoubtedly is, it was released in 1974. At that period of my life I had entirely given up listening to commercial radio, immersing myself instead in my stacks of vinyl LPs. Even so, I couldn't help being aware of -- and appalled by -- this song. In later years Anka, repeatedly slammed by feminist groups, changed the lyrics in concert to "Having Our Baby," but that doesn't fundamentally change the male chauvinism pervading this song. Anka was blindsided by the criticism, claiming the record was genuinely meant as a love song to his wife, the mother of his five daughters. (The wife he divorced in 2000, later marrying a Swedish model 3o years younger than himself -- I'm just sayin'...).

Well, I'm trying to cut Paul Anka some slack. (After all, he is Canadian.) When this song was released, it had been 15 years since Anka's last hit, "Lonely Boy." In the interim, the British Invasion had changed the pop world and he had had to fall back on his songwriting skills, penning tunes like Tom Jones' "She's a Lady" and the lyrics to Frank Sinatra's "My Way." (Not to mention the Tonight Show theme.) He must have been as surprised as anyone when "Having My Baby" shot up the charts.

Maybe it's my problem, my queasy reaction to lines about his seed growing inside her, and how pregnancy is her way of proving how much she loves him. (Sounds like forced servitude to me, but hey, I could be wrong.) But that line about "You could have swept it from your life"? I don't think that would please either pro-life OR pro-choice folks.

Though we all know Paul Anka was already going bald, let's pretend he's just wearing that hat because he wants to look like Neil Young. But what gives, that this video doesn't even include his duet partner, Odia Coates? Her vocals save this song -- without that, he'd sound even more clueless. Her presence suggests that maybe, just maybe, the woman genuinely wants this baby on her own grounds.

In 2006, this song was voted the worst song of all time in a CNN poll. So what made me think of it today? Well, I was doing a road trip with my daughter and she pre-empted the car stereo to play songs from her iPod -- an iPod which contains every number ever sung by the cast from the TV show "Glee." (Need I mention that my daughter is 15 years old?) Apparently there was one episode on which the kids deliberately worked up routines to famously bad songs -- naturally "Having My Baby" made that cut. And you know what? Their version isn't half bad. Take a listen...

Which begs the question -- did Paul Anka's rendition somehow add an extra offending tone to this song? Now, I don't know the man. There's no question he's a talented guy. But I did learn about a famous tape of him chewing out his crew, quotes from which have snuck into popular culture (next time you hear a comedian say, "The guys get shirts!", you'll know the reference). There could be a connection. This song isn't just cheesy, it's downright creepy -- at least I think so. Or am I overreacting?

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Reaching way back for this one -- so far back, most of you faithful readers hadn't found this blog yet. So let's give it another spin. An obvious choice, perhaps, a knee-jerk "classic" -- but all the more reason to listen with fresh ears.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

" Layla" / Eric Clapton

To plug or not to plug -- that is the question. On one hand you've got the blistering 1970 recording of this song by Clapton's band Derek and the Dominos; on the other hand there's the laid-back acoustic version from his 1992 Unplugged album. Instinctively I always go for the acoustic version of any song, especially when the original runs 7:07 minutes long with endless guitar solos. Instinctively, the very first time I heard "Layla" unplugged, I preferred it.

But then on the other hand...

The original version reminds me of freshman year in college, when my friend Kathy and I cranked it up loud enough to make our next-door neighbor -- whose name was Leila -- pound on the walls. At the time, though, (get this) I didn't even know Eric Clapton was in Derek and the Dominos. I didn't get the point of Eric Clapton until senior year, when I knew a lot more about both drugs and sex and suddenly his music made sense.

It was the Cream stuff that won me over, "White Room" and "Badge" in particular. Once I figured out that the lyrics were not important (a real leap of faith for an English major like me), I appreciated Eric Clapton in a whole new light. I happily lost myself in the dense tangle of that music, loving the bluesy syncopation, the passionate abandon of his guitar playing. As time passed and Eric dabbled in reggae ("I Shot the Sheriff, "Lay Down Sally"), or rootsy blues ("After Midnight," "Cocaine"), the groove worked so well, I didn't notice Slowhand was Slowing Down. "Wonderful Tonight"? "Tears in Heaven"? I was just impressed to hear Eric come into his own as a crooner. By the time Clapton unplugged for the MTV show, he and I were both comfortable with narcoleptic acoustic versions of his old hits, versions that sound more strung-out on heroin than the music he made when he himself was on heroin.

My brother eventually told me that "Layla" was about Pattie Boyd Harrison, Eric's best friend George's wife, but by then Pattie had married Eric so it was a moot point -- I never revisited "Layla" to check it out. Why? I never listened to Clapton lyrics. And now here I am finally listening to the lyrics of "Layla," and it's ripping my heart out. I mean, listen to this: "I tried to give you consolation / When your old man had let you down / Like a fool, I fell in love with you / Turned my whole world upside down." I'm not saying it's great poetry, but the story he's telling requires -- no, DEMANDS -- a howl of anguish.

Eric's voice was never suited for howling, but his guitar sure was. That peeling riff at the outset pierces through everything, a miserable wail that won't go away. Even when he strains his voice hoarsely, it's perfect for this song -- he's a lost soul, and she's got him on his knees, begging darling please . . . and when, in the last verse, he moans "Let's make the best of the situation / Before I finally go insane," it sounds like he's insane already.

That magisterial keyboard solo by Jim Gordon (who co-wrote the song with Clapton) no longer seems to me to go on too long; it's like a man staggering around, unable to give up this wrenching passion, and the obsessive pent-up frenzy of the song is just right. No wonder Pattie finally gave in. If anyone ever recorded a song like this about me, I'd be his in a nanosecond.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I've been stuck in a continual loop of summer songs, thanks to a Facebook thread -- so I'm primed to see what surprises the Shuffle's gonna throw my way today....

1. "In the Bleak Midwinter" / Cyndi Lauper
From Merry Christmas -- Have a Nice Life! (2004)
Ha -- talk about a change of seasons! The irony is just too perfect. Yes, a traditional English Christmas carol from Cyndi "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" Lauper. I always liked Cyndi -- her Boho flake image seemed as genuine as Madonna's seemed calculated -- and an off-the-wall choice like this seems totally in character for her. Here she tenderly strums her autoharp and unleashes a pure madrigal voice to produce a true olde English sound, plaintive penny whistle and all.

2. "House of the Rising Sun" / Alan Price
From Rising Sun (1980)
No, not the Animals' version -- this is solo Alan Price, nearly 20 years later, reclaiming the song that made him famous (well, he did arrange the Animals' version, and still gets songwriting royalties). Somehow it works just fine, with a jazzy tempo, scolding sax, and a brand-new syncopated organ solo in the middle eight. It won't replace the original in my heart (one of my 100 Favorite Singles), but this rendition is perfectly delightful on its own merits.

3. "Think" / Aretha Franklin
From Aretha Now (1968)
Soul Sister No. 1, setting that man straight. I'll confess, I can't hear this anymore without picturing Aretha in her pink waitress uniform, reading the riot act to Matt "Guitar" Murphy in The Blues Brothers, while Belushi and Ackroyd watch from their diner stools and Lou Marini plays his sax atop the diner counter. (Here's the link: Think.) A great moment in film!

4. "All Day and All of the Night" / The Kinks
From The Kinks (1964)
Those first grating chords, and an idiot grin busts out on my face. That's how I know the Kinks are my favorite band -- the way the world stops for me when this song pops up unexpectedly. Not my fave Kinks track, not by a long shot, but compared to most of the rest of all music? No contest. Dave's churning solo could have been cut yesterday, that's how raw and vital that guitar sounds.

5. "I'll Fight" / Wilco
From Wilco (The Album) (2009)
I'm not a rabid Wilco fan, which is why I was immune to the backlash against this album. "Safe"? "Commercial"? It's like the R.E.M. thing all over again. Who cares? I enjoy Jeff Tweedy's music -- a burnished patina of Americana laid over hooky tunes with ambiguous lyrics. Though there's nothing ambiguous about that first verse: "I'll fight, I'll fight, I'll fight / I'll fight for you, I will." That absolute commitment buoys this upbeat track, a spectacularly non-whiny love song -- what a rare thing!

6. "Pastime Paradise" / Stevie Wonder
From Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
Fact of life: I will accept any political rhetoric if it's delivered in Stevie Wonder's blissfully tuneful package. Maybe I'm hypnotized by that supple Latin percussion, the fluid synthesizers, the lush symphonic texture that Stevie could mastermind at the height of his golden period. When I listen to the words, I think, What idealistic nonsense! But Preacher Stevie makes me believe.

7. "Rivertown" / Hayes Carll
From Little Rock (2005)
Roots, roots, roots. Or is it My friend Jim emailed me a few twangy tracks by this guy, and I've enjoyed them without ever getting around to exploring more of his music. It's all in the Townes Van Zandt / Steve Earle / Robert Earl Keen line, but very likeable -- even this lugubrious story, told with a slouchy beat and the lonesome whine of pedal steel. (On other tracks, Carll balances that out with a goofy sense of humor). A bit generic, perhaps, but moody and mesmerizing.

8. "Younger Girl" / Kippington Lodge
Oh, how embarrassing. Yes, I'm such a Nick Lowe sap that I even have this rarity, a live-from-the-BBC recording of a Lovin' Spoonful cover by Kippington Lodge, Nick's first band when he was still a teenager. I don't even think it's Nick singing, more likely his schoolmate Barry Landerman. And that woozy, wheezy organ -- Bob Andrews? Chronology is hazy with obscure tracks like this. Is this version better than the Lovin' Spoonful's? Oh, come on, that question is not even relevant. It's Nick.

9. "Towers of London" / XTC
From Black Sea (1980)
Eccentric architectural musings from Andy Partridge (unless Alex tells me it's Colin Moulding). No wonder Andy and Robyn Hitchcock like to collaborate -- this could be the B-side to "Trams of Old London." A whole song about the navvies who built Tower Bridge for Queen Victoria -- now that's what I call a pop song! But it is, it's so catchy, with that New Wave-y quirky production. I really need to do a full post on this song.

10. "Oh, Gosh" / Donovan
From Troubador (compilation)
What gives this track such an airy texture? Is it the breathy jazz flute, the light brushes on the drums, the plucked upright bass -- or was there really a summer breeze flowing through the studio in 1968 when Donovan cut this track? Nobody could sell that flower child vibe like Donovan. The sincerity is what does it -- "Oh gosh! Life is really too much / (Life is really too much)" (I love how his doubled vocals split, jumping from speaker to speaker, doing a one-man call-and-response). Blissful.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tuesday Guest Blogger

"We Used to Wait" / Arcade Fire

Welcome all to the first post in a series by me, Hugh. I will be posting weekly in a similar fashion to my mom.

Ever since the release of Arcade Fire's first Arcade Fire EP in 2003, a dedicated fan base has grown up around them, always craving new songs. While their music has always been accessible, their trademark sound is not overly commercial, but dramatic baroque pop. Having gone platinum on their two previous LPs, the chances are that more platinum records will be won with their third studio album, The Suburbs, which is set to be released August 2nd. Perhaps they will finally win a Grammy award, having been nominated for both Funeral (2004) and Neon Bible (2007).

Until August, all we Arcade Fire fans have to satisfy our cravings is this new single, "We Used To Wait," which has just broken into the rotation on BBC radio. Of course, the minute it appeared it spread around the internet like crazy. At first "We Used to Wait" does not sound like a typical Arcade Fire song -- it's more stripped-down, with more dynamic changes. Singer Win Butler begins with piano chords that will make a shiver run up your spine. The use of a piano is a constant in Arcade Fire's music, so it seems that the band is easing the listener back into a familiar realm with the nuanced sound.

Drummer Jeremy Gara switches between stressing the off-beat and stressing the down-beat, which makes the meter one of the most exciting elements of the song. Yet unlike Band of Ruffians or Vampire Weekend, where the drumbeat is complex, the drums here are minimalist.

Then the full orchestration comes in, adding strings and guitars for an upbeat sound in contrast to the minor-key verse. Back-up singers join in, like a circle of friends supporting the singer. The effect is like sunshine breaking through the clouds. The guitars, which are generally not significant instruments on an Arcade Fire track, add embellishments that dance above the piano line. With a regular line-up of seven musicians, Arcade Fire can call upon many instruments to build up a dramatic, joyous sound. As a result, what began as a song of longing turns into a song of hope.

As always with Arcade Fire, the lyrics are crucial. In the verse, the key is minor and the lyrics are in the past tense, as Win Butler sings, "I used to write/I used to write letters, I used to sign my name/I used to sleep at night." But in the bridge the repeated phrase "We used to wait" implies both longing and yet a sense of progression. In the chorus, the lyrics take a turn towards levity, signifying a brighter future.

Being able to combine dark emotions with a pleasing sound is one of Arcade Fire's strengths. What makes this song distinctive is the dynamic change in mood between verse and chorus, a fuller exploration of their musical capabilities. Now I really can't wait to hear the new album, if their songwriting has taken another major step forward. I hope you enjoy this song and it makes you curious to listen to more of their music!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"Long Hot Summer Comin' On" / Black 47

What's on your list of "Summer's Here!" songs? Mine would have to include the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City," the B-52s' "Rock Lobster," Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street," and Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime." And yes, okay, twist my arm: Bruce Springsteen's "Rosalita." But the more I listen to this new Black 47 album, Bankers and Gangsters, I realize I must add one more to that list: the sizzling opening track, "Long Hot Summer Comin' On."

Not familiar with Black 47? Oh, my, we must rectify that. Along with the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, they form a triumvirate of American-based Celtic rock bands -- punchy Irish-themed bar bands that throw jigs and pipes into a rock 'n' roll mix. (Just try to book any of these bands around St. Patrick's Day.) Of the three, Black 47 -- the name refers to the worst year of the Great Irish Famine -- has the most eclectic sound, thanks to a smokin' horn section that can leap from jazz to reggae to Philly soul. They're also the most political, thanks to the songwriting of front man Larry Kirwan -- playwright, novelist, columnist, and Sirius DJ. (His radio show is how I first got hooked on this band.) Kirwan's not much of a singer, mind you, but what he lacks in vocal ability, he makes up for with mad boyish enthusiasm.

The soulful horns that lead off this track pour in like a ray of sunshine; drumbeats snap like firecrackers. The metallic jangle of guitars is undeniably urban -- more subway tracks and fire escapes than highway cruising and swimming pools. But within that general city vibe, this particular song harks back to the summer of 1980, an era that Kirwan's been thinking about a lot about lately, as the time frame for his new novel Rockin' the Bronx.

One thing about cities: People can't help being out on the streets, especially in the heat of summer, and this song sketches those colliding lives. The first verse is a sidewalk panorama, the "girls in their summer dresses" passing by a young cop on the beat; verse two takes the ferry to Staten Island, to a fireman worn out by a rash of arsons. (Irish cops and firefighters are a healthy portion of Black 47's following.) Verse three mills around the Lower East Side, capital of the punk phenomenon, then in its heyday. Over it all hangs a sense of desperation, of youth vanishing, of chances evaporating; Kirwan's half-strangled vocals add a bittersweet urgency to this flickering moment of history.

I remember the summer of 1980 -- I had just moved to New York, though I hardly traveled in the same downtown hipster circles as Kirwan did. Still, I recognize all the references -- to arsonist Gasoline Gomez, "Captain" Hilly Kristal of the Bowery rock club CBGBs, Tom Verlaine's then-new band Television, and rock critic Lester Bangs, one of the first to champion punk rock. I went to CBGBs a time or two, though I was terrified to enter its famously scuzzy bathrooms.

Still, this isn't just an exercise in nostalgia. "The go-go days are over," Kirwan wails, and while that was true of 1980, it's just as true today. For all we know, this too could be a hot, restless, scummy summer. Might as well throw on a cool shirt and hit the streets.

Friday, June 11, 2010

"Pied Piper" / Crispian St. Peters

I was surprised by how saddened I was today to read the obituary for Crispian St. Peters, who just died at age 71. Not a major British Invasion star, not by any stretch of the imagination, but still . . . As a kid I owned his one big US hit, "Pied Piper," and I faithfully learned its lyrics by heart (that head crammed with 60s lyrics is one reason why I can't remember my daughter's cell phone number). Well, if I'm this affected by the death of Crispian St. Peters, I can't imagine how gutted I'll be when the great British rockers from my formative years shuffle off this mortal coil. I daren't even name their names, but you know very well whom I'm thinking of.

Crispian St. Who? you may well arsk. Come on, listen to the song; you know this record.

For a brief spell in the summer of 1966 -- oh, that glorious summer! -- this tune haunted the airwaves, pouring out of every little transistor radio we kids held snuggled to our ears. With its boppy prancing beat, its Donovan-like feyness, "Pied Piper" hooked us but good.

St. Peter's real name was Robin Peter Smith -- a properly British-sounding name, but not nearly as evocative for us Americans: hence the stage name. Let's face it, nobody in my grade school in Indiana was gonna have a name like Crispian. And St. Peters? In Indianapolis, the North Side clothing boutique that peddled all the must-have clothes was Roderick St. John, a name chosen for its faux-English pretensions. St. John = St. Peters = upper-crust class. Basing a pop song on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin could have seemed precious, but St. Peters' earnest tenor and twee Englishness sold the literary reference just right.

Though he'd been knocking around as a professional musician since the late 50s, after Beatlemania Robin Smith jumped onto the British beat bandwagon, reinventing himself with his new stage name and signing to Decca in 1965. His first big UK hit, in 1966, was the Sylvia Tyson song "You Were On My Mind," but that didn't chart over here -- we had our own homegrown version recorded by We Five. In July 1966, however, he followed that up with "Pied Piper" -- a cover of a minor 1965 single by The Changin' Times -- and scored a Top Ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Recording "Pied Piper" was a stroke of luck for this guy. You may never have heard of The Changin' Times, but one-half of this short-lived duo was songwriter Artie Kornfeld, who'd already had one big hit with Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve"; he and his Changin' Times partner Steve Duboff also later wrote the Cowsills' 1967 hit "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things." Perhaps even more important was Kornfeld's role as one of the prime organizers of the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969. As a professional songwriter, Kornfeld -- a Brooklyn boy -- had songcraft down pat. How else could he have turned out three such different hits -- a California surf rock classic, a gauzy sunshine pop anthem, and this British Invasion charmer?

Okay, so this song didn't have much to do with the Pied Piper myth. Just as well, because the Hamelin story is one of literature's creepier tales. As a kid, I remember being freaked out by the idea of a town so infested with rats, they needed to hire this exterminator with a flute. (The bit about the town burghers stiffing the guy once the job had been done completely went over my head.) And the TV version I remember further wrenched my heart by adding one Tiny Tim-like boy with crutches who got left behind when all the other kids followed the vengeful piper out of town.

Luckily in this song, the Piper is only used in its metaphorical sense as a charismatic leader. Most likely Kornfeld and Duboff got the idea from reading somewhere how the Beatles were "pied pipers to a generation" (as indeed they were). To this, Kornfeld and Duboff added just the right amount of hippie gloss. The singer -- the "I" of the song -- is a free spirit, addressing some hung-up soul ("masquerading," "contemplating") who's afraid to follow him. Singing in a low, coaxing voice, St. Peters weaves a spell, pointing an accusing finger with repeated "you's" and tempting his prey onward. The arrangement is deliberately minimal, with a prominent bass line, light guitar strum, and martial drums (the better for marching away). What is he offering? Drugs? Eastern philosophy? Marxist revolution? Only in the second verse does it become clear that he's singing to a girl, which clarifies his motives considerably. But hey, he waits until the second verse to put the move on her, and he never even mentions intercourse -- how refreshing!

Remember, in the mid-60s coded drug messages were everywhere; this timid soul clearly needed to be turned on. And so the chorus blooms into full orchestration, including a sprightly penny whistle, representing the piper's pipe. "Come on babe," he invites, swinging into his beautiful upper register, "follow me / I'm the Pied Piper / Follow me / I'm the Pied Piper / And I'll show you where it's at." Talk about 60's lingo -- "where it's at," man. That's pusher talk if I ever heard it.

Calculated British Invasion pop -- and yet, it's an absolutely lovely recording, redolent of its era and yet timelessly lilting. Hearing Crispian St. Peters launch into that chorus still makes my heart leap. We talk so dismissively of one-hit wonders; but having even one hit this delightful is something to be proud of. Rest in peace, Robin Peter Smith.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


Today's blog is dedicated to Rafaela Filippi, a fellow Kinks fan, who just passed away Monday night. So what if the shuffle isn't all Kinks music? That wouldn't have bothered Raf. With her generous smile and open heart, she was a music lover of wide enthusiasm. I'll miss you!

1. "Yakety Yak" / Phantom Planet
From The Mumford Soundtrack (1999)
When I was a kid, we inherited a box of 45s from our older cousins, one of which was the original 1958 "Yakety Yak" by the Coasters (written by Leiber and Stoller, I now learn). How cool, then, to find it covered on this excellent soundtrack to a sweet little 1999 indie film, and by Phantom Planet, one of my favorite alt bands. Back then, Phantom Planet had only one album out and Jason Schwartzman (yes, that adorable indie actor, one and the same) was still their drummer. I love how Phantom Planet stays true to that old platter's charm, including the cheeky sax and the stern baritone retort to "Yakety yak!" -- "Don't talk back."

2. "The Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari" / John Hiatt
From Perfectly Good Guitar (1993)
My pink plastic Barbie Sportscar wasn't a Ferrari, but I get the picture. "It ain't the end of the world, it's just the wreck of the Barbie Ferrari" -- Hiatt plays it for comedy, with the frustrated family man opening fire on a box full of toys while the wife and kids are off at church. Still, underneath that satire lies a lot of repressed rage -- a LOT. I love Hiatt, our great rock chronicler of the ebbs and flows of family life, but this song misses the mark for me.

3. "A-Punk" / Vampire Weekend
From Vampire Weekend (2008)
I guess there are words to this song, but I never catch more than a word here and there. The main thing is the tight collage of sounds, a frantic ukelele-like strum alternating with a surge of synths, dense as cotton-wool, punctuated with Ezra Koenig yelping "Ay! Ay! Ay!" It doesn't sound like it should work, but somehow, magnetically, it does.

4. "Next Time You See Me" / Sir Douglas Quintet
From Soul Jam (2000 compilation)
A CD I picked up for $1 on a binge in a used-record store in Amherst -- and I'll never regret it. (Do we ever really regret those bargain-bin splurges?) In my opinion, Doug Sahm could do whatever he damn well pleased, and here we find various incarnations of his band whipping out note-perfect covers of old soul classics, with a lazy funky groove that just does not quit. On this track, they work their magic on a 1957 Junior Parker classic that's been covered by everybody from Frankie Lymon to the Grateful Dead.

5. "Western Union Man" / Al Kooper
From I Stand Alone (1968)
Must be Soul Covers Night. This was one of my most-played LPs in college, and I loved this track long before I ever heard Jerry Butler's honey-dripping original. In the grand old tradition of Letter Songs, this one's too urgent for standard delivery -- no, we gotta reach that girl now, and damn the cost. (Somehow a text message just doesn't have the same flair.) Al punches it up a little, but it's still a loose-limbed seduction, underlaid with a funky bass and steamy horns. My favorite part: When the back-up singers and Al rat-tat-tat, in offbeat staccato: "Send a tel-e-gram, send a tel-e-gram!"

6. "I Worry 'Bout You Baby" / Brinsley Schwarz
From What IS So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding? (1973)
Ah, the Brinsleys, bringing their conception of a lazy Nashville stroll to the pubs of North London -- blissfully genial and more than a bit stoned. This track is totally, and I mean totally, derivative, but it is nevertheless feel-good music of the highest quality.

7. "All In Good Time" / Ron Sexsmith
From Time Being (2006)
I highly recommend this album for times of trouble. Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith has a knack for philosophizing without sounding preachy, especially on this album -- a gently rocking meditation on mortality and acceptance. A perfect song for me to hear tonight.

8. "Both Ends Burning" / Richard Thompson
From Hand of Kindness (1983)
I love how Thompson grafts together bluegrass, Cajun swamp, and Celtic folk song in this rollicking two-step, a shaggy dog tale -- or rather shaggy horse tale, about a broken-down nag turned racehorse. The story's just a pretext, though, for this spicy gumbo of sassy guitar licks, chipper accordion, and finger-wagging sax.

9. "Man of a Fool" / Nick Lowe
From The Abominable Showman (1983)
Nick Lowe's commentary on the battle of the sexes: "For every woman who ever made a fool of a man / There's a woman made a man of a fool." If Nick hadn't yet gone full country, there's still a certain Nashvillian snappiness to this track. A forgettable Nick track, from an odd mishmash of an album -- but it's still a pretty fab, fun bit o' music.

10. "May You Never" / John Martyn
From Solid Air (1973)
Another album I played the grooves off of in college, and especially this jazzy acoustic track, Martyn's rueful take on a traditional Celtic blessing. "May you never lay your head down / Without a hand to hold / And may you never make your bed out in the cold." Words of wry wisdom, and a fitting benediction in memory of a dear friend lost.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

"Shelly's Winter Love" / Bill Kirchen
with Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack

File this away in my Wish I'd Been A Fly on the Studio Wall folder.

Bill Kirchen's new CD, Words to the Wise, really should be listed as Bill Kirchen and Friends, since just about every track features some "guest artist" who's a longtime musical pal of his. Considering Kirchen's eclectic career -- from the late 60s with Commandy Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, to the Moonlighters, to the Impossible Birds and countless other sideman gigs -- he's amassed impressive credentials as a triple-threat guitarist, songwriter, and singer. As one of the guys who "invented" Americana, he's been hung with the tag King of Dieselbilly, but in truth he is so much more.

Yet Bill Kirchen is such a generous guy, so modest about his own amazing talent, he graciously stands back and lets his guests take the spotlight on each track. And the line-up of guests reads like my iTunes: Elvis Costello, Paul Carrack, Dan Hicks, Maria Muldaur, Commander Cody (a.k.a. George Frayne), and best of all, the divine Nick Lowe. That roll call, however, doesn't fully convey the best thing about this recording: its mellow vibe. It's clear that everybody Kirchen invited was thrilled to sign on, and they simply had a blast in the studio.

Truth is, it was hard to choose which track to share with you today. (Which means this CD will probably soon make a return appearance on this blog.) The title track, a duet with Dan Hicks, is a delightful romp, as is his reunion with Commander Cody on "I Don't Work that Cheap"; then there's the rueful "Husbands and Wives," a cover of a Roger Miller tune, on which Kirchen duets with Chris O'Donnell, formerly of Asleep at the Wheel. (Kirchen doesn't get enough credit for his poignant numbers; check out my previous post on "Skid Row in My Mind.")

But flesh is weak, and in the end I succumbed to the obvious. C'mon, I haven't written about Nick Lowe in ages! And there's Paul Carrack too! How could I resist?

Considering what longtime collaborators Lowe and Carrack have been, you'd think there'd be more photos of them together on the InterWeb, at the very least group shots of Nick's Cowboy Outfit. No dice. The best I could do with this homemade video is to plug in separate shots of each guy at the point in the song where he's featured -- that's Paul with the shades, Nick in the white shirt, Bill in the blue. I should also add that the shimmering piano accents are courtesy of Austin De Lone, who originally brought them all together. Though De Lone is American, his band Eggs Over Easy launched the 1970s pub rock movement in London, in which Nick (via Brinsley Schwarz) and Paul (via Ace) got their start; later, when Austin and Bill played together in the Moonlighters, trans-Atlantic introductions were made, and lifelong bonds were formed.

As for this track, it's a cover of a Merle Haggard tune, from 1971's Hag. According to Kirchen's wonderful liner notes, "Nick and Paul tell me they had Merle Haggard's "Shelly's Winter Love" by the Osborne Brothers on a tape while touring the US, and would sing it together on the bus. Why reinvent the wheel, I thought? I just let 'em at it, and tried to not get in the way." By stripping away the pedal steel and adding harmonies, Lowe and Carrack give this tender ballad an Everlies-like plangency.

Forget the awful pun on Shelley Winters' name, which must have kickstarted this song in Haggard's imagination; this is no mere novelty tune. The conceit is that Shelly is a restless woman who never stays put for long; the singer hooks up with her every winter, but he knows she'll be flying away by spring. While he accepts that, it's clear from every lovesick yodel in this song that he'd rather have her to himself year-round -- but he'd rather have a little bit of Shelly than nothing.

I happen to love Bill Kirchen's voice, and I'm sorry he didn't take a verse himself, or at least chime in on the chorus. Still, we've got that middle eight, in which Kirchen twangs a lovely solo. If you've ever seen Bill Kirchen in concert, you'll know that he can rip up a guitar solo like nobody's business. Yet that would have been totally out of place in a wistful song like this, and Kirchen has unerring taste in such matters.

That's the virtue of having been in the business for forty-plus years -- Bill Kirchen doesn't have a dang thing to prove. Making a record is just a wonderful excuse to hang out with his friends -- and oh, what friends they are.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

"Bed O' Roses No. 9" /
Ian Dury & the Blockheads

You know how there are some books you just can't put down? Will Birch's new biography of Ian Dury was like that for me. Over the past week, I actually looked forward to long subway rides because it'd give me a stretch of reading time; I gave up jogging in favor of the stationary bike in the gym, just so I could prop this on the book stand and plow through more of Ian Dury's fascinating life.

It's not just because I'm a devoted Ian Dury fan -- although I do like his music a lot and I own most of it on CD (check out my previous posts on Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Inbetweenies). As a graduate of the pub-rock scene and one of Stiff Records' first recording stars, Dury consorted with all those other musicians I adore, such as -- oh, you know who. But that too is almost beside the point. Dury was a complex personality with an intriguing life story, and Birch follows the twists and turns with sympathy and shrewd insight. Despite his foul-mouthed Cockney image, Dury was in fact a grammar-school boy raised in relative comfort by his upper middle-class mother; even his working-class bus-driver dad, who wasn't around much, rubbed shoulders with toffs after becoming a Rolls-Royce chauffeur. Ian's lyrics may have been peppered with rhyming slang and profanity, but behind that guttersnipe manner was a talented artist and former art school teacher, with an ear for jazz and a sharp eye for cutting-edge fashion.

Although we Americans were quick to appropriate the title of his trademark song "Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll," Dury's thick Essex accent and topical satire didn't translate well to an American audience. (Last weekend I ran a trivia contest at my college reunion and nobody -- nobody! -- could identify Ian Dury.) The most salient fact about Dury's life, however, was that he contracted polio as a young kid and spent several years in a horrific school for the disabled. To be honest, I had no idea Dury was a "raspberry" ("raspberry ripple" = cripple) until a couple years ago; I bought his albums for their snappy lyrics and the tight jazz-funk arrangements, with no idea of his mesmerizing stage presence. But Birch connects the dots, reminding us why Dury was such a prickly bloke, continually pissing off everybody he knew, including -- no, especially -- the Blockheads, his brilliant backing band. And in the end, Birch left me with enormous affection for the "diamond geezer."

I was delighted to find this YouTube video of "Bed O' Roses No. 9," since it's not one of Dury's better-known tracks. It comes from the tail end of his career, from the 1998 album Mr Love Pants, for which he somehow managed to tempt the Blockheads back to record with him after some 18 years' hiatus. (A lot of water under that bridge!) He was already diagnosed with terminal cancer, but this was hardly a pity session -- the Blockheads must have known that they needed his saucy wit and showmanship every bit as much as he needed their delicious groove. At long last Dury was writing songs again with Blockhead Chaz Jankel -- his chief collaborator on those classic late 70s Blockheads LPs -- and the result is one of their best albums ever. Quite a note to go out on.

You might imagine that a sense of mortality would have made Ian Dury mellower. Not a chance, mate. The sparkling jazz intro sets him up to reflect: "I've done a lot of things I wished I hadn't / There's other things I never hope to do / But sliding off the map in both directions / Is the sorry mess I've made of knowing you." Listen to how unrepentantly he spits out "sorry mess."

And he goes on in that vein, slicing up his ex-lover with sardonic thrusts and jabs. Verse three: "I knew it wouldn't be a bed of roses / I've seen the bloody grind that love entails / But one door shuts and then another closes [how's that for a witty lyric?] / And now I'm on a bloody bed of nails." I love that deft progression from the blissful bed of roses to the torturous bed of nails.

Eventually she's nailing his bollocks to the door ("my poor cojones," in the second repeat) -- at which point the Blockheads step in to regale us with a rapturously copasetic instrumental. That's Davey Payne on the sax, who was constantly mouthing off to Ian, getting fired from the Blockheads, and soon inevitably rehired. I wonder if Dury ever admitted to his face that Payne's sax WAS the linchpin of the Blockheads' sound?

It's that dialog between Dury's clever snarled lyrics and the elegantly supple instrumental that always won me over. No matter how nasty his words get, the Blockheads keep swinging, keeping the good humor front and center. Back in 1977 London, you could be punk or you could be New Wave; Ian Dury may have been the first to sport a razor-blade earring, but he was too art-school to go full-on punk. Wit was what he was about; it was all theater. How else could a crippled geezer who sang out of tune and played no instrument become a bona fide rock star?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Sure, the Memorial Day long weekend threw us all off -- it still feels only like Tuesday. But it isn't! It's Wednesday! So let's shuffle!!!

1. "For the Girl" / The Fratellis
From Costello Music (2007)
High-energy beat, crunchy guitars, rapid-crammed lyrics, and cheery la-la-la la-la-la's -- a bracing jolt of Brit Pop indeed. I love the shifting minor and major keys in this track. "She was into the Stones when / I was into the Roses" -- whoever this girl is, he's sure ambivalent about their never-quite-meshing relationship.

2. "Pontiac" / Fred Eaglesmith
From Lipstick, Lies & Gasoline (1997)
Fred who? One of America's best-kept secrets, a true grass-roots music treasure, with an unwavering connection to real American music fans. I won't give away the story this track tells -- it's a heartbreaker -- find it online and listen for yourself.

3. "What Is Wrong, What Is Right" / Herman's Hermits (1966)
From The Very Best of Herman's Hermits
A deft satiric character sketch that even Ray Davies could appreciate. It was only on the B-sides that Hermits Derek Lekenby and Keith Hopwood got to feature their own compositions, but while the band's radio hits sound trite today, those original numbers are a revelation.

4. "Michelle" / David and Jonathan (1967)
Yes, that "Michelle" -- but it's not Paul McCartney singing. Not a bad cover, though, all things considered.

5. "End of the Party" / The English Beat
From Special Beat Service (1982)
Ska-flavored jazzy pop from Dave Wakeling and company. There's always a soap opera embedded in these English Beat songs, a series of betrayals and frustrated love affairs played out in dingy flats and grubby streets. It seems the girl here is keeping our singer on tenterhooks, making him wait to sleep with her -- the tension is palpable in every word-crammed line, the yelp of every leaping, offbeat interval.

6. "The Crush" / John Hiatt
From Warming Up to the Ice Age (1985)
Having shed his proto-New Wave punk pose, Johnny Hiatt went into neo-soul mode on this album, recorded at the tail-end of his boozy California years. Oh, sure, I know that Hiatt's seriously great work would come later, once he got his life together -- but I hafta admit, his voice is in spectacular shape here, and his guitar licks sizzle. For a flop album, this is a neglected gem, 80s synths and all.

7. "Sinister But She Was Happy" / Robyn Hitchcock
From Moss Elixir (1996)
Neurotic rhythms, non sequitur lyrics, and a frenzied sawing of fiddle and cello -- ah, Robyn Hitchcock lets his English eccentric freak flag fly. There's something baroque about this track, with surreal lines like "Sinister but she was happy / Like a chandelier festooned with leeches," but it's also a totally nifty acoustic rocker, with an addictive loose-limbed beat. I can just imagine Robyn, in a loose flowered print shirt and jeans, gray hair flopping across his forehead, strumming madly away. Imagine? I've seen him sing this, with a wicked glint in his mad dark eyes. Delicious.

8. "I Am Your Singer" / Wings
From Wild Life (1971)
I know I'm supposed to look down on this stoned mishmash of an LP. The songs make no sense, they go on too long, the rhymes are infantile, and Linda is encouraged to sing way too much. (Any Linda vocals are too much in my book.) Well, sorry, folks, I love Wild Life. IMO Paul McCartney is at his best when he isn't trying to score radio hits or prove a critical point; he's just reveling in melody, rhythmic patterns, and musical textures. Wings would become a hit machine soon enough -- let's enjoy this freeform debut album for what it is.

9. "No Other Baby" / Paul McCartney
From Run Devil Run (1999)
And then Linda died and a grief-numbed Paul was spinning his wheels, unable to write new material for the first time in his fertile career. For some reason I think it was Elvis Costello who suggested that Paul try his hand at a covers album, paying tribute to the early rock 'n' roll numbers that first inspired him; this one is an old 1957 Dickie Bishop hit. You can pretty much hear Paul healing his heart on every track of this CD.

10. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" / Death Cab for Cutie
From Maybe This Christmas (2004)
Death Cab's winsome cover of the classic Darlene Love Xmas tune, this has just enough tinsel shimmer (dig Ben Gibbard's reverbed vocals!) to put the frost on your holiday listening. It's from one of those me-too all-star charity Christmas albums (god forbid any hipsters should record a Christmas album without the air quotes of a do-gooder objective). It's weird to hear a Christmas tune in June -- but hey, that's what the shuffle's all about!