Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Ready To Start" / Arcade Fire

Okay, so my guest blogger for the summer got sidetracked, and now he's going back to school and I've lost him for the next few months. Nevertheless, I have one thing to thank him for -- he gave me his copy of the new Arcade Fire album The Suburbs, and I'm helplessly -- helplessly, I tell you -- in love with this track.

Mostly, I have to admit, it's that chorus -- the progression of the "if I was" clauses: "If I was scared / I would / If I was bored [later changed to "pure"] / You know I would / If I was yours..." and the pregnant, yearning pause before he concludes "but I'm not." This is just eating at him, that he can't get this girl. Forget that pose of hipster disaffected cool; he wants her. But is he willing to stand on the precipice, risk everything, to get her? Maybe yesterday, but today he's finally ready to move past that. It's a huge step, and this song just vibrates with fear and trembling resolution.

He knows the world is full of risks. There are the businessmen who will drink his blood (notice how craftily they add "like the kids in art school said they would" -- no knee-jerk prejudices here!). He's willing to bow down to the emperor, even though he knows the guy's got no clothes. But he won't pretend he feels alright, even if she knocks on his door; it may be stepping out into the dark, but he's finally got the courage to stand on his own two feet.

Don't you remember that moment -- when you finally realize that the person you've idolized has feet of clay? It's a liberating moment, but scary too. For once, Arcade Fire justifies the Springsteen-like anthemic build-up of their songs; it's simply the sound of a guy mustering his courage to confront a brave new world. The buzzy clutter of sound behind Win Butler's vocals makes supreme sense -- he's still fighting his way past all those hipster-approved attitudes. Now, at last, he's ready to start sounding like himself.

Personally I never liked Arcade Fire's earlier albums; this one has completely turned me around. And I know it's a monster hit (I usually hate the monster hits); I know that the indie world feels betrayed that these guys have gone mainstream. Of course they'll make a ton of money with this record, play the Garden, top the charts. So what? WAKE UP, PEOPLE!! When the music's good, it's good. Why should the "indie" label have to mean "only minimal, underground success"?

This album seems to me like Arcade Fire's coming of age record, the one where they prove they've got the goods. I don't blame them for being scared -- they've got no place to go from here but down.

Still -- you know what? I'm laying my money on these kids.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Sitting in my hotel room...but my iPod seems haunted by Nick Lowe again! Yikes!

1. "Alone in the Summer" / Tom Gallagher
From Age of the Wheel (unreleased)
Lurchy, angst-ridden rock & roll from the late Tom Gallagher, a fellow Kinks fan whose musical gifts sadly escaped the recognition he deserved.

2. "Ireland" / Greg Trooper
From Between a House and a Hard Place (2010)
Ooh, another of my special guys! Here's a live acoustic performance of one of Troop's most euphoric love songs, a lilting rhapsody about a girl from ( -- wait for it -- ) Brooklyn. It's dizzying how over-the-moon he is -- "When I'm with you, it feels so right / My wallet's full on Friday night / My ship has docked, and my kingdom's come / And my heart's unlocked and overrun" -- 000h, that's love for you.

3. "What's Shakin' On the Hill" / Nick Lowe
From Party of One (1989)Here he is again. Wistful reflections from a misfit loner -- and yet he's still the Jesus of Cool.

4. "Nearer to You" / Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint
From The River in Reverse (2006)
Okay, so it's more Elvis than Allen. Still, Elvis (a.k.a. Nick Lowe's most famous protege) is spilling his heart out in classic R&B mode, all dressed up with AT's rippling piano riffs -- and if it ain't New Orleans proper, it's still a fine thing.

5. "Big Hair" / Nick Lowe
From Pinker and Prouder Than Previous (1988)
All roads lead back to Nick. "Big hair, where you going to?" One of my favorite driving songs ever, a rockabilly romp with a ton of car puns and a sexy subtext. Nick at his worst -- which still means it's wonderful.

6. "Summer Is Over" / Fred EaglesmithFrom Milly's Cafe (2006)
The country vibe continues with this twangy little waltz, perfect for the waning days of August, with a slightly scruffy carnival wheeze. Think Springsteen's "4th of July, Asbury Park," filtered through Tom Waits' lowlife sensibility, with a little Kerouac thrown in for good measure. There's no trumped-up melancholy here, though -- Eaglesmith's a genuine man of the people. Check him out; you'll love him.

7. "Star Ship" / Brinsley Schwarz

From Despite It All (1970)
Why, what a surprise -- Nick Lowe again! (Really, it's all coincidence, I swear.) Another waltz, a little more uptempo but just as twangy. A deservedly neglected track, from the days when Nick Lowe churned out imitative country-rock by the boatload.

8. "Show Me" / Lulu
From It's Lulu (1969)
Lulu pulls out the Big Production Values -- horns, strings, Latin percussion, and 60s-era sizzle worthy of a James Bond theme song. But beneath it all is a snappy R&B number from the pen of Joe Tex (remember Rockpile's version of his song "If Sugar Was As Sweet As You"? Another Nick connection. . . .) "Show me a woman that's got a good man / And I'll show you a woman doing all she can / To make life happy for her lovin' man / So worry don't cross his mind." It IS that simple, folks.

9. "Jack Shit George" / Ian Dury & the Blockheads
From Mr. Love Pants (1998)
Oh, ye modern rappers, look at how the Cockney master did it. Leading off Dury's final album -- which reunited him with the Blockheads after 15 years -- this snappy litany skewers all the ills of modern education and their dire consequences, spooling out over a background of deeply, deeply funky jazz. "What did you learn at school today? / Jack shit / The minute the teacher turns away / That's it / How many times were you truly intrigued? / Not any / Is boredom a symptom of mental fatigue? / Not many. . . ." (Oh, and guess who performed on the Live Stiffs Tour with Ian Dury?)

10. "Bowie" / Flight of the Conchords
From Flight of the Conchords (2008)
(Weren't we just talking about this number?) On the TV show, the spectacle of Jemaine tricked out like Ziggy Stardust, floating into Brett's dream, was one of the funniest comedy bits I've seen in ages. And of course the musical parody is spot-on. "Do you have one sequined jumpsuit in space, Bowie, or do you have ch-ch-changes?" The Nick connection? Just look at this David Bowie single's sleeve --

Now look at the single Nick Lowe released immediately after:

So you see, Nick Lowe likes to make fun of David Bowie too. There, I knew I'd find something!

Monday, August 23, 2010

"Move It On Over" / Hank Williams

Just got back from a week of house-building in New Orleans -- well, I wasn't doing the work, but the teenagers I was supervising were: painting, hanging vinyl siding, mounting insulation, putting up dry wall, the whole nine yards. Working in close quarters (not to mention the steamy heat), the crew instinctively fell into a sort of construction ballet, constantly calling out things like "coming through!" and "heads up!" and "move over!" And every time I heard that "move over," this song launched in my head.

But could I get a singalong going? No way. None of the kids knew that song -- urban teenagers don't tend to listen to a lot of Hank Williams. I'd have done better with Christina Aguilera's "Move It" or, even better,'s "I Like To Move It" from the cartoon movie Madagascar.

Maybe if we'd had a singalong I'd have gotten it out of my system. Instead here I am, days later, still murmuring the dang thing over and over. Take a listen:

The premise is ridiculously simple. The guy's had a fight with his wife, and now he's sleeping -- literally -- in the doghouse. It's the family pooch he's singing to, as he's scrounging a bit of floor to lay down on. "Move over little dog, 'cos the big dog's moving in," he declares. In every verse he changes that up, though -- "move over skinny dog, 'cos the fat dog's moving in," or "move over, nice dog, 'cos a mad dog's moving in," and, saving the best for last, "move over, cold dog, 'cos the hot dog's movin' in." He changes the verb, too -- "scoot it on over," "slide it on over," "sweep it on over," et cetera -- mixing things up just enough to keep you on your toes.

In the alternating lines, we get his story. She's warned him before not to play around, but he just couldn't behave himself -- and now she's changed the locks. The jaunty tempo tells me he's hasn't really learned his lesson, either, though he seems purty sorry at the moment (a cold hard floor'll do that to you).

Like a lot of the great country songs, this one skates along the edge of comedy, but it's got a bead on real life as well. Because we all know this kind of happy-go-lucky guy, don't we? Sure, he's a feckless rake, but that cheerful tone clues you into how he gets all those women -- and why his girl will eventually take him back. After all, Hank Williams could have made this a mournful break-up song if he wanted to -- nobody could do mournful better than Hank Williams.

Instead we get a perfect comic marital cliche, with the rueful husband winding up sleeping on the couch. (Picture Cary Grant, glasses askew, in a rumpled plaid robe and slippers.) The wife with her arms crossed, hair in curlers. And he slinks out with his tail between his legs, looking guilty as hell. Not once does he protest his innocence, or declare his love for his mistress. Nope, he's cheating on her because that's what some men do. She'll forgive him, and then he'll do it again.

Infidelity's a big topic in country music, and always has been -- put it right up there with prison, drunkenness, and pick-up trucks. But let's not fool ourselves that country music fans are the only ones who know where this guy is coming from.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Even though I'm off in New Orleans for the week -- bring on the po' boys and jambalaya! -- I'm still listening to my iPod. Here's a little Shuffle to tide us all over...

1. "I Gotta Go Now" / The Kinks
From The Kinks (1964)
A slight, obscure, and absolutely delicious early Kinks track. Most of the lyrics consist of "I gotta go now" over and over, with a few "whatcha gonna do about it nows" and "hey little girls" thrown in. A strange and wonderful concoction of blues lingo, jazz syncopation, and folk harmonies, served up with effervescent pop charm.

2. "Warming Up to the Ice Age" / John Hiatt

From Warming Up to the Ice Age (1985)
And now some early Hiatt, prowling through relationship angst with stuttering tempos, lashing drums, and a barrage of pun-larded lyrics. Amazingly, this was the album whose failure killed Hiatt's contract with Geffen Records, but the seeds are here -- next he would make Bring the Family for A&M, and the rest is history. All told, I think I like grown-up happy John Hiatt better than young angry John Hiatt, but man, he was already gooooood.

3. "Boring Enormous" / Paul Westerberg
From Stereo (2002)
Post-Replacements Paul Westerberg, strumming his guitar in his basement and singing about his contented home life. I can see why Replacements fans must have been baffled by this development. I came late to the party, though; this is the Westerberg I first knew and adored. Hey, Bob Dylan was from Minnesota, too -- why shouldn't Paul Westerberg find his inner folkie?

4. "Who Can I Turn To?" / Van Morrison and Georgie Fame
From How Long Has This Been Going On? (1995)
Van Morrison in full jazz crooner mode, scatting along to the keyboard stylings of Mr. Clive Powell, a.k.a. Georgie Fame, who lends a layer of honeyed elegance to Morrison's whiskey-and-soda vocals. An entire album of songbook standards, big-band arrangements and all -- and I'd pit Van against Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra any day.

5. "Queen of Sheba" / Nick Lowe
From Nick the Knife (1982)
The romantic philosophy of Nick Lowe -- she's not Queen of Sheba, or Mona Lisa, but he still adores her, and there's a place that they can go where that thing will grow. The bass line's springy as a rubber band, and Nick cheekily lounges his way through this generic love song with considerable aplomb. (Always wanted to use that word in a review...)

6. "Jungle Song" / Chilli Willi and the Red Peppers
From Bongos Over Balham (1974)
A congenial little soul jam, with some killer harmonica, by these talented pub rockers, erstwhile colleagues of Mr. Lowe in his plaid-shirt days. A notable incubator of New Wave talent -- bassist Paul Riley went on to play in the Rumour behind Graham Parker, and drummer Pete Thomas ended up in Elvis Costello's Attractions.

7. "Dead End Street" / The Kinks
From Face to Face (1966)
Any shuffle that has two Kinks songs is a good shuffle. And this endearing soft-shoe is one of my favorites -- a perfect song for these recessionary times, about a middle-class couple just scraping by. "What are we living for? / Two rooms apartment on the second floor / No money coming in / The rent collector's knock is trying to get in." Even better: "We both want to work so hard / And we can't get the chance." I love that dramatic French horn fanfare; even better is the boozy Dixieland trombone in the fade-out...

8. "I Must Be the Devil" / The Box Tops
From Best of the Box Tops: Soul Deep (compilation)
Throw the irony out the window -- Alex Chilton groans and moans his way through a pitch-perfect blues number, complete with slouchy guitar. "I can't stop, I can't stop, I ca-a-a-n't stop!" Who knows what he's apologizing for -- "I can't bear to see my face, / Wrongs done I can't erase, / It's all wrong, it's all wrong, it's aa-ll-ll wrong!" But I bet you anything she forgives him.

9. "Youth Culture Killed My Dog" / They Might Be Giants
From They Might Be Giants (1986)
Oops, irony's back! A bit of sublime silliness from the Johns, our leading purveyors of comic catchiness. Don't let that Peter-Gunn-like bass riff deceive you -- it's really about his dog committing suicide because of trashy modern music. Or something like that. "But the hip hop / And the white funk / Drove away my puppy's mind." Who else could deliver such goofiness with so much zest?

10. "Try Not To Cry" / Greg Trooper & the Flatliners

From Everywhere (1992)
Back to earnestness -- a passionate alt-country anthem, injected with an R&B howl, about the sorrow that lies deep down things (or lachrymae rerum, for you Latin scholars). This is what the world looks like from the other shore of heartbreak -- pair this with "Don't Think About Her When You're Trying to Drive" and we'd have the whole territory covered. Of course, you HAVE to cry when you hear this song. This guy is just so damn good...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky From Now On" /
Allen Toussaint

I'm off to New Orleans today for a week's adventure (say bye-bye!), but I'll leave you with this delectation from the master of Crescent City soul-pop. Sorry for the crap quality of the video (WHY do people insist on chatting blah-blah-blah while a great musician is performing?) but Allen Toussaint is disgracefully under-represented on YouTube.

I've said this before, so often that I bore myself, but Allen Toussaint is THE most elegant performer in show business today. Tall and thin, with a distinguished touch of gray at the temples, every time I've seen him he's been dressed in a well-cut suit, crisp shirt, silk tie, pocket square, cuff links, the whole bit (I can attest to the cufflinks because he has a habit of shooting his cuffs as he sits down to play). Sure, one of those times he was also wearing sandals -- with black dress socks -- but this guy has so much style, he could even carry that off.

Moving with the sort of perfect posture my piano teacher always demanded from me (and never got), Toussaint strolls across the stage like some kind of diplomat, in no hurry, smiling a eye-crinkling smile of amused forbearance (think Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty). He settles onto that piano bench like a pro golfer casually swinging a nine-iron, so cool, so relaxed. And then he lifts his beautiful, supple hands and drops them on the ivories like it was the easiest thing in the world -- still smiling, torso barely moving, but the notes are just pouring out, rippling, dancing, as if he'd simply bewitched the piano into playing three notes for every key he strikes. The complete opposite of the Jerry Lee Lewis school of sweat-pouring manic piano playing.

I'm going into such detail on his stage presence because A) you can't see much from the video, and B) there's not much to say about the song that you can't get from the title. It's kind of like that Archie Bell and the Drells song, "Tighten Up" -- it just is what it is. "Jus' a be myself, do my thang, / A little soul can't do no harm. . . " -- a declaration of independence for the funky beat, if you will. The guitar twangs, the drums whomp, the Crescent City horns toot, the backing singers testify.

"Some may say that I've got no class / But I'm doing what I wanna do / So groove with me if you can / Or just do what you can do / Aw shhhhhhh---ucks." I can just imagine the knowing grin on his face as he sings that.

What more is there to say, anyway? Allen Toussaint is the epitome of grace, and a lesson to us all.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"I Started a Joke" / The Bee Gees

No, not these Bee Gees. . .

These Bee Gees:
I heard this same song not once but twice today -- first on Sirius XM Radio's Sixties station, then again hours later on the PA system in the IGA where I was shopping for dinner. Now, it's entirely possible that I hear the same song twice in a day all the time, and just never notice. When it's something as obscure as this, though, I take it as a sign from God.

You know, the Brothers Gibb did have a career before they became the Kings of Disco in the late 1970s. In the mid-1960s -- soon after they moved back to the UK from Australia, where I gather they were like the Osmond Brothers, all over Aussie TV -- manager Robert Stigwood, always a man with his finger on the pulse of the times, steered them in the direction of Beatle-y folk pop. They happened to be good at it, VERY good at it, and I loved them. (Hence my disappointment in 1977.) In my household we -- meaning of course my older brother -- owned their first album, The Bee Gees' 1st, which featured such splendid songs as "Holiday," "Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Tell You," and the haunting "New York Mining Disaster 1941" (a.k.a. "Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?"). This was a truly lovely album that promised great things to come from this brotherly trio.

On their next album, 1968's Idea, they drifted a little from that folk-oriented lodestar, though their material was still loaded up with ambiguous existential "messages" -- witness the other big single from this era, "I'm Just Trying To Get a Message to You," a hectic and clamorous song about social isolation. Compare it to, say, Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence," or even Jonathan King's "Everyone's Gone to the Moon," and you'll see how the Bee Gees didn't quite get the point. Nevertheless there was something mesmerizing about Robin Gibb's high, nasal, hard voice streaming out of your radio speakers, and they were still worthy of respect.

So naturally when this song came out in December 1968, we all knew it had to "mean" something. But what?

I love this video, if only for the spectacle of Robin Gibbs' teeth, the long lanky hair, and the way he presses his right ear, straining to hear his tone and pitch, not to mention that distinctive quaver. But of course he sings it beautifully, he really does -- unless you find his voice cloying, which I understand some people do -- and the cryptic lyrics, the plaintive melody, the billowing strings and glissandos of harps, all conspire to convince us that this is a Heavy Statement.

The actual lyrics are deliberately vague. In verse one he starts the joke, but the "whole world" cries; in verse two he cries and they laugh. An obvious turnabout, and for some reason I always imagine Marcel Marceau here, with that little tear stenciled on his white cheek. (Reason enough to be wary of this song.) Since he declares the whole world is involved, however, it's hard to take this as just a story about a bloke who says awkward things at parties. And in verse three, it gets even more cosmic -- "I finally died / Which started the whole world living." Is it any wonder that people think this is a religious song? Because that smells like Christ imagery to me, whether the Gibbs brothers meant it or not.

The bridge gets even heavier, man. "I-I-I-I / Looked at the skies / Running my hands / Over my eyes" -- I picture that like a soft-focus movie scene, telegraphing a moment of spiritual awakening. Yet we're rudely jerked to earth by the end of the bridge: "And I fell out of bed / Hurting my head / From things that I'd said." Oof! Maybe it's just a hangover song after all.

The bottom line is -- this number sounds like a message song, but it's all balderdash. A year later, the Hollies would do it right with "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" -- a message song that conveys its message clearly (which presumably is the point of a message song, isn't it?) I'm willing to cut the Gibbses some slack -- I suppose they couldn't help it if their talent for mimicry led them to copy a style they couldn't fulfill, or if their natural tendency toward a Big Sound loaded songs with undue importance. "I Started a Joke" is still better than "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," "To Love Somebody," "or (shudder) "How Deep Is Your Love." But . . . sigh . . . I expected so much more from them.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


It's back! (Sorry for the week's lapse). And better than ever, I'm tempted to add -- except there's no way of knowing ahead of time.

1. "Heartbeat" / The Knack
From Get the Knack, 1979
Hard to resist a cheery power-pop gem like this one, on the same album as the classic "My Sharona." He's SO excited by his new lover -- "Heartbeat, why do you miss / When my baby kisses me?" One of the great philosophical questions...

2. "Broke My Heart" / Tim Easton
From Porcupine (2009)
Another bit of philosophy, delivered with alt-country twang, as Tim Easton hoarsely declaims: "There's only two things left in this world / Love / And the lack thereof." It's the flip side of love, after she's dumped him -- though it's quite a punchy rocker, with an insidious hook.

3. "Please Mr. Postman" / The Marvelettes
From Please Mr. Postman (1961)
All those early Beatles covers -- I still think of them as the originals. But there's a certain pleasure in hearing the classic girl group version, Motown's first #1 pop single back in 1961. I love the idea that the Beatles discovered all this American black music through records American sailors sold while in port in Liverpool. Most Americans weren't listening to it then!

4. "Flesh Cartoons" / Robyn Hitchcock
From Eye (1990)
Another whimsically surreal artifact from the master of folk-psych, Robyn Hitchcock, coolly distancing himself from a gallery of absurd characters. "I'm just watching on my own flesh cartoons" -- what the hell is going on in this song? Who cares?

5. "After Hours" / The 88
From The 88 (2010)
Hello -- you're not supposed to be hearing this song yet; it's from an unreleased album that I'm reviewing. Cute little indie-pop band from California, opened for Ray Davies last tour? Trust me, you'll like them.

6. "Business Time" / Flight of the Conchords
From Flight of the Conchords (2008)
Funniest Barry White send-up ever, from this New Zealand musical duo (you may have seen their HBO comedy show). "Next thing you know, we're in the bedroom . . . you're wearing that baggy old ugly teeshirt you got from your work several years ago . . . you know the one, baby, with the curry stain . . . You know when I'm down to my socks, it's time for business -- that's why they call them business socks!" Making love, making love for two, making love for two minutes!

7. "So Heavy" / Nick Lowe
From The Wilderness Years (compilation)
A deservedly obscure mid-70s Nick Lowe track, from those post-Brinsley Schwarz, pre-Rockpile years. Even Nick can't remember anything about this outtake.

8. "Drinkin'" / Reel Big Fish
From We're Not Happy 'Til You're Not Happy (2005)
An ebullient little bit of ska-punk -- "If I go out drinkin' / Then I can stop thinkin' / About how the world has done me wrong." Forget the usual lugubrious drunkard's anthem, this one staggers down the alley with a hectic tempo and a cheerful flourish of horns.

9. "Sing A Sad Song" / Merle Haggard
From Strangers (1965)
Complete change of pace here, slowing down to a spur-jangling country lilt, from Merle Haggard's debut album. Heartbreaks by the number, in true country style.

10. "The Right Place" / Monsters of Folk
From Monsters of Folk (2009)
More rootsy rambling, this time from the indie world, with Yim Yames (a.k.a. My Morning Jacket's Jim James) happily harmonizing with his fellow M.O.F.-ers M. Ward, Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis. I loved this album so much more than I expected to -- whether you call it a side project or a super-group, it's still amazing. Hope it's not a one-time deal!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Sorry -- I've been distracted for a few days trying to find a cover version of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" -- yes, the Nicely Nicely Johnson showstopper from Guys and Dolls -- by, of all people, Elvis Costello. I could swear I'd heard that somewhere. Now, even worse than getting a song stuck in your head is getting a song stuck in your head that doesn't exist. This was driving me CRAZY.

Well, the mystery's finally solved. There is no such recording -- at least not publicly available -- because I heard it at a dress rehearsal for Prairie Home Companion, when Elvis was the guest star, and apparently they decided against including that number on the final aired show. I'd've voted for keeping it in, personally, because Elvis's rendition was just smokin'. Think about it for a minute -- Elvis hoarsely declaiming "For the devil will pull you under / By the wide lapels of your pinstriped coat . . . " Trust me, it was stunning.

But now that I've got that off my mind, we can move on to other things . . . like

"Librarian" / My Morning Jacket

My middle son is starting to look at colleges. And so we begin that great American ritual of the Campus Visit -- a whirlwind couple of hours in which, like greedy wasps, parents and their teenage children try to suck out the essence of a school. (In between, of course, are hours of studiedly casual highway driving and/or plane rides, in which you do everything you can NOT to act like this is a big deal. Because it is.)

Personally I love college campuses. I was a total grind when I was in school, of course -- are you surprised? -- and so my favorite part is always the library. Let me loose in those stacks and I'd never come out. (Forget that most kids today do their research on line.) So when I first ran across this song, it almost felt as if it had been written for me.

I love how it starts with a long panning shot: "Walk across the courtyard / To the library / I can hear the insects buzz / And the leaves 'neath my feet." That perfectly captures the hushed tone, the rural picturesqueness, of the campus. Idyllic, eh? I can just picture it, like a scene from The Sterile Cuckoo. And the gentle acoustic guitar picking goes right along with that, harking back to MMJ's earlier alt-country twanginess. (A sound that's not so common by the time of this album, 2008's Evil Urges.) Even that trademark reverb makes sense, as if Jim James' voice is echoing off the marble walls.

Combing his hair in the bathroom, he muses, "When God gave us mirrors / He had no idea." (Must be a philosophy student.) It seems a random observation -- but wait. The songwriting is just about to blossom.

He wanders into the periodical room (my favorite line: "Since we got the Interweb these hardly get used") and spies a librarian "listening to the AM radio." It's such a private glimpse -- I love that she's disturbing the Shhh library silence; I love that it's shallow Top-40 AM.

He notes, almost unthinkingly, the song she's listening to -- "Karen of the Carpenters" -- which reminds him of the mirror again ("Another lovely victim of the mirror's evil way . . ."). Of course you have to know that Karen Carpenter died of anorexia to get that connection, but if you do, it's a shimmering transition, and then a deft leap of logic from Karen Carpenter to the beautiful librarian herself. "It's not like you're not trying / With that pencil in your hair / To defy the beauty the good Lord put there."

A few more instrumental sounds are gently layered in -- some echoey synths and a soft, nearly undetectable drumbeat -- as the student/singer beholds her in all her glory: "Simple little bookworm / Buried underneath / Is the sexiest librarian." Up to now, the melody has been little more than one repeated phrase, in a tentative, wistful key -- but now it relaxes into the sunshine of a major chord as he murmurs longingly, "Take off those glasses and let down your hair for me." Yeah, yeah, it's an old movie cliche, older even than Marian the Librarian in The Music Man: The prim and proper library lady, who only needs to whip off her glasses and uncoil her bun to morph into a stunner. But Jim James keeps it light and subtle; he's tracing a cameo, not painting an oil portrait.

And in fact, it's all in his mind. He's peeping through a gap in the bookshelves, fantasizing about them at dinner, then in bed having pillow talk. (Note that it's an ordinary life he dreams up, not a hot sex scene.) As far as we can tell, he hasn't spoken a word to her. Sure, the song's billowed in volume and richness, but it's the power of his imagination that's doing that.

Which leads up to the riddling last verse, sung with just the right touch of bombast: "What is it inside our heads / That makes us do the opposite / Makes us do the opposite of what's right for us? / 'Cause everything'd be great / And everything'd be good / If everybody gave like everybody could." He's onto something, he really is -- and then he leaves it there, drifting off in repeats of that chorus.

There's just the faintest touch of creepiness about this song -- he could be a stalker, I suppose, could even be her ex-husband, tiptoeing into the library to watch her unbeknownst. I almost imagine him dreamily whacking off, there in the stacks. But the main point is that he's not taking this any farther, is he? He's doing the opposite of what's right himself -- backing off from his impulses, hesitating to reach out and make contact.

So who's the lonely figure -- the spinster librarian, listening to her tinny little radio, or the guy watching her from behind the bookcase? Both, I suppose. What really matters is the distance between them, that chasm of shyness and doubt -- it's such a poignant statement of human isolation. Who knew this unassuming little song would pack such a wallop?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

"How Can I Be Sure" / Shelby Lynne

My first thought, on hearing that country artist Shelby Lynne had released an album of Dusty Springfield covers, was knee-jerk furious. How dare she? Just because Dusty recorded one album in Memphis -- admittedly one of her greatest albums -- it still doesn't mean that she was anything like a country artist. And I just couldn't bear to hear my girl Dusty's songs all twanged-up.

Herewith, then, is my most sincere public apology to Ms. Lynne. Because that album, Just a Little Lovin', is a beautiful thing. Lynne reinterprets a handful of Dusty songs with grace and sensitivity. She has a simply gorgeous voice -- light and silky where Dusty's was powerful and passionate -- and she plays to her own strengths without ever trying to erase Dusty's magnificent versions. These acoustic versions of the Dusty songs are folky renditions that Dusty herself might have done if she were playing small clubs today. Of course they won't replace the originals, but they're a wonderful complement to them.

I was surprised to see this song on the album; I never realized Dusty had recorded it (obsessives like me will be glad to know that you can find it on Dusty in London, long available only as an import). Of course, being the AM radio baby that I was, I only know it through the Young Rascals'* 1967 hit single (it was written by their front man Felix Cavaliere), which one could also steal from one's older brother's bedroom on the album Groovin'.

One thing that always bugged me about this song was its pumped-up passion -- too fervid and sweaty for my taste -- that and the tootling organ, which turned its waltz tempo into a cheesy carousel ride. I am sad to report that Dusty herself carried on in this same spirit, except for course -- being Dusty -- she jacked the passion even higher.

Shelby Lynne, however -- God bless her -- strips all that away. She even goes for a different time signature, dropping the waltz in favor of a samba-like 4/4. Most of all, the lightness of her voice is perfect for a song that is, after all, all about being tentative. [Smacks self on forehead.] What a revelation!

Listen to this track. "How can I be sure?" she asks softly, wistfully, "In a world that's constantly changing / How can I be sure / Where I stand with you?" Doubt edges her voice, just the right degree of uncertainty. "How do I know, maybe you're trying to use me / Flying too high can confuse me" -- her phrasing makes her truly sound hesitant and confused. And the whole "whenever I am away from you" verse works like a dream -- she does sound a little frantic, like she's lost her moorings. When she insists, "I really, really, really want to know" -- well, you honestly believe it.

Twanged up? No way. If anything, this song is really a jazz track, with that delicate, syncopated guitar playing fast and loose with the beat. So much for genres. I see that Shelby Lynne wandered away from the mainstream country pack a while ago, refashioning herself as an alt-country artist with her 2000 album I Am Shelby Lynne. (In a stroke of serendipity, I also learn that her younger sister is Allison Moorer, whom I'm going to see singing with Steve Earle tomorrow night -- who knew?) And far from being a pampered country music queen, she's had more than her share of hardships, both personal and professional. Somehow I always got her mixed up with Shania Twain -- wow, was I off base!

Note to self: You really have to get over that old prejudice against country music, honey. . . .

*Known these days just as the Rascals, for obvious reasons.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

"Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues" / The Kinks

Just got home from a lovely evening at the B. B. King Blues Club here in New York City, where an ensemble calling themselves Muswell Hillbillies performed a nearly note-perfect rendition of (duh) the Kinks' 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies. Now, I'm a sucker for any Kinks-related activity, and Muswell Hillbillies is my favorite Kinks album, so you know I had to go, despite my natural skepticism about "tribute" bands. And all of my Kinks friends were there, so even if it had turned out to be a mediocre mess, I'd have had a good time.

The opening act, a genial act called The Blue Meanies, lived up to my expectations -- they rambled through a number of Kinks songs, strumming enthusiastically on their acoustic guitars and dutifully singing the lyrics, but with the original songs so alive in my head, these approximate versions were hardly satisfying.

But damned if Muswell Hillbillies didn't surprise me. Performing these songs is clearly a labor of love for these guys -- they'd taken the time to break down every track on the albums and painstakingly reproduce the arrangements. The lead singer (didn't catch his name -- was it Dave Simons?) was positively channeling Ray Davies in his vocals, while the lead guitarist ripped off those classic Dave licks as fresh as yesterday. Best of all, the group included a spiffy horn section of high school kids, many of whom doubled on backing vocals and percussion as well, so every track blossomed in its full dimensions. I swear, having those kids up on stage along with the adult band leaders gave the whole thing an extra freshness and energy. (I think it also helped that the whole gang were from Hadley, Massachusetts, and clearly excited to be performing on 42nd Street in the heart of Manhattan.)

As far as I'm concerned, tribute bands shouldn't "interpret" -- they should be as faithful as is humanly possible. (That's why I've always loved the Fab Faux's Beatles tributes.) You should be able to shut your eyes and imagine that you're just playing a pristine copy of the original vinyl on a superb record player. And Muswell Hillbillies pulled off that trick tonight.

Here's a video of these guys in action (amateur video, but still it gives you an idea), performing the album's second track, the blowsy, comical "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues."

Now I know this really isn't fair, but for comparison's sake, here's a clip of the Kinks themselves, doing the same song:

As a man who has flirted with nervous breakdowns his entire life, Ray Davies does seem to have some special insight into the mental collapse the singer claims to be going through. He's deeply suspicious of everyone around him -- a thoroughly mundane crew of neighbors and shopkeepers in an ordinary suburban community -- and he's paralyzed: "I'm too terrified to walk out of my own front door," he laments. I love the quavers that Ray throws into his voice as he sings these lines.

Because of course we can't take it seriously. The Dixieland jazz arrangement tells us that; Ray's campy voice, the exaggerated situations, underscore it. The psychiatrist -- "my local head shrinker" -- shakes his head and pronounces this as "one of those cases of acute schizophrenia he's seen." The disease is, in fact, everywhere -- "I've got it, you've got it, we can't lose / Acute schizophrenia blues." So if everyone's mad, who is sane?

It's all part of Muswell Hillbillies' Side 1 satire on the pressures of modern life, from the lament of the "20th Century Man" -- a walking anachronism stuck in the wrong era -- to the anorexic of "Skin and Bone" and the drunkard of "Alcohol." Right after this song is the super-campy "Holiday," in which Ray's character minces his way through a seaside "rest cure." Oh, yes, it's all very funny -- and yet there's a poignance beneath it all, with so many characters incapable of coping with this brave new world they're living in.

Yet sitting in that club tonight, belting out "Schiz-o-phree-nia! schizo-phrenia!" was a wonderfully cathartic, therapeutic experience. I have no hope that I'll ever see the Kinks again, let alone see the Kinks performing Muswell Hillbillies in its entirety. But these Muswell Hillbillies delivered the next best thing, and I couldn't have enjoyed it more. Let's hope they are working on a new production for next year -- The Village Green Preservation Society, perhaps?