Friday, December 30, 2016

In Honour of Sir Ray Davies

A Kinks Shuffle

In honour of Sir Raymond Douglas Davies, frontman and principal songwriter for the seminal UK band The Kinks, on the occasion of his knighthood.

1. "What Are We Doing" / The Kinks
From UK Jive (1989)
A seriously underrated album, this. Here's Ray Davies, a star for 25 years or more, still befuddled by modern life. "What am I doing, acting identikit / When all I want to do is be the opposite." You may now be a knight, Ray, but we all know you are at heart a working-class hero.

2. "See My Friends" / The Kinks
From Kinda Kinks (1965)
Here's a window into Ray Davies' process. In this song, he's grieving his sister, feeding into the trend for Indian music, AND giving his brother Dave a chance to show off making a guitar sound perfectly like a sitar. And also sounding dreamily melancholy. And neurotic. Such a sensitive soul....

3. "The Informer" / The Kinks
From Phobia (1993)
The Kinks' last album, as it turned out. And how poignant. He's referencing the 1935 John Ford film (a beauty, if you haven't seen it) based on a 1925 novel by Liam O'Flaherty (also a knockout). But the subtext? I'm betting this is another of the many songs about Ray's tortured, tortuous, and loving relationship with his brother Dave.

4. "Strangers" / The Kinks
From Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround
Yes!  Let's get brother Dave weighing in.

5. "Two Sisters" / The Kinks
From Something Else (1967)
Yes, this is about two sisters. Right. Not about two brothers, one of them in North London with a wife and babies and the other a famous raver.

6. "Lost and Found" / The Kinks
From Think Visual (1986)
Yet another late track that totally hooked me.

7. "Supersonic Rocket Ship" / The Kinks
From Everybody's in Show Business (1972)
The steel band, the horns, the reggae beat -- musically so au courant for 1972, and yet it's just about escaping the daily scrum. Our Ray's perpetual theme -- and a beacon call for us neurasthenics everywhere.

8. "Do It Again" / The Kinks
From Word of Mouth (1984)
Okay, shuffle is delivering a fair amount of late Kinks. But I love the late Kinks. I love how they took on the sounds of the 80s and still delivered Ray's anti-establishment agenda in witty style. And this video sells their take, with the lads performing as subway buskers..

9. "Days" / The Kinks (1968)
Although it eventually appeared on 1972's Kinks Kronicles, this 1968 single is suffused with the dreamy folky flower people sound of that summer. Yet -- a subtle twist, Ray Davies' stock-in-trade -- between the lines it's really a break-up song, with more than a few digs. "You took my life / But then I knew that very soon you'd leave me" -- uh oh. And that wistful bridge, "I wish today could be tomorrow / The night is dark / It just brings sorrow, let it wait" -- hmm, methinks he's not as "moved on" as he says. . . .  

10. "Don't Forget to Dance" / The Kinks
From State of Confusion (1983)
Is it any surprise that one of Ray's most nostalgic albums should have been his gateway back into mass success? The record company powers-that-be tried to talk Ray out of this album about his British provincial roots. He stood his guns -- and it provided a significant boost to Ray's 1980s renaissance.

So yeah, this band is a whole lot more than "You Really Got Me."

The Queen is right to honor this guy.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

"Burning Down the House" /
Talking Heads

In my musical memory, this track was on Fear of Music, that astonishing 1979 album whereon the Talking Heads -- my beloved New Wave New York compadres -- suddenly went from jerky fringe geeks to political provocateurs. (Note: Brian Eno and Robert Fripp were now on board; they even got Gene Wilder, the essential geek artist savant, to play congas on "Life During Wartime.") Most memorable line from that album: "This ain't no party / This ain't no disco / This ain't no foolin' around."

Hunkered down in NYC (I lived on the rough Upper West Side but in my heart I was an East Village squatter), I was so tuned into with that album. As I was with its 1980 successor, Remain in Light (featuring the iconic track "Once in a Lifetime".

But in fact this burn-all-the-bridges song didn't come out until 1983, on the Heads' Speaking in Tongues album. Wikipedia describes this album as their "commercial breakthrough," thanks to the fact that this groovalicious song actually was a Top Ten hit. (Really? I was so divorced from Top 40 radio at the time . . . but really?)

Yeah, okay, I'll buy that. But let's remember where we were in 1983. By then, Ronald Reagan had become the U.S. President, with Margaret Thatcher in charge as the U.K. Prime Minister. So is it any surprise that the counterculture would respond with a track like this?  Or that 4 years after "Life During Wartime," the Talking Heads would feel the need to light up some torches?

From the very first line, we're in danger alert. "WATCH OUT / You might get what you're after." I love the ambivalence of this. Though our singer declares he's an ordinary guy, we already know that we are not in ordinary times. 
Everything's allusive, coded: "We're in for nasty weather," "The transportation is here," "You might need a raincoat," "Fightin' fire with fire." Look over your shoulder, my friend.
The rhythm section is tight (God bless Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth), the lead singer (David Byrne) tightly-wound.  (..."And you have not seen nothin' yet / Everything's stuck together / And I don't know what you expect / Staring into the TV set / Fighting fire with fire.") Which is actually the genius of this track -- the hard-driving inevitability of that beat, versus the neurotic protest of our protagonist. 
It's a brave new world, for sure, and all bets are off.
History repeating itself? 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

And the first song up is . . .

"Makin' Whoopee!" /
Harry Nilsson

Wow. WOW.

In my ongoing adult education class on the wonder that was Harry Nilsson, here's a delicious bit of the syllabus. It comes from an album called A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, which was released in 1973 and died a quiet death on the charts.

A lushly orchestrated album featuring the Great American Songbook?  We didn't even have the term "Great American Songbook" in 1973. (Top 3 songs in the Billboard charts that year?  "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" by Tony Orlando and Dawn; "Big Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce; and "Killing Me Softly" by Roberta Flack.)

But Harry Nilsson, a lonely misfit child, had grown up crooning these songs alongside the supportive adults in his fractured family, and they were dear to his heart. That's how he learned to sing (and oh, my lord, how this guy could sing); my heart goes out to him for choosing to resurrect these beautiful songs.

And this is a vintage one. First popularized in 1928 by Eddie Cantor (yes, the Jewish singer who went blackface in the milestone talkie The Al Jolson Story in 1927), it's a sly little number. If you hadn't already guessed, the "whoopee" of the title refers to sexual intercourse. Yes, oh my children, there was once a time when we couldn't even say "making love" in a pop song, let alone "fucking."  (I'm just old-school enough to regret the loss of tasteful euphemisms like this.)
The genius of this cautionary tale, however, is what happens after the aforementioned whoopee is made. Oh, it all starts off all lovey-dovey with a shower of rice and a love nest, but a year later there's diapers hanging on the radiators and both parties gathering evidence for their lawyers. ("She feels neglected / And he's suspected / Of makin' whoopee.")
And yet how tenderly Harry introduces these complications, lagging a hair behind the beat, lightening his dulcet tenor, caressing the syllables with his supple melisma.
It's such a cynical song, a Jazz Age riposte to the platitudes of love and marriage. In 1973 Harry himself had been through the divorce wringer already, and was heading for his second decree. So yeah, a snarky subtext was firmly in place.
But Harry Nilsson was too honest an artist to throw his ex-wives under the bus. While the brittle satire of the 1920s is respected in this song, I still hear groovy Woodstock-era regret shivering through this gorgeous track. I'm all about nuance, and this track has nuance up the wazoo.
Sometimes the shuffle delivers just the track you need.

Friday, November 25, 2016

"What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding" / Nick Lowe

Let's give the man credit: Elvis Costello may have brought this song to a wider audience on his 1979  US Armed Forces LP, but Nick Lowe wrote it, and first recorded it in 1974 with his ur-band Brinsley Schwarz.

At the time, Nick has said, he saw it as a sort of satire on the flower-power hippie movement. But as time has gone by, even Nick has admitted that the lyrics of this song have acquired a different meaning -- a new earnestness, as the world has shifted gears. Whereas EC's version was all punk snarl and power chord guitars, these days Nick tends to perform this song with a ruminative folkie strum.

And in 2016, to me it seems all too apropos.

Okay, this is one time when I say, let's just reproduce the lyrics. Because they say all I want to say.

As I walk through
This wicked world
Searching' for light
In the darkness of insanity
I ask myself 
Is all hope lost
Is there only pain and hatred
And misery?

And our friend -- Nick or Elvis or whomever you wish it to be -- comes through with a message of hope:

And each time I feel like this inside
There's one thing I want to know
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding.

He continues on his quest, his spirit "so downhearted sometimes," wondering "where are the strong . And who are the trusted?" Oh, I've been asking myself that for the past several days.

And to me, the answer lies in another question: "Where is the sweet harmony?"

Because that's where it all lies -- finding the harmony. We have to find a way to live with each other, after this bruising and divisive Presidential campaign. And for those of us who feel that there's no room for us at the table -- we have to find a legitimate way to make our voices heard.

We all hope for peace, and pray for love. But it's understanding that has to come first. And that requires an open heart.

So yeah, please give money to Jill Stein to underwrite a vote recount. But be prepared to move on if necessary -- and keep the faith in your hearts.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Kinks Cure in Times of Trouble

"Catch Me Now I'm Falling" /
The Kinks

Well, the votes have been cast and counted, victory and concession speeches made, and the president-elect is beginning to show his true colors by a steadily-growing list of political appointments. 

You can find all that news elsewhere on the web. Here, we talk about the Kinks.

1979. What a year.  We had the Iran hostage crisis, Three Mile Island, the Twinkie defense, the Unabomber, the Greensboro Massacre, the Chrysler bailout, and the rise of the Sandinistas.  (C'mon, folks, if you don't know, Google it.) Etan Patz disappeared, Mardi Gras was canceled, and a school shooter in San Diego said she did it because "I don't like Mondays." The economy was floundering, the energy crisis led to long lines at the gas pumps, and massive anti-nuclear and gay-rights marches filled the streets. It wasn't the end of civilization, but it kind of felt like it. And for me, returning to the US in 1978 after two years abroad, it was culture shock indeed. 
[Granted, it wasn't all bad. The Salt II agreement and the Egyptian-Israel Peace Treaty were signed. Michael Jackson released Off the Wall. The Susan B. Anthony dollar and the Happy Meal were introduced. for those.]
Never a man to shy from social commentary, Ray Davies filled the Kinks' 1979 LP Low Budget with pointed songs about the state of the world. This was their third album for Clive Davis' Arista label; the pressure was on to create anthem rock and disco-friendly tracks (methinks our Ray suffered many a sleepless night trying to satisfy those demands). But political satire was Ray Davies' home court, and Low Budget may be the Kinks' most political album, in a broad-stroke kinda way. He addresses inflation ("Low Budget"), UK health care ("National Health"), gas prices ("A Gallon of Gas"), the fitness craze ("Wish I Could Be Like Superman"). 
Still, it's a bit of a game-changer to find the ultra-Brit Ray Davies writing a song like this, addressing the rest of the world from an American standpoint. Remember, though, Ray had been living in New York for a while; Low Budget was recorded in New York. And so we can forgive him for writing a song that's totally in the American voice.

I happen to love this track. I am no fan of arena rock or disco; in fact, Low Budget was the album that at the time made me fall away from the Kinks. (Just Google what else was happening in music in 1979 before you judge me.) But now that I'm back in the fold, I recognize this track for what it is: What the French would call a crie de coeur, a cry from the heart.
Ray summons up the comic book hero Captain America -- and corny as he may be, the message is plangent. Yeah, the guy's a straight-arrow dork, and for years now we've been dissing straight-arrow dorks. But they're the ones we depend upon to hold the door and carry our bags for us. And when the chips are down....
All the power chord riffs are there, plus a hot sax solo in the middle eight (twice!). And there's the eerie call-and-response, where Ray sings "fallin'" and brother Dave chillingly echoes it an octave higher.
"I remember / When you were down / And you needed a helping hand / I came to feed you" -- hello, Marshall Plan.  I wasn't around then, but even as a child of the 1960s I knew that the US had bailed out its European allies in their post-war straits.
I'll admit, I have no idea whether the US actually applied to its European allies for help in the dark days of 1978-1979. So the line about "Now I call your office on the telephone / And your secretary tells me that she's sorry / But you've gone out of town" -- this could just be Ray Davies' imagination running wild.
Still -- those alliances should still matter. The fact that our President-elect has no idea how to navigate them is downright terrifying. And their economic systems depend upon ours more than ever. 
So hello, rest of the world. Anything you can do to give us a boost would be welcome. Several of us (most of us, really, as the popular vote would attest) feel like we're in free-fall mode. If anybody has a safety net to offer... 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Kinks Cure in Times of Trouble

"Here Comes Flash" /
The Kinks
In times of trouble, there's always a Kinks song to salve the soul. Or else get you fired up to make some changes.
If you don't know the Kinks' albums Preservation Act 1 (1973) and Preservation Act 2 (1974), then you should. Because 40-odd years ago songwriter Ray Davies predicted the rise of a Trump-like demagogue and the social devastation it would wreak for the trusting working- and middle-class voters who bought his line of BS.
The lyrics really say it all. Here's the worrisome chorus:
You'd better run, you'd better fly.
Hide your daughters, hide your wives.
Lock your doors and stay inside
Here comes Flash.

There's no way that you can win,
You must obey his every whim,
Or else he's going to do you in.
Here comes Flash.

My first thoughts upon waking up the morning after the election were sorrow and sympathy for the legions of Trump supporters who honestly believed that he could restore American jobs (forever lost to computerization) and repair the economy. (Tax cuts, yeah, but only for the top 10%, followed by stagflation and the disappearance of cheap imported consumer goods after trade agreements are nixed.)

Yes, he promises the world. But can he deliver?

He will smile at you, be a friend to you,
Then he's gonna screw you just like that.
He is going to use you, his heavies will abuse you,
And then he's gonna lean on you,
Here comes Flash.

And what is becoming even more painfully clear is that Trump's cadre of "outsiders" (once you subtract the sleazy deeply-connected lobbyists who have wormed their way into his transition team) include a fair number of hate-mongering thugs. Here's Ray's analysis:

He is gonna rough you up,
Duff you up and touch you up,
And then he's gonna screw you up.
Even though he's mean on you,
There's nothing else that you can do
Just sit back and take his abuse.

The jagged, frenetic energy of this track, the hysterical falsettos of the vocals, telegraph panic in the streets. And let's remember where Ray Davies came from -- a working-class London family displaced by slum clearance, union loyalists, Labour party die-hards. Even after Ray ascended into the privileged classes due to his enormous talent, he never lost his sympathy for the common man, the working joe, the guy in the street.

Who will soon enough begin to feel the sting of betrayal.

Once we loved and trusted him,
Now his thugs and bullies make us live in sin.
They suppress us, oppress us, molest us, possess us.

Mark my words. Or if you don't believe me, go download (or buy in CD!) this preternaturally prescient rock opera and just see how it all turns out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Kinks Cure in Times of Trouble

"Where Have All the Good Times Gone" / The Kinks

And well you might ask.

1966, The Kink Kontroversy. Scrambling to remain "relevant," Ray was looking for a template for satire, and he found it in Bob Dylan (listen to this song; he could segue any minute into "Like A Rolling Stone"). It's got that twang, that talking blues thing: "Well, lived my life and never stopped to worry 'bout a thing / Opened up and shouted out and never tried to sing."

While Dylan is skewering some old girlfriend, Ray is skewering himself -- or at any rate, some fictional version of himself, your prototypical 60s British rocker. Now, he laments, the musical trend is running on empty: "Wondering if I'd done wrong / Will this depression last for long?" But the gutsy wail of the chorus is totally heartfelt: "Won't you tell me / Where have all the good times gone? / Where have all the good times gone?" I love how matey and boozy the Kinks sound on the chorus, with its lurching rhythm, the chromatic melody sliding back and forth between F and G. Discordant and sloppy, with those trademark crunchy riffs, it's like an old-fashioned pub singalong.

Long before "American Pie," Ray Davies cleverly name-checks other artists' work in his verses -- the Rolling Stones ("Time was on our side and I had everything to gain"), the Beatles ("Yesterday was such an easy game for you to play"). In verse three he goes more autobiographical -- "Ma and Pa look back at all the things they used to do / Didn't have no money and they always told the truth / Daddy didn't have no toys / And mummy didn't need no boys" -- but he's also making fun of people who live in a fantasy past (nostalgia ain't what it used to be).

Ray Davies has always had a complex reaction to nostalgia. On one hand, he longs to live in the past, when life was less complicated (the chimerical hope of "Make America Great Again"); on the other, he's suspicious that the past can be a prison. (The whole Village Green Preservation Society album is Ray's conflicted dance with nostalgia.) "Where Have All the Good Times Gone" sits right on that fence; it's an obituary for the British Invasion and a declaration of independence, but it's also tinged with regret. The good times were good, and he owes that musical revolution everything. But now it's time to move on.

So you've got two choices: Live in the past, or embrace the possibilities of a more vital future.

I know which option I voted for on November 8th. So how about you?

Monday, November 07, 2016

Before You Vote...

"Tired of Trying, Bored 
With Lying, Scared of Dying" / 
Manfred Mann

Tomorrow we'll be forced to choose a new President. For months we've had to endure a flood of other lies of all stripes:  Plagiarisms, misquotes, false statistics, unproven allegations, paranoid fantasies, and plumb ignorance of the most hateful kind, from both sides of the political spectrum. I'm tired of it all. And so here is my eve of election soundtrack.

Remember these guys? In 1964, I owned their groovy debut single "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," a Farfisa-loaded cover of the Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich girl group tune. They were one of the first British Invasion groups to score a #1 hit in the US after the Beatles, and at the time I'd buy anything with a British accent.

This 1965 track, however, escaped my notice at the time. In just a year, British bands had discovered they could move past romantic pop into social commentary (led, I must say, by Ray Davies and the Kinks). At the time I don't think I would have gotten the point of this song, which was written by lead vocalist Paul Jones. But I love it now.  

Along the lines of The Who's "My Generation," it's a rebel teen anthem. ("My Generation" was released in October 1965 and this one came out in December 1965; there was definitely something in the water.) I love the juxtapostion of the verses' strict stairstep chord changes with the wild roadhouse boogaloo of the refrains. By now Manfred Mann felt free to return to the bluesy jazz that had been their original sound. It's a revelation to see how much they'd evolved in a year.

But let's let the lyrics speak for themselves:
"Oh you who try to order me and say what I'll do
I know you want the world to be exactly like you
But why bother
What's the incentive to try
You know I'm tired of trying, bored with lying,
Scared of dying."
 And he goes on and on. "You talk of mods and rockers and of street corner fights / And then you sit at desks inventing weapons at night." How 60s is that?

Verse three, however, comes eerily close to our present-day situation. "The fascists horrify you / They're a sin and a shame / Discrimination, immigration, / What's in a name?" And he even makes a plea for education reform: "You cry about the teenagers for breaking your rules / It don't occur to you you never built enough schools."


For weeks, the sickening realization has crept up on me that the biggest problem in this American election is how dumb and poorly educated half the voters are. They'll believe anything so long as the person they admire is telling them. Check a fact? Know anything about how government works?  Why bother?

Well, I'm tired of trying to make sense of it all. I'm bored with lying. And yes, I'm scared of dying if the world continues to get uglier at this exponential rate.

Vote wisely tomorrow. And pray.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Before You Vote...

"Lies" / J. J. Cale

On Tuesday we'll be forced to choose a new President. For months we've had to endure a flood of other lies of all stripes:  Plagiarisms, misquotes, false statistics, unproven allegations, paranoid fantasies, and plumb ignorance of the most hateful kind, from both sides of the political spectrum. I'm tired of it all. And so here is my eve of election soundtrack.

Now let's jump forward to 1972 -- an election year, I might add. Nixon vs. McGovern, no less, which seemed the ultimate stark choice at the time. (This year, I'll contend, is even starker.)

J. J. Cale was basically living in obscurity in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when Eric Clapton recorded a cover of his 1966 song "After Midnight." (Clapton would score another hit with Cale's "Cocaine" in 1977.) On the basis of this, Cale got a record deal and released the album Naturally in 1972. Meanwhile, he hit #22 on the charts in April 1972 with his bluesy single "Crazy Mama."  Things were finally looking up for J. J. Cale.

He went down to Muscle Shoals and recorded a new album, Really (released in 1973), just as "Crazy Mama" was hitting its peak. And track 1 was this deliciously swampy new song, "Lies," which the newly in-demand Cale released as a single later that year.

On the surface, it's a classic girl-done-me-wrong song -- "You left me hanging / Hanging on a limb / You said you loved me / And then you left with him." That rootsy lazy tempo, the snaking guitar line -- it's a timeless sorta song. Sure, he's pissed off, in his cantakerous way, but he's gotta get a few more beers in him (or a few more tokes on the front porch) before he does anything about it.

Still, knowing what was brewing in the country at the time -- the Watergate break-in in June was just the last straw in the miasma of mistrust hanging over that election -- I couldn't hear verse 3 without thinking of politicians and their dirty tricks: "Tell me baby / Why you take my time / You get a thrill off / Playing with my mind / Lord you did it to me / I see it in your eyes / Lies lies lies."

Well, we all know how 1972 turned out.

A word to the wise....

Before You Vote...

"Lies" / The Knickerbockers

We're all tired of political commentary at this point. I'll just say that on Tuesday we'll be forced to choose between a less-than-forthcoming person and a blatant liar for President of the United States. And in their wake, we've had to endure a flood of other lies of all stripes: Plagiarisms, misquotes, false statistics, unproven allegations, malicious insinuations, paranoid fantasies, and plumb ignorance of the most hateful kind, from both sides of the political spectrum.

I'm tired of it all.

And so here is my eve of election soundtrack.

Anybody remember this Beatlesque single from 1965? Though they hailed from New Jersey, the Knickerbockers jumped right on that BritBeat bandwagon, and scored a hit. (C'mon, that opening chord was straight off of  "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," and those back-up harmonies, especially in the bridge, are cloned from "Love Me Do").  It even got covered by Nancy Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt (and, improbably, Styx). Ka-ching, ka-ching.

The Knickerbockers weren't exactly a one-hit wonder -- they had a few other charting singles, and were regulars on my favorite afternoon TV show, Where the Action Is, for a couple of seasons -- but they never quite hit the big time. They were talented enough to rip off others bands' sounds (their previous hit, "All I Need Is You," was a doowop-inflected Elvis Presley wannabe) but they never had a sound of their own.

So in a way, even "Lies" was a lie. Nevertheless, it's such an earworm, it keeps playing in my head whenever I hear these politicians spout their cunning fabrications. It's got just the right level of outrage, mixed with sneering taunts and a howl of frustration. That persistent guitar lick is a like sonic scribble of rage.

And the kicker is the last verse -- for which I will quote the Linda Ronstadt version: "You think that you're such a smart boy / And I'll believe what you say / But who do you think you are, boy / To lead me on this way."

Sound like anyone you know?  

Monday, October 31, 2016

Since We Seem to Love Talking About John Lennon

"Girl" / The Beatles

Well, we just happen to have another Rubber Soul track that should be worth discussing.

This was, after all, the album where the Beatles had to rise to the challenge, to stretch themselves beyond the pop love song mould; Bob Dylan (and Donovan -- let's not forget Donovan) had laid down the gauntlet for a more literary kind of rock song.

While I rarely find Rolling Stone relevant anymore, here's a smart assessment of that crucial moment in rock history. (This was "the album where the Beatles became the Beatles" -- well, so says a male writer born in 1966 who can have no idea of what it felt like in 1964 to hear "I Saw Her Standing There" for the first time.) But I digress...

I made this video for discussion purposes, just so you can listen to the track as I blather on. I'm sure you all already own it in one form or another (if you're like me, you own it in vinyl, CD, cassette, AND 8-track tape).

Okey-dokey. Sources tell me that this was the last track recorded (at Abbey Road Studios, naturally) for this album, and it was John's clever parry, trying to top Paul's clearly genius track "Michelle." If "Michelle" was going to be French, "Girl" was going to get European as hell, with Greek bazoukis and Viennese mandolins and accordions. (Although, depending upon whom you talk to, it was Paul who added the bazoukis.) Mid-tempo, minor key, but with a way more chromatic melodic line, as was John's wont.  

But that's all beside the point: Let's focus on the yearning of this track, the longing for love. John tarts it up with intellectual constructs (those memorable lines: "Was she taught when she was young that pain would lead to pleasure / Did she understand it when they said / That a man must break his back to earn his day of leisure.") Had John been reading Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Working Class? Possibly. But bottom line? He really wanted a woman who could engage with him on another level. "She's the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry / Yet you don't regret a single day." This song was written after "Norwegian Wood" and he had already evolved.  He hadn't yet met Yoko Ono -- that would happen in 1966 -- but he was primed for something meaningful.

Although when we really look at this girl -- isn't she kind of a bitch? "And she promises the earth to me / And I believe her / After all this time I don't know why." Even worse, in that chantingly monotonic bridge: "She's the kind of girl who puts you down when friends are there / You feel a fool / When you say she's looking good she acts as if it's understood she's cool / Oooh-ooh, oooh-ooh..." 

So let's get real. What do you remember most about this track? It's the rawness of John's vocals, collapsing into those lush harmonies, and that staggeringly sexy intake of breath. Was he sucking in his frustration or just taking a toke (this was the Beatles greatest pothead album)? 

And then there's the bridge, where whatever the lyrics say about "she's the kind of girl who yadda yadda yadda, " ALL we ever heard was the Beatles gleefully singing "tit-tit-tit-tit." And we were their fans, and we were in on it.

I wanted to be that kind of girl. Except she didn't actually seem, you know, to be someone I could be. But if Paul and John wanted that kind of girl . . . well . . . 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

And the first song up is . . .

"Norwegian Wood" / The Beatles

Yowsa.  I promised myself I'd write a post on the first song that came up on my shuffle . . . and what comes up?  This iconic Beatles song that I've avoided writing about for years. 

 I've never known what to make of this song, Oh, yeah, I can dig the folk-rock sound, especially with George layering in some early sitar; and my (perhaps puerile) fascination with 1960s Swinging London gives the song's casual sexual encounter a lip-frosted mini-skirted dimension of glamour. (Cue up clips from Darling.) But still . . .

Received wisdom has it that John Lennon (who by the way was married at the time) wrote this song after a baffling evening with a liberated woman journalist. And with the pressure on for the Beatles to be more "Dylanesque," John was no doubt reaching for allusive cryptic lyrics and social commentary. So here was an obvious target: A Girl Who Wouldn't Play By the Rules -- a chick who was even more elusive than the guys who wanted to make time with her -- for the Beatles, working-class kids from provincial Liverpool, feminists like this must have seemed like a strange new breed of woman.

But I have to say -- while we were programmed to love everything the Beatles did, this song drives home a wedge of doubt.

And it's not just John. Though for years John claimed this song was totally his, evidence has it that Paul (yes, my Paulie, my true love) conspired to write the middle eight: "She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh / I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath." So now she's the bread-winner and he's the free spirit, and that sounds just fine to me -- but I'm guessing that the Beatles couldn't go for that.

What if John -- trapped in that spare Danish Modern flat with this clever liberated woman -- simply could not handle her feminism?

"So I lit a fire / Isn't it good / Norwegian wood?"        

Seriously? That's arson. Because she was a "nasty woman"?

Anybody have another take? Because it's a beautiful song and I sure would like to continue loving it....

Saturday, October 29, 2016

An End of October Shuffle

Do the Shuffle 

Click on the song titles, darling, to get some video of the songs in question.

1. "I Don't Want to Do Wrong" / Glady Knight & the Pips
From If I Were Your Woman (1971)
When the cat's away . . . well, she doesn't want to stray, honest she doesn't, but . . . and as this luscious Motowner grooves on, those sexy slow-dance chord changes take us deeper and deeper into who's doing who wrong. Just listen to the angel and the devil arguing over her sequined shoulders. Mmn-hmn.

2. "Fallin' & Flyin'" / Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell
From Crazy Heart (2010)
Another shot of moral ambiguity from the shuffle gods. I have such a thing for both these actors; I could watch this clip from the film Crazy Heart over and over and over. Bridges' character Bad Blake (said to be based on "the king of Western Swing" Hank Thompson) writes the songs, while his protegee, Tommy Sweet (Farrell) makes the big bucks. But the film is so much richer than that, and this Stephen Bruton-Gary Nicholson track captures the whole push-pull of fame and ambition and self-destruction. ("Funny how falling feels like flying for a little while" -- is that not a genius line?) Plus -- who knew Colin Farrell could sing?

3. "Train Ride to Caroline" / Miss Tess
From Darling, Oh Darling (2009)
First of all, if you don't know Miss Tess's music  you should. Second -- who uses an oboe in modern music? For that alone, she's got my vote. Third, she's Boston, she's Nashville, she's a whole encyclopedia of roots music, and with a piercingly true voice to die for, It's jazz, it's cabaret, it's whatever you want.

4. "What Love Can Do" / John Hiatt
From Same Old Man (2008)
John Hiatt goes deeper for me than anybody. Anybody. (Indy, we were kids, the nuns, the neighborhood, say no more.)  Here's his paean to long-time married love, and it completely wipes the slate clean.

5. "Cancer" / Joe Jackson
From Night and Day (1982)
In 1982, we were too young to worry about cancer; we worried about AIDS. Now we worry about cancer and we still worry about AIDS. I love Joe Jackson to the bottom of my soul, and the Latin groove of this track sucks me into its vortex every time.

6. "I'll Be Long Gone" / Boz Scaggs
From Boz Scaggs  (1969)
Oh, the 1969 mindset, where it was cool to be free and easy and "make your own way" to "make your life shine." But there's a copasetic quality to this track that excuses all the moral ambiguity. (See Gladys Knight, entry #1...)

7. "Old Jarrow" / Brinsley Schwarz 
From Despite It All (1970)
I love these guys, I really do. Not just Nick Lowe (bestilll my heart) but the whole groovy band. The redeeming value of this track mostly lies in . . .well, there's may not be much of a redeeming value here, but it's a cool folk-country-rock track that you'd enjoy listening to. So do.

8. "No Distance Left to Run" / Blur 
From 13 (1999)
A psychedelic break-up song par excellence. Not to go all TMZ on you, but the pain of Damon Albarn's split from Justine Frischmann reverberates throughout this woozy track.

 9. "Flight" / Jill Sobule
From Dottie's Charms (2014)
"Flight, flight, I never should have caught that flight!" And so the regrets pile up. The ever-delightful Miss Sobule can do moral ambiguity with the best of them, pepping it up with some sparkling backbeat and deadpan humor.

10. "I'm a Man" / The Yardbirds
From Five Live Yardbirds (1964)
A rave-up version of the Ellis McDaniel song courtesy of Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds. Feel free to add all the moral ambiguity you wish -- don't cost nothing.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones 
"Don't Remind Me"

Okay; I myself would never have known about this album (Little Windows, 2016) if it hadn't been for songwriter Bill DeMain -- who co-wrote every track -- plugging the thing on Facebook. But knowing Bill's talent, I took a chance -- and wow, was I gobsmacked by this record. So I'm urging you to check it out; you won't be disappointed, In the fractured music biz of these dark dark days, a Facebook post is sometimes the only way you'll find out about these gems. 

Teddy, as it happens, has musical DNA up the wazoo, being the son of the gifted British musicians Richard and Linda Thompson (erst of Fairport Convention, and on and on from there). On the other hand, Kelly is just a gal from Virginia with pipes to die for. Note: this isn't the Welsh Kelly Jones, the guy from Stereophonics. No disrespect to him, but I think if he were involved in this project it would be something entirely different.

From the outset, the purpose of this album was to riff on the 1950s "countrypolitan" style that snuck pop influences into Nashville C&W. Strings, lush legatos, movie-music emotions -- the whole nine yards. That's the sound that my girl Patsy Cline was moving toward before she died in that awful plane crash in 1963, and Ray Charles did his own part in bringing R&B into the same camp. ("Georgia"? "Cryin' Time"? There's got to be some reason why these are my favorite Ray Charles tracks.)

But the track this most reminds me of is "Since I Don't Have You," a doo-wop hit in 1958 for the Skyliners, which Guns and Roses also (bizarrely) covered in 1994. The version I'm most familiar with, though, is Ricky Nelson's, from his 1965 album Best Always. It's drop-dead lovely -- and you can't tell me that Teddy and Kelly aren't channeling that ripe emotion here.  

Oh, yeah, it's a mood piece. He's thumbing through his memories, and coming up with mostly broken dreams. That shuffling tempo is drenched with regret and lassitude, and Teddy and Kelly's harmonies are plangent as hell, sliding in and out of crunching dissonance.

I adore how the chorus modulates into that winsome plea -- "Don't remind me." Stevie Elliot's electric guitar draws out the tremulous emotion, spinning the web of regret.

Oh, please don't rub salt in the wound. Or, if you must --

Monday, October 24, 2016

Z Is For...

The last of our 26 artists, A to Z -- and who else could it be but the band who recorded the first single I ever bought, back in 1964?

The Zombies / "I Love You"

I love the Zombies.  Love them, love them, love them.  Loved them then, love them now.

In August 1965, this track, written by bassist-songwriter Chris White, was the B-side of "Whenever You're Ready." A measure of how good the Zombies were in their all-too-brief 1960s career is how often this B-side has been covered since then.

Meanwhile, this video has led me down a whole 'nother rabbit hole. The images star the brilliant Rita Tushingham, whose performances in such seminal 1960s British films as A Taste of Honey, Girl With Green Eyes, and The Knack...And How to Get It were linchpins in that cinematic revolution. (If there's anything I love more than British pop of the mid-1960s, it's British cinema of the mid-1960s.) I've watched this video over and over, trying to pinpoint which film these clips are from. And finally I've had to come to terms with the fact that no one else is as obsessive as I am when it comes to Brit Nouvelle Vague circa 1965 and I had better just move on to the topic at hand. Which is, after all, THE ZOMBIES.

The Zombies had two extraordinary things going for them -- Colin Blunstone's incredibly ethereal voice, and Rod Argent's keyboard wizardry. What Chris White concocted in this song is a jazz-soaked number that gave both those assets a chance to shine.

The formula is devastatingly simple. Over and over, the singers repeat "I love you," numbly, dumbly. When you're hog-tied by infatuation, that's all you can do. Then the combo snaps into a crashing halt, to let the lead singer urgently emote: "And I don't know what to say!"

He's so sunk in desire, he can scarcely think. "My words should explain / But the words won't come." And the chords -- mostly minor key -- shift into conditional mode as he laments: "I should tell you just how I feel / And I keep tryin' / But something holds me back when / I try to tell you."

Tied up in knots? Anyone who's ever been an anguished adolescent (and that's just about all of us) can relate to that.

But finding a musical expression of that is something else. The Zombies were always the earnest, anguished suburban boys of the BritBeat scene. In this devastatingly perfect number, they forever lay their claim to that territory. Which is as good a note as any upon which to end this serendipitous series of posts.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Y Is For...

26 artists, A to Z.

The Yardbirds / "Heart Full of Soul"

I was too young to "get" this band; I only know them from my older brother Holt's LPs. They were darker and more complex than the Beatles, the gods of my 1965 musical universe. But given time...

The most arresting element hits you right from the start: that spacey-sounding guitar. I’d never heard a sitar before – remember, this was five months before George Harrison’s sitar on “Norwegian Wood”; the Stones’ “Paint It Black” wouldn’t come out until the next year. But Jeff Beck didn't need a sitar; he got the same exotic effect just using a fuzz box on his guitar. It sounded creepy, and psychedelic, and I don’t know what else.

It’s a pretty tortured set of lyrics too: “Sick at heart and lonely, / Deep in dark despair/ [oh-oh-oh-oh oh] / Thinking one thought only / Where is she, tell me where / [oh-oh-oh-oh-oh].” I love how those back-up oh’s stagger up the minor scale and then seemingly spiral off into space. Keith Relf’s lead vocal sounds so haggard, like he’s been up late smoking and drinking, nursing his wounded heart. In 1965, most bands perpetuated the fiction that love would make us happy; quite the opposite here.

Apparently the girl’s lost interest in him, but he’s not giving up, as he insists in the chorus: “And I know / if she had me back again / Well I would never make her sad.”

All those shifting uneasy chords, and then he lays out his most important credential: “I've got a heart full of soul.” The back-up harmonies modulate mystically through no less than six chords on “heart”; his heart is just full to bursting, isn’t it? In one stroke, he turns my pity into dizzy attraction. A guy who’s this full of passion deserves to get the girl.

Well, love isn't that easy; half a beat after “soul,” that hypnotic guitar line slices through like a scimitar, drawing us into the next verse, and more pain: “She's been gone such a long time / Longer than I can bear / [oh-oh-oh-oh-oh] / But if she says she wants me / Tell her that I'll be there / [oh-oh-o] / And if she says to you / She don’t love me/ [oh-oh-oh-oh-oh] / Just give her my message / Tell her of my plea.”

By the end of the song, nothing’s been resolved; he’s still aching, still miserable. But me, I’ve got shivers running up my spine. No wonder I avoided this when I was 11. But now that I'm a grown-up? I like it just fine.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

X Is For . . .

26 artists, A to Z.

XTC / "Stupidly Happy"

Yes, I really was that clueless. For years, whenever I heard the name of this band, I thought they were rappers. Y'know, like Run DMC or N.W.A. Never mind that they were English and started recording under that name in 1977, way before the rap era. I guess I have an excuse -- they were never that big in the States, and after 1982 they stopped touring due to Andy Partridge's crippling stage fright. They kept recording, but became increasingly a cult taste. Well, that wouldn't have been a problem for me; there's nothing I like better than a cult band. (I am, after all, a lifelong Kinks fan.) Still, if no one I knew was listening to these guys...

But thanks to my Kinkette friend Julie, I became enlightened in 2007 or so, and XTC is now firmly ensconced in my regular rotation. Quirky, British, literate, funny, more than a little off-kilter musically -- well, that's the sort of stuff I just eat up.   

This is from their 2000 album WaspStar -- which is really the second half of their 1999 album Apple Venus. By then, the band had shrunk to just Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, plus session musicians.  (No need for a full band if you never perform live.) 

As I recall, this was the first of their songs I ever heard, the one that convinced me to listen to more. Sneaky little number, this.

Those crunchy buzzsaw guitars set us up for some real rock 'n' roll, y'know, innit? But Andy Partridge's almost fey vocals float over the top, as he marvels, "I'm stupidly happy / Everything's fine / I'm stupidly happy / My heart's pumping wine."  He describes his "idiot grin," says he's "coming unscrewed," and offers the final proof of being unhinged -- "The world's making sense." 

So maybe it's stupid to be so happy? I wonder. Is that the subtext behind the grating guitar riffs? Is he like a Benny Hill video halfwit, a dim Monty Python gumby with his handkerchief knotted around his head? 

But then -- that free-wheeling swooping melody wins me over, especially in those lyrically sinuous bridges. First he tunes into the natural world: "All the birds of the air call your name / As they land on my kitchen roof / All the fish in the lake do the same / Should you need extra proof."

And in the second bridge, the ties to his music are even clearer: "All the lights of the cars in the town / Form the strings of a big guitar / I'm a giant to play you a tune / For wherever you are." 

He's like Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels, a giant striding the world, He's feeling strong enough to take on the Devil; he's invincible.  Ah, yes, it's love -- her love -- that makes him so happy that's he's almost stupid. (Which is a very different thing from feeling happy only because he is stupid.) 

The final word comes from Andy Partridge himself:  "The dumbest but happiest song I ever wrote. I found the one riff that Keith Richard hadn't. Hopefully says in music what the singer (me) experiences. I'm in love and in a happy groove."

That clinches it for me.  I'll vote for happy.

Monday, October 17, 2016

W Is For . . .

26 artists, A to Z. Coming into the home stretch...

The Wood Brothers / "Sing About It"

There's something about the double-bass that I've always loved. (Remember that scene from the classic movie Some Like It Hot?

Any track that starts with a lone stand-up bass is a good track in my book. Herewith, this funk-grooved track from the Wood Brothers'  2013 album The Muse. 

Steeped in roots music throughout their Colorado childhood, for a while Chris and Oliver Wood took very different paths -- bassist Chris went off to conservatory and founded the avant-garde jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, while Oliver headed to Atlanta and became the guitarist/lead singer in the R&B/funk/country band King Johnson. But some sort of gravity brought them back together in 2006, and they've been recording as a trio with the very talented multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix. I love how these guys, now based in Nashville (because why not?), meld all their influences -- jazz, bluegrass, gospel, folk, the whole damn American songbook bag -- into a souffle of soulful joy. 

Once the bass has laid down that groove, the other sounds layer in, yet there's a simple clarity to this song. It's gospel call-and-response, with a range of questions -- "If you get worried," "If you get lost," "If you get broken" -- to which the only answer is, over and over, "What you ought to do is sing."

Amen to that. If you love music, singing your heart out IS the key to everything.

In the bridge, Oliver's raspy Americana voice flings itself on the altar, declaring, "Sing about joy / Sing about love and hopin' it lasts / Sing about your trouble / And it just might pass." But what really makes it work? The other guys chiming in, their harmonies lifting each phrase, resolving the chords into a corduroyed sort of richness. Because none of us do this alone.

This trio has such musical chops, but what makes them special is something else, something that can't be faked: They've got heart. Please please please PLEASE check out more of their music. It's crazy good.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

V Is For...

26 artists, A to Z.

Vampire Weekend / "Unbelievers"

I dig these kids. I'm sad that they're currently on hiatus, now that multi-instrumental whiz Bastam Batmanglij has left to pursue solo projects (though he says he's still going to collaborate on the songwriting.) While we await new material, here's a gem from their third album, 2013's Modern Vampires of the City.

There's such a great pop groove underlying this track, the tempo ticking along, the arrangement bright and major key upbeat. Yes, it's a disquisition on religious faith (c'mon, Vampire Weekend met at Columbia University; let's just assume they have done their homework), but it's also a celebration of being open-minded and curious. While it rejects dogma -- "Girl, you and I will die unbelievers / Bound to the tracks of the train" -- it also acknowledges the need for something, because "The world is a cold, cold place to be."

Like most of his generation, the singer -- who is and isn't frontman Ezra Koenig -- is not 100% convinced: "If I'm born again [such a loaded term] / I know that the world will disagree / Want a little grace, but who's gonna say a little grace for me." In point of fact he's longing for a taste of redemption: "What holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?"

Well, we all have our paths to forge. I myself am a committed Christian, and I detect a hunger here for something transcendent, something that will make sense of the whole shebang. At the same time, I can sympathize with the singer's skepticism: "Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?" As Ezra explained in an interview with NME: "It doesn't matter how fervently you believe in your faith, there's always going to be another faith that calls you an unbeliever." You're literally damned if you do and damned if you don't.

And in our multi-cultural world, it just could be the unbelievers that have the key to it all.

Friday, October 14, 2016

U Is For....

26 artists, A to Z. 

Unit 4 + 2 /  "Concrete and Clay"

Ever heard of this band? Possibly not, but you might recognize the track – it hit Number One in the UK for one week in 1965 (and a respectable #28 in the US). If not an underground hit, this was at least an offshore hit, one of the first of many otherwise obscure singles vaulted onto the charts by the pirate radio stations that anchored in offshore British waters to defy the BBC’s stranglehold. (If you haven't seen the movie Pirate Radio, you must.)

Originally a quartet called Unit Four, they became Unit Four + 2 when two more guys joined the group. (Duh.) After their first two singles bombed, they hired two ringers – guitarist Russ Ballard and drummer Bob Henrit, who'd played in earlier bands with 4+2 founder Brian Parker and guitarist Buster Meikle. (Ballard and Henrit were Zeligs of British rock; they were later in Argent, with Zombies organist Rod Argent, and Henrit was also in the mid-80s Kinks.) That was a brilliant move, for it was their contributions that made this song.

Dig that syncopated intro, just a cowbell and triangle, like footsteps ringing along a pavement. Henrit's percussion proceeds to lay down a distinctive, twitchy bossa nova rhythm; then a guitar jumps in, skittering up and down the scale with Spanish-style fingering -- Russ Ballard’s handiwork. Four measures and I’m dancing already.

There's a nifty sort of call-and-response thing going on too, as the verse alternates between the lead singer and the back-ups,  their punchy baritones punctuated by his sweet legato tenor: “You to me / Are sweet as roses in the morning / You to me / Are soft as summer rain at dawn / In love we share / That something rare.” How sappy that love poem imagery would sound, if it weren’t for that catchy beat.

The chorus is standard folk music stuff, with swelling Seekers-like harmonies and the usual imagery (urban v. nature, close-up v. panorama, the transient v. the eternal): “The sidewalk in the street / The concrete and the clay beneath my feet / Begins to crumble / But love will never die / Because we’ll see the mountains tumble / Before we say goodbye.” Then it morphs into a tender Bobby Vinton vein -- “My love and I / Will be / in love eternally” -- with the back-ups’ swooning ooohs. But that chunky rhythm saves it, yoking together all these different musical modes, infusing them with that happy, irresistible beat.

Unfortunately, lightning never struck again. Their follow-up single, “You’ve Never Been In Love Like This Before,” barely charted in the U.S.; the mountains are still standing, but Unit 4 + 2 vanished into the mists of time. They’ve left this footprint, though, and it’s a gem.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

T Is For...

26 artists, A to Z. Could be anybody, right? But when push comes to shove...

 Talking Heads / "Once in a Lifetime"

These are the questions I ask myself every day.

By the time this track came out -- it was the lead-off track of Side 2 on 1980's Remain in Light LP -- the Talking Heads had evolved from the herky-jerky nerds I first saw a year earlier at the Mudd Club and Central Park. Yes, the lyrics were still cryptic and not a little weird; yes, the production values were still stripped-down. But a world-music polyphonic groove had been added to the mix, and David Byrne's half-strangulated vocals now floated over a quite serious groove.

What makes this a great track -- and it is a truly great track -- is how these brainy New Wavers captured the seismic generational shift going on. Byrne, in an almost robotic monotone, marvels "And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile / And you may find yourself in a beautiful house / With a beautiful wife." Yeah, for an earlier generation that was the dream, but for our generation that was so explicitly NOT the dream. And yet and yet and yet...

"And you may ask yourself / did I get here?" HOW INDEED?

In contrast the choruses are legato, deeply grooved, and copasetic. He's "letting the days go by," with water flowing underground, erasing all contradictions. That sinuous rhythm ticks on, lifting everything, like the water dissolving whatever stands in its path. Overlapping motifs interweave, keeping it all blessedly fluid.

But questions and conflicts remain. In verse 2 he's still stressed out, questioning "How do I work this?" and denying the very existence of his supposed assets -- that beautiful house, that beautiful wife.

There we were, my generation, committed to doing things differently and yet now seduced by the trappings of material comfort. It wasn't a choice we could easily resolve, which is why the song rattles on and on, the water flowing underground. But in the long run, the line that hammers home is "Same as it ever was / Same as it ever was / Same as it ever was..." Because we baby boomers thought we'd changed the world, and yet -- did we?

And here were these art-school nerds, calling our bluff.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

S Is For...

26 artists, A to Z. How long I've been waiting to give you S -- the peerless Dame Dusty Springfield. 

Dusty Springfield / 
"The Look of Love"

Oh, Dusty. That smoky contralto, the raw emotion, the unmitigated soulfulness. I'm forever fascinated by how convent girl Mary O'Brien of north London transformed herself into the White Queen of Soul.

And a big piece of this is the Bacharach-David connection. In the 60s, all the girl singers wanted a piece of the Bacharach-David franchise, which Burt's muse Dionne Warwick had neatly sewed up in the USA (although Beatles gal pal Cilla Black stole a march on Dionne by scoring a #1 UK single with "Anyone Who Had a Heart"). Sure, Dusty was a major contender, having scored a 1964 top ten hit with "Wishin' and Hopin'," as well as her UK hit "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself." But Dionne still ruled the roost.

Then this number came along. It was originally an instrumental, which Bacharach wrote after watching Swiss sex goddess Ursula Andress perform in the film Casino Royale. (Because, yes, that's how good Burt Bacharach is -- he could toss off a classic song like this as if it were just a doodle.)  Hal David added some lyrics, and suddenly it was a song, and who did the guys tap to sing it for the soundtrack?

My girl Dusty.

So many other people recorded this: Stan Getz, Sergio Mendez, Lainie Kazan, Claudine Longet (aka Mrs. Andy Williams), Dionne Warwick (of course), even freakin' Nina Simone. But as far as I'm concerned, Dusty's version is the only one that matters,

It's a classic bossa nova, sussurating and lush. Dusty's come-hither-husky vocals float over the rhythm track, amplified by echo effects to sound even more sexy. I can see the smudged mascara, the hungover affect -- yeah, the lyrics pretend that this song is all about seduction, but Dusty delivers the morning after.

They look at each other, they want each other. "How long have I waited?" Dusty exclaims, with just a whisper of a wail. Then, eyes on the prize, she follows it up with chapter and verse: "Waited just to love you / Now that I have found you / [beat beat] Don't ever go." Caressing the syllables, stroking the sound, working the textures of her voice to find every nuance.  

It's pop classic gold, underlaid by tasteful movie-music strings and soft Latin percussion. The throaty sax solo in the middle eight is just about perfect. And here's sex-exhausted Dusty, stretching out her arms, begging, "Don't ever go."

It's one of my top candidate for the Sexiest Song Ever -- the other candidates being Dusty's "Breakfast in Bed" and "I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten."  And while we're at it, let's throw in "You Don't Own Me," which is so much better than the current plastic stupid pop hit by Australian singer Grace. (Don't get me started.)

Dusty was the real deal. We won't see her like again.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

R Is For . . .

26 artists, A to Z. And if Wreckless Eric can be our E, who else should be our R but his wife?

Amy Rigby /  "Invisible"

From 1998's Middlescence, the follow-up to Amy Rigby's brilliant solo debut Diary of a Mod Housewife (20 years old and still as fresh as a daisy -- for your anniversary vinyl copy go here )

Why do I keep coming back to Amy Rigby's songs? Because her snarky, punk-inflected brand of feminism is just right for me. She has a stand-up comic's irony and timing, a poet's ear for the apt phrase, and a social worker's sense of injustice.

Amy wrote this song when she was 39, and I understand that the big 4-0 would be a scary prospect for a chick singer in the male-dominated music industry,  But as someone well beyond 40 (as Amy herself is now), I know that this is more than just not hearing catcalls anymore when you walk past a construction site. It's a pervasive blankness, a negation of self. It strikes at the heart of how our society regards women. This is the reverse side of what Donald Trump's "locker-room talk" video exposed -- the fact that if you aren't hot enough to be grope-worthy, then you have no value and you really DO NOT EXIST for a sizeable proportion of the male population.

But -- hey, Amy Rigby chooses to keep things light. The tempo is bright, syncopated, the melody major key and upbeat. In verse 1 she's in a bar, surprised that no one's buying her drinks anymore. (Oh, poor dear.) In verse, she's on stage, dressed "like someone half my age." So far, self-deprecation reigns. But in verse 3, as she struts her stuff on the beach, the Creep Factor intrudes: he's only interested in her (presumably pre-pubescent) daughter. And as a mother, with Tiger Mother reflexes, her hackles rise.

And so, in the end, she slips in an oh-so-pointed rallying call: "I know it hurts to disappear / But you've got lots of company here / And we're invisible." So what if all the invisibles joined forces -- what could we accomplish?

Spurn one of those cat-calling guys and elect an invisible woman to the White House?

Well, why not?

Q Is For . .

26 artists, A to Z. Not a lot of contenders for Q, but oh Lord, these guys command the field.

Queen / "Don't Stop Me Now"

Fun on sooooo many levels. 

Released in 1978 on the album Jazz, then as a single in 1979 (it climbed to #9 in the UK, nowhere near that in the US), "Don't Stop Me Now"" is a joyful statement of pansexual hedonism. Even today, it sounds a little naughty, but in 1979 it was downright wild.  

At the outset, he announces his intentions in a stately waltz-like intro -- "Tonight I'm gonna have myself a good time / I feel ali-i--i-ve." (Dig the whiff of orgy already in the panting "i-i's"of  "alive").  He's already "floating around in ecstasy." But after the chorus chimes in "Don't / stop / me / now" -- every warning syllable taut as a whip lash --  the song suddenly takes off like a firecracker. He's a "shooting star, " a "tiger defying the laws of gravity," a "racing car passing by like Lady Godiva." The copy editor in me wants to quibble -- how can a car be like Lady Godiva? -- but I'm content if Freddy Mercury just wanted to name-check Lady Godiva, with his own special vocal frisson of affection.

Guitarist Brian May may have been (and still is) a serious astrophysicist, but Freddy Mercury's line of star lore is all sexy metaphor: "I'm burnin' through the sky, yeah / Two hundred degrees / That's why they call me Mister Fahrenheit [now there's a memorable moniker] / Travelin' at the speed of light / I'm gonna make a supersonic woman of you." Although by the later verses, it has mysteriously morphed into "a supersonic man out of you." (What?  Who? You thought we wouldn't notice you slipping that in in there, would you, Freddy?)

About 2 minutes in, the mood abruptly shifts (this is, after all, a Queen song, full of the cabaret flourishes that were their trademark). The roller-coaster melody dives sharply into a tic-like two-note bridge, underlaid only with spanking drums. While the back-up singers obsessively repeat "Don't stop me / don't stop me" over and over, Freddy exultingly cries "all right" and "I like it," followed by one of the most onanistic guitar solos ever. How many teenage boys have jacked off to this song over the years, I wonder?

He's a rocket ship, an atom bomb, a sex machine. He's wild, he's out of control, and -- most important of all - he's having a VERY GOOD TIME. The tempo is hyper-accelerated, the guitars are crunching and wailing, and the riffs are all mascaraed eyes and drag-queen dramatics. For 3 minutes and 30 seconds, this track takes us on a fun-house ride we won't soon forget.


Just as a footnote, here's a lip synch battle from the Jimmy Fallon Tonight show, in which the ever-delightful Paul Rudd does a rendition of this song that has blazed into my consciousness. You may have to fast-forward to get to the meat of this clip. (Jump to 4:25.) All I can say is that it will be worth it.

Friday, October 07, 2016

P Is For . . .

An A to Z series of artists I love. And who else could be P but:

Graham Parker / 
"Suspension Bridge"

Throw a dart at a pile of all of Graham Parker's albums, and the odds are overwhelming that you'll hit a great song.  Now, I'm not saying you should really do this -- because, you know, scratches -- but you get my drift.  The man simply does not write bad songs; or if he does, he has the good taste (unlike some major artists I know) not to record them, or to put them on his albums.

In fact, Graham Parker has so many great songs that his new career-spanning box set, These Dreams Will Never Sleep, dropping today (order here or here) -- which is packed with 6 CDs of studio and live tracks -- doesn't have room for all my favorites. Like this one . . .

It's from 2007's Don't Tell Columbus, which some Parker fans -- including me -- consider one of his greatest solo albums. (If I have any beef at all with this new box set, it's that it gorges on GP's work with the Rumour and doesn't have enough of his seriously brilliant solo stuff, which is the material that made me a lifelong Parker fan). My fellow Parkerista Jerry Leibowitz did a pretty wonderful job of dissecting the album's greatness here on his blog, I Discovered America, which is named after Track 1 of this album.

"Suspension Bridge" is a sort of dark slinky samba, all chromatic melody and diminished and minor chords, with a sinuous syncopated guitar riff lacing it all together with a hint of menace. I consider this song Graham Parker's dark-star equivalent to William Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" and "Tintern Abbey" -- it's haunted by the past, telescoping childhood and adult perceptions, suffused with a sense of loss.

We're in nostalgia territory, yet it's not feel-good nostalgia, despite the first verse's vignette of a loving dad and son: "My daddy took me to see it / When I was no more than 10 / They'd just finished painting the metal / Then they had to start all over again." That's just the kind of information a kid would latch onto -- Dad's trying to impress him with the size of the bridge, while the boy fixates on the futility of human effort.

In verse 2 he seems to be in the present, but in a landscape worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: "And the daredevil pilots fly over me / And the suicide lovers swim under the sea / And the murderers submit an innocent plea / And the prisoners dream of the free." Welcome to adult life, son.

In the third verse, he time travels back to that afternoon with his father: "And the stories that my daddy told me / About the place on the other side." Heaven and hell? We-ellll...for the time being, let's say it's just crossing the river, and GP recalls the info he committed to heart: "About the dip of the chains and the height of the piers / And the men who worked there and died." Stories calculated to awe and overwhelm. Remember when you were a kid, how your parents seemed to know everything? How reassuring that felt -- and how lost we sometimes feel as adults, without that illusion.

The chorus resolves into major key, and an almost anthemic grandeur: "I'm still standing here / On that suspension bridge / With the wind blowing through my hair." But don't take anything for granted. Graham Parker is a master of metaphor, and when we think about what a suspension bridge is -- linking two shores, but hanging perilously in mid-air -- well, it's a balancing act. Industrial Revolution technology gave man the power to span wider and deeper channels, but only by being willing to sway in the wind.

Sources suggest that the suspension bridge Parker's referring to is the Clifton Suspension Bridge in North Somerset, a classic 19th-century bridge by the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It's a fair way from GP's childhood home in Deepcut, Surrey (hence the title of his great 2001 album Deepcut to Nowhere), but not too far for a father-and-son bonding field trip.

The second time he sings the chorus, he adds a couple of telling lines: "Not in one world or the other / Losing my father like I lost my mother" -- which suggests to me that this was inspired by his father's death. It's an elegy, and I'm grieving because -- do I know Graham Parker's father? No, but my dad died too, and I've never gotten over it.

I can't listen to this song without pondering all the bridges in my life: between youth and adulthood, between life and death, between one homeland and another, between being a child and being a parent oneself.  Suspension bridges may be miracles of engineering, defying nature -- but they still sway in the wind, and halfway over I always look down at the water far below and freak out.  You cross them at your peril.

And Graham Parker is just too much of an artist to let you rest easy with the bridges in your life.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

O Is For...

26 artists A to Z, for better or worse. 

The Old 97's / "Question"

Alt-country bands are like a hall pass for me: I can love their twangy music without subscribing to the country-music establishment I've irrationally hated since I was a kid force-fed on Hee Haw and Midwestern Hayride.

And these guys from Texas? For sheer musical fun and lyrical invention, they're a slam dunk for me.

From their 2001 album Satellite Rides. 

This was the band's sixth album, and in many ways it was their breakthrough, leaning more toward the power-pop side of their sound (the side that frontman Rhett Miller tends to favor in his solo career). "Question" is track 7 -- which on an LP would be either the end of Side 1 or the opener of Side 2. (Not that that matters, although to some of us it matters.)

You've probably heard this song; it's been on soundtracks for everything from the movie Ed to the TV shows Scrubs and Scorpion. It's just a simple little acoustic number, one singer and a strummed guitar. You'd almost think it was a demo -- but anyone who re-recorded this with bells and whistles and studio effects would end up with so much less.

The story here is one of the oldest stories in the world. It's presented almost like a pantomime, a silent movie, or at any rate a dreamy film montage. The characters' body language tells us all we need to know. The girl wakes up, her boyfriend's looking jumpy (I imagine him pacing, maybe, perspiring, trembling). They walk to a park; close-up of the girl, crossing her arms and demurely looking down. That's verse 1. In verse 2 she looks astonished, bursts into tears -- but happy tears -- and then they stroll home hand in hand.

Now you tell me what just happened.

Yes, the question of "Question" is THE question, as in "popping the question,"  and if we don't get many more specifics about her or him, that just makes it all the more universal. I know the writing teachers all tell you that you need conflict for a story, but there's no conflict here; it's light and joyous and clear as a summer's day. It saunters up and down the scale, tempo skipping along, pivoting gently every so often on a relative minor chord, but mostly in sunny major key territory.

Notice that the words "love" and "marry" and "propose" and "wedding" never appear in this song. It's too intimate for that, too private -- just something between these two people that we're spying from afar. In the chorus, though, Rhett Miller steps back to impart some general wisdom:
Someday somebody's gonna ask you
A question that you should say yes to
Once in your life
Maybe tonight
I've got a question for you 
And yes, there's that hint that he's going to propose to his own true love tonight. (Maybe that was his whole reason for writing this song, or for singing it, at least.) But that'll happen off stage too -- as it should.

The good songwriters know when to leave well enough alone. And the Old 97s? They are good songwriters -- very good songwriters indeed.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

N Is For...

Dialing through the alphabet, featuring 26 artists A to Z.

Harry Nilsson / "Life Line"

First -- I am astonished to find that I never did the Harry Nilsson Tribute Week I planned several years ago, the summer when I first plunged into his amazing body of work.  I saw the documentary, read the biography, bought all the albums and listened obsessively. I honestly thought I had shared that with you all here -- but apparently not, and for that I apologize.

Expect a Harry Nilsson Tribute Week in the very near future.

Meanwhile, consider this a down payment. From Harry's quixotic animated 1971 film The Point.

Yeah, The Point. Did you watch it, February 2, 1971, when it was aired as the ABC Movie of the Week?  You can bet I did. I hoped it would be like The Phantom Tollbooth, which had been released the previous November. It wasn't exactly; it was in fact pretty weird. Nilsson himself admits that he got the idea for it while on an acid trip. His boy hero, Oblio, is a round-headed kid in a land where everything is expected to have a point. (A "point" -- get it?) Without getting into the details of how the two films were interconnected, let's just say that in that era animation was cool, and fables were cool, and childlike perspectives on the world were considered to be the ultimate wisdom. So it's no surprise that Harry -- restless, always looking for new creative outlets -- would jump on this bandwagon.

(Interesting sidenote: In 1977, a stage version of The Point was produced in London, with Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz of the Monkees -- both good pals of Harry's -- in major roles.)

This song is inserted in the movie when Oblio and his dog, Arrow (of "Me And My Arrow" fame), almost fall down a deep deep deep hole, and this song echoes back up to them. But I'm guessing Harry had already written it and just shoehorned it into the movie. Because it had nothing to do with the plot (such as it was) of The Point; it's just one of the most stone-cold songs about loneliness ever written.

Loneliness was in fact Harry's greatest preoccupation. His biggest hits (ironically, written by other people) were the two heartbreakers "Everybody's Talking at Me" and "Without You." On his amazing "standards" album A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night he gave a whole new level of pathos to songs like "Over the Rainbow" and "What'll I Do" and "Always" and "Thanks for the Memories."
Abandoned by his father as a child, Harry spent the rest of his life nursing his grievances -- while, ironically, he was beloved by so many friends, from Ringo Starr and Keith Moon and John Lennon and Micky Dolenz to a host of others. Everyone acknowledged his enormous innate musical talent, while also everyone wanted to party with him, known for his epic benders and outrageous antics. Everyone wanted to save him from his substance abuse demons. No one could.

So the poignance of this song -- begging for a life line, wondering if anybody is out there to hear -- rings true on so many levels.  It's what the French call a cri de couer -- a cry from the heart, "Down to the bottom / Hello / Is there anybody else here?" Lines like "I'm so afraid of darkness / And down here it's just like nighttime." That's a soul-baring admission, and it rips me apart.

It's such a simple song, almost monotonic, maybe two chords: The musical landscape of defeat and despair.

Oh, yeah, Harry. He's a heartbreaker. Stay tuned for my long-overdue Harry Nilsson week.