Friday, February 22, 2013

Young Americans / David Bowie

Before heading off the England for grad school in 1975, I spent weeks compiling audiocassettes of my must-have music, praying a dinky tape deck could replace my stereo system and shelves of vinyl. At the last minute, I ran to the nearest record store (remember those?) and supplemented my homemade mixtapes with a handful of new cassettes, impulse buys of completely new-to-me albums I hoped would help tide me over. Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits, for some reason, and Maria Muldaur's Waitress in a Donut Shop. Dylan's Nashville Skyline. Stevie Wonder's Innervisions. The soundtrack to The Harder They Come. Frank Zappa's Hot Rats. Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story. Steve Miller's The Joker.  J.J. Cale's Naturally. Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water (probably because the store didn't have Bookends, the one I really wanted). And -- one of the most random purchases of the day -- David Bowie's Young Americans.

An odd assortment, eh? But, separated from my LP collection, I played those tapes to death over the next two years, and I'll always have a special fondness for every track. (Because -- remember audiocassettes? -- we listened to tapes straight through; it was such a pain to fast-forward or back up.)

Even today, I can't listen to "Young Americans" without smiling.

My main reference point for Bowie up till then had been the glorious "Space Oddity" -- imagine my surprise to hear Mr. Glam Rock transformed into Soul Brother No. 33. Recorded in Philly, with R&B luminaries like Luther Vandross aboard, Young Americans (both song and album) was Bowie's homage to American soul music. In typically Bowie fashion, he never took this too seriously, describing his imitation as "plastic soul," or "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey." (The British talent for self-deprecation, in full flower.)

On top of that, the lyrics made absolutely no sense. It was like switching channels at random while watching late-night TV, a surreal montage of Life In These United States. I was hardly surprised when someone told me that Bowie wrote this after a 3-day coke binge. Of course!

But oh, the slick smooth hustle of that beat, underlaid with gospel choir back-up singers and David Sanborn's sizzling sax -- I just can't resist it. I love the edge of hysteria in Bowie's vocal, all gulps and pant and howls of ecstasy. Those random phrases still worm into into my head at the strangest moments, and once they do, I'm on that soul train for days.

Phrases like: "They pulled in just behind the bri-idge, he la-ays her down, / He frowns, / 'Gee-ee my life's a funny thing, am I still too young?'" (Calling James Dean!)   Later on in verse two, she gets her own bit of non sequitur dialogue, as for no reason at all "She cries 'Where have all Papa's heroes gone?'"

In the bridge, Bowie leans confiding into the mike for his own husky, half-spoken question: "Do you remember / Your President Nixon?" In 1975, that name still sent a chill through the room. Yet the riddling follow-up -- "Do you remember the bills you have to pay? / Or even yesterday?" -- I always assumed it meant that our society was still paying the price for the Nixon era, but now I wonder if I'm giving Bowie more satiric credit than he deserves. 

And that other haunting question, from verse three: "All the way from Washington [remember the March on Washington]? / Her bread-winner begs off the bathroom floor / 'We live for just these twenty years / Do we have to die for the fifty more?'" I often ask myself that question. Was Bowie really clever enough to skewer America's obsession with youth way back then? 

Still, there are a few flashes of real poetry. That sexy line "She took his ring, took his babies" in verse one; later on, "Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors / Blushing at all the Afro-Sheeners." I don't know what that really says about race relations in America, but I see it. And later on, he blurs the race lines even further, scatting "Black's got respect, and white's got his soul train." No one knows where they stand any more.

It's a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world all right, and Bowie keeps shifting the ground under our feet. In the first chorus, he sighs, "All night /She wants the young American" but later it's "He wants the young American," and then it's "you" and finally it's "I." Or as he babbles in the drawn-out, chaotic ending, "You want it, I want you, you want I, I want you want" -- who knows where desire begins or ends?

It's a mash-up all right -- dig the part when the backing singers quote the Beatles "A Day in the Life" -- "I heard the news today, oh boy." Along with his soul obsession, Bowie was in the middle of a John Lennon phase -- the YA LP also featured a Lennon-Bowie collaboration, "Fame," and Bowie's cover of Lennon's "Across the Universe." Let's throw it all in while we're at it!

My favorite questions, though, come in that final section:  "Ain't that close to love? /Well, ain't that poster love?" (I sing that to myself all the time, I swear.) And that prescient statement of gender role confusion: "Ain't there a man who can say no more? / And, ain't there a woman I can sock on the jaw?" (Ah, the British pronunciation of "jawr"...)

But the best is that dramatic moment when the instruments stop, the echo switches on, and Bowie drops to his knees to wail in his best James Brown voice: "Ain't there one damn song that can make me / Break down and cry?"

Beat, beat, wait for it -- and with a great keyboard gliassando the instruments rush in, the hustle picks up again, and we're back on the dance floor. Ah, a bizarre and wonderful song indeed.

Friday, February 15, 2013

"Stubborn Love" / The Lumineers

This always happens. Soon as I publish my annual Best of list, I discover some marvelous albums I didn't even know had been released in the past year. 

The Lumineers, f'r'instance. I can vaguely picture that band name scrolling across the tiny screen of our in-car Sirius receiver, but could I even connect that name with their supremely hooky single "Ho Hey"? I could not.

But I go ahead and buy the CD, because Amazon tells me that people who have bought this album have also bought albums by Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers. Why, that would be me, right? (Don't know about you, but I happen to appreciate those intrusive "you might also be interested in" suggestions that Netflix and Amazon generate from the personal information they have sucked out of my computer....)

And in this case, it did not steer me astray.


Turns out that the jangly loose vibe of "Ho Hey" is not all this band has to offer, which is why I'm sharing this wryly tender love song. "She'll lie and steal and cheat," singer Wesley Schultz begins fondly, over Neyla Pekarek's plangent old-timey cello. (Genius touch, by the way -- the banjo's been done to death lately.)  He's harboring no illusions about this girlfriend/lover -- she'll "beg you from her knees / Make you think she means it this time." I love that grave little pause at the end of each line, as he assesses the damage. "She'll tear a hole in you / One you can't repair / But I still love her, I don't really care."

The charming hookiness of "Ho Hey" surfaces in the chorus: "When we were young, oh-o-oh we did enough / When it got cold, oh-o-oh we bundled up / I can't be told, ah-ah-ah it can't be done." Let's be honest: hooks still work, people, and rootsy as they sound, the Lumineers totally get the magic of hooks.

He's the one whose love is so stubborn, and the tempo stays chipper as he reasons out the why and the wherefore in verse three: "It's better to feel pain  / Than never feel at all /  The opposite of love's indifference /  So pay attention now / I'm standing on your porch screaming out, / And I won't leave until you come downstairs." Shades of John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything.  Well, come on, someone in the relationship has to be the one who hangs in there.

"Keep your head up," he repeats over and over in the bridge, "keep your love." It's like a mantra -- if you repeat it over and over somehow it will bear fruit. You gotta love him for hanging in there.

I love the fact that these guys started out in New Jersey, did the Brooklyn scene for awhile, and decamped to Colorado to find their voice. (That cellist who makes all the difference? She came to them via a Craigslist ad.) Social media, local DJs, and indie labels charted their path to success, totally bypassing the Big Music Industry channels. More power to 'em.

Against my own instincts, I made myself watch the Grammy Awards last week, and lo and behold, there were the Lumineers, beards and fedoras and all, strumming their way into America's hearts. Nice to see them included in the Levon Helm tribute, to my mind the only thing that made that broadcast worth watching. (Okay, and the Bob Marley tribute too.)

Let's root for the grass-roots guys, the ones who somehow get onto the Grammy broadcast even though they've gone the indie route. They give me faith in the future of American music. Sometimes talent does win out.  

Saturday, February 09, 2013

"You Can't Fail Me Now" / Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt's always good -- that just goes without saying. So consistently excellent that I sometimes forget about her, especially when she hasn't put out a new album for a while.

All the more reason to celebrate her new album Slipstream. Because sometimes the stars are in alignment and a veteran rocker like Bonnie can even surprise herself.

As I've said before, Bonnie is one of my all-time Rock Sisters. But the X-factor in this album just may be producer Joe Henry, a sort of rock Zelig who turns up in so many quality projects lately. I first caught wind of him through his cover of the classic "Until You Came Into My Life" on a Starbucks compilation called Sweetheart Songs (which I bought only for Nick Lowe's cover of "It's All In the Game"). Joe Henry's track, though, made me sit up and take notice, make a point of remembering that name. Now I'm really curious.

Joe originally wrote this song with Loudon Wainwright for the Judd Apatow movie Knocked Up, a.k.a. the prequel to This Is 40, featuring the reunited Rumour with Graham Parker (just sayin'.). The connections just keep on coming....

Wainwright and Henry have both recorded this too, and their versions share the same langorous tempo, the same loungey jazz undertone. But Bonnie's richer, bluesier voice adds extra magic to this track. There's a pulse of passion in her syncopation, almost as if she's caressing the syllables; she heaves her voice into those rising intervals almost like a drowsy cat stretching. She sounds skeptical, a little weary, soulful but not sorrowful. Standing her ground, cocking a hip. Damn sexy.
I love how this song encapsulates a vivid moment of truth: "I know that fan is moving air / I can see it in your hair / But I can't bear / To breathe it in somehow."  That cresting first melodic line holds such hope, but the rest of the verse soon gets tangled up on equivocation. We're in shifting emotional territory here, strikingly evoked in lines such as "the stain of love's a smudge across my brow," "I bit off more than I can chew," and the great couplet, "I lost the thread among the vines / And hung myself in story lines." It's a humbling moment, when you realize that your lover actually may have more of a valid case against you than you suspected.
And yet you realize, with surprise, that you still trust your better half -- that "you can't fail me now," It's a matter of life or death, actually, a casting of your heart out upon uncertain seas -- that leap of faith without which no love can really survive.
Leap of faith, I'm telling you. "We're taught to love the worst of us / And mercy more than life, but trust me / Mercy's just a warning shot across the bow / I live for yours / And you can't fail me now." You're exposed, you're vulnerable -- and you put your life completely in the other person's hands. Which takes so much blind faith.
For once, Bonnie -- a formidable guitarist in her own right -- cedes the ground to the great, truly great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and the whole thing coheres in a low-to-the-ground groan of need and desire. This is one of the things I most love about Bonnie Raitt, how she's willing to jettison everything for the emotional core of the blues. I am feeling like crap and this seems to be the only way out. Only a truly intelligent woman could take the low road when it's the only road that makes sense.
And shoot -- let's just jump off that cliff. Because why not?