Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top Ten ELEVEN Albums of 2012
Can't believe I left this one out!

M. Ward:
A Wasteland Companion
"Clean Slate"

One of the things I love about Matt Ward is his self-effacing modesty -- he's reduced his name to a bare intial, he avoids putting his own photo on his album covers, he doesn't even have a bio on his own website. He's so eager to collaborate with other artists like Jim James, Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis (Monsters of Folk) and Zooey Deschanel (She & Him), he hasn't put out an album of his own since 2009's Hold Time. He may have come up through the hipster music scene of Portland OR, but there doesn't seem to be any Portlandia-style fatuousness about this guy.

M. Ward has slipped so gradually into my musical consciousness -- a track here, a track there -- that this is the first entire album of his I've bought, and I have to say, I adore it. Since it came out in April, I've been listening to it so regularly that it no longer seems to me like a new record. Why else would I have forgotten to put it on my 2012 top ten list?

I keep wanting to call this album Heartland Companion instead of Wasteland Companion, because there's something so agreeably handmade about it -- acoustic guitars, piano, whispery reverbed vocals -- Ward definitely comes from a retro, less-is-more school of production values. One of my favorite tracks on here is a sprightly cover of the old Peggy Lee classic "I Get Ideas," as well as Daniel Johnston's "Sweetheart." But there's plenty of darkness as well, to live up to that wasteland in the title -- haunting minor-key tracks like "Me and My Shadow" and "Watch the Show," before he segues into the uplifting sweetness of "Crawl After You," "Wild Goose," and the aptly-titled "Pure Joy." 

The arc of the album is sketched out in this opening track, "Clean Slate."

Over the gentle chug of an acoustic strum, he muses philosophically:  "When I was a younger man I thought the / Pain of defeat would last forever." I have no idea how old M. Ward is, but I am sure he isn't as middle-aged as this suspender-snapping declaration suggests. The way he sees it, though, he's already moved further down the road: "But now I don't know what it would take / To make my heart back down." I love this note of resilience and optimism -- how refreshingly non-indie.

Don't be entirely deceived by the simple folk-ish arrangement -- the plaintive, lonesome quality of it should keep you on your guard. The lyrics aren't traditional rhyming stanzas but long overlapping lines of blank verse, and everything is vague and non-specific, as the second verse admits: "Somewhere in another place, who knows / Could be another lifetime / Everything we gave away returns / Like a scene from a fugitive dream." Whah?  He's still stumbling through things, still a little lost.

But still he plows forward. Notice how charmingly his voice squeaks on the higher notes as he stakes his faith on new beginnings: "Cause I only have to wait a little while / Before I get my clean slate." He's not there yet -- he's still waiting -- but dagnabbit, he knows it will come. And this album is his companion, his guide to help him find that new start.

Well, here we are on the brink of a new year, and I'm hankering myself for a clean slate. This song is like my new mantra, helping me to draw a deep breath and be patient. You only have to wait a little while....

Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Soul Christmas" /
Graham Parker

Okay, okay, so the Big Official Day has already passed. But we're still in the Christmas season, and I'm happy to indulge in a bit more holiday cheer, good up through New Year's Day. This comes to us from a 1994 EP titled Graham Parker's Christmas Cracker -- only three tracks but they are choice indeed. You get the snarky satire "Christmas for Mugs," the sweetly yearning "New Year's Revolution," and this marvelous track, a sort of holiday version of "Sweet Soul Music" with shout-outs to all of GP's many soul heroes:


Here's a list of all the artists Graham name-checks in this song, with the able assistance of soul sister Nona Hendryx. It's like a primer of classic R&B history; click on the links below for samples of their artistry:
Naturally you've got to start with the original Soul Men, Stax duo Sam and Dave, along with the Godfather of Soul James Brown and the Queen of Motown Mary Wells. Stax songwriter-turned-solo artist Eddie Floyd also gets a nod for his classic "Knock on Wood."
The next verse gives us Al Jackson, Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper, and Booker T, that bedrock Stax backing line-up otherwise known as Booker T and the MGs. And if you're having a party, who else should tend bar but the King of Soul, Sam Cooke? As royal titles seem to be in plentiful supply, add in the Queen of Memphis Soul Carla Thomas and the other King of Soul Otis Redding, whose duet album King & Queen featured the hit single "Tramp."
Composer-singer Don Covay ("Chain of Fools," "Mercy Mercy") and Chess Records stalwart Little Milton get their mentions, as do the Reverend Al Green, Motown saxophonist Junior Walker, and of course the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. (Check out what Graham has to say about her in this song as well.)
The idea may not be original, but I'm so busy loving the music he references, I don't even notice. And it's good to be reminded that Graham Parker is not just a pub rocker/New Waver/British angry young man, but first and foremost a connoisseur of the purest traditions of American R&B. Thanks for the present, Graham!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

"Atheist Christmas" / Robert Crenshaw

Full disclosure: I am not an atheist. I sing in a church choir, in fact. And I love the holiday season, not only because of the glorious traditional music and the gift-giving and the decorations, but also because the story of Jesus laid in a manger means something to me.

Just because I believe the Christmas story, though, doesn't mean I buy everything that Christmas has morphed into in our secular and materialist society. I'm just as annoyed as anybody else by the rampant commercialization of this holiday -- perhaps even more annoyed, because real Christmas matters so much to me. I hate it when self-professed atheists sneer at Christmas because of those abuses.  

So I was wary of this "holiday" song by Robert Crenshaw. (Yes, Marshall Crenshaw's brother, also the drummer on his brother's debut album.) As the title track of his new EP, it's kind of an in-your-face declaration. But Robert is a fine songwriter and musician in his own right, so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And I'm so glad I did . . .

The point is, even if you don't officially "believe" in Jesus, there is much about this holiday to love. This song is about resurrecting all of that.  "The holidays are complicated," he acknowledges right off the bat, noting that the winter solstice -- the original pagan holiday -- "doesn't have Santa Claus." I get where he's coming from. The liner notes include a circa 1960 snapshot of the Crenshaw boys with a department store Santa, an event Marshall too has referenced in his song "Live and Learn" from Jaggedland. I get a warm feeling just thinking about the Crenshaw family Christmas.
Because Christmas can fill some holes in the soul. In the second verse, Robert elaborates: "This year I really needed Christmas / We put up lights and got a tree / We got presents for family and friends / Some dogs and cats got some treats." It sounds so simple, but take it away, and what are you left with?
It's being with family that matters, of course, but also honoring traditions. (Love the line in verse three, "We loved the Christmas songs, many written by Jews.") Yearning for tried-and-true comforts himself, he gives us a charmingly retro arrangement, with all the cheesy details we fall for this time of year -- a wintry flute, snowflake spangles of percussion, caroling harmonies from the back-up singers. 
In the chorus, he surrenders happily to the whole shebang: "So I'm having an atheist Christmas / I know it's crazy, but so? Ho Ho Ho. / And I hope you find yourself in a moment of pure bliss / Under the mistletoe / With beautiful lights and snow." There it is, wrapped up in shiny paper and tied with a bow. Even if you don't believe in Christ, here's something heart-warming you can believe in.  It's so, so, SO much better than nothing.   

Friday, December 21, 2012

My Top Ten Eleven Albums of 2012

All in one place . . . like a  Christmas list. I'm not numbering them 1 to 10 because they're too good -- and too different -- to rank absolutely. Click on each title for a link to my original post.

Graham Parker & The Rumour:
Three Chords Good
Even I, a confirmed Graham Parker fanatic, didn't predict just HOW good this reunion album would be. I'm gobsmacked by its brilliance.

The Shins: Port of Morrow
A combination of gorgeous melody, striking lyrics, and a sweetly melancholy worldview -- it's almost drunkenly beautiful.

Corb Lund: Cabin Fever
Ranging from honky-tonk to rockabilly to bluegrass to Western swing, Lund doesn't approach country music like an artifact or an ironic affectation; he approaches it like a cowboy..

Rhett Miller: Dreamer
From the Old 97s front man, an entire alt-country album about love, lost and found, sour and sweet.

Paul Weller: Sonik Kicks
Ever the restless risk-taker, Weller loads up this album with studio effects and sonic experiments, while his insane commitment to melody and to syncopation shines gloriously through.

The Ben Folds Five:
The Sound of the Life of the Mind
I adore Ben Folds' solo work as well, but the driving energy and impish wit of the Ben Folds Five is something else.

The dBs: Falling Off the Sky
Reuniting this beloved late 70s band so many years down the road seems like a joyful and natural thing, judging from the copasetic energy of Falling Off the Sky.

John Hiatt: Mystic Pinball
Start to finish, that raspy voice, the visceral rhythms, the crunchy guitarwork, all come together to craft a sound so authentic and idiosyncratic, it fits like a glove.

The Avett Brothers: The Carpenter
Scott and Seth Avett have never shed the upbeat sweetness of their southern folk roots, even as they steer it into rock territory.

Mumford & Sons: Babel
Hipster indie Brits forge their own peculiar Americana sound, like O Brother Where Art Thou? meets Martin Amis, full of post-modern angst and old-time religion.

M. Ward: A Wasteland Companion
OOF!! Released way back last April, I forgot at first to put this on my 2012 top ten list. But I adore its acoustic reverbed charm, a retro-flavored meditation on love, loss, and resilience.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
I'm still in awe of this album -- the best reunion yet.

Graham Parker & The Rumour:
Three Chords Good
"Old Soul"

So here we come to the tenth day of my Top Ten Albums countdown -- and even though I said it was in no particular order, I saved this one for last because it IS my favorite album of the year.

I'll admit I'm a bit biased when it comes to Graham Parker. Okay, more than a bit. But I have to say, this reunion with his original backing band The Rumour has exceeded all my expectations. Live, they are absolutely smoking, as anybody can attest who's seen them on their current tour. And the thing I really love is that they are not just trotting out the old Squeezing Out Sparks hits -- nearly half their set has been drawn from this brand-new album of Parker-penned winners.

So even if you've missed the tour, you don't have to miss all the fun.  If you aren't already on the bandwagon, this album could make a believer of you. These songs are soulful, they're wicked smart, they're funny, they break your heart (but in a good way). They're vintage Graham Parker, in other words.

Here's my original post about my favorite track on the album. Since writing this post, I've been told it's Graham's current favorite song, too. I hope you'll see why.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
You must have know this one was coming...

The Shins: Port of Morrow
"For A Fool"

I didn't even remember which track from this album I'd previously blogged about before -- was it "A Simple Song," or "40 Mark Strasse," or "September"?  There were so many I wanted to write about, I wasted half a day trying to decide, I know that. That's how strong this album is.

And much as I loved it the first week I immersed myself in it, back in May, it has actually grown on me even more in the months since. It's got a peculiar magic I can't quite define, a combination of gorgeous melody, striking lyrics, and a sweetly melancholy worldview. It's almost drunkenly beautiful.

So in case you've forgotten it, or missed it the first time round, here's my rapturous review of Track Seven from Port of Morrow.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
Why it pays to take a chance sometimes.

Corb Lund: Cabin Fever
"You Ain't a Cowboy (If You Ain't Been Bucked Off)"

I try not to be a music snob, I really do. I know I've got a blind spot when it comes to country music -- the inevitable result of watching too many cornball TV shows like Hee Haw and Midwestern Hayride as a kid. But label it "Americana" or "Texas outlaw" or "alt-country" and I'll come runnin'.

So now I've got to figure how Corb Lund fits in. I recognized his name from some New West Records sampler a couple of years ago, but he's hardly a household name, at least not in the States. Far from a Nashville insider, he hails from the high plains of Canada -- his backing band is even called The Hurtin' Albertans. (Gotta love that name.)

So it was purely on a whim that I starting clicking on Corb Lund's sample tracks while nosing around Amazon a few weeks ago.  With every click, though, I became more and more intrigued. I was astonished by this album's range, from honky-tonk to rockabilly to bluegrass to Western swing. It's got nimble guitar picking, it's got mournful pedal steel, it's got Dobro, it's got mouth-harp, it's got yodeling (no fiddles or banjos, though -- leave those to the indie boys). Best of all, it's got -- oh, my, has it got -- melody.

Only after I bought it, though, did I discover the depth of this record. The musicianship is crazy good, and the bracing intelligence of the songwriting knocks my socks off. Like John Hiatt or Guy Clark or Fred Eaglesmith, Corb Lund actually has something to say about life, and he says it memorably. He doesn't approach country music like an artifact or an ironic affection; he approaches it like a -- well, like a cowboy. Like a cowboy who's prone to some deep pondering while he's riding the range.

Probably the most accessible track is the wistful cowboy ballad "September," but that alone is no indication of the spunk, hustle, and mordant humor of this record. Just listen to some of these titles: "Bible on the Dash," "Pour 'Em Kinda Strong," "One Left in the Chamber," "The Gothest Girl I Can," and the delightful "Priceless Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner."

There's no single track that will give you the whole picture. So I've picked one that shows how deeply, deeply country this record is:

Yeah, of course it's a metaphor. Country music enjoys a good metaphor, the more cliched the better. That tough-it-out philosophy -- "Get back up on the horse that threw you" -- is a well-worn concept, but it suits the country mindset.
Besides, it's what you do with the cliche that matters. First of all, the tempo of this song is just right, with its lurching roll, like a bow-legged rodeo rider limping out of the corral.  That emphatic drum slap makes me picture the bronc buster slapping his dusty hat on his legs as he exits the scene of his humiliation.  There's a weary resignation to this song's syncopation that I love. And look at how he matches melodic line to the logic of each verse, starting out with an upbeat assertion, then crunching with some chromatics as he admits the complications in his story. 
"Well I was minding my business / holding the fort," he recalls, adding with a sigh, "And I still remember how you sallied forth." I love that archaic "sallied forth," perfect for a rueful touch of irony. "And my mind it was busy awarning my heart" -- but too late, bucko. "Hell, you ain't a cowboy if you ain't been bucked off." I love the shrug of resignation there -- it still hurts, but he'll find a way to move on. Because he has to.
He hits the perfect country note of self-deprecation in verse two: "Well the story's familiar, the oldest tale in the west / I fell into love and the bird left the nest." He's making no excuses for himself, even though he regrets what he sees as a moment of weakness. "Well I guess that there's reasons / we let our hard hearts turn soft" -- you wouldn't find that line in a pop song. 
The metaphor comes into full flower in the bridge, as his voice sails yearningly into a higher key: "There's all kinds of horses / Leave you grabbin' the breeze / Busted up, broken up, scars you can't see / But if you ain't been bucked off and been throwed a few times / It don't count for nothing when you make that last ride." Last ride? Could mean finding the woman he's meant to spend the rest of his life with, but there's at least a hint there of the Judgment Day. Either way, learning how to mend your own soul and carry on is essential for redemption.    
Verse three catches us up to the present: "Well the years've passed quickly / And there ain't nothing the same / Only I don't feel different and you've hardly changed." Funny how that works. You run into an old love and you think you've grown, yet the old emotions still bubble up. But you can deal with it; it's the cowboy ethos. Not some pampered whiny Nashville approach, but a real western grit-and-spine outlook. Suck it up, cowboy. Life hurts.
The pain? It's still trembling beneath the surface, in the plaintive swoops of Lund's voice, in the growl of the bassline below the acoustic strum. That's how you know it matters. That's what brings this song home.  
My Top Ten Albums of 2012
Sometimes I just have to surrender to the country fan inside me.

Rhett Miller: Dreamer
"Swimmin' in Sunshine"

Over the years the Old 97s have brewed up such a tasty blend of rollicking Texas twang and indie-rock sensibility, they've made it easy for me to get my hoedown fix without going full-on Nashville. There's something about them that I instantly loved, an ineffable personal connection that landed them immediately on the list of My Guys.  Was it the lead singer's plangent, slightly goofy vocals?  Or was it the songwriter's ear-worm melodies and sly lyrics?

The answer is: Both. And considering that the lead singer and the songwriter are the same guy, Rhett Miller -- and considering that he also records as a solo artist -- I cannot explain why it took me this long to finally buy a Rhett Miller album. Especially now that I've listened to it.

 The Dreamer is Miller's fourth studio album, following The Believer (2006) and The Instigator (2011) and -- breaking the title pattern -- 2009's Rhett Miller. My musical Christmas list has just grown by three titles.

There's still twang-aplenty, with pedal steel all over this album, and lots of uptempo numbers -- don't expect mopey singer-songwriter angst, even if the title promises dreamy idealism.  It's an entire album about love, lost and found, sour and sweet. No Big Statements, no snarky satire, no sonic experiments. Just a lovely record full of instantly loveable tunes. Like this one . . .

I guess if I'd been clever enough to buy this album in June, when it was released, this sundrenched tune would have fit right in. On the other hand, it's even more welcome in the dreariness of pre-winter.
I suppose this isn't technically a love song as much as a wooing song. Over and over in the sweetly soaring refrain he promises, "We'll be swimmin' in sunshine," an image evoking warm glow on bare skin more than actual watersports.  Seductive as that image is, however, he balances it with a second refrain -- "What do I kno-o-ow about love / What do I know about love?"  That assertion of innocence, claiming his amateur status -- that's the final stroke to knock down her defenses, as the tempo ticks sweetly along, the melodic line bouncy and upbeat.
He's definitely courting like a gentleman: "I've got good intentions here today," he swears in the first verse, his voice high and earnest. "Sometimes intentions pave the way," he adds, confiding in a slightly husky, lower voice -- "You can ask my heart, / Put a lie detector on my heart." That lie detector line is a little absurd, and yet perfect -- how else to prove he's on the up-and-up? It almost makes her feel embarrassed to have doubted him.     
And he's not just out for sex, as verse two pleads: "I had a dream involving you and me / Talking on a train, and we'd agree / We got each others' back, / Right before it all goes black." There's a lovely ambiguity to that line everything going black -- perhaps it's just the end of the dream, or maybe a classic movie fade-out as the train goes into a tunnel (and we all know what that means). Or maybe he's saying he'll still have her back even when the world becomes dark and desperate, which of course it will do. I prefer the third meaning, and I'm a sucker for that kind of promise. 
So by verse three, he's wheedled us as far as the bedroom: "I've got good intentions here tonight, / I can see you wondering if it's all right / You can ask my heart, / Put a lie detector on my heart."  I can just picture him, all puppy-dog eyes and a hand across his chest like a Boy Scout. Who wouldn't give in?
Those twin refrains sail along dreamily through the final repeats, creating their own warm sunshine glow of sound.  Think the Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream" -- yeah, that kind of glow. It may be a seduction song, but it's a feel-good seduction song.  And what's so bad about feeling good? 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
And now for something completely different.

Paul Weller: Sonik Kicks
"By the Waters"

Even I am surprised by this choice. I'm not a die-hard Paul Weller fan; I feel no close personal connection to him. Twice now I've bought tickets to see him in concert and ended up not going. And yet, curiously enough, I find I own most of his albums, from The Jam through Style Council and on into his often-baffling solo work. Sometimes they disappoint me (last year's Wake Up the Nation left me cold). But when I see there's a new one, I'm always tempted.

I sampled Sonik Kicks before buying it. My finger hovered over the Buy Now key for a minute or so. Did I really want an entire album of electronic experiments?  That title, with its cheesy misspelling of "sonic" and the freighted word "kicks," kept blinking at me like a red warning light.

But I clicked on Buy, and I'm glad I did.

It's clear that Weller's dabbling with a lot of studio tools, layering the music with weird effects, building a wall of sound that's not always pretty. He's fallen under the spell of some DJ named Simon Dine, and he's apparently been listening to loads of buzzy Krautrock. This is the sort of stuff that's usually anathema to me. Yet beneath it all, Weller's insane commitment to melody and to syncopation shines gloriously through.  I actually find myself humming these tunes in the shower; when they're playing, I feel compelled to get up and dance. It's an astonishing feat indeed.

And that's why I remain loyal to Paul Weller. He's one of the biggest risk-takers out there, restless for new musical ideas, completely bored by the idea of replicating his previous sound. There are of course fans who still feel betrayed that he left the Jam to form Style Council (personally I prefer Style Council) and who believe that his new stuff is self-indulgent crap. Yes, it is self-indulgent, but that's just another way of saying that he marches to his own drummer. When you're this innately talented, indulging yourself can be a good thing.

As strange as the sound may be to some ears, Weller actually finds a lot of range within it. I suggest you listen to more than one track: the aggressive punch of "Kling I Klang," the snappy hipster satire of "When Your Garden's Overgrown," the soulful pop sweetness of "Study in Blue."

But given the sorrow in my heart over the tragic news of yesterday's school shooting, I'm taking solace in this tender track:

The moral is simple -- we're all going at such a speed, working, racing around, hyped up with information, we need to grant ourselves the right to take a breather. Nothing more than that, nothing less. He offers nature as the source of renewal, water and sky and stars and sun -- an unexpected message on an album so full of speed, noise, and cryptic social commentary. (None of the lyrics on this album tell a conventional story.)

By the time this track drops -- it's #5 on the album -- it provides exactly what the lyrics promote: a place of refuge, healing, and rest.  I could feel my muscles relax, my pores open, my heartbeat slow back down. It was a totally unexpected experience from an album called Sonik Kicks.

That's when I knew this album was a keeper.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
While we're on the subject of reunions...

The Ben Folds Five: The Sound of the Life of the Mind
"Do It Anyway"

Truly successful musical reunions are few and far between. When they click, it's because the band members discover that they still like playing together, after all these years. Recapturing that magic is never a given, though. Reuniting bands can't play it by the numbers -- they can't bank it all on reproducing their old sound, especially if the band members are at a different stage in life now (like yesterday's entry the dBs, or like the Zombies). This is where the Rolling Stones still struggle with reality, trying to pull off their trademark kick-ass image when they're all senior citizens. When you reunite just for the money, something isn't quite right.

It often requires a little serendipity, too. In the case of the Ben Folds Five, they reunited at first just to crank out a couple tracks for his career retrospective album The Best Imitation of Myself.  What they discovered, however, was not just that they enjoyed playing together, but even better, Folds re-discovered certain qualities in his music that emerged only when bandmates Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse joined him. When a front man goes solo, it's easy to think that he was the main talent, but a band really can be greater than the sum of its parts. Something special happened when they started working together, and they were excited to reconvene for this album.

I adore Ben Folds' solo work as well, but the driving energy and impish wit of the Ben Folds Five is something else, and was sorely missed. I hope they continue to get together periodically because . . . well, damn, this is fun music.

Here's my recent post on (still) my fave track on the album.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
Is this the year of reunions or what?

The dBs: Falling Off the Sky
"The Wonder of Love"

I am frankly amazed that there hasn't been more buzz about this album. Oh, I'm sure there are internet message boards crackling with arguments about it -- after all, it's the dBs' first in 25 years (30 years if you want the original line-up, which of course you do). In the interim the dBs took on a sort of iconic status, much like their power pop progenitors Big Star, as runners-up for the Most Woefully Underappreciated In Their Time award. And die-hard fans who've been waiting for a reunion for 30 years tend to have very strong preconceived notions about what a reunion would sound like. I speak from experience, as a Kinks fan.

But hey, like a lot of Americans I never listened to the dBs before. Don't ask me why -- in 1978-1982 they played the same gritty New York City clubs I was frequenting. (Hell, for all I know I did see them back then, but they never pierced the haze of my brain.) And despite the hectoring of certain regular readers of this blog, I never listened to Peter Holsapple's and Chris Stamey's solo work, either. Mea culpa.

If nothing else, this gives me a unique advantage. I come to this album with fresh, unbiased ears, and I must say, I like what I hear. I love the crunchy guitars, the infectious pop melodies, the psychedelic pulses of organ, the jangly drumming, the rough-cast wall of sound. It sounds more Southern than I expected -- I didn't realize that the dBs all knew each other pre-NYC, down in Winston-Salem NC -- but you know me, I love that bit of twang.

Naturally the album had to lead off with "That Time Is Gone," which kisses off any notion that this reunion will be a mere rehash. But I'm listening more and more to this surprisingly jazzy Holsapple-penned track:

Instead of young-man angst, here's a loose-limbed anthem to relationships that work. Not that it's all smooth going -- "I didn't have to be the one to explain, but time and again I do," he points out, and later he puzzles, "It isn't rocket surgery, it's not as hard as you make it sound." (Love that rocket surgery line, conflating the two cliches, rocket science and brain surgery.)

But the loping rhythms of this song suggest that he's rolling with the punches, willing to accommodate when necessary. The line he keeps returning to is the heart of it all: "I only try to show the wonder of love, oooh, the wonder of love." Even that refrain is mutable, varying, willing to syncopate and change lyrics from verse to verse. Whatever fits.

He's like a preacher without a pulpit, standing on a street corner, cheerfully promoting his gospel. Organ and horns conspire to add some jazzier elements, but at heart it's just a good-old-boy ramble. You can almost see him scratch his head, puzzling, "Sometimes I wonder if the wonder of love is ever enough, is always too much / And then I figure that it all levels out, / Homeostasis, soft to the touch." (Enter this song in the dictionary of Odd Words to Use In a Rock Song.) You'd never get that sort of philosophical shrug from a band of youngsters.  It's Music for Grown-Ups, which doesn't mean it still doesn't rock.

Think about the bloated latter-day R.E.M. -- another Southern band born of this same era -- trying to keep it going past their sell-by date, finally calling it quits. Maybe it was a good thing that the dBs broke up so early, before they could be trapped in their own fame. Getting back together so many years down the road  seems like a joyful and natural thing, judging from the copasetic energy of Falling Off the Sky.

I love reunions that work.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
Getting back to my roots...

John Hiatt: Mystic Pinball
"Wood Chipper"

The Hiatt thing runs in my blood, speaking to some deep middle-of-the-country blues-soul-rock nexus in my own heart. Beyond the musical quality and the raw intelligence of his lyrics, there is something flinty and uncompromising in his world view that really speaks to me. He is the real deal.

I'll admit that every album isn't equally good, and last year's Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns was such an astonishing achievement, I was ready to cut him some slack for this year's installment. But damn, he's done it again. Start to finish, that raspy voice, the visceral rhythms, the crunchy guitarwork, all come together to craft a sound so authentic and idiosyncratic, it fits like a glove. Like a work glove. Like a work glove with red clay soil caked into the creases.

I was tempted to write about "No Wicked Grin," but now I think I'll save that for my Week of Waltzes. Driving in my car the other day, this was the song that so riveted me, I nearly drove off the road.

Funny that, at the start of his career, Hiatt was marketed as the American Elvis Costello. In some ways that was so wrong, but lately -- long after the fact -- it's been making perverse sense to me, as Elvis explores Americana and John lets his wicked wit loose. The song I'd immediately compare this to is "Watching the Detectives" (early Costello, granted), with that memorable line "She's filing her nails as they're dragging the lake." That ironic contrast is at the heart of "Wood Chipper." Throw in a little bit of the Coen brothers' brilliant film Fargo and you're in known territory. 
First line, out of the box, he's got me: "Well I'm from the Midwest / I know enough to cut a path around a wood chipper." I'm out in the yard, hands in my parka pockets, waiting to see what comes next. "And be careful of any conversation a man starts calling you skipper," he adds, which seems baffling until he elucidates: "Cause there ain't no ocean round here / Though a lot of little lakes where you can disappear." I've been to those lakes. I'm listening. And when he closes out the verse with this cliffhanger line -- "I wonder what the fish are biting on today now, Jimmy" -- I am taking the bait.
We're in Infidelity Land, clearly: "He told me not to bother her down here, said he was crazy about her / I guess I didn't know what that meant, / Just knew I couldn't do without her." It's an old, old tale, soap opera material, or even better, film noir stuff. Dig this cinematic scene set-up: "And I seen him through the window sash / He had a 44 pistol and a bag of cash / She was folding some kind of pretty note paper into her breast pocket."
Now this is Songwriting, my friends -- the language is colloquial, never flowery or pretentious, but man, he slips in such arresting details, and the storytelling is so assured. He breaks the flow briefly for his chorus, a mournful wolf howl in the night: "What some people won't do / To break up a happy home." As the song goes on, he repeats those lines more and more often, never resolving the question -- because it CAN'T be resolved.
But he's still outside, looking in, and as he retreats, "I went to the yard and banged my knee on his woodchipper." There's an old playwriting truism, that if you introduce a gun in the first act, you have to use it in the second act. And John uses every gun in this verse -- first mentioning the woodchipper (if you've seen Fargo, you know where this is going), and a little dialog: "And when I looked up he said 'Skipper what you doing here for?'" And remember, the guy's got a 44 pistol? "One bullet to the head / Before I hit the ground, well, I was dead." Wait -- the narrator of the song is DEAD? Shades of Sunset Boulevard. And with an ironic wink he adds, "I guess I'm telling you this before you go fishing now Jimmy." Ah, yes -- the lakes. Perfect corpse disposal.

If it ended here it would already be a brilliant song. But John's got one last masterstroke. After the fleeing lovers are killed in a shootout the lawmen pull that paper out of her breast pocket (Gun in the first act. Use in second act. No wasted details.) And here's the poignance that really turns this tawdry thriller into a morality tale: "It was part of a letter set I got her for Christmas ten years ago I bet / She  used to just use the paper for a grocery list / And it read:" 

With Doug Lancio's brilliant guitar work snarling in the background, John recites the heart-breakingly mundane list: "Eggs / hamburger meat / bread / Fun Yuns / orange drink / toilet paper / Tidy Bowl / pickles / Little Debbie Snack Cakes." There's a life encapsulated in all its smallness and sorrow. Devastating.

Can this guy write a song or what?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

 My Top Ten Albums of 2012
And while we're in banjo mode . . .

The Avett Brothers: The Carpenter
"Through My Prayers"

It's easy to mix up the Mumfords and the Avetts -- both feature banjos and vocal harmonies, both had break-out albums in 2009 (the Avetts' was the spectacular I and Love and You), both have names that sound like family concerns. But there's definitely a difference, and it's worth keeping them straight. The Avetts are truly brothers (you know how I love brother acts!) and truly Americans, and they've never quite shed the upbeat sweetness of their southern folk roots, even as they steer it into rock territory. It's a toss-up for me between the Mumfords' fire-and-brimstone and the Avetts' buoyant spirit -- how lovely to live in a world where we can have both.

I went for a pensive track last time I featured the Avetts, so by all rights this time I should let you sample the fun of them rocking out. But you've probably already heard "Live and Die" on the radio, (if not, you're listening to the wrong radio station), and you could always check out live versions of "I Never Knew You" or the wicked dark samba of "Paul Newman Vs. the Demons" on YouTube. And who knows; I could come back and post about audience favorite "Down With the Shine" in the very near future -- I do feel a Week of Waltzes coming on....

Meanwhile, here's the track that has stolen my heart on the Avetts' new album The Carpenter.

Couldn't be simpler or more straightforward: Someone he loved has died, and their last words together were angry, so he's miserable that he can never make things right again -- except in his prayers. You could call it a case of survivor's guilt, yet he genuinely seems comforted by the belief  that his prayers will somehow get through. There's no histrionics here, as he remarks, "Sometimes it knocks me down, and sometimes I can just / Put it away." This is real world emotion, not some faked up drama, and that makes it even more poignant.
There's even a gentle moral -- how wonderfully old school! "Down in my mind where I don't care to go / The pain of a lesson is letting me know / If you have love in your heart, let it show / While you can." They slip that in so casually, the careless listener could overlook it, but surely that's the whole point of this song, and the justification for its emotional throb. (Remember, the Avett Brother's 2007 was even titled Emotionalism --- feelings do not scare these guys.)
This time it's brother Seth, the guitarist, on lead vocals. I love banjo-pickin' Scott's voice too, with its edge of raggedy country grit, but Seth's sweeter voice is perfect for this mellifluous melody. I love how he plays with the lilting waltz tempo, syncopating it here and there, scatting in some high notes on verse three -- keeping it fresh, keeping it real. 
Jason Kwon's luminous cello is the other essential ingredient -- it makes me wonder, why don't more bands have cellos? The short answer is, most bands don't have the musical imagination that the Avett Brothers do, or the deep and abiding faith in melody.
All in all, it's just a lovely track. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Bone-shiveringly lovely. Thank God for the Avett Brothers.   

Monday, December 10, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012

Ten days, ten albums. No particular order -- hey, it was hard enough whittling it down to ten!

Mumford & Sons: Babel
"Hopeless Wanderer"

I loved it when Ray Davies started doing bluegrass and country music on Muswell Hillbillies, so I'm naturally a sucker for the Mumfords. What's not to love when hipster indie Brits forge their own peculiar Americana sound, full of banjo and acoustic guitars and Salvation Army brass? They're like O Brother Where Art Thou? meets Martin Amis, full of post-modern angst and old-time religion.

Just to prove that 2009's Sigh No More wasn't a fluke, here comes their wonderful new album Babel. And -- because this is what I do -- here's one track to hook you in.

Remember that old song"The Happy Wanderer"? (Fal-de-ree, fal-da-ra, fal-de-ree, fal-da-ra-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha). This tune is its flip side, trading in jaunty optimism for desperate passion.

It's a sort of love song, I guess, as  the singer clings wildly to the person who has redeemed his sorry soul: "You heard my voice / I came out of the woods by choice" and, later, "you brought me out from the cold." "Now, how I long to grow old" he adds, giddy with the idea that he actually has something worth growing old for. 

But we've left Simplistic Pop Love Songs soooooo far behind. He's not looking for easy answers -- in fact, he wants the complexities to remain. "So leave that click in my head," he begs in the tentatively loping first verse. "The  words that you said / Left a clouded mind and a heavy heart," he says, adding, "But I was sure we could see a new start." Ah, new starts -- the eternal promise of pop music. But the lyrics are barely out of his mouth before he's dragged down again. In the second verse, he admits, "I wrestled long with my youth" and "When I lose my head, I lose my spine." This is one conflicted guy -- you gotta admire the chick who can solve his head games.

The Indie Songwriter's Handbook requires this kind of anti-hero angst, but I have to say, Marcus Mumford pulls it off convincingly. As he charges into the fiercer energy of the chorus, he pleads with real conviction, "Hold me fast, / Hold me fast / Cause I'm a hopeless wanderer."The little ragged edge to his lead vocal makes it even more poignant, as he flails against the mounting scrum of acoustic guitar and banjo. (Who said that acoustic instruments couldn't rise to the grandeur of rock?) Of course the Anglophile fangirl in me adores the broad A of that oft-repeated "hold me fast." It's the sexiest thing in this song, kinda like the "I really fooked it up this time" line in "Little Lion Man" from the Mumfords first album. Those are the peculiarly Mumfordian touches that endear this song to me.

There's a reckless romanticism to this chorus, the tempo veering almost out of control, the acoustic instruments scrabbling wildly to keep up. He knows he's a guy who sometimes flies off the deep end. That's why he needs a lover who will keep him grounded, a steadfast lover who's just as intrigued by the clicks in his head as by his more obvious attributes. Isn't that what "for better, for worse" is all about?  

In the final chorus, he vows "I will learn, /  I will learn / To love the skies I'm under." I'm not one-hundred-percent buying that. Listen to the weary flogging beat of "skies I'm un-der" -- this guy still isn't sure he can do it. But with her help, he's gonna try. And if that ain't love . . .

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Return of the Shuffle!

When life's too mixed-up and muddled-up for blogging, there's always the Shuffle. 

1. In a Space / The Kinks
From Low Budget (1979)
Most likely that Ray Davies wrote this one sheerly for the pun: "in a space" = "inner space," as in the opposite of "outer space." But who cares? By the time he's done, he's managed to deliver an existential commentary on the population explosion. My favorite part is at the end, when Ray goes all Jagger on us ("Well I'm out in inner space / And I'm lookin' at the people . . .").    

2. So Long Dad / Alan Price
From A Price on His Head (1967)
Great Alan Price cover of a Randy Newman song, all ragtime and snarky satire. In fact, coming from a Geordie, the satire works even better: "Home again, but we won't be living here Dad / The smoke makes Jane's eyes tear so bad, and we can't have that / I'll write you where we're at / Janie's uncle owns a bank, I think I'll try my hand at that.. . ."

3. If You Need Me / Tom Jones
From It's Not Unusual (1965)
An ambitious young Tom Jones took on Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, and the Rolling Stones when he covered this Pickett song in 1965 -- and he totally nails it. All the more pity that he was seduced by Vegas and American TV and hordes of lingerie-flinging female fans. It would take him another 40 years to finally get back his soul-man cred.

4. Here Comes Flash / The Kinks
From Preservation Act II (1973)
For the uninitiated, Flash is the villain of the Kinks' satiric rock opera Preservation, a master spiv with more than a little of the Kray twins about him. "You'd better run, you'd better fly / Hide your daughters, hide your wives / Lock your doors and stay inside / Here comes Flash!" Yeah, it's a campy slice of theatricality, but you gotta love it.

5. Queen of Hearts / Dave Edmunds
From Repeat When Necessary (1979)
The other half of Nick Lowe's Labour of Lust, recorded at the same time and with the same musicians, a.k.a. Rockpile. Primo rockbilly, written by country guitarist Hank DeVito, and perfect material for Dave Edmunds, with its speedy vocals and clangy guitar strums. If all you know is Juice Newton's hit cover, you MUST check out this original.

6. Fear Is Man's Best Friend / John Cale
From Fear (1974)
What is this, Welsh Night? Tom Jones, Dave Edmunds, now John Cale? (Plus we all know the Davies brothers and Alan Price are really Welsh...). Well, I'll admit I wasn't cool enough to know this album in 1974, but hey, it's not how you start the race, it's how you end it.

7. To Susan on the West Coast Waiting / Donovan
From Barabajagal (1969)
Oh, so now we break the Welsh streak with a Scotsman. The Shuffle really is teasing me tonight. Donovan's fey flower-child persona is the perfect antidote to Cale's art-rock, but that tentative, wistful vocal delivers a punch of anti-war propaganda all the same.    

8. This Empty Place / The Searchers
From The Definitive Pye Collection (1969)
While all the other British rockers were going psychedelic, the Searchers clung to their backbeat roots. Yet there's something brittle and haunting about this track, with its restless bossa nova beat, the low vocal swoops, the sibilant drums and clangy guitars. Love is not going well for this fellow.

9. Time Wraps Around You / Velvet Crush
From Teenage Symphonies to God (1994)
Lovely crunchy psychedelic grunge, from a Rhode Island indie outfit that deserved to be better known. Is that a mellotron in the bridge or just wicked bad feedback?

10. Night Ride to Trinidad / Robyn Hitchcock
From Groovy Decay (1982)
And while we're in the psychedelic groove, here's a gem of jump-jive jazz from the surreal genius of Robyn Hitchcock. Cue up some sassy horns: "Well the worst trip I ever had / Was a night ride to Trinidad." Why Trinidad? Maybe because it rhymes. Any starting point will do, and after that just free-asociate like hell. It's the ride that matters.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Old Soul /
Graham Parker & the Rumour

I HATE lame reunions, don't you? The Half-Who, the Pink-ish Floyd, the Beach Codgers, the Mercury-free Queen -- we all want them to be as good as they once were, and they hardly ever are. (One notable exception: The Zombies.) As much as we Kinks fans yearn to have the brothers Davies back together, what if they reunited and they -- gasp -- sucked? Better never to know.

Yet I never for a minute doubted that Graham Parker & the Rumour would pull it off. GP has been working at the top of his game for so long, I knew his gift hadn't deserted him. More than that, when I saw most of the band play together a couple of years ago, it was clear that the old fire was totally there. I saw Graham and keyboardist Bob Andrews perform together a couple months later and it was magic. As the old Magic 8-Ball would say, All signs point to yes.

But even I didn't predict just HOW good this reunion would be. And now that Three Chords Good, the reunion album, is out, I'm gobsmacked by its brilliance.

Pick a track, any track -- they're all fantastic. Okay, let's go with this one:

One of the problems with many reunions is that the bands are all trying to act like they're 25 years old again. Screw that!  We fans aren't 25 anymore either -- why not acknowledge that?  In the interim, Graham Parker has expanded the horizons of his soul-infused rock with country and folk, so slipping into a jazz mode feels incredibly logical. (I would too, if I had Bob Andrews' supple piano to back me up.) And by labeling it "Old Soul" -- as in, the precursor to soul -- it makes perfect sense.

But we're still dealing with GP's deliciously cynical world view. "They said you was an old soul / They say a lot of things," he gruffly confides, still puzzling over a relationship that was doomed from the start. That gap between what "they say" and what we feel to be true -- we'd love to buck it, but we are only human and time and again, we fall for the hype. And even though it doesn't work out, we can't help but be intrigued by what transpires. As he says in verse 2: "You wore a lot of strange masks / and clipped a lot of wings / like venom in a shot glass / like liqueur in a hot flask." Despite the acerbic edge to his voice, the poetic imagery infuses this fraught affair with its own dark glamour. He knew in his heart of hearts that she was no good, but what is life if we take no risks?

Best couplet in the song comes in the bridge: "Why am I left half alive / when you're only half dead?" This is so typical of Graham Parker's lyrical genius: yeah, it refers to the old trope about the glass being half-full or half-empty, but it gives it a fresh twist that invokes vampires, clinical depression, and years of couples therapy. And the way he marries it to the melody -- "half alive" rises as a cry for help, while "half dead" circles down in despair -- well, this is art, folks, and I'm telling you that this phrase has already lodged itself in my personal ledger of Phrases That Sum It All Up. .

He's willing to acknowledge his own willful blindness in the last verse -- "I thought you was a sweet child / I think a lot of things." (I love that rueful inversion of the first verse.) And yet, would he have given up the experience? "You took me on a wild ride / all bumper cars and swings" -- sounds memorable to me. Raise your hand if you've ever had a relationship like this, where the thrills are almost -- but not quite -- worth the emotional torment that was bound to ensue.

And sure, in the end it took its toll -- "You swore that you was high class / But you brought me down so low" -- but he knew it was a gamble. "I knew that love could not last / With an old soul like you."

"Old soul" -- it's a cliche to admire people, especially children, by saying they are old souls. We imagine that old souls are more compassionate, or wiser, than the rest of us. But Graham Parker loves setting cliches on their heads. Really, why are old souls any better? What if the "oldness" they embrace is like medieval brutalism or Renaissance duplicity or Gilded Age callousness?

The world-weariness of that jazz tempo is our key. None of us are punked-up kids anymore; a song like "Don't Get Excited" (from Squeezing Out Sparks) would simply not apply. Rather than trotting out the old sound, Graham Parker & the Rumour have cut a new groove, one that's just as magnetic as the old one.

Mere nostalgia is so irrelevant. This is an album you could love even if you didn't have Howlin' Wind or Heat Treatment  on your turntable in the late 1970s.  These guys aren't  trying to fit themselves back into their old soul shoes -- they've all lived interesting lives and done interesting things in the interim, and they've brought all that to the table. It's almost irrelevant to think of it as a reunion album -- better to simply say they're working together again, better than ever.

Friday, November 16, 2012

"Sherry" / The Four Seasons

It Was 50 Years Ago Today...

All righty then, one more 50 Year Anniversary post. The last, I promise, until the Kinks hit 50 in 2014....

As a Midwestern kid with my ear glued to the transistor radio, I felt torn. On one hand, there was the mellow sand-and-sun vibe of the Beach Boys; on the other, the East Coast urban grit personified by the Four Seasons. Great bands, both of them, and I loved their music . . but it wasn't MY music. What really spoke to me was Detroit soul, but as a white kid I couldn't claim that as my birthright, and God forbid I should go for cornpone country. In retrospect, it's no surprise that when Beatlemania and the British Invasion hit a few months later, I threw myself into with everything I was worth.

But let's pause in 1962, still trembling on the brink. Those are the anniversaries we celebrate this year, and listening to these artists again, at half a century's remove, is a strange experience. I'm surprised enough that the Beach Boys and the Beatles started at the same time -- but the Four Seasons? Their sound seems straight out of the 1950s.

Well, it was. Although this August 1962 record was technically their first hit, before they were the Four Seasons they performed for years as the Four Lovers, albeit without national success. It wasn't until they poached from the Royal Teens a young songwriter/keyboardist named Bob Gaudio that the pieces all fell together. Desperate for a gig, they changed their name to the Four Seasons after a New Jersey bowling alley that booked local alent, and voila! pop history was made.

I do remember the first time I heard "Sherry" blasting onto the airwaves, feeling a sort of sick fascination about Frankie Valli's voice. Surely no man could sing that high!  (Though it wouldn't be long before Wayne Newton's "Danke Schoen" made Frankie Valli look like a baritone.)

On the surface, the lyrics weren't much, either -- mostly that ad infinitum chorus: "She-eh-eh-eh-ehrry bay-ay-bee (Sherry baby) / She-eh-rry can you come out tonight?  (Come come, come out tonight)." 

And where should she go if she does come out? Verse one explains: "To my twist party" where "I'm gonna make you mi-yi-yine." I love that image of the twist party -- I remember Chubby Checker on American Bandstand showing the youth of America how to dance the Twist. I also remember my parents and their friends at tipsy cocktail parties trying out their Twist moves and then pretending to call for their chiropractors. It wasn't their generation's fad; it wasn't mine either, though Kay Wolf and I did practice the Twist in her family 's wood-paneled rec room after school. 

The Four Seasons still belonged to a more upright and innocent era of courtship, as the second chorus reveals: "You-ou-ou better ask your mah-ah-ma (Ask your mama) / Tell her everything is all right." None of this "I think we're alone now" stuff like you'd get a few years later with Tommy James and the Shondells. In fact, things only begin to get sexy in the last verse: "(Why don't you come out...) With your red dress on / (Come out)  You look so fine / (Come out) Move it nice and easy / Girl, you make lose my mi-yind...." Frankie even adds a little growl and grind to his vocals for good measure.

And yet it's a sexy song, if only sexy in code, which of course I didn't get when I was eight. Songwriter Bob Gaudio had a great pop instinct: it's the delirious melisma of those "She-eh-eh-eh-eh-rys" that communicates adolescent hormones and desire running wild. Not to mention that Romeo-and-Juliet scenario of Frankie Valli outside Sherry's window, begging her to come out and play. If I'd been fifteen at the time and hot for some duck-tailed boy in tight jeans, I think I would feel very differently about this song.

Still, it amazes me to set this anniversary next to the other two -- to think that just as the Beach Boys and Beatles were poised to transform pop music, the radio was also welcoming the Four Seasons to what turned out to be a long and fruitful career. ("Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" hit the charts in 1974, "My Eyes Adored You" in 1975 -- these guys had staying power, for sure.) Adding the Four Seasons to the 50th anniversary mix reminds us that things changed swiftly, but not overnight, and not all at once. That was what the 1960s was like, my brothers and sisters. No wonder it felt like such a crazy ride...   

Friday, November 02, 2012

Do It Anyway / Ben Folds Five

Hope you've got your internet service back after Sandy -- because we are ready to rock and ROLL. And who better to kick it off than Ben Folds, newly reunited with the Ben Folds Five (a trio, naturally) for their new album The Sound of the Life of the Mind. 

My love for Ben Folds should be well-known by now to readers of this blog. (Check out the labels panel to the right to link to my Ben Folds posts.) I'll confess that this is at least partially a fangirl crush, the latest chapter in my lifelong Thing for Rockers in Glasses. But when someone's this insanely talented, you don't need excuses for liking them. My previous posts have showcased tender, wistful Ben Folds songs, but that's not a fair sampling; most of his music is anything but. Hey, if I could play the piano as well as Ben does, I too would grab any opportunity to show off my freakishly mad keyboard skills.

As this video amply demonstrates:

I'm glad I found this video, because right out of the gate, this track became my favorite on the album. I love the way it underlays power-punk with a jazzy substratum, propelling itself forward at an almost delirious pace. It's all we can do to keep up -- which, face it, is a lot like life.

You see, it's not just the glasses, not just the wicked piano playing, that makes Ben Folds one of My Special Guys. It's the lyrics. It's always the lyrics with me, isn't it? (Well, except for Paul McCartney...)  I'm not just talking poetic imagery and clever word play -- I want lyrics that grapple intelligently with life. That's why I love Graham Parker, why Ray Davies is my hero, why I prefer the older Nick Lowe, why John Hiatt and Joe Jackson and Greg Trooper and Guy Clark have places permanently set at my table.  

And this song demonstrates perfectly how Ben Folds has earned his merit badge from me. It starts out conventionally enough, with Folds advising his listeners to take emotional risks -- "You might put your love and trust on the line" in verse one, and in verse two, "And if you're paralyzed by a voice in your head / It's the standing still that should be scaring you instead." My shrink couldn't say it better. Let Usher and Chris Brown rap about unh-hunh-unh-hunh all night; this is what real people deal with -- being afraid to admit they love someone, or need someone. As the music gets us revved up, it's easy to get on board with emotional courage.

But Ben Folds has bigger fish to fry. He's got cliches to smash ("There will be times you might leap before you look / There'll be times you'll like the cover and that's precisely why you'll love the book") and the darker side of human nature to navigate ("Sometimes it's not subjective: wrong and right / Deep down you know it's downright wrong but you're invincible tonight"). Sometimes it's inevitable that by being true to your gut you'll hurt someone: "Despite your grand attempts the chips are set to fall / And all the stories you might weave cannot negotiate them all." It's a moral conundrum, in other words. Rock songs rarely traffic in this sort of gray territory, but Ben Folds goes there time and again.

Notice how, somewhere mid-song, he drops the generic advice to face his own personal firing squad. Someone -- girlfriend? wife? ex-wife? -- has evidently been reading him the riot act, and he finally addresses her, rising to a pleading register for the chorus: "So tell me what I said I'd never do / Tell me what I said I'd never say / Read me off a list of the things I used to not like but now I think are OK." It's the ultimate defense -- yes, I've gone back on my word. Yes, I've been inconsistent. Why? Because humans are inconsistent. Humans make mistakes. Humans changeHe's celebrating the glorious contradictions that make us human, and if you can't deal with that . . .

And then he turns the tables, switching pronouns in the last chorus. Now it's up to her to admit she's saying things she never said she'd say, et cetera. And the ultimate switcheroo: "Cause I used to not like you, but now I think you're okay." If being inconsistent brought them together, why fight it?

As Ray Davies would say, it's a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world we live in. That's why I like songwriters who deal with the muddle, instead of reducing it all to black and white. You'd never think from first impressions that a cheeky, mischievous, cuss-addicted guy like Ben Folds would be writing Music for Grownups, but that's what he does. And that's why I love him. (That and the glasses...)

PS Catch The Five on Jimmy Kimmel's show Monday night, November 5th. Hope they'll sing this one!

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Seems like this New York City hurricane watch is becoming an annual event. But just in case we lose power in the next day or so, let's revisit my favorite hurricane songs. 

"Lost and Found" / The Kinks

Remember Hurricane Gloria? When she rolled into -- or rather, past -- Manhattan on September 27, 1985, Ray Davies was living a mere seven blocks south of me, though I had no idea, having fallen off the Kinks bandwagon, driven away by the arena-rock years. It was years before I discovered 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 the minute I finally heard this song, I remembered Gloria and felt a spooky shiver of recognition.

I often think of "Lost and Found" 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."

t 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."  Odd as they are, 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, depending on what he means by "thing" --  perhaps it's the storm that's bigger than they are, but maybe 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.

And as he swings back to the chorus, he revises the lyrics: " 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 sees, 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 -- "We were lost and found, just in time / Now we've got no time to waste." He still seems astounded by it happening -- "in the nick of time," he marvels in a husky voice, as if he's just woken up from a long sleep. Good morning, Ray. 
"Feels Like Rain" / John Hiatt

Want a song to win your true love? You can't go wrong with John Hiatt. More specifically, "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, but nobody 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. 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.    

This rain that's rolling in? It isn't just rain, of course; it's a metaphor of passion, folks. 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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Surfer Girl / The Beach Boys

It Was 50 Years Ago Today . . .

All this hoopla about the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary makes me yawn. For one thing, Charlie Watts didn't join until January of 1963, and without Charlie Watts, it doesn't count as the Rolling Stones in my book. Besides that, it's such a naked marketing ploy. God forbid the Stones should miss a marketing opportunity, even though they could barely get their bony billionaire asses off their Barcaloungers in time for the requisite 50th anniversary tour.

The Beach Boys, on the other hand -- that's a 50th anniversary that matters to me. Their reunion tour lasted for months and felt so positive (that is, until it crashed on the shoals of Mike Love's crazy ego). The date is a little artificial, granted -- Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson had been singing together, with or without cousin Mike, for years before their first single, "Surfin'," was released, technically in November 1961 but finally on a proper label in January 1962. It crept onto the bottom of the charts, followed by a bona fide hit single, "Surfin' Safari," in June 1962. And 50 years ago this October, their first album -- also called Surfin' Safari, for obvious reasons -- landed in record bins, soon cracking the top 50 on the album charts. The Beach Boys had arrived.

Gotta love the Wilson boys for sticking with that surfing theme. Next to come, in March 1963, would be -- you guessed it -- "Surfin' USA." Of course I knew all those songs; no kid with a radio could escape them. But those upbeat, jangly anthems to the beach lifestyle never really got to me. Nope, it took a ballad to convert me: a love song called (naturally) "Surfer Girl." 

Now, let's think about this. Who is the lead singer for "Surfin' Safari" and "Surfin' USA"? The aforementioned Mike Love, with his nasal, sarcastic-sounding vocals. And who is the lead singer on "Surfer Girl"? Brian Wilson, his soulful tenor rising to wistful falsetto ooh's. It's the same sound as all my favorite early Beach Boys songs: "In My Room," "Don't Worry Baby," "The Warmth of the Sun." Until they finally let Carl Wilson loose with "God Only Knows," this was the sound of the Beach Boys for me. 

The cockiness of those Mike Love songs put me off, but here was a tenderness, a vulnerability, I'd never before heard from this band. "Little surfer, little one / Made my heart come all undone" -- it may be a convenient rhyme, but amid those plush doo-wop harmonies, the image of  heartstrings unraveling is surprisingly affecting. And the uncertainty of that question, "Do you love me / Do you, surfer girl?" well, it's Sensitive Male 101.

The second verse is where they really grab me. "I have watched you on the shore / Standing by the ocean's roar" -- like Ray Davies in the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset," Brian Wilson is the wistful observing outsider. Has he ever even spoken to her? I'm voting for no. This song is saturated with the purity and loneliness of unrequited love, trembling on the threshold.

There a sweet huskiness to the bridge, as Brian drops in the requisite surf references (dig the line "In my Woody I would take you / Everywhere I go-oo-oo" -- trust Brian Wilson to turn a surfing song into a car song!). But notice that it's still in the conditional tense -- this is what he yearns to do, not what he has already done.

Cue an upward key change for verse three, as he makes his first fumbling declaration: "So I say from me to you / I will make your dreams come true." The upward surging chord changes, hopeful and heartswellingly eager -- this is Grade A American Optimism. Once again he dares to ask, "Do you love me, / Do you, surfer -- " And then, with a two-beat pause, he draws out the suspense, halting, making us wait too. Then, with an exhalation of harmonies, he sighs into "girl, surfer girl, my little surfer girl." Over and over, the voices intertwine and repeat, with the falsetto oohs soaring over them. The path from here to the aural tapestry of "Good Vibrations" is a straight shot. 

The difference between this 50th anniversary and the Stones'? Or even, really, the Beatles'? This is actually what I was listening to in 1962. My brother owned all the Beach Boys albums, and our parents let us play them endlessly ("You know, they sound a heck of a lot like the Four Freshmen...") They were clean-cut, All-American boys. And for us Midwestern kids, besotted with the golden sands of Southern California, they held out an enviable dream -- one that would soon be forgotten in 1963, when the British Invasion hit.

I hold these early, pure Beach Boys songs very close to my heart. Brian Wilson was working within all the standard pop idioms, believing in them with all the innocence of his SoCal heart. Fifty years later, he still seems untarnished by cynicism. That surfer girl is still out on the far wave, and he's still on the shore, yearning.