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!