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.