Sunday, January 29, 2012

Looking For A Place to Live / Bill Demain

God forbid this should happen to any of us. But it happened to Bill Demain: a devastating flood washed out his condo in Nashville, only to be followed a few months later by a second tragedy, a house fire that wiped him out completely. For more than a year he lived out of a suitcase, in limbo, waiting to find a new home.  Now, Bill's not your average homeless person. He's a fairly successful singer-songwriter, not only as one-half of the duo Swan Dive, but also as a songwriter who's collaborated with the likes of Jill Sobule, Bill Lloyd, and Marshall Crenshaw. On top of that, he's a well-respected music journalist, writing for mags like MOJO and Classic Rock. Which just underscores that a misfortune like this could befall anybody.

But as luck would have it, this homeless period had a silver lining; it inspired Bill to write a collection of songs that he has now released as his first solo EP.  And -- no surprise -- it's a truly winning album, offering an eclectic range of pop styles, well-crafted lyrics, and charming vocal performance. More than that: it's got heart.  When you think about it, that only makes sense -- that a brush with tragedy would call out wistfulness, nostalgia, soul-searching, and mordant humor.

I'm going for the lead-off track here, although you really must check out the entire album (it's finally up on iTunes and Amazon's mp3 store now; or you could order your very own copy here).  And why not? "Looking For A Place To Live" kinda says it all, doesn't it?

Acoustic folk seems just the right style for a displaced troubador; it's as if he hasn't got much but his guitar case to lug around (one of the few things Bill had time to grab when fleeing the fire was his 1937 Martin). That gentle rambling strum is perfect pavement-pounding music. But leave it to Bill to face his dilemma with wry humor: "I know how Columbus felt / Sailing round in circles / His coffee in a cardboard cup / And the Sunday classifieds." That sense of being an explorer -- that's probably the only way to face house-hunting and still stay sane.  And if, along the way, you gain some sympathy with the dispossessed of this world ("Out with the refugees / Dreaming of vacancies / For what seems eternities...") -- well, that's a good thing, too.

Of course, good songwriting never stops with the obvious.  In the process, he comes to understand what's really important:  "Maybe home is nothing more / Than where you hang your hat." I like the fact that this song works even if you don't know Bill's story: maybe it's just about a young couple searching for a place to move in together, or maybe it's about a guy being thrown out by his girlfriend / wife and having to find himself a new lonely bachelor pad.

What matters is the wistfulness, the existential sense of dislocation. (Does anybody else hear a bit of Bookends-era Simon and Garfunkel here?) It's a song that treads lightly and takes nothing for granted.  A song about stripping your life down to essentials.  So self-effacing, so artlessly charming -- and so haunting.  In a good way.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Crash and Burn / Daryl Hall

Having just endured two weeks of resuscitating my computer after a hard drive crash -- I sympathize, Daryl.  I'm still not back up to speed, trying to learn an updated system and all the updated software that comes with it. None of which improve the user interface one bit, but hey, we Americans seem to have bought deeply into the idea that only "the latest version" will do. That's what keeps all those nice programmers and software developers in their jobs.  And America needs jobs, right?

Anyhoo -- I really appreciate all your suggestions of other 2011 albums I may have missed in my end-of-the year music guide. I'm all set to blog about them, if I could only figure out how to create videos/mp3s to post. The program I used to use, which always sucked, is now inoperable, and I've got to find another.

In the meantime, I've got to get resourceful. I'll have to ask you to open this link in another window:  Live from Daryl's House. This will take you to one of my favorites web series, which features various musicians stopping in to jam with Daryl Hall in the barn outside his house in the country.  If you haven't kept up with Daryl Hall -- renowed in the 80s for his blond shag and his non-stop Top 40 hits in the duo Hall & Oates -- then you've got a treat in store. This particular episode, second of a two-part special, features songs from his brand-new album Laughing Down Crying, which was one of my Christmas presents to myself.  Once you've opened the webcast site, scroll down to the song "Crash and Burn." Go ahead.  I'll wait.

I'll admit that several songs on this album fall back on Daryl's old tricks -- perky percussion, tangles of buzzy guitar, sparkly ripples of synthesizers -- although about the third time you listen to them, you realize that they are total earworms and you love them anyway.  Nobody does it better, you have to admit; even the slinky cheesiness of "Eyes for You," a re-imagined disco version of "I Only Have Eyes For You," is irresistible. But there's plenty of substance here as well -- the gospel-drenched track "Save Me," the classic R&B sound of "Problem With You," and this poignant knockout of a song, "Crash and Burn."

Back story. Daryl's longtime bassist, Tom "T-Bone" Wolk, died of a heart attack last February, while they were recording this album.  You probably know T-Bone -- he used to play in G.E. Smith's Saturday Night Live band, and he's also worked with Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, Squeeze -- all the fun kids. Pork pie hat, soul patch -- you know the guy, even if you don't think you do. This song isn't exactly about T-Bone, but losing such a close friend certainly set Daryl to ponder life's twists and turns. And while he's cast this as a sort of break-up song ("Why are we kissing this goodbye?," "Baby I know it's hard living here with me," "I could win if I could walk away...But a loser just keeps holding on, so why do I?"), the essence of the lyrics is philosophical.  The point is, everybody's got to hit a wall some time, no matter how fortunate your life has been. Grief, sorrow, disappointment -- they come to us all, and there's no point in not feeling them when they do.

"Maybe it's just my turn / To crash and burn" -- that's the mantra of this song.  And while Daryl sings it over and over, it's never static; he switches the syncopation, gives different words a melismatic flip, rivets your attention on it. "Maybe it's just my turn" telegraphs on one note, while the "crash and burn" tumbles downward, sorrowfully.  It's melancholy, and yet oddly uplifting -- because the melody surges upward again, full of stubborn hope, on the concluding lines "But I gotta keep on flying / Don't know why" or "But I gotta keep on trying / It's all I know."  Not much of a solution, you say?  On the contrary.  When you're crashing and burning, this is the best you can do; it's one foot in front of the other, one day at time. 

It's a beautiful song, and a moving song. And Daryl's voice is . . . well, Daryl's voice. It hasn't lost any of its soaring soulfulness, and he can still nail those high notes.  The subject matter may be middle-of-life sorrow, but his singing still sounds like a choirboy. Well, maybe a randy choirboy, cherubic and sexy all at once.  It's Daryl Hall, after all.