Friday, March 18, 2016

A St. Patrick's Shuffle

A day late. Ah, well, the Irish will forgive me. Click on the links to go to videos.

1. "Be Good Or Be Gone" / Fionn Regan
From End of History (2006)
Cool indie-folk acoustic. This young guy from Bray is quite a poet, with an especially winsome, tentative tenor. This debut album is still one of my faves. "I have become an aerial view / Of a coastal town / That you once knew."  Well, now that you put it that way...

2. "Ireland" / Greg Trooper
From Everywhere (1992)
It's not about the country, it's about a woman, a woman he loves. And yeah, so what, Greg Trooper isn't Irish (he's from New Jersey, via Nashville) and this song has his usual folk-country twang--but it's extra jiggy, with a delicious fiddle. "When I'm with you it feels so right, / My wallet's full on Friday night / My ship has docked, my kingdom's come / And my heart's on fire and over-run...."  Love this song.

3.  "Better Not Wake the Baby" / The Decemberists 
From What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World (2015)
Another of my "honorary" Irish tunes. Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy must have suckled on some Celtic teat in his Montana childhood, because most everything his band does has a half-demented tragi-folk quality, like as not loaded up with fiddle and squeezebox. This song is a tasty brew, half Brecht and half The Honeymooners, as a warring couple square off at each other. Another of the great Irish themes. 

4. "The Lowlands of Holland" / Natalie Merchant and the Chieftains
From Tears of Stone (1999)
Yes, that Natalie Merchant, from 10,000 Maniacs, but she sure sounds Irish, right down to the yelpy flutter in her voice, when backed by the Chieftains, the most Irishest band of all. It's one of those traditional songs that everyone's given a spin, but a poignant one, as a young solider's widow grieves his death fighting another country's war far away.  (Love, loss, and homesickness -- they say this song was originally British, but how could the Irish not have appropriated it?). Penny whistle and concertina and all,

5. "Mo Ghile Mear" / Sting and the Chieftains
From The Wide World Over (2002)
Sting sure does get all emotional about Celtic folk stuff -- he's even singing Gaelic in the chorus. ("My Gallant Darling" -- it's meant to be the goddess Eire grieving for Bonnie Prince Charlie.) It's easy to make fun of Sting, he takes himself so seriously, but I have to admit this is a pretty fine vocal. And of course the bodhrans help.

6. "Star of the County Down" / Van Morrison 
From Irish Heartbeat (1988)
Well, here's the real deal -- Sir Van Morrison of Belfast. It's another of those songs that everyone sings, but really, who ever could sing it better than Van the Man? The chorus to this runs through my head whenever I look at a map of Ireland: "From Bantry Bay up to Derry quay / And from Galway to Dublin town, /  Not a lass I've seen like a brown colleen that I met in the County Down."

7. "Living in America" / Black 47
From Fire of Freedom (1992)
Ah, Larry Kirwan -- the great transplanted Celtic rocker and bard of the pre-Celtic Tiger Irish immigrant experience.  The life he describes in this thrashing anthem (still with fiddles and penny whistles!) is just what I've heard from all the nannies and construction guys I know here in New York. "In the cold daylight, I feel like shite / And I can't remember last night's fun / Then the foreman says, "Come on now boys, / Stick your fingers down your throats and get to work" . . .  Oh mammy dear, we're all mad over here / Living in America."

8. "Erin Gra Mo Chroi" / Cherish the Ladies
From The Girls Won't Leave Boys Behind (2001)
That yelpy flutter Natalie Merchant had? This is what she was aiming for. Deidre Connally is the lead singer here, but all the women of Cherish the Ladies go for the most authentic Irish sound they can get (even though they're mostly Irish-Americans). And this is one of the homesickest songs you'll ever hear. "When St. Patrick's Day has come / My thoughts will carry me home / To that dear little isle so far away" -- well, it may sound mawkish, but that fiddle is irresistible. Go see the movie Brooklyn already.

9. "We Are Everywhere" / Pugwash
From Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends) (2015)
One of my great discoveries of this past year, this lovely power-pop band from Dublin. Here they get their psychedelic "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" thing on, all woozily melodic with shape-shifting chords. FYI: Recorded at the Kinks' Konk.

10. "Sayonara" / The Pogues
From Hell's Ditch (1990)
Dig Shane MacGowan's slurred vocals, perfect for this Celtic punk drunkard's lament, whether faked or real. (This was his last album with the band.) I think it's set in Asia, but those pennywhistles give it away -- that and the mournful sitting in a bar, looking across the sea, feeling sorry for himself.  One more Irish rover....

Monday, March 14, 2016

"You Solve Me" / Marti Jones
Just popped into my head. As songs inexplicably sometimes do.

What's not to love about this song?  There's that bossa nova beat, which I've loved ever since hearing the Beatles sing "And I Love Her" (actually this entire album, You're Not the Bossa Me, is bossa nova).

Then there's Marti Jones, 80s chanteuse and wife of Don Dixon; she's recorded tunes by so many of my faves, from John Hiatt to Elvis Costello to Graham Parker, not to mention touring with the ever-wonderful Amy Rigby in 2005.  How is she not my best friend?

And then, this particular track is written by songwriters Kelley Ryan and Bill Demain.  I don't know much about Kelley Ryan but Bill Demain is one of my songwriting heroes.

On a rainy early spring Monday, it's such a blessing to sink into the warmth of Marti Jone's contralto and the laidback Brazilian rhythms of this song. Yeah, life is stressful for her too -- "I'm all messed up and there you go" -- but love somehow makes the equation work: "But everything is easy 'cause you solve me."

Verse two is the one that gets me -- she compares herself to a jigsaw, a crossword, a Scrabble game, all of which I love to play. And isn't that what we all want in life -- someone to guess our clues and fill in the empty spaces?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

R.I.P. George Martin (1926-2016)

Just couldn't let this one pass without a few words, even if it's mostly cribbed from my own old post...

“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” / The Beatles

I didn’t know what to make of this song in 1967; it weirded me out a whole lot more than the psychedelic images of “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” or even the apocalyptic sorrow of “A Day In the Life.” I’m not sure I know what to make of it even now . . . but in some ways it’s my favorite song on this album. And with the news of George Martin's passing, it's a good time to listen again to see what that revolutionary record producer contributed to the brilliance of the Beatles.

Apparently John Lennon transcribed this song almost word for word from an old circus poster, with just a few tweaks to make things rhyme. That info makes this song at least a bit more comprehensible to me. Veering in and out of minor keys, Lennon's melody weaves a nightmare experience -- and the sinister sound effects added by George Martin were crucial.

There's that haunting barrel organ, the whirligig Wurlitzer fills, splashes of tinny harpsichord, the cacophony of triangles and backwards snippets of strings and who-knows-what-else at the end, as Mr. Kite tops the bill. (That part is practically like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.) And above all the stealthy bass line and relentless lockstep drums -- that foregrounded cymbal crash, over and over. It gives me the chills, every time.

The strange phrases filched from the poster only add to the creepy carnival atmosphere – the hogshead of real fire, Henry the Horse dancing the waltz, Mr. Henderson demonstrating ten somersaults on solid ground, it’s all surreal and discombobulated. Whatever the lyrics tell you, the music is telling you that this is dangerous territory – something akin to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, about an evil traveling show blowing into a small town. Mr. Kite could very well be Satan (Mr. K will challenge the world! Mr. K performs his tricks without a sound! And tonight Mr K is topping the bill!). No wonder it freaked me out when I was 13.

I assume that this tacky showbiz outfit has some parallel to the Beatles themselves, thrust into the spotlight and expected to perform like capering monkeys. The insane circus that surrounded the Beatles – something in this freakish daredevil act obviously spoke to John Lennon. And as Lennon tapped into his subconscious, George Martin was there at his elbow, like a good shrink in his proper English gentleman's suit and tie, feeding him all the aural threads to weave into the tapestry.

Pure genius.