Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Coconut" / Fred Schneider

It must be fun to be a B-52.

Trawling around iTunes trying to find more songs by Victoria Williams, I discovered this adorable Harry Nilsson tribute album. So many artists on here that I love -- Marshall Crenshaw, Ron Sexsmith, Al Kooper, Aimee Mann, Randy Newman, Bill Lloyd, both Brian and Carl Wilson -- and smack dab in the middle of it is our very own Love Shack sherpa Fred Schneider of the B-52s. Now, if you'd asked me which Harry Nilsson song would be perfect for Fred Schneider to cover, I don't know if I would have come up with this one. But the minute I heard it, I realized it was PERFECT.

It's a raucously fun song even when Harry himself sang it, but Fred pushes it to a whole new level. "Coconut" was just a hair shy of a novelty tune; I've always imagined that Nilsson began singing it to himself in the middle of a colossal tropical-drink bender, and luckily remembered enough of it the next day to capture the lightning in a bottle. (So to speak.) There's not much to it lyrically -- mostly just the repeated mantra "you put the lime in the coconut / And drink 'em both up." To tell you the truth, sometimes I forget and think this song was written by Jimmy Buffett. Not that there's anything wrong with that, for all my Parrothead friends out there.

I have one major criterion for a great cover version: It has to bring something new to the song. And on that score, Fred Schneider succeeds brilliantly. (It was first recorded for his 1996 solo album Just Fred.) In the great B-52s tradition, he takes this amiable little tune and sends it off into outer space, with dissonant snarls of guitar, frantic drum smacks, and buzzy little synth riffs that sound like transmissions from Mars.

Besides putting the lime in the coconut, we're also supposed to call a doctor and ask him what to do -- and this is the motif that Fred really goes to town on. His voice comes out of one speaker, frantically begging the doctor to tell him what to do about his bellyache; out of the other speaker, he plays a particularly snide doctor, advising his patient to put the lime in the coconut and call him in the morning.  In true Rock Lobster-style, he unleashes layers of wails, growls, and shouts, weaving in and out of those messy instrumentals.  (Really, has anybody ever done more with less vocal talent than Fred Schneider?)  It's truly a party gone out of bounds.

Well, it's spring vacation and I have NOT gone to the Caribbean. In fact, the landscape outside my window is six inches deep in crusty snow and slush. But Fred Schneider has just delivered an umbrella drink to my lounge chair, and I'm lovin' it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Junk" / Victoria Williams

Somehow this chick has totally escaped my radar up to now. I can't remember how I found this song (I suspect it was on someone else's iTunes playlist, as I was scouting out tunes for Hell Hath No Fury Week), but it has quietly begun to lodge itself on a high spot on my Rock Chicks playlist. 

So I toddle over her website and learn that Victoria Williams is very well connected -- she has been married in her time to both the Plimsouls' Peter Case and the Jayhawks' Mark Olson (Olson wrote the song "Miss Williams' Guitar" for her, not for Lucinda Williams) and she was ranked #89 on Paste Magazine's Top 100 Living Songwriters list -- not too shabby. Best of all, she hails originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, which makes it fitting that I should write about her on my friend Craig's birthday. (Happy birthday, Craig!)

You'll find this track on Williams' 2000 album Water to Drink. (Memo to self: buy this album NOW.) I love the lazy grit and sass of this song, not just in her voice but in those swampy guitar licks. In the middle, it wanders into downright psychedelic territory, and that Beatley mellotron loop at the end -- whoo-hee!

Yet the sneaky thinkg about this song is that it isn't storytelling, isn't a love letter -- it's a philosophical statement about temporal mutability. (Hunh? Come again?) "One man's junk is another man's jewel," she starts off in that froggy voice, and literal me, I start to think about recycling. (Love that second line: "Throw-outs may be polished into pearls.") She develops the idea in verse two: "One's man's junk is another man's project / Fixing up junk is a lifelong process." I must admit, I'm one of those this-thing-could-be-mended types myself.

And yes, the dreamy chorus at first sounds like this is a paean to eBay: "In the dreamy chorus -- "Wrap it up, / Send it off /  To a place where it's appreciated." How noble to give cast-offs a second life.

But note how, in the end of verse two, she describes this use-and-reuse as a human imperative: "Fixing up junk, that's what we're born to do -- junk!" She's not just talking about physical objects. In the bridge she shifts ground, singing about the metamorphosing relationships of people she knows: "Bonnie hung on to her darling, / Betty threw up and forgot him / Joey left his track full of Harleys." I suddenly re-hear verse one, see that "junk" means a discarded lover, who becomes a "jewel" to someone new -- someone who has learned how to fix up junk, perhaps.   

Learning how to let things go, how to redefine who we are and whom we love -- that's a life skill none of us have perfected yet.

It's an all-things-must-pass vision of life, which Williams sums up as "We share what was with each other / Pass around old molecules." These are downright trippy ideas, and the song mirrors that with its spacey musical effects.

By the second time she sings the chorus, she pushes that "wrap it up / send it off" concept a little farther, adding: "Trip to the moon / Wave goodbye / To yesterday's because and whys." Suddenly, all this recycling and passing around seems wonderfully liberating.    

Who knows how profound this song really is? All I know is that I'm flying on the phantasmagoric instrumentals, viscerally hooked on that funky beat.  Those crunchy discords, oh-so-slowly resolved -- I can't get enough of them.

One thing I do know:  I will never confuse Victoria Williams with Lucinda Williams again.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Occasional Shivers / Chris Stamey

I was gonna save this for my Rock Waltz week -- but it won't wait.

This is from Chris Stamey's new album, Lovesick Blues. Now, I only recently got up to speed on his band the dBs, so you'll forgive me if I'm even behinder on Stamey's post-dBs solo work. This is like his third or fourth solo album (depends how you count) and I have no idea what they're like. I only bought this one in the middle of a YepRoc spending frenzy -- you know, Dave Alvin, Robyn Hitchcock, Fountains of Wayne, the usual suspects -- and tossed it into my virtual shopping cart for the hell of it.

To tell the truth, when I first listened to it, on my car's 10-CD changer, I thought I was listening to Michael Penn (another long-overdue post). Only gradually did it strike me that a) the vocals were way too nasal, and b ) the lyrics even more well-crafted than Penn's.  I swear, I pulled the car off the road for moment and said to myself, "Whoever this guy is, he's an honest-to-god POET."  I scrabbled madly around the CD cases scattered all over the seat beside me. When I pulled out Lovesick Blues, it was a real eureka moment.

And this song -- track 9 -- absolutely demanded I hit replay, over and over again.

It's a waltz all right, but a laidback one -- a real slow dance. I imagine it set at a party, a chit-chatty sort of cocktail gathering, the sort we grown-ups find ourselves going to every once in a while. He looks up and sees someone -- "Occasional glances / Across the room" -- and catches his breath.

But this is no "Some Enchanted Evening" love-at-first-sighting. No, no, no. They're ex-lovers, and I'm betting there was a time when strenuous efforts were made NOT to be in the same room, EVER.  But time has passed, and all that has died down. Surely by now they can see each other casually without fireworks.

Or can they?

Clearly it's been a while. "Occasionally casually peck a cheek / to say you could still care / though that was long ago / years or days, I forget . . . " But there's the rub -- if he's vague, it's not because the memory is so distant, but because it still hurts like yesterday. And if the hurt is still there, so is the passion. Maybe they're here with other people -- but if so, you'd never know it, because those other people melt away, like everyone else in the room.

He still has no idea where they stand, and in verse two he desperately tries to read her, to get a clue. "Perhaps you remember the bitter taste," he muses, "Perhaps you recall with a smile." And it's not just her memory he's got to parse, it's her present intentions. "Perhaps you envision the rapt embrace," he dares to hope; but on the other hand, it could be "the tentative kiss of a child."

This is all playing out in real time, and I for one am hooked. That languid tempo is brilliant -- it's so wary, and yet so damn seductive. They're edging toward each other, circling around, testing the waters. The melody is part of the game, too, with its tender little chromatics and plunging octave jumps. It's a tough melody to sing, and Stamey's not a natural crooner. But I don't know -- there's a vulnerability to his nasal, tentative vocal that makes this even more poignant.

A million pop songs have been written about having your heart broken, but only a handful are about having to survive heartbreak for the rest of your life. (Readers, help me out here -- what songs do you know that fit that bill?)  It's about being a grown-up, living with your own past. It takes a true poet like Chris Stamey to help us out with that.