Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My 2011 Holiday Album Buying Guide

Always a bit bogus, these year-end "best of" lists. To start with, they're based on a completely false premise: Who says you have to stick to 2011 releases when buying holiday presents for your nearest and dearest?  Still, there's something about a glossy new CD under the Christmas tree that's very alluring . It says, "I know you love music, and you're probably just as lost as I am in finding really worthwhile new stuff. So here are the newest tunes you've been too busy tweeting and Facebooking to learn about..."

In no particular order:

John Hiatt:  Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns:  Hiatt's best work in years -- a searing suite of vignettes about the forgotten 99% and the dying American Dream. It starts out with a howl of frustration ("Damn This Town") and ends up with two unflinchingly poignant elegies ("Adios To California" and "When New York Had Her Heart Broke"). Unpreachy, authentic, and full of rockin' righteous rage.    

The Wood Brothers: Smoke Ring Halo: This brother act side-project for Oliver and Chris Wood has turned into something bigger than the both of them, situated at a country crossroads where jazz and bluegrass and Southern rock come to share a drink, swap tall tales, and eventually bay at the moon.  There's a sort of rumpled ease about this album that belies their incredible musicianship; I love it when guys this good don't take themselves too seriously.  Buy, buy, buy.

Black Keys: El Camino: How good are these guys! Their trademark sound -- pulsating R&B-flavored rock, with a gritty low-fi edge -- just makes me bliss out.  It's a recent release, so I'm still wandering around inside its sound, but expect a blog post soon. And as the sticker on the cover insists (yes, I still buy physical product), this album should be played LOUD.

Nick Lowe:The Old Magic: Nick. Magic. And, yes, old, at least as in retro-styled.  Nick's suave songwriting is as usual right on the mark, working that familiar territory of letdown, loss, and heartbreak (that voodoo that Nick does so well), but the more I listen, the more I'm impressed by the richness of Nick's vocals, ripening as never before in this crooner groove. Just because these songs are instantly enjoyable doesn't mean they don't grow on you. The more I listen, the more I . . . well, I was already in love, but this just twists the knife.      

Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues: No sophomore slump for these guys -- their second effort takes those haunting reverbed harmonies to a new trippy level. It's more ambitious and less spare than their debut album, as Robin Pecknold and company take a step or two away from their folky roots, but never fear, that melodic gorgeousness is still in full flower.  

Nikki Jean: Pennies in a Jar: A great discovery, this album by Philly-based singer-songwriter Nikki Jean reminds you why you first fell in love with pop music. Not the yippy cheesy kind, but the classics, written by the great master pop songwriters who co-wrote these songs with Nikki.  Cool concept: cooler album.

Fountains of Wayne: Sky Full of HolesFour years since Traffic and Weather,  FoW's first entry on the YepRoc label was worth the wait. Thirteen finely crafted short stories in song, with wistfulness and whimsy in equal measures; you'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll definitely want to sing along. 

Fionn Regan: 100 Acres of Sycamore: The Irish have always been great poets; singer-songwriter Fionn Regan just sets his to music, that's all.  Wonderful folk-inflected music with a bit of Brechtian cabaret thrown in.  I loved his first album End of History, and this follow-up is just as whimsical and existential.  It takes a listen or two, but then it gets under your skin, like a long draught of Jameson's on a chilly autumn night.

The Jayhawks: Mockingbird Time: The long-awaited Jayhawks reunion album (has it really been eight years since Rainy Day Music?).  The good news is: It's a Jayhawks album, and it picks up right where they left off.  Did you expect new frontiers?  Even Mark and Gary's wonderful 2009 duo album Ready For the Flood stuck to the brand: rich harmonies, melodic hooks, laidback tempos, and more than a touch of twang. Why tamper with a sound -- and a sensibility -- this soul-satisfying?

Foster and Lloyd: It's Already Tomorrow: Waiting eight years is nothing -- try waiting 21 years for Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd to record together again. (Not that I haven' t been perfectly happy, mind you, with Bill Lloyd's somewhat more pop-oriented solo stuff in the meantime.) But this reunion album is a gem, with tuneful, well-honed songwriting. It stays on the right side of the border between Americana and country music; just enough twiddle and twang but never a trace of cornpone.   

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Albums I thoroughly enjoy by artists I love, though not groundbreaking efforts:
Keb' Mo': The Reflection
Ron Sexsmith: Long Player, Late Bloomer
The Decemberists:  The King Is Dead
Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys

Ben Folds: The Best Imitation of Myself: Love, love, LOVE Ben Folds; this 3-disc retrospective is packed with rarities, live tracks, and a sampler of Folds' most memorable tunes.   

Various Artists: Rave On: A Tribute to Buddy Holly: How could this not be a treat, with such talents as Nick Lowe, The Black Keys, Zooey Deschanel, Cee Lo Green, Patti Smith, and My Morning Jacket on board?

Only a few shopping days left until Christmas -- what are you waiting for?  And if you just happen to pick up a few of these for yourself...well, I won't tell.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Chills and Fever / Bob Andrews

Watch out, City Winery -- the Iridium is threatening to steal my loyalty as my favorite New York City music joint.  A scant three weeks after Marshall Crenshaw & Co. blew the roof off the old jazz club, my musical hero Graham Parker showed up for a weekend stint -- billed as half of the Graham Parker Duo, a musical act that reunites GP with his old Rumour keyboardist Bob Andrews.

Now as some of you may remember, almost exactly one year ago I saw the historic gig at NYC's Lakeside Lounge wherein Graham Parker unofficially reunited with most of The Rumour (they billed themselves as the Kippington Lodge Social Club -- like anybody would be fooled by that!).  We should have known they wouldn't stop there, and a few weeks ago we finally got the big news: that the Rumour and Parker have reunited for a role in a Judd Apatow movie, and have recorded a new album, to be released next December to coincide with the movie's release.  Now, the fact that these tracks have already been laid down and we won't get to hear them for another YEAR is excruciating.  But in the meantime, hopefully we'll get a few more delicious sneak previews like Graham and Bob's Iridium show.

That night the Lakeside was packed beyond the fire laws; I had to watch through the front windows from the sidewalk. But since the band was playing right  next to the window, I could see everything.  And when they burst into "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," I was absolutely riveted by Bob's virtuoso organ break.  That's when I really began to understand that, great as Graham is, the Rumour were far more than just a backing band, and Bob Andrews was one of their most essential treasures. (Not to mention what he brought to his pre-Parker group, Brinsley Schwarz, one of the great jam bands of the pub rock era.) 

Fast forward to 2011 and cruise uptown to the Iridium. It was just Graham and Bob this time around (although Rumour drummer Steve Goulding, it turned out, was sitting right next to us!) but if anything they were having even more fun than they did downtown. Laughing, dancing, wisecracking, goofing around -- they brought such joy and high spirits to the stage, we were all infected. And I thought to myself:  This is why I love rock and roll.  This is why you have to see music live.  Who cares if neither of these guys will ever see 60 again, or if they haven't a head of shaggy hair between them?  Once they started rocking, they were 22-year-old wild men all over again, only a whole lot smarter and funnier.  

The setlist was a healthy mix: Graham's solo stuff, a couple superb new reunion songs, and a few greatest hits, including "You Can't Be Too Strong" -- one of my favorite cuts from Squeezing Out Sparks, which I've always longed to hear Graham perform.  Now I realize why he doesn't sing it more often:  It absolutely, ABSOLUTELY, requires Bob's brilliant little piano fills. And with those fills, it was positively shivers-up-the-spine beautiful.

And they did some of Bob's solo numbers too.  If you're lucky enough to visit New Orleans in the near future, check out where Bob's playing -- he hops around his adopted home town, playing at various clubs, letting les bons temps roulez.  Another reason to love New Orleans.

I took a crappy video that night, not worth posting, but here's something I cribbed from the Interweb, taken at the House of Blues down in New Orleans:

Come to think of it, this vid isn't much better than the one I took, but it does have the virtue of being shot from the keyboard side.  (D'oh!)  At any rate, it gives you the idea of Bob's inimitable loose style and lightning fast fingers.

Now here's the full track from Bob's solo CD, appropriately enough also named Chills and Fever: 

There's not much to critique about this song -- it's just an insanely catchy R&B artifact, toe-tapping and full of spunk.  It's built on a tried-and-true pop metaphor, where fever stands in for love/lust/passion -- a metaphor older than the hills but still apt indeed. But above all, it's a song admirably suited to a barreling roadhouse piano, which is no doubt why Bob Andrews felt compelled to give it a whirl.

"Chills and Fever" first hit the airwaves as an atmospherically spooky 1961 single by Ronnie Love, jazzed up with voodoo-inflected shivering saxes. Apparently -- Bob shared this nugget of information with us -- no less than Allen Toussaint played the piano on that original Dot Records recording; that's what I call good bloodlines. But the song is perhaps best known as Tom Jones' first single in 1964.  Though it would take his next release -- "It's Not Unusual" -- to make him a star, Tom Jones' trademark sweaty passion is already all over his heated-up cover version.  

Bob takes the horniness back down a notch (whew!); his version is considerably more sprightly than either Ronnie's or Tom's.  It's simply a fine excuse to peel off some show-stopping boogie-woogie piano riffs.  He's almost like a salesman dropping open his sample case:  Who knew one man could wring that many different sounds out of one piano?  Like I said, a musical treasure -- and if we are very good children, we just may be hearing a lot more from him in the months to come.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How To Unring a Bell / 
Nikki Jean

My concert companion bailed on me. Okay, so there was a blizzard raging -- a freakish thing to happen the night before Halloween -- and there wasn't a taxi to be had; even the local subway was out of commission. And true, we had already seen Marshall Crenshaw not so very long ago, down at the City Winery.  But Marshall's October gigs at the Iridium jazz club were going to be something entirely different:  A tribute to masters of the Les Paul guitar, with all sorts of special guests and the Les Paul Trio backing up Marshall.  How could I miss that?

So I slogged down there alone, wet boots and all, and, man, was it worth it.  Marshall more or less conducted a seminar in vintage rock and pop, featuring renditions of classics from everyone from Freddie King and Bill Haley to Smokey Robinson and the Three Suns (favorites of Mamie Eisenhower, apparently.).  Along with Marshall appeared guitarist Steuart Smith of the Eagles, the fabulous Charlie Giordano of E Street fame -- who convinced me that every song should have accordion on it -- and, filling in as the voice of Sylvia Robinson on two Mickey & Sylvia covers, the effervescently charming Nikki Jean.

Some sixth sense told me that Marshall was going to include Mickey & Sylvia numbers.  Maybe it's because he'd already introduced me to one of the songs -- the ridiculously delightful "Love Will Make You Fail In School" -- on his Saturday WFUV radio show.  But I'd never heard of Nikki Jean, the singer Marshall had enlisted to help him out.  Her shimmering, pure voice was perfect for the job, though, and when Marshall encouraged her to perform a couple of songs from her new album Pennies in a Jar, I became hooked.

Now here's the cool back story. Pennies in a Jar is Nikki Jean's debut album (although she cut her teeth on indie/hip-hop projects such as Nouveau Riche and tours with Lupe Fiasco and Kanye West). Normally those credentials would send me running in the opposite direction, but Marshall's intro helped me discover that Nikki's got a whole nother thang going on.  Born Nicholle Jean Leary in St. Paul, Minnesota -- a Midwestern girl after my own heart! -- she's now based in that old-school music capital of Philly (check out her appearance with fellow Phillyite Daryl Hall on Live From Daryl's House).  She's known among her friends and fans for baking cookies and knitting as well as singing -- how retro is that!  All of which makes perfect sense to me, now that I've listened to her new CD, Pennies in a Jar.

For Pennies in a Jar is Nikki Jean's bid to link up to the great American pop-soul singer-songwriter heritage, a feat she accomplished with odds-defying nerve. She simply contacted all the great American pop songwriters -- Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, Carly Simon, Jeff Barry, Paul Williams, even Bob Dylan -- and asked them to co-write songs with her. And believe it or not, they all said yes.

The result is a pretty wonderful album with great range. Nikki's supple, lovely voice and innate musicality suit this classic tradition, so much so that I have to wonder what she was ever doing messing around in the hip-hop world. (To my ears the weakest track on the album is "Million Star Motel", which features hip-hoop emcees Lupe Fiasco and Black Thought).

And this track -- which she sang that night at the Iridium -- has emerged as my favorite on the album. This one she co-wrote with Philly Soul great Thom Bell, author of such classics as "Didn't I Blow Your Mind (This Time)," "Betcha By Golly Wow," and "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love." Bell's DNA is all over this track, and it officially blows my mind.

That central image -- how to unring a bell -- it's like a Zen koan, isn't it?  All of the images she unspools, from falling snow to spilled milk, from shot bullets to a dropped bomb, are irretrievable acts.  So, too, is the fatal moment in a relationship when you break things off; you may be able to backpedal and patch it up, but the fact that you ever inititated a break-up is on the record forever.  "Once you choose / The hand you play is yours to lose" -- it's sad but true, and you can never unsay those words again.  

Dig the descending melodic line of the verse, the unresolved keys, that sense of brooding they convey.  In the bridge and the chorus, it expands into major key, as she philosophically regards the situation she's created -- but the die is cast, and the brooding verses will take over again. We have no idea whether she wants to save the relationship after all, only that she's seized with regret by the sense of having crossed a line. It's psychologically acute, with a hook that I can't get out of my head. 

So kudos to Nikki Jean, for apprenticing herself to the masters of songwriting, and for allying herself with a longer-term tradition.  When I bought this CD from her in the Iridium bar, she couldn't have been sweeter or more genuine:  all she could do was gush about the generous spirit of the songwriters she'd worked with, and her awe at being on stage that night with such amazing musicians. (Those old guys?)    

Somewhere in here, the planets are aligning.  And it's all good.

Monday, November 14, 2011



Autumn Almanac & Shangri-la / The Kinks

Long before Ben Folds and Fountains of Wayne started writing their odes to suburban life, there was Ray Davies, peering out the windows of his East Finchley villa to chronicle the lives of his neighbors.

Take the narrator of his 1967 single “Autumn Almanac.”

It opens with such nostalgic pastoral charm: “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar / When the dawn begins to crack / It’s all part of my autumn almanac / Breeze blows leaves of a musty-colored yellow / So I sweep them in my sack.” You can’t tell me that’s not lovely, despite the twinges in our hero’s rheumatic back. I’m warmed by the comforting image of his friends gathering for “tea and toasted buttered currant buns.” The sound is a music hall softshoe, with corny horns, plinky piano, and sugary backing ooh’s; good times, good times.

But once Ray has hooked us, he begins to layer on mundane details that spell out the guy’s complacency: “I like my football on a Saturday, / Roast beef on Sundays, all right. / I go to Blackpool for my holidays, / Sit in the open sunlight” (sung in a plumping rhythm in a wavery old-timey Victorola voice -- this is where the satire starts to really dig in). In the last verse -- if you can call them verses; the melody never repeats itself, just rambles in a senile wool-gathering way -- Ray lets his narrator hang himself: “This is my street / And I’m never gonna leave it,” he stoutly declares, “And I’m always gonna stay here / If I live to be 99 / ‘Cos all the people I meet / Seem to come from my street”). Well, yeah, if you never go anywhere else, that’s who you’re bound to meet, innit?

Just two years later, Ray Davies revisits this territory with “Shangri-La,” a single off their LP Arthur (the soundtrack for a never-completed teleplay that would have been the first rock opera – but that’s another story).

Ray isn’t playing a character this time, he’s addressing a man who’s finally “made it” to that detached villa. All the flip satire is gone; Ray sings with earnest poignance, “Now that you’ve found your paradise / This is your kingdom to command / You can go outside and polish your car / Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-la.” The rueful melody drifts down the scale, ending every line on a gruff low note. Even before Ray tells you about the hollowness of this dream fulfilled, the melody’s made you feel it.

Yes, “Gone are the lavatories in the back yard” (a vivid and totally English detail, baffling to us Americans) – but Ray counters that with the reminder that “You've reached your top and you just can't get any higher.” How depressing is that? Then the satire turns even more biting: “The little man who gets the train / Got a mortgage hanging over his head / But he's too scared to complain.” I don’t know, I think Ray sounds terrified by this prospect -- terrified because he’s tempted by it too. And here’s the capping image: “And all the houses in the street have got a name / 'Cos all the houses in the street they look the same.” That English penchant for cutesy house names – “Rose Cottage” or “Storm’s End” – we don’t do that in America, but we’re just as guilty of building cookie-cutter housing developments. Little boxes on a hillside – there’s a nightmare for you.

Ray actually seems fond of his “Autumn Almanac” geezer and his cozy neighbours, but the guy in “Shangri-la”? He’s a gloomy wreck, surrounded by vicious gossips and weighed down by debt payments. Comedy and tragedy – just two sides of the same coin, courtesy of Mr. Ray Davies.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Girlfriend in a Coma / The Smiths

I won't go into detail about what I was doing in 1987, but I can tell you one thing I wasn't doing -- I wasn't listening to the Smiths.  A pity, I suppose. On the other hand, it means that I now face the delicious pleasure of exploring this brave new world all at once.

I feel about the Smiths the way I feel about Robyn Hitchcock; what I find most compelling is their inimitable Smiths-ness.  When you figure that Robyn and the Smiths both wandered onto the music scene in the wasteland left behind by punk, it all makes sense; they were all trying to reinvent the wheel. As soon as their songs begin, you're immediately projected into some sort of parallel universe.  It's not just the oddball timbre of Morrissey's vocals; it's the whole ball of wax: the unrhyming lyrics, the mesmeric repeated phrases, the modular melodies -- like a pop equivalent of Legos -- and the quirky combination of romantic yearning and postmodern irony.  The emotional flutter in Morrissey's voice is simply not to be trusted. 

Having come to the Smiths late, I did the prudent thing:  I started out with a "best of" compilation, in this case the excellent Louder Than Bombs.   But I knew -- it was inevitable -- that eventually I'd have to go back and buy all the albums, as I slid further and further down the rabbit hole.  My latest purchase: the aptly titled Strangeways, Here We Come, released in 1987. All new tracks to me, since Louder Than Bombs was compiled as a sort of catch-up album for the overseas market, and was released well before they recorded Strangeways, which turned out to be their final album.   It's full of wonderful treasures, but this track in particular whacked me upside the head.  In a good way, of course.

Now, full confession:  I've got a friend who's just come out of a coma.  Tragic story, which I won't go into here, but I've been preoccupied for weeks, worrying about her condition.  So from the get-go, I feel ambivalent about Morrissey singing about something so sad -- not just singing about it, but singing about it in a jaunty pop song with a rather bouncy beat.  What gives?

"Girlfriend in a coma, I know / I know, it's serious."  Meanwhile, there's a perky little guitar riff, not to mention cello arpeggios as he wonders, "Do you think she'll pull through?"  At first he doesn't want to see her, then he's longing to see her to say goodbye.  He's tormented by the memory of thoughtlessly saying in the past that he'd like to murder her or strangle her.  Like so many Smiths song, this one homes relentlessly in on a callow emotional response; of course he's sorry, of course he loves her, blah blah blah, but really it's all about him, his guilt and his fears.

Maybe it's satire -- a comment on the shallowness of self-involved modern love -- maybe it's just being brutally honest about human nature. Either way, it's provocative, and yet so dreamily beautiful, in its Smith-y way, that it's been echoing in my consciousness all day.

YouTube wouldn't let me embed the official video, which is a shame. (Ah, the Eighties, when a video really mattered!)  Take a look at it though -- it's a curious artifact in and of itself.  There's Morrissey, earnestly emoting (in color!  at a tilted angle!) at the bottom of the screen, while behind him plays scenes from the 1964 movie The Leather Boys, a black-and-white kitchen-sink drama about young working-class marrieds estranged by the husband's attraction to a studly gay biker.   I haven't seen this film, but now I'm wildly curious.  First of all, anything with Rita Tushingham -- she of A Taste of Honey and The Knack and How To Get It -- has to be good.  But more importantly, it throws into the mix all the mystery surrounding Morrissey's own sexuality, especially because the young husband, played by Colin Campbell, looks frighteningly like Morrissey.  So is that why he really can't get too worked up about his dying girlfriend?

Punk rock smashed so many barriers, artists like the Smiths and Robyn Hitchcock had to find new ways to be transgressive.  Absurdist poetry about insects and transportation was Robyn's solution; the Smiths instead trained a discomforting spotlight on the worst banalities of human interactions. It's a very seductive view of the world.  I might just have to listen to more of it.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Madonna of the Wasps / Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock has had more musical lives than a cat. He's played folk music, psychedelic music, punk, and rock & roll; his bands have included the Soft Boys, the Egyptians, and the Venus 3, alongside a substantial solo output.  And oh, yes, he draws, paints, make videos, acts in films, and has developed an eccentric stage persona that's true performance art.  Whatever he does, it fascinates me.

It's exhausting to be a Robyn Hitchcock fan, though, trying to keep up with his restless, peripatetic output. He's always got some new project cooking, launched quickly and with little fanfare. When I think of the ponderous PR apparatus marshaled around the new Coldplay album, I'm bored even before it's released; but with Robyn Hitchcock, there's always some surprise popping up on the internet, some album of outtakes or oddball video or clips of tribute concerts that I'd no idea was happening. Quick, grab it now!

News somehow drifted to me on the ether of Chronology, Robyn's new career-spanning compilation (to call it a "best of" would hardly do justice to the quirky selection), which, as I understand it, is only being released in digital format.  But when I went on line to buy it, what do I find but another new album, titled Tromsø, Kaptein, that he totally snuck in on me.  Strange marketing plan -- I mean, I've bought enough of his stuff directly from YepRoc that they should have me down as a fan; emailing alerts to known fans should be the most basic rollout strategy.  But then, hey, illogical marketing sorta fits the Robyn Hitchcock mystique, doesn't it?

Long before I picked up Chronology, I already had this song in my head.  But lo and behold, when I listened to Chronology, I realized that the version in my music library is totally different. What gives?

The version I'm used to -- the version I'm in love with -- is a solo acoustic version, which I've deduced (girl detective that I am) came from the compilation CD my friend Dave K made for me, when we were going to see Robyn for the first time. You know, the way a drug pusher gives you a joint for free, knowing you'll soon be back begging to buy more?

Anyhoo, this acoustic rendition is now the only one I want to hear.  Somewhere on the internet I read that it was recorded during an in-store concert at some record shop in London.  If I were Robyn, this is the version I'd have put on the compilation CD.  But then I'm not Robyn. The very thought of being Robyn makes me feel dizzy, in fact. Whoa.

I'll tell you why I prefer this version.  Listen to the way Robyn sings the title phrase: "Lost Madonna of the wasps" -- how his voice swoops up on "wasps," like a flying insect, then the delicate buzzing as he enunciates "wah-ss-puh--ssss." It's almost like you're being stung. It's wonderfully specific and intimate, and mesmerizing.

Robyn's got a bit of an insect fixation (no wonder the Jonathan Demme documentary about RH is titled Sex, Food, Death . . . and Insects) and he has no trouble anthropomorphizing his Madonna.  In the middle verse, she comes in for her close-up: "And then she settles on me / Wise Madonna of the flies / I look into her eyes / She doesn't recognize me / Is this love?" Sure, it could all be a metaphor, but for a shape-shifter like Robyn Hitchcock, it's not out of the question that he really does ponder the inner life of insects. 

And yes, the logic of the main verse (repeated again in the third verse) seems dictated mostly by rhymes. "Crossed," "lost," "frost," "cost" -- if he can rhyme it, it's in the song.  But if poets like Rimbaud can build a whole poem off of interlocked rhymes, so can Robyn Hitchcock. The main thing is that mood of melancholy, the rising and falling melody, the suspended chords, the sense of loss that runs through it.  I find myself thinking about what short lives insects lead, how death is always imminent, how a cold spell can end it all overnight.  I look out my window and see the bizarre Halloween snowfall in the park and, you know, Robyn's onto something . . . .

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When I Was King / Graham Parker

We're long past due for a Graham Parker post, my friends and faithful readers.

The Graham Parker world has been buzzing lately over two groundbreaking pieces of news.  Firstly, Graham has reunited with his old backing band, The Rumour, for a new album entitled (don't you love it?) Three Chords Good.  And as if that weren't enough, long-time Parker fan and film director Judd Apatow has tapped GP and the Rumour to appear in his new film, a sequel to Knocked Up starring Paul Rudd, set to be released in December 2012 (if we can wait that long!). Is that cool or what?

Now, anyone who knows how funny Graham can be should know that he's just been waiting for an opportunity like this to shine on camera. I predict that he's about to experience a truly epic (and long overdue) career revival. A year from now everyone will be claiming to be Parkeristas, just like everyone this fall claims to be a Nick Lowe fan.  Here's your chance to be ahead of the curve and get hip to Graham Parker before the masses move in.

You'll find this track on 1991's Struck By Lightning, which just may be my favorite Graham Parker album ever.  (And that's going some.) Side note:  The Rumour's Andrew Bodnar plays bass on this album, and Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello's Attractions is the drummer.  The Band's Garth Hudson and the Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian sit in on a few tracks as well -- not too shabby, eh?

Back in 1979, when Squeezing Out Sparks gave Graham Parker and the Rumour their biggest US success, they pretty much were kings.  By 1991, that was well in Graham's past -- but does he sound bitter or regretful?  No way.  In fact, he seems to have all the confidence of an artist who knows he's doing his best work ever, whether or not the world is listening. (I wasn't even listening in 1991 -- it took me years to rediscover Graham Parker.)

"When I was king," he muses, "I was not really the man I am now."  There's just a whiff of satire to that rising melody, the mock stately rhythm lagging behind the beat with noblesse oblige. And the trappings of royalty -- or of pop success -- are almost laughably ephemeral:  a "throne of china," a crown fit only to be melted down "to sell as scrap." But being a king is a sort of trap, too:  "But they'd run the first run of stamps / People had cashed in their post office savings / To buy some and lick the back of my neck."  It's deliciously absurd, but poignant all the same. The coronation happens anyway, and in a sort of fairy-tale reality, he finds himself ruling over "some green and pleasant land / With a frog and a princess, not necessarily in that order." 

"I didn't want to be king anyway," Graham protests; "I always preferred to hang out with the servants."  I love that line; to me, that epitomizes the common-man approach that makes Graham Parker's work so special.  Posturing and pretension have never been his thing. (Bruce Springsteen has spent his career trying to convey the same real-guy honesty; I never buy it from him, but from Graham I do, one hundred percent.)

And after all, what would be the point of being king?  "When I was king," he continues in the third verse, "there was no country left to rule / Jesters and fools were leaders / All of them a royal pain." (How could he resist a pun like that?)  Too late, perhaps, he realizes he has to get back on top: "Now I'm a serf / But I'm still trying to be a king  . . .  I'll have to assassinate someone / With a guitar as a gun."

"Oh, it's good to be a king," he'll admit.  (Who can forget Mel Brooks' classic line from History of the World Part One -- "It's good to be the king.") "I know that I've been there / Many, many, many, many kingdoms ago..."  Fashions in pop music come and go, and being yesterday's hit-maker means nothing today.  There's definitely something wistful about this sweet, soaring melody, but he's not weighed down with regret; it's the way of the world, and he can take it in stride.

But let's think -- who were the hitmakers in 1991?  Nirvana and Pearl Jam were signaling the rise of grunge, while Guns 'n' Roses was unseating Metallica.  R.E.M. and U2 were already peaking (though both continued to release music for many more years).  Bryan Adams, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, and Michael Bolton ruled the charts; Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the Divinyl's "I Touch Myself" filled the airwaves.  So who was ever going to notice a stripped-down, folk-inflected album like Struck By Lightning?

On the other hand, who noticed the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society album in 1968?  The satire and lyrical tenderness of that album was out of step with the times, just as Struck By Lightning was out of step with 1991.  But here's the thing about truly great albums: When you finally discover them, they seem as fresh as yesterday.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


There are two artists in my archives who regularly reduce me to tears:  Joe Jackson and Ben Folds. I don't know why that is, although the fact that both are stellar pianists may have something to do with it.   I've had Ben mightily on my mind recently, having just received his new retrospective box set, The Best Imitation of Myself (Jesus, this guy is good.)  But for some reason it was this already-covered Joe Jackson song that dominated my brain today.  Who knows why -- like the Wizard of Oz, I don't know how it works.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Blue Flame / Joe Jackson

Volume 4 is such a superb album. I’m not just talking musically, though it's an exquisite fusion of rock and jazz and Latin music and cabaret and everything else. But what really takes my breath away is how Joe Jackson's songwriting has matured – those melancholy melodies, the poetic imagery of the lyrics, the psychological depth of the storytelling. Music for grown-ups, again -- and you know how I love that.

I realize I’ve already worked over “Awkward Age” and “Love At First Light”; now add “Blue Flame” to the list of songs from this 2003 album that completely wrench my heart.

He wastes no time, but plunges right in, mid-conversation: “I’ve got some walls around me too / But they’re not much, compared to your house / Fifty feet high, with barbed wire / Guards on the top, aiming rifles at your lovers one by one / And friends too.” Don’t you just know people like that? And the way that melody meanders in and out of minor keys, piano chords hanging unresolved, the drumbeat clicking along – it’s so wistful, so sorrowful, you have to take it seriously.  Maybe this is the secret of Joe Jackson's emotional power: those risk-taking melodies, leaping all over the keyboard.  Who can resist?

“I’ve come with hands above my head,” he declares, carrying on the metaphor, but he’s honest about his own hang-ups: “But I’m damned if I’ll try to break your door down / If you ever come out, just call me / I’ll still be armed with the memory of one evening when you smiled / At something.” It’s so little to go on, but at a certain point in our lives we realize that may be all there is. Taking a risk gets so damn hard – but NOT taking the risk, that’s death.

Yes, this hoped-for lover is a hard case – “You tell me women get you down / And as for men, well they’re all bastards / I wonder what world you call home,” he mutters, shaking his head. Later, he can’t resist an edgy snipe: “Yes, it was nice to see you too / Although I’m never sure you mean it.” Yes, he can see  his would-be lover’s faults, perfectly clearly. Leading into the second chorus, he’s talking as much to himself as to his lover when he remarks, “Bitterness is a black hole.” But somebody has to bend.

So why is this lover worth pursuing? In the chorus, he shifts gears to confess that there is another side: “There’s a blue flame inside of you, so beautiful and rare / Love’s not something we decide to do / You’d be so hard to love / If love was not just . . . there.” There's the heartbreaking nub of it.  Of course; they're already entangled, more than either of them can afford to admit. Who ever said love was easy?

And we have NO idea how this affair will turn out. If a happy ending is what you’re hanging around for, prepare to be disappointed. The romantic and the realist in Joe Jackson are always locked in their hopeless dance; neither one will ever win. That’s the world according to Joe Jackson . . . and it pierces my heart, every time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sensitive Man / Nick Lowe

If you've been living in a cave for the past month or so . . . you may not have heard that Nick Lowe has a new album out.  The rest of us, we've been witnessing a barrage of press coverage, adulatory reviews, radio appearances, and other coronation-type events heralding the September release of The Old Magic.  Suddenly, it's okay to like Nick Lowe all over again.

I will refrain from asking where all those newly-minted Nick Lowe fans were six years ago, when he hadn't released an album in 4 years and I couldn't find his older CDs anywhere.  Now the old stuff's being re-released (Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust have gotten the royal re-issue treatment so far, and more are bound to come), along with a 2-disc best-of compilation (Quiet Please) and the boxed set The Brentford Trilogy, that conveniently bundles the three late-90s-early-00s albums wherein he reinvented himself as an older-but-wiser country crooner. Buy, buy, buy!!

Well, I'm a little conflicted -- I'm not sure I'm ready to share Nick with the masses -- though once he's no longer the Flavor of the Month, things will no doubt cool down.  While we're waiting, we can quietly enjoy this album for what it is:  Not the capstone of a storied career, but simply another immensely pleasurable outing by an old dog who still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

Several of these songs -- including "I Read A Lot" -- I first heard months ago in concert, when Nick was trying them out on the road.  It's hard for me to recapture how riveted I was, hearing them for the first time.  So until I've properly digested the album as a whole, let me just share with you one new-to-me delight.

From those very first brightly chattering piano chords (the ever sublime Geraint Watkins!), this song ticks along, upbeat and sly.   As Nick happily tells any interviewer who asks, his songs aren't autobiographical, but he certainly does seem fond of adopting the character of a Clueless Loser. In this case, the woebegone fella is baffled to notice a new distance in his lover.  (Shades of last album's "People Change" -- "and you don't know what you've done / Or even how to make it right").  He's picking up various signs, all right -- how she pulls away from his embrace, the looks she shoots across the room -- but he still has no idea what's bugging her. "I know that something is amiss, / But what it is, you won't say," he laments. Just come out and tell me, babe -- don't make me guess! 

All he knows is that he's feeling rebuffed:  "But how can I face it, standing out here in the cold? / I'm a sensitive man." ("Don't freeze me, baby," he begs in the second verse; "you can hear that midnight song," he adds woefully.)  Of course he's wounded and stung, because he's such a sensitive man. ("Though first impressions might steer you wrong," he admits -- he's so misunderstood!) I love the chorus here:  "I'm a sensitive man," he insists, while his mates chime in with doleful "ohhs." And in the coda:  "Sen-sitive man!  Out in the cold! / Sensitive man / Tryin' to do good." Poor baby!

This is a real Mars-and-Venus moment, isn't it?  When we women gush about how sensitive a man is, it's because (we hope) he can read our moods, anticipate our desires, and -- oh, yes -- put himself in our shoes and avoid pissing us off in the first place.  Nick's narrator, though, is sensitive in an entirely different meaning:  easily hurt and prone to brooding.  Put the two together and -- OUCH!!!  

Speaking strictly from a female point of view, I can guess that this guy did something colossally stupid. (Like maybe he FORGOT HER BIRTHDAY?!!!)  And the last thing she wants is to have to spell it out for him.  But he's so obtuse, even when she drops hints all over the place, they shoot right over his head.  MEN!!!

On the other hand -- okay, okay -- maybe this song is about how women over-complicate every emotional situation, and how hard it is for men to navigate those treacherous waters.  Who knows?  It's done with such a light touch, either or both readings are possible.  Nick's pulled off this sort of tease before -- like in "All Men Are Liars," where he simultaneously lambasts the male sex and mocks women who rag on men.

As usual, his delivery is spot-on: Just a few pauses and ironic vocal flourishes to let us in on the joke. There's just a whisper of cheesiness in that cocktail lounge piano, the back-up crooners, the bleating Bacharach-style horns in the middle eight.  Nick can break your heart with regret if he wants to: elsewhere on The Old Magic, for example, with the tender "Stoplight Roses" or the rueful "House For Sale."  But that's not what he's after here. This track is way too bouncy for regret, as our hapless narrator (not Nick, remember!) pouts and scratches his head.

Talk about word play -- forget the puns and double entendres that used to riddle Nick Lowe's lyrics, now he can write an entire song about the conflicting messages contained in one simple phrase.  That, my friends, is the mark of a master wordsmith.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Columbus Day Shuffle

Doncha just love 3-day weekends?  Started out with my birthday on Saturday, then John Lennon's birthday yesterday, and now we have yet another day to chill and hang out.  Time for music!

1. Fourth of July / Dave Alvin
From King of California (1994)
Another lonesome, plangent tune by the wonderful Dave Alvin, the King of Downey, California. Dave Alvin seems to have a pipeline into the weary lives of working-class Westerners.  "On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone / Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below" -- shoot this in black-and-white and you'd have a California version of The Last Picture Show.  Devastatingly sad and tender, great stuff.

2. Rockin' the Suburbs / Ben Folds
From Rockin' the Suburbs (2001)
From the authentic to the deliciously snarky in one fell swoop. "Let me tell y'all what it's like / Being male, middle-class and white...All alone in my white-boy pain / Shake your booty while the band complains."  And those perky synths -- skewer 'em, Ben!

3. Don't Lose Your Grip on Love / Brinsley Schwarz
From Nervous on the Road (1972)
Authentic at one remove, the Brinsleys channel the Band, with Bob Andrews doing a quite respectable Garth Hudson homage.  They almost get it right -- "Why do you despise this travelin' man? /  Even though he's doing the best that he can" -- until Nick Lowe betrays his English boarding school roots: "Working for peanuts, as is his wont --"  SCREECH! Gotta love it. This is the same man who rhymes "bona fide" with "coincide" in "Cruel to be Kind," or who describes himself as "a feckless man" in "Hope For Us All" -- he's an English major's dream.  Well, this English major's dream, anyway...

4. Sole Salvation / The English Beat
From Special Beat Service (1982)
Oooh, great sax, and those earnest Dave Wakeling vocals -- these guys never fail to please. The ska revival of the early 80s was right up my alley; I fell in love with the Specials first, but the English Beat kicked in right after, adding a little pop honey to the mix.  Yeah, it's Sole Salvation or Soul Salvation, whichever you want, the groove goes on.       

5.  Shting Shtang / Nick Lowe
From Party of One (1989)
There are days when this neglected beauty is my favorite Nick Lowe album, even this throwaway rockabilly riffer.  These guys are just having so damn much fun -- who needs Rockpile?

6. The Story's Over / The Lodger
From Grown-Ups (2006)
I think iTunes is prejudiced towards this indie-pop band from Leeds, because their music cycles up SO OFTEN on my shuffle, even though I only have five tracks downloaded. (Thanks, Justin.) Not that that's a bad thing -- their stuff's fun. 

7. Eine Kleine Middle Klasse Musik / The Rutles
From Archaeology (1996)
The brilliant Neil Innes (he of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band) masterminded the Beatles parody The Rutles, along with ex-Python Eric Idle; a few years later, when the Beatles Anthology was all over the place, Neil jumped in with this wonderful take-off of Sgt. Pepper's. Except that it's not really a take-off, IMHO, just extending the Beatles' legacy with all the songs they would have written if they had had time.   

8. Back on My Feet / Al Kooper
From New York City (You're A Woman) (1971)
I am absolutely always delighted when an Al Kooper track cycles up on the old shuffle.  The first true rock chicks I ever knew -- two girls who called themselves Toots and Babs -- turned me onto this stuff at yearbook camp when I was maybe 15, and it runs insanely deep in my musical DNA.  (The full story here.) Truly, it's like going home for me.  I have a huge grin on my face right now. 

9. Loaded  / The Wood Brothers
From Loaded (2008)
You really must, really must, listen to the Wood Brothers.  Please? I just found them by accident and they're one of my great discoveries: I love them madly.  Put together blues and folk and jazz, and mix it up with top-drawer musicianship and mesmerizing vocals and sharp songwriting -- well, what's not to like? 

10. Space Oddity / David Bowie
From Space Oddity (1969)
Sigh.  One of the greatest tracks ever.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Shattered / The Rolling Stones

Now it's my Windows Movie Maker that's gone haywire -- the program I use to make videos so you can listen to the music I write about.  I swear, will the technical difficulties ever end?  These days I have a hard enough time getting time to blog anyway, without having to devote 2 hours to decoding tech issues. 

Blogger is probably punishing me for not switching to its updated interface.  Well, I tried it, and I see nothing about the new interface that improves my blogging experience whatsoever.  It's like making me switch versions of Word (and all along I still wish Microsoft hadn't driven WordPerfect out of the market!).  Now, I'm no Luddite -- just today I tried out a new GPS device that is not a Garmin system, and I loved my new and improved navigation experience. But when something isn't broken, I hate having someone else decide it's time to fix it.  Does the latest version of iTunes really matter?  

So once again I have to fall back on You Tube:

Mind you, after listening to this song about 50 times trying to get it downloaded, I'm not sure I like it anymore.  Well, "like" is probably the wrong verb anyway.  I listened to Some Girls a LOT when it first came out in 1978; I'd just moved to Manhattan, and this song encapsulated all the frustrations I felt, learning how to deal with the Big Bad Apple.  I shared a shabby apartment in a fringe neighborhood, rode a filthy graffiti-covered subway train to work, and climbed up out of the subway every morning in Times Square (the old nasty Times Square, not Mayor Bloomberg's sparkling new Times Square Mall).  So it was oddly comforting to listen to the relentlessly chugging rhythm track of this song, and hear Mick's campy yelps of outrage.

Among the lines that have always stayed with me:

All this chitter chatter, chitter chatter, chitter chatter
'Bout schmatte schmatte schmatte, 
I can't give it away on Seventh Avenue. 

Don't you know the crime rate's going up up up up up
To live in this town, you must be tough tough tough tough tough tough tough

Rats on the West Side, bed bugs uptown
What a mess, this town's in tatters

This town's full of money grabbers
Go ahead, bite the Big Apple
Don't mind the maggots 

Don't you just love how opportunistic Jagger's lyrics are?  He'll say anything if it rhymes, or even if it kinda rhymes.  It's just brilliant dumb luck that those rhymes come off as insightful and impressionistic. 

There's no melody to speak of, and the only interesting instrumentation is in the bridge, where Keith rips off several of his own old riffs.  If I were really a Stones fan, I'm sure I could identify them. (If he played the riff from "You Really Got Me," I'd know that . . . ) And yet -- well, this is a supremely fun song. 

This is the last album, in fact,  where I really felt that the Stones were having any fun at all. From there on, it always just seemed like they had to grind out music to keep their enormous enterprise afloat. Mind you, I haven't listened seriously to anything after Tattoo You, but there's only so much time in the world.

But hey, I could be wrong.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday Shuffle

I'm thoroughly bummed that the Amazon widget doesn't seem to work anymore.  In cases like this I tend to assume that Blogger/Google and Amazon are having a hissy fit with each other (did Google steal Amazon's boyfriend?) and Google has decided not to play with Amazon ever again.  Took me ages to find another way to slip those links in here. Hope it works! 

1. Moments Like This / Maria Muldaur
From A Woman Alone With the Blues (2003)
Nice little bit of jazz from Maria Muldaur, in her best kittenish-sultry voice. I've been a fan of Maria's ever since the Jim Kweskin Jug Band days, though my favorite album of hers is definitely Waitress in a Donut ShopIf all you know of her is "Midnight At The Oasis," please investigate further.

2. The Good Old Days / The Lodger
From Life Is Sweet (2008). 
Catchy indie pop number from this Leeds trio -- "Could it be the start of something? / Could it be the end of a phase? / Could it be the start of the future? / Could it be the good old days?"  Way too upbeat for the break-up subject matter, but I'll never turn down bouncy hooks like this.

3. One to One / Joe Jackson
From Beat Crazy (1980)
Joe Jackson may have started out wearing a New Wave suitcoat, but it never really fit. By the time of Beat Crazy he was already skewing toward jazz  -- we shouldn't have been so surprised by the next year's Jumpin' Jive, though who could have predicted the Latinized glory of Night and Day?  The metronomic drum tick of this track is downright hypnotic.  

4.  I Don't Wanna Talk About Love No More / Amy Rigby
From Little Fugitive (2005)
"I'm tired of emotional discussions / I'm tired of repercussions...."  Amy Rigby's such a hoot; she really tells it like it is, our most reliable guide to spunky chick desire.

5. Redneck Friend / Dave Alvin
From West of the West (2006)
Nice cover of a Jackson Browne tune, on Alvin's album-long salute to various of his fellow native California rockers.  Alvin's gravelly voice adds a sexy intimacy to this tune, perfectly complemented by a slouchy jazz arrangement. More people should cover Jackson Browne, IMHO.  

6. Rush Across the Road / Joe Jackson
From Rain (2008)
Joe again!  And 28 years after Beat Crazy, listen to his muse in full flower on this riveting album, one of the best of the past decade.  On the track before this, he rips our hearts out with "Solo (So Low)" -- only to let joy burst in again with "Rush Across the Road," a soaring paean to how love can take you completely by surprise.

7. Stick To Me / Graham Parker & the Rumour
From Stick To Me (1977)
Early GP, and great stuff -- dig those edgy rhythms and driving energy.  I swear, this song just crackles out of the speakers.    

8.  Hate to Say I Told You So / The Hives
From Veni Vidi Vicious (2000)
Well, talk about edgy rhythms and driving energy -- it's the Hives' turn, dialing up the punk with those grating guitars and pounding beat, sweetened with just a dollop of playfulness.    

9. Say Yes / Elliott Smith
From Either / Or (1997)
I know very little about Elliott Smith, but the handful of folky tracks that somehow landed on my iTunes always make me wistful. Was this song in the movie Garden State?  Sounds like it should have been.

10. You Are A Tourist  / Death Cab for Cutie
From Codes and Keys (2011)
"When there's a burning in your heart / An endless yearning in your heart..."  I love the layered textures of this track, with its incantatory chorus, spooling guitar riff, and plinging echoes.  Even endless radio play this summer couldn't spoil this number for me.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Back to school time -- got my clean notebooks and sharpened pencils and new plaid skirt all ready to go.  Summer's distractions have been put behind me, and I'm ready to get back down to bizness. 

Only problem is, my Amazon widget -- the one that let me post links to mp3s so you could listen to the songs with me -- isn't working today.  My apologies -- I'll be sure to come back and add those links when it's been fixed. 

1. I've Got It All (Most) / Modest Mouse
From Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004)
Well, now here's a song that speaks to my current mood.  "I've got it al......most / I've got it all, almost all figured out / But when I get there / Always when I get there, / The pieces, they just fall apart."  If Cubists made rock and roll,  this is what it would sound like: neurotic vocals and lurching offbeat rhythms, sewn together with swoops of melody and a funky underpinning.  As my son remarked, listening to Modest Mouse's contribution to the Rave On Buddy Holly tribute: "If I heard this song blind, I wouldn't know it was Buddy Holly, but I'd definitely know it was Modest Mouse. You can't mistake that sound."  

2. Take the Long Way Around / Teenage Fanclub
From Songs From Northern Britain (1997) 
Don't these guys do great hooks?   Somehow their songs always slide past without me really listening to the lyrics, I guess because the lyrics are beside the point.  But they've got all the pop energy their name promises, refreshingly s l o w e d  down just enough to let it swing. And those rich vocal harmonies make me think for some reason of the Jayhawks -- anybody else?

3. Find Another Girl / The Hives
From Veni Vidi Vicious (2000)
Speaking of re-invented covers -- these snappy Swedes have utterly transformed this Curtis Mayfield-Jerry Butler Philly soul classic, turning it into -- ta-da~  a Hives song!  What else, when you've got Howlin' Pelle Almqvist's tuneless vocals and that scruffy skate-punk wall of sound? Still, I dunno -- that note of existential despair works oddly well for this song.  Who'd a guessed that?

4. So It Goes / Nick Lowe
From  Jesus of Cool (1976)
Well, this has been quite a week for St. Nick, freshly canonized in the mainstream press in honor of his new country crooner album The Old Magic.  (Yeah, yeah, I've got it, I'll be reviewing it soon -- that one deserves a full weekend's listen, preferably with a good bottle of Scotch.)  But it's a nice change-up to get an invigorating shot of Old Nick. It's easy to get caught up in the boppy beat and those overlapping "so it goes"-es, but Nick's surrealistic lyrics were always better than they needed to be for Pure Pop. Best verse: "In the air there's aftershave lotion / In the wake of a snaky Persian / On his arm is a skin-tight vision / Wonder why she ain't mine, she's his."  There's a whole novel there, my friends, or at least a Cameron Crowe movie.    

5.  Lost and Found / The Kinks
From Think Visual (1986)
Mmmm....Ray's hurricane song.  This has been quite a week for Ray as well, as tickets have been selling like hot cakes to his November U.S. tour dates.  (Hours battling Ticketmaster finally snagged me a 4th row way on the side for the New York City date -- hmmph. I hate scalpers.).  

6. One for My Baby / Rosemary Clooney
From 70 -- A 70th Birthday Celebration (1998)
I'll take Rosemary Clooney over Peggy Lee any day -- nearly as sultry, but with a voice as clear as a mountain stream, even on this late recording.  Sinatra's original of this Arlen/Mercer classic is pretty hard to top, but damn if Rosie doesn't pull it off, with masterly phrasing and a seen-it-all shrug in her voice. Set 'em up, Joe!

7. All In Good Time / Ron Sexsmith
From Time Being (2006)
Nick Lowe keeps telling interviewers lately that Ron Sexsmith is one of his favorite songwriters. Another thing I have in common with Nick Lowe!  Ron's our great Canadian folk-pop philosopher, reflecting on the nature of love and loss with a gently lilting acoustic twang.  This song pretty well sums up this album's earnest meditations on mortality -- the catchiest sermons you'll ever love.

8. The Lasting Kind  / Greg Trooper
From Floating (2003)
Another Greg Trooper album you ought to own, the first one that hooked me on this guy's genius. A little country wheeze adds plangency to this yearning-for-love song that should have covered by mega-artists and made Troop the fortune he deserves. (Calling Curtis Stigers!)  Dig how those brooding verses swell into the heartfelt chorus: "There's love that sees and love that's blind / Love that pays no mind / Leaving and the left behind / I'm looking for the lasting kind."  Aren't we all?

9. Long Gone Lonesome Blues / Sheryl Crow
From Timeless: Hank Williams (1998)

Wow, this is really Covers Night, isn't it?  Sheryl's cover doesn't take the crown away from Hank's original, but it ticks along nicely, and her yodeling is way better than you'd expect. (Disclaimer:  I still haven't forgiven Sheryl for Lance Armstrong.)  I got this track on a mix-tape my friend Jim sent me (yes, people do still send each other mix-tapes, children) and every time this track comes up, I grudgingly admit, "you know, I really ought to listen to more Sheryl Crow." So I'm open to suggestions....

10. I've Just Seen A Face  /  The Beatles
From Help!  (1965)
Talk about going country -- here's Paul trying on some rockabilly shoes, back in 1965 when these guys absolutely could not fail. (Come to think of it, their entire career was like that.)  A delicious dose of rockabilly syncopation: "Fallin', yes I am fallin' / And she keeps callin' / Me back again" -- oh, if only.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


Not that I buy into the panic mentality or anything -- but just in case Irene wipes New York City off the face of the earth  -- or at least in case internet service goes out for the next few days -- here's a couple of old posts revisited, of my favorite hurricane songs. . . 
"Feels Like Rain" / John Hiatt

Want a song to win your true love? You can't go wrong with John Hiatt. And in the end, I always go for "Feels Like Rain," from his 1986 album Slow Turning.  One of the most emotive love songs ever written, it's been covered by loads of other artists -- and it deserves to be -- but I don't think anybody does it better than John himself.

That leisurely tempo takes its own sweet time to get going, with Sonny Landreth laying down light-fingered electric guitar licks while John tinkers around on the electric piano. The texture of this song feels just like the sort of gentle nighttime rain that sweeps in to wash away all the grit and hurt of the day -- if rainfall sound-effects had been layered in, it couldn't sound any more atmospheric. And over it all John's vocals work some serious R&B voodoo, crooning and howling and whispering and coaxing, so gruff and yet so tender.

The first verse starts out lazy and carnal: "Down here the river meets the sea / And in the sticky heat I feel you / Open up to me." (I'm fanning myself already, aren't you?) It's all about the mood, and the moment, and that rising barometric pressure; the chords shift upward too, with growing urgency, as John warns: "Love comes out of nowhere, baby / Just like a hurricane." Then, like a dying gust of wind, his voice drops downward, caressing the refrain: "And it feels like rain / And it feels like rain."

And get this line: ""Underneath the stars, lying next to you / Wonderin' who you are, baby / How do you do?"  This isn't just a guy banging some chick whose name he can't remember; this is a moment mid-passion when he's suddenly rocked by the deep unknowableness between two human beings. They're so close physically, it's a shock to realize that she's still her own separate person.. He may have been married to her for ten years, but at this instant she's a stranger, and he hungers to get close to her all over again.  It's no coincidence that Marshall Crenshaw and Ben Folds have both described this curious phenomenon as well -- I think of Hiatt, Crenshaw, and Folds as the triumvirate of Married Love Experts.   

This rain that's rolling in?  It isn't just rain, of course; it's a metaphor of passion, folks, and I could tell that even if I didn't know Hiatt would later write a song, "Loving a Hurricane."  And in this case, it's heat-wave-breaking, drought-ending rain, the kind of meteorological event that makes folks change their plans. "We'll never make that bridge tonight / Across Lake Pontchartrain," John decides, without a trace of regret; "Batten down the hatches . . . A little bit of stormy weather / That's no cause for us to leave . . ." No indeed, I'm staying right here, all cozy and relaxed and oh yes.

"Lost and Found" / The Kinks

Sure, I knew there was a hurricane on its way on September 27, 1985. The weather forecasts had been calling Hurricane Gloria the "storm of the century" all week. In the end, however, it bypassed Manhattan; a few lashing squalls of rain (enough to send me home from work, in the worst of it!), and then the sky turned blue and calm.  Free day off from work!  Sweee-ee-eet!

I had no idea at the time that Ray Davies was living through the same storm that day, a mere seven blocks south of me. And because I had fallen off the Kinks bandwagon -- driven away by the arena-rock years -- I didn't hear the Kinks' 1986 album Think Visual, where Ray Davies sings, in the opening lines of "Lost and Found": "Waiting for the hurricane / To hit New York City. . . . " But eventually I found my way back into the Kinks fold, and when I finally discovered this album -- and this song -- I felt a shiver of recognition.

"Lost and Found" makes a frequent appearance on my floating list of Top Ten Kinks Songs (how hard it is to choose just ten); I think of it as the companion song to "Stormy Sky," not just because of the storm but because of its sexy syncopation, the tenderness of Ray's vocals, and the central image of lovers finding shelter in each others' arms. It ain't often you find a Ray Davies song about two people simply happy to be together; grab 'em wherever you can.

Of course the storm is a metaphor -- of course! -- for all the crises life is bound to bring.But Ray works the metaphor beautifully here -- "Somebody said it's hit the bay . . . We're near the eye of the storm . . . They're putting up the barricades . . . " It's the anticipation that gets you, battening the hatches and all that, as he sees from afar "the hurricane crossing the coast line."

It wouldn't be a Ray Davies song if he didn't also throw in some quirky details, like "And all the bag ladies / Better put their acts together" and "the old sea dog says shiver me timbers / The sky's gone black / And it's like the dead of winter."  I love those lines, and the whimsical way Ray sings them -- as if this love makes him so secure, he can even see absurdity in the face of disaster.

My favorite bit is the bridge: "This thing is bigger than the both of us / It's gonna put us in our place." It's a brilliant, dual-edged line -- on one hand, the storm is bigger than they are, but it's also their love that is bigger, like the old movie cliche (think Humphrey Bogart -- "This thing is bigger than the two of us, baby.") They're overwhelmed by love, amazed that they can give up being separate and start being a couple.

In "Stormy Sky" the "lost" part of the equation was still stronger; now it's the "found" that matters. He still seems astounded by it happening -- "in the nick of time," he marvels. "We were lost and found, just in time / Now we've got no time to waste." Or, as he realizes in a later version of the chorus: " We came through the storm / Now it all seems clear / We were lost and found, standing here / Looking at the new frontier." It's not just a clear sky he's seeing there; it's the possibility of where his life could go, now that he's got her.

This isn't the way a teenager sees life; this is how you see it when you're middle-aged and have been through your share of painful affairs. When you've given up hope that it's ever gonna happen for you, that you won't get your Hollywood ending. And then joy surprises you, just like that -- "in the nick of time." Bravo, Ray.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Adios to California / John Hiatt 

Happy Belated Birthday, John!

I threw my back out last week -- we're talking big time pain here -- but I wouldn't let that stop me from getting down to the City Winery to see John Hiatt.  I mean, this is Johnny Hiatt we're talking about -- no one's work runs closer to the bone for me. And halfway through the show, watching John groove around the stage (love the little fedora, by the way, John), it occurred to me that underneath that billowing white linen shirt, he could have been hiding a back brace just like I was. Somehow this was comforting, to imagine that John could have the same knowledge of pain that I have.

John not only has a birthday to celebrate -- his 59th! -- he has a new album, which selfishly I've been listening to for a week now without sharing it with you.  Oh, but it's a magnificent thing, a vintage Hiatt stew of country blues and folk-rock and R&B, restless and pissed-off and smart.  I hesitate to rank these things, but I think it's stronger than either of his two most recent CDs, Same Old Man or The Open Road.  Both of which, by the way, I love, but still. While those were both wonderfully personal statements, on Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns I feel as if Hiatt's now widening the picture, throbbing with anger about modern American society.  It's a righteous howl from Middle America, from the have-nots who've waited long enough for their due. Incendiary stuff, and I love to hear a guy pushing 60 taking risks like this.

Having said all that, this particular track seems to me less political and more autobiographical.  My new buddies Carrie and Guy, who shared my table the other night (this is what I love about the Winery), picked up on the same storyline. Long ago John Hiatt was a struggling rocker in L.A.., until his life went south -- his ex-wife's suicide was probably the last straw -- and he tore up stakes and relocated to Nashville, taking his abandoned baby daughter with him, and turning his life around for the good.  Seen in that light, this song is about the moment when he realized he had to quit L.A., and its woeful melancholy and sense of loss really get under my skin.

Take a listen:

That gently rollicking beat, the slide guitar -- there's surely an echo of California rock there. I'm not saying the Eagles, but you know what I mean. Now, Hiatt's SoCal years are not a big part of his biography, but he did live on the West Coast for a while in the late 70s and early 80s, and here he touches a few points of local color ("Living in the Canyon," and "Pasadena in the rain / Eating doughnuts and reading Twain. . . "). There's even a sly reference to his own early hit ("You said, 'That's it for me' / Have a little faith it will set you free"), or at any rate a 1989 hit for Bonnie Raitt, which helped to kick Hiatt's own star into a new orbit.

And the refrain crystallizes that moment of realization: "So Adios to California / Nothing to do but turn around / I always thought there's someone coming for you / The only way you'd leave this town."  ("Adios," of course, because California is Spanish -- that's the kind of instinctive detail that rivets a good song.)  I'm mixing Hiatt's story up with John Mellencamp's -- our other fellow Hoosier -- but really, there's a point at which dealing with the knives of the L.A. scene must have become counterproductive.  It's a real "who needs this shit?" moment.  And apparently, for John it was enough to drive him back to Nashville.

But there's one other element to the story, which he touches on only obliquely.  Who is the "you" of this song?  Part of it is John himself, finally rejecting the L.A. scene; but it's also the tragedy of his ex-wife -- "the only way you'd leave this town" being in a pine box.  And in verse three, she seems to take over the song.  "Two cigarettes from the package gone / You must have thought about it just that long." Wow, is that a forensic detail or what?  And here's the killer line:  "I never knew you were so strong" -- because, yes, it takes guts, incredible guts, to kill yourself.  That line sends chills up my spine.  "I guess I never will," he adds, a wonderfully ambiguous line -- meaning I guess I never will understand what happened?  or "I guess I never will be that strong?  Either way, it's a devastating verse.

It's interesting that John is still writing about this, when it happened over 25 years ago. But then, he's still singing "Crossing Muddy Water," from his 2000 album of the same name, which has got to be about this same life-shattering incident ("Left me in my tears to drown / She left a baby daughter"). I'm such a sap, I cry every time I hear him sing that song.  And this makes me love his work even more, that he's been through tragedy and back.  (Although, come on, Eric Clapton -- did you have to write "Tears in Heaven" when your young son died?  Is it right that you should have turned that heartbreak into a major hit record?  Dear readers, I await your comments.)

Anyhoo, another thing I noticed -- the album's title is embedded in this song.  All the cool kids are doing this lately., naming their albums not after the hit single from the album, but after a line hidden in one track. Presumably that's an important flag, a code that signifies "this is the most essential song on this album." So is this the most essential song on this album?  I really don't think so -- my choice would be the truly searing track "Down Around My Place," in which a man miserably growls about his economic woes.  (Best line: "While the kids crowd round the table, down around my place / Bitchin' there's no cable, down around my place.")

On the other hand, that line about "dirty jeans and mudslide hymns" is way too arresting NOT to use it as an album title. Without getting all pretentiously poetic, John Hiatt knows an evocative image when he hears it.  But the older he gets, the more judiciously Hiatt wields that imagery.  This guy's still coming into his prime . I don't know about you, but I find that incredibly exciting.

PS  I just have to mention this -- I love the new song "Detroit Made" (despite its similarity to "Thunderbird" from Master of Disaster) but I'm convinced that John ripped off the guitar riff from Greg Trooper's "Green-Eyed Girl" from his 2005 album Make It Through This World.  Listen and let me know.  After all, they share the same drummer, Kenneth Blevins, and John has stolen riffs in the past -- specifically, the opening riffs from "Waterloo Sunset" into the beginning of "Buffalo River Home" on 1993's Perfectly Good Guitar.

Friday, August 19, 2011

FRIDAY (or maybe Saturday now) SHUFFLE

Oy, it's been a while.  I have to admit that my Saturday evenings have been devoted lately not to blogging but to listening to the radio -- specifically Marshall Crenshaw's Bottomless Pit show on WFUV-FM (which you can listen to on the internet, either via live stream or in an archived version -- so now you've got no excuse for not checking it out.)  But if I can get the blog done before Marsh's show starts at 10pm Eastern time...

1. Monday Morning / Death Cab for Cutie
From Codes and Keys (2011)
Wow. I was just listening to this new Death Cab CD on a car drive today, trying to decide if I really needed all the tracks in my iTunes library. (Some of those long sonic collages I could do without.)  This song made the cut, though; it's tuneful and has a good beat.  Plus I like to imagine that it's about Zooey Dechanel.  "She may be young but she only likes old things..."  Then again, it does have that line about the vultures surrounding you -- ah, Ben Gibbard, you depressive little scamp.

2. I Love That Girl / John Hiatt
From Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns (2011)
What is this, New Release Weekend?  Now I really feel guilty that I haven't blogged yet about this brilliant new CD.  Because you know I loves me some Johnny Hiatt -- I even saw him live last weekend at City Winery -- well, there's just no excuse. And this jubilant song of love, so simple, so infectious, is a side I like to see him letting loose with. 

3. Wild Thing  / The Troggs
From From Nowhere (1966)
Did someone say simple and infectious?  A true British invasion classic.  "Wild thing, I think you move me..."

4. Got To Get Out Of Here /  Badfinger
From Wish You Were Here (1974)
Some day I really have to get down to business and listen to ALL of Badfinger's work, beyond the few big irresistible hit singles.  There's something sweet and sensitive and sincere about them, and so melodic -- no wonder Paul McCartney wanted to get them onto the Apple label -- and yet a dark underside that makes them really interesting.  This song is just draggy enough to make you wonder whether he is ever going to get out of here; compare this to the energy of the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" -- it's an entirely different thing going on.

5. First Day of Spring / Graham Parker
From 12 Haunted Episodes (1995)
If all you know of Graham Parker is Squeezing Out Sparks -- in other words, if you're like I was a year or so ago -- then you'll be amazed to see that GP also has this tender acoustic side.  He's got an astonishingly literary gift for metaphor -- but don't let me explicate this one for you, listen for yourself. The guy's a freaking genius, honestly. 

6. Woodcutter's Son  / Paul Weller
From Stanley Road (1995)
Probably Weller's best post-Jam album, although I have a sneaking fondness for all his Style Council experiments too. Weller's never shy about genre-crossing; here he lets his rocking-out get plenty funky, wandering off into jazzy backwaters and losing all pretense of being a "song." And yet it works.

7. The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys  / Traffic
From The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys  (1971)
Now there's a brilliant segue.  This extended Stevie Winwood/Jim Capaldi jam works pretty much as pure music too. Remember when a song could be 11:02 minutes long and it still wasn't pretentious?  They melded rock and jazz so effortlessly, we thought it must be easy.  Ha.

8. Modern Nature / Sondre Lerche
From Faces Down (2002)
The movie Dan in Real Life first introduced me to this quirky Norwegian singer-songwriter, with a fondness for the retro show-tunesy side of indie pop.  You could practically do a soft shoe dance to this track, but it's sweet as hell.

9. Tip of My Tongue  / Graham Parker
From From a Window: The Lost Songs of Lennon & McCartney (2003)
Hooray!  Another chance for me to badger you to buy this must-have album, wherein Graham Parker, Kate Pierson, and Bill Janovitz re-interpret various tunes that John & Paul wrote for other artists. As if we needed any more proof that they were brilliant songwriters.

10. Rooftops (A Liberation Broadcast) / Lostprophets
From Liberation Transmission (2006)
Thus proving that shuffles are embarrassingly random.  Nevertheless, this is a fun top-of-your-lungs singalong, upbeat and pulsing with punk energy; these Welsh rockers have me preaching revolution without a moment's thought.  Makes me nostalgic for 2006 -- ah, yes, a simpler time.