Wednesday, July 27, 2011

True Love Ways / My Morning Jacket

I've always had three reasons to love Buddy Holly:  His band The Crickets inspired the name of the Beatles; his death was the chief inspiration for the iconic song of my youth "American Pie"; and, best of all, his last name was my first name.  Though he came along well before my time (okay, a little before my time), I love  his classic rock and roll sound, the way it bubbles with upbeat youthful energy.

Nevertheless, an all-star Buddy Holly tribute album to  commemorate the 75th anniversary of his birth wasn't exactly high on my list of albums to buy.  At least, not until I learned that Nick Lowe had been tapped to contribute a track.  Then, of course, that album went from a curiosity to a must-have in my book. ( Even though I am still annoyed with Nick for agreeing to open for Wilco on their fall tour -- nothing against Wilco, but really, shouldn't Nick be headlining?  And tickets have been absurdly hard to get, which isn't fair to Nick fans.)

But I digress.

So I went ahead and got the Buddy Holly tribute album, Rave On.  The line-up is an interesting mix of older and younger artists, definitely skewed toward the indie-cool part of the spectrum.  You know who I'm talking about -- The Black Keys, Fiona Apple, Florence + the Machine, the Detroit Cobras, She & Him.  I mean, Julian freakin' Casablancas -- c'mon, these people weren't picked for their Buddy Holly affinities.  Even the older artists are definitely downtown types: Lou Reed, Patti Smith.  The one true Holly acolyte is Paul McCartney, and yet his frenetic rendition of "It's So Easy" is a distinct disappointment; it loses most of the charm of Buddy's original.

As for Mr. Lowe, he acquits himself respectably, covering "Changing All Those Changes." How clever of him to pick a less well-known song, and one which would allow him to go into rockabilly territory.  As a cover it's quite decent, and much less intrusive than some of the tracks.

My top picks?  Justin Townes Earle does a neat job with "Maybe Baby," and as expected She & Him deliver "Oh Boy" with perfect retro spunk.  And Patti's "Words of Love" is absolutely fantastic, taking the tempo down a notch and going for a sincere huskiness that Buddy himself might have grown into if he hadn't died so young.  Kudos to Patti.

But my number one favorite track is this one by My Morning Jacket, who just keep on rising and rising in my estimation.Who knew when we saw them open for Ray Davies in Chicago five years ago? That day they  seemed like just another shaggy sloppy jam band, but they've won me over since then.

Take a listen:

Isn't that sweet?  I love the strings, with their 50s-vintage fills, just like the original. (In fact this arrangement is a little less glossy and hokey than Buddy's, which also lays on a sax, angel harps, and cocktail piano.)  In stripping it down, Jim James and his cohorts have really plumbed the gravity and tenderness of this song, in a way that I'd bet Buddy himself would have appreciated.  Jim's earnest warble is beautifully suited to this song; it's the antithesis to show-bizzy busyness.  And as the song builds -- dig those da-dah-da-dum string flourishes -- MMJ lets vocal harmonies flower, taking the emotions up another swoony notch.

Listening to this, it strikes me that "True Love Ways" manages somehow to be sad and happy at the same time.  How did Buddy pull that off?  That husky beginning, "Just you know why...." signals intimacy from the very start; it's like a private conversation between him and his special girl.  The guy is exulting in the private world of love that they've forged between them; nobody else will ever know but them.  At the same time, though, he's shouting it to the world, so joyful that he can't keep it to himself.

And yet, and yet . . . he still sounds tremulous, awed, disbelieving.  He admits that their life, even with this great great love, isn't perfect -- "Sometimes we'll cry / Sometimes we'll sigh,"  he remarks, tinged with awareness of mortality. It's as if he's discovering for the first time that love isn't an end in itself, but a way of being; he isn't just living in the moment anymore, but putting his love into a long-term perspective.  Astonishingly mature, when you consider how young Buddy Holly was when he wrote this, and how immature the rock and roll genre still was at the time.

I suppose a little of the sadness, too, comes from knowing that this song wasn't even released until after Buddy's tragic early death.  Of course Buddy couldn't have known that, couldn't have put that into the song.  But it still has a mysterious, elegaic quality, doesn't it?  That trademark MMJ reverb underscores  that haunting note, too.

Usually I'm an advocate of artists adding their own mark to a cover song -- I hate slavish copies of the original -- but way too many of the other artists on this album went overboard, distorting the essential sweetness and lightness of Holly's songs.  My Morning Jacket, though?  They show respect.  And if Buddy Holly doesn't deserve respect, nobody does.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Village Green Preservation Society / 
The Kinks

Gardening this afternoon -- or, more precisely, yanking out weeds from various shrubberies and flowerbeds -- I found this song popping uncontrollably into my brain. Naturally, as there was nobody about, I had to sing it, lustily and loud.

As the title song from the Kinks' 1968 album of the same name, "The Village Green Preservation Society" is exactly the sort of oddball song that baffled the music-buying public in 1968.  The album of course, is  cherished by fans today as Ray Davies' masterwork, his defiant embrace of Britishness when so many other English bands were chasing the American dream.  But I found myself wondering what all of those oh-so-British references in this song meant. I'm embarrassed to admit that even when I wrote about this before, I didn't take the time to look them all up. And then it occurred to me:  Finally, a reason for Google to exist!

First, here's a YouTube video to listen you as you read:

And now the lyrics -- with footnotes, for those of you who are Kinks-obsessed as I am....


By Raymond Douglas Davies

We are the Village Green Preservation Society
God save Donald Duck[1], Vaudeville[2] and Variety[3]
We are the Desperate Dan[4] Appreciation Society
God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties

Preserving the old ways from being abused
Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do

We are the Draught Beer[5] Preservation Society
God save Mrs. Mopp[6] and good Old Mother Riley[7]
We are the Custard Pie[8] Appreciation Consortium
God save the George Cross[9] and all those who were awarded them

We are the Sherlock Holmes[10] English Speaking Vernacular[11]
Help save Fu Manchu[12], Moriarty[13] and Dracula[14]
We are the Office Block[15] Persecution Affinity
God save little shops, china cups and virginity

We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate[16]
God save tudor houses[17], antique tables and billiards[18]
Preserving the old ways from being abused
Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do
God save the Village Green.

[1] The animated Disney character, who rose to fame in the 1930s, appearing many propaganda cartoons in World War II.
[2] A form of stage entertainment popular in North America from the 1890s to the 1930s.

[3] The British equivalent of vaudeville, with a series of acts mixing comedy, music, and dance.  The use of both these terms rather than “music hall” may have been driven by alliteration as well as the need for a rhyme with “society.”

[4] A character in the British comic The Dandy, a western strong man with a Robin Hood streak.  Again, it’s an alliterative name, with the same double D’s as the Disney character in the preceding line.

[5] Beer from a cask or a keg, which aficionados claim has a truer, purer taste than bottled or canned beer.  It is generally unpasteurized, which makes the “preservation” part of this society’s name doubly apt.  

[6] An office cleaning lady (or “char”) in the 1940s BBC radio comedy “It’s That Man Again,” starring comedian Tommy Handley. Her most famous phrase was “Can I do you now, sir?”

[7] An Irish washerwoman in a music hall comedy act and series of low-budget films popular from 1934 to 1977.  Known for her malapropisms, wacky situations, and broad physical slapstick, she was played in drag by Arthur Lucan, then by Roy Rolland.
[8] A dessert made of custard pudding in a pie crust. This reference, however, probably is to “pie-ing,” the slapstick comedy tradition, popularized by Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin, of smashing a “custard” pie (probably made with shaving cream) into the face of a hapless target.  Running low on rhymes for “society,” Davies must now resort to a Consortium.   

[9] Great Britain’s highest possible medal awarded to civilians. The rhyme of “awarded ‘em” and “consortium” is inspired.

[10] Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective, whose stories appeared from 1887 to 1927.

[11] “Vernacular” may mean either “dialect” or “mother tongue.”  It has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes, but it scans, it starts with a V, and it sets up the rhyme for “Dracula.”.

[12]  An Asian evil criminal genius created by British novelist Sax Rohmer, published between 1913 and 1959, also featured in a number of movies from 1923 on.  

[13] In this list of evil geniuses, this probably refers to Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis.

[14] The Transylvanian count and vampire, created by Bram Stoker in his 1897 novel and a number of films from 1920 on.

[15] A British term for a large office building. By forming a “persecution affinity,”the VGPS is presumably opposed to office blocks.

[16] Another group formed to oppose tall office buildings.

[17] Probably a reference not to true Tudor houses, but to the Tudor Revival of the latter 19th-century, which introduced half-timbered exterior decoration to domestic architecture.  Also called Mock Tudor, Tudorbethan, or Merrie England architecture.

[18] The British cue game, considered classier than pool, played with three balls on a billiards table. The trilled L’s in this word rhyme snappily with “affiliate.”

Saturday, July 02, 2011


Here's a slightly different twist -- this shuffle is not from my full music library, but my huge Vacation playlist, designed to provide road tunes for the July 4th exodus.  Pop it in the car's music player and enjoy!

1. Call Me The Breeze / Alan Price and Rob Hoeke
From Two of a Kind (1977)
Sorry to start out with an obscure one -- even I wouldn't own this album if it hadn't been for my lifelong Alan Price fandom.  Here he pairs with Dutch keyboardist Rob Hoeke (AP has this thing for collaborations with fellow keyboardists, from Georgie Fame to Zoot Money) to make a swinging little album that's actually a ton of fun.  Really, it should be better known.  This J.J. Cale cover is considerably peppier than J.J.'s laidback version; it really lets out the clutch and takes off.

2. Tighten Up Pt. 1  / Archie Bell and the Drells
From Tighten Up (1968)
"Hi everybody, this is Archie Bell and the Drells, of Houston, Texas. We don't only sing, but we dance just as good as we walk!"  Poor Archie Bell was already serving in Vietnam when the record he'd cut just before being drafted hit the charts.  It was all over the airwaves that summer, agitating dancing bodies everywhere, a marvelous melange of irresistible riffs cycling from instrument to instrument.  ("Tighten up on that bass, now....Now look here, we're gonna make it mellow now!")  A long cool drink of pure summer fun(k).

3. Helen Wheels  / Wings
From Band on the Run (1973)
Hang on tight!  Paul McCartney -- determined to prove that he could rock out without the Beatles -- tore into this road song with no brakes whatsoever. The internal combustion of those twin descending guitar riffs, the pavement-pounding drums, the thrumming bass line -- hell on wheels indeed! 

4. If I Had $1,000,000 / Barenaked Ladies
From Gordon (1992)
Barenaked Ladies are right up there with Commander Cody, They Might Be Giants, and Flight of the Concords in my pantheon of comic rockers. I love the call and response on this ambling country rocker, as the singer earnestly offers his riches to his true love -- but as for what he'd buy her with his lottery winnings... 

5. Rango Theme Song  / Los Lobos
From Rango Soundtrack (2011)
Fandango gave me this song for free after I went to see this animated movie last winter. (Okay, so I'll see anything with Johnny Depp in it -- wanna make something of it?)  But it soon earned a permanent spot in the rotation, a campy take on the classic western theme song, mariachi horns and all. 

6. She Loves the Sunset / Old 97s
From Blame it On Gravity (2008)
Throw in a cha-cha beat and some pedal steel twang and what do you have?  This winner by the delightful Old 97s.

7. Shiftless When Idle  / The Replacements
From Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash! (1981)
Well, this one sure puts the garage in garage rock.  Nobody else has ever stuffed this many car puns into one song, with the possible exception of Little Village's "She Runs Hot."  It only lasts 2:18, but that grinding gear-shift guitar, the relentless bashing drums, and Paul Westerberg's slightly strangled vocals defiantly break the speed limit, cruising with the top down, tossing beer cans out the back as they roar into the night.  

8.  Young Americans  / David Bowie
From Young Americans (1975)
Bowie put on his soul shoes, hauled in a gospel choir and a hot sax (David Sanborn!), and lit up the discos in the summer of '75 with this hectic take on American culture. ("Blacks got respect and whites got Soul Train...")   Bowie himself described it as "plastic soul . . . the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey."  Yep, that pretty much nails it.

9. Gone, Gone, Gone / Colin Farrell
From Crazy Heart: The Soundtrack (2010)
Who knew Colin Farrell could sing country?  As if Jeff Bridges' mesmerizing performance in this film wasn't enough, and all those superb Ryan Bingham-T. Bone Burnett songs too. This song nails the dieselbilly sound perfectly -- "I was born on a flattop two-lane, / Picked up a guitar, and every day I'd sing / Till I was gone, gone, gone..."   You just gotta drive to this one.

10. One More Day / Bill Kirchen
From Hammer of the Honkytonk Gods (2007)
Well, speaking of dieselbilly -- here's the king himself, pickin' and grinnin' with a fiddle and roadhouse piano.   "Well I reckon we all gotta pay the diagnosis / So I'm turning my two weeks notice / Then I 'scuse myself while I kiss the sky . . . I'm gonna live it up like there's no tomorrow / Crank up the love, turn down the sorrow, / Get my ducks in a row for one more day!"  Hey, a little shot of carpe diem philosophy is just what you need when you're heading out the door for vacation!