Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Belinda" / Ben Folds

Well, kiddies, here's what I have for you today -- the final track from Ben Folds' new album Lonely Avenue. It's not the saddest song on the album -- that would be the absolutely shattering "Picture Window," with "Claire's Ninth" running a close second.  Those two are too sad even to write about.  Listening to this album over and over (I had to write a review of it for Blogcritics) put me in a real existential funk, which was only exacerbated by the blustery wet autumn weather.

But don't blame Ben -- blame his lyricist.  When you get to be insanely successful like Ben Folds, you can have your pick of writers to do your lyrics (not that Ben Folds even needs anybody else's lyrics), and so whom does Ben pick?  Why, the same guy I'd pick -- that adorable British novelist Nick Hornby, whose spiky, bittersweet, zeitgeist-defining novels line my shelves. Just about every novel Nick Hornby has ever written has at least a couple of scenes that reduce me to gasping laughter, and another three or four that make my throat tighten and my eyes sting with tears.  Shoot, even Hornby's newspaper columns have that effect on me.  His book of music essays, Songbook, was what first inspired me to blog about pop music.

Putting together Hornby and Folds might have been too much of a good thing, but hell, these guys are such pros, they can perfectly calibrate the snarkiness and the sentiment and come up with just the right cocktail.  Song after song on this album, they just nail it.

Hornby is an innate storyteller, and each of these songs come embedded with characters and plot. This song in some ways brings the album full circle, being told from the standpoint of a touring rock musician.  It's not Folds, though, not exactly -- this singer is an oldies act, facing nostalgic audiences night after night, and every night they clamor for his showstopper, the one big hit of his career. (Clever line: "He always hears how much it means to people / There's a lot of fortysomethings wouldn't be in the world without it" -- which dates his audience as the 40-somethings' parents, well into their sixities.)

They came to hear "Belinda," and while he may save it to the very end (hence track 11), they won't go home until they've heard it.  But here's the catch: He wrote it about his old sweetheart when they were still in love -- before he screwed around with a blond flight attendant and left Belinda. Years later, he is curdled with regret.  And every night, he still has to get up on stage and sing this love song to the woman whose heart he broke.  

Take a listen (and don't turn it off too soon -- wait 'til you've heard the actual song he's singing about).

Now, being the geeky fangirl I am, I've actually pondered this before.  It's one thing for Paul McCartney to sing "My Love" and think about his late wife Linda, whom he loved till the day she died; it's another for Eric Clapton to sing "Layla" about his ex-wife Pattie Boyd Harrison Clapton, whom he divorced.  How does he feel, singing that song?  Does he picture Pattie to himself or does he just sing the notes?  Ray Davies can cut a song like "Property" out of his repertoire if the memories of his divorce sting too much (was that Yvonne he left for Chrissie Hynde?), but what if you only had a couple of recognizable hits?  Could Gerry Marsden have gone on singing "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" if the girl he wrote it for hadn't come back and married him?  And what about the Left Banke -- if they'd stayed together, would they be forever singing "Walk Away Renee" about the bassist's girlfriend, that girl who got away?  It makes you think.

So it's secretly thrilling to hear that Nick Hornby has been wondering this too. (Have you been reading my diary again, Nick?)  Hey, he's no rock star himself, so he's free to imagine, just like he can imagine himself into the life of a nine-year-girl or a redneck Alaskan stud.  He's a talented wordsmith and all, but it's that understanding of the human heart that really makes Nick Hornby so wonderful to read.  And when you add in Ben Folds' plaintive melodic gifts -- well, it's a heartbreaking album. But in a good way.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Your Dad Did" / John Hiatt

I'm not waiting for the Thursday Reverb to dredge up this old post -- no sirree. Not when I've just come home from watching John perform at the City Winery, pulling out great song after great song, blowing all our minds with how damn good he can be. Oh, there were many epiphanies tonight -- during "Cry Love" and "Thunderbird" and, ohmigosh, for the first time ever I've heard live "Crossing Muddy Water" . . . but there's really no question what the highlight of the evening was for me.

Yes, it was old "Your Dad Did" again.  Read my old post and you'll get where I stood on this track before this evening. (But don't get lost!  Come back to this post!  I've got something new to add!)

Nobody I know parses the family man thing as well as John Hiatt does; that in itself is reason to give him a MacArthur Genius Grant, in my opinion, if not a Nobel Prize. But tonight  -- well, he surpassed himself.  In the middle of the song, he went off on a simply brilliant monologue, a memory trip about his dad, back in that old brick house on Central Avenue.  (Unh-hunh, I know that's a line from "Seven Little Indians" -- but he did say it again tonight, and as a native of that same North Side of Indianapolis, I  know the house he's talking about.)

He had us all mesmerized as he set the scene -- the family gathered around the old Philco television set, on a Sunday evening in 1964.  (He may have said 1965, but you and I know the evening he's talking about.)  The Ed Sullivan Show was about to come on, and while I can't vouch for the rest of the world, I can tell you from personal experience that every good little kid in Indianapolis knew what was going to happen on the show that night: The Beatles, straight from Liverpool, England, were making their debut appearance on American TV.  The Good Guys DJs on WIFE-AM had gotten us all whipped up into a pre-Beatles frenzy; every kid in town was tuned into that CBS station.

As John noted, with a twinkle in his eye, the television remote only needed to have three buttons in those days -- one for ABC, one for NBC, and one for CBS.  And there is old man Hiatt, monopolizing the Philco remote like any good dad would.  But just as Ed Sullivan is working up to his climax -- after Topo Gigio, after the guy with the spinning plates -- Mr. Hiatt blithely punches a button to switch channels.  The Hiatt girls go crazy; little Johnny is going crazy.  But Dad is Dad, and he's got the power of the remote. Johnny is seized with desire to slither up to the set and turn the knobs himself -- but does he dare risk overriding the Master of the Remote Control? 

Of course, at the very last minute (John is strumming tense chords on his guitar, building to the story's climax), Mr. Hiatt casually flips back to CBS, just in time to hear Ed Sullivan intone, "Here are -- the Beatles!"  And it's only now, in retrospect, as a father himself, that John can understand what his father was doing that night.  He was simply doing his job as a father, obeying the Number One Parental Mandate -- "to fuck with your kids' minds." The audience erupted into howls of laughter, as John swooped into the last verse of the song.

Now, that is why I love John Hiatt.  Sure, I own all his albums, and I listen to them regularly, pore over them with the zeal of a true obsessive.  But this is why I go to see him every time he's in town (and sometimes when he's not in town, too). Because no matter how perfectly crafted a song may be -- and for songcraft, you'd be hard pressed to surpass John Hiatt --  still, when you hear it live, a song can take on a life of its own.

As he was working through that story, I was totally there with him, in the little brick house on Central Avenue, sitting on that living room carpet with the all the Hiatts, waiting for the Beatles to come on Ed Sullivan.  For me, too, that night's television show was one of the formative moments in my musical life.  The idea that Johnny Hiatt was just a few blocks away, experiencing it at that very same moment -- it's almost transcendentally wonderful.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Is it Wednesday again already?  Where did the time go?  See what you miss when you spend three days fighting off a computer virus...

1. Somebody Stole My Car / The Kinks
From Phobia (1993)
I always get a kick out of Kinks car songs -- "Drivin'," "A Gallon of Gas," "Motorway" -- even this speedy little punk-flavored number about urban street crime.  Well, I've never seen Ray Davies drive a car but I'm told he's quite the, er, dashing motorist...

2. Don't Think Twice, It's Alright / Bob Dylan
From The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
A classic bit of talkin' blues from Bobby D., heavy on the harmonica wheeze.  Indeed, he does seem like a freewheelin' chap from this song, back when he still sorta had a voice; it's tracks like this that remind me why he is a songwriting god. But, really, there ain't no use in turning on your light, gal.  

3. "You Shouldn't Be Sad" / The Kinks
From Kinda Kinks (1965)
Ray Davies trying to be the Beatles.  This never worked out for Ray, I don't know why he even tried.  A charming track, nevertheless.

4. Tell Me More And More And Then Some / Nina Simone
From After Hours (compilation)
Now here's the goods. Is it jazz?  Is it blues? Is it protest folk?  All of that and more, from the incomparable Nina Simone.  This is what cool intellectuals were listening to when I was in kindergarten; I can just imagine the superior snickers when they heard bands like the Animals record Nina songs like "Don't Let Me Misunderstood." The lady is untouchable. 

5. The Good's Gone / The Who
From The Who Sings My Generation (1965)
And again from 1965, the Who trying to sound like the Kinks, slowed down and draggy (different drugs).  

6.  Circles / Ten Years After
From Cricklewood Green (1970)
The last great gasp of sincere folk rock, before prog rock spoiled the whole deal. Or maybe it already had by then -- how should I know?  I remember seeing this album in people's record collections in college, but I don't think I EVER listened to it before last year.  And even then it was only because Inaki told me to. But it's a dreamy number, with that hazy Alvin Lee guitar -- an instant fave.

7. Love Train / Keb' Mo'
From Big Wide Grin (1998)
I love Keb's Delta-blues spin on this old Gamble & Huff Philly soul classic (the O'Jays, if I recall correctly).  Keb's original material is so good, we tend to forget how superb his covers are, too.  When he sings this song, it's peace-and-love he's talking about, a real populist anthem -- and believe it or not, it works.

8. 22 Miles To Bristol  / Greg Trooper
From Popular Demons (1998)
More banjo!  Troop drops into folk-ballad mode a lot on this album; there's a restless insistence to this plaintive road song that hooks me in every time.  Is the singer a touring musician?  A trucker? A bank robber on the lam?  Whatever you want.

9. Pink Bedroom / John Hiatt
From Two Bit Monsters (1980)
Early Hiatt, in his Costello wannabe days, but still a hoot -- a jittery, jangly ode to a teenage princess ensconced in her girly-girl bedchamber. 

10. Kamera / Wilco
From Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
Might as well give in to the Americana groove.  Wilco's sellout album -- at least if you listen to some message boards -- is still my favorite, I have to confess.  I  love the loungey beat of this song, its numb dazed groove, those sneaky little hooks.  So sue me.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"Girl Watcher" / The O'Kaysions
"Want Ads" / Honey Cone

Rarely do I write about two songs at once, but I just couldn't resist.  I heard both of these today -- one over the PA system at a grocery store, the others on the 60s station of Sirius/XM -- and it struck me how perfectly they complement each other.  They're both light-hearted soul gems, but like yin and yang, they express the two flip sides of male and female lust. 

When I heard it, I instantly remembered that O'Kaysions song Girl Watcher (though I really had forgotten that crazy spelling of their band name).  As an adolesent in 1968, this song deeply offended me.  I was just old enough to hate guys who lounge around on the street, ogling every female who walks past.  (Come to think of it, I still hate those guys.)  Sure, I could tell it was supposed to be funny, but to me it was just more of that "Standing on the Corner, Watching All the Girls Go By" mentality.  The soul vibe of this song is so tight, I always pictured the singer as a jaunty black dude in tight flared jeans and a polyester shirt -- pretty much the whole look parodied in Undercover Brother.  I have just discovered that the O'Kaysions were white soul singers from North Carolina (I suspect they're still living on the royalties from this song, their only Top Ten hit), and I have to say I'm impressed.  But still, I see that jive brother when I hear this song.   

What I didn't get as a kid -- what I couldn't pick up -- is how healthy this guy's eye for the ladies is.  The relaxed groove of this song tells it all.  There really isn't much else to it; he confesses "I'm a girl watcher, / I'm a girl watcher," then defines it for us -- "Watching girls go by / My oh my." (As if we couldn't have guessed what being a girl watcher entails.) The best part, though, is when he sings, "Here comes one now," then falls silent for a jazzy little interval of drums and bass, turning his attention to the babe in question, with a few happy grunts and groans of approval. It's like he's admiring a sunset, or a great work of art.  Who could argue with that?

To be perfectly honest, as a teen I got creeped out by "Want Ads" too, despite its female perspective. Released in 1971, it was such a monster hit for the girl group Honey Cone that they put it on two albums in the same year, Sweet Replies and Soulful Tapestry. You couldn't miss that brassy opening, as Edna Wright chants, "Wanted: Young man single and free / Experience in love preferred, / But will accept a young trainee."  A woman in proud command of her sexuality?  No wonder it scared me at that age.  

Listening to it again as an adult, I can see now that it's just a conceit --  taking out a personal ad proves she's ready to move on from her old boyfriend.  She's making a sassy deal of it, but I suspect she hasn't really separated yet, and she still wants to hurt him by flaunting her intentions. Like someone changing their relationship status on Facebook, you know? 

The Honey Cone was the star act of Hot Wax Records, which was formed by Holland-Dozier-Holland when they split Motown. They didn't write this song, but its high-concept set-up epitomizes their school of songwriting -- find a metaphor and work it as hard as you can.  There's storytelling in the verses, too, as she catalogs all the ways he's done her wrong (great lyric: "But lipstick on his collar / Perfume on it too / Tells me he's been lying, / Tell ya what I'm gonna do / I'm gonna put it in the want ads . . . .").  And in classic girl group fashion, she's got her sisters there, wagging their fingers in the background.

Don't even bother looking for a story to "Girl Watcher." He mentions how he threw away his childhood toys, but otherwise he's too busy checking out the ladies to consider past or future.  He's totally in the present, reacting to his hormones.  It's the ladies who need a story; there has to be a relationship.  She's not just putting out that ad because she's horny -- it's payback, it's a bid for self-respect, it's hunger for true love. That's the way women see love and sex.

They're both absolute gems, a reminder that one-hit wonders aren't necessarily total flukes. Similar as they are musically, though, they split right down the Mars-Venus dichotomy. My shrink couldn't have said it better.   

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


All things considered, I've decided that Amazon is not really so evil -- which is why I'm adding a widget for you to sample, or even buy, the music I'm writing about here.  (Always looking for a way to post mp3s easily without ripping off the artists.)  Let me know what you think...

1.  No Baby I / The Old 97s 
From Blame It On Gravity (2008)
The twangy roots of this band keep drifting closer and closer to pop -- an intersection I love.  Rhett Miller has that husky good-boyfriend earnestness down just right. "Blame it on gravity, yeah / Blame it on being a girl" -- ooh, we ladies LOVE a man who understands. 

2.  "In My Life" / The Beatles
From Rubber Soul (Remastered) (1965)
This is one song I often forget to add to my Favorite Beatles Songs list -- why? Tender nostalgia for "people and friends that went before" might seem odd, coming from musicians in their early 20s -- but I bet their Liverpool past truly seemed like another lifetime by the time of this masterpiece album. Love that Bach-like twiddle in the middle eight!

3. "Ram On" / Paul McCartney
From Ram (1971)
Not more Beatles, but pretty damn close. I do love the lounging, slightly scruffy vibe of this song. Despite the naif mandolin strumming (or is a uke?), this song is layered, jazzy, hazy -- stoned, man. 

4. She Gets Me Where I Live / Al Kooper
From Easy Does It (1970)
This spangly, synthy soul-rock track swims in its own psychedelic haze, with some seriously cool-cat horns spinning out of control (not to mention oceans of strings, sometimes with spiky little plucked notes).  When Kooper was on his game -- and he was really on his game with this album -- he was like a painter, slapping sounds onto his canvas.  

5.  "Mr. Reporter" / The Kinks
From The Great Lost Kinks Album(1973)
Dave Davies' early stab at satire (the Kinks never did have an easy relationship with the press).  On this album of bootleg tracks, the tinny quality of this song -- not to mention Dave's quavery vocals -- are more like a demo, but it's still a spunky bit of fun.  

6. Elizabeth Jade  / Robyn Hitchcock
From Jewels for Sophia (1999)
Talk about music as painting -- sometimes Robyn Hitchcock's lyrics are almost like Cubist art, layering cryptic fragments of description onto a boppy track of bouncy punk-pop that is way too danceably fun to resist.

7. Steppin' Out / Joe Jackson
From Night And Day (1982)
Jeez, I love this album. Joe Jackson steered New Wave music daringly far in the direction of George Gershwin and Cole Porter. A gorgeous champagne cocktail tribute to Manhattan, and just about as far from punk music as you could get.

8. Stop / Lizz Wright
From Dreaming Wide Awake (2005)
A beautifully languid, deeply sexy track. Wright's voice has an almost Nina Simone-like richness, with all those dark tones underscoring the desire that simply saturates this song.

9. Hit The Road Jack / Ray Charles
From Genius -- The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection (2009)
Soon as you hear that descending riff from the horns, you know it's this sassy bit of R&B. Those finger-wagging back-up singers are half the show; I love their saucy interplay with Ray, his slightly craggy vocals full of exasperated pleading. 

10. This Is How I Know / Ron Sexsmith
From Exit Strategy of the Soul (2008)
With every album, Ron Sexsmith dares to get more and more explicitly spiritual, while his folk pop takes on more jazz tinges.  I suppose this track doesn't have to be about sensing God's presence (are you kidding?  that would be pop suicide), but that's the level where it works best for me.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Our Little Secret"I Want To Kiss You" / Edward O'Connell

Out of nowhere I get this email -- this guy likes my blog and he's just recorded a CD and would I like him to send me a copy? If you're me, you report the email as spam and change your password pronto, right? Wrong. Something stopped me from hitting that 'delete' button, and instead I responded. What the hell, I figured.

So a few days later this thing arrives in the mail. I pull it out of the envelope, and my eyes bug out when I see that album cover, a blatant rip-off of Nick Lowe's Jesus of Cool. How did this guy know of my Nick Lowe obsession? (Well, duh, he's read your blog, you silly fangirl you.)

So I'm a little leery when I put this disc into my player. But I'm telling you, it only took me about thirty seconds into track one to be glad that I had let Edward O'Connell send me this record. Not that he sounds much like Nick -- more like a slightly husky Elvis Costello, to my ears. But hey, if you've got the clever snarky lyrics to live up to it -- which Edward O'Connell amazingly does -- even that works. I have to admit, I laughed out loud at some of these songs -- like "Partially Awesome," about a guy who falls short of being totally awesome, or "Pretty Wasted," with its clinching line "she's pretty wasted, / pretty wasted on you." Loaded with hooks and highly sing-along-able, these songs have a jangly mellow quality -- power pop with the tempo notched down slightly, so that you don't miss any of that intelligent word play.

Here's a taste:

Listen to those shrewd lyrics, like: "You may be longing to hear / Something everlasting / But the men who will tell you that / All come from central casting." Or in the bridge: "I can't part the oceans / Or charm you like the Prince of Zales / I'll leave it to feckless ones / With empty arms and their fairy tales." Slipping in the name of the jewelry store Zales where you expect to hear Wales is clever enough, but I'll tell, anyone who uses the word "feckless" in a pop song -- well, he has me at hello. (Extra points to anybody who can name another pop song with the word "feckless".)

But perhaps the finest stroke in this song is the refrain, where all the word play falls away in a surge of lust: "But I yi yi YI-Iii / Want to kiss you." Sometimes it IS that simple. (Mind you, the echo of Ricky Ricardo in that "yi-yi-yi" keeps the light comic touch firmly in place.) Sure, there are other guys flocking around her, he's all too aware. But refreshing honesty just may be the thing that wins her heart.

Who is this girl? His long-term sweetheart, or just some cute chiquita walking down the street? None of that is clear; none of that needs to be clear. It's a pop song, kids. All that really matters is how he's transported by desire. Even an intensely verbal guy like this may be at a loss for words when love finally slaps him upside the head.

So who is this Edward O'Connell? you may well ask. Well, all I know so far is that he's from Washington D.C., he's been knocking around in various local bands for years, and he's got a pretty serious day job as a lawyer. (Aha! says my inner Nancy Drew -- a lawyer, hence the verbal wit.) Maybe, like many of us, he's deferred his music dreams because of that respectable, lucrative day job. But hey, after a while, you gotta give it a shot. This is Edward O'Connell's shot -- and I really hope it goes somewhere.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


My son told me yesterday that when he hears me say I like someone's music, he automatically assumes it's someone English. Hmmm -- am I that transparent? Let's consult the shuffle and see...

1. "When It Sings" / Elvis Costello
From North (2003)
If I'd still been listening to Elvis Costello in 2003 -- which I wasn't -- I too might have been baffled by this tender album of jazz-drenched ballads. But finding it retrospectively, after Elvis' marriage to Diana Krall, it all made perfect sense. And doesn't Elvis live in Vancouver now? Does he still qualify as English?

2. "The Things We Never Said" / Thea Gilmore

From Rules for Jokers (2002)
Ha! Thea isn't English; she's from Scotland. A wonderful singer-songwriter, by the way.

3. "London Look" / Herman's Hermits
From The London Look EP (1968)
Not only a song by an English band, a song about London from an English band -- I am not doing so well here. What's worse, the Hermits did this song exclusively for a promo EP, sponsored by Yardley Cosmetics (remember the cologne Oh! De London? I wore nothing else for a year.) The basic idea is to stuff in as many London place names as possible. Who cares? It's a delightful, delicious little track.

4. "Nervous on the Road (But Could Not Stay Home)"/ Brinsley Schwarz
From Nervous on the Road (1972)
Despite the affected country drawl on this romping picaresque number about a touring musician, Nick Lowe is English, it's true.

5. "Don't Be Ashamed of Your Age" / Jerry Lee Lewis and George Jones
From Last Man Standing (2006)
Aha! Nobody's more American than that old rockbilly devil Jerry Lee and the king of country music George Jones. Normally I hate duet albums; this odds-defying LP is the exception to the rule. Listen to these two sly old dogs twiddling through this Bob Wills chestnut.

6. "Saint Beneath the Paint" / Nick Lowe
From Radio Daze (1984)
Not just one but two Englishmen -- the aforementioned Nick Lowe and his sometime colleague Paul Carrack, on particularly juicy bootleg live album. This obscure track from Nick's obscure LP The Abominable Showman (for that title alone he ought to be hung) is greatly improved with harmonies by Paul and a little boogie-woogie piano.

7. "Fool for a Lonesome Train" / Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals
From Life Line (2007)
Another American -- whew! -- singing a trumpery bit of country blues. I still haven't quite figured out the riddle that is Ben Harper, but I keep on trying -- that voice can make any song sound better than it should.

8. "Rivers of Babylon" / The Melodians
From The Harder They Come (1972)
Do Jamaicans count as English (being former colonials) or American (being in the same hemisphere)? Like most American kids my age, Jimmy Cliff's Jamaican gangster movie was my introduction to reggae, and I played it so often, it's still hard-wired in my memory. "And let the words of my mouth / and the meditations of my mind / be acceptable in your sight" -- I still sing this song under my breath whenever I hear that blessing in church.

9. "Queen of Sheba" / Nick Lowe
From Nick the Knife (1982)
Not this one again! (Like I mind.)

10. "Knapsack" / Amy Rigby
From Diary of a Mod Housewife (1994)
Well, at least we're ending with an American -- not only an American, but a country punk female (talk about defying cliches). Fantasizing about the guy who checks her bags at the bookstore -- I picture the old Shakespeare and Company on the Upper West Side -- that's enough to fuel this Mod housewife's daydreams for week.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

"Not What It Appears" / The Tories

It's curious how some songs wind up on my iTunes. Take this number by the Tories. A Kinks friend of mine sent me a compilation CD titled Sonic Saccharine, which was put together by a guy we both knew from another internet message board, one dedicated to the Replacements. (The guy's screen name, as I recall, was Monkey.) It was an insanely good compilation, filled with sparkling pop songs from bands I'd never heard of, and I loaded most of it straight onto my iTunes, including "Not What It Appears."

Now, I have no idea who the Tories are. From the Beatle-y power-pop sound, they could be either English or American, and could have recorded this song anytime from 1967 to yesterday. When this song pops up on my shuffle, half the time I think it's Squeeze; the rest of the time, I'd probably think it was Jellyfish if I'd ever heard Jellyfish. (I know, I should be reading Clicks and Pops more faithfully to learn about Jellyfish -- must be a California thing.) But one thing I can tell you: When it pops up on my shuffle I perk up immediately. It's a delightful little gem of a song.

iTunes quite helpfully tells me that the Tories' debut album Wonderful Life (produced by Phil Ramone) came out in 1997, followed by The Upside of Down in 2001. The group disbanded in 2002, and its various members have been knocking around the L.A. music scene ever since. But seriously, listen to this bouncy, bright, tuneful number -- a band this good (and most of their other tracks I've sampled live up to the promise) should have been way, way bigger.

Listen to those power chords of the opening, the crisp whacks of the drums. And like a movie opener, we see our heroine in long shot: "She walks right by, her mind made up / Her face was just as well / My breath she took with just one look / And I could tell." But this is no Hollywood love story; their relationship hasn't got a chance, as he quickly figures out. The tuneful curve of melody stalls with a dark, diminished chord at the end of the verse, and lead singer Steve Bertrand plaintively declares in the chorus, "But it's not what it appears, / No it's not what it appears. / Dropped a bomb upon my head and left me in a hole half-dead" -- ouch! -- "No, love's not what it appears after all." (It's like the dark John Lennon chorus alternating with the cheery Paul McCartney verse.)

In the yearning bridge, he doesn't moan about winning her love -- he already knows he can't -- he's just lamenting the fact that he can't seem to find a girl who'll make him happy. This song isn't about this particular relationship, it's about the doomed nature of modern love. For all that power-pop brightness and energy, it delivers a bracing jolt of pessimism (or reality, depending on your view of life). Maybe that's why it reminds me so much of Squeeze.

Yet in the long run, what stays with me is that peppy beat, the cheerfully churning guitars, the youthful earnestness of Bertrand's vocals. It's not such a downer, when all is said and done. It makes me feel like driving a convertible with the top down, pounding on the steering wheel. More than anything else, it reminds me why I love power pop, when it's done right. The Tories did it right.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

"Head Over Heels" / Tears for Fears

In my household, we're very keen on the TV series Psych. That's where this whole thing started. On last week's episode, one of the characters proves his filthy-rich-itude by having a pet musician hanging around his mansion --whom he introduces as Curt Smith. Now, for a nanosecond I thought "Oh, the guy from the Cure" (only, duh, that's Robert Smith, I realize now). It all got cleared up in a jiff, anyway, as soon as he started strumming his guitar and singing "Everybody Wants To Rule the World."

As rough as his performance was -- and that was part of the joke -- just hearing that jaunty bit of Eighties Cheese really sent me back in time. I won't pretend that I was a big Tears for Fears fan -- if I had been, maybe I'd have recognized the singer's name -- but you really couldn't escape them for a while there. And I think we did own one of their albums, the one with the black-and-white close-up photo of the two guys in the band. (What was with that in the Eighties -- just two guys was all you needed to have a band?)

Soon as I started listening to it, however, I completely forgot "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and got hooked instead on this one. Which as it happens was sung by the other guy in the band, Roland Orzabal -- go figure. Really, who kept them straight? Even after Curt left, and the band was just Roland (apparently in the Eighties you could even have a band with just one guy), I had no idea who was who.

But you gotta admit, it's a catchy little tune, even with all those glitzy Eighties production values. Mmmmm, I can see the fake fog rolling onto the stage now...

The lyrics are inconsequential, really; it's all about that electric piano riff, and those falsetto harmonies in the chorus. The main point of the song seems to be the guy's general inability to communicate with his girlfriend, so the fact that you can't really understand the mumbled-yet-sincere words seems quite natural. There is one line that always put me off -- "You keep your distance with a system of touch" -- I get the vowel play, the chiming of "sys" and "dis," but what in the hell does that mean? It's almost as if it was written by somebody for whom English was a second language.

But those yearning emotions, they come across perfectly well without lyrics. There's no story to tell, no situation to resolve -- it's just inchoate longing, and surprisingly powerful. Waves of knee-jerk nostalgia wash over me when I listen to this song. It's curious indeed.

I can't resist also letting you see this video, which has new words dubbed in over the original video. Hysterical!

Friday, September 03, 2010

"Love At First Sight" / John Mellencamp

I had a Sirius Senior Moment today -- when this song came on, I was so riveted, so lost in the music, I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. (Lucky I didn't crash the car.) It's been a while since I've heard any new John Mellencamp material, and the rootsy simplicity of this one took me by surprise.

It reminded me of an argument I'd been having with a fellow music fan, who insisted that Bruce Springsteen deserved my attention because he sometimes performs folky acoustic numbers. No, I insisted, it's not the arena rock anthems I object to with Springsteen -- it's his lack of wit or irony. (And you can have wit in an arena rock anthem -- look at Queen.) And now comes John Mellencamp to show up the Boss, with a song that's both stripped-down AND funny.

It's time to forgive Mellencamp the Chevy ads, forgive him for Farm Aid (why shouldn't a small-town Hoosier support American farmers?), and yes, even forgive him for letting his early managers convince him to perform as Johnny Cougar. (The same managers did have the sense to book him as an opening act for the Kinks.) With a refreshing lack of pretension or hype, Mellencamp has gone on making solid mid-American rock for many years now, music that plays to the heart of the country. And I'm just enough of an expatriate Hoosier to dig it.

I've just ordered his new album, No Better Than This, and from the preview samples I suspect I'm going to love it. Sounds like it's pretty much all acoustic, and recorded (in mono, no less!) at iconic places like Sun Studios in Memphis -- how's that for going back to basics? If the songwriting is as good as this throughout, then I think Johnny M's got hisself a career-capping masterpiece.

How many rock songs have gushed about "love at first sight"? It's a universal teenage emotion, and therefore practically the founding conceit of all pop music. But now listen to how Johnny turns it on its head.

The songwriting structure couldn't be simpler -- the first three lines of every verse start with "let's suppose," working through a relationship from that very first besotted glance. In the course of it, they kiss, make love in the back of a car, get engaged, get married -- "like two turtledoves," he casually describes them. They're adorable, like Mellencamp's hometown Romeo and Juliet from his early classic, "Jack and Diane." But hold on, he's just getting started.

In the second section, his raspy voice and laidback strumming don't change, but nagging doubts begin to surface about that iffy "suppose." "Let's suppose our dreams came true, just like they're 'sposed to do" -- well, as we all know, there's no ironclad guarantee. (I think of Nick Lowe's woefully funny "Where's My Everything?" demanding the standard wife, house, and kids that society has promised him.)

And in the third section things fall apart, as things often do. They have kids, they fight, they get bored, they have money troubles, they cheat, they storm out of the house. "Let's suppose you found another man / And hit me in the head with a frying pan" -- I love that absurd cartoon image, like Olive Oyl beaning Popeye. (See him swaying on his feet, eyes crossed; hear the tweeting bird sound effects.) It's true comic relief, allowing us to laugh instead of crying at the everyday domestic tragedy.

I can just picture John's wicked grin, rocking back on his stool, as he wraps up the fourth section, deciding that they should just shake hands and be friends -- save themselves all those years of grief and turmoil. He's no teenager, that's for sure; he's a guy who's been around the block a time or two, and he knows whereof he speaks. The dogged repetition of phrases and melody hammers home life's weary lessons. It only takes less than five minutes to click through all the possible heartbreaks, like changing channels with his remote control. He plays them all out in his imagination, and then decides it's not worth the effort. For once, wisdom triumphs over hormones.

Like the worn denim of broken-in work jeans, the solo acoustic arrangement is just right for this song. It's no teenage pop confection, no angry young man's howl of protest -- this is music for grown-ups. So let's get real -- life sucks, and love dies. You can cry about it, or you can laugh. Me, I'm going with the laughter.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


An eclectic bunch of tunes for the end of summer [sigh] . . . .

1. "When I Live My Dream" / David Bowie
From David Bowie (1967)

Before he was Ziggy Stardust, Bowie's first album featured a quirky mix of songs like this Anthony Newley knock-off. (Pizzicato strings! A triangle!) Insurance, just in case the rock-and-roll thing didn't pan out, you know...

2. "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" / The Walker Brothers
From Portrait (1966)
A trio from California, none of them really brothers, who found success by moving to the UK in 1965 -- payback for the British Invasion, I guess. Their first hit was Bacharach & David's "Make It Easy On Yourself" (remember the Jerry Butler version?); this single got a little more airplay in the States and cracked the top 20. I love how they copied that Righteous Brothers white-soul sound perfectly, all echo and back-up choirs and manly harmonies. "The sun ain't gonna shine anymore / The moon ain't gonna rise in the skies / The tears are always clouding your eyes" -- tear those heart-strings!

3. "You're Telling Me" / Alan Price
From Between Today and Yesterday (1974)
After O Lucky Man!, where could Alan Price go? Well, it took him a while -- the record company rejected his first try, Savaloy Dip (a long-lost album, until my friend Tony discovered a carton of 8-track tapes in a record warehouse's dumpster). But undaunted, Price bounced back with this masterpiece LP, perhaps best known for the UK hit "Jarrow Song." This song is the highlight of side 2, the "today" side, where Price finally unleashes the brooding, bluesy organ riffs we've been waiting for. "My friends all tell me, 'you should be happy, / You have more than many others in this town.' / But I can see now, just what they mean now, / They're my friends until my money lets them down." Yup, that's the cynical Alan Price we know and love.

4. "He's Evil" / The Kinks
From Preservation Act 2 (1974)
Another favorite album from 1974 -- totally different, of course, with Ray Davies leading the Kinks deep into campy musical theater. Dig the finger-wagging back-up choir in this snappy character sketch of dastardly Mr. Flash, the villain of this dystopian fable. Over and over, building to the finish, "He's evil (he's evil) / He's evil (he's evil) / He's evil, he's evil, he's evil." Get the picture? Yes, we see.

5. "What Good Am I Without You?" / Kim Weston & Marvin Gaye
From Take Two (1966)
Classic Motown duet -- what a groove these two hit together. . . .

6. "Am I Wrong" / Keb' Mo'

From Keb' Mo (1994)
Just Keb' and his steel guitar, with handclaps and a few grunts providing snappy percussion -- and it's divine. How can he be wrong, falling in love with her, when her other man was out there cheatin' and lyin' and steppin' all over her? Sexiest line: "Just want to make a home for you, baby / And all of your children too."

7. "You Are What You Love" / Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins

From Rabbit Fur Coat (2005)
Jenny's spunky, tuneful first solo album, her breakaway from Rilo Kiley, was so good. . . .what's happened since?

8. "Ain't That Loving You" / Sir Douglas Quintet
From Soul Jam (2000 -- compilation)
South Side Chicago blues, filtered through Texas. You may know this old chestnut by Deadric Malone -- alias Houston black record producer Don Robey -- from the Grateful Dead's version, or Buddy Guy's. (Elvis Presley's was a different song -- man, this stuff gets confusing.) But man oh man, did Doug Sahm have a great voice -- I could listen to him sing the Yellow Pages and I'd be happy.

9. "These Roads Don't Move" / Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard
From Big Sur (2009)
Wonder what Kerouac would've thought of Jay and Ben turning his prose into Americana music?

10. "What Is Wrong, What Is Right?" / Herman's Hermits
From Very Best of Herman's Hermits (compilation)
This 1966 B-side proves that there was more to Herman's Hermits than the teen fan mags ever let us know -- just as I always suspected!