Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"What's Shakin' On The Hill" /
Nick Lowe


Ah, Nick Lowe . . . one of the great musical loves of my life.

Much is made of Nick Lowe's comeback "trilogy" (they've actually been repackaged as a box set called The Brentford Trilogy), which includes The Impossible Bird (1994), Dig My Mood (1998), and The Convincer (2004). But in my humble opinion, the comeback really began with 1989's Party of One, where he first began to move into the more subtle, wry, laidback groove that's been his territory ever since.

It's hard for me to believe that "What's Shakin' On the Hill" was written 20 years ago. Nick still sings it in concert (along with the priceless "All Men Are Liars," also from this album), and it doesn't sound one bit dated -- although truth to tell it never sounded like an 80s song to begin with. That simple opening riff -- a series of descending thirds, falling lazily just behind the beat -- eases us into the song like a stroll down a country road.

He invites us into a pastoral scene -- "There's a cool wind blowin' in the sound of happy people" (that internal rhyme of "wind" and "blowin' in" swings us along). Curious, we move toward that sound, already picturing the venue: "At a party given for the gay and debonair." He adds more details, in shorter scraps of lines: "There's an organ blowing in the breeze / For the dancers hid behind the trees" -- just offstage, so tantalizing. But then comes the cruel reality, as the last two lines descend with a sort of sigh, resolving the melody: "And I ain't never gonna see / What's shakin' on the hill."

So why not? I'm dying to know. He's brought us so close, only to snatch it away. In verse two he explains himself, ruefully: "That I someday may be joining in / Is just wishful thinking / Cause admission's only guaranteed / To favored few." And Nick, apparently -- in his classic role as the wistful loser -- isn't on that guest list.

In the bridge, he owns up to the truth: "I'm too blue to be played with / And I get heartaches / So they tell me, 'No dice'." (The casual cruelty of that "no dice" -- what a slap in the face!) If he were younger, he might blame a girl, but he's old enough by now to admit it's his own melancholy temperament at fault. (Music for Grown-Ups alert!) Like Ray Davies in "Waterloo Sunset," he's forever on the outside, a mere observer of life.

With a defensive shrug, he notes, "It isn't allowed / In that carefree crowd / To be seen with tears in your eyes." Well, as soon as Nick tells me that, I realize I don't want to be with that carefree crowd either. Bunch of shallow hedonists. The "gay and debonair" -- HA! No, I want to be outside with Nick, "Kicking cans 'round / While that happy sound / Keeps cracking on." That image of the lonely kid kicking cans around -- how that wrings my heart.

But self-pity's not on the agenda tonight. Stuck outside in the shadows, he confesses, "Though I long so strong to be inside / With the blues is where I do reside," letting the melody crest upwards on "where I do reside." And after the instrumental break and one last go of the chorus, he peters out, muttering "what's shakin'" over and over. He can't quite tear himself away, no matter how resigned he is to his fate.

He doesn't need a lot of details to conjure up the scene -- golden lights gleaming through the trees, shadows pooled around parked cars, an empty roadway gleaming pale in the moonlight. The far-off clink of glasses and ripples of disembodied laughter. And somehow, we know that it's not just a party he's missing -- that hill could represent social acceptance, career success, critical acclaim, domestic happiness, religious faith, whatever.

What kills me is the light touch of this song -- the liting jazzy tempo, the major key, the skipalong melody. (It's really at its best sung solo and acoustic.) He's not slamming against that barred door, nor curdled with bitterness, nor drowning in woe. He's accepted his place on the sidelines of life, though he still feels twinges of envy and regret. It's goddamn Keatsian, that's what it is, delicately maintaining a fragile equipoise between love and loss, between sorrow and acceptance, between now and then and someday.

Or maybe it's just a pop song, you daft fangirl you. Well, that too.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Sad news today of the death of Michael Brown, songwriter for the brilliant 1960s band The Left Banke.  A good time to repost this piece . . . .
“Walk Away Renee” /
The Left Banke
I’ve really been poking around in my mental music vault a lot lately – I don’t know why – and I keep coming back to this 1966 single by the shoulda-been-bigger band The Left Banke. (Extra letters tacked onto words in a band name are a sure marker of the 60s.) I owned this 45 years ago, and played it to death. It was just the sort of song that an adolescent girl would moon over, a classic expression of tremulous young love.

Now I find out that the song was written by the band’s keyboard player, Michael Brown, who was only 16 at the time – and it was written about the bassist’s girlfriend, Renée, on whom Brown had a giant unrequited crush. So that’s why it captures so perfectly the whiny anguish of love lost! Brown apparently also wrote my other favorite Left Banke number, “Pretty Ballerina,” about Renée. (I guess we can assume that the bassist knew Brown longed to cut in on his girl.) The story goes that Brown was about to record his harpsichord part when Renée herself walked into the studio, and his hands shook so badly, he couldn’t play. I love that story.

Using a girl’s name in the title was no doubt inspired by the Beatles’ similarly yearning hit, “Michelle,” just as the classical touches in the arrangement came out of “Yesterday” (though the flute in the middle also reminds me of “California Dreamin’,” another recent hit record at the time). It’s very much a song of its time – and yet it’s timeless, too, all that angsty emotion. It still chokes me up.

The odd thing, when you realize it, is that the singer isn’t begging her to come back – in the chorus, he’s not saying “Don’t walk away, Renée,” he’s saying “Just walk away, Renée / You won’t see me follow you back home.” This unrequited love is too much for him to bear, and he needs out of it -- there’s passion for you. Without any details, these lines somehow summon up a vivid scene; I can just see the girl’s back as she walks away. We’ve all watched someone we love walk away like that. We know how it rips your heart out.

But for a 16-year-old, Brown pretty shrewdly pinned down the life-altering power of this emotion: “And when I see the sign / It points one way / The life we used to lead / Everyday.” There’s no going back, is there? “The empty sidewalks on my block / They're not the same” (though he does cut her a break, adding “You're not to blame”). Here’s my favorite verse: “Your name and mine inside / A heart on a wall / Still finds a way to haunt me / Though they're so small.” Was there ever a sweeter lyric about lover’s graffiti?

So we leave poor Mike Brown, fumbling blindly on his harpsichord, “Now as the rain beats down / Upon my weary eyes / For me I cry.” Yeah, that’s it, that’s the perfect note of self-pity. You nailed it, man.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Living in America" / Black 47

I'm feeling the St. Paddy's Day love.  I've been swamped with editing the very excellent Frommer's guide to Ireland non-stop (deadlines, deadlines) and my daughter just flew over to Dublin to visit some friends (who convinced her that the iconic St-Patricks-Day-in-Dublin experience was best viewed on TV, to avoid the crowds. Hunh?). This summer we'll all be going over to Cork when she does another summer program over there. Erin go bragh!

But for the moment, all I have is the estimable Larry Kirwan and his Celtic rock/bar band Black 47, who distill it all through the perspective of the Irish diaspora living in New York.  I think of all the Irish nannies and firefighters I've known through the years, and this is about as astute a piece of social commentary as you'll ever hear.

Granted, this song came out in 1993 (on their Fire of Freedom album) before the Celtic Tiger years lured so many ex-pat Paddies back to the emerald isle. And then it all went south in 2008, and . . . well, the Irish have always had a knack for surviving hardship. They've done it before and they'll do it again.
"And it's mammy, dear / We're all mad over here" -- how perfectly Kirwan catches the tone of desperation and crazy humor. Background: Kirwan is from County Wexford, though the band's co-founder Chris Byrne is from Brooklyn. Formed in 1989, the band is now officially disbanded, but their smart, politically engaged, totally danceable music will live on and on.
May the road rise under your feet et cetera.....