Saturday, January 22, 2011


I actually did a shuffle on Wednesday, but it turned out lousy -- somehow the gremlins in my computer picked out every third-rate song I'd downloaded for reasons I can't even remember. So here, instead, is a twist on the shuffle idea -- ten songs in a row that I heard on Sirius/XM's Sixties on Six channel.

1. "Sweet Blindness" / The Fifth Dimension
From Stoned Soul Picnic (1968)
Mister Pleasant has recently reawakened my interest in these guys, especially when they do Laura Nyro songs (I'm a confirmed Nyro-phyte).  They swing, but they don't lose the song's edgy, racy spirit. "Don't let Daddy hear it / He don't believe in the gin mill spirit" -- up with teenage alcoholism!  And the drunkest refrain ever: "Come on baby do a slow float / You're a good-looking riverboat." Yassss.

2. "The House of the Rising Sun" / The Animals
Single 1964; included on The Best of the Animals
Of course, next to this classic song about the road to perdition, the kids in "Sweet Blindness" are model citizens...
3. "Listen People" / Herman's Hermits
From When the Boys Meet the Girls (1966)
The link here is Mickie Most, who -- hard to believe -- produced both the Animals and Herman's Hermits.  In the height of their American fame, Peter Noone and the boys didn't even release this as a single in the UK, but in the US it hit #3. This nifty little Graham Gouldman tune redeems its soppy earnest verse ("Listen, people / To what I say") with a snappy backbeat chorus ("Everybody's got to love somebody sometime.") 

4. "Build Me Up Buttercup" / The Foundations
From The Foundations (1968)
One of the greatest Motown singles ever to be released outside of Motown -- in England, yet!

5. "I Say A Little Prayer" / Aretha Franklin
From Aretha Now (1968)
And now the Queen of Motown gives a master class.  A Bacharach-David standard, mellow as Malibu ("The moment I wake up / Before I put on my make-up . . . At work I just take time ./ And all through my coffee break time") -- until Aretha unleashes her gospel pipes and starts to testify. Well, it is about praying, isn't it?  By the end, she's scatting all over the place, laying down five layers of syncopation, transforming it into free-form jazz.  And that, folks, is how it's done. 

6. "Windy" / The Association
From Insight Out (1967)
Not my favorite Association tune -- I greatly prefer "Along Comes Mary" -- this track has great harmonies, but such dopey lyrics. I mean, come on -- "Who's tripping down the streets of the city / Smilin' at everybody she sees / Who's reaching out to capture a moment / Everyone knows it's Windy" -- even by Flower Power standards, that's way too cutesy. And I hate the way I have to chair dance with that syncopation in the chorus...

7. "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town" / Kenny Rogers and the First Edition
From Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town (1969)
Now, this is where I'd normally just change channels.  Not just because it's country -- I like some country -- but because Kenny Rogers' gravelly croon infuriates me.  I have so successfully avoided this song, it wasn't until today -- compelled by the Shuffle to stick it out -- that I finally listened enough to realize it's about a disabled Vietnam vet whose wife is stepping out on him.  "It wasn't me that started that old crazy Asian war" -- well, boohoo. Opportunistic songwriting at its worst.

8. "Catch A Wave" / The Beach Boys
From Surfer Girl (1963)
Classic classic classic. That tripping beat, the passed-around vocals, the explosion of harmonies in the chorus -- divine. Okay, so Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy who ever surfed; so much for "So take a lesson from a top-notch surfer boy."  And yes, these too are dopey lyrics -- like "You paddle out turn around and raise / And baby that's all there is to the coastline craze" or "They'll eat their words with a fork and spoon / And watch 'em, they'll hit the road and all be surfin' soon." But you don't come to Brian Wilson for the lyrics.  He rises above them every time.

9. "Magic Carpet Ride" / Steppenwolf
From Steppenwolf the Second (1968)
Whoa.  The jump from "Catch a Wave" to "Magic Carpet Ride" epitomizes how much music changed in the Sixties, from jangly rock-pop to churning psychedelia. As sun-kissed and clean as the Beach Boys' sound is, Steppenwolf's is just as smoky and dirty. But it's an insanely good track, full of tempo changes and texture shifts.  Dig that wicked minor-key organ progression on the bridge -- "Close your eyes, girl / Look inside, girl / Let the sound take you away" -- a contact high.  Yes, this song is about drugs.  Was there ever a doubt? 

10. "Undun" / Guess Who
From Canned Wheat (1969)
This one blew me away -- sure, I'd heard it a million times on the radio or in movie soundtracks, but I had no idea this song was by Guess Who.  The same guys who strut their macho way through "American Woman"?  The same guys who croon the Bread-like "These Eyes"?  A pack of Canadians -- not only that, but Manitobans? But for this song -- originally the B-side to something called "Laughing" -- they went tripping, pulling out the spooky reverb and a psychedelic organ part worthy of the Zombies.  Burton Cummings' vocal is unforgettable on this. You learn something new every day.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"Till the End of the Day" / 
The Kinks

I couldn't resist -- having seen the Muswell Hillbillies perform their Kinks tribute show in New York last August, the news that they were "doing it again" up in Northampton, Massachusetts, meant one thing for me: ROAD TRIP!  So despite last week's two-foot snow dump, there I was last night, perched on a bar stool in the Iron Horse Music Hall, sipping on my ice-cold beer and singing along.

Check out the background on this Kinks kollective here.  Suffice it to say that their show is hugely enjoyable, just a little ragged around the edges (like a true Kinks show would be), and full of love for the music of --- well, let's not mince words, the greatest band of all time. 

While their previous show was built around a track-by-track rendition of the Muswell Hillbillies LP (a.k.a. the greatest album ever by the greatest band of all time), this gig mixed things up a little bit, kept us in the audience guessing. The setlist included such obscure tracks as "Tin Soldier Man" and "Wicked Annabella," choices that betray what insane Kinks kultists these guys are. (Which, of course, endears them to me even more.)  But since I was there with a friend who was a relative Kinks neophyte, I was glad that they also pulled out some of the earlier hit singles, the ones that got mainstream radio play over here before the Kinks' mysterious U.S. touring ban.  And when they launched into "Till the End of the Day," even my friend grinned in recognition. 

Now, when I try to explain to uninformed people who the Kinks are/were, I usually mention their first two big 1964 hits, "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night."  The Kinks dutifully followed those with "Tired of Waiting," "Who'll Be the Next in Line," and "Set Me Free," all hard-driving rock songs featuring varying degrees of power-chord aggression.  Naturally, by mid-1965 Ray Davies was chafing at the bit, and he tampered with the hit-making formula, coming up with the dreamy, raga-like "See My Friends." Unfortunately, this record didn't even crack the top 100 in the States, and so the pressure was on to recapture the old sound.

Kinks producer Shel Talmy gave Ray a not-so-subtle nudge by importing American songwriter Mort Shuman ("Teenager in Love," "This Magic Moment," "Save the Last Dance for Me") and sending him up to North London to give Ray an afternoon's tutorial (!) in songwriting.  (Can you imagine?)  Nevertheless, it worked.  "Till the End of the Day" was written that evening, recorded quickly, and launched onto the UK charts, hitting #6.  Inexplicably, however, the US release was delayed until the following spring, and the record only rated #50 on the US charts. Luckily, the Kinks soon bounced back with the new satiric sound of "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" and "Sunny Afternoon," and voila! Ray Davies could finally escape the power-chord formula.

Here's the Kinks, back in the day . . .


And here's some video from the Muswell Hillbillies' performance the other night.  Dig the back-up singers, and a sizzling guitar solo that would make even Dave Davies proud:

Okay, so the title is way too similar to "All Day and All of the Night"; maybe it was a bit of a recycling effort. All the same, it did alter the Kinks formula in one important angle. Think about all those other singles -- "You Really Got Me,""All Day and All of the Night," "Tired of Waiting," "Who'll Be the Next In Line" (and its flip side "Where Have All the Good Times Gone"), and "Set Me Free" -- they're all complaint songs. Obsession songs.  Misery songs.  But how does "Till the End of the Day" begin?  Three slashing guitar strums, then the defiant, jubilant cry "Baby I feel good!" Every time I've seen Ray Davies sing this song, I feel that absurd burst of exultant spirit.

"Baby I feel good / From the moment I rise / Feel good from morning / Till the end of the day."  It's a song about fresh starts, a positive outlook, signified by the sunrise ("I get up / And I see the sun / And I feel good yeah, / Cause my life has begun").  It's a blunt, simple statement, but then again, all these early power chord songs stick to the language of inarticulate teenagers; Ray Davies the wordsmith hasn't yet raised his head.  Still, the sun will always be a powerful image for Ray Davies, whether it's setting over Waterloo Station, rising over the village green, or helping the tax bankrupt of "Sunny Afternoon" sail away.

And while he's not specifically crediting his girlfriend with his happy mood, she's part of it too:  "You and me, we're free / We do as we please, yeah / From morning to the end of the day." Freedom -- another recurrent theme in the Ray Davies catalog.   Funny that he should be singing about freedom when in fact he had record company execs breathing down his neck -- but hey, half of Ray's songs are more wish fulfillment than reality anyway.

Notice, however, how those dark chord progressions counterpoint the upbeat lyrics.  Even as he joyfully rises in the morning, he's aware that the day will end, probably all too soon.  He's happy, but defiantly so, with just a touch of desperation and hysteria. (A classic depressive's happiness.) And so he needs those thrusting guitar licks, to punch the sky.  He needs to repeat that title phrase over and over, with the other singers chiming in, to convince himself.

This is no namby-pamby la-la-la feel-good song -- it's emotionally complex, despite the crude lyrics.  And wonderful as the record is, it's best heard live, with that surge of defiant energy coming from the stage.  Thank you, Muswell Hillbillies, for picking this instead of the obvious early Kinks singles.  I like how you're spreading the Kinks gospel, one show at a time.  Keep it up!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

"It's Nearly Africa" / XTC

Why?  Cuz it came up on my shuffle, that's why, and I was waltzing around chanting "Shake your bag of bones" and "Any day now" for hours.  Oh, how I wish I'd known about XTC back in 1982 when this came out, on an album cryptically entitled English Settlement.   I guess this polyrhythmic sport fell somewhere between the Talking Heads' baffling Fear of Music (I remember putting the needle down on "I Zimbra" in 1979 and wondering what David Byrne had been smoking) and the mainstream-ification of African influences with Paul Simon's Graceland in 1986.  I owned both of those records -- so where was XTC in my life in 1982?  Nowhere, I'm afraid.     

If I had know about English Settlement in 1982 -- just supposing -- I would have owned it on vinyl, would have set that thing on my turntable and patiently listened to the tracks in order, trying to make sense of the album as a whole.  (Not to mention that cover image of the White Horse, primitive as a cave drawing.)  I hope I'd have been struck by the LP's intricate mosaics of rhythm, whether African, Latin, or Olde Englyshe.  If I'd already been an XTC initiate, I would probably have worried that the band was drifting away from accessible pop, except for the glorious "Senses Working Overtime." But how could I have failed to be charmed by this track?

And I'm sure I'd have puzzled over Andy Partridge's lyrics, with their brooding apocalyptic message.  (Again, I think of the Talking Heads -- "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around!")  At first he seems enamored of the tribal man, the noble savage -- "Chant your spirit free / Rush to meet truth like a dart" and, better yet, "That's not traffic roar / That's a leopard in your heart."  But later in the song, skepticism leaks through, as we see it's just a Westerner posing as an African, with the faintly ridiculous lines "Unplug your future plans / Finger-paint the sun on you."  

After all, it's nearly  Africa, not Africa he's singing about. As he continually looks over his shoulder, he frets about "false prophets" and "drug traffickers," "warboys" and "leeches."  "We're dancing with disaster," he warns in the chorus (at least I guess you'd call it a chorus, though traditional song structure seems beside the point.) In the last verse he gets more explicit, lamenting, "Our civilisation car is running wild, / Who did you give the wheel to? / The fat man driving us over the edge of the nearest cliff-face, / Is he the same God that I've seen you kneel to?" (Note: listen to XTC's most popular track on iTunes, "Dear God," for Andy Partridge's religious views.)

Though Africa is just a metaphor for a chaotic society, however, it's those cascading African polyrhythms that make this track so compelling.  Melody takes a back seat to that playful percussive beat, with discordant chanting vocals that have a comic wink to them. Just a touch of English whimsy, with an absurdist slant, to keep the satire light.  It's the same street Robyn Hitchcock lives on -- my cup of tea, in other words.

I guess it's no surprise that these guys didn't "cross the pond" successfully; I mean, if Squeeze didn't (yes, I am getting around to another Squeeze post soon!), how could the more oddball sound of XTC?  Too bad for me -- I could have used some music like this in the depths of the Eighties.  Still, I've found them now, and better late than never. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Let's get 2011 off to a shufflin' start...

1."I Want to Be an Anglepoise Lamp" / The Soft Boys
From Can of Bees (1978)
This is how Robyn Hitchcock started out -- the frantic beat sounds like punk, but the lyrics and spirit are way too art-school absurdist.  This track always makes me think of that classic Pixar short about the baby lamp, the one they played before Toy Story... 

2. "Surf Medley" / Junior Brown
From Semi-Crazy (1996)
Amazing surf guitar instrumental from country guitar whiz Junior Brown, channeling 60s hits like "Walk Don't Run" and "Secret Agent Man," plingy riffs soaring over a furiously slapping drum track.  Thanks to Napoleon Wakeup for this one!

3. "The Race Is On" / Rockpile
From a BBC radio broadcast August 1979
Dave Edmunds' rockabilly leanings took Rockpile down some dusty roads indeed (we shoulda known Nick would end up a country crooner).  But hey, who could resist covering this George Jones classic?  No Rockpile link, sorry (me and my bootlegs), but check out George's version.

4. "State of Confusion" / The Kinks
From State of Confusion (1983)
"The tumble dryer's broken, the telly's on the blink..." Poor besieged Ray Davies -- just can't cope with the modern world, can he?  Even in the midst of the Kinks' arena rock heyday, he was harping on the neuroses of "20th Century Man" and "Holiday."  And the girlfriend who leaves because the VCR broke -- sounds like "Sunny Afternoon"s girlfriend, fleeing home with "tales of drunkenness and cruelty."  Fickle females!

5. "Plastic Lips" / The Aquabats
From Charge!!  (2005)
Not all that different from the Soft Boys, really, though the Aquabats add a comic-book twist (dig the superhero costumes, despite physiques that the tights don't flatter).  Funny, absurd, hectic.  Love these guys live!

6. "Smokers" / The Old 97s
From Drag It Up (2004)
What?  You've been reading my blog for how long, and you still aren't an Old 97s fan? Shame on you.  It's alt-country for thinking people, with clever lyrics and just enough neurosis to balance out the yearning melodies. I love this atmospheric track, the hazy sound quality, the vocal riffs that curl upwards like a trail of smoke.

7. "Bummer in the Summer" / Love
From Forever Changes (1967)
Heh heh.  Talk about hazy.  Heh heh.  

8. "Secret Heart" / Ron Sexsmith
From Ron Sexsmith (1995)
Was it Elvis or Nick who first covered this sweet tune? Either way, I wouldn't have discovered this wonderful Canadian singer-songwriter without that, so thanks, guys.  Saw him open for Nick in '06, met him after the show -- he's just as much of a sweetheart as you'd think.  Of course Dan knows him, too, like all the rest of the Toronto music mafia.. 

9. "Rocky Road" / Nick Lowe
From Party of One (1989)
Speak of the devil.  Okay, it's a perfectly pleasant track, but -- dare I say it? --a tad generic, sorta like a mash-up of earlier songs like "Raining Raining" and "I Can Be The One You Love."  On the other hand, it's my fault for keeping every single track he's ever recorded on my iTunes; I'm bound to get a little filler occasionally.  Doesn't mean I'm going to delete any of it... 

10. "Seventh Son" / Georgie Fame
From Seventh Son (1969)
And if it hadn't been for Van Morrison and Georgie Fame, I'd never have discovered Mose Allison.  Nobody else gets that intersection of Delta sharecropper blues and beatnik jazz quite like Mose.  Georgie's organ goes crazy staccato on this one -- "Everbody's talkin' 'bout the seventh son / In this whole wide world there is only one / And I'm the one, the one they call the seventh son." Cheeky!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

"Cynical Girl" / 
Marshall Crenshaw

2011 is starting out very well, thank you, with a full house of great music gigs lined up over the next few weeks.  You'll just have to wait to find out what they are. (How's that for creating suspense?)  Number one, though, comes up this Friday:  Marshall Crenshaw and Willie Nile, appearing together (what a double bill!) at a Unitarian church out in Montclair, New Jersey, courtesy of a series called Outpost in the Burbs.  Gotta love that name! Any of you who live close enough to get there, here's the link to the venue -- it looks as if they've still got tickets.

It's true, I'm dreadfully spoiled when it comes to Marshall Crenshaw.  He lives in the tri-state area and plays relatively often around here, usually at human-scaled venues that charge reasonable ticket prices and don't sell out two seconds after the tickets go on line. (Spoiled, I tell you!)  Personally I believe that Marshall is so good, he should be filling Madison Square Garden -- there's just no justice in this world.   But until that happens, I'll enjoy the more accessible Crenshaw.

This track is probably my favorite song from MC's self-titled debut album -- though that's a tough call, since it's one of my favorite albums of all time.  Still, the first time I heard this song back in 1982, it was this song that really spoke to me -- for reasons that are embarrassingly obvious. 

On that debut, we were utterly charmed by Crenshaw's bright, upbeat brand of retro pop, which owed as much to the Everlys and Buddy Holly as it did to the Beatles. But unlike a lot of his power pop counterparts, Marshall never acted like a sap, never got saccharine. There's always an edgy context to his love songs, some little frisson of doubt or discontent roiling the waters.  In the years since, that streak of realism has only become richer, more complex -- I can tell you, this is an artist who wears extremely well.  It's a trip to revisit the early stuff and see that that wry touch was always there.

Of course, there's that wonderful jangly guitar, the handclap beat -- so classic.  And yes, it's a classic teen topic, the young guy cruising around town, searching for his soul mate. But he's subverting that rock-and-roll model with a touch of New Wave nerviness (remember what else we were listening to in 1982). Like any guy, he's got his specifications -- but in this case, he insists that "she's got no use for the real world," "she harbors no illusions, she is worldly wise." A postmodern gal indeed.

And, the line that always hooked me:  "Well, I hate TV / There's gotta be somebody other than me / Who's ready to write it off immediately."  Okay, so I actually like TV -- still I could relate to that line. (Always reminded me of the Talking Heads song, "Found a Job," where disgruntled Bob and Judy end up writing their own television shows.) 

He wants a girl with a critical streak a mile wide, and that, my friends, was me.  Is me.  For this particular fangirl -- always a pushover for a rock singer wearing glasses -- it was wonderful to hear that some guys actually prefer cynical girls.

Mind you, it is subtly shaded -- this girl isn't depressive, no "Ruby Tuesday" or "Girl"; she's still perfectly capable of having fun, buzzing around town.  This entire album has such a downtown feel to me, as if the notes were bouncing off of pavements and tall buildings, and I swear, this same girl reappears on track after track. She's also his playmate in "The Usual Thing" ("Don't wanna know about the usual thing / And if I didn't think you were a little bit out there too / I just wouldn't bother with you") and the spirited heroine of "She Can't Dance" ("she can't dance, she can't sing, but she's got to be part of that pop music thing"). It all hangs together.

I was thrilled to find this video on YouTube -- someone with a brain had fun making it.  (Ain't YouTube great sometimes?) To me it perfectly catches the snappy spirit of this song.  Enjoy!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

"Together Let's Ring in the New Year" / Motion City Soundtrack

I believe in recycling -- so much so that I'm recycling all of last year's New Year's resolutions, namely:  1. Cut out junk food. 2. Exercise more.  3. Blog more often. 

In that spirit, here's a quick New Year's post.  There aren't a whole lot of New Year's themed songs on my playlist -- mostly it's just two songs from Motion City Soundtrack's 2006 album Commit This To Memory.  The other one, "Resolution," is way too depressing, so I'm opting for "Together We'll Ring in the New Year."  (And once you listen to this one, you'll say, "The other one was more depressing?")

I dunno, though, I don't find this track a downer.  Maybe that's because I feel the same way about the forced hilarity of New Year's parties. Motion City Soundtrack does slacker alienation better than almost anybody I can think of, and our protagonist starts off in medias res, sitting in a corner bummed out.  "This must be it, welcome to the new year / The drinks are consumed, the plants are destroyed / And the hors d'oeuvres dismantled." Talk about setting a scene -- haven't you been to that party, a hundred times over?  I love how the monotonous guitar strum simulates the drone of party chatter, how the melodic line rambles aimlessly, the lyrics not even bothering to rhyme.

"I'm not smiling / Behind this fake veneer," he sings, his voice soaring upward in a wistful yelp. Granted, our guy is not the life of the party -- he can barely hold his own in the conversation ("I am often interrupted or completely ignored"), and it's beginning to wear on him.  He feels so distanced, it's like he's a different species -- "These humans all suck," he mutters (dig the vernacular) -- and he bitterly declares, "I'd rather be home feeling violent and lonely."  That to me is just a great line, the way it encapsulates this guy's misery. Later on when he realizes, way late, that the woman he's been chatting up is wearing a wedding ring, it's an apt ending to another rotten holiday.

Another band -- They Might Be Giants, for instance, or Bare Naked Ladies -- might play this all for comedy.  But the intriguing thing about MCS is that they truly respect alienation and social dislocation.  (It helps that lead singer Justin Pierre has one of the most angsty voices in indie rock.)  There's genuine poignancy in that chorus, "I'm trying to find out if my words have any meaning / Lackluster and full of contempt / And it always ends the same."  All he wants is a little human contact.  Is that so wrong?  (And yes, ladies -- we know we'd be different, we'd be the cute girl who finally pays attention to that scruffy-but-sensitive loser.)

All this is apropos of nothing, I suppose -- I successfully avoided this sort of New Year's celebration this year, and I hope you did too.  But still, there's something about that momentous and yet artificial flip of the calendar page that always makes me feel . . . well, violent and lonely.  Basically all it means is that I have to remember to date my checks with a different number (what a pain).  Beyond that, what has really changed?

Okay, I guess it is cool that today's date is 1/1/11.  That'll be good for a few more hours, and then what?

Hmmm --- maybe I need some junk food after all...