Saturday, February 26, 2011


Can't shuffle during the week these days, with electric drills and hammering going on all day every day.  (I HATE this renovation.) Thank god for the weekend!

1. Mean Mr. Mustard / The Beatles
From Abbey Road (1969)
One problem with the shuffle: It's always jarring to hear one isolated section of the great Side Two medley on this album. (Read my You Never Give Me Your Money post for the full version of how much I love this "musical mosaic"). Every time I hear John sing that Mr. Mustard is a "dirty old man," I think of Paul's grandfather -- "such a clean old man" -- in A Hard Day's Night.  And "his sister Pam" -- is that Polythene Pam, whose song we'll get next?  (And is Polythene Pam the roommate of Lovely Rita Meter Maid?) Yeah, I know, I listen to too much Beatles music. But I love that Mr. Mustard "keeps a ten bob note up his nose" -- perfect Lennonesque detail. 

2. Why Why Why Why Why / Brinsley Schwarz
From Nervous on the Road (1972)
Another throwaway Nick Lowe country rock gem, featuring one of his standard lonely losers.  Miserable in love, miserable out of love, moping around the house -- sound familiar?

3. The Thrill / Alan Price
From Alan Price (1977)
The cynical side of Alan Price, the side that made his O Lucky Man! soundtrack so brilliant. "Oh I just love the thrill of rock and roll / It gives release unto the darkest soul / The thickest yob can get a job / Rock and roll can keep you off the dole."  And is it sung like a rock anthem? No indeed -- it's a chirpy little music hall ditty, sung over a ragtime piano. So there!

4. Space Oddity / David Bowie
From Space Oddity (1969)
One of the great eccentric rock songs of all time, inspiring one of my earliest posts here.

5. I Wish I Felt This Way At Home / Dolly Parton
From Just Because I'm a Woman (1968)
Adultery, one of the great themes of country music. That tremble in Dolly's voice is super-saturated with guilt and desire; yet she still has an innocent, forthright quality. (This is from her first solo album, when she was still Porter Waggoner's "girl find.") She really does wish she felt this way about her husband, that's the kicker.  She means to be good... 

6. Pressure / The Kinks
From Low Budget (1979)
This album marked the Kinks' US comeback with a vengeance.  Just to prove they weren't British Invasion fossils, here comes this proto-punk anthem, given Ray Davies' special fragile neurotic twist: "Pressure, pressure, I've got pressure! / Oh, yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah..."  Was Ray mocking punk, or trying to keep up with the times?  Both, no doubt. 

7. You're Wondering Now / The Specials
From The Specials  (1980)
Ah, the lo-fi charms of the Specials! That knock on the door, the muffled "You can't come in!" And then the mopey shuffling reggae begins, brooding over how he's going to get by now that he's on his own. At last the instruments pack up, and he's singing alone, still wondering how... 

8. She's Going / The English Beat
From Special Beat Service (1982)
Perfect segue!  So it's going to be a ska Saturday -- I can live with that. Hear how the English Beat jacked up the ska tempo, made it more frantic, more urban.  Different drugs, I guess.

9. Take the Money and Run / Steve Miller
From Fly Like An Eagle (1976)
The tempo just got laidback again; we're far away from the Brixton streets, loping around in sunny Texas.  Yahoo! I wasn't living in the US in 1976, so I missed the radio overload of this song, thank goodness. Remember all those anarchistic 70s movies about wild young couples on crime sprees? Badlands, The Getaway, Sugarland Express (with True Romance and Natural-Born Killers their 1990s offspring)?  This song should have been the soundtrack for all of them.

10.  Hey Jude / The Beatles
From Past Masters, Vol, 2 (compilation)
So we begin and end with the Beatles -- that's fitting. Does this song go on too long?  Maybe, but I always, always, end up singing along with the "la la la la-la-la-las," which I'm sure was what Paul McCartney intended. My private theory: this is Paul's comeback to "All You Need Is Love"; he wanted the swaying crowds to be chanting along to his song, dammit.  And now they are.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I've got no excuse.  Well, I do -- but I hate making excuses.  So sorry, and at least I got around to it this week!

1. Love Train / Keb' Mo'
From Big Wide Grin (1998)
One thing I love about Keb' Mo': his creative covers, always total reinterpretations of the original. Take this old O'Jays classic, subtract the sexy soul groove (sacrilege, right?), and add a ticking bluegrass tempo and some banjo picking -- and voila, you've got a surprisingly persuasive peace-and-love anthem. Suddenly I hear afresh lines like, "All of your brothers over in Africa / Tell all the folks in Egypt and Israel too" -- it's totally topical.

2. Hello? Oh... /  The Cribs
From The New Fellas (2005)
I like everything I've heard from this trio of brothers from Yorkshire. Crunchy guitars, loping beat, a casually raucous upbeat vibe -- addictively fun. 

3. Monday Monday / The Mamas and the Papas
From 16 Greatest Hits (compilation)
Bah dah, bah da-dah dah... Those dense a capella harmonies are just heavenly. And when Denny and Cass start to weave and overlap in the bridge -- "Every other day (every other day) every other day (every other day of) the week is /  Fine, (Fine) yeah!!)"  How could you not sing along?

4. Poor Little Fool / Ricky Nelson
From A Ricky Nelson Anthology (compilation)
I can just picture him singing this on Ozzie and Harriet:  One blink of those sincere blue eyes, one pout from that lower lip, and Elvis Presley was wiped off the planet for me. This smooth-as-buttermilk rockabilly stroll is quintessential Ricky, absolutely divine.

5. Happy Jack / The Who
From Happy Jack (1966)
Though my feelings about the Who are conflicted, I do love a good Pete Townshend comic turn -- and there's none better than this ditty about a simpleton vagrant on the Isle of Man. (In 1966, when this was all over the radio, I had no idea that was a real place.)  I love those chanting childlike harmonies, that stellar bass line, and -- best of all -- Moonie's absolutely insane bursts of drumming.

6. To the River / John Mellencamp
From Human Wheels (1993)
Would you buy a Chevy from this man?  I would. 

7.  Rollin' Like a Pebble in the Sand  / Alan Price & the Electric Blues Orchestra
From A Gigster's Life for Me (1995)
So what was Alan Price doing all those years when I'd lost track of him?  Enjoying himself, getting back into the blues and R&B idiom that the Animals first bonded over. This whole album is full of great covers, like this old Rudy Toombs song, sung with just the right weary creak in Alan's voice -- and wait for the barrelhouse piano in the middle eight!  

8. Where's My Everything? / Nick Lowe
From The Impossible Bird (1994)
From Nick Lowe's "lovable loser" category, a gently comic rockabilly plaint. He's ticking off a laundry list of things society "owes" him -- home and family, fame and happiness -- cluelessly wondering why they haven't just magically appeared.  But as always with Nick, it's got just enough of an edge, filtering all the bafflement and pain of a disappointed life.  The man's craft still astounds me.
9. Switchboard Susan / Nick Lowe
From Labour of Lust (1979)
Yeah, I know Mickey Jupp wrote this one -- but it might as well have been Nick himself, in his punning lyric prime. "When I'm with you, girl, I get an extension / And I don't mean Alexander Bell's invention" -- who else could pull off something that juvenile?  But this gives me a perfect opportunity to inform you (if you don't already know) that YepRoc is finally reissuing this classic album, Nick's second solo effort, which has for years been inexplicably out of print (I know!).

10. Heat Dies Down / The Kaiser Chiefs
From Yours Truly, Angry Mob (2007)
It's loud, it's fast, it's angry -- and that rollercoaster tempo is pretty hard to resist.

Bonus track (couldn't resist):
11. Up to Our Nex / Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3
From Goodnight Oslo (2009)
Featured on the soundtrack to the Jonathan Demme film Rachel Getting Married. (Robyn's even in the film, reason enough to Netflix the thing.)  The loose-limbed groove of this track is so seductive, you're drawn into its hazy, unfocused spell. "We're up to our necks in love / So bad / We're up to our necks in love / Blame Dad."  (Except Dad was played by Bill Irwin, and who could blame him?)  "Forgive yourself / And maybe / You'll forgive me" -- well, there's the movie for you in a nutshell.  Now go watch it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Nobody In the Whole Wide World" / Greg Trooper

The whole reason I write this blog is to turn people on to music I love.  (I ain't doing this for the money, that's for sure!). Now, you may recall I've written about Greg Trooper a few times already -- here and here and here. But I'm not giving up, folks; you might as well all go out and buy his albums because I'm not going to shut up until you do.

Last week I featured a new track by Amos Lee from his Mission Bell album (sorry, because of technical difficulties the sucker just wouldn't post until today).  But really, you don't need me to tell you about Mission Bell, which was the #1 album in the country the week it came out.  On the other hand, you do need me to tell you about Greg Trooper's new release, Upside-Down Town.  It's just as good as Amos Lee's; it even cruises along similar folk-soul-Americana pathways.  But I worry it might fall through the cracks.

For one thing, Greg Trooper released this album on his own label -- he doesn't have a major label cranking up the PR apparatus for him.  And for another, his blend of country, folk, and R&B means that pigeonholes don't work to his advantage.  And yet this is totally accessible music, nothing fringe about it.  Go figure.


Here's how the album starts out, with the feisty wit of "Nobody in the Whole Wide World."  If I had to classify this song, I'd call it a Warning song -- a subset of the Advice Song category (think "She Loves You")  with a bit more edge.  The "I" of the song (always dangerous to imagine it's the songwriter himself) is addressing a girl with the news--news to her, at least--that her boyfriend's a jerk. "You and your boyfriend ought to call it quits,"  he begins, blunt from the start -- and it goes downhill from there. Like the old Betty Everett/Linda Ronstadt classic "You're No Good," when he's done cataloging the guy's faults, she'd have to be a fool to stay.

But pay attention to the craftsmanship. In verse one, he's only criticizing the relationship, which seems a mismatch -- "He buys you clothes but they never fit / They're always two or three sizes small / Don't think it's you that he wants at all." Ouch! I'd be outta there already.  But he's just getting started. In verse two, he widens the time frame, contrasting how the relationship has deteriorated since its lovey-dovey early days. Then in verse three, he slips into her head a bit more, wondering why she stays -- for the guy's money and status? Of course she'll reject those motives, leaving herself with NO other reason to stay.

In verse four, he plants yet more subtle doubts, making her mistrust the guy's every glance.  After the instrumental break, in verse five, he inserts the thin end of the wedge, reminding her of an earlier break-up. Why on earth did they reunite, he wonders. "Don't go thinking he's a soul to save," he begs her -- again, handing her a motive she can't possibly buy into.

It's not until verse six that he reminds her she's got other options.  "You've heard about the fish in the sea," he mentions, innocently, and then -- oh, so subtly -- he slips in, "Might be a fish that even looks like me."  At last, the whole song comes into focus.  Up until now, he seemed to be a disinterested bystander, with a totally objective perspective. But now it's clear -- of course he hates that other guy; he's jealous.  And how shrewd, not to show his hand until now.  Compare this to John Hiatt's "She Loves the Jerk," where the wronged girl's confidante suffers unrequited love from the start -- dare I say that Trooper's song is even cleverer?

Look at how Trooper segues into that refrain line, "Nobody in the whole world," with a different line for each verse. "Nobody thinks that he's the man for you" -- wrong relationship.  "Nobody wants to see you treated that way" -- bad dynamic. "Nobody likes him, not his family or friends" -- awful human being.  "Nobody else could put up with him" and  "Nobody thinks that that's a good idea" -- wrong decision on her part. But in the final verse, he flips the whole thing.  Up to now, his "nobodys" are all negative, sung with a shake of the head; now he turns it into a superlative:  "Nobody else compares to you."  He's just dismantled her relationship, reduced her boyfriend to a hideous mistake -- what better time to swoop in with adoring flattery?

Meanwhile, Trooper swings along with a sinuous melody (perfect for that devious, dogged argument) and disarmingly loose syncopation.  I love Greg Trooper's expressive voice, how he delivers earnestness edged with the occasional snarl of anger or yelp of yearning.  It's a fun song, not a downer at all; Trooper's playing a character, not spilling out his heart.  On the other hand, it's loaded with deft psychological strokes. Hey, I'm still steamed about that jerk buying me too-tight dresses and giving me those looks.  Thank goodness Greg Trooper understands...

Monday, February 07, 2011

"Hello Again" / Amos Lee

You know, I'm not the chick you'd usually come to for a review of the nation's #1 best-selling album.  2011's been a little surprising in that respect, though. First there was the Decemberists' The King Is Dead (yeah, I'll get around to that eventually), and now here's this unassuming and utterly charming album from Amos Lee, Mission Bell.

Granted, it was noteworthy as one of the lowest-selling #1 albums in recent memory -- America's record companies are still going downhill faster than a soapbox derby racer. Nevertheless, nothing else sold better the last week of January, and that's a beacon of hope. Keep this up, America, and I'm going to have to retract all those nasty things I've said about mass market tastes. 

Here's my review of the album on blogcritics (I'm still waiting for my one dissenting reader to come back and explain himself).  Two weeks later, "Hello Again" is the track that keeps haunting me. That groovy samba rhythm isn't typical Amos Lee, but its mellow-yet-mournful mood sure is. There's always a faint depressive gloom hanging over his songs, which he smoothly sells as sensitive-guy emotionality. I do recognize the formula, but hey, it works for me.

If you're going to write a kiss-off song -- and this is definitely a kiss-off song ("You used to be so beautiful / But you lost it somewhere along the way") -- you've got two moods to choose from:  vengeful anger or disappointed regret.  Lee goes for the second one, jacking it up with a minor key and his most heartfelt plaintive vocals. That sigh of regret is a shrewd choice, because -- let's face it -- the kiss-off song really isn't always aimed at the girl he's breaking up with.  Sometimes it's aimed at the next girl waiting in the wings: The Lady Listener, perhaps?  I can't identify with his "you" (I've never hurt Amos Lee, have I?), but it's incredibly easy to slip myself into the scenario by contrast. And in this song, Amos sets himself up as an almost ideal potential boyfriend -- a guy who wants to be in love, but isn't carrying a torch for his ex.

Amos Lee's voice isn't just beautiful, it's beautiful in a particularly passionate way -- the soul half of his folk-soul dialectic.  I find it really remarkable how he pulls this off without sounding sappy or cheesy. I'd never thought of him as the heir to Stevie Wonder before, but this song goes for emotional broke in the same sincere way that Stevie made his trademark. Kudos, Amos!

The thing that Mission Bell adds to the Amos Lee formula is more instrumental texture, and I love the extra shadings on this track -- the tango piano, the wind-down-the-canyon whistle of a theremin, the conquistador trumpet in the break.  For a Philly guy, he's done a remarkable job here of capturing the mood of a spaghetti Western.  Somehow he layers that Clint Eastwood identity, the strong-but-silent guy with a history, on top of his sensitive troubadour act -- and miraculously, it sticks.

I'm not going to pretend that this isn't fairly mainstream stuff; it's not as if Robyn Hitchcock or Jonathan Richman or Graham Parker suddenly blazed onto the charts. Still, there's real musicianship here, and a fair amount of integrity.  At least I feel Amos Lee believes what he's singing, in a way that I never believe John Mayer does.  To have that rewarded with a #1 record -- well, that's something.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Wednesday Shuffle

Back to Wednesdays, and it feels so right. (Anything rather than go outdoors in this weather...)

1.  "The Bad Thing" / Arctic Monkeys
From Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007)
Are the Arctic Monkeys over?  I hope not. Here's what I wrote about this scrappy track a couple years ago when the album first came out...

2. "Isn't That the Thing To Do?" / Maria Muldaur
From Love Wants to Dance (2004)
Nice little palate cleanser, with Maria letting out her jazz side on this Gershwin standard.

3. "How Can I Sing Like a Girl?" / They Might Be Giants
From Factory Showroom (1996)
"I want to raise my freak flag / And never be alone" -- yes, it's another off-kilter nerd anthem from the Johns.  That nasal whine of John Linnell is perfect for this song.

4. "There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards" / Ian Dury and the Blockheads
From Reasons to Be Cheerful (1978)
Speaking of raising freak's my favorite Ian Dury tune ever (here's why). Which reminds me -- I've just got the new biopic Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll from Netflix -- must watch!

5. "Sleepwalker" / The Kinks
From Sleepwalker (1977)
Or, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Insomnia," by Ray Davies. Another freak flag raised!  This bouncy track IMHO isn't one of the Kinks' best -- odd it should be the title track of an album. But there are Kinks fans who love it, so what do I know?

6. "Money Talks" / The Kinks
From Preservation Act 2 (1974)
Now this is more my Kinks -- savage satire with histrionic flair.  Being deep into Keith Richards' Life at the moment, I realize what a pitch-perfect Stones impression this is.  I'm noticing the dirty slide guitar and lovin' it.

7. "New Slang" / The Shins
From Oh, Inverted World (2001)
Charming folk-pop jangle from James Mercer and Co., spiked with stream-of-consciousness absurdity.  Yes, I'll admit it, this song on the Garden State soundtrack was my back-door introduction to these indie darlings.  There is an art to a great soundtrack, though.  Must blog about that sometime... 

8.  "Don't Bug Me When I'm Working" / Little Village
From Little Village (1992)

Talk about dirty guitar -- Ry Cooder gets just plain nasty on this one. Oh, and Johnny Hiatt's snarling lead vocals, with Ry and Nick Lowe each insinuating a verse. ("I can't even work with my baby at night -- Lord have mercy!") Tell me again why Little Village didn't work out?

9. "Full Moon in My Soul" / Robyn Hitchcock
From Spooked (2004)
More folk-pop jangle, with Robyn out-absurding even the Shins -- "I'm out of here, I'm taking off / You can have my cigarettes and, mister, you can have my cough." The loungy rhythm of this number is simply too delicious, and dig that lazy slide guitar in the bridge. 

10. "This Is A Low" / Blur 
From Parklife (1994)
Mmm, what a lovely sonic haze enfolds this modern bit of BritPop psychedelia -- I sink right into it. My sentimental favorite Blur album.  Should have known Damon Albarn would be a Kinks fan...