Friday, June 29, 2012

The Friday Shuffle

Big summer weekend coming up -- so here's a little music to get you started....

1. Black Lincoln Continental / Nick Lowe
From the sadly out-of-print Pinker and Prouder Than Previous (1988)
"There's only one way to the American dream . . ." Nick throws some rockabilly swing into this Graham Parker-penned gem -- whoohoo! I'm not sure who was backing him on this track, but I bet anything those organ riffs are Paul Carrack, doubled by Kim Wilson on harmonica, and Martin Belmont (who'd played with Graham himself in the Rumour) on guitar. YepRoc/Demon, please reissue this album!!!

2. Picture Book / Ray Davies & the Crouch End Choir
From The Kinks Choral Collection (2009)
I know some Kinks fans thought this album turned old Kinks material into Easy Listening Schmaltz, but I disagree. I think most of it worked beautifully, especially the stuff from the Village Green Preservation Society album. Give the link a listen and see what you think...

3. Blue as Blues Can Get / Chris Farlowe
From As Time Goes By (1995)
Overshadowed by Van Morrison and Eric Burdon, British white soul singer Chris Farlowe never got much exposure Stateside, which is a shame. He shows off his mellower side on this great Delbert McClinton cover -- tasty! 

4. Leaving the City Behind / Georgie Fame
From Georgie Fame (date unknown -- I bought the vinyl LP in 1974...)
Couldn't find a sample for you to listen to -- so I made a video. Because you need this song to play as you drive out of the city for your July 4th celebration. Dig the back-up singers, and those coolcat brushed drums. Pop shading into jazz (portents of Georgie's future direction), and what a light touch Georgie had on the keyboards! 

5. Don't Stand Too Close To Me / The Police
From Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)
No trouble finding this monster MTV hit from the dawn of the 80s. Who could resist that predatory bassline, or the reckless smash of Stewart Copeland's drums.  Sting, the former school teacher, writing about a schoolgirl stalking him -- or is it the other way around? "It's no use, he sees her / he starts to shake and cough / just like the old man in / that book by Nabokov" --  hee hee hee!

6. Sour Milk-Cow Blues / Elvis Costello
From Goodbye Cruel World (1984)
EC's slyly "updating" the old Sleepy John Estes blues song, covered by the Kinks in 1965, with Dave Davies on lead vocals, on The Kink Kontroversy (you can't tell me that Elvis wasn't thinking of that track). But Elvis's song is much meaner (whoa, big surprise) raking some girlfriend over the coals for who knows what imagined grievance. Gee, it was hard to love Elvis for awhile there.

7. Lost in a Dream / Shivaree
From Who's Got Trouble (2005)
Ah, the shivering vocals of Ambrosia Parsley (can that really be her name?)  Deliciously woozy and spooky little track.  Too bad this band broke up -- they had a great distinctive sound...

8. Take Off Your Uniform / John Hiatt
From Slug Line (1979)
I always imagine a diner waitress in a pink uniform, a la Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. JH is still in his Costello wannabe phase in this song, and he's probably satirizing something else -- women in the military? -- but I dig the image of him romancing that diner waitress when she gets home, and I'm sticking to it. 

9. The Reason Why / Ron Sexsmith
From Long Player Late Bloomer (2011)
Philosophical Ron, still searching for the meaning of life. Or what if there is no meaning, he wonders in this song, "as I glance up to indifferent skies" (an obvious "Big sky" reference -- I know Ron is a huge Kinks fan).  So why not just "let the path go hungry / And head at last to country / Or a small town away from here"?  Another getaway tune for your weekend!

10. Angel / The Wood Brothers
From Loaded (2008)
Aw, I love these guys, and I love the way they transform this Hendrix song.  What a great note to end on!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I Know a Place / Petula Clark

I never thought of myself as a Petula girl.  Dusty Springfield, maybe (never realizing she was just re-packaging the Motown sound); or maybe waifish Cilla Black, with her Beatle connections. I could only aspire to being elegant enough for Sandie Shaw.

But Petula?  That red bubble hairdo looked too mainstream for me, and her arrangements had too many horns and strings. (Rockers hadn't yet "discovered" horns and strings.) All the same, I did own the single of "Downtown," and I now realize I can still sing just about every word of all her big hits -- "My Love," "Colour My World," "A Sign of the Times," "Don't Sleep in the Subway." (Underground train American usage, not underground passageway, British usage. Go figure.)  If you listened to AM radio at the time -- and I did, on my little transistor, for hours at a time -- Petula Clark's songs were ubiquitous. And yeah, overexposed -- which means they're now ripe for a fresh listen.

What I didn't get at the time -- which British fans would have understood -- was that Petula wasn't a bona fide British Beat artist. She was a good ten years older than the Beatles and Stones, and she'd been singing on the BBC since she was a kid ("Britain's Shirley Temple," they billed her).  By 1964, Petula had been living in France for years -- was in fact a bigger star in France than in the UK -- and her career revived only when composer-arranger Tony Hatch sold her on a song inspired by a recent trip to New York City.  Come on, when you hear "Downtown," don't you picture Times Square rather than Piccadilly Circus?  Lucky Petula's radio-ready singles slipstreamed over the Atlantic on the British Invasion wave, and we dumb Americans never knew the difference.

Still, Tony and Petula had a winning formula, cranking out effervescent pop tunes charged up with urban energy. They worked that vein like nobody's business. I'm reminded of the Glen Campbell / Jimmy Webb partnership: a gifted singer working with a crack songwriter whose talents merge seamlessly, song after song.

And of all Petula's hits, this is the one that still gets me dancing:

This is not the music of rebellion -- no "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."  It's music written for office-workers and shopkeepers who like to relax after work. They don't hate their jobs; in fact they are responsible citizens who take life seriously ("just get away where your worries won't find you . . . don't let the day get the better of you"). But everybody needs a spot of fun sometime. 

Sex? There's only a whisper of it, in the chorus: "I know a place where the music is fine / And the lights are always low." Petula gives the word "low" an extra meaningful thrill, just in case you're looking for a club where you can make out. But sex isn't the point of this song, though it IS the point of so many other British Invasion songs. 

Tony Hatch's commercial instincts were spot-on. Yes, this song recycles the urban theme of "Downtown" (which he'd use again in "Don't Sleep in the Subway") and its chord changes and melodic phrasing would appear again, almost intact, in "My Love." You could probably slip a verse of one song into the other and no one would notice. But he also upped the rock elements this time around, with more backbeat rhythms, more drums, a electric piano riff . . . well, until the razzle-dazzle of the bridge, at least. 

And most significantly, he gave this song a unique hook:  It's really about the nightclub she's inviting her friend (workmate? girlfriend? lover?) to go to, with its great beat and cool denizens. "All around there are girls and boys / It's a swingin' place, a cellarful of noise" -- and with that last phrase, Hatch nails his zinger. Because everyone in 1965 -- even me -- knew that "cellarful of noise" referred to Liverpool's Cavern Club, where the Beatles had been discovered. Cellarful of Noise was the title of Beatles manager Brian Epstein's glossy autobiography. (Yes, of course I own a copy.)

And with that sly Beatles reference, Petula once again scrambled onto the British Invasion bandwagon, climbing to #3 on the US charts (the Brits weren't quite so taken in, only getting her to #17.)  "I Know a Place" even won her a female vocalist Grammy, and I'd say it was well-earned. Hatch knew how to write for Pet's voice, showcasing her rich timbre, wide range, and flawless ear -- those syncopated interval jumps really take a pro to execute. I love how he alternates those low, confiding verses with brassy upper-register choruses. And yeah, let's top that with a sassy key change too. Pet can knock those out of the park.

Compared to, say, "Summer in the City" -- a song howling with pent-up frustrations -- this is so much more upbeat. It's a toe-tapper, plain and simple. But what's so wrong about that?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Obsessed With Aretha /
Graham Parker

Maybe this popped into my head today as an antidote to yesterday's soul-centric post. I swear, I reallly do love all those 60s soul singers -- and so does Graham Parker, honest. But the man just can't help but unleash his snarky acerbic wit, and I for one love him for it.

Hard to believe that Graham wrote this in 1996, for his album Acid Bubblegum, way before the wannabes of the current neo-soul revival jumped on the bandwagon. But Graham saw it all coming, as well as the rise of the religious right and self-righteous conservative pundits. And Graham Parker is definitely an equal-opportunity satirist -- why not train his laser beam of scorn and derision on everybody all at once?

I was thrilled to find this on YouTube (who but a true Parker fan would take the time to craft such a detailed video?) True, it jumps ahead in time a bit -- you'll see as you watch it that the objects of scorn are totally up to the minute -- but I have a feeling that GP would thoroughly approve of adding them to his list.

From the very start, notice how deftly Parker cuts his own soul groove, owning his debt to R&B tradition without being hamstrung by it. Graham Parker has always been a moving target when it comes to musical labels. Blend punk attitude, New Wave braininess, and pub rock looseness with R&B hipness, rockabilly swing, and protest folk topicality -- I can't think of anybody else who hits so many marks, and hits them all superlatively well.

"You get a lot of girl singers," GP launches into it, "obsessed with Aretha." Aretha who?  Come on, we ALL know the Queen of Soul, we've all belted out R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the back of a car at some time or another -- we're already implicated. But surely we're not the girl singers, the "little swingers" that Graham is condescending to. And then he generously admits, "Some of those girls can rock and roll / All God's children got a little bit of soul" -- but then he snatches it away:  "But not that much, / Oh no no no, not that much."  I have to say, I burst out laughing the first time I heard that lyric. I can just picture him, shaking his head with musing regret as he sings the no no no no's.
And on he presses. In verse two, he shows no mercy, excoriating "a lot of fat Christians / you want to throw to the lions / Put 'em in a barrel / Roll 'em off of Mount Zion." Parker is famously agnostic, or, to be more precise, opposed to organized religion, and he never misses a ripe target for derision.  In verse three, it's back to the musical scene, with newly-minted pop stars -- the video shows us Justin Bieber, but he's only the latest in a long string of half-talented headline-grabbers that seem to gall Graham Parker. (Pete Doherty, anyone?)  Verse four gets us back to right-wing political commentators -- hello, Fox News! -- who trample rough-shod over journalistic truth. "You don't have to tell the truth to get paid / Well not that much..." Zing!

The tough part of this song is the chorus, where GP looks at Aretha herself, bedecked in her jewels and fur stole, still belting out the hits on her rare concert appearances. "You might even say the girl's still got soul," Graham concedes, but then he has to add, "But not that much." This cuts close to the bone, man. Sure, Aretha's gotten old, and her weight has ballooned -- there's a lot of sorrow and insecurity under those sequins. And who could blame her? Personally, I think that's Aretha's gift to mankind -- she still feels lost and hurting, despite all the fame. And isn't that the definition of soul?  I still feel incredibly moved by her performances, every time. Cut Aretha some slack, Graham!

But wait -- am I saying that because I'm obsessed with Aretha?

Ah.  Checkmate, Mr. Parker.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sweet Soul Music /
Arthur Conley
Novelty track?  You decide. This was Arthur Conley's only real hit, but man, it swings. And sure, the whole point of it is to name-check other, greater, more durable talents on the soul scene in 1967 -- but let's give Arthur his due, okay?

It certainly helped that Arthur had recently come under the tutelage of the late great Otis Redding, who co-wrote this song with him and supervised its recording in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  (Check out the Muscle Shoals regulars, guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn behind Conley on that tiny bandstand.)  Technically, he also co-wrote it with Sam Cooke, since it was based on Cooke's minor hit "Yeah Man" ("do you like all the dances? Yeah, man...") But Conley and Redding transformed that track completely, stealing an arresting horn fanfare from The Magnificent Seven intro and cranking the funk level up to eleven. 

This song deserved its brief reign at #2 (oh, so close!) on BOTH the R&B and pop charts. I remember how it cleared the sidelines at eighth grade dances that summer, everyone jumping up to join in on the dance floor. "Do you like good music," we'd raucously sing along with Arthur . . . because indeed we did.

I'll even so so far as to say that Conley's charmer holds its own against the six songs he refers to in the course of the song.  Why don't you listen and judge for yourself?

Arthur doesn't mention Smokey Robinson and the Miracles by name -- but come on, EVERYBODY back then would have picked up on the first verse's reference to this December 1965 Motown classic.

And how about this soul-drenched 1966 hit from Lou Rawls, mentioned in verse 2 ("oh don't he look tall, y'all?")

And the incomparable Stax soul duo Sam & Dave, of "Soul Man" fame -- this March 1966 hit was their first major breakthrough record.

By the time "wicked" Wilson Pickett released this hot hot hot single "Mustang Sally," we already knew him from "In the Midnight Hour," not to mention "Land of 1000 Dances" -- which sorta paved the way for Conley's song by name-checking current dance crazes.

Okay, here's one that I would rank above "Sweet Soul Music" -- a 1966 hit by Conley's mentor Otis Redding, who tragically would only survive Conley's tribute by a few months.

And last but certainly not least -- the Godfather of Soul and the hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown. It wasn't for nothing that Conley refers to him as "the king of them all -- since 1964's "Out of Sight," James Brown had pushed soul music to new funky frontiers. Conley doesn't single out any particular Brown tracks, but going with Conley's general 1966 time frame, I'm throwing in Brown's big-production diva number, "It's a Man's World." Why not?

Next to all these monumental singles, Arthur Conley's uptempo dance number comes off as a refreshing alternative. Was he trying to put himself in their league?  No way.  (It's interesting to note that in later years Conley moved to Europe and changed his name, not so much to escape this hit but to give himself space to do other kinds of music.)  But the effervescent joy of this song is hard to resist.  I'm out of my chair and dancing already.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Dear Boy  / Paul McCartney

Happy Birthday Paul!!

Some days you've just gotta do the obvious post. Sir Paul McCartney turns 70 today (but a very well-preserved 70, I must say!) and I feel compelled to add my voice to the international chorus of many happy returns.

I know, I know, a mere blog post is not as meaningful as Paul Weller's birthday present -- a gutsy cover of "Birthday" on sale today only at Amazon, priced at 70 cents, with the proceeds going to charity.  (Classy move, Paul W.)  Still, having been Paul McCartney's secret girlfriend for many years, and the muse who inspired most of his finest love songs -- "And I Love Her," "Got to Get You Into My Life," "I Will," "The Long and Winding Road," the list goes on and on -- I felt it would be extremely bad manners for me to let the day pass without a few words.

Having staked my claim as a Paul fan after the break-up of the Beatles, I felt positively smug when Paul's first solo album, the delightfully homemade McCartney, was followed up by the rambunctiously charming Ram. (By the way, I still haven't ponied up for the remastered deluxe reissue of Ram, but that's mostly because I so resent rockstars milking their fanbase by repackaging old stuff over and over. I have my worn-out vinyl LP, and I have it in CD, so why should I be expected to buy it in a third format?)

At the time I couldn't admit it, but my only beef with Ram is how besotted Paul sounds with his new wife, Linda. Songs like "Eat At Home" and "Back Seat of My Car" drove home to me the inescapeable truth that my guy was constantly having mind-blowing sex with somebody else. (What was her secret?)

Even "Dear Boy" is really all about how much Paul loves Linda. Ostensibly he wrote it to Linda's first husband, geologist John See, whom she'd married in Arizona in 1962, already pregnant with their daughter, Heather. See was apparently long out of the picture by the time Paul came along -- they'd divorced in 1965, at which time she packed up her toddler daughter and moved to New York to launch her career as a photographer/groupie. She didn't meet Paul until 1967, finally marrying him in 1969, so jealousy and betrayal were beside the point. Despite the minor key, Paul's attitude in this song is more bemusement than anything else: "I guess you never knew, / Dear boy, what you had found." Linda "was just the cutest thing around," he adds, still marveling -- so how could any guy have let her get away? 

Which means that the song is really just another way of telling us that she is the World's Most Wonderful Woman.  Did I really need to hear that?

After puzzling over this inexplicable behavior for one more verse, Paul shifts to major key in the bridge as he enters the song himself: "When I stepped in, my heart was down and out, / But her love came through / And brought me 'round, /Got me up / And about." Okay, not the most articulate description of a good woman's love, and here I was, still a teenager, looking for tips and techniques. (What was her secret?!) But still.

Look at how charitable Paul can afford to be in the last verse -- "I hope you never know, dear boy, / How much you missed" -- though he can't resist a little nyah nyah-nyah nyah nyah moment: "And even when you fall in love, / Dear boy, it won't be half as good as this." Ouch.

But here's the underlying message I love. Paul knew what he had found, eventually telephoning this lovely blond photographer in New York and asking her to move to London to be with him.  Bold move on both their parts, but when you find love -- especially after it let you down once before -- have the courage to grab it. You can hear the happy skip in his step all through this song, with its jaunty syncopations and thrilled little warbles. Each verse's melody optimistically tap dances up the scale -- maybe this other guy blew it, but he, Paul, is deliriously happy. Because that's what love can do.

I think back to those old Beatle songs where they address the Other Man -- "She Loves You," "You're Going To Lose That Girl" -- and the subtext was always envy, as our hero watches his beloved's current boyfriend treating her callously. The shoe is on the other foot now, and Paul has NO intention of taking her for granted.  Now that's the way a boyfriend -- lover -- husband should act.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Time Is On My Side /
The Rolling Stones

I know, I don't often write about the Stones.  I don't often think about the Stones, that's why, and if I do, it's not 1964-era Stones.

But as I was reviewing my 100 Favorite Singles project the other day, and re-listening to "Tired of Waiting," it suddenly occurred to me how much alike these two singles are.  And I got to thinking....

To a pre-teen Beatlemaniac, this first Stones single to really hit it big in the US was a scary thing. When the Beatles were introduced to American on the Ed Sullivan show, they won hearts; when the Stones followed suit in October 1964, they sent shivers up spines. I still remember watching them that night, closing out the show with this number. As I recall it, Mick shook his tambourine like a rattlesnake shakes his rattles, and lowered his head to glare menacingly at the camera. I actually scooted a few inches further from the TV. I did not like them -- but I sure as hell watched every minute of that charged performance.

It's useful to note that Mick and Keef didn't write this tune themselves -- it was written by Jerry Ragavoy (under the name of Norman Meade, for some reason) and had already been recorded twice in the previous few months, once by jazz trobonist Kai Winding and once by Irma Thomas. When the Stones showed up at Chicago's Chess Records studio in June 1964 to record at the home of the blues that had inspired them, it was a logical recent track for them to cover.

But just listen to Irma's version. Even though it has the same tempo, it's not nearly as draggy and weary-sounding.  In fact, Irma sounds positively buoyant. Time is on her side because she plans to hang in there and wait for her man; she's full of hope and faith.

In contrast, the Stones sound dogged, spiteful, and fixated. Mick's petulant, taunting vocal lags behind the beat (well, that's why it was called backbeat, folks) and Charlie Watts' abusive drum slaps are way forward in the mix.  "Ti-i-i-ime, is on my side," Mick snarls, "Yes it is," and  I get a shiver of sexual fear. He's not the patient lover waiting for her to be ready, he's the stalker, the predator, lying in wait.

"Go ahead and light up the town," he mocks sarcastically in the bridge, adding like a threat, "I'll always be around" as Keith's and Brian's guitars bicker and quarrel behind him. In lieu of Irma's gospel style backing singers, the other Stones utter discordant moans in the background -- "time, time, time" -- like a clock loudly ticking off her last moments of freedom.  This is simply saturated with sexual knowingness; it is hot stuff.

This Chess version made it onto 12 X 5, the Stone's second album, which was released in October 1964. (The single that came out in January 1965 has a different arrangement, with a guitar intro instead of this track's brooding minor-key organ.) That's good to know, because the Kinks recorded "Tired of Waiting" in August 1964 -- they couldn't possibly have been copying the Stones track. It must just have been something in the London air in the summer of 1964 that made everybody feel hostile and exhausted. 

The differences are subtle, but dangerous. If the Kinks are at the end of their rope, tired of waiting for the girl who won't settle down, the Stones can wait forever -- and oh, when she finally comes crawling back, revenge is going to be so sweet. . . .

Friday, June 08, 2012

Friday Shuffle

You know how it works...

1. For a Fool / The Shins
From Port of Morrow (2012)
Well, this is easy -- I just wrote about this song a couple weeks ago!

2. Not the Same (Live) / Ben Folds
From The Best Imitation of Myself (2012)
So many tracks to dig from this brilliant retrospective album -- though originally this is from Rockin' The Suburbs (another album you really should own, assuming that you're as besotted with Ben Folds as I am). It's another of his score-settling songs -- warning: DO NOT CROSS this man, or he'll skewer you in a song.

3. Apeman / The Kinks
From Lola Vs Powerman and the Money Go-Round Part One (1970)
"I don't feel safe in this world no more / I don't want to die in a nuclear war / I want to sail away to a distant shore / And live like an ape man." Ah, Ray -- always trying to escape the pressures of modern life. With a wink, of course....

4. Exquisite Dead Guy / They Might Be Giants
From Factory Showroom (1996)
Okay, it's a little annoying that Amazon has an MP3 for this and NOT for "Apeman." But I do love TMBG, and this droll little tune is one of my favorites. Who else would adorn a creepfest story line, worthy of Vincent Price, with Bacharach-style "bah-bah-da-bah-bah" harmonies?

5. Careless / Amos Lee
From Supply and Demand (2006)
It's the old "You're Gonna Lose That Girl" storyline -- the guy who really loves the girl scolding the boyfriend who's treating her wrong. But with Amos' trademark rueful folk-soul spin, it's calculated to charm the pants off of every lonely single woman within a hundred miles. Oh, Amos, that's so awful she broke your heart -- what can I do to console you?

6. Da Boom / Nick Lowe
From Nick the Knife (1982)
Album filler alert!  Normally I don't upload minor tracks like this onto my iTunes, but I'll always make an exception for Nick.  Sorry there's no Amazon link -- until YepRoc sees fit to reissue this album too (as well they should) you'll just have to imagine -- but thanks to the ever-wonderful Greg Trooper I just found a YouTube version that'll satisfy your burning curiosity...

7. The Biggest Night of Her Life / Alan Price
From The Price Is Right (1966 or thereabouts...)
Funny the things you learn while shuffling. There's no Amazon MP3 for the Alan Price version of this peppy Randy Newman pop song about a girl preparing to lose her virginity, even though Alan Price was Britain's #1 interpreter of Randy Newman songs. But there ARE links to two other cover versions, one by Harper's Bizarre  (best known for "Feelin' Groovy") and another by the Nashville Teens (as in "Tobacco Road.") Trust me, Alan's is the version you want.

8. Hymn to Me / Brinsley Schwarz
From Brinsley Schwarz (1970)
Do you need any more proof that this shuffle is unedited?  Nick Lowe wrote it, and it's the lead track on their debut album -- but that doesn't mean it isn't totally derivative folk-rock drivel. Lucky thing he got better as time went on...

9. LoveWithout Greed  / Graham Parker & the Rumour
From The Up Escalator (1980)
Thank god -- saved (again) by Graham Parker. A near-perfect fusion of soul and rock, with majestic piano fanfares (courtesy of Nicky Hopkins, as the divine Bob Andrews had apparently already jumped ship). Anyone who thinks that Bruce Springsteen invented his sound needs to listen to this album.  Hell, Bruce even sings on this album, that's how much of a Parker acolyte he was. And while Bruce is still recycling this sound, GP has moved on, and on, and on, getting better and better every year. Really, do yourself a favor and just buy the entire Graham Parker catalog NOW. You will not be sorry.

10. Champion / Geraint Watkins
From In a Bad Mood (2008)
 Maybe in the long run the greatest benefit of my Nick Lowe obsession will turn out to be the marvelous artists I've seen opening for Nick. Case in point: The ever soulful and divine Geraint Watkins, keyboard maestro extraordinaire. Yeah, there's a throwback quality to his music, as this courtly little waltz suggests. But he can be wicked funny, too, and his original songs (like this one) are total charmers. Buy, buy, buy!