Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Dalai Lama" / Alex Chilton

Now, I would never have known about this song if Marshall Crenshaw hadn't pulled it out at last Wednesday's City Winery all-star tribute to the late great Alex Chilton. ("All-star" being a relative term, considering that Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, Sondre Lerche, and Marshall were some of the biggest names on the bill. Oh, and Ronnie Spector.)

While most of the artists in the tribute focused on Alex's hit-making years with the Box Tops, or his underground cult-icon years with Big Star, this particular number is from one of Alex's later solo albums, 1987's High Priest. Even Marshall wouldn't have known that song, I gather, if it hadn't been re-released in 1994 by Razor & Tie, which was also Marshall's label at the time. Alex's solo career was a sporadic and inconsistent thing, and a lot of music lovers had turned away in frustration.

Not me, of course -- I'd stopped listening to Alex Chilton when he left the Box Tops. Despite the fact that "The Letter" is my favorite single of all time, I didn't even know his name until a few years ago. So many lost years....

Anyway, here's the song. It's pretty much self-explanatory -- it's not even satiric, really, since Chilton's just goofing around with the idea of what a Dalai Lama is or does. The rhymes in it, though, are sneaky fun (though I wish he'd done more with the "mosquito" line -- well, you'll see).

As far as I can tell, the real reason for doing this song at all -- besides those crunchy guitar riffs -- is that bridge where Chilton sings, "Na-na-na nah, na-na-nah, na-na-nah" et cetera. Marshall seemed to me have a ton of fun singing that too, the other night. Who wouldn't?

And yes, Chilton probably enjoyed giving that exotic little wail of melisma on the words "Dalai Lama" over and over.

The point is, this is what a supremely gifted musician could do, late in his career, when nobody seemed to be listening anymore. Think of fat Orson Welles, performing magic tricks on The Tonight Show. As Welles once said -- with that trademark arch of an eyebrow -- "Just because you have talent doesn't mean you have to use it."

Except that Alex Chilton IS still using his talent here. Even on a doodly song like this -- it's so catchy, so loose-limbed and delightful, you have to love it.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Marie Provost" / Nick Lowe

Today is the anniversary of the death of silent movie queen Marie Prevost -- an event probably remembered nowadays only because of Nick Lowe's admittedly sick and gruesome pop song about her death.

I don't find much to say about this song -- it's the novelty song side of Nick Lowe, which is mischievous and fun indeed, but not the main reason I love Nick. I do admire its Sunset Boulevard quality, though -- that sense of faded glamour, loneliness, and ghoulish decrepitude. Compare this to "Eleanor Rigby" and you'll see how the Beatles' (or rather McCartney's) romantic streak cooked up something very different from Nick's ironic treatment. While I'd like to believe that Nick saw Prevost's obscure death as a metaphor for the fickleness of fame -- which is how Ray Davies might have handled it -- in 1977 Nick Lowe had no such artsy pretensions. He was just whipping out the tunes for Jesus of Cool, looking for arch, offbeat material to cement his quirky image.

Of course Nick got the date wrong -- Marie Prevost died on January 21, 1937. "January twenty-one" would have scanned as well as "July twenty-nine," so I have to wonder why he changed it. Or maybe he just misremembered the date and never bothered to look it up. That would be like Nick. He also got the spelling of her name wrong, titling his song "Marie Provost." Ah, well -- details, details.

The crowning detail of course -- the line that everybody remembers (who could forget it?) -- is the bit about Marie's pet dachshund eating her while she lay dead in her shabby Hollywood hotel room. In real life the dog didn't devour her, merely nipped at her legs to rouse her (probably because he needed feeding). As someone who grew up with a pet dachshund -- and therefore knows what noble, fiercely loyal dogs they are -- I am glad to report that dachshunds were unfairly maligned in this song. However, who could pass up a couplet like "She was a winner / Who became the doggie's dinner"? Once Nick had thought up that line he just HAD to use it, methinks.

Godspeed, Miss Prevost. And even though the dog didn't eat you, you became food anyway -- food for Nick Lowe's impish sense of humour. . . .

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Okay, so it's late AGAIN. But give me a break -- I was out listening to rock and roll all evening. Hey, I have my priorities straight!

1. "Cruel To Be Kind" / Marshall Crenshaw
From Labour of Love: The Music of Nick Lowe (2001)
Too perfect -- because it was Marshall Crenshaw I went out to see tonight, at a Gulf Coast benefit tribute concert to Alex Chilton (how's that for mashing together causes?). I'll say this right now: I prefer Marshall's version of Nick's big hit record to Nick's own -- MC just nails the plaintive, wounded, clueless quality of Nick's persona here. He just sounds like a guy who'd let this chick walk all over him, and then buy her excuses.

2. "I Take It On Home" / Charlie Rich

From Behind Closed Doors (1973)
Another country artist I just don't know enough about. I grew up knowing his two big hits, the coy "Behind Closed Doors" and the smarmy "Most Beautiful Girl in the World," so I never gave him a chance. I recently started to trawl through his back catalog, however, and -- HELLO! This song is even on the same album as those two; it was written by Kenny O'Dell, who also penned "Behind Closed Doors." Go figure. It's a honey.

3. "Summer Song" / Chad and Jeremy
From Yesterday's Gone (1964)
Mushy sentimental pop-folk -- but it was British mushy pop-folk, which made it all okay to my little pre-teen heart in 1964. These guys were so darn cute . . .

4. "Wonderful Feeling" / Lulu and Alan Price
From Shout!: The Decca Years (compilation)
Now here's some sassy British pop, circa 1964, with the gritty edge of Lulu's powerful girl voice matched by Alan Price's own Geordie gruffness. Alan had quit the Animals by then and was forging a more mainstream pop course with the Alan Price Set; how perfect to match him up with Lulu, who was treading her own fine line between pop and R&B. Alan wrote this song; produced the track, too. It's completely infectious pop, swinging horn section and all.

5. "Jenny Wren" / Paul McCartney
From Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
Paul trying to find his inner folkie. I've got to love it, because it's Paul (who by the way tonight received the Gershwin Award for Contemporary Music at the White House -- toss it in the drawer with all the other citations and medals, Pauly!). If I didn't harbor a sneaking suspicion he was just trying to re-do "Mother Nature's Son" . . .

6. "Moving the Goalposts" / Billy Bragg
From Don't Try This At Home (1991)
I feel a Billy Bragg post coming on. Bragg's deft political satire (which comes off extra-spiky in those Cockney vowels) sometimes overshadows his brilliant relationship songs. Here we've got both in one song, as he name-checks Gennady Gerasimov (former Soviet ambassador to Afghanistan), then side shifts into a tender, and incredibly sexy, depiction of him and his girl, occupying new territory in their own love affair. He draws this little vignette with so few details; we have to connect the dots . . . but it's all there. Stunning, really.

7. "It's Not Hard" / Alan Price
From Based on a True Story (2002)
And now here's Alan Price much later in his career -- on this obscure self-released album that contains some of his finest stuff in years. Who knew?

8. "Now's the Time" / Brinsley Schwarz
From The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz (1974)
Because there always must be something by Nick Lowe, even if it's a completely callow throwaway track -- not even a Nick composition, but an old Hollies song, written by' Graham Nash and Gene Clarke, issued as the B-side to their 1963 hit "Stay." Nick's not even singing the lead (is that Ian Gomm instead? or Brinsley?). And yet it's on my iTunes, and it's adorable.

9. "Holly Would" / Jackie DeShannon
From Laurel Canyon (1969)
Did I download this track because it has my name in it? Oh, probably. A little character study of a sort of free spirit, very post-Summer of Love Southern California.

10. "A Slow Song" / Joe Jackson
From Night and Day (1982)
There are only a few albums that I have loaded in their entirety onto my iTunes. (Make that only a few non-Nick Lowe albums.) Night and Day is one of them. I just love how desperately Joe throws his earnest, cracking voice into this plaintive waltz. This entire album seems to me to dance on the knife edge of a love affair that could go down the tubes at any minute. So why not dance real close while you still can?

Monday, July 26, 2010

"20 Questions" / Amy Rigby

In my free time lately, I've been messing around making new iTunes playlists (must be the frustrated DJ in me). I did one last night that really came out well, titled By The Numbers. Each track has a different number in the title, all the way up to twenty -- and this wicked song by Amy Rigby is the finale to the whole thing.

I don't know about you, but my family was big on parlor games when I was growing up -- Charades, Categories, Botticelli, and of course the classic Twenty Questions. The object is to guess the person, place, or thing that the game-setter is thinking of, in twenty strategic questions or less. That's of course assuming that the game-setter is honest about what he is thinking of, which in my family was no sure thing.

Amy Rigby's not playing that same game -- she's just grilling her no-account husband as he staggers home drunk, late one night. But she plays by the rules, and if you're counting while she's singing -- and c'mon, you gotta count, that title just begs you to -- she does indeed ask exactly twenty questions of this no-good lout. She even helps you keep track, with phrases like "I've got seventeen more questions" and "I've got fourteen more questions...."

The thing is, she's pretty busy haranguing him for the first couple minutes -- I start to get anxious that she won't get through the entire twenty by the end of the song. But never fear: along about 2:00 she launches into a blizzard of angry questions, backing him up against the wall, each question like an accusing finger stabbing into his chest. The last seven are the true quicksand questions -- he'd better have good answers to things like "do you love me?" and "do you still love me?" and "did you ever love me?" Oh, he's in the deep shit now. Question #19 seems to switch mood, as she coyly asks, "What time do you have to get up in the morning?" But she follows that up with the ultimate zinger for #20 -- well, you'll have to listen for yourself.

Sure, this has a twangy country guitar, and Amy's singing with her best spitfire yodel. Her errant lover's wearing cowboy boots -- check! -- and then there's the theme of the cheating drunk husband, one of the classic country music story lines. But Amy Rigby's always put a punk spin on country music; you won't find sentimental pieties here, only snarky feminist attitude and trip-wire lyrics. The conversation is "dangling like a lightbulb swinging in some cheap motel"; her husband smells like "a perfume insert from a women's magazine." Talk about loaded images!

The album this comes from, Diary of a Mod Housewife, is absolutely jam-packed with waspish wit like this. I totally get how Amy Rigby should now be married to Wreckless Eric -- that's even more perfect than my girl crush Zooey Deschanel marrying Death Cab For Cutie's It Boy Ben Gibbard. (Though that one's kaput already...)

Unlike my Sirius-XM DJ hero Megless Griffin, I don't get off on the female singer-songwriters in general, the Lilith Fair girls with their guitars and their yearning emotions -- the Gillian Welches and Beth Ortons of this world. (DO NOT EVEN MENTION KATE BUSH TO ME.) I can see that they're talented and lovely; they just don't speak to me. But Amy Rigby? Oh, yes, this girl speaks to me.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Thursday Reverb

As my faithful readers (all 2 1/2 of you) may have noticed, I've been somewhat waylaid lately by discovering the music of Graham Parker. I'm still smacking my forehead. After all, I was a huge fan of his album Squeezing Out Sparks in 1979 -- why on earth did I not realize that a guy that good was going to go on making records, even if the so-called tastemakers moved on? And not just go on making records, but making better and better records as time went by -- honing his craft, pouring out more and more incisive social commentary, refining his lyrical gifts to a very high level indeed.

There's a lot of Graham Parker to catch up on, and I can't rush it -- the sheer brilliance of these later albums keeps tripping me up. But those of you who haven't yet joined me on this odyssey, take heart -- there may very soon be a set of Cliff's Notes.

I'm talking about the Graham Parker documentary Don't Ask Me Questions, which is in its final stages of completion. Brothers Michael and John Gramaglia have made the film; they just need a little help paying for all the songs and video clips they need to include (licensing, you know). So check out the film's website to see if you too could be a part of bringing this project to fruition.

I'm still abuzz about a similar Kinks film, Do It Again, which I also helped to finance in my own paltry way. I finally saw that film a couple months ago and can't stop raving about it. It's pretty exciting that in the age of the Interweb, fans can actually be a part of seeing their heroes celebrated on film. Who knows, maybe a Nick Lowe film is next? (Yeah, hold your breath...)

So anyway -- the Reverb today is totally self-serving; just another heaping helping of GP to get you guys up to speed on this cool new movie....

Saturday, May 08, 2010

"Don't Ask Me Questions" / Graham Parker

The full Graham Parker Marathon isn't starting until next week, but I couldn't resist throwing this little teaser your way. It's an early track, from GP's first album Howlin' Wind -- which just happened to be produced by a fellow named Nick Lowe, whose former bandmates Brinsley Schwarz and Bob Andrews were part of the line-up of Parker's new band The Rumour. (It kills me how everybody seems to have known everybody else in those days when the pub rock scene was morphing into New Wave.)

Forget that stately intro -- once this song switches to its brisk reggae-soaked tempo it clips smartly along, as GP fires off a no-holds-barred diatribe at God. This is Graham Parker's other face, political and angry in a way that no other British New Wavers could match (even with Elvis Costello, it always seemed to stem more from personal grudge than from moral outrage). I think back to 1976, when this song first came out, and remember the super-charged politics of that era, with the Vietnam War barely over and the anti-war movement still revved up. Though Parker wasn't a punk rocker, as an East Londoner he must have been fueled by some of that same class resentment.

What a tight band this was, to keep this roller coaster rattling along. (Love those quivering guitar notes, dropped like bombs.) And talk about a cathartic song for a live performance -- those repeated "Hey Lord"'s just cry out for audience participation, preferably with a fist pumped in the air. This is where this guy started, for chrissake. I can't wait to see where he went from here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Getting this in by the skin of my teeth -- 11:59 E.D.T. -- but so long as I'm starting it on Wednesday....

1. "Muswell Hillbilly" / Tim O'Brien
From This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies (2002)
This is what I get for buying every single Kinks tribute album that's ever been releasaed. But I do love O'Brien's totally country rendition of this title track to my all-time favorite Kinks album -- tons of fiddle and banjo, just like Ray imagined it in the first place. It's a totally credible country track: "They're gonna make me study elocution / Because they say my accent isn't right / Well, they may try to change my way of living / But they're never gonna kill my Cockney pride" -- you tell 'em, Brother Ray!

2. "More Than Sorry" / Ben Harper
From Both Sides of the Gun (2006)
I've seen this guy live a couple of times, and he always brings down the house. His sound is a little too chameleon-like -- the downside of being such a versatile talent -- I'm always surprised when it comes up and I check to see that it's Ben Harper singing. He's not rocking out so much on this one -- it's more acoustic and folky, which suits Harper's Cat Stevens-like voice. Tryin' SO hard to get that girl to accept his apology...

3. "Don't Disappear Now" / Marshall Crenshaw
From Life's Too Short (1991)
"We didn't stop making love for thirty-one days" -- that deeply sexy line always ambushes me in this superb MC track, tucked away on yet another neglected album. Crunchy guitars, smackin' drums, and Marshall's pleading vocals -- pure rock and roll, in its finest distilled form.

4. "Shout" / The Isley Brothers
From Instant Party Disc Regular Strength (compilation)
Every once in a while it's instructive to hear a vintage track like this -- 1959 fer crissakes! -- and realize that we have invented nothing in the past 50 years. Tempo changes, call and response, maniac whoops and hollers, and best of all, the "Little bit softer now part" where the whole thing dwindles down to a whisper, only to come whomping back full force -- "A little bit louder now!" Who can hear this without getting out on that dance floor?

5. "Santa Bring My Baby Back" / Marshall Crenshaw
From MC Rarities (compilation)
Okay, now you know what a Marshall Crenshaw geek I am. Some other Crenhead sent me this compilation of odds and sods, and the whole bit went straight onto my iTunes. But come on, you gotta love a track like this -- the sort of Christmas novelty tune that every band used to record way back when. Marshall's just having loads of fun, speeding through this peppy holiday tune -- and you can't help having fun with him.

6. "Solid Air" / John Martyn
From Solid Air (1973)
If I hadn't been reviewing records for my college newspaper, I'd never have discovered the amazing English folk-jazz virtuoso John Martyn. Hard to believe that I got this record for free, way back when. Talk about timeless music -- you can sink right into the plush environment of guitar + keyboards + sax and get lost in Martyn's vocal ramblings. Where is it going? Who cares?

7. "When I Was King" / Graham Parker
From Struck By Lightning (1991)
C'mon -- you just have to laugh, and then marvel over the songwriting abilities of Mr. Graham Parker. I can't even tell you how many amazing turns of phrase Graham stuffs into this sharp satiric number, along with a compelling guitar riff and infectious reggae rhythm. Exhibit X in the case for naming Graham Parker Neglected Genius of the Year.

8. "Give It Up" / Amos Lee
From Amos Lee (2005)
This is how you update Philly soul for the indie crowd. That funky organ and chunky guitar, topped off with Amos Lee's mellifluous vocals. "But I would give it all up for you / Yes I would give it up, settle down, stop fuckin' round." Sounds like a contract worth signing.

9. "She's About a Mover" / Sir Douglas Quintet
From The Complete Mercury Masters (compilation)
Well, hell -- it's 1965, and all the kids seem to be listening to these British Invasion Bands, so why not toss out a loveable little tune "in the style of"? Doug Sahm was really from Texas, not Liverpool -- but if that's the sound you want, the insanely versatile Sahm could turn it out, with a side note of grunge and psychedelia.

10. "Mixed Greens" / Jim Ford
From The Sounds of Our Time (compilation)
Okay, so I bought this record just because Nick Lowe said Jim Ford was one of his musical heroes. What really matters is how much I loved it once I owned it. Loungey 1970s country-soul with a particularly laidback, loose vibe -- nobody nailed this better than Jim Ford. Another neglected genius.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Halfway" / Greg Trooper

And speaking of artists I'm determined to turn you all on to . . . .

I just spent a delightful afternoon out in Prospect Park, interviewing Greg Trooper for an article I'm doing for Oh, you know, I've written about him before, here and here. He's an extraordinary roots-rock singer-songwriter, and I've gathered he's a dynamite live performer (if his two great live albums are any indication). That's why I'm particularly psyched that in a couple of weeks -- hooray! -- I'm finally going to see for myself, when he opens for Steve Earle and Allison Moorer at the City Winery.

Though Trooper spent several years in Nashville -- no way to avoid that, if you're going to pursue an alt-country songwriting career -- he's recently moved back to New York, closer to his New Jersey roots. As if to celebrate that homecoming, last year he finally released The Williamsburg Affair, an album originally recorded in 1995, before publishing deals lured him to Nashville. It sure doesn't feel like a 15-year-old record, though. That's what's so satisfying about roots rock when it's done right -- amping up that country twang with a little rock & roll crunch, it works two classic veins at once; there's no need to re-invent the wheel.

Looking back along the spectrum of Trooper's career (his upcoming fall album will be his eighth studio outing), I hear plenty of New York hustle still in his first Nashville album, Popular Demons, which came out in 1998. Just listen to this first track, "Halfway."

Sure, it's got a fiddle on it, and the gospel moan of a Hammond organ, and a great guitar solo by none other than Americana stalwart Buddy Miller, who also produced this album. And then there's that laidback tempo, which is damn close to a Texas two-step. But underneath all those rootsy trappings, there's a syncopated whomp to that drumbeat, and Trooper's plangent singing could just as easily come out of a Greenwich Village folk club.

Earnest pleading is the order of the day, for this is a classic make-up song. While some songwriters load us up with specific details -- think Bob Dylan -- Trooper's style is more conversational, going for the universal, inviting us to relate. He doesn't tell us what he did to this woman he loves; he's focused on the task at hand -- just begging for a chance to see her again, to clear it all up. Most of the song, in fact, is that repeated request "will you meet me," over and over. "Will you meet me when the sun comes up again" (vintage literary device -- sunrise equals new beginning) or, pinning down the place, "Will you meet me by the riverside / In the park between the river and the FDR drive?" That's where the specific New York detail brings this song into sharp focus. I love the no-man's-land quality of that (and if you've ever looked out a car window from the FDR, you know what a battle-scarred territory that is).

"Meet me halfway" -- that's a colloquial phrase that usually means "let's compromise." But I hear some irony here -- Trooper's singer is a character as well, a somewhat clueless guy (aren't they all?) who's scared shitless that he might lose his true love forever. The end of every verse declares that she must meet him "Before my heart lays down and dies." Meeting him halfway really means giving him a last chance, one that even he knows he doesn't deserve. In the bridge, he does begin to offer excuses for himself -- "Everything I said has been misconstrued" -- but in the very next line he's already waffling: "They weren't exactly lies, they weren't exactly truths."

He can only hope that when he sees her she'll have -- as he says in verse two -- "a tremble in your voice and a promise in your eyes" (I love the balance of those images). In verse three, he pushes the literary imagery even further: "Will you meet me where angels fear to tread / Will you let the king of fools remove the crown from his head?" Of course -- she's the angel, he's the fool; that's a graceful way to throw himself on her mercy.

And towards the end of verse three, he scents a glimmer of hope: "When I think that you still love me I begin to shake." But -- what a guy -- he responds with his ultimate move: "I might lie again if that's what it takes." What a wonderful crowning line! That says all you need to know about the men-are-from-Mars women-are-from-Venus tennis game of love.

It's subtle stuff, of course -- he's not trying to wow us with his lyrical dexterity. What Trooper's doing is even more skillful: giving voice to real people, in very real relationship trouble, and throwing in a little much needed humor. It's a totally endearing song. And I'll tell you, any guy who knows how to deliver a winsome apology like this is bound to get that girl back.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


So who says the Reverb has to be something I wrote years ago? How 'bout something I just wrote in January -- which NOBODY commented on -- about an artist I'm DETERMINED to turn you guys on to? I had the pleasure of seeing Jill last night, downtown at my new favorite hangout, the City Winery, doing a show in which her songs alternate with stories told by the delightful actress-writer Julia Sweeney. (And yes, I promised I'd mention the opening act, Justin Trawick, who was a hoot and a half himself). The evening couldn't have been more fun, and I'm on a Jill Sobule jag all over again...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Sweetheart" / Jill Sobule

I'm a little hurt that Jill Sobule decided to move out to California without asking me. I mean, I know our acquaintance never amounted to more than me sitting in the audience while she sang on stage, but still. The point was, she was living in Brooklyn, just over the river, and I liked the idea that this girlfriend -- potential girlfriend, anyway -- was just a subway ride away.

It does make me feel a little better, though, to listen to California Years and discover that Jill is the same fish out of water there as she was here. I mean a real misfit, not a rocker cliche in biker boots. The Stevie Nicks/Chrissie Hynde/Joan Jett singers never did much for me anyway. I totally prefer Jill's elfin quality, the breathy voice, the wry self-effacing humor -- she had it all down long before Zooey Deschanel wandered onto the scene, with her own saucer eyes and effortless vocals. (I love Amy Rigby for that same quality.) Clinging onto the margins of the music world, Jill -- notice how we're on a first-name basis -- has never been the Next Big Thing. (As she says in an earlier song "Freshman," "I live like a freshman / I still have a roommate") In fact, to finance this album she had to solicit donations from her fans, which is why track 14 on the new album is called "The Donor Song."

When an artist is this fringe-y, it's easy to miss when they release a new album. Catch 22 -- the label doesn't spend money to promote it, so no one knows about it, so it doesn't sell, so the label doesn't spend money to promote it. But over the holidays, Amazon offered a $5 album sale for MP3 albums, and (I never can resist a sale) as I browsed through the choices, there was California Years, an album I hadn't even known existed. I one-clicked immediately.


On first listen, I realized that I already knew this one track; I had heard it last summer on Sirius Radio (on Sirius Disorder, or The Loft, or whatever they're calling my obscure boho station these days). I remember being so enthralled by it, I could barely drive. I can still visualize the hillside road I was cruising up in Connecticut when it came on -- cows to the right, corn to the left, aching blue skies above. Not that I noticed. Jill's whispery little-girl voice was made for storytelling intimacy, and when she starts on a story, I am so there with her.

It's a simple story. Jill is sitting in a diner, watching a waitress, fantasizing about being her sweetheart. I picture the diner, the same one in that Adrienne Shelley movie Waitress, one of the best girlfriend movies of the past few years. My other point of reference is a lovely old Maria Muldaur song, also called "Sweetheart," also about a waitress (this one in a donut shop), only that one's from the waitress own viewpoint, fantasizing about one of her regular customers -- who so carelessly calls her "sweetheart" as he picks up his daily coffee. I'd love to know if Jill had this song in mind when she wrote hers.

Maybe that's why Jill calls this song "Sweetheart," instead of "Waitress" -- but it could also be because to her, the table-waiting is really irrelevant. Like Ray Davies, Jill is never a passive observer; she fiercely projects her emotions and sympathies into a vignette. I am so moved by her tenderness, all the more so because it's for a woman she doesn't even know.

Despite that gamine quality, Jill's a scrapper, flaring up in righteous anger about the male customer berating this poor waitress. Then in verse two she drifts off into her own fancy about how she'd care for this woman. ("If I was your secret / And you were my keeper / I think we'd be happy..."') A plangent bit of slide guitar sneaks in (the superb Greg Leisz), and some soft male back-up vocals -- an intriguing touch, as if to fudge the sexuality.

Is the waitress gay? Does Jill even know, or care? Because the fact is, she's never going to make a move with the waitress. This romance is all in the World of What If. Which, if we're honest, is where most of our most passionate romances lie anyway. The power of her fantasy tells us less about the waitress's beauty than it does about Jill's own loneliness and longing. Oh, she'd write songs for this woman, IF she was her sweetheart . . . but hey, Jill has already written the song.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Hoping for a little summer serendipity on today's shuffle...

1. "The Islands" / Black 47
From Bankers and Gangsters (2010)
Which reminds me -- I owe a review of this new album by Celtic rock stalwarts Black 47. Dig this nostalgic horn-filled ode to the auld country -- sweet and soulful and just a tad sad.

2. "Flying High" / Jem
From Finally Woken (2004)
I know nothing about this singer; I barely know how this got on my iTunes. But it's such a wistfully sexy number, I never can quite bring myself to delete it. High breathy vocals, with just a touch of synths underlying the delicate acoustic guitar -- so girlish, but just LOADED with desire.

3. "Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes" / Elvis Costello
From My Aim Is True (1977)
"Oh, I used to be disgusted, / Now I try to be amused / But since their wings have got rusted / You know, the angels want to wear my red shoes." And didn't we all want to wear Elvis's red shoes back then? Jangly punk-pop with more than a touch of snarky attitude -- this guy was this good from the very start.

4. "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" / The Animals
From Animal Tracks (1965)
I'd have run off with him, wouldn't you?

5. "Inch By Inch" / Elvis Costello
From Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
I wonder how much Style Council music Elvis Costello had been listening to when he put out this wickedly tasty album. Goodbye Cruel World certainly added a heaping helping of soul to the by-then-getting-stale EC formula (remember the lead-off hit "Only Flame in Town"?). Didn't care for it at the time; adore it now.

6. "You Got My Number" / Dr. Feelgood
From Brilleaux (1986)
Throw together soul, punk, and old-fashioned rock 'n' roll, and you have the recipe for Dr. Feelgood. Even on this later album, when the band had moved to the Stiff label and adopted a more radio-ready sound, their stuff just sizzles. Churning automotive guitar riffs, the punctuations of horns, and Lee Brilleaux's savagely sexy voice -- that's a number I'm definitely dialing.

7. "Right Place, Wrong Time" / Dr. John
From In the Right Place (1973)
And now here comes a second opinion from the Other Doctor -- Dr. John, a.k.a.Mac Rebennack, that mighty practitioner of soul pumped up with New Orleans funk. This is one of those radio hits I always turned up louder when it came on, but it took 30-plus years for me to finally buy it, just last week, in anticipation of a trip to New Orleans at the end of the summer. Swampy, and just a little bit nasty. Whoo-hah!

8. "Back To You" / Bill Jerram Band
From Bill Jerram Band (2005)
Bill Jerram -- a.k.a. Billo from the Ray Davies fan forum -- surprised us all with this sprightly album, full of melody and bop and crunchy guitar. Reminds me a lot of Steve Miller -- which reminds me, I've been meaning to do a Steve Miller for a few days now...

9. "Love Is An Outlaw" / Tom Gallagher
From Age of the Wheel (unreleased)
Talk about talented friends from the Ray forum -- Tom Gallagher was one of the great undiscovered rockers. I was lucky enough to get a copy of Tom's magnificent unreleased album shortly before his untimely death in 2007. This track really shows off his lazy drawling vocals and his plangent guitar work. Peace on you, Tom.

10. "I Believed You" / The Kinks (then called the Ravens)
From The Kinks (1964)
Inevitably, it all comes back to the Kinks. This early unreleased Ray Davies demo -- Beatle-sweet and teen-pop perky -- was appended as an extra track on the reissue of this debut Kinks album. Slight, yes, derivative, yes -- but Ray Davies' songwriting talent was clearly already in gear.

Well, I'm on to "Have A Cuppa Tea" from Muswell Hillbillies -- the official shuffle stops here, but if I'm on a Kinks roll, I'm not turning off my computer!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Thursday Reverb

Liz reminded me of this one at reunion -- and I was so bummed out that I'd never written about it. How could I overlook such a gem? Well, it turns out I didn't!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

“Red Rubber Ball” / The Cyrkle

I think I got 50 cents a week for allowance when this song came out -- it cost nearly two week’s pay for me to buy the single “Red Rubber Ball.” (Albums? Out of the question. I was strictly a single-buyer back in 1966.) I didn’t know it was co-written by Paul Simon -- back when I could read the tiny print of songwriting credits, I didn’t think to do so. I didn’t even know that the Cyrkle was managed by Brian Epstein, who’d suggested that deliberately misspelled band name to imitate the Beatles. It was just a catchy, upbeat tune I’d heard on the radio, with nifty harmonies and a memorable organ riff. And who knows, maybe I saw this appearance on Hullabaloo (dig the Paul Anka intro...)

But whatever it was that sucked me in, I knew I just had to own this record.

I was too young to have had a boyfriend -- I could hardly judge whether this was a convincing break-up song. And yet I think I did pick up on the complex emotions in “Red Rubber Ball.” At first the singer claims he’s moved on – “Now I know you're not the only starfish in the sea / If I never hear your name again, it's all the same to me” – but doesn’t it seem like he’s bluffing? Especially when we get to the chorus -- the drumbeat turns edgy and aggressive, tambourines shiver loudly, and we shift into a minor key: “And I think it's gonna be all right / Yeah, the worst is over now / The morning sun is shining like a red rubber ball.” I don’t know, that “red rubber ball” image always sounded unnatural to me. He’s not out of the woods yet.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I pick up on all the zinger disses tucked away in the lyrics -- “You never cared for secrets I’d confide / For you I'm just an ornament, something for your pride / Always running, never caring, that's the life you live / Stolen minutes of your time were all you had to give.” The vocals sound so sincere, I totally side with the singer, pulling for him to get through this messy break-up. “The roller coaster ride we took is nearly at an end / I bought my ticket with my tears, that's all I'm gonna spend.” Now that organ riff makes sense – it’s the calliope playing on the carnival midway, and the swoops of the verse’s melody are roller-coasterlike indeed. Well, when I was a kid I loved roller-coasters, loved to feel my stomach plunge and my heart hammer. Now I avoid them like the plague.

The Cyrkle weren’t entirely a one-hit wonder. Their follow-up single, “Turn Down Day,” was a groovy track with a hint of psychedelia and harmonies to die for. Still, the band faded soon into obscurity (half of them went into jingle-writing for Madison Avenue – Tom Dawes wrote that classic Alka-Seltzer “plop-plop fizz-fizz” jingle). Was this brilliant single just luck? Who knows? I only know that I still perk up when I hear it. It’s a good starting-over song . . . a good song for spring. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Sweltering hot here in New York City the past few days -- how has it been where you are? Too hot to do anything else but switch on my shuffle!

1. "Hey Scenesters!" / The Cribs
From The New Fellas (2005)
Snappy guitar riffs, crisp drums, and the Jarman brothers shouting "Hey scenesters! Hey, hey scenesters!" over and over. It's like a BritPop version of the Tremeloes' goofy, genial "Even the Bad Times Are Good," right down to the lo-fi production qualities -- except for a certain tunelessness (think the Strokes on a lager high) that betrays it as a 21st century track. Infectious energy -- you've just got to giggle.

2. "Back on the Corner" / John Hiatt
From Master of Disaster (2005)
Hard to believe this was released the same year as The Cribs' -- it's a little vintage soft shoe, sung in John's creaky old-guy voice, with banjo and slide guitar to give it that O Brother Where Art Thou? style. It almost sounds like a throwaway track, but hell, nothing Hiatt writes is ever a throwaway -- listen carefully and you'll pick up nuggets of survivor wisdom.

3. "If You've Got to Make A Fool of Somebody" / Jackie DeShannon
From For You (1967)
Ah, mid-60s pop. Strings, back-up choirs, even a bloopy trombone here and there -- pour on the lush studio effects! Still, you have to hand it to Jackie -- who else was going to move the girl group sound into the hippie era?

4. "I Want to Say a Prayer" / Colin Blunstone
From Echo Bridge (1995)
I don't care who knows it -- I have a fangirl crush on Colin Blunstone, or at least on his dreamy, creamy voice. His soft-rock solo albums are nothing compared to his work with the Zombies, but sometimes this romantic mush is just what I need. (Picture big-haired Colin with his jacket slung over his shoulder and shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest.) Anyway, it's appropriate to hear this today, as today -- July 7 -- is the birthday of the wonderful Jim Rodford, who's played with Argent, the Kinks, the Animals, and nowadays with Colin in the modern-day Zombies. (Also Ringo Starr's 70th birthday, but who's counting?)

5. "She's Got You" / Loretta Lynn
From I Remember Patsy (1977)
Very few singers can cover a Patsy Cline song and hold their own -- but there's a reason why Loretta is the queen of country music. Her take on this Hank Cochran number is just a shade lighter and more kittenish than Patsy's, and in a way it works even better -- while Patsy's original was underlaid with steel, Loretta actually sounds just like a moony high-school girl, carrying a torch for her ex-steady guy.

6. "Garden Party" / Rick Nelson
From Garden Party (1972)
Oh, man, Ricky Nelson goes country. I remember being amazed by this amiable, lilting late hit -- like "American Pie," which had come out a year earlier, it's a riddling string of coded references to other musicians. But it's also Ricky's declaration of independence, casting aside the teen idol and coming into his own as country-rocker Rick. "You can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself," he tells us with a wink and nod. Life lesson.

7. "Funny Face" / The Kinks
From Something Else (1967)
A Dave song! I love Dave's voice, and this is a charming, quirky little love song, with a bit of music hall bounce. But when you're always being compared against a talent like his brother Ray . . . .

8. "How Kind of You" / Paul McCartney
From Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
And now here's Ringo's ex-bandmate. No surprise -- I've got A LOT of this guy's stuff on my iPod, and (ahem) not all of it good. I do wish Paul McCartney would pay somebody -- somebody like me, perhaps -- to warn him off of gooping up simple little songs. That muddy harmonium, or whatever, tries to build this into an anthem, a status this slight song can't carry. I'd have rewritten a lyric here or there, kept the track acoustic, and cut the whole thing off at three minutes. Then we'd have had a beauty!

9. "Seesaw" / Don Covay
From Seesaw (1966)
Classic R & B, with a sassy horn section, handclap rhythms, and an innuendo streak a mile wide. "Your love is like a seesaw / Up, down, and all around..." I wonder who that is doing the crazy talking alongside Covay's honey-sweet vocals. Covay's one of those guys whose fingerprints are all over 1960s R&B; he started out in The Rainbows with young Marvin Gaye, but he's best known as a songwriter ("Chain of Fools," "Mercy Mercy," and many others). He wrote this one with resident Stax genius Steve Cropper, which may account for the perky Booker-T-style beat. Deee-lish.

10. "Oklahoma USA" / The Kinks
From Muswell Hillbillies (1971)
Now this is how it's done. That harmonium is so light, just a sigh here and there, against a tinkling upright piano; and Ray's breathy, yearning vocals. I think of this as an early version of "Come Dancing," soaked with nostalgia for the American culture that fed North London teens in those lean postwar years. It makes me cry every time. "All life we work, but work is a bore / If life's for living, what's living for?" Words to live by.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"King of the Road" / Roger Miller

Well, my Tuesday guest blogger has decamped -- distracted by a trip to Boston (not to mention his malfunctioning iMac). But who cares? I've just found out that Nick Lowe is touring the US in the fall -- thanks, Mike! -- and I'm on cloud nine.

And -- shoot me now -- this is the song that's been teasing my brain lately. I probably heard about five seconds of it on the radio this past weekend, before the kids screamed and switched stations. They don't even know this song; they just hated it because it sounded country. Where did I go wrong?

But I don't hate this song. This is a finely crafted little number -- not really country at all, except for Roger Miller's twangy accent and, well okay, the fact that the hero is a hobo. All right, so it is pretty much a country song. But it's classic country, sharp and smart and satirically funny. I have great memories of hearing this on the radio as a kid, along with such other Roger Miller hits as "Dang Me," "England Swings," "Kansas City Star" ("Kansas City star, that's what I are"), "Chug A Lug" ("chug a lug, chug a lug, / Makes you want to sing Hi De Ho! / Burns your tummy don't you know"), and of course the inimitable "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd." Best of all, Roger was in on the joke with us -- that was the sophisticated edge. How could you not love this guy?

I have to say, I never can resist fingersnaps for an intro -- that's our first clue that this is going to be laidback and easy. He's poking gentle fun at his hobo lifestyle, and yet the carefree beatnik charm of it is actually appealing -- too bad the song came out in 1965, before the hippies really got going, because Miller's "king of the road" is pure On the Road.

The lyrics are tight and clever -- lines like "no phone, no pool, no pets / I ain't got no cigarettes," "two hours of pushing broom buys a / Eight by twelve four-bit room," and of course the neat inversion of "I'm a man of means by no means." Even better is how Miller fits the lyrics to his tune -- just listen to the bridge, where he exults about knowing "every handout in every town / And every lock that ain't locked when no one's around." The parallelism, with those "every's" and "lock's" falling on just the right notes, is the mark of a real songsmith.

His hero may be a hobo, but he's a resourceful hobo, with plenty of people skills, and he's able to relish his pleasures -- listen to the satisfaction as he describes those old stogies he finds. He's not feeling sorry for himself, not blaming anybody, just living his life from day to day. In these desperate economic times, plenty of good folks are living this kind of hand-to-mouth lifestyle. We might as well embrace it.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

"We Can Work It Out" / The Beatles

Every once in a while, a Beatles song comes on the radio and I listen -- I mean really listen, as if I'd never heard the song before -- and I'm gobsmacked all over again by their musical genius.

Take "We Can Work It Out." We're driving home from a brief vacation to Martha's Vineyard, spinning some CDs on the old car stereo. I throw on Beatles One -- by no means my favorite Beatles CD, just a hodgepodge of their big radio hits, and we all know that the best Beatles stuff was the album tracks, right? But then this number comes on -- the B-side to "Day Tripper," though it was really more like a double-A side, since this track got just as much radio play. And we all just held our breaths and listened . . .

Maybe it's because we were in the middle of one of those "this one's Paul and this one's John" conversations, but the artistry of this particular track suddenly bowled me over. The economy of the thing is breathtaking -- there's no intro, just one down chord and, bam! Paul earnestly entreats, "Try to see it my way," and we're off to the races.

The jaunty syncopation, the skipping melody, are sheer upbeat Paul-ness. He's so certain that a little give-and-take is all this couple needs to solve their romantic problems. (Oh, to be Jane Asher in 1965!) Of course, notice that behind all that glib charm, it's really his way or the highway: "While you see it your way / Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone . . . Think of what you're saying / You can get it wrong and still you think that it's alright . . ." Working it out, apparently, means going along with Paul's viewpoint -- but really, look at that video, who could resist circa 1965 Paul McCartney?

But just when you're ready to say, "Oh, that's a Paul song," the key goes minor and a spooky harmonium steps up, creating a dark circus-y mood. As John joins in, singing a lower harmony to Paul, his voice takes over. (Someday we should do a poll about which harmony you always sing -- for me it's always the low part on this chorus). In this video, crafty John mugs away, stealing the limelight from Paul. But on the record, there's no comedy -- only darkness and edge. That's how the Lennon-McCartney collaboration worked at its best, counterbalancing Paul's brightness with John's cynicism and gloom, and vice versa.

The chorus's melody is characteristic John, ominous and brooding, with repeated notes and chromatic shifts: "Life is very short / And there's no ti-i-i-ime / For fussing and fighting, my friend." (Love the alliteration, and the northern gutturals on "fussing".) John doesn't coax, doesn't turn on the charm -- he seems irritated by the conflict (such a Libra). "I have always thought / That it's a cri-i-i-i-ime / So I will ask you once again" -- get that a knife-twist of a threat at the end. (I'm telling you one last time....) It's only a step from here to the truly unpleasant threats of "Run For Your Life."

Apparently George threw in the last master stroke: The switch from 4/4 to 3/4 time at the end of the chorus, turning the whole thing into a woozy haunted house waltz, with chords spiraling downward. It's like a foretaste of "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," one of my favorite Beatles tracks ever. Somehow it makes me feel desperate -- this relationship's going out of control, it's doomed, wrists will soon be slit.

And then -- with two brisk beats, we're back in hopeful Paul land, trying to see it his way. Whew! The darkness is pushed underground, and all we have to deal with is sunshine and sincerity again. Of course we can solve it all. Just be reasonable, and . . .

Of course, "We can work it out" is a great philosophy until the day when you can't work it out anymore. We now know that Paul and Jane Asher eventually did go their separate ways. Even sadder, in just a few years the Beatles themselves would be wracked by internal disputes, unable to work anything out. Paul's sunniness and determination ran up against John's corrosive despair, and there weren't enough key changes in the world to save them. Well, partnerships dissolve all the time -- but a band this good? It ended way too soon.

Thursday, July 01, 2010


Are Julie and I the only Ron Sexsmith fans around here? That situation has GOT to be altered....

Friday, July 27, 2007

“These Days” / Ron Sexsmith

Yahoo!! Ron Sexsmith is going to be opening for Nick Lowe on several tour dates this fall – that’s about as good a two-for-one deal as it gets. As if I needed anything more to get psyched for seeing Nick!!

The Nick/Ron combo is a natural – both Lowe and his pal Elvis Costello are on record as Ron Sexsmith admirers – but my first taste of Ron Sexsmith was his cover of “This Is Where I Belong,” one of my favorite Kinks covers ever. Recommended by Nick, Elvis, AND Ray – that’s hitting my personal trifecta. And every Sexsmith album I’ve listened to completely lives up to its billing.

So I was already thinking about Ron Sexsmith, when the movie I was watching tonight – a 2004 Irish film called Intermission – suddenly broke into one of my favorite Sexsmith tunes, “These Days.” I knew it from the first heavy rhythmic drumbeats, and those gospel-like back-up doo-de-doos (which always remind me of “Walk On The Wild Side”); Ron’s voice is instantly recognizable, that choirboy tenor with its soulful vibrato. Given the thick Irish accents, I wasn't one-hundred percent following the movie, but when the song came on, every character was mired in romantic discouragement. What better time to hit the audience with a dose of Ron Sexsmith’s rueful charm?

“Promises are made to be broken / Haven't you heard?” he announces casually, addressing a woman he’s trying to win (or win back – it’s not clear). “He said he'd never break your heart / Now haven't you learned?" But he 's not scolding her, just sympathizing. "Oh, but love is not some popular song / Filled with empty sentiment,” he advises her. (Pretty gutsy, eh, to dismiss pop-song sentiment when you’re writing a pop song.) You can almost hear him shaking his head as he sings the chorus: “That's what passes for love / That's what passes for love / These days.” That midtempo syncopation, the easy lilting melody, make his argument seems so mellow -- well, that girl just has to listen.

It's a set-up, of course. He begins to pitch his own woo in the next verse: “It won't take a miracle, darlin' / Just keep it real.” He gives her an understanding shoulder to cry on – “I know how it feels / You took it to heart / What they said on the screen” -- then offers her an alternative: “No one can complete you or make you whole / But love will come to greet you halfway / Though the streets are never paved with gold.” And if she's got any sense, she's already relocating her affections.

Realistic advice about romance, sure, but it's anything but a downer. Sexsmith’s voice skips so warmly and affectionately from note to note, you just know things will turn out all right. He’s not blaming this woman, or pressuring her to go with him instead. He’s just going to slip his arm around her shoulder and be extremely sympathetic. And if that leads to something else…