Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sorry, been in a mini-crunch of work lately and haven't been able to post. And when I do have a spare moment, I've been doing some blog housekeeping -- adding a nifty gadget I just learned about, which you'll find midway down the column on the right: LABELS. This will allow you to search through my older posts by artist or by topic. Not everyone I've written about is listed, I'm sorry to say -- couldn't make the list too long or it'd be no use. And I'm a little embarrassed to see how the list reveals my musical obsessions. But hey, if you're into Nick Lowe or Ray Davies you'll know where to go. . .

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Skin and Bones" / Motion City Soundtrack

Another song with a title that sounds like a Kinks song, but isn't. This one's from a different band, though -- another new album I reviewed for Blogcritics. Of course, I have written about this band here before (and here too). But a new album deserves another post.

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I first saw Motion City Soundtrack a couple summers ago, sandwiched in between the Hush Sound and Panic at the Disco (yes, my pre-teen daughter picked the concert) on the Honda Civic Tour. The other bands were peppy and entertaining, but -- sigh! -- I immediately fell irrationally in love with Motion City Soundtrack. Snarky lyrics and a lead singer in nerd glasses will always do that to me. (Remember Elvis Costello?) I realized then that I'd been listening to them on my kids' iPods for months; their insanely catchy, revved-up melodies were already familiar.

I'd never bothered to listen to the lyrics, though, and once I did, Motion City Soundtrack leapfrogged right into this tiny cadre of artists I consider My Guys. Membership in that elite corps is very selective; it's more that just really really really liking their music. I become convinced that I get where they're coming from, and that if we ever met, they'd appreciate that I was one of their Special Fans.

I can't predict who goes in that door and who doesn't, mind you. Why should Keb' Mo' be there and not Amos Lee? Why Death Cab for Cutie and not the Decemberists? Why Ben Folds and not Ben Harper? Why Fountains of Wayne and not the Shins? Why the Old 97s and not My Morning Jacket? Why John Hiatt and not John Prine? Why Amy Rigby and Jill Sobule but not Aimee Mann and Jenny Lewis? (because it's not just guys . . . .) Why the Kinks and not the Beatles? Why Nick Lowe and not Graham Parker? (Okay, that one I get...)

But back to Motion City Soundtrack. In a sea of power pop, punk-pop, and indie-emo bands, these guys really stand out, not just for their clever lyrics but for their psychological insights. The characters in MCS songs tend to be misfits, insecure losers, but they're brilliant losers with a huge vocabulary and a shrink's eye for the betraying gesture. On this fourth album, My Dinosaur Life -- their graduation to the big leagues of a Major Label -- they even dare to move beyond paranoid love songs to consider the universe.

Yes, the universe. This entire song is a meditation on the purpose of life. (Maybe Justin Pierre watched one too many Richard Attenborough documentaries on the Discovery Channel.) Uptempo it may be, underlaid with a cheese-grater guitar strum, but the melody is yearning and anxious, as the protagonist mulls over the Big What-Ifs. Such as: "What if there's nothing more to me / I'm just skin and bones, there's no mystery?" Or "What if there's no way to explain / Things like deja vu and acid rain?" Or "What if there's nothing more to us, / We're just carbon dust, we're just pixie dust?" And the most important one, cradled in a lush set of vocal harmonies: "Will we be all right, left alone tonight?" That little-child sense of vulnerability, that fear of the surrounding void, is heart-wrenching.

Yet accompanying those abstruse philosophical queries, the sound is raw and fierce, like a shield of electric guitars, loud bashing drums, and a moog synthesizer (just right for that sci-fi underlayer). That punk-flavored aural assault is like a chainsaw, cutting through the complacency of day-to-day existence. By the song's end, they still have no answer -- only the fellowship of back-up vocals and that protective chain-mail of sound. But at least they've asked the question.

It takes courage to wade out into the void. It takes nerve not to go for the easy, comforting answer. I'm so proud of My Guys.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Holiday" / Vampire Weekend

In my household, I have to say, we were awaiting Vampire Weekend's second album with bated breath. Their 2008 debut was one of those rare things that everybody in our family loved like crazy -- every time it came on the radio, we'd all cheer. And although my son Hugh was the one who first introduced us to this spunky world-pop crew, for this second album I was the one who scored the goods first, by reviewing an advance copy it for Blogcritics.

Hugh and I went to see them Sunday night at this spectacular converted movie palace uptown, its interior a gilded riot of Moorish and Oriental decoration (it's the same place Reverend Ike used to preach). They are just as engaging live as I expected -- animated and enthusiastic, executing these complex songs with crisp professionalism. There wasn't a wasted note in the evening. What I couldn't appreciate beforehand was what a great singalong band this is -- the audience was all over those catchy refrains, dancing in our seats and having a simply fabulatastic time.

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"Holiday" is always a promising title for a song (think the Kinks' "Holiday" and "Holiday Romance," Nick Lowe's "Time I Took A Holiday") and this breezy track lives up to its peers. Loaded up with ska, pulsing along like a speeding car, it has a deliberately tinny sound that somehow just feels like a beach vacation to me.

Not just a holiday, but "the best one of the year" -- a desperately needed getaway in the depths of winter, "when I'm counting on my teeth" (chatter chatter chatter). I'm guessing the Caribbean ("our republic on the beach"), that favorite long-weekend escape for privileged Northeasterners, the usual characters for this gang of Ivy League Columbia graduates. Jeez, that takes me back. I recall the anxiety of those crack-of-dawn flights, all the touseled blond children, the sets of matching suitcases, on President's Day break -- that long February weekend when it seemed no Manhattan private-school family would dare not fly south. Our kids always felt spectacularly unsurprised when they ran into school friends at the resort's kids club (colonialism is NOT dead). And then you'd meet the same kids skiing at Deer Valley or Vail over the March vacation, like clockwork. Yet I have to admit, identifying with these scenarios is part of Vampire Weekend's appeal for me.

But really, who wouldn't enjoy this recklessly catchy little song? "I’ve got wheels, I’ve got Cutter spray / And a healthy sense of worth," lead singer Ezra Koenig declares; "Half of me is the gasoline / But the other half’s the surf." Even when when the song floats away from its moorings in the bridge (something vague about a naive girl who turns vegetarian during the Iraq invasion), I'm ready for that percussive single-note synth riff to start up again, cruising back up the beach. This song may be edged with thoughts of bombs, with a nagging fear, but it still bursts out of the gate with dizzying joy. Listen to Ezra's little falsetto whoops; they may be ska or Afropop or Bollywood, but they're definitely not bland conventional pop.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Little Lamb Dragonfly" / Paul McCartney & Wings

Listen to this recording; hear the clicks and pops? That's because I converted my old well-loved LP to a digital recording so I could hear the old Wings stuff on my iPod. Of course I could have bought a clean digital version of it, but why? I love hearing the scuffs and hisses that years of overuse left on the vinyl.

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My private theory about "Little Lamb Dragonfly" -- and I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong -- is that this was yet another of the many coded messages that the former Beatles sent back and forth to each other. After that Paul Is Dead hoax, I always scrutinized Beatle lyrics for secret messages, and really, who could ignore the message John sent Paul in his song "How Do You Sleep?" I have to say, I never felt the same about John after that.

So my theory --- which sprang full-blown into my head the very first time I listened to Red Rose Speedway -- is that this is really two songs, "Little Lamb" and "Dragonfly." (Red Rose Speedway is full of such medleys, or collage songs, Paul falling back on his old tricks from the second side of Abbey Road.) And while "Little Lamb" is addressed to George Harrison, "Dragonfly" is written to John Lennon.

Listen to that opening guitar riff on "Little Lamb," lacy and loopy and sitar-like; listen to Paul's vocal, which sounds uncannily like George. The melody, too, is dominated by downward swoops, another George trademark. He calls him "little lamb" because a lamb is such a gentle, peaceful animal, and wistfully reflects "I have no answer for you, little lamb / I can help you out / But I cannot help you in" -- a reference, surely, to Harrison's continuing inward spiritual quests.

Lennon, however, is a "dragonfly" -- Paul may have been thinking "gadfly," but wanted to make it fiercer and yet more noble. And his message to the dragonfly is even more touching: "Dragonfly, fly by my window / You and I still have a way to go / Don't know why you hang around my door / I don't live here any more." That complicated, intense relationship between Lennon and McCartney is not so easily put to rest, and Paul no doubt resented John criticizing him for songs he'd written years earlier. My heart almost breaks to hear Paul yearn "since you've gone / I never know / I go on, but I / Miss you so." (As he sings this, however, his voice soars upward, sounding like early Bee Gees -- who knows why.) Later on, he puts it even more ruefully: "How did two rights make a wrong." Indeed, how could the conjunction of two such amazing talents be a source of regret?

Macca certainly spends more time on the Dragonfly part of the song -- defending himself ("I'm flying / Can't you see me I'm flying"), hoping for the future ("You and I can find a way to see . . . the years ahead will show / How little we really know." Oddly enough, although Red Rose Speedway didn't come out until 1973, this song was originally recorded in 1970 when Paul was working on Ram, so it wasn't a response to "How Do You Sleep?" (which John put on his 1971 Imagine album). When I first heard this song, though, I couldn't help but see it as Paul's rebuttal. And being a confirmed McCartneyite, you know which side I was on.

It's a lovely track, though. Even though it runs to over six minutes, I never feel it's too long (maybe because it still feels like two songs for the price of one). It starts simply and then builds; being a 70s record, of course, it overdoes the synths, and I can't ignore those cheesy Linda-and-Denny echoes ("I'm waiting, can't you see me, I'm waiting"). But if you want fluid, gorgeous melodies, Paul McCartney is always your man, and here they are. There's a reason why this song, once in my head, won't leave. And any day when I've got Paul McCartney in my head is a good day for me.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Sweetheart" / Jill Sobule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 07, 2010

"Never My Love" / The Association

I fought it, I really did. I've been agonizing for days over choosing the "right" song for my landmark 500th post. Back and forth, back and forth. Naturally I considered bestowing this honor upon the Kinks (though I've inflicted an awful lot of the Kinks on you folks lately) or the Beatles (I did get the remastered stereo boxset for Christmas). Then I was distracted by a rare flurry of activity on the Nick Lowe Yahoo message group, and began to write about Rockpile's "Now and Always," Nick and Dave Edmunds' blissful go at channeling the Everly Brothers.

But in the spirit of this blog, it's fitting that I finally succumbed to a random earworm I couldn't get out of my head. It started over Christmas, when my sister played me an oldies mix CD someone had given her. We were gabbing a mile a minute, catching up, sharing gossip, comparing children, only half listening to the thing. "I can make you a copy of this," she kept offering, and I kept refusing, saying, "But I already have all these songs." Which wasn't strictly true -- I don't have "Yummy Yummy Yummy" or "Hitchin' A Ride" by Vanity Fare (you know this 1970 ditty -- "a thumb goes up, a car slows down..."). But so many others -- "98.6" by Keith, "Have I The Right" by the Honeycombs, "Please Don't Ever Leave Me" by the Cyrkle -- yep, I've got them all digitally stowed, good to go.

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And then this baby came on the stereo. My first reaction? Horrified fascination. It's too syrupy sweet, way over-produced, with hopelessly inane lyrics. And yet I know I loved this record when it first came out, in late 1967. I remember thrilling to hear it begin at a school dance, hoping the right guy would ask me to dance (was that Bruce Jordan? Mark Miles? Jeff Arthur?), and dreading that I'd have to slow dance on such an Important Song with the wrong guy (here I won't name names, but believe me I know who I'm thinking about). I can still picture the school gym hung with wilting crepe paper streamers, moonlight falling in diamond shapes through the protective steel mesh on the windows. Makes me perspire just to think of it.

Mind you, when "Never My Love" began playing the other night, I couldn't remember at first whether it had been sung by the Association or Bread. I know, I looked it up, Bread wasn't even formed until 1969. Nevertheless, it's quite possible that this very same Association track spontaneously spawned Bread, like a retrovirus. Think about it: No other Association songs were quite this soupy and saccharine, were they? "Along Comes Mary"? No. "Windy"? No. "Cherish" . . . . oh, well, point taken.

Two weeks later, my opinion of this song hasn't improved -- and yet it won't leave my brain. The final blow was struck this morning, as I was standing in a Radio Shack, forking over money for an external hard drive so I can fix my iTunes (don't ask). I heard that ponderous five-note guitar lick, followed by a splash of drums, and I knew I was sunk. At last I forced myself to listen, to figure out why this song is so addictive.(Ranked #2 of the most-requested radio songs of all time, or so I've read. ) Of course, it's a knee-jerk wedding song choice, but it can't just be that.

It certainly isn't the lyrics that makes this song so special. Each brief verse poses a question that his lover has asked -- an ordinary litany of romantic jitters, selected for their dead obvious rhymes (will there come a time when I "grow tired of you"/"lose my desire for you"/"change my mind and won't require you"). Over and over again he repeats the same lockstep answer: "Never my love." (Calling Edgar Allan Poe!) In the bridge, he wonders how she can possibly doubt him: "What makes you think love will end / When you know that my whole life depends / On you." (Second bridge, slight inversion -- "when I've asked you to spend your whole life / With me"). The sentiments are comforting, but horribly vague and cliched.

Then I had my flash of insight. What makes a song like this work is those sneaky "I's" and "you's" -- if you are already in love, you just project yourself into the song and let your own emotions do the responding. The fewer specific details the better, actually. If you are a thirteen-year-old girl, it's a no-brainer; you always have some romantic object ready to moon over, real or imaginary. Of course if you're not in love, it can make you feel like throwing a chair through the window. That's the risk the song takes.

The whole point of the Association, though, is the tapestry of sound -- the way those dense vocal harmonies (every guy in this band had a great voice) are layered on, blossoming with emotion, sliding into dissonance and then resolving. Tiny things like a keyboard fill, the counterpointed "da-da-da's," or the echoed "never my love" held just behind the beat -- they're just brilliant. (Note that Bones Howe produced this record -- I'll bet he had plenty of input on stuff like this.) This is the essence of what I think of as the L.A. Sound, mellow and yet muscular, glossy and compact -- a shimmering curtain of sound, rather than a hard and aggressive wall of sound. It's not what my heart craves, and yet I fall for its tricks, like a kid taking candy from a stranger.

Funny thing is, I know I owned this single back then -- but it was mysteriously missing from the carton of 45s my sister and I fought over later in the evening. (As the youngest in the family, she managed to grab all the detritus of our teen years after we others had left home.) Damn you, Buffie, for not surrendering "Wouldn't It Be Nice / God Only Knows" -- I bought that with my babysitting money! But at least I snagged the David and Jonathan version of "Michelle," and finally reclaimed "Mr. Dieingly Sad" by the Critters.

"But look at that big gouge on the rim -- you can't play that anymore," my sister protested. "It's all scratched, too. Why do you have to have it?" She knows perfectly well, of course, why I have to have it. Little sisters -- what can you do?

Friday, January 01, 2010

"I and Love and You" / The Avett Brothers

Well, I started out to make a Best Albums of 2009 list -- how Uncle E of me! -- but it just didn't feel right. Maybe that's because this is a song blog, not an album blog. Yeah, that's my excuse. Although really, it's because I felt like a phony, crowning 10 albums as "the best" when I've been so lazy -- or so stuck in my musical ways -- that I've blown off listening to most of this year's new music. (But really -- Lady Gaga? Kiss? Passion Pit? Chester French? Puh-leese.)

For the record, though, this would have been my list (note: no compilations allowed, otherwise Nick Lowe and Ray Davies would be here too):

10. Ready for the Flood -- Mark Olson & Gary Louris
9. Oh Tall Tree in the Ear -- Roman Candle
8. Veckatimest -- Grizzly Bear
7. Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane -- Elvis Costello
6. Goodnight Oslo -- Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3
5. Monsters of Folk -- Monsters of Folk
4. Hazards of Love -- The Decemberists
3. One Fast Move or I'm Gone -- Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard
2. I and Love and You -- The Avett Brothers
1. Jaggedland -- Marshall Crenshaw

For most of these, just click on the titles to jump to my original posts about each one. Okay, somehow I missed blogging about the Mark Olson/Gary Louris album, which baffles me -- I even saw them in concert, and loved them (not quite a Jayhawks reunion, but the next best thing). I promise I'll remedy that omission in the New Year.

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I haven't had a chance yet to write about my #2 record, either. In fact I just learned about these guys a couple weeks ago (thank you, Lennart!), but I and Love and You leapfrogged immediately to the top. It reminds me of Roman Candle and the Wood Brothers -- bluegrass-tinged rock with an intoxicating love of melody (hurray for melody!) and brothers singing close vocal harmonies. Yes, the North-Carolina-based Avett Brothers -- Seth and Scott -- really are brothers, which always adds a certain something for me. (They're joined by stand-up bassist Bob Crawford and, more recently, cellist Jason Kwon.) Amazingly, this is their eleventh album, and even now, the Major Buzz around these guys seems generated by the fact that they're producer Rick Rubin's latest "find." But hey, Rubin's got a great ear, and in this case his instincts are right on target.

The multi-talented Avetts weave in so many styles, from gospel to punk to art rock, that any track I picked to write about would probably misrepresent their "sound." The title track, which comes first on the album, is as good a place to start as any, though -- pensive, acoustic, with a melancholy, meditative tempo (don't worry, they get plenty frisky later on, in songs like "Kick Drum Heart" and "Slight Figure of Speech"). It's a good beginning, a fresh chapter sort of song, as the singer starts out by leaving town: " Load the car and write the note / Grab your bag and grab your coat / Tell the ones that need to know / We are headed north." I love how his voice toggles up an octave on that word "bag"; these guys hit a sweet spot where emo-indie anxiety intersects with the plaintive wail of bluegrass.

This whole song is about breaking out, taking a chance, although it's complicated by realistic fears and doubt. He knows where's he heading for -- "Ah Brooklyn Brooklyn take me in" he sings in the chorus, a majestic Band-like pronouncement -- but he suspects he's gonna be a wreck by the time he gets there ("My hands, they shake; my head it spins"). It seems there's a woman there (naturally), with "eyes that shine / Like a pair of stolen polished dimes." He knows he wants her, but the effort of getting to her is huge, not just geographically but emotionally.

Like a lot of guys (both indie angsters and taciturn bluegrass dudes), it's hard to reveal his emotions -- and now, he has to. Notice how the whole song shushes down for the crucial verse: "Three words that became hard to say / I . . . and love . . . and you." (What a novel idea -- slowing down the tempo, bringing the song down a notch -- pay attention, Bruce Springsteen.) Those three words are still hard to say; he can take them separately, but putting them together is almost more than he can manage. But he's gonna give it a shot, god bless him.

These guys are, what, 33 and 29, and yet they present themselves as world-weary, sadder-but-wiser types -- "Dumbed-down and numbed by time and age," as he sings in the last verse. I'm tempted to laugh, except he's won me over with the internal rhyme and the gruff wobble in his vocals. I actually believe that his dreams have faded, and he's become resigned to taking life one day at a time. "The highway sets the traveler's stage / All exits look the same," he sings, philosophically. Highway songs -- I've always had a weakness for those.

I'll admit, I was a little crestfallen to discover this record on so many other critics 2009 Best Album lists -- I hate joining the pack. But I kept Marshall at Number One -- I'll never give up hoping that Marshall will get "discovered" again. Hey, it worked for Nick Lowe . . . .