Monday, May 31, 2010

"A Hard Day's Night" / The Beatles

I'm looking back over the playlist I compiled for last Friday night's music trivia session at my college reunion. (A quick shoutout to all you MHTs that I pestered to check out my blog!) A lot of the tracks I played for you are songs I've written about here -- like "The House of the Rising Sun," "For Your Love," "Along Comes Mary," "Walk Away Renee," "California Dreaming," "Wild Thing," and my top five singles of all time, "The Letter," "She's Not There," "Happy Together," "If I Fell," and "Wouldn't It Be Nice." (And just for you, Liz: "Have I the Right?") I'll even throw in my write-up on "Concrete and Clay," a selection that seemed to stump you all on the one-hit wonders part of the quiz. Click on the highlighted titles to find those blog posts and let me know what you think.

And by the way, I'm still scandalized that none of you knew who Graham Parker is. However, I look upon this as a learning opportunity and direct your attention forthwith to my recent Graham Parker marathon.

But enough links. (If you want any more, just click on any artist's name in the cloud of labels in the column to the right -- the bigger the name, the more blog posts I've written on that artist.)

I was shocked to discover, when I began to trawl through my own posts, that I had never written about "A Hard Day's Night." Oh, I've written briefly about the Hard Day's Night album, but never about this wonderful song itself. I suppose it's because I try very hard not to write about the Beatles too much -- it would be way too easy to make this a total Fab Four blog. And you know me, I never do things nice and easy.



Forgive the scratchy visuals on this clip from A Hard Day's Night; there's another version on YouTube with better film quality, but it's a full 10-minute clip that sucks you right into the movie, and that's way too distracting. ("Who's the little old man?" George asks Paul, and I'm a goner.) Last spring my daughter and I tramped around Marylebone Station, where many of these opening scenes were shot, and I swear I expected the lads to come running down that alley any minute, screaming girls in hot pursuit.

The title A Hard Day's Night was chosen first for the movie, long after the script was written, when the Beatles were already in the thick of filming. It came from a phrase John Lennon had used in his book In His Own Write, but he'd picked up the phrase in the first place from Ringo, who had a Yogi Berra-like penchant for memorable phrases that defied grammar and logic. On the set one day, producer Walter Shenson pulled John and Paul aside and asked them to write a song to match the movie's title -- a crazy request, given their hectic lives at the time. Shenson himself knew it was too much to ask. And yet ten hours later, John and Paul had whipped something together, its lyrics scribbled on a matchbook cover. "Now don't bother us about songs anymore," Lennon grumbled as he sent Shenson away with his new #1 hit movie theme song.

The most brilliant thing about this song? You know what I'm going to say. It's that opening chord, a single aggressive discordant clang that simultaneously packs up and then releases all the hassles of his day. What is this loud, grating, messy chord? You won't find it on any chord chart; the gods must have gotten involved, dictating which finger should land on which fret. The main thing is the fierce attack, striking those guitar strings for all they're worth.

It's a wonderful movie opener, but it also works for AHDN as a a stand-alone song -- a simple thing about a guy coming home to his girlfriend/wife after a tough day at work, and finding comfort in her arms. For a couple of guys who'd never had a proper job in their lives, it's amazing how Lennon and McCartney nailed the perspective of a weary working stiff. He's been working like a dog, and for one reason only: to get her money to buy her things. While on one level -- the level that made it safe for BBC radio play -- it's about domestic comforts, relaxing in the safety of hearth and home, on another level of course it's all about sex. ("And it's worth it just to hear you say, / You're gonna give me everything" . . . "Cos when I get home to you, / I find the things that you do / Will make me feel all right.") John Lennon throws in just enough of a groan on "everything" and "feel all right" to make sure we know what he's really after.

Naturally John had to sing this one. Who else could have conveyed all the pent-up frustrations and anger of a working day? He's not wheedling or charming anybody (those would be Paul's departments); he's bone-tired, still spoiling for a fight, and his need for her is raw as an open wound. When his voice lifts yearningly in the bridge -- "When I'm home / Everything seems to be right / When I'm home / Feeling you holding me tight / [key change] / Tight, ohhh!" -- well, baby, better put that steak-and-kidney pie back in the oven, because you won't be eating right away.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

THE WEDNESDAY SHUFFLE

This one's for Ginny!

1. "We Should Be Making Love" / Huey Lewis & the News

From Hard at Play (1991)
Totally a fangirl thing, my Huey Lewis crush. Though the 80s retro-pop groove they'd carved out was running thin by the time of this album, I'm very fond of this track, with its kicky blues beat and a sort of When Harry Met Sally plot line. That little bit of hoarseness in Huey's voice? Ssssshivers up my spine.

2. "Up Above My Head" / The Wood Brothers
From Up Above My Head (2009)
Hey, Oliver and Chris Wood! How dare you sneak out a new album last year without letting me know? I just discovered it on line and am only beginning to explore its gospel-meets-bluegrass-meets-jazz vibe. It's a mystery to me why these guys aren't better known, but clearly they need new PR folks.

3. "Hey" / Red Hot Chili Peppers

From Stadium Arcadium (2006)
Oh, play that funky music, white boys! Why do I just about always like every song I've ever heard from this band? I don't "follow" them, the way I follow so many other bands; but then a track like this cycles up and I'm instantly transfixed. That jazzy rhythm, the insouciant vocals, the nimble guitar lines -- who listens to the lyrics?

4. "Lies" / Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
From Once (2007)
Plaintive song from the utterly charming Irish film -- I refuse to be critical.

5. "Billy's Blues" / Laura Nyro
From The First Songs (1973)
How arty and sophisticated I felt, listening to this jazz-infused folk-soul when I was 17 years old. It was like Nina Simone for prep-school girls. Let others listen to the mainstream covers of Nyro's songs by the Fifth Dimension and Blood, Sweat & Tears; I felt so in-the-know, listening to the originals instead.

6. "It Makes You Happy" / Bill Jerram Band

From Bill Jerram Band (2005)
Spirited, tuneful, jangly power pop from a fellow Kinks fan down in Texas. Dig that organ riff! What a sad music world we live in that catchy bands like this don't get enough (or any) attention. But hey, these guys are on iTunes; check out their songs there, or on Bill's MySpace page.

7. "Rene" / Small Faces
From Ogden Nut's Gone Flake
Cockney humor percolates through this wicked little softshoe number, which gradually devolves into a psychedelic bluesy ramble. I wish I'd discovered this classic 60s concept album back in the day -- it's probably best appreciated in the herbally altered frame of mind in which it was written.

8. "Baby of Mine" / Alan Price
From England, My England (1978)
Despite the 80s overproduction (someone lasso that sax!), this tender little pop song hangs onto its charm. True, it lacks Price's biting social satire, or his trademark blistering organ riffs, but there's a phrase or two of his best heartbreak-husky vocals to make up for it.

9. "Peaceful" / Georgie Fame
From Superhits
Sometimes I do think the shuffle has a mind of its own -- why else would it so often follow up an Alan Price song with a Georgie Fame number? I first knew this Kenny Rankin song through the 1968 Bobbie Gentry version, then Helen Reddy's 1973 hit version, but now that I know Georgie's 1969 cover, I'll never listen to anybody else's. He takes it in a jazzy swinging direction that is infinitely more relaxed and, well, peaceful, than the others'.

10. "Business Time" / Flight of the Conchords
From Flight of the Conchords (2008)
This New Zealand folk-comedy duo absolutely cracks me up; the plus is that their music is actually musical. On this one, Jemaine Clement out-Barry-Whites Barry White. "You know when I'm down to my socks it's business time / That's why they call them business socks." Was anybody else here hooked on their HBO series? I hated to miss an episode.

Monday, May 24, 2010

"I'd Be Far Better Off Without You" / Sandie Shaw

Bit of a palate cleanser, this. You can't follow up Graham Parker with just anybody -- jumping to a completely different era is the only strategy that works for me.

Despite my devotion to Dusty Springfield, and my sneaking affection for Lulu, my third favorite British girl singer of the 1960s wasn't demure Cilla Black, or bright-eyed Petula Clark, or the inscrutably hip Marianne Faithful. No, it was the elegant Sandie Shaw, languid and barefoot and model-beautiful. She was much more popular in Europe than in the States -- I only remember hearing her on the radio for a brief blip in 1964, beginning with "There's Always Something There to Remind Me" (she beat out Dionne and even Dusty for her way with a Bacharach-David song) and ending with the stunning "Girl Don't Come." But to me, Sandie Shaw WAS Swinging London, as iconic of the era as Charlotte Rampling or Julie Christie or the Shrimpton girls.

Well, here's the flip side to "Girl Don't Come" -- in fact, this was originally the A-side, until DJs decided they preferred "Girl Don't Come." To me it's a toss-up; both are fabulous moody songs, with just a whisper of cool jazz sultriness, tailor-made for Sandie's smoke-edged voice. And as it happens, both were written by Chris Andrews, a Pye in-house songwriter who wrote most of Shaw's singles throughout the 60s. Take a listen.



To be honest, I haven't much to say about this song. It's definitely more pop than rock -- those crisp L.A.-style horns, that sashaying samba beat -- and I should cringe at its message of a woman helplessly mired in a love affair with a man who doesn't appreciate her. Then again, this is nothing compared to some of Dusty's most clinging, co-dependent songs ("I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten," "You Don't to Say You Love Me"), and you know how much I love those tracks.

And ultimately Sandie lashes back, shifting into "You Don't Own Me" mode in the bridge -- hear her kittenish voice turn into a tigress's snarl as she declares "'For without you I'd be free / Free to go where I want to, / See what I want to, / Do what I want to." That Sixties ideal of the free-spirited bird, leaping into some impossibly tiny sportscar with her mini-skirt and patent-leather boots, carelessly flipping her long windswept hair -- it's hardly "I am woman, hear me roar," but it wins for glamour, hands down.

We'd have to wait for the 70s to get true rock chicks, empowered babes like Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde and (I suppose) Stevie Nicks. They had big voices and tough attitudes; they had brains and guts and could totally take care of themselves. But did I ever want to be them? No, I'm sorry to say, I did not. For better or worse, I wanted to be Sandie Shaw. Which really explains a lot. . .

Sunday, May 23, 2010

FIRST ANNUAL GRAHAM PARKER MARATHON

"All Being Well" / Graham Parker

All good things must come to an end, and so this Graham Parker Marathon -- which was only supposed to last a week in the first place -- winds up today. Not that I'm going to stop listening to Graham Parker, mind you. No, I'm renting a room in Parkerville on a permanent basis (it hasn't got a garden but it's got a lovely patio). Once you're hooked on an artist this great, there's no going back.

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So perhaps it's fitting that the final song in this marathon should be "All Being Well." As the last track of GP's 2007 album Don't Tell Columbus, it's a sweet farewell song, a tender valediction. For those of you who still think of Graham Parker as an angry young man, here's proof positive that he's got a sensitive side and he's not afraid to show it.

The structure is dead simple, as befits a folky acoustic ballad. (The song this most reminds me of, oddly, is an old John Martyn song, "May You Never"). Each verse has four lines, alternating between imagined future scenes when the lovers might meet -- "I'll see you when the leaves are falling," "when the candles flicker," "when the shadows fall," etc. -- and the repeated "all being well." But the third lines of the verse add a sense of mortality, speaking of stalling hearts and failing eyes, and they nudge the song toward realism. Even the repeated "all being well" -- which at first seems so comforting, dropping down to his low, warm register to resolve the melody -- isn't a gilt-edged guarantee. (Mindless optimism? Not in the Graham Parker universe.) The more often he repeats it, the more I brood about its meaning. That conditional tense is significant -- I realize that there's no certainty that all will be well. We can only hope that the stars will align.

So what does he offer to hold back the darkness? Listen to the chorus: "I'll hold you in my arms and tell you / That nothing can break this spell / I'll see you when the road stops winding / All being well." (I love how the melodic phrase on "nothing can break this spell" jumps upward, breaking the downward pattern of the verse.) Yes, love is our best option for getting through life. We've heard that a million times before, but Graham Parker rescues this tired cliche and gives it renewed conviction. I get the sense that he's not a hundred percent sure that nothing can break this spell, but he's telling her this tender lie anyway -- he wants it to be true, because he loves her so. And it's not just until nighttime, or until the next season, but forever, unto death ("when the road stops winding"). They're partners for life. (Check out track one of 12 Haunted Episodes.)

This song is such an unheralded beauty, tucked away at the end of an album that's largely satiric ( incisive, funny songs like "I Discovered America," "England's Latest Clown," and the Bush-era "Stick to the Plan"). Graham Parker's albums are full of surprises like this. The marathon isn't really over; there's so much of his music I need to really listen to and learn by heart. What a pleasure to look forward to!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

WEDNESDAY SHUFFLE (a day late . . .)

Sorry, but I've been battling a bronchial infection, and the Graham Parker obsession has been occupying my few free brain cells. But I just got a new prescription today and I can actually breathe again -- so bring on the shuffle!

1. "This Year's Girl" / Elvis Costello and the Attractions
From This Year's Model (1979)
Ah, the corrosive, splenetic wit of young Elvis Costello. Those percussive guitars and whack-a-mole drums; the funhouse organ of Steve Nieve; that faux Beatle-y bridge -- this is hostility, pure and undistilled and ultra danceable. "Forget your fancy manners / Forget your English grammar / 'Cos you don't really give a damn about this year's girl."

2. "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" / The Ramones
From The Ramones (1976)
For years, knowing the Ramones were a punk band, I got them mixed up with the Sex Pistols. What was I thinking? The sound may be jangly and raw, but the sentiments here are vintage teen pop, sweet stuff that Lesley Gore and Bobby Fuller would totally understand.

3. "Don't Lose Your Grip On Love" / Brinsley Schwarz
From Nervous on the Road (1972)
So who's surprised that Nick Lowe would affect a vintage country soul sound nowadays? Listen to where he came from. I picture the Brinsleys in their plaid flannel shirts, with Bob Andrews going all Garth Hudson on the organ, and Nick warbling like Levon Helm. Imagine the culture mash-up, hearing this mellow honky-tonk two-step emanating from a pub in North London!

4. "Desperadoes Waiting for A Train" / Guy Clark
From Heartworn Highways (2006)
This is actually a live version of Clark's tender character study about his grandpa, tobacco-stained chin and all, from his 1975 album Old No. 1. (Texas really is another country.) Because Guy Clark is such a wise songwriter, it's also about growing up and mortality and losing the past. I prefer the live version, thrumming with personal emotions; the first time I ever heard this song was live, and it shattered me.

5. "The Perfect Shot" / Joe King Carrasco
From Get Off Mi Quesadilla (1990)
We're on a Texas run here. Joe King Carrasco throws a New Wave curve into a Tex-Mex dance hall sound, stabbing chords on his Farfisa while drums slap insistently behind him. Just think Devo mixed with Doug Sahm, shaken not stirred.

6. "Natural Reaction" / Gomez
From A New Tide (2009)
I just downloaded this track but haven't really digested it yet -- and with Gomez, you need a few repeat listens, despite the hooks. I like this singer's plaintive voice, though (three different lead vocalists in the band, but I gravitate to the songs this guy sings -- wish I knew which one he is). I think of this band as the Modest Mouse of England, with a densely crafted sound and somewhat riddling, neurotic lyrics.

7. "Some Other Guy" / The Searchers
From Sugar and Spice (1963)
Generic Lieber-Stoller song (was there a girl-group version "Some Other Girl"?), but the Searchers jazz it up and make it very Cavern-club-era Beatle-y. No surprise -- everybody those days was chasing that golden sound. His girl's leaving him, and he's sad, is about the sum of it. Lovely spangly guitars!

8. "I'm the One She'll Miss Him With Today" / George Jones
From I Am What I Am (1980)
Possibly my favorite George Jones song -- what a wicked little adulterous web she's weaving here. It's a complicated plot, but don't worry, George will get it all across, with the artful insinuation of his yelps and yodels. Classic country wit, but not really comedy -- the shoe could so easily be on the foot (and probably will be before long!).

9. "Talk Is Cheap" / The Toasters
From Hard Band for Dead (1996)
Ska-licious! I think these lyrics are political, but I'm not really sure, they spin by so fast, overridden by the horns and urgent bleats of organ; the beat is absolutely the thing. The Toasters are an American band, founded by an English exp-pat who missed the Two-Tone ska sound after he'd moved to New York, but in the end, it's irrelevant -- ska is a world language.

10. "Thursday" / The Futureheads
From News and Tributes (2006)
Under a psychedelic haze of repeated synth chords and reverbs, this track sounds as if it came from the 80s. I have no idea how this song even got on my iTunes. I could blame Uncle E....
FIRST ANNUAL GRAHAM PARKER MARATHON

"Bad Chardonnay" / Graham Parker & the Figgs

The first time I heard Songs of No Consequence -- which, I gotta be honest, was only two weeks ago -- it made me laugh out loud. I never expected Graham Parker to be still making music this irresistibly catchy, rock & roll this sharp and lively. (Maybe it's his current backing band, the Figgs, who bumped up his adrenaline.) I have to admit, all the Nick Lowe fans out there who keep moaning that Nick needs to rock out more should just switch over to being Graham Parker fans and be done with it. (Leave more Nick for me.)

And -- who knew? -- on this album, which came out in 2005, Graham Parker's back in full "angry young man" mode. Okay, technically he's not a young man anymore, not as such. But it's not cranky old man anger, it's the scathing satire of an outraged guy in his twenties. Just look at some of those song titles -- "Vanity Press," "Suck 'n Blow," "There's Nothing On the Radio," the unambiguous "Evil," and the horrified "Did Everybody Just Get Old?" The hookiest song on the album, "Chloroform," is a withering portrait of some low-life hustler whom Parker describes, "You look like you been marked for life / And given up for dead / You look like you got someone else's / Hair growing out of your head." Feel-good music? I don't think so. But fun? Yes indeed.

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In "Bad Chardonnay," Parker presents himself as an irascible veteran of the road, offering -- well, I wouldn't say advice exactly, but words of gnarled wisdom to his younger colleagues. "Don't gimme any lip, son," he snarls in the first verse, "Don't gimme any grief / I've been around the block and back / From Maine to Tenerife." (Love that juxtapostion.) "Yeah, I got my act together," he declares, adding with a wink and a shrug, "Okay, it's just an act." Subtle, effortless word play there.

In the chorus, where he professes to divulge the secret of his success, he tosses off a sustained send-up of pretentious wine tasting jargon: "You need a real long finish that never quits / Like English treacle on hominy grits / A buttery flavor that goes on and on / With a hint of grease and a nose too long." That's the part where I laughed out loud -- what a snarky parody. And yet, and yet, and yet . . . this is an absolutely spot on description of Graham Parker's music. His best rockers do build up to a big finish; the richness of his imagery could easily be called "buttery"; and certainly that hint of rockabilly greasiness is there. "English treacle on hominy grits" -- has anybody ever better described the 1970s' peculiar fusion of British pop with southern blues?

Verse two, where he describes the life of a touring musician ("I've seen this mighty continent / From the back seat of a van"), dispels all the glamor of rock-star existence. In verse three, he sardonically adds: "I've hit the bottom many times / And it's not always that bad / In fact it's kind of comforting / Like the friend you never had." He's not asking you to feel sorry for him, like the typical rock star self-pitying life-on-the-road song. ("Homeward Bound," this is not, and certainly not "Sitting in My Hotel Room.") No, he's the anti-hero of his own Crazy Heart.

Meanwhile, the song rockets impishly along, with emphatic drums and twitchy guitar, Graham crooning into the mike in his best raspy R&B vocals. The singer may be a disillusioned wreck, but rock and roll is a cruel mistress, and she will not let him rest. "But you got to do it your own way," he wails, resigned, "on cigarettes and bad chardonnay." The great songwriters know it's all in the details; it only takes those two swift details to nail the gritty tedium of a second-tier rock artist's life. Personally I don't think I'll ever order chardonnay again without thinking of this song -- and laughing.

Monday, May 17, 2010

FIRST ANNUAL GRAHAM PARKER MARATHON

"Haunted Episodes" / Graham Parker


I know, I too expected this marathon to last just one week. But that was before I got going, before I really started listening to all these new Graham Parker CDs I snapped up. There are certain albums you just can't skip over, and one of them has to be 12 Haunted Episodes.

Now don't go looking for this 1995 album on iTunes; even Amazon.com only offers copies from second-party sellers, since it has been discontinued by Razor and Tie Records (guess they're too busy with other more valuable artists, like Twisted Sister, Simply Red, and Michael McDonald). As I recall, Razor and Tie also let Marshall Crenshaw slip away a few years ago. As Arte Johnson used to say on Laugh-In, "Verrrrrry INteresting."

But I'm not here to get into record company politics. I see that Graham Parker has done plenty of label hopping in his 30-plus-year music career, and it can't always have been the suits' fault. Who cares? The past is past -- which brings us to the topic of today's track, "Haunted Episodes."

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Though it's the title track from this beautiful album, in some ways it's a bit of an outsider in an album that seems largely about his relationship with his wife. (With a few satiric songs interspersed -- well, it wouldn't be a Graham Parker album without a few satiric songs.) "Haunted Episodes" is a sort of love song, but it isn't about the girl he married, rather about an old girlfriend. You could easily put this on a playlist with Nick Lowe's "Long-Limbed Girl," Elvis Costello's "Just About Glad," and maybe Joe Jackson's "Rush Across the Road," three tender charmers about old flames.

The "haunted" in the title's a bit misleading, too -- he's not haunted by this old relationship, merely musing over where she is today. There's nothing spooky or brooding about this light, flowing melody; in fact, this song makes me think of something sunny that Donovan might have written, like "Jennifer Juniper." The jazz flute that embroiders this track is the final sweet touch.

Regrets? That's not even on the table. He's not claiming that he's better off without her -- in verse one he freely admits that "Things round here don't get any clearer / Stuff that once seemed in reach is not any nearer." But verse two is like a shrug of inevitability: "I wonder who was more demanding / We were just young I guess / Neither would settle for less." He does keep referring to a house -- perhaps someplace they once lived together -- and wondering whether it's been knocked down or if it's still standing in ruins. (Metaphor alert!) But there's no score settling going on. He almost seems afraid to imagine her life turning out badly, hoping that she's "takin' the knocks" all right. That tentative solicitude rings so true, revealing a reservoir of fondness beneath the touchy surface of their past.

Did I say that this song doesn't belong on this album? Oh, no, I did not. It only seems like a side track. Sure, it's not about his wife. But a man who can reflect this gently about lost loves isn't in any danger of being tormented by the past. "Still, it's not a whole life story, is it?" he asks himself. "It's just a page I turned / And there you were in it." He can afford to wonder about her calmly because the big love, the real love -- the main plot of his life story -- finally did show up. Lucky man.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

THE FIRST ANNUAL GRAHAM PARKER MARATHON

"Just Like Joe Meek's Blues" / Graham Parker

Anybody remember Joe Meek? He was England's first independent record producer, though only because he was too temperamental to hold a job at any major label; working out of his own home studio, he introduced techniques such as echo, reverb, compression, and multiple over-dubbing on one- and two-track machines. If you haven't heard of Joe Meek, you must know some of his hits, which included "Have I the Right?" and the classic instrumental "Telstar" by the Tornados.

So is that why Graham Parker wrote a song about him on his 1992 album Burning Questions? Most likely it's not just Meek's visionary production skills that inspired Parker, but also the tragic way he died, shooting his landlady and then himself with a shotgun. Mired in depression, debts accumulating, work drying up, paranoid that his homosexuality would land him in prison, Meek was probably a time bomb waiting to go off, but his 1967 suicide -- newspaper accounts described the blood-spattered scene in gruesome detail -- certainly shook the music world.

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Parker's tribute to Meek is hardly a straightforward thing, however. Verses one and three aren't about Meek at all, but about Parker and some friend, or lover, traveling around Europe, heading for "a Joe Meek revival." Some kind of oldies show? More like his traveling companion descending into a Meek-like case of depression.

It's interesting how Parker characterizes Meek's suicide, in the second half of the first verse: "It takes a leap of faith, / To pull the trigger on the world you're accustomed to / You might as well take out the landlady too / It's only a small thing to choose." He isn't mocking Meek here; he truly seems curious about that state of mind, just before pulling the trigger. In each subsequent verse, he repeats that "leap of faith" line, but he's no longer talking about Meek -- "you might as well save a bullet for me too" in verse two, and the verse three, "Sure we might have torn each other's hair out by the roots / And recorded it on two-track tape."

The chorus is simple, a repeated "Just like Joe Meek's blues" over and over, with reverbed vocals and spooky keyboards (two signature Meek effects) giving it a disconnected, floaty quality. Still, it's perversely bright and upbeat. You'd think a song about suicide and depression would be in a minor key, but it's not; you'd think it would have a funereal tempo, but no, it clips along quite jauntily, with boot-stomping drums in classic Meek style. It's catchy, even -- damn catchy, with a fluid melodic line. Graham Parker is famous for his dark sense of humor, but the contrast between snappy tune and gloomy subject is pretty extreme. Compare this to Wreckless Eric's song "Joe Meek" which came out the year before this one, which comes off as a tragic folk-Western ballad. (Was this song GP's response to Eric's?)

My favorite verse is in the middle, the only spot where he really does sing about Meek himself: "It's a twisted world so let's twist again / There's a bass drum sound going round in my brain / A cat communicates with an artichoke / Lord Sutch delivers a homophobe joke / Heinz gets his nose chewed again." Footnotes may be in order: Screaming Lord Sutch was one of the artists Meek recorded, and Heinz is the German bassist /singer Heinz Burt, formerly of the Tornados, whose shotgun Meek used in his suicide. And ooh, don't miss the faint trace of "Telstar" in the fadeout.

It's my guess that this song grew out of very specific incidents, which verse three pinpoints in place and time: "Back in London and it didn't even rain / The Joe Meek revival was happening again / But the clocks went forward and the revival got choked / British summertime came like a cruel joke." (I do love that last line -- it reminds me of the Beatles' "sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun / If the sun don't come you get a tan from standing in the English rain".) Whatever was going on, the crisis seems to have been averted -- for now.

Maybe the key to this whole elliptical song is that line, "It's a twisted world so let's twist again." GP wrote earlier about how "Love Gets You Twisted"; considering how ghastly life can be, perhaps the only sane response is to dial up your transistor and enjoy a little Chubby Checker. Whatever. This song's a puzzle, no question about it, but I have to say I love it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

THE FIRST ANNUAL GRAHAM PARKER MARATHON

"Wrapping Paper" / Graham Parker

I admit I'm a Graham Parker newbie -- at least when it comes to his later music -- so please forgive me if I'm still gobsmacked by Struck By Lightning. I first heard this 1991 album a few days ago, while driving the New York State Thruway, somewhere between Poughkeepsie and Coxsackie. I was alone in the car at the time, which was doubly frustrating because I just had to tell somebody what a masterpiece I was listening to.

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I'd like to say that this was the song that finally proved Graham Parker's genius to me; the truth is, I was pretty well convinced before this track. But that doesn't change the fact that it is a glorious song indeed.

Pop music is full of break-up songs, but we have astonishingly few make-up songs -- and hardly any as powerful as this one. A tender rootsy waltz, it's ruefully honest, as the singer 'fesses up to his mistakes: "I've broken your glass / Called someone a dirty name / Made a nuisance of myself / In front of friends." Who here hasn't gone through a trainwreck of a night like that? Notice how he deliberately refrains from the obvious rhyme of "glass" and "ass" -- in fact this song has hardly any rhyming at all, striving instead for plain, unvarnished reality.

But now it's time for reconciliation, and in the chorus he stretches out a hand for forgiveness:
Speak to me girl, speak to me darling
You're not a princess, I'm not prince charming,
Speak with your tongue, use body language,
Stretch your skin like wrapping paper round my heart.
That just slays me. Though it's a cliche, the truth is that love does mean never having to say you're sorry; they're well past abject apologies or whiny pleading. With all pretense stripped away, they're just a couple, flawed and human, cleaving to each other like the marriage vows say. His imagery stuns me -- I love how it melds the physical and the emotional, for in a real partnership the two are one and the same. And I love how his melody underscores it, swinging coaxingly through that 3/4 tempo, especially the soaring last line -- as he flings his voice into "wrapping paper" it's almost like he's lassoing her heart all over again.
In verse two, he admits he isn't always on his best behavior ("Sometimes I feel the kick has gone / It gets mundane / So I team up with the devil / And make hell"). That restlessness is part of any long term relationship, isn't it? And verse three highlights the domestic baggage, the stuff they pack up as they move from town to town -- stuff that matters very little, when it comes right down to it. (This verse in particular reminded me of the Kinks' heartbreaking song "Property"). But always it circles around to that chorus, to that essential spark between them that makes the whole dance worth it.

The Americana sound of this album was a surprising, and as it turns out revelatory, choice for Graham Parker. The New Wave clangor, the "angry young man" attitude, has been replaced by the plangent whine of a dobro and a wistful cornet solo in the bridge. And along with that acoustic twang I hear a likeness to John Hiatt, yet another songwriter who really gets what grown-up marriage is all about. Struck By Lightning is so much deeper and more lyrical than I ever expected Graham Parker's music could be. No wonder I nearly drove off the highway!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

WEDNESDAY SHUFFLE

Plug in your earbuds and take a ride with me!

1. "Passing Through" / Marshall Crenshaw
From Jaggedland (2009)
One of the great neglected albums of the past year. I love how the twangy guitar line weaves around, while Marshall's reverbed vocals gently meditate on the passage of time. When I saw him last fall, he mentioned that he wrote it while stuck at an airport in Alaska, but its sense of life's transience is bigger than that.

2. "Dream Baby" / Waylon Jennings
From Phase One: The Early Years 1958-1964
Waylon's outlaw country persona dominates his image, but he's been around a lot longer than that. Here's a blast from Waylon's rockbilly past -- and what a great vehicle for his voice!

3. "Where Will You Go" / The Minus 5
From Down With Wilco (2003)
At least part of the Minus 5 (Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey) are in the Venus 3, Robyn Hitchcock's frequent collaborators. There's a genial goofiness to some of their stuff that I find appealing, though the songs (usually written by McCaughey) don't make a hundred percent sense. I dig the unspooling guitar riff that stitches this song together.

4. "Tears in Heaven" / Eric Clapton
From Unplugged (1992)
Oh, I know it's the big sappy hit, written about his son's early accidental death, and I've considered deleting it a dozen times. But here it still is, tugging on the heartstrings. Absolutely nothing that makes Eric Clapton a major musical figure makes an appearance in this song (okay, there is that one deft little guitar twiddle). The soporific pace is putting me to zzzzzzzzz....

5. "Breakfast at Tiffany's" / The Testotertones

From Singing in Hormony
A CD by the a capella group at my kids' high school, which was our constant road trip accompaniment for a couple summers when the kids were younger. I've never heard the original, but it sounds like something they'd sing on Glee. Nice harmonies, though, which was kinda the point.

6. "Seein' Her" / Paul Westerberg
From Besterberg
Now this is more like it. Replacements-style crunchy garage rock, with a frantic beat, tapping right into the uncritical exuberance of new love. "Everything about her, I like everything about her / I like everything about her" -- sometimes it really is that simple.

7. "Love Me Dead" / Ludo

From You're Awful, I Love You (2009)
This funny, snarky indie track is a perfect follow-up to "Seein' Her" -- this is what happens when the teen love goes sour.

8. "Birthday" / The Beatles
From the White Album
I want this song sung to me every birthday. Those doubled guitars just spank the hell out of that riff, and Ringo's drumming is insane. "I would like you to dance / Birthday! / Take a ch-ch-chance" -- wild and crazy.

9. "I Got the Love" / Nick Lowe
From Pinker and Prouder Than Previous (1988)
What a boppy little gem! Such a light touch, just a perky loping bass line and few exhalations of organ, a tinkle of piano keys here and there. It's like the rockabilly lovechild of reggae and bluegrass, with fantastically simple lyrics ("I've got the love / And I want to shout it / I've got the love / The rain has gone...And if it don't stop / I'm-a gonna pop!") It's entirely possible that this is Nick Lowe's worst album ever, but I have to admit, I kinda love it.

10. "I'm A Fool for Loving Her" / George Jones
From I Am What I Am (1980)
You want extravagant emotions? George Jones is the master of love triangles, infidelity, and every other brand of misplaced affections, and he knows just how to wring it out, with deft yelps and yodels. There's a lot of country music I don't like, but George Jones? Brilliant.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

THE FIRST ANNUAL GRAHAM PARKER MARATHON

"When You Do That To Me" / Graham Parker


We're still in the 80s -- 1985 to be precise -- and when I think of what other dreck was being played on the radio back then, it's galling. Really, DJs, would it have hurt you to play a song like this? This is not challenging, wrenching music -- it's bright, infectious pop with a clever beat and a sly sexy subtext. What's not to love?

video

Wikipedia tells me that this album was mostly recorded in New York City, just as GP was beginning to relocate to the States; it did produce one (sorta) hit, "Wake Up (Next To You)." I have no memory of ever hearing this song, but then I hardly ever listened to the radio in the mid-80s. I listen to "Wake Up" now and it's a little too Bruce Springstein-y for me; "When You Do That To Me," on the other hand, is more Huey Lewis-y, which in my book is a very very very good thing.

Did I say a sly sexy subtext? To be honest, it's not all that subtle -- remember, this was the era of the Eurythmics' S&M-inspired "Sweet Dreams," which upped the ante for suggestive lyrics. But at least in the opening verse, things remain merely lascivious:
When you walk that walk girl
Into a dark bedroom
It fills my heart with lovin'
Puts sugar in my spoon
Let's be honest: Can you hear this without picturing that seductive walk of hers? Me, I can't even hear it without immediately trying to walk that walk.

The spirit of doowop scintillates through the refrain, with its playfully shifting syncopation. The tune switches happily to a major key, and a sprightly guitar riff (thanks, Brinsley!) dots all the i's and crosses the t's. Though the melody simply skips between two notes, the words land on different notes each time the title phrase is repeated. "WHEN you DO that TO ME / WHEN YOU do THAT to ME" -- it's sort of like one of those old handclap songs, when you have to focus on getting the counterrhythm just right. You wait eagerly for the refrain to come around again, because now you've got the hang of it, you've just got to sing along.

In verse two, however (back to an ominous minor key), we learn that what they're doing in that dark bedroom may be illegal in at least a few states: "If I took a picture / Tried to write a book / It would shock the printer . . . " The imagination goes wild. And to help it along, the percussion sneaks in a few whip cracks and metallic clangs (snap those handcuffs tight!). With Graham urgently repeating in the bridge "I need you so bad, it feels so bad," not to mention the endless iterations of "When you do that to me" in the outro -- well, he seems to be operating on sheer reptilian brain at this point.

The bridge and the outro build a little too frenetically, turning clamorous and dark -- it was the 80s after all. That taut, lively refrain gets lost in an overproduced tangle of minor-key organ, smackdown drums, and menacing guitar line. I know, I know, I get the point; it just isn't as much fun. But hey, I'm not complaining -- it's still a tasty track indeed.

Monday, May 10, 2010

THE FIRST ANNUAL GRAHAM PARKER MARATHON

"You Can't Take Love for Granted" / Graham Parker

Okay, so maybe I won't have a Graham Parker marathon every year. But judging from how hard it's been to pick one song to write about today, this blog could do with a great deal more Graham Parker. So let's get started!

Only a couple of weeks ago, I was as guilty as anybody of thinking that Squeezing Out Sparks was Graham Parker's best album. Now I know better: it wasn't his best album, it was just his best-seller. And as a card-carrying Kinkster, I understand completely the frustration of hardcore fans who know that their favorite artist's best work is virtually unknown by the mass music-listening public. So I'm determined to save you good readers from this same mistake -- I'm focusing only on the post-Squeezing Out Sparks catalog, which is where Graham Parker really gets good.


video

So let's touch down in 1983, with The Real Macaw, Graham's second Rumour-less album, though his old guitarist Brinsley Schwarz was already back on board. If you can overlook a few 80s touches in the arrangement -- the echoey lead vocals, little spangly accents of synths -- this minor-key samba is simply stunning.

I'm beginning to discover that Graham Parker is so much better on relationships than most of his New Wave peers, with the possible exception of Joe Jackson. As he reels off example after example of bad date moves, it's an uncanny description of every subpar romance I've ever tried to nurse into life. Ladies, raise your hands if any of these scenarios are familiar:
Took her to a party and danced with the host
Took her to a restaurant and treated her like a ghost

Took her to a movie and looked at another screen

Paid for entertainment she'd already seen
I love how he repeats the melodic phrase over and over, each line picking its doomed way downward. The lyrics are so sharp, so articulate, they'd be worthy of Bob Dylan, except that here they're paired with a hauntingly beautiful melody and sung with soulful grace. (Did I mention how beautiful Parker's voice is on this record?) And the next verse leads us into even more painful territory:
Demonstrated passion in a grip hard to shake
Took up every fashion till everything went fake
Pulled a coat over her shoulder, cracked a joke over and over
Watch the rain turn the night colder, stared into the headlight beam
There's something flawed about this affair -- and the amazing thing is, he knows it too. This song dances on the edge between your old-fashioned advice song (like the Beatles' "She Loves You") and the sort of rock confessional that Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook had been honing in their band Squeeze (whose drummer Gilson Lavis plays on this LP). The two halves of each line work almost like a soul song's call-and-response -- as if Parker takes a good hard look at his own behavior, then gives himself advice.

In the refrain, he ruefully scolds himself, "But you can't take love for granted, underneath another skin / Can't take love for granted, up behind another grin." That old split personality -- how well we know it. Not coincidentally, this album came out around the time of Parker's marriage; it's no surprise that fine-tuning relationships would have been on his mind. What a novel concept for rock 'n' roll, this idea that you have to work at a relationship to try to make it last. Music for grown-ups!

It's a pity that the "angry young man" tag was stuck onto Graham Parker -- "passionate young man" would be more like it. Yes, there's feistiness and frustration there, and an occasional howl of rage, but the yearning romantic is never far from the surface. He's a lover AND a fighter - what a knockout combination.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

"Don't Ask Me Questions" / Graham Parker

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



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

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

Thursday, May 06, 2010

THURSDAY REVERB

I'm giving you fair warning, folks -- I'm just about to veer off into one of my periodic fixations. Having recently reviewed Graham Parker's new album Imaginary Television, and blogged here about my favorite track on it, I went to see Graham last Friday night at the City Winery. Well, the guy simply blew me away, and it killed me that so many of his songs were from albums I'd never heard. I had to have them!

I scoured the internet for hours the other night, cherry picking great songs off of various albums -- man, this guy has been prolific! -- and eventually ordered half a dozen entire CDs when I could no longer be selective. I've got a long car trip coming up tomorrow, and I've got that stack of CDs ready to play. So I expect next week may just have to be Graham Parker Week. Meanwhile, here's a little warm-up, to trace how this Parkerphilia really began.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


"You Can't Be Too Strong" / Graham Parker & the Rumour

There is a huge hole in my record collection, and it's called Squeezing Out Sparks. I didn't even realize this until this afternoon, when I laid down the book I was reading -- Will Birch's excellent No Sleep Till Canvey Island, the definitive history of British pub rock -- and went onto iTunes to check out early Graham Parker & the Rumour albums. After all, half of the Rumour were in Brinsley Schwarz with Nick Lowe, and Nick produced Parker's early albums . . . well, you get the idea; in my personal rock world, all roads lead to Nick Lowe. (Except for the roads that lead to Ray Davies.)

So there I sat, calling up samples from Squeezing Out Sparks, and track after track hit me with deeply familiar force. I've searched my stacks of vinyl and no, incredibly enough I never owned this record, but I'm guessing that my boyfriend at the time (this would have been 1979) must have had it. In fact, we must have listened to it non-stop -- that's the only way to explain why I know every bit of it by heart, AND why I resisting buying it after the break-up (those must have been some powerful associations). Weird how this slipped into some mental fissure until just now.

I've fixed the problem; I've just ordered my own shiny new copy from Amazon, and I should be getting it in 36 hours. Until then, I'll have to be satisfied with a couple of downloaded tracks. It's a toss-up which slays me more -- "You Can't Be Too Strong" or "Passion Is No Ordinary Word." But the nod goes to "You Can't Be Too Strong"; I can't think of another song about abortion that's so heart-breaking.



He launches straight into it: "Did they tear it out with talons of steel /And give you a shot so that you wouldn't feel /And wash it away as if it wasn't real?" Here's abortion from the perspective of the guy, who I guess wasn't consulted -- "It's just a mistake I won't have to face / Don't give it a name, don't give it a place / Don't give it a chance -- it's lucky in a way." Does he really thinks it lucky? He really doesn't yet know how he feels, and that ambivalence is what makes this song so goddam poignant.

Considering the load of regret and uncertainty this song carries, the arrangement is appropriately sober and simple, just an acoustic guitar, embroidered with a few delicate keyboard fillips from Bob Andrews. Behind all the male bluster -- "I ain't gonna cry, I'm gonna rejoice /And shout myself dry, and go see the boys /They'll laugh when I say, 'I left it overseas'" -- there's a haunting echo of desire in Parker's voice: "But everybody else is squeezing out a spark / That happened in the heat, somewhere in the dark." I love that little vocal echo he throws in, "in the dark," the voice of a helpless kid still trying to sort things out.

He can't help returning to that furtive surgery scene: "The doctor gets nervous, completing the service / He's all rubber gloves and no heart." As the song goes along, the title phrase loads up with irony -- maybe you CAN be too strong, too tough, too hard. The way he pauses, wondering, each time he sings "You can't be too strong" in the chorus -- surely that toughness is a double-edged sword here.

My favorite line has to be "It must have felt strange to find me inside you / I never intended to stay." That's so disturbingly sexy, which I think is the whole point of this song -- how sex turns complicated on people. This guy doesn't know how he feels about all this, or how he feels about the girl now. And he leaves it there, confused and numb and unresolved. Perfect.

This song reminds me of what might have happened if you could throw the earnest young Bruce Springsteen into a cocktail shaker with the rueful wit of Joe Jackson; that gritty soulfulness in Parker's voice lays on so much passion, but he can hold back and leave things unsaid. I'm still puzzling over this song, 25 years later. It's long past time to bring Graham Parker back onto my playlist. I can't wait for this CD to arrive.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

WEDNESDAY SHUFFLE

Round and round and round she goes, and where she stops --

1. California Girls -- The Beach Boys
From Summer Days (And Summer Nights!) (1965)
I swear, a sea breeze just stirred my hair -- and is that sand between my toes? An instant trip to Southern California. When this first came out, I rankled at the line, "Those Midwest farmer's daughters really make me feel all right," but I longed to become a California girl myself. White Levis, Sun-In in my hair -- I tried everything. And then of course there's the Beatles' parody in the bridge of "Back in the USSR" -- "well, the Ukraine girls really knock me out ..."

2. "Lately I've Let Things Slide" -- Nick Lowe
From The Convincer (2001)
One reason I love the Shuffle: Nick Lowe suddenly appears when I least expect it -- and it hits me all over again why I love him so. "Smoking I once quit, now I've got one lit / I just fell back into it . . ." -- how succinctly he nails this lovelorn loser, sloping around his messy flat, laundry piling up in the corners, a carton of untouched takeaway spoiling on the table. God is in the details, both lyrics and music (those Nashville horns!).

3. "Rooftops (A Liberation Broadcast)" -- Lostprophets
From Liberation Transmission (2006)
Welsh indie rockers! Mostly this got onto my iPod because it is just so much damn fun to proclaim that staccato chorus at the top of your lungs: "Standing on the rooftops, everybody scream your heaaart out!" One of the rare tracks where a crunchy metallic tangle of guitar is totally necessary.

4. "No More, No Less" -- Collective Soul
From Dosage (1999)
My dear rock chick buddy Sharon loves this band, just loves 'em to death. I hear the hooks, I appreciate the soulful metal quality, but in the end, they just don't light my fire. Too much open passion for me, and not enough irony. Can't help it; I'm an irony junkie.

5. "Sister Madly" -- Crowded House
From Temple of Low Men (1988)
Irony -- like this. That great skippy pop rhythm sets off a tart little character study ("sister madly, stepping on my head!). Wonderful bebop piano solo too. Thank you thank you thank you Inaki for hepping me to this band -- I knew the singles, but there's so much more to discover.

6. "Willie and Laura Mae Jones" -- Dusty Springfield
From Dusty in Memphis (1969)
There's not a bad track on this album, is there? Dusty shows Bobbie Gentry how it's done. It matters not one whit that Dusty never lived in a shotgun shack at the edge of a cotton field; she never slept with the son of a preacher man either.

7. "Nightswimming" -- R.E.M.
From Automatic for the People (1992)
Ah, the mesmeric powers of Michael Stipe. The piano reels off endless arpeggios, strings and clarinet mourn, Stipe scats the same melodic phrase over and over -- and yet somehow I'm back in Indiana, in the dark of a summer night, brooding over boyfriends lost. Who knew R.E.M. had so much sweetness and melancholy in them?

8. "Take Off Your Uniform" -- John Hiatt
From Slug Line (1993)
In which Johnny H. langorously strips a coffee shop waitress and makes sorrowful, sympathetic love to her, in his best soulful yelp. A true man of the people. Why is this guy not bigger than Bruce Springsteen? Oh, I know the answer. . .

9. "One Thing" -- Neil Young
From This Note's For You (1988)
Possibly my favorite Neil Young album, his one brief shining jazz moment (that achingly beautiful guitar line!). Whatever was going on in Neil's life at the time, he proved beyond a doubt that he had intimate knowledge of the blues. "I think we're heading for a heartache / That's my suspicion / I think we're heading for a heartache / That's how I feel." The quaver in Neil's voice never worked better.

10. "Sound and Vision" -- David Bowie
From Low (1977)
Glam meets funk, all gussied up with synths -- yes, the experimental 80s were upon us, with Bowie and Brian Eno leading the way. This album is most memorable to me as the inspiration for Nick Lowe's own e-less EP titled Bowi. But you gotta love this disco-ready musical collage, with Bowie alternately growling and wailing disconnected phrases, like snatches of conversation overhead at a bar. Strung along that brilliant rhythm track, it's a song that begs to be danced to. With drugs.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

PHILLY SOUL WEEK

"Break Up To Make Up" / The Stylistics

It was hard to pick just one Stylistics song to gush about. When the starry-eyed "Betcha By Golly Wow" came out in 1971, I wasn't sure what to think -- it teetered right on the verge of cheesy. But 1972's "I'm Stone in Love With You" sealed their sound, adding a gentle rollick to the beat that convinced us these guys were hip. (Ever sit in the back of a VW Beetle with half-a-dozen loopy teenage girls trying to match that octave jump on "you-oooo"?) And in 1974, the Stylistics hit their height with "You Make Me Feel Brand New," the most glorious melodic line ever written for Russell Thompkins' angelic falsetto.



But I realized I had to go with "Break Up To Make Up," a 1973 hit that sums up everything I feel about Philly soul. There's no question that it's schmaltzy and overproduced, with a stately waltz tempo that pours on the emotions even more. On top of that, it features the default Philly soul plot line, a romantic complaint song by an injured male -- a situation I really can't relate to. When I recall the song, it's like thinking about a rich pastry when you're not hungry. All that whipped cream! The custard filling! The chocolate drizzles on top! But play 30 seconds of the thing -- take just one bite -- and you remember all over again how beautiful it is.

That long lush intro may overstay its welcome, but remember, on the AM radio you'd never hear it all -- the DJ would always take advantage of it to cram in a little more chatter. That ooze of strings and vibes is there just to set the tempo and the mood -- a musical palate cleanser, wiping away whatever sassy trash you were listening to previously. And then Thompkins' voice sails in, stepping sorrowfully by thirds down the scale: "Tell me what's wrong with you now / Tell me why I / Never seem to make you happy / Though heaven knows I try." Two lines of straight time, followed by two lines of complicated syncopation, as if he's tripping over his own feelings. That gorgeous vocal doesn't need much of a setting -- a light tick of hi-hats, a whisper of vibes, that's all.

Then it gently slides into the chorus: "Break up to make up, that's all we do / First you love me, then you hate me / That's a game for fools." Maybe you've been lucky enough never to be in a love affair like this, but I know people who never have any other kind of relationship. Personally I run for the hills when the fights start, which may be why Thompkins' wistfulness strikes home with me. The arrangement is just brilliant (Thom Bell, I'm assuming, though Kenny Gamble also had a hand in this song, along with Bell's usual lyrics partner Linda Creed). Listen to how the other Stylistics cling to the rueful melody, while Thompkins' melismatic descant shimmers above it, as if his heart is running away with him.

Thom Bell -- who'd begun producing the Stylistics when Thompkins was barely out of high school -- vanished from their lives in 1974 and their career faltered in the States. They did have a second career in Europe, as evidenced by the Simply Red cover of "You Make Me Feel Brand New" (someone keep those guys from mucking around with the Philly classics!), but their sound never evolved significantly. The Stylistics were Philly soul's new kids on the block -- they hadn't previously toiled in the R&B backwaters for ages -- yet they still wore the matching suits, still did the hand motions and twirls behind the mic stands, stepping effortlessly into the mold that Bell and Gamble & Huff had laid down. In the end, even Russell Thompkins' extraordinary voice wasn't enough without the genius producers pulling the right strings. For better or worse, Philly Soul was a producer's genre. But who's to say that's a bad thing?