Saturday, May 30, 2015

"Sweetheart" / Maria Muldaur

Big hit?  Maybe not. But whenever this song dials up on my shuffle, I feel as if an old girlfriend has just phoned me for a good dish session.

I came to this record well after it was released (on the 1974 album Waitress in a Donut Shop). In my New England college days I certainly knew Maria Muldaur's voice from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (theater profs, groovy young arty types, turned me on), and her hit song "Midnight at the Oasis," also from 1974, I heard over and over again on the local radio station. 

But then I went to live in England for a couple of years, where everything got mixed up.  One of my best American pals there was a West Coaster and therefore a Dan Hicks fan; belatedly I appreciated that the Jim Kweskin folks had serendipitously been doing the same stuff. In those pre-Internet days when regional music scenes still had distinct identities, it really meant something to have my own New England chanteuse holding the fort (though Dan Hicks's Mary Ann Price had already jumped ship to sing back-up for the Kinks, a job I've wanted most of my life....)

In those austerity years I had only a cassette player, so somewhere I acquired a cassette of Waitress in a Donut Shop. I didn't have many cassettes; the few I owned got played over and over.  And so this album bored into my brain..

But, oh, how lovely that was.

You know me, I love storytelling songs. And the scenario here is smartly laid out.  She's a waitress in a donut shop (hence the album's title), and he's a regular customer.  She waits every day for him to show up; she's invested a whole lot more in his daily appearance than he probably has in his routine morning stop.

But oh, the yearning she pours into this daily encounter, and the constant consciousness of how futile it is. "Sweet heart / But it doesn't beat for me." Already I'm on board, loving how she deconstructs the word "sweetheart" into its constituent components.

She knows who she is and where she stands. "I'm a waitress in a donut shop. /  I see him on his morning stop. / He talks of love, but he's talking about his sweetheart / She gives him a rough time / He gives me his dime / And then parts." There's an edge of class consciousness there -- the tiniest scintilla -- just enough to trigger all of us 1970s-era hippies into siding with this working girl.

What a sneaky little populist love story this is. And, in the retro jug band tradition, it's all gussied up with road-house piano trills and a horn section. Here we are in the mid-1970s -- punk and the New Wave waiting just around the corner -- and the snazzy mood of this throwback track is deliciously out of sync.

Maria Muldaur's voice was never for the mainstream; her clear bell-like tones, her supple melismas, were completely out of fashion as the yelping 1970s progressed. But then, I've never been one for fashion.  And those devoted nights spent with this cassette on my portable player -- well, as the old song says, they can't take that away from me.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Whip It" / Devo
Back in 1980, a new cable channel called MTV desperately needed music videos -- that's how a crudely produced film snippet by this oddball Cleveland-area cult band got such heavy airtime. That Marlboro Man rancher, lashing the clothes off of his frontier wife -- was that kinky or what?

Some folks would say that MTV "made" Devo's career; on the contrary, I think Devo was responsible for making a whole generation want our MTV. You absolutely HAD to get wired for cable, because where else on 80's TV could you see stuff like this?

Normally I don't go for high-concept bands, but I bought Devo's package one hundred percent. Devo stood for "de-evolution," synonymous with mindless conformity, which we Devo fans were supposed to combat by being free-thinking individuals. How hard is it to get 20-somethings to buy into an agenda like that?

And Devo carried it off in perfect deadpan style, dressed in hazmat coveralls with industrial goggles and inverted flowerpots strapped to their heads. Their robotic stage movements matched those jerky synthesized arrangements (only Devo could cover "Satisfaction" and "Working In A Coal Mine" with all the blues drained out of them). Everything, down to the album covers, was executed with retro flair. Devo was post-modern long before it became a hipster cliche.

At the time, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale were happy to let their audiences think "Whip It" was all about S&M (either that or whacking off).  Casale now says he wrote those lyrics to imitate the parody poems Thomas Pynchon scattered throughout Gravity's Rainbow. And it's true, the song is packed with a rousing Horatio Alger/Dale Carnegie can-do spirit -- "Now whip it / Into shape / Shape it up / Get straight / Go forward / Move ahead / Try to detect it / It's not too late / To whip it / Whip it good." Yessirree!

This track's got an absolutely driven drumbeat, an obsessive-compulsive guitar riff, and a completely daffy synth motif; it's so tight, so uptempo, it sounds just like it came off an assembly line -- and that's the point. "Crack! That! Whip!" is followed by slapping whip cracks, calibrated precisely to a millisecond behind the beat. And I love those lock-step twinned vocals, finishing each other's sentences in the verses: "Step on a crack / Break your momma's back" or "When a problem comes along / You must whip it" or "No one gets away / Until you whip it."

Irony?  Satire?  Tongue-in-cheek?  So old hat. Devo was way ahead of the curve, daring you to suggest that they were anything other than the factory-produced artifacts they claimed to be. Next to them, the Talking Heads looked like art-school posers and the B-52s were simply a party band. Best of all, they were unabashedly American in an era when the U.K. seemed to OWN New Wave music. I adored all those British acts, but I was glad we had at least one band from our side of the ocean, and a lunatic bunch of Midwestern nerds at that.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Time Has Come Today" /
The Chambers Brothers

File these guys in the No Easy Category category -- gospel singers (and really brothers) from Mississippi who got into the folk circuit, went electric with Bob Dylan, and brought a distinctive soul emphasis to their 1968 psychedelic hit "Time Has Come Today."

We've heard snippets of this mesmerizing song on movie soundtracks for years (I mean, c'mon, who has the patience to sit through the entire eleven minutes of this song?). But road-tripping this weekend (between my son's graduation and my own college reunion, I logged 764 miles), listening to Sirius Radio's 60s station, I finally sat through the whole thing, and you know what? It blew my mind.

Okay, let's address the elephant in the room. There is one white guy in this band -- drummer Brian Keenan, an English guy who started out playing with Manfred Mann. And I have to say, this brilliant track is totally anchored by the eerie tempo-shifting drumming.

The rest of the band, the four Chambers Brothers from Mississippi, had already signaled their intentions to move beyond the gospel circuit by moving to L.A. in the early 1960s, where they played at the Ash Grove and, with a little push from Pete Seeger, played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The next stop was probably inevitable: moving to New York City, which is round about when Keenan joined the band.

1968: That was a great year for rewriting all the rules. Sandwiched between the Summer of Love and Woodstock, 1968 found everybody scrambling out of those genre boxes, mixing folk and rock and soul and blues and gospel and jazz and whatever else you had to play. Our ears were open and our sensibilities were remarkably eclectic.  

In my (admittedly fuzzy) memories of this track from the time, I don't think I had any idea whether the musicians were black or white. Why would it matter?  It's not a song you should think about too deeply -- it's all about submitting to the experience, to the tempo changes, to the echo-chambered background vocals, to the Hendrix-like half-sung testifying of the verses. When it came on the radio, you just knew you were in for a spacey few minutes.

But put this up against other long-form singles of the time, like "Inna Gadda Da Vida" or the folky "Alice's Restaurant," and I think the Chambers Brothers more than hold their own. It's mesmerizing without being boring; the instrumental solos don't seem endless and repetitive; and, I don't know about you, but I feel pleasantly on the edge of my seat waiting for that timekeeper drummer to slow down or speed up.  There's an edge of spookiness, but it doesn't belabor the mind-blowing factor. Just submit to the (live, human, totally not drum-machined) beat, and go where it takes you.

Because, hey, wow man, why not?  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"Lady Doctor" /
Graham Parker & The Rumour

Ah, the earworm gods have a logic all their own.  Why this song?  Why now?  There's no rhyme or reason -- but I am not complaining.

It's remarkable, really, that Graham Parker's sound was already so well-forged on Howlin' Wind, his 1976 debut album with The Rumour.  They still do this song in concert, and it sounds as fresh as ever -- that strolling bluesy beat, the loungey soul-infused syncopation, and Graham's trademark bit o' sass. It's not a message song, not a searing autobiographical statement, not a tender love song. It's just a swinging song that hits its mark, over and over again, and I wouldn't change a note of it.  

I'd like to believe there's a feminist note here -- in 1976, women physicians were still more the exception than the rule, and I'm sure back then there were people who refused to be treated by a female doctor. But the lady doctor that Graham's going to isn't entirely valued for her, er, medical ability. (After all, the refrain reminds us that "there ain't nothing wrong with me.") 

She's clearly a babe in a white coat, and his crush on her could so easily seem creepy. But that's one of the things I love about Graham Parker -- his unerring light touch, never crossing the line between cheekiness and bad taste.  The wink-wink puns are there  ("I went in with a heart burn," "be a patient patient") along with the euphemisms ("stretch right out on that couch," "get under the stethoscope") but his playful vocals make it clear he's just having fun. 

And the fun is infectious.

All the vintage soul signifiers are there -- the horn section, the sax solo, the sneaky guitar riffs, the lead singer's testifying drawl.  In 1976, no less, when the music scene was mostly folk rock and punk squaring off at each other, while heavy metal and prog rock hunkered in their caves.  But here's Graham Parker, on his very first album, mapping a new road, with The Rumour oh so ably driving the bus. What's not to love?

Thank you, earworm gods.