Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wednesday Shuffle

It's been raining off and on for a week.  And I've got a wicked cold incubating in my sinuses. So forget the looming book deadline -- let's shuffle! 

1. "Mercury Poisoning" / Graham Parker
From Another Gray Area (1982)
So what do you do on your first album after leaving Mercury Records?  You write a song about how much you hated Mercury Records! "Their promotion's so lame...the geriatric staff thinks we're freaks... I've got a dinosaur for a representative" -- GP pulls NO punches on this mischievously danceable track -- and we can't help but sing along.

2. "You Don't Know Me" / Ben Folds with Regina Spektor
From Way to Normal (2008)
This snappy little duet got a lot of airplay a couple years ago, and why not? Ben and Regina blithely trade zingers, their voices weaving in contrapuntal accusations. Why do we always imagine that our true loves will "get us," when in the end we're always disappointed? Just another lesson in disillusionment from this master cynic.  

3. "Ohio" / Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
From So Far (1974)
Ah...the days when music and politics walked hand in hand.  The Kent State shootings chilled our generation in May 1970; the next weekend, 100,000 students marched on Washington; this record hit the airwaves 2 weeks later, an amazing feat in that pre-digital era. The righteous indignation shivering through Neil Young's voice still stirs me to the bone, more than 40 years later.

4. "Hold On" / Ian Gomm
From Summer Holiday (1978) (Original US title: Gomm With the Wind)
Sparkly New Wave pop from ex-Brinsley Ian Gomm's debut album. This was the album's big radio hit, rising to #18 on the US charts in 1979 (nearly as good as the #12 scored by ex-bandmate Nick Lowe that same year with "Cruel to Be Kind," a song Gomm and Lowe co-wrote). The chorus is a real earworm hook -- just try to get it out of your head.

5. "Do You Remember Walter" / The Kinks
From The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968)
This should be the theme song of all high school reunions. "I bet you're fat and married and you're always home in bed by half-past eight / And if I talked about the old times, you'd get bored and you'd have nothing more to say" -- a jaunty tune underlaid with despair at the fleeting power of nostalgia. Not coincidentally, that's the theme of this entire album, a neglected masterpiece for sure.

6. "Chasing Forever" / Ron Sexsmith and Don Kerr
From Destinations Unknown (2005)
Wistful folk-pop from my favorite Canadian songwriter. Ron's quite a Kinks fan himself, and this album is its own kind of Village Green, reflecting on nostalgia and preserving an already-lost past in songs like "Lemonade Stand" and "Diana Sweets."  I've surrendered to the inevitability of Ron Sexsmith; might as well buy all the albums, they're all soul-satisfying.

7. "Nutted By Reality" / Nick Lowe
From Jesus of Cool (1978)
That album cover, featuring Nick in six different outfits (twelve if you count the inside shots), clues us in: This album is all about showing how many different musical styles he can master. And this track goes even further -- it's a two-fer!  Adolescent humor rules (a song about castrating Castro -- really?) and if we Americans weren't exactly sure what it means to be "nutted" by reality -- well, it's too catchy for me care. Am I the only person who hears the McCartney parody in all this?     

8. "My Home Town" / Alan Price
From Geordie Roots and Branches (1982)
A brassy updated version of this clever little rag, first heard in the brilliant film soundtrack for O Lucky Man! I'm guessing that this album was never released in CD -- I only have the vinyl, and it's one of my most precious rarities -- it was recorded for a Newcastle charity project as a favor to Alan's former Animals bandmate Chas Chandler, a year before their second reunion tour.  This track isn't nearly as charming as the O Lucky Man! original, but the very fact that I've got it on my iTunes at all brands me as a hopeless Alan Price fangirl.

9. "Bone Tired" / Gomez
From A New Tide (2009)
I like this young-ish English band (debut 1998), but for some reason I can't quite love them.  They've got too many songwriters, and in the name of versatility they dabble in too many styles, so I can never quite find their groove. But hey, I'm still waiting for them to grow on me. Listen and see what you think.   

10. "List of Distractions" / Fionn Regan
From 100 Acres of Sycamore (2011)
On the other hand, the minute I heard this winsome Irish songwriter I knew I loved him. This is his second album, and it's just as charming as his first, The End of History.  Dig his sweetly confiding voice, the truly poetic lyrics, the romantic sweep of his melodies -- I'm a sucker for it all.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Suspension Bridge /
Graham Parker

Forget the Monday Shuffle I had just begun to write -- when a great Graham Parker song dials up on the old iTunes, it's almost impossible to move past it. And this track from his brilliant 2007 album Don't Tell Columbus is such a favorite of mine, I'm amazed to find I haven't written about it before.

Okay, here's the link so you can listen.  Because, sadly, I have to assume that you may not yet own the entire Graham Parker oeuvre, though you really should....

Suspension Bridge

Dig that moody vibe, right from the get-go, the haunting minor key and the syncopated guitar riff, repeated like a tic -- oh so simple and yet instantly mesmerizing. The same dark enchantment that Marc Ribot's guitar gave Tom Waits' Rain Dogs completely permeates this track.

We're in nostalgia territory, yet it's not feel-good nostalgia, despite the first verse's vignette of a loving dad and son: "My daddy took me to see it / When I was no more than 10 / They'd just finished painting the metal / Then they had to start all over again." That's just the kind of information a kid would latch onto -- Dad's trying to impress him with the size of the bridge, while the boy gets an entirely different message, a troubling sense of the futility of human effort. It's like freaking Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey, intimations of immortality and all that.

The chorus drops into a sorta major key as it sweeps us to the present: "I'm still standing there on that suspension bridge/ With the wind blowing through my head" -- the boy is father to the man, eh? -- but before he completes it he drops back into minor key, sketching a landscape worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: "And the daredevil pilots fly over me / And the suicide lovers swim under the sea / And the murderers submit an innocent plea / And the prisoners dream of the free." Welcome to adult life, son.

In the third verse, he time travels back to that afternoon with his father -- again, a tender scene (despite that brooding key), as the storyteller dad entertains his boy: "And the stories that my daddy told me / About the place on the other side / About the dip of the chains and the height of the piers / And the men who worked there and died." Not heart-warming stories, but stories calculated to awe and overwhelm. Remember when you were a kid, how your parents seemed to know everything? How reassuring that felt -- and how lost we sometimes feel as adults, without that illusion.

So what is this song about?  The second time he sings the chorus, he adds a couple of lines: "Not in one world or the other / Losing my father like I lost my mother" -- which suggests to me that this was inspired by his father's death. This is total surmise on my part -- for all I know, Mr. Parker Senior is still alive and well in England, pontificating on bridge engineering -- but my gut tells me this is an elegy of some sort. And even though Graham's autobiographical suspension bridge was probably in England, I'm stuck on imagining it as one of the New York area bridges that felt suddenly so fragile after the tragic events of 9/11. (After all, GP has lived in the US a long time now, and Don't Tell Columbus is largely a meditation on his adopted home.)

Wherever the real suspension bridge is, this song somehow transforms it into a metaphor. Nothing heavy-handed, mind you -- Graham Parker's poetic craftsmanship is a subtle wonder. But I can't listen to this song without pondering the bridges in my life: between youth and adulthood, between life and death, between one homeland and another, between being a child and being a parent oneself.  Suspension bridges may be miracles of engineering, defying nature -- but they still sway in the wind, and halfway over I always look down at the water far below and freak out.  You cross them at your peril.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

She Works Hard for the Money /
Donna Summer

I'm sure I won't be the only blogger trying to say something sincere about Donna Summer's death today, reportedly from lung cancer, at the relatively young age of 63. And in contrast to the enshrinement of Saint Whitney Houston after her death, I wouldn't be surprised if the pundits took this opportunity to rake up the old culture wars -- rock versus disco, soul versus disco, gays versus born-again Christians -- and to turn up hipster noses at some of her cheesier tracks, such as "Love To Love You Baby" with all its fake orgasms, her kitschy version of "MacArthur Park," or the disco anthem "Last Dance." 

Ironically, I'd already been thinking a lot about Donna Summer, wondering why so few Whitney Houston obits even mentioned her. After all, she was the reigning pop-dance diva before Whitney came along. Now, I have no vested interest in defending disco; in the late 70s, I never set foot inside a single disco. I wasn't even listening to the radio much back then.  But still.

You see, towards the end of her long run of hits -- when she herself was eager to shed the disco mantle and move on -- I too had a brief Donna Summer period. That was in the very early 80s, when a couple other junior assistant baby editors and I were taking aerobic dance classes (remember aerobic dancing?) after work in a school gym down in Greenwich Village. Week after week, the soundtrack pulsed with high-octane tracks like the Pointer Sisters "I Get Excited," Tina Turner's comeback hit "What's Love Got to Do With It?," the Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" -- and this surprising feminist anthem: 

That video was all over MTV at the time, making Donna one of the first black artists to get significant airtime. (So see, she paved the way for Michael Jackson, too).  MTV exposure certainly gave a major push to this song and its album, She Works Hard for the Money. Apparently this record was released grudgingly, with Summer at loggerheads with her record boss David Geffen, but it revived her faltering career and put her right back up on top.   

Though I always heard it as a song about a hooker (who else works so hard for her money?), the video underlines its sympathy for women stuck in any menial/demeaning jobs. The relentless beat and the hard-edged synthesizers were totally of their time, agreed.  But at least it's about something other than sex, which was ground-breaking territory for disco music. 

And it was compulsively danceable. I'd slip this album onto my stereo turntable (yes, we're still talking vinyl era) and dance by myself in my apartment. Often once this lead-off track was over I'd lift the needle and flip the disc to play the first track on Side 2, the reggae-flavored "Unconditional Love." These songs made me feel pumped-up and powerful -- ready to don my big-shouldered power suit and go crash through some glass ceiling somewhere.

I've still got one or two of those power suits in my closet. The glass ceiling? Tt's still there too. Unshattered.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

For A Fool / The Shins

The Shins . . . well, come on, we all know they're good. That's the orthodox music geek line, isn't it? And yeah, I've liked them ever since I first heard "New Slang" in the movie Garden State; having a song in The Sponge Bob Movie ("They'll Soon Discover") just gave them more indie cred.  (What is this indie cred stuff, anyway?  Can you spend it at the store?)

But for some reason, I didn't really fall in love with the Shins -- not in-love love, in my heart of hearts -- until this new album, Port of Morrow.  Frontman-songwriter James Mercer -- who, let's be honest, IS the Shins -- always struck me as impossibly clever and talented and post-modern-hipster cool. Clearly he didn't need me for a fan. Not one of My Special Bands.  

So I'm wondering -- did I get James Mercer wrong?  Or has he finally developed the kind of musical heart that I'm always looking for? Because Port of Morrow completely shivers me timbers.    

Just listen to this gorgeous track:

Why do I love it? Let me count the ways.  There's the loping rhythm, the twangy surf-guitar riff, the haunting theremin-like keyboard sigh woven into the background. And ohmygod, the melody, soaring like a seagull into Mercer's earnest falsetto. He doesn't have a great voice, it's true, but now he's really writing for the idiosyncratic wobble, creak, and swoop of his range. And dig the skipping syncopations, which Mercer throws in all over this album; it reminds me of how much better the Talking Heads got after David Byrne discovered his pelvis. 

Perhaps most of all, I sense that the Shins are finally producing Music For Grownups.  (I really gotta copyright that term.)  Clever Boy James Mercer is now rueful and wise in a way he just wasn't before.  "Young and bright / But now just a dim light / Off in the distance," he modestly describes himself; not a hero, but a "falling stone / Following the path / Of least resistance." He knows he's still making things difficult for his other half, but at least he can now put it into perspective -- "If I still fight, / It's just that I'm / Afraid I'll slide under that spell again." (Love how his voice slides upward to a panicky yelp on "spell again.")

I love how he can gently scoff at his own internal debates: " So many times / Caught up in my head at night / With a leash and a label."  And -- wow -- he's actually trying to adapt and grow: "If I can learn / Anything from this, then I'd be like / The fox in the fable." (For those of you who don't remember your Aesop:  The fox gave up trying to steal the vineyard's grapes, telling himself that they were probably sour anyway. (Which is where our catchphrase "sour grapes" comes from.)

But it's the chorus that really pierces my heart: "Taken for a fool / Yes, I was / Because I was a fool."  He's not making excuses, not blaming the other party -- he's taking a good hard look at himself and is willing to admit he blew things.  The melody skips downward, the rhythm stutters gently as he fesses up. But he knows he was a fool; he accepts full responsibility. That's the first big step to solving things between them.

Is this a love song?  Could be; doesn't have to be. Perhaps we'd better just call it a "relationship song."  But we have enough ooh-baby-I-want-you songs out there. A few more I-fucked-up-I'm-sorry songs -- that's all to the good.    

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Saturday Shuffle

At last -- a free hour in my day!  Let's turn on the old shuffle machine and see what it yields...

1. Do You Want It All? / Two Door Cinema Club
From Tourist History (2010)
Tasty little morsel of British indie pop, sort like Death Cab for Cutie meets the Kooks. (And no, that's not a reference to the sadly kaput marriage of Ben Gibbard and Zoe Deschanel). The production values are quirky, almost lapidary, with fragments of phrases repeated urgently, like mantras, over a peppy rhythm track spiced with space-age sound effects. But absolutely radio friendly!

2. When in Rome / Nickel Creek
From When Will the Fire Die? (2005)
Sitting sweetly at the intersection of bluegrass and indie pop, this wonderful trio (also, sadly kaput) composed of fiddler Sara Watkins, her guitarist brother Sean, and mandolinist Chris Thiele (now of Punch Brothers) was a real find for me. Snarky lyrics and modernist rhythms, textured with Americana  instrumentation -- trust me, it's a winning combination.

3. The Rat's Prayer / The Soft Boys
From A Can of Bees (1980)
And now for something completely different -- at least on the surface -- Sir Robyn Hitchcock's first band, psych-folk-punk renegades the Soft Boys. Garage-y guitars and drums, herky-jerky tempos, folky harmonies, and best of all, wickedly absurdist lyrics.: My. Cup. Of. Tea.

4. Better Days / Roseanne Cash
From This One's For Him (2012)
No, not the Kinks' "Better Things," but a wise and rueful Guy Clark song, covered here by real Nashville royalty, Twitter queen Roseanne Cash. This new tribute album is one of the finest country albums of many a year -- with Clark's warm and witty songs as the foundation, it should be brilliant, and it is.

5. Martha My Dear / The Beatles
From The White Album (1968)
Paul McCartney in full music-hall mode -- scrumpdillyumptious.  I say music-hall, but alongside the oom-pah/ragtime beat Sir Paul can't help tossing in a bossa nova groove here and there.  And yes, we all know he really wrote this about his Old English sheepdog ("hold your head up, you silly girl / Look what you've done" -- poop on the carpet!), but it's still a crazy mad wonderful song.

6. (I Wanna) Call It Love / Sondre Lerche
From Duper Sessions (2006)
Remember the Steve Carell movie Dan in Real Life? Probably not; it was highly missable.  But I loved the soundtrack tunes by this sweet Norwegian singer-songwriter, and immediately plucked several other tunes out of his slim catalog. There's a little soft-shoe jazziness here too, a smooth strain of Cole Porter romanticism, but with a touch of Scandi angst, too.  Well, why not?

7. Groovy Movies / The Kinks
From The Great Lost Kinks Album (1973)
Sorry, no link -- it's a bootleg. (Got to solve this mp3 posting conundrum...) This album only hit the market for a nanosecond before the horrified Kinks demanded it be withdrawn; most of it was discarded demos, scraps of songs that Ray Davies had written for other projects, padded out with some Dave Davies solo work.  This is one of the Dave tracks, sloppy rather than whimsical, but kinda endearing all the same.

8.  Cry Like a Baby / The Box Tops
From The Best of the Box Tops (1968)
Hard to believe this came out the same year as "Martha My Dear"; it's soul-saturated Memphis pop, with horns instead of oom-pah, Farfisa organ instead of plinky piano, and a raft of gospel back-up singers.  And the divine vocals of Alex Chilton...

9. I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord / Lyle Lovett
From Smile: Songs from the Movies (2003)
Full-on gospel -- whoever said Lyle Lovett could only do country?  This track appeared in the 1997 Robert Duvall film The Apostle (searing performance, Bobby D!) and it sure enough gives me that old-time religion. Do I love this cat's voice or what?  That supple vibrato with just enough creak and twang -- there's no one else sounds even remotely like him.

10. We Should Be Making Love / Huey Lewis & The News
From Hard At Play (1999)
Lazy, loungy, soulful pop, as easy on the ears as Huey himself is easy on the eyes (Huey and Daryl Hall: my two big 80s music crushes.)  And one of my favorite song premises:  Our singer hero is always listening to his woman friend's romantic issues, until now he's finally 'fessing up that he longs to BE her romantic issue.  You could slide into this like a pair of warm moccasins, girl.  Why not?