Thursday, March 31, 2011


Back again by popular demand -- for this week at least!

1. Flying / The Beatles
From Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Okay, so it's mostly an instrumental, and a woozy, loungy romp at that, full of organ and bass. But I love it when the Beatles break in with those lusty "La la la las," dissolving into that space-age scrum of random noise--psychedelic, man!

2. Senior Service / Elvis Costello
From Armed Forces (1978)
Vicious jerky rhythms on the verses, insinuating legato choruses, and a riff that roars up the scale like a fighter jet taking off--wowza!  Tons of Angry Young Man aggro here: "I want to chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket . . . ." Nasty as hell, but this song is SO much fun to dance to.

3. You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go / Madeleine Peyroux
From Careless Love (2004)
Sometimes I don't even want to hear Bob Dylan's original versions of certain songs. I am quite happy to leave this one with Peyroux's exquisite finger-snapping cover--it's like skipping through Paris with Django Reinhardt in my head.   

4. Gasoline Baby / Marshall Crenshaw
From Jaggedland (2009)
Very few instrumental tracks make the cut onto my iPod, but somehow Marshall's always do. I like to imagine he dreamed this song up while he was at the self-service pump one day -- okay, there's  singing, but it's just variations on "Gasoline baby, gasoline girl, gasoline baby, suck it on down" over and over, with rat-tat drums and a wash of brilliant guitar riffs. Any excuse to listen to Marshall play guitar!

5. I Knew It All The Time / The Dave Clark Five
(1963 single)
Hard to believe this song was just four years before "Flying." One of my fave DC5 numbers, though, with those pounding heartbeat drums (Clark always kept himself high in the mix) playing against a lonesome harmonica. I even love those growly vocals, though it's hard to believe that's Mike Smith. Could it be Dave took over lead vocals on this one?  Anybody?  

6. Love Attack / James Carr
From You've Got My Mind Messed Up (1966)
Same era, but oh, what a different sound! Memphis soul, a slow-dancing seducement that was James Carr's second hit single, peaking at #21 on the R&B charts.  Think Otis Redding with a little extra honey...

7. 36 Inches High / Nick Lowe
From Jesus of Cool (1978)
Oh yeah, and while he was producing Armed Forces for Elvis, Nick Lowe also tossed off his own brilliant LP, lighter on the anger but just as witty. Nick always tucks in a few covers--just to keep himself humble--in this case a Jim Ford gem delivered in lazy, smoky style. It's like he's sitting in a rocking chair, spinning tales of his past as a soldier, a tax man, a king, and why he's only 12 inches high I don't know, but I believe the operative word is "high."

8. Planet of Weed / Fountains of Wayne
From Traffic and Weather (2007)
And speaking of much fun is this track? That fuzztone guitar, the clink of glasses, voices murmuring in the background: It's a ready-made party, in two minutes and 46 seconds. "We've got magazines to read / We've got Doritos to eat / So lay back on the couch / And kick up your feet" -- why, yes, I think I will.

9. Hangin' Your Life on the Wall / Guy Clark
From Dublin Blues (1995)
One of the great storytellers, and totally underrated.  Here Guy duets with Ramblin' Jack Elliott on a wry-but-wise Verlon Thompson song. Like two cracker-barrel philosophers, they recall foolhardy past glories -- as lover, bullrider, baseball player -- chuckling as they push back their Stetsons and put their boots up. "I used to be forever chasing firetrucks / I sure could raise me some hell" -- emphasis on the past tense.

10. Kansas City / Sir Douglas Quintet
From Soul Jam (compilation)
Must be my day for sorta-instrumentals. For years, all I knew was the Beatles' cover of this Leiber/Stoller standard, but now that I've heard Doug Sahm's swinging version--dig that horn section!--I'll never go back. Only problem is, there's just not enough of Doug's soul-shivering singing on this track.  I always want more Doug.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Is it that time of year again?

It's an annual tradition around here, my Nick Lowe Birthday Post. I started with Let's Stay In and Make Love, part of my first Nick Lowe week, back in 2007; then Without Love, three years ago; You Inspire Me two years ago; and I Got the Love, just last year. In the four-and-a-half years of this blog, I realize I've written nearly as many posts about Nick Lowe (56 and counting) as the years he has lived (62 and counting). But there is always more to say. 

Naturally, I turned to Labour of Lust, Nick's fabulous 1979 album that was finally reissued this spring. (Of course I have mine already.) And once I started listening, the choice was obvious.

[Photo credit: Dan Burn-Forti]

Nick doesn't sing "Cracking Up" in concert anymore; I suppose it's one of those songs that would seem absurd coming out of a white-haired gent in gray trousers and crisp white dress shirt. (No matter how groovy his new hipster black-framed glasses may be.) But for me, as a listener, it's still incredibly current. I can't think of many songs that capture that strung-out late-night feeling so perfectly. It's not just being high; it's being high and exhausted and neurotic and losing hold on reality. It could have been on the soundtrack to Black Swan and no one would have noticed it was 30 years old.

Just before this album was recorded, Nick Lowe and the rest of Rockpile had been touring non-stop for months; they'd barely gotten back to London before they hit the studio, simultaneously bashing out Nick's Labour of Lust and Dave Edmund's Repeat When Necessary. I've seen the BBC documentary Born Fighters; I remember the rambling all-nighter vibe of those sessions, full of empty wine bottles and overflowing ashtrays and musician friends sprawling on the studio sofas.    

Nick's singing in a weary growl that's as far as possible from "Cruel to Be Kind," the bubbly hit single that leads off this album. "Cracking Up" is track two, and -- how crafty is this? -- it's the diametric opposite, anti-pop and anti-melody. It's more like a Cubist string of jagged phrases, the zoned-out lament of somebody who's well past proper conversation. "Cracking up / I'm getting ready to go / Had enough / I can't take anymore . . . " The rhythms are half stammer, half syncopation. We've all known that guy, slumping over the table, slurring his words, feeling sorry for himself. Not that any of us have ever been that guy, of course....

He's not just a sloppy drunk, though -- that would be too easy. There's other drugs in his system ("No pills / That I can take / This is too real / And there ain't no escape") and he's getting paranoid -- "Everybody / All around me / Shakin' hands and / Sayin' howdy." When his bandmates chime in on "I don't think it's funny no more" (those taunting high harmonies) it's almost as if he's hearing voices. "I'm tense and / I'm nervous," he declares--oh really? 
As he slides further downhill, the lyrics get more and more aimlessly surreal: "Cracking up / Like a worn-out shoe / Ain't wet, / But the world's leakin' through" or "If I were a gunman / I would shoot / I'd tear the hair out / By the root."  By the end, I swear, he's just morosely playing with the sound of words: "I'd make a knife out / Of a notion / All at sea in an ocean of emotion." And just as that last phrase makes me giggle, he protests, "I don't think it's funny no more!"  Whooops.
  And now the genius bit:  Playing against those broken phrases, Billy Bremner's jangly guitar line keeps swooping sinuously down the scale and back up again, filling in the gaps with buoyant spirit. And those great Terry Williams drums, brightly bashing away, drive the energy home.  This guy may be cracking up--at least tonight--but the song is anything but a downer.   Was Nick Lowe really cracking up in those days?  Maybe, maybe not.  But Nick's not big on autobiographical songs; if he felt like he was having a nervous breakdown for five minutes, that'd've been enough to get a song out of it. And by the next track, anyway, he's bopping along with "Big Kick, Plain Scrap." Not that "Cracking Up" is a satire, necessarily, but it sure works as a sly little character study. After all, it wouldn't be a Nick Lowe song without playfulness and wit, would it? 

Saturday, March 19, 2011


There is a light at the end of the tunnel -- spring vacation is here, and possibly, just possibly, I can get back to regular blogging very soon.  Until then . . .

1. Seeds and Stems (Again) / Commander Cody and The Lost Planet Airmen
From Lost in the Ozone (1971)
Now here's a little time machine for you: This track effortlessly induces a contact high, every time.  It isn't just nostalgia -- I never had the pleasure of listening to this great stoner rockabilly stuff back in the day -- but thank god I found them since.   

2. More and More and More and Then Some / Nina Simone
From Pastel Blues (1965)
Here's a two for one -- Nina Simone working a Billie Holliday song, and adding her own extra throb of bluesy desire.  I certainly wasn't listening to this in 1965; I wouldn't have known what to make of it, anyway. But oh, what fine stuff this is, a shot of moaning late-night melancholy that's just about perfect.  

3. Bingo / Madness
From The Liberty of Norton Folgate (2009)
Ska-flavored music hall soft shoe, full of Cockney smart-arse patter -- all in the service of a downright Dickensian panorama of London low-life.  A seriously brilliant album, criminally unheralded this side of the Atlantic. I think I can safely say that anybody who loves the Kinks would totally dig this stuff.  

4. She Said / Collective Soul
From Dosage (2008)
Funked-up loungy rock, craftily laden with hooky riffs, and cue the strings and synths. I love how Collective Soul pitches to their female audience with sensitive-guy "I understand your pain" lyrics, meanwhile baring their chests and tossing their long hair... 

5. Live Alone / Franz Ferdinand
From Tonight (2009)
Talk about hooks -- these Scots rockers pump 'em out recklessly, along with charged-up tempos that sweeten the minor-key desperation of their songs. "I want to live alone / Because the greatest love is always ruined by the bickering / The argument of living..."  

6. Nobody Told Me / John Lennon
From Milk and Honey (1984)
What a amazing groove John hits here, loose and comical and reconciled.  "Nobody told me there'd be days like these / Strange days indeed!" He's just sitting back shaking his head, amused by the absurdity of it all.  When I think that this was where he'd gotten, finally, and then to be shot down -- tragic. 

7. Rain Coloured Roses / The Beatstalkers
From The Beatstalkers (1968)
Serendipity!  Put together Franz Ferdinand and John Lennon and what do you get?  "Glasgow's Beatles" -- or so this band was touted at the time. Sorry I can't post a link, as I only got these tracks from my Glasgow connection (thanks, Davy!). But they were clearly the peers of most British Beat bands of the period (even recorded some early Bowie compositions) and really should be better known.    

8. Profoundly in Love With Pandora / Ian Dury and the Blockheads
From Reasons To Be Cheerful: The Best of Ian Dury (compilation)
Last week I finally watched Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, the brilliant recent biopic of Ian Dury, so I'm very happy to have this 1985 gem shuffle up. "My mother's heart and soul have gone halfway up the pole / My father's on the dole / It's taking its toll..."   As if Dury's clever subversive lyrics weren't enough, this band was an incredibly tight jazz-ska ensemble.  Man, do I love them. 

9. Further On (Up the Road) / Johnny Cash
From American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)
Late Johnny Cash, gravel voice and all.  The fierce distilled intelligence of Johnny Cash at the end of his career is not to be rivaled -- talk about raging against the dying of the light!

10. Retrieval of You / Minus 5
From Down With Wilco (2003)
Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck's other other job, when they're not playing with Robyn Hitchcock.  I love the copacetic groove of this "pop collective," which this time round enlisted Wilco to jam with them. It's all good.

BONUS TRACK!!!  (Because I can't resist these guys...)

11. All Kinds of Time / Fountains of Wayne
From Welcome Interstate Managers (2003) 
Clever AND tender -- that's the special thing about Fountains of Wayne. They gently satirize the football hero in slo-mo exultation at the height of his achievement, and yet make us feel wistful about how fleeting this moment is.  It really is "all kinds" of time...

SECOND BONUS TRACK!!!  (Because...well, it's Johnny.)

12. Learning How To Love You / John Hiatt
From Bring the Family (1987)
My very first Hiatt post  -- loved it then, love it now.

And now I promise I'll stop -- even though Graham Parker's next...

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Huge work project, apartment renovation, crappy weather -- I've got a dozen reasons why the daily blogs just aren't happening.  But when all else fails, we've always got the shuffle!

1. Hot Potatoes / The Kinks
From Everybody's In Show-Biz (1972)
Though everybody thinks of Muswell Hillbillies as the Kinks' "country album," plenty of twang was still hanging around for their next album, Show-Biz. If there's a theme on this album, it's about the hassles of life on the road:  Here he longs for home cooking, specifically potatoes -- "boiled, french-fried, any old way that you want to decide."  And whatever else she's serving...

2. Yolanda Hayes / Fountains of Wayne
From Traffic and Weather (2007)
Did you know that Fountains of Wayne re-united after recording the Kinks "Better Things" for a tribute album? To me, these guys carry on the Kinks spirit in so many ways. Somewhere in New Jersey there probably really is a drivers' license bureau clerk named Yolanda Hayes. I wonder if she knows that Adam Schlesinger (or was it Chris Collingwood?) read her nametag and wrote this utterly charming song while waiting in line...

3. Fluorescent Adolescent / Arctic Monkeys
From Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007)
Is this band officially defunct?  I liked the whomp and jangle of their first two albums, and Alex Turner's guttural Sheffield vocals -- not that I ever thought they were the second coming, like some folks did. ("Bigger than the Beatles" . . . yeah, right.) 

4. Selfless Cold and Composed / Ben Folds Five
From Whatever and Ever Amen (1997)
Don't be deceived by the smooth jazz grooviness of this tune -- Ben is telling this bitch off, in a storm of piano arpeggios and riffs and a few of his trademark vulgarities.  Yes, the fine art of sarcasm is alive and well.

5. Twisted / Richard Thompson
From Henry the Human Fly (1972)
Jumping back in time -- same year as the Kinks' Show-Biz, as it happens -- another sarcastic kiss-off, this time dressed up like a robust English folk song.
6.  In A Space / The Kinks
From Low Budget (1979)
The Davies brothers again -- with the album that re-launched their American popularity (for the third time).  I've never quite gotten this song. It's like a mash-up of Dave's cosmic perspectives with Ray's neurotic desire to escape, cranked up like a punk anthem (listen to Ray's growled vocals).  Enter the arena rock years...

7. Sure Pinocchio / John Hiatt
From Little Head (1997)
Word in the Hiatt camp is, this is his worst album.  Doesn't mean it hasn't got some good songs on it, though, and I love this one, which was actually written by bassist Davey Faragher (now part of Elvis Costello's Imposters). Another spiteful kiss-off song.

8. Town Called Malice / The Jam
From The Gift (1982)
Paul Weller puts on his soul shoes, channeling his inner Supremes. Yeah, the satiric edge is still there, but the tunefulness of this track totally leaves punk behind.

9. Paper Sun / Traffic
From Mr. Fantasy (1967)
Ah, when psychedelia was young, and all that sitar and tabla and reverb seemed fresh and new. But if you want a hazy lush sound, turn loose Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi. Their first single, seemingly out of nowhere -- you could get a contact high from this one.

10. Didn't Want To Have To Do It / The Lovin' Spoonful
From Daydream (1966)
And only a year before, this was the sound of the moment: gentle jug-band music, filtered through a mellow Southern California high. (Different drugs.)  The opposite of a sarcastic kiss-off, John B. is sending that girl out the door so tenderly -- "I didn't want to have be the one to say 'the end' (the end, the end...)"

Sunday, March 06, 2011


First of all, a belated happy birthday to psych-folk-punk troubador and all-around free spirit Robyn Hitchcock.  And now, let's welcome spring!

1. I Feel Fine / The Beatles
From Past Masters, Vol. 1 (compilation)
Ah, 1964 -- the Beatles were in their heaven and all was right with the world.  That jangly lead guitar riff, just slightly behind the beat; John's insinuating vocal, hovering chromatically above an uneasy 7th chord; that alternating backstop of harmonies, in lush major-key resolution -- it wasn't simple, but it was exciting. Does this guy really feel fine?  Maybe, but he doesn't trust it, which is why he keeps repeating "you know, she said so" and "I feel fine."  And what an opener: that single guitar note, warping into feedback (an early version of the "Hard Day's Night" chord strum?) -- they had us at hello.  

2. Good Vibrations / The Beach Boys
From Smiley Smile (1967)
Genius, sheer genius -- a scant three years after "I Feel Fine," and music had traveled light-years. As I said here, one of the great singles of all time. Forty-four years later, it still hits it out of the park. 

3. Alienation's For the Rich / They Might Be Giants
From They Might Be Giants (1986)
Proving once again that there is a place for accordions in rock music.  I love Flansburgh's drunken growl and howl here, the strangled cry of a common working stiff.  Watching Spanish TV, drinking Miller Hi-Life -- nope, he's not alienated or nothing.   

4. Seven Miles an Hour / Marshall Crenshaw
From Miracle of Science (1996)
I like to think of this as Marshall's answer to "Expressway to Your Heart" -- he's stuck at work, watching the clock, longing to get home to his girl (or at least someone he hopes will become his girl). Except when he leaves, the traffic jam he's caught in isn't on a Philly roadway, but on the crowded sidewalks of New York. Ever try to walk fast in New York at 5pm? I can manage about four miles an hour, tops; he's doing seven, AND playing a killer guitar riff.  Please, if you listen to only one song on today's shuffle, listen to this one.

5. Wintertime Blues / John Hiatt
From Master of Disaster (2005)
A jaunty little street-corner buck-and-wing from Johnny H., full of pickin' and grinnin'. But man, can I relate: "There's no spring, there was never any spring / Spring's a long gone thing, there won't never be a spring no more / At least that's the way it feels when your skin is cracked and peeled / And you've been livin' under 60 pounds of blanket and the snow's driftin' up to your window.."  

6. Spiderman / Jill Sobule
From California Years (2009)
Now here is a delicious little bit of Hollywood whimsy -- pair this up with the Kinks' "Hollywood Boulevard."  Our singer's dressed up as Spiderman, riding the L.A. subway to work (no one's ever on the train, of course), working the crowd outside Grauman's Chinese. I love the amiable guitar strum, like something out of a 50's Western.  A sweetly etched cameo about the death of American dreams, the sort of thing Jill does better than almost anybody.

7. Out of Time / Chris Farlowe
From Out of Time (compilation)
Now we're jumping back in time, to 1966, when Chris Farlowe scored a UK hit with this Stones song (lucky they shared a manager).  But oh, what a great blues voice he had. "You're out of touch, my baby / My poor old-fashioned baby / Oh, baby, baby, baby you're out of time."  Of course, in the end he's blowing her off (I told you it was a Stones song), but at least Farlowe sounds a little regretful. Dig the "Soldier Boy" strings in the intro.

8. UK Jive / The Kinks
From UK Jive (1989)
I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- even weak Kinks albums are full of gems.

9. Down Among the Wines and Spirits / Elvis Costello
From Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane (2009)
Elvis goes old-timey Americana, Dobro and steel guitar and mandolin and all.  What saves this is a tap dancing syncopation that helps him stuff in way more words than any bluegrass song would ever need.  But hey, it's Elvis -- Elvis always needs a lot of words. And it's worth it for a verse like, "Down among the wines and spirits / Where a man gets what he merits / Lives with the echoing words of their final quarrel / The vacant chamber / The empty barrel" -- well, there's a whole novel right there. 

10. Right Now For You / Al Kooper
From I Stand Alone (1968)
Starts with an exploding grenade and gunfire, then a swell of spooky orchestration, heard as if in the next hotel room -- a tasty sliver of this unjustly neglected masterpiece album by Al Kooper. I suppose this is the sort of record that led to the over-produced crap of 1970s prog rock; still haunts and mesmerizes me, though.