Sunday, October 31, 2010

Do It Again / The Movie

I've already written about "Do It Again" the song and "Do It Again" the video -- now it's time to write about Do It Again the movie. Having now viewed this delicious documentary twice, I can say it's one of my favorite rock movies ever.

For shorthand's sake, I tend to refer to Do it Again as a Kinks documentary, which really doesn't do it justice.  There have been plenty of those over the years, of varying quality, and of course there's always the Kinks' own 1980 live concert film One For the Road. But Do It Again is another thing altogether, a portrait of one semi-obsessed Kinks fan and his quixotic efforts to get the band to reunite, over a decade after their last concert.  And since the fan in question is the Boston Globe music journalist Geoff Edgers, armed with his occupational tools of charm, chutzpah, and hound-dog persistence, he manages to take that project way farther than any of us ordinary Kinks fans would have done.

Edgers' story is told in deliberately meandering style.  With the Kinks long disbanded and scattered, Edgers resorts to enlisting in his cause a number of other music stars -- Paul Weller, Sting, Zooey Deschanel, Warren Zanes of the Del Fuegos, and most especially the divine Robyn Hitchcock and his Venus 3 cohorts Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin.  They all speak to him of the Kinks influence on their music, and agree that they'd love to see a Kinks reunion; some of them even agree to sing a Kinks song on camera with Geoff.  (Best on-camera moment:  Sting realizing that his song "When You Love Somebody" was ripped off from the Kinks' "Set Me Free".)  Edgers also interviews such major players in the Kinks' history as producer Shel Talmy, Arista record kingpin Clive Davis, and former bassist Pete Quaife (who has since, sadly, died).  And of course there are others who bluntly refuse to speak to him -- that too becomes part of the movie's fabric.

Edgers then films an intrepid trip to London, where he hangs out with Kinks fans at their annual convention, rings the doorbell at Konk Studios (to no avail), chats with Kinks drummer Mick Avory, and, in a riveting interview, speaks with Dave Davies himself.  While Edgers never gets the elusive Ray Davies to speak to him, it becomes a bit like Waiting For Godot -- Ray's presence haunts the film, in flashes of archival footage and in bits of Kinks songs on the soundtrack. There's just enough Kinks music wafting through the film to remind you why they were such a great band, and why their reunion would indeed be a great moment in rock history.  

My favorite thing about the Kinks' music is its sly, off-center humor, and what I love most about Do It Again is how much this movie uses that same kind of humor.  As a documentary subject, Edgers is mercurial, compulsive, and charismatic (much like Ray Davies himself); director Robert Patton-Sprull tells his story with droll jump-cuts and juxtapositions, and random snippets of real-life interactions that draw in the audience, much as Ray Davies' songs draw in listeners with withering observations and poignant detail. It's an intelligent film, paying tribute to intelligent music -- without ever forgetting to be highly entertaining.

And one other thing about Kinkdom that Do It Again gets just right:  It's not just about the band, but about their impact on their audience.  There's all those other musicians who grew up on the Kinks' music, of course, and the devoted Kinksters who gather every year to celebrate the band.  But Exhibit A in this movie is Edgers himself -- just as devoted as any other true Kinks fan, and taking his fandom to another level.  Any band that can inspire dedication like that, has to be a band for the ages.

Friday, October 29, 2010

"No Lonesome Tune" / Townes Van Zandt


I knew I'd have to get around to Townes Van Zandt sooner or later.  All the Texas songwriters I admire have a Townes cover somewhere in their repertory, and they utter his name with awestruck reverence; hell, Steve Earle even named his son Justin Townes.  He's like the ultimate songwriter's songwriter, with all the irony that implies -- his own records never made much of a splash, and while his songs raked in the big bucks for folks like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Townes himself was still living in a trailer park and playing dive bars.

Mind you, he wasn't exactly a model citizen -- born into one of Fort Worth's oldest, wealthiest, and most prominent families, Townes was a manic-depressive, an alcoholic, and an on-again-off-again junkie for much of his life.  When he died in 1997 at age 52, I reckon nobody was surprised -- but they sure were sad.  Just listen to this song and you'll see why.

This video was shot during a private concert at a Holiday Inn in Houston, back in 1988 -- what a treasure trove! It's just Townes sitting on a sofa with his guitar, running through a number of his best songs.  He reminds me of Anthony Perkins, somehow, that same fragile tough quality, like a poet crushed by reality.  It's easy to romanticize such a tragic gifted figure; I'm sure Townes made life miserable for people who were close to him, not to mention frustrating for fans who'd pay good money to watch him slosh his way through a set, forgetting half the lyrics.  But still.  But still. 

Isn't this song just a killer?  "No Lonesome Tune" leads off Townes' 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (pretty much the most ironic album title ever, coming from a 28-year-old singer who had never had a hit record and would live for another 27 years).  It's a classic theme, about a "lost high roller" vowing to clean up his act and head home to "the sweetest girl around." That yearning for stability, for decency, for redemption, rings painfully true.

The lyrics don't have to be clever or show-off poetic when you get the emotions so right. And the lyrics don't have to be clever when you can write a melody like this. Dancing right on the intersection of country and folk, Townes Van Zandt could evoke heartbreak and lonesomeness like nobody's business.  Maybe that's because he knew them so well himself.

I can't pass myself off as a Townes Van Zandt expert, and yet I don't know why.  I love everything of his I've ever heard, even when it's sung by somebody else -- more often than not, somebody perfectly capable of writing his own great songs, who still prefers to sing Townes'.  I can't tell you how often I've been surprised to discover that so-and-so's wonderful song is in fact a Townes Van Zandt cover.  Ever since my good music friend Tom sent me a compilation of Townes' songs -- a sampler, a teaser -- I keep promising myself to explore more of his music.  Maybe Texas Music Week is a sign that it's high time I did it. Any Townes fans out there care to give me some suggestions?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Bad Rap" / Joe 'King' Carrasco


An oddball choice, maybe.  But you don't need me to tell you about Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings or the more obvious Texas music stars, and anyway, I love this guy's stuff. Maybe it's because my ears were warped at an early age by ? and the Mysterians' classic "96 Tears" and Sam the Sham's "Woolly Bully," but this garagey Tejano pop sound -- forget the horn section, let's just throw in a Farfisa organ! -- makes perfect sense to me.  After all, if bands like Talking Heads and the B-52s and Blondie could throw a jittery organ into the New Wave mix, it was only a matter of time before somebody like Joe Carrasco was going to come along and give us a shot of Tex-Mex New Wave. And you know me -- I'm a sucker for the New Wave sound.

Born in Dumas, Texas, Joe Carrasco (originally Joe Teusch) lucked into his musical career hanging around the Austin clubs in the late 70s. On his first album, 1978's Joe King Carrasco and El Molino, the iconic organ tracks were even laid down by Austin's resident organ whiz, the great Augie Meyers, Doug Sahm's longtime collaborator. And talk about luck -- with a nod from Elvis Costello (once quoted as saying they were better than the Police), Stiff Records picked up Joe's band, now named Joe 'King' Carrasco and the Crowns, to release their self-titled second album in 1981.  Ah, Stiff, always a home for quirky, D.I.Y. pop.  Joe's biggest hit was the title track off of his 1983 album Party Weekend, after which the party began to wind down for Joe and the Crowns, just as New Wave was beginning to lose its fun edge and turn tedious and mannered.  (Flock of Seagulls, anyone?)  Joe decamped to Nicaragua for a while; he lives now in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, but he's still writing, performing, doing his Joe King thing, with a little more reggae added into the mix.  Think Jimmy Buffet without the baggage of Parrothead Nation.

The loose, wacky vibe of Carrasco's 80s tracks still sounds fresh to me -- the Crowns never went synth-crazy, never forgot that they were making party music to dance to.  "Bad Rap" comes from JKC's 1981 Party Safari EP, but really, it could have come from any of his 1980s albums.  The lyrics are generic New Wave neurotic:  In the first verse, his girlfriend's making eyes at his best friend, in the second his car is stolen, everything in his life is seriously out of whack. But it's all played for tongue-in-cheek comic effect, layered with exotic Middle Eastern musical motifs (shades of "Rock the Casbah") and melodramatic horror-movie overtones. Joe's jerky vocals, the cheese-grater guitar, the whiplash drums, the stabbing organ -- it's all in the service of party fun.

It would be easy to pass off Joe King Carrasco as a novelty act; the fact that he used to perform in full crown and royal robe probably didn't help.  On the other hand, let's remember the musical landscape of the time, when Devo performed in hazmat suits with flowerpots on their heads, and the B-52s sported absurd bouffant hairdos.  Coasting comfortably under the radar, Carrasco never lost his garage-y vibe -- art-school cleverness never got in the way of him putting on a high-energy show.  And hey, pretentiousness never goes down well in Texas, anyway.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Stuff That Works" / Guy Clark

Well, here's an easy one.  You say "Texas" to me, and I think of Guy Clark. He burst like a rocket into my musical consciousness a few years ago, one night out on Long Island, as part of a singer-songwriters circle along with Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, and John Hiatt (how'd that Indiana boy get hooked up with all those Texans?).  Guy sang Stuff That Works that night; it absolutely blew me away.  How could it not?

Texas cliches are all about B-I-G -- big ranches, big Stetson hats, big belt buckles, big cars with longhorns mounted on the grille.  Well, Guy Clark is the antithesis of all that bigness and bluster.  His style is droll, understated -- a plain sort of push-back-your-hat-and-scratch-your-head honesty that undercuts everybody else's smartass sophistication. It's a country way of thinking, notched up by the traditions of folk music and outlaw country, but it also must be something in Clark's mellow temperament. This track can be found on his 1995 album Dublin Blues, but really, it's a theme that runs throughout his work.  In song after song -- "The Cape," "Homegrown Tomatoes," "Analog Girl," "Watermelon Dream," "Indian Head Penny" -- he drives us back to the simple and real things of this world.  And "Stuff That Works" is the essence of the Philosophy According to Guy Clark.

I was glad to find this video -- it lays out all the lyrics for you, and with a Guy Clark song, the lyrics always matter.  The arrangement's simple as can be, with an acoustic guitar doing most of the work, along with a little fiddle for sweetener. Guy's slightly craggy voice suits it just fine, too.

Of course, it seems like it's just a catalog, a country-folk version of "My Favorite Things." But there's a lot more craft in it than that.  (Guy Clark's a sneaky old fox.) Notice those little whispers of death and sorrow in it -- how Verse One's guitar sounds in a "dark and empty room," how Verse Two's old car defies obsolescence ("I get the feeling it ain't ever gonna stop") -- that's all part of the the braid of life.  And when he finally gets to the chorus, the reason he loves these things?  Because they're "the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall."  There's the wisdom of a life hard-lived; he's knows he's going to fall from time to time.  Best to be ready.

In Verse Three, he gets around to friendship, to a friend who's "seen me at my worst" -- just a hint of the ruffian and outlaw in him, just a hint.  It's not until Verse Four that he gets around to love -- but when he does, whoo-ee. "I got a woman I love / She’s crazy and paints like God / She’s got a playground sense of justice / She won’t take odds."  Now I don't know about you, but for me, this simple little verse is worth a hundred "my baby looks so fine" or "she makes me feel so good." This is about one woman, one specific woman, not just some generic blond in tight jeans. He's telling you something real about her, about who she is inside, not just what she looks like or how she loves him.  That "playground sense of justice" -- doesn't that make you adore this woman?

I remember sitting in that audience and catching my breath when this last verse came around.  Of course, it's the whole point of the song.  A guy who lives his life this way -- who won't settle for flash or trash -- wouldn't love just any woman; she has to be someone special.  By the time we meet her, we're primed to admire her. The whole damn song has been building this pedestal to put her on -- and the way he describes her, we know she deserves it.

Now who doesn't long for a cowboy that could love you that way?  Guy Clark, you sneaky old fox . . . .

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"In My Own Mind" / Lyle Lovett


The third sign that it was time for a Texas Music Week:  Someone at Friday night's Nick Lowe show handed out copies of this month's Elmore music magazine, and right there on the cover, darting a wary smile my way, was none other than Lyle Lovett, of Klein, Texas -- rancher, part-time bullrider, and fulltime Texas troubador.  If you think Doug Sahm had a wide range of musical styles, check out Lyle, who's been known to alternate gospel, acoustic folk, roots rock, Western swing, Nashville twang, Memphis R&B, and big band songbook all on the same album.  

Now I have to 'fess up to a huge fangirl crush on Lyle.  I know some people don't get this -- they make fun of his weird hair and oddly craggy face, or are perplexed by his subdued, almost courtly stage persona. How could anybody have a fangirl crush on that?  Well, I do. I don't go for country singers normally, but then Lyle's not really a country singer; he's been at odds with the Nashville establishment from the get-go.  There's just something about his voice that makes me swoon, that blend of honey and grit, with a true poet's knack for phrasing and nuance. And he's got that air of a wounded romantic that always steals my heart -- the guarded smile, the hurt eyes -- behind his droll humor and suffer-no-fools satire you just know he's a gentle soul longing for love.

Whether or not this bears any relation to the real Lyle Lovett doesn't matter, of course.  I've got my records, and that's all I need. (Check here for previous posts on "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" and "Nobody Knows Me".)  Since this is Texas Music Week, let's go for one of Lyle's twangier numbers.

I love the surreal charm of this video.  Sure, the song comes across as a laidback country two-step, but when you think about it, it's really a treatise on perception and objective reality.  So why not have him morph from one scene to another?  I do love Lyle's deadpan performance (it's no surprise he's had a sideline as an actor), that dreamlike way he sails through it all unfazed, suit and tie neatly pressed.  (I could watch this man ride a horse all day.)

And of course, it's also a country man's statement of faith in wide open spaces and good clean air. "Out here in my own mind / I live where I can breathe / Ain't nothin but a cool breeze / Nobody that it won't please."  The trees, the river, the tall grass, the cows, the horse, the faded barn -- it's where he belongs. The song's language is equally spare and simple, with short lines, often unrhymed, stating one simple detail after another.  The melody, too, is fluid and unfussy -- note how the verses repeat one light scrap of melody over and over, while the chorus just expands that melodic phrase, letting it roam farther up and down the scale, giving it room to breathe. 

Classic songwriting structure: Each verse progressively develops the idea.  Verse One savors his peaceful solitary morning, doing his chores, standing on the porch looking out over his fields. (Love that laconic description of the year's cycle: "I turn it all over / Plow it all under / I plant 'em in the springtime / Pick 'em in the summer.")  Verse Two widens his circle to greet the two ranch hands, comic sidekicks in their slogan T-shirts -- though notice they aren't even there at the moment, but off hunting or fishing.  That's the thing about perception -- you can move through all the seasons in the blink of an eye, or visualize people who exist somewhere else.  We don't even know we're doing it.

He's taking his time, but at last in Verse Three he gets to the romantic heart of it:  Finding his sweetheart in the kitchen, cooking breakfast.  (He's already made the coffee, of course.) Look at how vivid this scene is: "Hardwood floor creakin' / Bedroom door squeakin'" -- we're moving through the the old house with him, hunting for her.  And then his surprise when he finds her: "She's standing in the kitchen / I thought she was still sleepin'" -- another psychological flicker, comparing his expectation to reality.  And then there's this wonderfully tender domestic exchange: "Kiss her on the forehead / Asked her how she slept / She says, 'honey it's so early, / We probably shouldn't speak yet'." What a beautiful, understated moment, and how much it tells us about their relaxed relationship.

Easygoing as this song is -- I love that tempo, like the clop of hoofbeats -- there's always a tinge of melancholy in a Lyle Lovett song.  It's a lovely pastoral scene, but he's still aware of his separateness. The ranch hands show up when they show up; his wife might sleep late or not; even the crops follow nature's laws, not his.  He's just there, gliding through it, observing.  And the spare lyrics, the lonely croon of his voice, speak to me of shyness, brooding, a haunted quality that resonates throughout the song.

It's a breathtaking, soul-shivering effect, really, and Lyle Lovett pulls it off with effortless grace. The ancient poets knew about this, the lacrymae rerum -- the "tears of things," the fundamental sorrow of our earthly existence.  But damn, who expects to find this in a country song?

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Stoned Faces Don't Lie" / 
Doug Sahm


Texas music doesn't have to be all about tacos, tumbleweeds, and honkytonks. Looky right here at the long and rambling career of Douglas Wayne Sahm of San Antonio.  At various times he could be found in such bands as the Sir Douglas Quintet (the faux-British invasion "She's About a Mover"), the Honkey Blues, Doug Sahm and Band, the Sir Douglas Band, Doug Sahm's Tex-Mex Trip (the ultra-soulful "Houston Chicks"), or the Tejano super groups the Texas Tornadoes and Los Super Seven -- that is, when he wasn't recording solo albums under his own name, or his alias Wayne Douglas. Having begun life as a country music child prodigy -- he was onstage with Hank Williams in the country music star's last live performance -- he traced an idiosyncratic career arc through the 60s, 70s, 80s (when he was insanely popular in Scandinavia), and 90s, switching musical styles with a chameleon's easy grace, yet never really hitting the big time nationwide.

Sahm sang some of the most iconic Texas rock songs ever, like "Texas Me" and "Beautiful Texas Sunshine" and "I Can't Go Back to Austin," but he also could also sing R&B like nobody's business, launch into a polka or a bit of Western two-step, then turn hippie at a moment's notice -- a mode permanently imprinted from a spell in the Bay Area during the Summer of Love. That's the Doug Sahm I've been thinking about today . . . as if that song title hadn't clued you in already.

The Doug Sahm discography is a very complicated thing; it doesn't help that most of the original albums are out of print, superseded (but not really) by a succession of hit-or-miss "best of" compilations. But as near as I can figure out, this track first came out on on a 1971 LP called The Return of Doug Saldaña. He'd just moved back to Texas (hence the Mexican-sounding alias) and reassembled the Quintet, most notably childhood friend Augie Meyers, whose keyboards were so essential to the SDQ sound. But whereas his 1969 album Mendocino was all about pining for Texas from the confines of Northern California, on this homecoming album he's sitting in a Texas roadhouse, reflecting wistfully about the good old days in San Francisco.

Doug Sahm had one of the great voices of rock and roll; I love how that acoustic opening sets it off, soft and husky with just a little reverb.  "Stoned faces don't lie, / Baby, when you're high," he croons gently over a muted dab of bass.  One by one the instruments drift in -- a light jangle of guitar, then the drums, a splatter of honky tonk piano -- as he muses about running into an old friend from his mellow San Francisco days, when life was so much more simple and straightforward.

That low-key ballad tempo -- ticking along nicely, but never breaking a sweat -- betrays Sahm's country roots, translating them perfectly to this stoner anthem.  (Dig that little yip of self-pity he throws into his voice.)  Everything strips back in the middle-eight, almost as if he's taking a long reflective toke over the pit-a-pat of bass. You can almost hear the scrape of his chair as he pushes it back from the table. It's getting late, and the jukebox is gonna turn to Hank Ballard in a second; the beer sign in the front window is starting to flicker.  For all his nostalgia, Sir Douglas is very much in Texas here. But then, he never really left it behind.

It's a classic grass-is-always-greener scenario (emphasis on the grass), but I don't hear a bit of irony here -- not even towards the end, when it dissolves into a barroom singalong ("Everybody now!") and Doug lets loose a mournful howl of "When you're high, when you're high, when you're high!" I do love a song with handclaps, even if they only creep in at the end. Mind you, I don't know what he's moaning about -- it sounds to me as if his current lifestyle is plenty stress-free. But then, hey, I live in New York.  What do I know about a stress-free lifestyle?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"A State of Texas" / The Old 97s


I swear, this has nothing to do with the fact that the Texas Rangers knocked my Yankees out of the playoffs this week.  (Frankly, the Rangers deserve to be in the World Series a hell of a lot more than the Yankees do.)  It was more on account of my buddies John and Tim over on the Kinks Fan Club board, who lately have been tirelessly promoting the musical heritage of the Lone Star State. Even during last week's orgy of British rockers, I kept discovering new veins of Tex-arcana to explore -- it seemed high time to roll out this project. 

At the risk of being random, I thought I'd start out with one of the younger bands (despite their geezer-ish name), The Old 97s.  I've been nuts about these alt-county/indie darlings ever since I discovered them about a year ago. Their new album The Grand Theatre Volume One just came out a couple weeks ago, and I finally got my copy on Friday.  (Boo to the New West publicity department, though, who routinely blew off my request for a review copy -- which is why you won't be seeing a review of this marvelous LP from me on  By the way, that "Volume One" is for real -- there's supposed to be a second Grand Theatre album coming out in January, with a whole other set of tracks. Hoping it'll be anywhere near as good as this one, I'm pre-ordering it NOW.

To fill in a little history:  The Old 97s are from the Dallas area (Texas is so big, always best to specify the locality) and started playing together in 1993.  Along the way they've released maybe a dozen albums; lead singer Rhett Miller (originally from Austin) has also released a handful of solo albums. Under the Old 97s name, though, it's been the same four guys the whole time -- Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hamilton, and drummer Philip Peeples -- and, while Miller may do the lion's share of the songwriting, they share songwriting credits on most tracks.  That may explain why the band hasn't foundered on the shoals of Miller's obvious star quality. 

"A State of Texas" comes about halfway through the album, and it's a perfect mid-tracklist pick-me-up.  I love its boisterous energy -- reminds me that these guys got their start as a Dallas bar band, and they still know how to kick it out.  The raison d'etre of this number is blissfully simple:  It's Texas patriotism all the way, name-checking local landmarks and exclaiming over and over again how much they love Texas.  Considering how much time they spend on the road, or hobnobbing with other name musicians in New York and Los Angeles, it's nice to see them reaffirming their Texas roots.  (Interesting to note that the record was largely recorded in Austin, at the Texas Treefort, with Jim Vollentine producing.)

I've love Bethea's fasten-your-seatbelts guitar work on this track -- is it something in the Texas water that breeds superspeed guitarists? -- backed up with Peeples' whizbang drumming. Miller's anxious-earnest tenor seems to race to keep up, sneaking gasps of breath amidst a torrent of lyrics.  He reels images past us -- country dawns, night skies over the plains, crowded honkytonks, spooling highways -- like a cardsharp shuffling his deck, or maybe a caffeine-revved trucker speeding down empty stretches of West Texas interstate.  It's just a delirious joyride of a song.

I'd better confess right now that I've never been to Texas, unless you count changing planes at the Dallas airport (I don't). But I've been hankering for a while to get down there; I'm not buying a Stetson or cowboy boots or anything, but I could definitely do some barbecue.  Oh, yes, Texas Week -- that should cure the lonesomes those British rockers left me with.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

“I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” / Nick Lowe

I know I've been MIA for a week or so, but that's what happens when a fangirl sneaks off into the Rock 'n' Roll Zone.  Graham was there with his old band, and Nick kept showing up with his new band (love that Geraint!);  I'm told Greg T. was over by the bar, and Tim and Landon and the Scotts and Jahn wandered in and out, washed on a river of the house pinot noir.  Where were you, Mike?  We were breaking glass, and going west, and shakin' on the hill and living on a battlefield night after night, with the lady doctor and the village idiot and the bride who used to rock and roll in a black Lincoln Continental. Sorry, officer!  And y'know, even if you only know one person from Canada, your new friend from the great north is bound to know him too.

But I digress. Nursing a somewhat delicate head this morning, the best I can offer in the way of explanation is a rerun of this earlier post. . . .

Nick Lowe is often called the Godfather of Punk, most likely because when Stiff Records blazed onto the scene, he was (largely by default) their house producer. But Nick himself didn’t record much that I’d call punk music. Even this 1978 track (you'll find it on the recently re-issued Jesus of Cool) --  it may have punk attitude up the wazoo, but it's still a giddy syncopated pop track, sung lightly and tongue-in-cheek.

In the four years since he’d left Brinsley Schwarz, Nick had released a couple Stiff singles, produced other artists (Elvis Costello, the Damned), and gone on the road with the legendary Stiff Tour, but didn’t record an album of his own until Jake Riviera left Stiff to form Radar Records. By then Nick was playing with the core of musicians who would eventually tour as Rockpile – Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, Terry Williams – though for contractual reasons they had to release their LPs as solo acts. This track, however, finds Nick working with former Brinsley keyboardist Bob Andrews, along with bassist Andrew Bodnar, drummer Steve Goulding, and -- in this video at least -- guitarist Martin Belmont. Which, as all you good little rock historians know, means it's the Rumour, that great ensemble that also backed up Graham Parker on his earliest LPs.

This song (which Nick wrote with Bodnar and Goulding) is a perfect expression of teenage nihilism – “I love the sound of breaking glass / Specially when I’m lonely / I need the noises of destruction / When there's nothing new.” MY NICK LOWE THEORY #2: The “I” in Nick Lowe songs is usually a character, but Nick’s such a chameleon, he can get into another person’s mind with total conviction. When this track came out, I’ll bet plenty of people thought Nick was advocating vandalism (just like people thought he was a hippie when he wrote “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding,” though in interviews Nick says he thinks he was poking fun at flower children – he just can’t remember why).

After all, with the Clash and the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers around, anarchy was the order of the day; Nick had to deliver something in that vein. In a way, I suppose being at Stiff was Nick’s turn to be a juvenile delinquent. What can we get away with? This’ll piss off the old guard, won’t it? Wot larks.

But I feel no threat here, just a reckless sort of joy. The weird disconnect going on is textbook adolescence – the kid’s smashing windows in the deep of night just for the aural sensation, not out of any social rage or personal malice. He just likes the feeling it gives him to hear that sound. And the chorus’s call and response works perfectly – various phrases (“nothing new,” “all around,” “safe at last,” "change of mind” ) are invariably answered with “sound of breaking glass,” which Nick sings with a shrug, almost like a kid idly riffing through things to do. Whatever’s going on, hey, breaking glass is as good as anything. SMASH.

Granted, the song is too syncopated, and, at 3:05 minutes, too long to be standard punk issue; the arrangement isn't stripped-down enough, either. But thank god, because if it were stripped down we might not have Bob Andrews' fantastic electric piano, all these shattering glissandos, playing off the reverb chords on the guitar and the offbeat smash of a tambourine.  It’s like you can hear the rocks being pitched in the dead of night, echoing off the surrounding walls. And Nick’s voice floats carelessly over it all, the bass line lounging negligently beneath. I imagine him chewing gum as he sings, sticking out his tongue at his mates. Anarchy, yes, but the fun kind. You don’t have to throw rocks, you know, but with that hooky syncopation, you really DO have to dance.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

OMG, is it Wednesday again ALREADY?

1. "Veronica" / Elvis Costello
From Spike (1989)
As I recall, this was the album that made me "go off" Elvis -- despite this perky pop single co-written with Paul McCartney (that's him on the old Hofner bass, though I think EC dubbed his own backing vocals). It ticks along too briskly, the lyrics nearly unintelligible, as if Elvis was trying to disguise the fact that this is no love song, but a fretful rehash of "Eleanor Rigby."  That soaring, swinging melody though -- it's hard to resist.

2. "Eros' Entropic Tundra" / Of Montreal
From Satanic Panic in the Attic (2004)
Absurd song title aside (all Of Montreal's titles are overwrought like this), it's a winsome bit of indie pop, with a definitely Kinky flavor.  As Kevin Barnes miserably moans, "All I ever get / Is sa-a-ad love . . ."

3. "A Question of Temperature" / Balloon Farm
Hazy, hectic, with an insistent beat -- this psychedelic classic, with a definite garage-y vibe, emanated from a New Jersey band that barely outlasted this one single's blip of underground success.  Thanks to my pal Blamo for introducing me to it on his famous Blast-o-palooza mix-tape CD; you can also find it on the first Nuggets set.

4. "You Want It" / The Village Green
From When the Creepers Creep In (EP, 2006)
Another rarity -- an impulse download from a quirky Seattle band with an uncanny predilection for neo-British Beat pop.  Most of this EP ended up on their later album, but "You Want It" mysteriously fell by the wayside. Too bad -- it glowers and lurks very nicely.

5. "Gospel Night" / Dave Alvin
From Blue Blvd (1991)
I love how Dave Alvin's slightly gruff voice narrates the unglamorous lives and loves of ordinary  people, the stuff of California trailer parks and roadside diners, served up with a whomping beat, honkytonk piano, and spanking guitar licks.

6. "League of Failures" / Jill Sobule
From California Years (2009)
Loveable losers -- does anybody get them better than Jill Sobule?

7. "Take Me With U" / Marshall Crenshaw
From What's in the Bag? (2003)
Marshall covering a Prince song?  Well, why not -- that foxy syncopation, those sneaky guitar riffs -- a perfect MC vehicle, it turns out.

8. "Love Like a Glove" / Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit
From Nick Lowe And His Cowboy Outfit (1984)
Another cover -- as it happens, Nick singing his then-wife Carlene Carter's song.  Rather an undistinguished cut, I have to say.  And I'm not jealous of Carlene Carter at all.

9. "Say It Isn't True" / Alan Price
From Liberty (1989)
And yet another cover, this one of a Jackson Browne track from Lawyers in Love.  Alan must have loved this bittersweet song, because after making it the last cut on this rather obscure 1989 album, he threw an even longer version onto 1995's A Gigster's Life for Me. Alan's take is much more dramatic than Jackson's -- if only it didn't drift into bombastic overkill.

10. "One Irish Rover" / Van Morrison
From No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
Gotta love this Van classic, a tenderly lurching waltz with just a whiff of lonely self-pity.  Self-mythologizing, yes, but Van wears that soulful troubadour mask so convincingly.  A lovely song to [yawn] go to sleep on . . . .

Monday, October 11, 2010

"None Of Us Are Free" / Solomon Burke

Somewhere up in heaven, there's a gospel choir with a new voice -- the late great soul singer Solomon Burke, who never forgot that essential connection between soul and gospel music.  

This particular track found its way onto my iTunes thanks to a superb compilation album from the Blind Boys of Alabama -- an amazing record, featuring partners that range from Randy Travis to Lou Reed.  (Yes, you read that right.) The Blind Boys won't sing with you unless you're singing about the Lord -- they do have their standards -- and I have to say, not every track rings with the same conviction.  I'm also enamored of the duet with Asleep at the Wheel, "The Devil Ain't Lazy" (that's just a total hoot) but the finest track on this very fine album is the one with Solomon Burke, taken from his 2002 album Don't Give Up On Me.

I wasn't surprised to find out that Ray Charles was the first artist to record this song, but I was surprised to find out that his original was fairly recent -- 1993.  This song struck me from the very first listen like something you might have heard civil rights marchers singing to back in the early Sixties.  Sure, it's got a deeply funky undertow, but the main course of the song has that same dogged weariness as Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang," or Lee Dorsey's "Working in the Coal Mine."  Even odder, this song was written by those old pros Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, along with Brenda Russell -- yes, the same team who wrote "Blame It On the Bossa Nova" and "Sometimes When We Touch." It hardly seems like a your usual slickly expert Weil-Mann number, but there you go.

Once Ray Charles unleashed this on the world, it was snapped up by other artists -- Lynyrd Skynyrd, for one (a tasty 1997 cover) and, to complete the trifecta, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), who recorded it with guest stars Sting and Sheila E.  (I kid you not.)  They're all wonderful renditions, but really, who could compete with Solomon Burke's powerful, rich voice?  His round tones are oh, so steeped in woe, and the hair-breadth lags of his phrasing just quiver with regret.  Listening to this recording, you cannot doubt that life is a vale of tears.

And yet there are the Blind Boys, shaking their heads and echoing everything he says, and suddenly it's all about brotherhood, too. We're all in the same boat; nobody gets a free ride. It's a sad song, and yet incredibly uplifting too -- that's the magic of it.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

"Cut the Cake" / Average White Band

Tomorrow is my birthday (though you'll probably be reading this on Friday, in which case it's today).  Oh, believe me, I've had enough of them that it's no big deal, and as per usual, absolutely nobody in my family has made any plans to celebrate the occasion.  But to be honest, my nose is a teensy bit out of joint.

So I'm going to throw myself a little party here. In years past, my birthday song of choice has been the traditional "Yer Birthday" by the Beatles.  This year, however, I thought I'd put a little F-U-N-K into the proceedings.

Hunh???  What are those white boys doing on Soul Train?

I have to confess, until about a month ago I didn't know this song's name.  I generally confused it with the Average White Band's other big number, "Pick Up the Pieces," and I couldn't have told you who performed either one.  If pressed to guess, I might have said Funkadelic or Parliament -- but Average White Band?  I had heard the name, but I assumed it was a Southern rock outfit.

Who cared?  It wasn't my kind of music, I firmly believed.  Forget the fact that anytime one of these songs would pop up in the background, I'd soon be chair-dancing and humming along.

I can't even recall why I started to listen to this song last week -- but for the first time, I actually paid attention and acknowledged how brilliant it is.  Out of curiosity, I started to Google around and learned that the Average White Band was, in fact, not only white as promised, but Scottish. With guys named Hamish and Malcolm and Robbie in the band, even (at least, in that first incarnation of the band, the one that originated the hits).  But in the era when they hit the charts -- 1975 to 1980 -- the last thing I wanted to know about was funk and disco.  I was living in the UK, just when they were making it big in the States, and came back to New York only to become obsessed with New Wave music.  These guys were SO off my radar.

Well, better late than never.  In lieu of having a real birthday cake, I'll just sing along with these guys. (And yes, I do know there's a subtext to all that "cake" and "piece" and "lick up the cream" -- it IS a funk song, after all.)  This track is like having a party in a box -- just open it up and the good times WILL begin.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


Back on schedule! 

1.  "William It Was Really Nothing" / The Smiths
From Louder Than Bombs (1987)
Anybody here see 500 Days of Summer?  Remember that scene in the elevator where Joseph Gordon-Levitt finally strikes up a conversation with Zooey Deschanel?  It happens when he recognizes that she's listening to the Smiths on her iPod -- the sign of a kindred spirit. Actually she was listening to "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" -- the flip side to this 1984 single -- but let's not split hairs. Their sound is so distinctive, it's like walking into a room and being transported to the Planet of Morrissey. 

2. "The Lovecats" / The Cure
From Japanese Whispers (1983)
Still in British New Wave territory, with this spiky but highly danceable little track by the Cure, a.k.a. Robert Smith and whoever he's playing with now. When I first bought Boys Don't Cry, I never thought this was a band that would still be around 25 years later. Shows how much I know!  I love the alley cat meows tossed in, and that bang-on-a-can percussion.

3. "This Is Where I Belong" / Bill Lloyd
From The Modern Genius Of Ray Davies (Mojo magazine giveaway, 2006)
One of the better Kinks tribute albums (amazing how many of those are around when you start digging). Lloyd throws a little extra good ol' boy twang into this iconic Kinks track, an interesting idea.  Personally I prefer Ron Sexsmith's version (on -- he captures the oddball neurotic edge of Ray Davies's original. (Borderline agoraphobic, more like.) But this track lured me into exploring Lloyd's other music, which I like a good deal. Note to musicians: Those tribute album tracks DO snare new listeners. 

4. "Alex Chilton" / The Replacements
From Pleased To Meet Me (1987)
Still in the 1980s, but now in American post-punk garage rock territory (actually, more like basement rock.) No wonder Paul Westerburg developed a man-crush on ex-Big Star leader Alex Chilton -- the album was recorded in Chilton's hometown Memphis, with Jim Dickinson producing, and Chilton joined them on guitar for "Can't Hardly Wait."  Of course, after Chilton heard this track, I don't think he ever spoke to Westerburg again. So it goes.  

5. "A Heartbeat" / Roman Candle
From Oh Tall Tree in the Ear (2009)
At last, a newer song, but frankly this irrepressibly cheery gem has such a classic pop sound, it could have been written anytime between 1962 and 2010. I love this little North Carolina band -- check out my previous post.  

6. "Something Better Beginning" / The Kinks
From Kinda Kinks (1965)
One of my favorite British Invasion tracks EVER.

7. "Cold River" / John Hiatt
From Master of Disaster (2005)
Love this album -- it came out the season when I first discovered Hiatt's music, and I gorged on it.  I just noticed a line that never struck me before -- about a woman slipping on her stockings, "and it made the sweetest sound." (Remember when he tells his girl in "Drive South," "don't bother to pack your nylons"?) John knows that equation:  Lingerie = intimacy.

8. "Art Lover" / Holly Ramos
From Racehorse (2006)
What is it, Kinks covers night?  Interesting twist, to have a woman singing this song, with its creepy hints of pedophilia. (Borderline twisted stuff comes so naturally to Ray Davies.)  I interviewed Holly back in 2006 when this album came out; she has just the right waifish punk charm to pull it off.

9. "Cushie Butterfield" / Alan Price
From Geordie Roots and Branches
No links, sorry.  This album is an obscurity indeed -- a charity effort by some Newcastle bank, which ex-Animals bassist Chas Chandler produced; he roped in his old bandmate Alan Price to sing a bunch of traditional English folk songs. I know this song well, not from pub singalongs but from a kids' music album my toddlers listened to incessantly -- "Cushie Butterfield" was Sting's contribution.  (Those guttural Northern vowels -- priceless!) A great little ditty with a sea shanty lilt.

10. "Lady Scarface" / Lydia Lunch
From Queen of Siam (1991)
One of the joys of internet fan forums is that from time to time folks do CD mixes for each other, which is how this offbeat Lydia Lunch track ended up in my iTunes.  It's a deliciously kinky little spoken word number, kinda Gothic cabaret in mood, with Lydia's kittenish pout tilting toward the psychotic. (She's all whips and handcuffs to the dirty raincoat of Holly Ramos' "Art Lover".) Is there an arc here, from the Smiths through the Replacements to Lydia Lunch?  Maybe, but who can tell at this time of night?

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Sunday Shuffle

Hunh?  Well, I was on the phone all day Wednesday with my new Norton friends, plucking out a virus from the bowels of my computer.  Best laid plans and all that. But who's to say we can't take the Shuffle out for a Sunday drive?

1. "My Love" / Paul McCartney and Wings
From Red Rose Speedway (1993)
Now, you know I love Paul McCartney.  But this song may be too schmaltzy even for me. Gorgeous melody, hideously overblown production, embarrassingly adolescent lyrics. What exactly is IT that his love does so well (or, excuse me, so "good")?  As if we couldn't guess.

2. "Secondary Modern" / Elvis Costello and the Attractions
From Get Happy! (1980)
And now the antithesis of schmaltz -- Get Happy!, my favorite EC album. This song always makes me think of a creepy janitor ("down in the basement") molesting high school girls. Just listen to Elvis' heavy-breathing vocal, and that stalker bass line.  How this manages to be such a fun track is beyond me.

3. "Personality Crisis" / The New York Dolls
From New York Dolls (1972)
More snarky fun. I completely missed the Dolls, but it doesn't really matter when you got on the David Johansen train -- once you're aboard, it's time for fun. Arch those eyebrows, honey. Who knew drag queens could rock out like this?

4. "Let's Pretend" / Greg Trooper
From The Williamsburg Affair(2010)
Time to dial down the irony now.  "Let's go down where the rivers meet / And pretend we never moved to Lonely Street" -- behind this gently rollicking roots rocker lies a ton of wistful wishful thinking. Like "Dead End Street" with less satire, a tale of two losers still trying to live on love. 

5. "Get Back" / The Beatles
From Let It Be (1970)
Proof that Paul McCartney doesn't need to wallow in schmaltz.  A part of me will always be on that Mayfair rooftop, with John Lennon in his fur coat and Paul in full black beard, treating London to the greatest free concert ever.  Get back, Loretta!

6. "D Is for Dangerous" / The Arctic Monkeys
From Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007)
When the first Arctic Monkeys album came out, British critics were raving that they were the best band ever.  Well, here's the acid test -- just listen to the Arctic Monkeys right after the Beatles.  It's no contest.  A nice hectic bit of BritPop, though, and I do love those thick guttural accents.  

7. "Pink Bedroom" / John Hiatt
From Two Bit Monsters (1979)
Didn't we have this on the last Shuffle?  The iPod must really like early Hiatt. Well, her bedroom's still pink -- and so is the Barbie Ferrari.

8. "Think Sometimes About Me" / Sandie Shaw
From The Collection (compilation)
Now here's schmaltz done right.  Those 60s girl singers were never afraid of drama -- listen to the lovely Sandie fling her heart into the ring, making that ex-boyfriend wonder why he left her.

9. "Indoor Fireworks" / Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello
From Live At Slims (1994)
Not fair, really -- a bootleg of a concert where Elvis came on as a special guest.  "This is a song Elvis wrote, and I stole off him," Nick introduces it.  Well, for the record, here is Elvis's version; Nick's is on Rose of England. I happen to know that Nick and Elvis did a whole show together in San Francisco last Friday night, singing each other's songs -- I'll bet this one was on the set list. It KILLS me that I missed that show.

10. "Gai-Gin Man" / Nick Lowe
From Party of One (1995)
Oh, come on, Shuffle, twist the knife!! I know he's still out on the West Coast, singing to other people than myself. From the greatly underrated Party of One  -- Dave Edmunds, producer! -- a spanking little rockabilly number about a tall blue-eyed man touring Japan. (Remember what a big hit "Bay City Rollers We Love You" was in Japan?)  A bit of a novelty number, maybe, but trust me, it's more fun than a barrel of Arctic Monkeys.

Friday, October 01, 2010

"Good As Ever" / 
Works Progress Administration

What's in a name?   Well, here's a case study.  Of course I knew there was a band out there in the 90s called Toad the Wet Sprocket, but something about that name made me assume it was a punk metal thrash band.  They were young, they were from California, they were totally outside my frames of reference, back in those days between MTV and Sirius when I didn't have any decent channel for finding new music.  Even though I'm sure I heard some of their big songs -- like All I Want or Fall Down -- I never connected song to band, and remained blissfully ignorant that this was actually a band I would have liked, and liked a lot.

Same thing with Nickel Creek.  Nickel Creek, Nickleback -- who knew which was which?  And because every Nickleback song I ever heard was obnoxiously loud and boring, I would never have paid attention to Nickel Creek, until a friend's daughter started dating mandolinist Chris Thile.  I finally hauled myself to one of their shows and fell in love with their indie bluegrass sound.  Unfortunately, that was on their "farewell for now" tour, so goodbye Nickel Creek. (Okay, okay, they're just on a break. Or so they say.)

I'd have missed Works Progress Administration, too, if they hadn't included a cover of the Kinks' "I Go To Sleep". Thankfully the Kinks network does not allow any covers to go unnoticed, and so I hunted down this track.  I discovered to my delight that Works Progress Administration is a bizarre sort of supergroup, combining (get this line-up) fiddler Sara Watkins and her brother, guitarist Sean Watkins, from Nickel Creek; Lyle Lovett's fiddler Luke Bulla; Tom Petty's keyboardist Benmont Tench; Elvis Costello's drummer Pete Thomas; Elvis's AND Hohn Hiatt's bassist Davey Faragher; and the incredible Greg Leisz, who's played various stringed instruments for everybody from Smashing Pumpkins to Sheryl Crow. And the presiding spirit of all this seems to be Toad the Wet Sprocket's leader, Glen Phillips. Who knew?

It's just an insanely good album, by the way, with track after track featuring each of these amazing artists. It really does feel like a community effort, a collaboration among music-loving musicians who dig each other's work and are happy to share the spotlight.  (How refreshing!)  Nevertheless, my big question after listening to this album was:  Who is this Glen Phillips?

This particular WPA track has been teasing my brain for weeks now.  I've got it on a couple of workout mixes on my iPod, and this stupid tiny iPod Shuffle that I've got doesn't display artist info -- so when that wheeze of fiddles starts up, I'm momentarily thrown.  Is this a country artist?   Everybody in this project is clearly getting their twang on, though you could hardly help it, with all those fiddles around.

But then as soon as Glen Phillips starts singing those unrhymed, meandering verses, I'm thrown back into indie mode. (Maybe it's the juxtaposition of words like "fontanelle" and "bassinet" and "razor blades" that does it.)  "I feel too much and I'm sick of feeling" -- yup, that's perfect 21st-century sentiment. Yet that gently ticking tempo, the good-humored fiddles, and Phillips' ironic phrasing keeps the whole thing from going all dark and emo-punk.  By the time he gets to that last verse -- "Maybe it's a kind of genius / Finding fault in everything / If I had a palace in utopia / I'd obsess on the cracks beneath the sink" -- we're clued into his comic persona, the hapless mopey loser.

For something this laidback and unassuming, it actually turns out to be a major earworm.  I still can't figure out where the hooks are, though -- those ever so slightly discordant fiddle riffs? The moody key change at the end of the chorus? Maybe it's just the way Phillips pronounces "fontanelle." He knows the audience is going to giggle there.

I guess it's no surprise that a song by the Kinks would show up on this album -- the smart cool kids gets the Kinks, even the ones in sunny California. (Especially the ones in sunny California, maybe -- there's a reason why The 88 are Ray Davies' new pet band.)  These guys get character, they get irony, and they've got the musical chops to back it up, enough chops to attract veterans like Benmont Tench and Greg Leisz. They deserve a better name than Works Progress Administration, for all its sincere Depression-era resonance.  But hey, knowing how fluid the indie scene is these days, they'll probably change it next month anyway.  I just hope I'll find it in time!