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 . . . .