Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Thursday Shuffle

The stack of new CDs on my desk is making me feel very guilty, but sorry -- coming off a few days of mild flu, I need to flex my blogging muscles first with a Shuffle. Herewith, the first Shuffle of 2013!

1. "To Be Someone (Didn't We Have A Nice Time?)" / The Jam
From All Mod Cons (1978)
All neurotic guitar strums, power chords, and rat-tat drums, the Jam gave punk rock a snappy urban flair that should have warned us Paul Weller wouldn't be happy for long in a rock straitjacket.  I love how the song evolves from the coaxing first verse ("To be someone must be a wonderful thing" ) through the punchy second verse ("No more swimming in a guitar-shaped pool") to the defiant chorus ("But didn't we have a nice time?"). How does a punk reconcile worldly success with his rebel outsider image?  

2. "She" / Gram Parsons
From Gp (1973)
Ah, so the new music shows up anyway! After years of thumbing past Gram Parsons LPs in record bins while looking for Graham Parker albums, a great article in the recent Uncut (which I only bought for the Ray Davies interview) persuaded me I've been missing something special all these years. And dang, they were right! Plangent and laid-back and oh, so country soulful.

3. "Build Me Up, Buttercup" / The Foundations
From Build Me Up Buttercup (1968)
An all-time feel-good favorite -- everybody knows those opening beats couldn't be anything else.

4. "She Comes Around" / The Fortunate Sons
From The Fortunate Sons (2008)
No, not a Creedence Clearwater tribute band -- these Fortunate Sons happen to be Scotland's answer to the Black Keys, a surprisingly persuasive Delta-blues band from Glasgow that  I fear may have broken up since this debut album was released. "She comes a-rround / To ease my pain, ease my pain" -- whoa, that vocal is just d r i p p i n g with lust.

5. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" / The Alan Price Set
From The House That Jack Built; The Complete 60s Sessions (2005)
In this BBC recording with his new band, Alan Price couldn't resist reinterpreting this Nina Simone song that had been such a hit for his former band, the Animals. (And gave it yet another spin in 2008.) Add some horns, slow down the tempo to a jazzy lope -- though still not as mournfully slow as Nina's -- a perfect declaration of independence. Sadly, this album is an out-of-print import -- grab it if you ever can.

6. "Over the Rainbow" / Israel Kamakawiwoole
From Facing Future (1993)
Yes, the song you've heard in countless movie soundtrack, just a simple ukelele and one heavenly voice singing two old standards that cannot fail to bring a lump to the throat. Call it schmaltz if you will, but it still provides an instant mood lift when it dials up on my shuffle.

7. "I Like It Like That" / Brinsley Schwarz
From Nervous on the Road (1972)
The kings of pub rock, inviting us to a party we don't want to miss. Don't know which of the Brinsleys is singing on this delicious old chestnut, but you can't mistake that roadhouse piano -- that's pure Bob Andrews. I only knew this as a Dave Clarke Five song; who knew it had been co-written by Chris Kenner and Allen Toussaint? How fitting that Bob Andrews now hangs with Toussaint's circle in New Orleans -- serendipity indeed.

8. "You Ain't A Cowboy (If You Ain't Been Bucked Off)" / Corb Lund
From Cabin Fever (2012)
A new favorite, from my end-of-year round-up. Definitely check this guy out!

9. "The Informer" / The Kinks
From Phobia (1993)
Maybe Ray Davies wrote this after seeing the old John Ford movie on late-night TV, but somewhere in there I believe he's also singing it to his brother Dave, as their forever-fraught relationship was on the verge of bringing the band crashing to an end. Poignant, poignant indeed....

10. "Blue Condition" / Alan Price and Georgie Fame
From Fame and Price, Price and Fame Together (1971)
What a lovely, if all too brief, collaboration this was. Georgie's innate jazz chops and Alan's R&B-pop instincts melted into each other like a dream. "I'm in a blue condition, and it's not too good for me / I'm in a strange position, I need you to set me free" -- oh, but there's nothing blue about Price's boppy, syncopated tune. They're having way too much fun here for anybody to feel blue.... 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

"Miss Marlene" / Donald Fagen

Hijacked again!

You know, I considered Donald Fagen's 2012 CD Sunken Condos for my 2012 "best of" list. I regret to say, it did not make the cut. My long-time Steely Dan affection not withstanding, Donald Fagen minus Walter Becker loses that lyrics edge that always made the difference for me.

But a few weeks into the new year, I find that I cannot dismiss this album. The hooks are still there, the funky-jazz groove still compelling. So what if every song isn't equally good?  There's still a track or two of prime material here, and the more I listen to them, the more they possess my brain.

And hey, we just don't have enough songs about bowling, do we?

In the manner of all Steely Dan numbers, it took a little while for the chorus to sink in. And when it did, I was a little dumbfounded. Is this really what he's singing about? "Can’t you hear the balls rumble? / Can’t you hear the balls rumble  / Miss Marlene / We’re still bowling / Every Saturday night." Are we in some hipster Big Lebowski universe set at the local bowling lanes?

But after all, why not? And I'm soon swept along by the song's syncopated charm, its plush textures, those slinky chord changes.  Dig how he hangs on the unresolved chord of "ruuummm-ble," willing the chord to resolve. I imagine him standing at the end of the lane, tilting to the side, urging his ball to veer into a better trajectory.

In verse after verse he plays with the conceit, filling in all sorts of esoteric bowling-specific references -- "when she release the red ball," "The ball would ride a moonbeam," "down the inside line," "You were throwin' back hurricanes," and my personal favorite, "We drop the seven-ten." In my limited bowling career, I have never been able to clear that split between the 7 pin and the 10 pin, but I've got the lingo if nothing else.

There isn't much story here, though Fagen does give us glimpses of the girl in the picture -- "With the long skinny legs, child / And your hoop earrings." (Prime pool hall skank, if you ask me.). And then the denouement in the sixth verse: "You ran into the dark street / At University Place / The cab came up so fast that / We saw your laughin' face." I know those streets and their skinny-jean clientele. I'm with her trying to grab that cab.

This is not a classic pop song; it does not make a major statement. Fagen probably thought up the lyrics in five minutes on a bowling evening, humming them under his breath as he waited for the automatic ball return. But I'm in no mood to quibble. Just sink into that fat instrumentation and let it roll.   

Donald Fagen delivers a very specific brand of goods, and does so consistently, song after song, album after album. The cool jazz sound and oddball lyrics score us some intellectual sophistication, but before we get too cerebral and pretentious, the song's rock guts kick in.  Hipster irony? Oh, folks, we are way beyond that here.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Express Yourself" /
Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band

Sure, I got hooked on this because of the Windows 8 commercial. Wanna make something of it? The same thing happened with the HP printer commercial that featured the Kinks' "Picture Book," and that triggered my 2005 Kinks renaissance, perhaps the third most significant musical revelation of my life. So why on earth should I look down on such serendipitous connections?

And at least I can say that I already had some of this group's tracks on my iTunes. Who could resist their mellow funk groove?

 Ah, 1970. The British Invasion had finally loosed its hold on my musical tastes, and Top-40 radio was giving way to the labyrinthine charms of album-oriented rock. A generation's musical tastes were truly up for grabs as they had never been before. As soul music morphed into free-form funk, it didn't matter whether listeners were black or white. Somewhere between Sly and the Family Stone "("Dance to the Music") and Parliament/Funkadelic ("Give Up the Funk"), here came the genial shuffle of Charles Wright's 103rd Street Watts Band.
Just as psychedelia was exploding the form of pop music, funk was exploding the boundaries of R&B, throwing in extended solos, jazz riffs, and a renewed focus on instrumentals rather than the vocals that had dominated Motown-style soul. Move it to the West Coast and let everything hang out.  
I really dig the shambolic charm of this track. What a kick it was when this thing came on the radio back in 1970. You could never quite predict all those "the-spirit-moved-me" oohs and grunts Wright throws in, but who cares?  It's all about the syncopated call-and-response of the horns, and that hip-shifting rhythm track. Lose yourself in the music and everything will be all right.
Lyrics? Need you ask? "Express Yourself" is actually a remarkable assemblage of Zen-like koans. "You don't ever need help / From no one else / All you got to do now / Express yourself" -- words to live by. "Whatever you do / Do it good" -- I swear, I want to needlepoint that on a sofa pillow.   
Or how about, "It's not what you look like when you're doing what you're doing / It's what you're doing when you're doing what you look like you're doing."  I am quite serious when I say, we'd all profit from making this our mantra. 
And how about this one: "Some people have everything that other people don't / But everything don't mean a thing if it ain't the thing you want." Solipsistic? I don't think so.
I suppose we could get all incensed about this power-to-the-people track being used to flog a computer operating system, but frankly, I'm past that. Time to get up off the couch and shake a tailfeather.   Nice if this puts a bit of change in Charles Wright's pocket; he deserves it. 

Sunday, January 06, 2013

"Save Me" / Aimee Mann

I have an exercise playlist called, simply, "Chicks." Hitting the gym this weekend (thank you, New Year's resolution), I was struck anew by this track, which drifted into my iTunes library, sent to me on a compilation disc by my friend Jim S. from Seattle. It's dwelled there quietly for a while. 

And then, the other day, it took over my brain. Which is a good thing.

I'm told that this song was a musical highlight of the film Magnolia. Having never seen Magnolia, I couldn't say -- as directors go, I'm more of a Wes Anderson fan than a Paul Thomas Anderson fan. So I come to the table with no movie-programmed reaction to this song. Nevertheless, I adore it.
Aimee Mann has already won a spot on my roster of Chicks Who Tell It Like It Is. But for some reason -- even though she once opened for the Kinks -- I have resisted making her one of my Home Girls. Time to change that.
The title reminds me of Fontella Bass's classic "Rescue Me" -- all appetite and sassy demands -- but "Save Me" is an entirely different sort of song. It's not about physical desire so much as the head games we ladies play with ourselves, way too often. Check out the backdoor way Aimee delineates why this woman has become so needful of this man. Against that loungy-yet-ominous tempo, it starts oh-so innocuously -- "You look like a perfect fit." But really, how romantic is that? And she quickly types herself as "The girl in need of a tourniquet." First-aid alert!  
And then the chorus cycles in, diving to the crux of the matter. "Can you save me / Come on and /  Save me. / If you could save me / From the ranks / Of the freaks / Who suspect /  They could never love anyone." A-HA! There we are. Raise your hand if you have EVER counted yourself in that not-so-exclusive club. Every time that chorus repeats, I feel tagged.
Note that she doesn't say the expected "freaks who suspect they will never be loved." Sure, there are legions of those, too. But those "who will never love anyone"? That's an even sadder and lonelier bunch, trapped between their own inadequacy and their crippling consciousness of it.  
Mind you, she's still on the brink of this relationship, still checking things out, testing the waters. Is he a worthy candidate? And note that it's less about him and his personal attractions than it is about her and her need. Really, anybody reasonably available would do.
Dig how brilliantly she uses key changes to signal the tentativeness of all this. The darkly cynical tone of the verses morphs uneasily to the tentative hope of the chorus, with its short, faltering phrases of lyrics. That transition from the freaks to the beloved is SO HUGE. Some of us are still working on it.
But here we are, still hoping. And as she references sufragettes ("the long farewell of the hunger strike") we find ourselves clinging to our split desire to be independent and yet beloved.
As the bridge puts it, "You struck me down / Like radium [Marie Curie alert for us smart girls!] / Like Peter Pan / or Superman / You will come...."   We've all been programmed to believe in heroes who will swoop in and save us.  How hard it is to give up that faith.
Sometimes I resent a song for recycling the chorus over and over. Not this time. Every time Aimee mentions "the ranks of the freaks" my heart leaps up. Because I am in those ranks, I harbor those suspicions, I deal with that self-doubting reflex every day. And I do not think that I am alone in this.
I know that I'm still waiting to be saved. How about you?