Thursday, December 25, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Christmas Must Be Tonight" /
My Morning Jacket

And then on Christmas Eve itself you get so busy doing all the rituals -- wrapping the presents, filling the stockings, watching A Christmas Story on cable -- that you completely forget to open the last door on your advent calendar.

But when you do -- probably after dinner on Christmas Day -- there's a baby Jesus in a manger and the whole nativity scene, which is after all the point of the advent countdown.

So here's my nativity scene, courtesy of My Morning Jacket -- a faithfully Americana cover of this 1977 modern carol song by The Band. 

And because it's a holiday, I'll let the song speak for itself -- except to add, Merry Christmas to all!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Mary's Boy Child" /
The Springfields

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

So who are the Springfields?  I could say they were England's answer to Peter, Paul and Mary, except they didn't stay together long enough to become that much of a folk institution.  But listen when the female singer takes off in the second verse -- sound familiar?

Yes, that's Dusty Springfield herself (born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien), singing with her brother Tom (born Dionysius O'Brien), who would later write the hit song "Georgy Girl" for the Seekers. The Springfields only played together from 1961 to 1963, but they did have one big hit -- "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" in 1962 -- before Dusty split off to launch her blockbuster solo career.

This is from their 1962 Christmas EP Christmas with the Springfields.  Listeners at the time would have recognized it as a 1957 Harry Belafonte #1 hit single. The Springfields slightly tone down the calypso rhythm, but it still dances along. And while it tells the traditional Christmas story, shepherds and angels and star and all, it's filtered through a bit of an island sensibility ("so the Holy Bible say..." "by and by they find a little nook . . . "). The humble birth is more important than the glory here, though Dusty's powerful contralto throws in an entire heavenly host for good measure.

Poking around the internet, I was delighted to find this rare track -- and amazed to find a YouTube video of it as well.  I felt so certain that Dusty Springfield, with her Roman Catholic convent school upbringing, must have a Christmas song around somewhere, and here it is.  I love that it's not a holiday romance pop song, not a jokey Santa cartoon, but something celebrating the actual Nativity.  That refrain -- "Now man will live forever more / Because of Christmas Day" -- well, that's the most important thing about Christmas.  God bless you, Dusty.

Monday, December 22, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"In the Bleak Midwinter" /
Cyndi Lauper

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

All these modern pop holiday songs are fine as far as they go, but with two days left until Christmas Eve, I'm feeling the need for some honest-to-goodness Christmas carols.  Who'd have thought that the Girls Just Want to Have Fun fun girl would deliver such a thing?

Turns out that Cyndi's got a candy-cane-striped streak of Christmas love in her heart -- in fact, she released an entire holiday album (Merry Christmas . . . Have a Nice Life) in 1993, which mixes party numbers like "Christmas Conga" with a handful of deliciously sincere traditional carols.  And since this is one of my favorite carols . . .

There she is, plucking her autoharp, with an Irish tin whistle counterpoint (this well before Lords of the Dance made the pennywhistle such a pop cliché). Cyndi sings it straight, reminding us that in fact she has a pretty fine voice. After all, if you can't drop the cynical pose at Christmas, when can you?

It's a song with a great pedigree. The lyrics were written by Victorian poet Christina Rossetti in 1872;  they were set to music in 1906 by English composer Gustav Holst (he also wrote the trippy orchestral suite "The Planets").  Holst deliberately went for an English folk tune sound for this song, underscoring the Thomas Hardy vibe of the thing. 

Only a real poet could pack her images so concisely into those simple, elemental words -- "frosty wind made moan / Earth stood hard as iron / Water like a stone."  With just four words, she creates a blizzard -- "Snow had fallen / Snow on snow on snow" -- to which Cyndi adds an icy ripple of melisma. That's scene setting for you.

She sketches every actor in the traditional nativity scene -- angels and archangels in verse two, Mary "in her maiden bliss" kissing the baby. We see the shepherd and wise men too, in verse three, as she wistfully asks "What can I give him / Poor as I am?" (love that Victorian tug on the social conscience). But the answer's there all along, as she hushes tenderly, humbly: "What I can I give him? / Give my heart." Which was what the baby Jesus wanted all along -- what he came to earth for.

Our choir sings this every year for the children's Christmas pageant, and I can just about never get through that third verse without weeping. (Luckily I get lost in the alto section and no one in the audience notices.) Like I said, if you can't drop the cynical pose at Christmas, when can you?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Maybe This Christmas" /
Ron Sexsmith

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith does earnest very well, probably because it's genuine. (At least that's what I want to believe, based on meeting him once for five minutes after a show. If you know different, don't spoil it for me.)  Christmas songs are a natural fit for him.  I also dig his jazzy "Hooves on The Roof," sung by Nick Lowe on his 2013 Quality Street.  But with the holiday fast approaching, I have to vote instead for this folky gem, the title track of the 2002 Maybe This Christmas charity album for Toys for Tots.

With just a little jangle laid down behind his acoustic guitar, Ron tentatively proposes "Maybe this Christmas will mean something more / Maybe this year / Love will appear / Deeper than ever before."  He's asking gently -- wishing rather -- in hopeful, upward skipping intervals. 

And no, he's not just talking about the falling-in-love kind of love. There are plenty of other cheesy pop songs out there asking for that. What Ron's after is something rarer: "And maybe forgiveness will ask us to call /  Someone we love, / Someone we've lost / For reasons we can't quite recall."  Those dim urgings of human kindness -- that's what he's holding out for, and the steady thrumming beat tells us he's not giving up until he gets it.

Not that he isn't a realist. Wistful "maybes" pile up in the bridge:  "Maybe there'll be an open door / Maybe the star that shined before /  Will shine once more, oh."  But miracles can happen, and while he's not hammering too hard on that reference to the open stable door in Bethlehem and its star shining above, it's clearly there.

In the last verse he draws the religious message even closer: "And maybe this Christmas will find us at last / In Heavenly peace, / Grateful at least  / For the love we've been shown in the past." It's gentle theology -- take it or leave it -- but so sweetly done.

Even if you don't believe in Jesus, you have to admit, our world would be a better place if this kind of love could get some traction. Isn't Christmas as good a time as any for a reboot? 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Thank God It's Christmas" /

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Amid all the tacky extravagant sentiment of holiday pop music, count on Freddie Mercury to pull out all the stops.

"Oh, my love," he emotes mournfully, "We've had our share of tears."  Not the most upbeat opening, and he follows it up with a wistful, "Oh, my friends / We've had our hopes and fears." Key shift up, volume raised, he adds, "Oh, my friends / It's been a long hard year."  Amen to that, brother.

And then, in anthemic Queen fashion (you knew this was coming), he belts out, "Thank God it's Christmas / Yes it's Christmas / Thank. God. It's. CH-RRISTMAS."  Clinging to it like a man on a sinking ship.

He trots out all the pop song tinsel -- the stars, the snow, the synths, the background chorus -- but I love the way he goes for broke here. Why not throw all your hopes on this one day?  (Or even -- as he suggests in the bridge -- make it be Christmas every day?)  Like all great divas, he knew that passion can in fact go hand in hand with over-the-top production -- if you truly believe.

In the third verse, he laments, "Oh my love / We live in troubled days / Oh my friends / We have the strangest ways."  This song was written in 1984, but here we are, thirty years later, and we're still living in troubled time with strange ways. You'd think mankind would have wised up by now. But apparently not -- which is why we still need Christmas.

Friday, December 19, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Christmas at the Airport" /
Nick Lowe

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Ah, the Friday before Christmas, one of the big travel days of the holiday season. Traveling at Christmas can such a joy-killer, it's a marvel nobody thought to write a song about it before. (That is, if you don't count "Jingle Bells" as a road song.)  Leave it to Nick Lowe to lead off his 2013 holiday album Quality Street with this most unsentimental track:

The sound-effects lead-in -- airport PA announcements, crowd noise -- set off a visceral travel anxiety in me right away. But then here comes Nick, jovially strumming an acoustic guitar, with a few licks on surf guitar and electric piano to add jet-set sparkle. 

The scenario is simple -- as he arrives at the airport, a snowstorm has just begun, and suddenly flight after flight is being cancelled. It's a clever conceit, turning upside-down the old Christmas standard pieties about white Christmases. Yes, we've been programmed to hope for snow at Christmas, but when it does come, what a hassle!  (Shades of the comedy classic film Planes, Trains and Automobiles with John Candy and Steve Martin.)

There was a time when air travel seemed glamorous, but that era's long past.  What with ever-lengthening security lines and ever-shrinking seat space, passengers get cranky and miserable in no time, and massive weather delays ratchet that up even further.  ("The terminal was seething / Without much Christmas cheer," as Nick starts out verse two.)  Worst of all is knowing that you're anxiously expected at the other end for a date that can't be changed. 

Still, Nick keeps things whimsical, as he messes around the empty airport ('I'm doing Santa's sleigh ride / On the baggage carousel"). I must say, he's taking the disappointment well in stride -- maybe escaping the obligatory family gathering is a blessing in disguise?  He finishes off his third verse in snappy style:  "I should be at the table / With all my kith and kin [I can count on one finger the songwriters I know who would use that vintage phrase] / It looks like Christmas, Christmas at the airport / Don't save me any turkey / I found a burger in a bin."  Pow, whop, alliteration and absurdity packed in that last zinger of line -- and he's outta there.

There's songcraft for you. Let others get mushy or corny at Christmas -- not our Nick.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Atheist Christmas" /
Robert Crenshaw

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

As someone who does believe in the Christmas story, I get annoyed when self-professed atheists sneer at Christmas just because of its rampant commercialization and tack-i-fication.  So I was wary of this "holiday" song by Robert Crenshaw, the title track of his 2012 EP.  But that in-your-face is really a bait-and-switch. . .

The point is, even if you don't officially "believe" in Jesus, there is much about this holiday to love, and this song lovingly resurrects all of that.  "The holidays are complicated," he acknowledges right off the bat, noting that the winter solstice -- the original pagan holiday -- "doesn't have Santa Claus." Yet right there in the liner notes we see a circa 1960 snapshot of the Crenshaw boys with a department store Santa (an event Robert's brother Marshall too has referenced in his song "Live and Learn" from Jaggedland.) I get a warm feeling just thinking about the Crenshaw family Christmas.
Because Christmas can fill some holes in the soul. In the second verse, Robert elaborates: "This year I really needed Christmas / We put up lights and got a tree / We got presents for family and friends / Some dogs and cats got some treats." It sounds so simple, but take it away, and what are you left with?
It's being with family that matters, of course, but also honoring traditions. (Love the line in verse three, "We loved the Christmas songs, many written by Jews.") Yearning for tried-and-true comforts himself, he gives us a charmingly retro arrangement, with all the cheesy details we fall for this time of year -- a wintry flute, snowflake spangles of percussion, caroling harmonies from the back-up singers. 
In the chorus, he surrenders happily to the whole shebang: "So I'm having an atheist Christmas / I know it's crazy, but so? Ho Ho Ho. / And I hope you find yourself in a moment of pure bliss / Under the mistletoe / With beautiful lights and snow." There it is, wrapped up in shiny paper and tied with a bow. Even if you don't believe in Christ, here's something heart-warming you can believe in.  It's so, so, SO much better than nothing. 
My Musical Advent Calendar

"Christmas Is For Mugs" /
Graham Parker

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Trust my man Graham Parker to keep holiday spirits from getting too cloying.  His 1994 EP Graham Parker's Christmas Cracker is definitely one of my unsentimental Yuletide go-to's. (See here for a bit of "Soul Christmas.")  But you don't release a Christmas record if you really do hate the holiday, and snarky as GP's take may be, I've still gotta think he gets a kick out of it.

It's a great shaggy-dog story, as Graham does so well. Though he's in full Americana mode, he's shopping around modern-day London for a present that'll please his darling -- and yet everything goes disastrously awry.  We've all been there, up against that December 24 deadline, panicking when gift after gift fails, and Christmas spirit is in woefully short supply.

That jaundiced chorus says it all: "Now everybody's talking about the kisses and the hugs / And all the little heartstrings that the festive season tugs / But all I see are lager louts, shoplifters and thugs / So fill mine up, 'cause Christmas is for mugs."

And yet . . . and yet . . and yet.

Last verse, in which brilliant wordsmith Graham flaunts not just four rhymes, but five: "Now all the crepe and tinsel is left lying on the floor / The wreath we hung up weeks ago is rotting on the door / And I'd like to punch the lights out of that crooked tree vendor / And if I saw St. Nick tonight there'd be a scene of gore  / I'd throw a match into the fire and make the chimney roar." And not in a good way.

My take on this?  Sure, it makes him mad -- because somewhere in there, he still wants for Christmas to be something special. Something magical. And when it isn't . . .

But what the hey. If nothing else, we'll fill our mugs (pun intended) and make do with what we can get out of the holiday season.  Because here we are, in the scrum of real life, and we'll deal with it just fine. What really matters, of course, is the fact that he loves his partner and would love to get her a present that will make her happy. The world's working against him, but he's a guy who can go with the flow.

A real-world Christmas scenario -- I'm cool with that.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Wonderful Christmastime" /
The Shins

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Why do so many musical cooler-than-thous like to bash Paul McCartney?  They'll point to "Silly Love Songs" as if it were the only song he ever recorded in his post-Beatles career and condemn him for a sentimental hack.

Well, he is sentimental, I'll grant you that, and being a sentimental guy, it was almost inevitable he'd record a modern Christmas classic. "Wonderful Christmas Time" came out as a single in 1979, and every year it puts several more pounds and dollars in the already substantial McCartney bank account. Critics hate it, of course.

But lo and behold, look at how cool the song seems when you've got indie stars like The Shins covering it.

The Shins covered this for a 2012 Starbucks holiday anthology, and I'm betting that James Mercer couldn't wait to get his hands on it, having lived in England as a kid, where this song is even more ubiquitous in December than it is here. (Dig the Macca-esque Liverpudlian vowels James Mercer can't help throwing in  -- "the spirit's up," "and that's enough." It's all part of the homage.) They've relaxed the tempo and traded in the synthesizers for electric piano, all of which helps the song sound a good deal more mellow. But otherwise, it's a pretty straight cover.

But is this really such a sentimental song?  The Shins do melancholy very well, and they bring out an almost edgy undertone of what's not right with the world.  Just being there with his friends/lover/family is "enough" -- he doesn't dare to ask for anything too big. (Not like Stevie Wonder, asking for world peace.)  He reminds us that this festive party spirit "only comes this time of year," with crowd chatter muddying up the background track toward the end. That raucous choir of children is singing just off key. And there's nothing icky-sweet about that third verse: "The word is out / About the town / To lift a glass / Ahhh don't look down."  (Followed by a vertiginous three beats of silence as, of course, they do look down anyway.)

So let's wrestle Christmas happiness out of whatever we've got, with tripping syncopation, upward melodic lines, and scale-mounting chord changes. We're not telling you that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year -- we're making you feel it in the music itself.  It's a pretty irresistible song in my book, no matter who sings it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Santa's Lost His Mojo" /
Jeremy Lister

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Well, we still have several days to go until Christmas, so let's keep the mood light.  Here's another  kitschy Santa song, from former The Voice contestant Jeremy Lister:

Nashville singer-songwriter Lister was obviously having fun with this syncopated novelty song, first released on a 2008 compilation Ten out of Tenn.  His wry concept of a stressed-out Santa Claus going off on a bender isn't classic country, but close enough.

The bridge always makes me grin:  "Deck the halls with boughs of holly / We've got to get Kringle back to feeling jolly." But the part of this song that really sticks in my ear is that repeated lead-in  "ho, ho, ho, ho, oh no" climbing in backbeat rhythm up an ominous scale. That's the sort of hook that should have made Jeremy Lister more of a star.

I loved Jeremy's appearances on The Voice so much that I actually remembered him as having won his season -- Season 3, I think it was -- so I'm a little bummed to look on-line and find no record of him even among the finalists.  Well, since none of the top winners seemed to have made much of a splash since, I guess it's no surprise that he too seems still to be waiting for his career to gain traction. If nothing else, he's given us a holiday treat that keeps on giving.

You never know what you'll find when you dig around the internet. I'd much rather listen to something tongue-in-cheek like this than another frantically belted-out "All I Want For Christmas Is You," a tune which is well-nigh inescapable this time of year.  If you feel the same way, download this track from iTunes -- a struggling artist could really use the vote of support.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"A Change at Christmas
(Say It Isn't So)" /
The Flaming Lips

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Let me start out by confessing that I know nothing about the Flaming Lips. They first hit the scene in the late 1980s, when I was completely uninterested in new music for various reasons, and despite the fact that some people whose taste I vastly respect are huge Flaming Lips fans, I just never  . . . bothered.  If I were sufficiently motivated, I could always remedy that omission, but -- well, life is too short to follow every good band out there.

But in my search for Christmas music, I was thrilled to uncover this gem, from their 2003 EP Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell.

Those cheesy spangly synths at the beginning get me in the holiday spirit right away, and I have a weakness for that "live in the studio" effect where the musicians do their countdowns.  It makes me forgive the shambolic texture of this song -- no rhymes, no catchy melody, no crisp arrangement with choirs and strings.  Set against the slickness of so many holiday songs, this one is bracingly different.

Singer Wayne Coyne sounds almost apologetic, uncertain, mumbling about change and the future and hey, you never know.  He sets us up for ambiguity. But verse two suddenly zeroes in on the point: "Oh, if I could stop time / It would be a frozen moment just around Christmas / When all of mankind reveals its truest potential / And there is sympathy for the suffering / Yes, there is sympathy for those who are suffering."  I can just feel the glimmer of hope in his voice, and it rings truer because he doesn't sound like a guy who normally has a lot of faith in human nature.

But if we can do this at Christmas time -- well, why stop there?  He puzzles, "And it's glimpsed for one shining moment / And this change feels like a change that's real / But then it passes along with the season / And then we just go back to the way we were / Yes, we just go back to the way we were." Why is that, anyway?

In the last verse, a friend tells him that it's just human nature, not to expect more of people. But in his kinda geeky, real-guy voice he struggles to believe better -- to dream, to say it isn't so, not to give up on the human race.

Is this an optimistic song?  That's for you to decide. But I cling to his glimpse of Christmas bringing out the best in people -- and his hope that someday we'll find a way to make that happen year round.. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Someday at Christmas" /
Stevie Wonder

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Yesterday, we had Kevin Morris -- today, Stevland Morris.

Promoting peace and love for the Christmas season?  Keb' Mo' (see yesterday's post) didn't invent the idea -- in fact, I'm pretty sure he grew up, as I did, with this Stevie Wonder classic in his head.

Written by Motown stalwart Ron Miller, who'd penned many of Stevie's earlier Motown hits, this gem appears on Stevie's 1967 album of the same name.  Let's get some context here: Stevie was 17 years old at the time -- seventeen! -- and despite the political ferment of the times, he was still pretty much a Motown property who did and said what Berry Gordy told him to.  It would be a couple more years before Stevie had enough hits under his belt to push Gordy for the right to write and perform more socially relevant material. But the Stevie who was soon to give us Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life was already starting to feel his wings, and you can feel his social conscience thrumming through this song.

Idealistic? You bet. "Someday at Christmas men won't be boys / Playing with bombs like kids play with toys" -- we're still waiting for that, Stevie. And we're still waiting for the day when "there'll be no wars," when "all men are free," and where there "no hungry children." I'm tempted to say that this song foretold the future, but no, those same problems were there in 1967 too. The thing is, we haven't solved them yet, not by a long shot.  Which is why we still need this song today.

And there he is, with that glorious young voice, melismatic and earnest and trustingly naïve.  It's a near perfect production, building at just the right pace, layering on more with every verse -- strings, a choir, the whole shebang -- but never tipping over into cheesiness. And what's even more important: This song never gets preachy or hectoring.  He's just dreaming, and hoping that the Christmas magic will help his dream along.

Well, it's 47 Christmases later, and we're still a mess of a world.  But every year, hearing Stevie sing this gives me new hope.  And if that isn't the Christmas spirit, I don't know what is.

Friday, December 12, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"We Call It Christmas" /
Keb' Mo'

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

And now for something completely different -- a song that's actually about the Christmas spirit, courtesy of that master updater of the blues traditon, Keb' Mo'.  In this season of ugly politics and social unrest, we could all do with a little more of this.

It's true, Keb' Mo' has a weakness for peace-and-love messages (witness his covers of "Imagine," "For What It's Worth," and "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding"), but as a child of the 60s, that's a bandwagon I'm happy to climb onto with him.  Cliched as it easily could sound, I hear nothing but sincerity in his call for "All about peace, no fighting anywhere / Knowing there's enough for everyone to share / And a heavenly choir comes over the land / Fills each and every heart with something we all understand." Do you really want to be the Grinch who argues with that? 

Keb's so PC, he even adds, "We call it Christmas / And it's known by many names / We call it Christmas / And it's for everyone all the same."  So let's get past the labels and back to the important thing: the spirit of love this season can bring if we're not too pig-headed to ignore it.

I'm guessing this is a Keb original -- it sounds like his trademark easy-listening blues sound. (I mean easy-listening in a good way -- I adore Keb' Mo's music and I urge you to listen to more of it.) I found this track on a 2000 Sony Christmas compilation titled Christmas Calling; my less-than-exhaustive research only turns up one other version, which is a Little River Band cover in 2011. Theirs is pretty sweet, too, but this original's laid-back folk-blues arrangement, along with Keb's warm voice and light touch, delivers the message flawlessly. It's a song you can sink gratefully into and, at least for a moment, hope -- believe -- that he's right.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Zat You, Santa Claus?" /
Buster Poindexter

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

There's a whole vein of Christmas music focused on the Jolly Old Elf, from the comic ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus") to the lascivious ("Back Door Santa") to the funky ("Sock It To Me Santa") to the indie-weird ("Get Behind Me, Santa").  I guess if you don't want to sing about the real meaning of Christmas, it's easy to sing instead about snow and reindeer and St. Nicholas.

And yes, this song -- a cover of a Louis Armstrong gem from the mid-1950s -- is played for comic effect.  But as sung by lounge lizard extraordinaire Buster Poindexter (a.k.a. former New York Dolls frontman David Johansen), this midnight encounter with Saint Nick trumps even Satchmo's original with its campy irony.

(Sorry for the ad and the grainy quality -- this was probably ripped off of MTV in 1987 -- but for this one, you really gotta see the video.)

Johansen's naturally got the growly vocals just like Armstrong, but translating it to a Park Avenue bachelor pad (dig the smoking jacket) makes perfect sense, given the jazzy big band arrangement.  This came out a year before Johansen played the taxi driver/Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooged, Bill Murray's delightful wiseguy version of A Christmas Carol.  No doubt David/Buster was already campaigning for the part.

The story is negligible; there's no point in wondering why Santa would decide to burgle this guy's apartment. The whole point, really, is that finger-snapping jump-jive rhythm, the kitschy horn fills, and the overall wacky sense of fun.  Louis Armstrong had a laugh with this song, but Buster Poindexter takes it to another level.  And when you think that this came out in 1987 -- a notably lean year in Fun Rock Music (that is, unless you thought the Smiths were as funny as I did) -- well, it was a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Still is, if you ask me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Christmas (Baby
Please Come Home)" /
Darlene Love

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

I must have been on the nice-not-naughty list that year back in college when, as the newspaper's record reviewer, I was sent a free copy of  a early 1970's re-release of Phil Spector's Christmas Album. I consider this record a holiday-must-have right up there with Nat King Cole's Christmas album and the Robert Shaw Chorale's Joy to the World.  It's a stocking full of pop standards performed by all the girl groups, underlaid with Spector's trademark wall of sound.

Among its many tasty treats, none is greater than this justly celebrated Darlene Love track.

Like Dean Martin's rendition of "Baby It's Cold Outside," Darlene's version of this 1963 Ellie Greenwich-Jeff Barry song is so perfect, I really don't ever want to hear anybody else sing it. There are dozens of covers out there, but please, folks, beware of imitations.

Inside scoop has it that Phil commissioned this song for his then-wife, Ronnie, but she couldn't give it the raw power Phil had envisioned. Hearing Darlene run through it in the studio, he promptly gave it to her instead. (Add that to Ronnie's grounds for divorce.)  But as usual, Phil was actually right.

Like a lot of pop holiday songs, it really has very little to do with Christmas. The story line is dead simple:  Darlene's guy isn't around, and she wishes he were, and the holiday gaiety makes being alone even harder. "They're singing Deck the Halls / But it's not like Christmas at all / I remember when you were here / And all the fun that we had last year." The particulars remain vague -- f'instance, WHY isn't he there?  Did they break up? Is he a soldier overseas?  Did he go off to prison?  Any and all could be true -- but what really matters is the anguish of her pleas for him to just come home, dammit.

It's not a conversation, really.  I don't get the sense that he's hearing her sing, or even that he will (or can) come home. She's not apologizing or blaming or trying to change the situation in any way. There's no story, just emotion:  She misses him, she misses the good times they used to have, and she feels out of sorts with the world.  It's a song that could easily sound mopey or self-pitying (dig up Death Cab for Cutie's version if you prefer that), but not when Darlene's singing it.  Oh-ho, no, not at all.  And with that buoyant arrangement, it's anything but a downer. What a magical sleight-of-hand that is.

As per usual with a Spector production, there's an amazing line-up of studio musicians here -- Leon Russell on piano, Hal Blaine on drums, arranger Jack Nitzsche on percussion, Tommy Tedesco and Barney Kessel on guitar, Jay Migliori on sax -- even Sonny Bono on percussion, with his wife Cher as one of the backing singers. (They needed more than the usual percussion crew on this album, to add a festive layer of sleigh bells, church chimes and egg shakers to sound like falling snow.)  True, you can never pick out any individuals on a Phil Spector track. But it's good to know they're all there, adding to the joyous avalanche of sound.

Ah, they just don't make 'em like this anymore.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Baby It's Cold Outside" /
Dean Martin

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

So what are the holidays without some vintage cheese? 

I'm talking Rat Pack cheese here, of the most oleaginous kind, courtesy of Mr. Dino Paul Crocetti, a.k.a The King Of Cool, Dean Martin.  I used to love watching his 1960s variety show, where, cigarette always in hand, he boozed around with a bevy of creamy showgirls for the American viewing public. (Honestly, if you've never seen those shows, dig up an episode or two -- they were a fascinating weekly ritual of show biz tropes.)  With his crinkly blue eyes and corkscrew black forelock, he eventually broke out of the 1950s pack of male Italian crooners, yet he was always overshadowed by his movie partner Jerry Lewis, then by his Ocean's 11 pal Frank Sinatra. Dean never quite got enough credit for the burnished beauty of his crooning tenor, not to mention his considerable acting chops.

Dean recorded two full Christmas albums, but for sheer pop perfection, this track from his 1959 A Winter Romance LP will forever be my favorite.

Frank Loesser wrote this standard in 1944; it appeared in the 1949 MGM film Neptune's Daughter, an Esther Williams movie. Written as a duet, it's a teasing conversation between an innocent and a sly seducer. (In the movie it's sung twice -- once with Ricardo Montalban seducing Esther Williams, and then a more comic version with Betty Garrett seducing a rube played by Red Skelton.)  But Deano wasn't content to sing it with just one woman -- no, he's got a whole female chorus on that other part, as he exerts his laid-back charm to convince them to stay over in his bachelor pad.

But methinks the ladies doth protest too much.  As Dean rebuts their every argument, his supple voice practically caresses them. "I'll hold your hands -- they're cold as ice", "Put some records on while I pour," "I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell" -- now who resist blandishments like that?

And it really is getting awfully cold outside . . .

Monday, December 08, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Merry Christmas to the Family" /
Jill Sobule

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Ah, yes, let's get ourselves in a holiday mood with this deliciously dyspeptic charmer, written by the brilliant Texas country songwriter Robert Earl Keen Jr. and sung by the subversively charming Jill Sobule. You can find it on You Sleigh Me, a 1995 Atlantic Records compilation of Christmas songs by various of the label's artists. (This would have been just after Jill's self-titled sophomore album and her first MTV hit "I Kissed A Girl".)  No wonder she looks like a kid in this video:

An interesting choice for a young pop hopeful, on an LP where her label-mates were crooning stuff like "Blue Christmas" and "The First Noel." But then, Jill has always marched to her own drummer, and that wicked glint of humor in her eye is precisely why I love her.

Now that we're sunk deep in the reality TV morass of Honey Boo-Boo and Duck Dynasty, perhaps this dysfunctional family portrait doesn't seem quite as satiric as it did 20 years ago, but it's still a hoot.  It's like a slow-motion train wreck, as each ill-assorted family member strolls in the door. I can just feel the downward spiral of events gathering force.

But notice how Keen keeps the sentiment just this side of snarky, mainly with that innocently holy refrain of Feliz Navidad (leave it to a Texan). And Jill brings her own daffy sweetness to the table, judging nobody and ready to go with the flow. Because, hey, why not?

Truth be told, if you strip away the socio-economic particulars, doesn't this out-of-control holiday reunion bear a scary likeness to all our families? The names have been changed to protect the innocent, that's all.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Veterans Day Eve Shuffle

[that has nothing to do with Veteran's Day...]

TIP: Click on the title to see a video of the song, if there is one.

1. "Tell Me More and More and Then Some" / Nina Simone
From Pastel Blues (1965)
Lordy, lordy, lordy. That husky contralto with just a quaver of emotion -- that languid tempo, the growly piano and persistent counterpoint of harmonica -- I don't know the Billie Holliday original but I can't imagine she captured the raw sexual longing of this song any better than this.  

2. "Modern Love" / David Bowie
From Let's Dance (1983)
Ah. One of the classics, as I rhapsodize here.

3. "We Were Both Wrong" / Dave Edmunds
From Repeat When Necessary (1979)
Dave Edmunds and his back-up band Rockpile charge through this number by guitarist Billy Bremner (credited to his pseudonym Billy Murray) with their characteristic finger-snapping sexiness, all straight-legged jeans and a cigarette pack in the rolled-up shirtsleeves. How, when all the other kids on the block were going all jangly and New-Wave-y, did Dave E convince his pals to commit so totally to rockabilly? That swaggering retro guitar intro sounds so Nashville, it's amazing it came out of London.

4. "One (Blake's Got A New Face)" / Vampire Weekend
From Vampire Weekend (2008)
Mmm-hmn.  Now, that I mention it, there's something jangly and New Wave-y about this song, 30 years later though it may be. Stitching together musical styles in a world-music montage, this song weaves a cryptic spell.  But mostly I love how Ezra Koenig yelps "Blake!" in the hypnotic refrain. Sometimes that's all it takes.

5. "Working in a Coal Mine" / Lee Dorsey
From The New Lee Dorsey, 1966
And here's another yelp that makes the song. It's that hooky refrain, the monotonous "working in a coal mine, / going down down down / working in a coal mine / Whoop! about to slip down" that's forever branded on my musical memory. Dig the sound effect of pick axes hitting metal, too. Written by Allen Toussaint, memorably covered by Devo -- it's one of the great pop songs about physical labor, a worthy companion to Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang."

6. "Shoplifters of the World Unite" / The Smiths
From Louder Than Bombs (1987)
No monotony here, just Morrissey's campy enervated vocals -- but it's about oppression, all the same. (Or is it? I never know with the Smiths...)

7. "Don't B Movie Me" / Georgie Fame
From Georgie Fame 1973
Two minutes into his teen-idol career, Georgie Fame was already shrugging off the pop shackles to became the jazz keyboardist he'd always really been, borrowing happily from ska and blues as well. I'm sorry I couldn't find a video for this one; you may not even be able to find a video link. (My version was lifted from vinyl -- it would not be an exaggeration to say that I invested in a turntable and software mostly just to capture my old Georgie Fame LPs). Sigh. Sometimes I wonder if Elvis Costello knew this song when he wrote "B Movie" on Get Happy!  Any other artists, I'd say it was a coincidence, but you never know with Elvis...

8. "Just A Thought" / Gnarls Barkley
From St. Elsewhere (2006)
No trouble finding a video for this one. I promise you, I had this song on my iTunes long before I discovered Cee Lo Green as a judge on The Voice.  Glad to see he was always a musical chameleon -- what is this song?  It's not hip-hop, it's not R&B, it's not indie pop (not with all those grating musical effects).  Weird song, sublime vocal. Sometimes I think this guy is from Mars.

9. "I Pray Now" / Fred Eaglesmith
From Tinderbox (2008)
And while we're at it, what label would you slap on Fred Eaglesmith?  He's like the Canadian heir to Pete Seeger's populist folk mantle, but only if you throw in crunchy Tom Waits guitar effects and dead-eye Neil Young political commentary. "I pray now / I pray now / I didn't use to pray" -- it's prayer on the edge of desperation, and you have to fear whatever drove this man to his knees.

10. "For Debbie Reynolds" / Robyn Hitchcock
From Shadow Cat (2007)
Ah, a perfect confection to end on, from the master label-eluder Robyn Hitchcock.  I imagine Robyn dashed this song off at 4 am after watching Singing in the Rain on TV -- which doesn't mean it's not profound, not by a long shot. "It's all about success," he croons, "What are you doing this time tomorrow, baby?" And all I can see is Debbie Reynolds' scrubbed face and ponytail as she tap danced her way into Gene Kelly's arms -- oh, if only the fairy tale ended there. Robyn, of course, knows it doesn't, and sadly so do I.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Save Me" / Aimee Mann

"Pretending" / Michael Penn

And here's the scary thing: These people are married to each other.

Rabbit hole exegesis:  I just wrote about Aimee's version of Harry Nilsson's heartbreaker "One" and somehow that led me to binge-listen to her soul-shivering "Save Me" from the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia.  Not exactly an upbeat tune, this; in fact, I have it on my iPod in a playlist called "Moody," which is a euphemism for "totally depressive: handle with care."

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. Against that loungy-yet-ominous tempo, it starts oh-so innocuously -- "You look like a perfect fit." But against that downward-loping chord sequence, how swiftly she re-adjusts this, typing herself as "The girl in need of a tourniquet." 
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.  And in a later verse, 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. But here we are, still hoping....
And what do I follow it up with on that same playlist?  What else but her husband Michael Penn's equally disturbing "Pretending"?  Hello! We don't even need to change keys between these songs. (What is it that made me re-visit Wikipedia to make sure that these two are still married?  Note that I do not use the phrase "happily married....")


From Penn's 2005 album Mr. Hollywood Jr., this winsome track puts the hunt for love into a different context: It's a quest for affirmation that never stops. In halting rhythms he announces: "Let's say that was then / Here we go again /  All our friends are filling the room, / It's like a play / And the words that I'll say are not for you." Even after these two misfits have found each other, the wearying need to affirm each other never stops.

And does it work?  Penn's chorus is sadly pessimistic: "It's on a happy ending / But baby, I'm pretending." He HAS to be honest with her; he's a decent guy, after all. And I sense that he does love here, as much as he is capable of loving anyone. But there's the rub: the only kind of guy she could be happy is also exactly the kind of guy who can't make anyone really happy. He thinks too much, he feels too much, he's unable to live in the moment. And he is brutally honest -- an absolute prerequisite from her standpoint, and yet the fatal flaw in the whole set-up.

The delicate acoustic setting of this song underlies how fragile this state of mind is, a structure of diminished and suspended chords, sung in Penn's sweet yet underemotive tenor. "Baby, I'm pretending / Even though I know better / But I can't refuse 'cause, / Although on a ruse / You've come to me depending,  / Baby, I'm pretending..."  He genuinely wants to be there for her, he knows how much she needs him, but he's hyper-aware of his own weakness.

This song is such a gut punch. He knows she needs him to provide "anything sure that's attached and secure," "a lifeline," "something to show / That I really do know." And -- Lord, he wishes it weren't so -- that's exactly what he cannot provide.

Music for Grown-Ups, indeed. And sometimes I wish I weren't a grown-up.  

Friday, October 24, 2014


Harry Nilsson / Al Kooper / Three Dog Night / Aimee Mann

Don't you just hate it / love it / go CRAZY when you find out that a song you know like the back of your hand is really another song by another artist who has even more of a claim to it?

Well, this particular tune keeps upping the ante for me.  First of all, like everybody else in my generation, I knew the Three Dog Night mega-hit from 1969.

What a great song, I thought. It may be the only Three Dog Night song I ever really liked -- no, wait, that's not fair.  I also liked "Eli's Coming" (until I discovered the Laura Nyro original).  In later years I'd also find out that "Try a Little Tenderness" was infinitely better when Sam Cooke sang it, and that "Mama Told Me Not To Come" should only have ever been sung by its original author, the incomparable Randy Newman. Sigh.

But I digress. The Three Dog Night "One" hit the charts in 1969 and it seemed so cool, those opening lines with their intriguing circular logic: "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do / Two can be as bad as one / It's the loneliest number since the number one." Heavy, man, like a Zen koan. But then  three years later when I hit my Al Kooper phase (a short but not negligible chapter of my fangirl story), I fell in love with Al's baroque and haunting 1968 version. It forever wiped the 3DNite single from my memory.

Now is that a thing of beauty or is it not?  I love those sawing strings, the sweet clarinet (or is it an oboe?) weaving in and out, the triple-tracked overlapped vocals -- even the (at the time not yet hokey) rainfall and thunder effects at the end.  For a song that's all about loneliness and disconnection, this elaborately concocted studio montage layers on the borderline schizophrenia, doesn't it?  Stay alone for too long and you too will go stark staring mad.


So anyway...the years pass, and DECADES later I encounter this existential version by the way-too-underrated Aimee Mann, used in the soundtrack of the seriously disturbing 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia.

(There are other YouTube versions. I picked this one because I still need to see images of Philip Seymour Hoffman whenever I can. RIP PSH, you genius.)

If Al Kooper's highly-wrought version was haunting, Aimee Mann's stripped-down version is equally haunting. Every bar of this song expresses existential loneliness.  How relentless is that electric piano, tapping out the repeated chords? And I love how Aimee's affectless yet melismatic voice curls knowingly around the phrase ends. Oh, yes, she is a lady in pain, and IT IS OUR COMMON PAIN TO WITNESS.

Now, we need to fast-forward just a few years to, okay, 2013.  Here I am, blogging away, and I dig up a tribute album called For the Love of Harry  -- the very same album for which Aimee Mann's "One" was originally recorded. For me, this album becomes a rabbit hole worthy of Alice in Wonderland, wherein I at last truly discover Harry Nilsson -- an artist of whom I had always been aware, through a handful of hit records and the fact that he was with John Lennon and May Pang on the Kotex Night. But now I REALLY discover Harry Nilsson, he of the glorious God-given voice and a songwriting sensibility that marries Beatlesque pop with Summer of Love California Dreaming and the American standard playbook.

A genius, pure and simple. And yet I NEVER BEFORE REALLY REGISTERED THAT HE WROTE "ONE."

And yet here it is, the one and only original "One," from Nilsson's 1968 album Aerial Ballet.

The story goes that Harry wrote this after phoning someone and getting a busy signal -- remember the obnoxious beep-beep-beep of a busy signal, back in the days before answer machines and call waiting and cell phones?  The whole song is underlaid with that off-putting busy signal, counterpointed with a yearning cello line that speaks volumes about the human desire for connection. But more than anything, it's Harry's pure and sincere vocal that sells this song.  I am here alone, it says, trying so hard to make a connection, and the technology won't let me in. And his heart is hurting -- "it's just no good anymore since you went away / Now I spend my time / Just making rhymes / Of yesterday." Major and minor and suspended chords overlap, and this poor schmuck is wading through it all, heartsore and hapless.

Is this a killer song or what?

So what's a girl to do? I'm willing to throw Three Dog Night under the bus, but how can I betray my decades-long loyalty to Al and my sister bond with Aimee?  But oh, Harry, my lost dark prince, how could I not love your original best?

I know, I know -- we don't have to choose, we can simply love them all. But for me, loving them all entails being hyper-aware of how Al and Aimee were nested in Harry's original.  A great song -- a truly great song -- enables great cover versions. So be it if my personal history ran through the cover versions first. Harry, you were worth waiting for.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"You Don't Own Me" / Dusty Springfield

How did I never know this song was originally recorded by Lesley Gore?

Wait -- it was 1963. It hit #2 on the charts. Where was I? (Okay, yes, deep in a Beatlemania haze, but STILL...)

Then it swung by me again in 1964, on Dusty Springfield's debut album (in the US) Stay Awhile/I Only Want to Be With You.  Was it released as a single in the States?  I have no idea.

Nevertheless, I remain firmly convinced that I never heard Lesley Gore's version at the time and that Dusty's is hardwired deep in my girl-group DNA. And, yeah, you know I am a Lesley Gore fan, but hey, Dusty is on my shortlist of Golden Girls. This song means the world to me because of how Dusty sang it.

One thing Lesley and Dusty had in common -- a very, VERY complicated sense of wanting autonomy and yet craving love. Dusty tended more towards the victim end of the spectrum, which to me made it all the more affirming to hear her declare: "You don't own me / I'm not just one of your many toys." (Ah, that well-placed word "many," and what a special shiver of disgust Dusty gave it.)

The demands pile up from there on, escalated with key changes: "Don't say I can't go with other boys," "Don't tell me what to do/ Don't tell me what to say,"  "Don't put me on display," "Don't try to change me," "Don't tie me down" -- yikes!! But the weary doggedness with which Dusty sings it tells me that she's make these requests before and they've fallen on deaf ears.

In both Lesley's and Dusty's versions, the requisite pop strings and horns undergird her (putative)declaration of freedom:  She doesn't tell him how to live his life, so surely he should understand that she is "free / And I love to be free / To live my life the way I want / To say and do whatever I please." So why do I sense that this cry of independence is not being heard by the man in question?

Wow. This is 1963/64, long before Helen Reddy's 1975 "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar." Feminism was still just a glimmer of an idea; if anything, it was nothing but Helen Gurley Brown and Sex and the Single Girl (a 1962 book quickly subverted by the 1964 Natalie Wood movie.)

Sure, both Lesley and Dusty would eventually be identified as bisexuals/lesbians. Did that give this proto-feminist anthem a special oomph? Maybe so from their perspective; but for me, that is totally irrelevant.

Because, yes, do I still snarl this under my breath when a domineering man tries to push me around?

You betcha.

Monday, August 25, 2014


...but alas, the other passengers in the car needed to sleep, make phone calls and work on their laptops while we drove. So I spent eight hours in the car AND DID NOT GET TO LISTEN TO MY IPOD PLAYLISTS AS I HAD PLANNED!!

Needless to say I am pouting about this, big time. Because I am JUST THAT PETTY, when provoked.

So all I had were the tunes in my head, which for whatever reason produced this random playlist.

OneRepublic / "Counting Stars"

Look, I'm not saying I like this song. But as current pop earworms go, it's pretty earwormy. My 19-year-old daughter (whom we just took back to college -- hence the long drive) makes me listen to pop stations when we ride in the car together, as we did earlier this week.  I find this song much less offensive than others. (How's that for damning with faint praise?)

Jenny Lewis / "Rise Up With Fists!"

The leap from OneRepublic to Indie It Girl Jenny Lewis makes sense only in some convoluted fold of my gray matter. (Probably because 3 weeks ago I was reading that she released a new album, The Voyager, and I'm still dithering about whether or not to buy it). I guess my problem is that I keep wanting her to be Jill Sobule and she just isn't as loveable as Jill. But then, who is?

John Hiatt / "She Loves the Jerk"

Maybe in the car I was beginning to think too much about the fact that I have this new John Hiatt album on that iPod, which I haven't yet been able to listen to properly. But out of nowhere, this early Hiatt gem planted itself in my cerebral cortex, and it lodged there for at least 150 miles. Which is a good thing in my book.

The deep, deep songcraft here slays me every time. Simple plot: Guy loves girl, who loves another guy, but spends hours on the phone confiding in the first guy, who we can all see is better for her . . . yadda yadda yadda. But seriously, how could you not love lines like, "'Well you married the wrong guy,' is all I ever say / But she'll never let him go /He's a no-good so-and-so, / Though she knows it will never work, she loves the jerk." And so the dance goes on.

Jill Sobule / "The Guy Who Doesn't Get It"

And then, because of Jenny, it did eventually come back to Jill.  And if things landed on this song in particular -- well, remember, it was a long drive and OTHER PEOPLE IN THE CAR WOULDN'T LET ME LISTEN TO MY IPOD. In such situations, I find my girlfriend Jill to be a great comforter.

This is the first song that hooked me on her incredible body of work, for which I shall forever be grateful, as I explain here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- Genius Class

Okay, over the rules One More Time. Not the The Best Opening Riffs-- too many songs, too little time -- but 25 Favorite Opening Riffs, in five 5-riff installments. The arbitrary rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. Doesn't have to be a guitar riff, but vocals don't count. 3. Has to be a true opener -- the very first notes of the song, proclaiming this song's distinctive DNA. 

Remember how, back in the day, AM radio DJs used to gab during song intros, trying to sneak a few more words of banter/announcements/advertising messages?. That used to drive me crazy. Transistor held up to my ear, I wanted to prove my pop savvy by being the first in the room to shout "I love this song!"

I know I said I was leading off with the "no-brainers." But some of you may have noticed -- and, if you're anything like the music fans I think you are, been distressed by -- the absence on that list of the REAL no-brainers. Which are, forthwith and henceforth...

Sunshine of Your Love / Cream

Sheer genius here, to double the bass riff with the electric guitar -- a particularly fuzzy guitar as well, with a wah-wah pedal and Marshall amps. The great bassist Jack Bruce wrote that commanding riff and it dominates the song -- those first four notes (LISTEN HERE!) sliding seductively into a dark downward spiral, over and over. Every bassist I know has learned this riff -- but it just doesn't sound the same without that scratchy guitar on top.
NOTE: Invoking the "one riff per band" rule, I decided on this rather than "Layla," even though they're by two different Clapton bands.  Sorry, Slowhand, but the competition was fierce.

Satisfaction / The Rolling Stones

Oh, the one-riff-per-band thing made this very tough. So many great Stones riffs -- but in the end, how could I have picked anything else? Talk about fuzzy guitars -- Keith Richards added a fuzzbox to his Gibson to get this snarling, snarky tone just right. It's only three notes, up and down a tiny minor-key scale, but how perfectly does it encapsulate the song's theme of pent-up frustration -- up and down, over and over, never breaking out of that narrow range.  It makes me want to smash things -- which is, presumably, the point.

You Really Got Me / The Kinks

Oh, why did I impose that one-riff rule?  Well, basically, because otherwise this entire list of 25 might well have been nothing but Stones, Kinks and Queen riffs, with a Beatles tune here and there. But of all the great Kinks openers (and yes, I AM prejudiced in this matter), how can we deny the riff that started it all for them?  As with the previous two songs, the distinctive tone of the guitar makes all the difference; in this case, the mutilated amplifier of Dave Davies, turning his electric guitar into an angry buzzsaw. Ricocheting between two notes, with just enough syncopation to sound erratic and dangerous, it's an aggressive cry of sexual frustration that will not be denied.

Summer in the City / The Lovin' Spoonful

How long does it take the Lovin' Spoonful to claim your eardrums? Two notes plus one drum-whack. True, the notes are ominous, swelling organ tones and the drum-whack is punitive to say the least. But oh, for sheer economy of effect, this gritty urban anthem of seizing conditional pleasure scores BIG-TIME.  Considering that everything else this band had released was mellow jug-band stuff -- "Daydream," "Do You Believe in Magic" and "Younger Girl" -- this hard-hitting 1966 urban song reminds us that the Lovin' Spoonful were originally a New York City band. And their reward for working so hard?  Their only #1 hit.

Hard Day's Night / The Beatles


Okay, I too resist the idea that the Beatles get to win all the prizes. Even though I was a true Beatlemaniac back in the day and still adore my Chosen Beatle (Paul McCartney), I would love to spread the accolades around. But let's face it: with one discordant guitar chord, the Fabs announced that their hit record was going to be better than your hit record, and they were right. They win for sheer economy of effect; they win for the streamlined drive of the track that followed. This song is a relentless, exhilarating ride into the heart of pop and out again. It was the title track of the first LP I ever owned (note: the American version, really a film soundtrack, but I so loved that movie) and I would love to be objective.

But I can't.

But really: One chord and you KNOW what song this is.

And isn't that the definition of a great opening riff?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- Jazzing It Up

Next installment of 5 in my 25 Favorite Opening Riffs. The parameters: 1. One riff per band. 2. No vocals. 3. Must occur right at the beginning of the record. This is all totally subjective, folks, and they're in no particular order. Enjoy!

So far we've been talking rock riffs, mostly, but here are a few that venture into jazz territory -- and announce those intentions right off the bat.

Moondance / Van Morrison

Two backbeat piano chords, repeated. A few light brushes on the drums. And then That Voice, slipping in like butter. "Oh, it's a marvelous night for a moon dance...."  Talk about Less Is More.  Eventually we'll get a divine jazz solo, plus Van's jazz-freak vocal swoops and scats (it's as if he becomes the saxophone himself); pianist Jeff Labes really gets to fly with his piano improv in the middle eight. But it's those first chords -- cool, laidback, effortlessly syncopated -- that set the whole swinging thing in motion. Sometimes you only need two measures....

Undun / The Guess Who

What? No Canadians so far?  I'm sure that violates broadcasting protocols north of the border, so let's slip in this 1969 gem. It's like "Moondance"'s minor-key cousin, with a little more Latino beat.  Guitarist Randy Bachman, later of Bachman-Turner Overdrive (a best riff runner-up for "Taking Care of Business") has said he based this song around some new jazz guitar chords he'd just learned; it sure doesn't sound like any other Guess Who song. That opener is quick and crafty: Three guitar chords, syncopated, with a few smacks of offbeat drums, and a percussive vocal choo-pah! on the backbeat. (We'll soon see where they got THAT idea...)

Build Me Up Buttercup / The Foundations

Stairstep guitar strums, underlaid with tambourine -- and yes, bongos! -- it's so simple, and it's all about the syncopation. (Do you sense a theme here?)  Soon enough we get the second motif, layered on in counterpoint by a percussive electric piano; it's upbeat, happy pop, and just jazzy enough to make you snap your fingers and bounce in your chair. Oh, give in to it; just get up and dance, folks; you know you want to. And the singer hasn't even started yet!

Time of the Season / The Zombies

Start to finish, this is one magnificent song (read here my full take).

But today, let's focus on that brilliantly crafted intro. Like the opening of "Under Pressure," it's pure percussion, but put together like a Swiss cuckoo clock. As I dissect it, it's two beats on a tom-tom, one thump on the bass drum, then a hand clap, then a block, then a vocal gasp. All in rapid succession, intricately syncopated; it takes a downbeat plus two beats, no time at all. Repeat three more times, and it's what, eight seconds? But by the time Colin Blunstone starts singing, we're already spooked out. Brilliant.

House of the Rising Sun / The Animals

Hilton Valentine's unspooling guitar lick, hung on stairstep notes from Chas Chandler's bass, sets the whole song up, as if he's casting a fishing line and deftly reeling us in. Minor-key glissandos, rising ominously upwards, will soon be handed over to Alan Price's prophesying organ. (Which will eventually blow things into another stratosphere in the middle eight.)  I suppose this isn't technically jazz: It's more like mission revival meets the blues. But oh, is it dark, and OH is it compelling.  Still sends shivers up my spine, every time.