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.

Monday, October 03, 2016

M Is For...

An artists' A to Z, according to the whim of the day. 

The Monkees / "I Know What I Know"

The Monkees? Yes, the Monkees.  And not just a blast from the past, but a new track from a new album.

Wait -- the Monkees are still recording?  Didn't Davy Jones die last year? (Well, he actually died in February 2012, but I get your point.)

This new 2016 album, Good Times, honors the past, with tracks that recycle not only hitherto-released Davy vocals from 1967 but also a 1968 track with the late great Harry Nilsson (more on him to come soon).  However, it's also got a bunch of new material, produced by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger and featuring such songwriters as Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Andy Partridge (XTC), and Noel Gallagher (Oasis) and Paul Weller (the Jam). If that's not a sign that the Monkees are now officially cool, I don't know what is.

 All of which would mean nothing if the album wasn't good. But -- it IS good. And here's the track I keep coming back to.

Now, back in 1967, I was irredeemably a Davy girl. My sister was a Micky Dolenz girl, and we both had a certain fondness for the band goofball, Peter Tork. But I always had a sneaking curiosity about Mike Nesmith, the more so as his country-tinged songs showed up on later albums (once the band had fought to have more of their own stuff on the LPs). As Monkees fan lore would have it, Mike was the one in the band who had the most singer-songwriter chops, as opposed to acting chops (a version of the story that shortchanges former folkie Peter Tork, but whatever).

So in this 2016 incarnation, where Micky, Peter, and Mike all contribute their own distinctive tracks, I'd have expected Mike's songs to be twangy as all get-out.

Instead, we get this poignant love song.  It's a perfect example of Music for Grown-Ups, with its clear-eyed declaration of symbiotic need. "I know what I know / And what I know / Is I know nothing / Without you." Subsequent verses simply substitute new verbs -- "I see nothing without you," I have nothing without you," I feel nothing without you" -- could he be more humble?

And the melody is perfectly wedded to those lyrics. "I know what I know" modestly steps down the scale, with "And what I know" climbing only halfway back up the scale, so tentatively. The melody peaks upward as he bares his soul on "I know nothing," followed by the wry diminished chords of   "Without you."

It's not a teenage love song, full of inarticulate longing. It's an emptying of ego, a stripped-down statement of need. As the bridge declares, "Alone I am / With waiting heart / Alone I am / A world apart," In a later iteration of the bridge, he goes even more needy: "Someone alone / Always dreams of / The perfect one / Someone in love."

The slightly hoarse edge to Mike's voice, the strained leap to those high notes -- it all works to the song's purpose. It's mostly just a piano and the singer, though in the middle eight, we get the movie-music heartstrings-yank of Adam Schlesinger playing the chamberlin (a pre-Mellotron schmaltz machine).

It's so far from "Hey hey we're the Monkees" -- and I can't think of a better reason to listen to the Monkees in 2016.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

L Is For . . . .

Working my way through the alphabet, one artist for every letter from A to Z.  Bonus points when both your names start with that letter....

Lyle Lovett / "If I Had a Boat"

So many L's, so little time.  I could have written about Nick Lowe (well, obviously), or Amos Lee, or Lulu or Los Bravos or the Lumineers. But this is where I landed, because -- well, Lyle. I mean, Lyle.

I realize that I have already treated you to such Lyle Lovett beauties as "Nobody Knows Me" ,   "She's Already Made Up Her Mind", and "In My Own Mind". But in my ongoing quest to earn this genius the recognition he deserves (outside of country music circles, who hardly pay him any attention at all anyway), here's one of his most iconic songs.

And you have to pay respect to an artist who was already hitting the "most iconic" level on his sophomore album. Pontiac came out in 1988, and seriously, this guy was already this good.

Some artists I'd wonder if I'm just imagining the DNA of a song, but with Lyle? Underestimate him at your peril. I'm sure he knew the Pete Seeger classic "If I Had a Hammer" and had it firmly in mind when he wrote this.

Yeah, it starts off all folkie and simple. "If I had a boat / I'd ride out on the ocean." But he quickly throws a country-western curveball into the song: "And if I had a pony / I'd ride him on my boat."

Horses hate boats. Lyle grew up on a ranch; he knows horses. So yes, we're in magical realism territory. "We could all together / Go out upon the ocean / I said me upon my pony on my boat." I see Lyle, with that wild crop of curly hair, sitting on his cowboy paint pony, staring out to sea.

And the ironies keep on coming. He's channeling 1950s cowboy star Roy Rogers -- "If I were Roy Rogers / I'd sure enough be single / I couldn't bring myself to marry old Dale [Evans, Roger's wife and co-star] / It'd just be me and Trigger [Roy's horse] / We'd go riding through those movies / And then we'd buy a boat / And on the sea we'd sail." Is it just me, or is there a kind of Coen brothers madness to seeing this ark fill up with cowboys and their ponies?

He goes on from there to mess with the Lone Ranger legend ("But Tonto he was smarter / And one day said 'Kemo Sabe / Kiss my ass, I bought a boat / I'm going out to sea.'") Allying yourself with the Native American point of view? Priceless.

And yet and yet and YET. Here's the genius of this song: There's something so plangent, so yearning about that folk-inflected melody that it trumps everything else. Lyle's earnest mellifluous vocals, the simple acoustic finger-picking, with just a touch of pedal steel behind -- it's delivered with such conviction. The wink-wink cultural references dovetail right into a genuine vein of desire. He WANTS that boat, he WANTS that pony, He WANTS to be Roy and Tonto. And we, listening, want that too.

This song's been covered by everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Dave Matthews. I swear I've heard it in movie soundtracks, and when I hear it, it always lifts my heart. Yet it's not sappy; it's the total antithesis of sappy. It's just plumb beautiful.