Friday, August 24, 2012

The End of Summer Shuffle

Okay, so we've still got a week before Labor Day puts the white shoes back in the closet. Personally I am more than ready to kiss this summer goodbye. Now how about a little traveling music?

1. Antwoman / Robyn Hitchcock
From Jewels for Sophia (1999)
Time to usher in the weekend by blissing out to this surrealistic tone poem, with its fuzzy guitars and raga beat -- "being just contaminates the void," Robyn announces in his ironical Cambridge twang, and you are free to take him seriously or not, at your pleasure. And here enters the voracious and elegant Antwoman, "with her Audrey Hepburn feelers / And her black and white stripes . . . " What does this song mean? If you have to ask . . .

2. Warm and Sunny Days / The Dears
From No Cities Left (2003)
This is how they do indie pop in Montreal -- lushly jazzy and just a wee bit melancholic. Warm and sunny? Well, maybe by Canadian standards . . . But I've gotta say, I could spend a lot of time relaxing by the pool to this one.

3. You're Gonna Miss Me / 13th Floor Elevators
From The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (1966)
And with this one song, Roky Erikson and company invented Trip Rock, lo these many years ago. Brilliant! Love the Durango-like guitar strums. "You're gonna wake up wondering . . . "

4. Secondary Modern / Elvis Costello and the Attractions
From Get Happy!! (1980)
And now, pow! "This must be the place, / Second place in the human race, / Down in the basement / Now I know what he meant . . . ." Ah, the flip side of a British high school education. Drunk on puns, romantic rancor, and Stax soul, Declan and the boys never made a finer album; it's planted deeeeep in my musical DNA. Dig the syncopated petulance of this line:  "Nobody makes me sad like you / Now my whole world goes from blue to blue." Perfecto.

5. My Shadow / Keb' Mo'
From The Reflection (2011)
Get your hips moving to this one. I love how Keb' weaves Delta blues, a little jazz, and indie lyric sensibility. Right on the threshold of losing that girl, still baffled by her desertion -- aw, Keb', she ain't worth it! (Groove on that organ chord progression, like dark movie music. The Shadow knows!)

6. When I See That Girl of Mine / The Kinks
From The Kink Kontroversy (1965)
Wonderful little raw demo -- this is why we love reissues with bonus tracks. Back then, Ray was still trying to peddle his songwriting; Bobby Rydell eventually recorded this tasty little number, but I could definitely hear the Beach Boys doing it. So it's not "Waterloo Sunset" or "Come Dancing" or any of Ray Davies' most iconic and personal tracks -- it's still a jewel of a pop song, full of adolescent yearning and insecurity. If all you can listen to is Bobby R.'s version, try to imagine it with Ray's warbly North London twang -- it's incredibly sweet.

7. Lady Grinning Soul / David Bowie
From Aladdin Sane (1973)
Monumental, heartbreaking -- so many thanks to my Kinks pal Mark for asking me to blog about this one.

8. Film Noir Angel / Johnny Hoy & the Bluefish
From Film Noir Angel (2006)
A tasty shot of Martha's Vineyard dieselbilly, courtesy of train guru Brian. You've gotta trust a music friend who only gives you three music recommendations in  five years and they are all dead on perfect.

9. Com Trol / Bill Lloyd
From Boy King of Tokyo (2012)
Okay, now I'm feeling guilty that I haven't yet written about this delicious new album. I promise I will!  But here's a lovely teaser, with that wacky satiric edge that makes Bill Lloyd's pop music so much damn fun.

10. It's AWonderful Lie / Paul Westerberg
From Suicaine Gratification (1999)
Aw, I was just thinking about how much I love Paul Westerberg, on a recent trip to his hometown of Minneapolis (I have been doing way too much heartland traveling this summer.) And then up dials this acoustic charmer, its brave shrug underlaid with a world of devasting hurt. "It's a wonderful lie, / I still get by / On those . . .. " Don't we all?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Waterloo Sunset / The Kinks

I don't know how long this YouTube link will remain viable, but since the American network NBC -- which paid a truckload of money for the exclusive right to broadcast the Olympics Game -- saw fit to cut Ray Davies' performance of this quintessential London anthem from their broadcast of the Closing Ceremonies, I felt it was my civic duty to post it here. (Ray's bit starts at about 1:30 in the clip.) Enjoy!

I won't rant on here about how stupid it was to edit out Ray (considering that such luminaries as George Michael, Annie Lennox, and Fatboy Slim were given plenty of airtime!).  But here's a rerun of a previous post I wrote about "Waterloo Sunset":

Although Ray Davies claims this song was written as an elegy to the end of a musical era -- at one time, he says, he considered calling it "Liverpool Sunset" -- by the time he got done it was something else entirely. Even as he was writing it, he suspected it might be his masterpiece (although for a long time he kept the lyrics a secret from the other Kinks, fearing they would think he was daft). After the Kinks' producer, Shel Talmy, had finished mixing the song, Ray stole back into the studio with the other Kinks and recorded it all over again, until it was just the way he wanted it. I love those majestic marching bass thrums of the opening, the twangy counterpointing guitar riff, the ethereal oohs in the background (Ray's wife Rasa singing an octave above Dave), the "sha-la-la's" in the bridge and the overlapping repeats of "Waterloo Sunset's fine." It's a damn near perfect recording.

Even the melody sounds like a sunset, with sets of gently descending D-A-G chords, each short phrase making an arc until the final phrase dips below the horizon. Each verse begins with a widescreen panorama -- the "dirty old river" flowing under the bridge, the lovers Terry and Julie meeting by the platform, crowds swarming "like flies" into the tube entrance. Then, in verses one and two, after the panorama Ray telescopes his view, bringing himself into the picture -- saying the busy crowds make him feel dizzy, and he's too lazy to leave home and meet friends. It's not just about London, it's really about his aching heart. The end of verse one shifts into minor chords as Ray plaintively muses, "But I don't need no friends" and protests "But I don't feel afraid." And yet, in his isolation, he still is nourished by the world outside his window, as he return to the D-A-G chords for that grand final line: "As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset / I am in paradise."

The tension between the lonely observer and the teeming metropolis is the bittersweet heart of this song. He never gets out of that room, as he admits in the bridge (all those wistful 7th chords): "Every day I look at the world from my window," a memory drawn from Ray's childhood, when he was confined by a long illness in St. Thomas hospital near Waterloo. His perspective is tinged with a fear of death -- "Chilly, chilly is the evening time" -- but at the moment, nature uplifts him, and "Waterloo sunset's fine." Not since John Keats wrote his ode "To Autumn" has anyone quite so poignantly etched the intersection between life and death.

It's almost as if writing the song itself conquers death. By verse three, notice, he has shifted the story completely away from himself and over to Terry and Julie -- they're the ones who "don't need no friends" now. And unlike loner Ray, they don't need friends because they have each other. They're in love, and we get our happy ending. Or do we? The shadows haven't entirely been chased away -- as Terry and Julie "cross over the river," I recall old myths in which crossing a river means death (which gives the line "they are in paradise" an extra twist). Love and loss are intertwined, tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same mask.

"Waterloo Sunset" is like a great landscape painting, worthy of Turner or Monet; it's also a cinematic piece, with its wide-angle shots, dissolves, close-ups, and long tracking shot. It's a lyric poem, and it's also an epic novel. To do all this with one pop song, in the space of three minutes and seventeen seconds -- and to do it with a simple four-piece band (no added strings or horn sections, thank you) -- well, it's a wondrous achievement. If Ray Davies had done nothing else in his life, he'd be worthy of undying respect.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

"Help Yourself" / Tom Jones

Ah, here we are in the august days of August, the dog days of summer. We're already hot and sweaty -- might as well cue up the Tom Jones.

Like Petula Clark, Tom Jones -- born Thomas Woodward in Pontypridd, Wales -- slipstreamed on the British Invasion and slid straight into Easy Listening fame. As a kid, I was always embarrassed by Tom Jones -- all hip gyrations, unbuttoned shirts, and man jewelry tangled in chest hair. Why listen to Tom Jones when Davy Jones was so much more my cup of tea?

But I've come around. Tom Jones -- or rather, Sir Tom Jones, since he was knighted in 2006 -- has had a late-career resurgence that makes even Nick Lowe look like a slacker.  When his pop career faltered, he turned country crooner in the 1980s; he stormed back into critical acclaim in 1999 with his duets album Reload and iced the cake in 2002 with Mr. Jones, an album produced by -- get this -- Wyclef Jean. Stealing a page from the Johnny Cash playbook, Sir Tom has exploited the grit and growl of his aging voice, raging and testifying away on his 2010 album Praise & Blame and 2012's Spirit in the Room. He's in better form than ever, freed at last to sing however the hell he wants to. An example to us all.

Inevitably, now that I can hear the authentic bluesman within the pop star, I've come to re-evaluate the 60s stuff as well. And so I give you the Ultimate Swinger's Anthem:

This clip is from Tom's first TV variety show (notice the TJ's embroidered on the male slaves' PJs), and it unabashedly celebrates everything that used to repulse me about Tom Jones  -- the tight trousers, the ruffled satin shirt, the mini-skirted females rushing to his arms. Nevertheless, I find the song itself irresistible. That perky horn intro lifts my heart instantly; the smashing crescendos leading into the chorus compel me to dance in my chair.

The utter randiness of this song strikes me now as rather quaint, a relic of that pre-AIDS era when the sexual revolution was tipping over into unbridled promiscuity. By all accounts, Tom Jones took to that era like a duck to water. Though he's been married to the same woman since 1957, that never stopped him from sleeping around -- at the height of his fame, he once claimed, he slept with 250 groupies a year. Well, if enough panties and hotel room keys get flung onto a Vegas stage, something's gonna happen. I don't believe his wife was totally cool with this -- reports say she beat him black and blue on a few occasions. Jones, though a serious boxing aficionado, claimed he never struck her back, just took it like a man because he deserved it. There's Welsh morality for you.

But "Help Yourself" has a bouyant, giddy quality that somehow redeems it for me. There's none of the sleazy, predatory undertones of "What's New Pussycat?" and "It's Not Unusual," or the flogging rhythms of "Delilah"  (I apologize in advance for planting those three earworms, but you really can't talk about Tom Jones otherwise.) Even Tom doesn't seem to be taking it seriously. And really, when a song starts out comparing sex to candy, it's pretty hard to keep a straight face. There's something downright sweet about that last verse: "My heart has love enough for two / More than enough for me and you / I'm rich with love, a millionaire / I've so much, it's unfair / Why don't you take a share." Aw, all he wants is to make you happy. . . .

"Help Yourself" is totally a summer song for me, released in July 1968, on the heels of "Delilah." It was everywhere that summer, climbing to #1 in the UK and #3 in the US.  I never owned it and never had any reason to look at the label, so only now do I learn that it's a rewrite of a bubbly Italian pop song, "Gli Occhi Miei" ("These Eyes of Mine") by Carlo Donida; the English lyrics were penned by Jack Fishman. Donida was no flash in the pan; he also wrote the song "Uno Dei Tanti," rewritten in English as "I Who Have Nothing," which Jones also recorded in 1970. Hey, ripping off Italian pop worked for Dusty Springfield, why not for Tom Jones? Just for fun, here's the original, as recorded by Wilma Doich.

 It's a different thing entirely when a chick sings it, right? I can imagine Sandie Shaw's doing "Help Yourself" without the bombastic orchestral stuff, and it would be a marvel of delicate surrender. Instead, we have Tom Jones's gyrating pelvis.

But oh, go back to Tom's version and listen to that voice. The phrasing, the rich vibrato, the tender swoops around certain words -- yes, and his oddball vowels -- as a vocal stylist he couldn't be beat.