Saturday, March 16, 2024

Happy St. Paddy's from Dexys Midnight Runners

Yes, those Dexys Midnight Runners, and don't pretend you didn't love their big 1982 hit "Come On Eileen." Just in case you were on another planet when this single hit the airwaves, here's my previous post on that beloved hit. 

Dexys Midnight Runners generally get clocked as a one-hit band. But just listen to this track, the first single released from Dexys 1982 album Too-Rye-Ay (and the album's first track). What's sad is that I've never heard it before, and it's actually every bit as catchy and delightful as "Come On Eileen."

Everyone's having fun here, the scrappy vibe propels it forward (those spiky fiddles playing like a soul band's horn section), and there's a riff I can't get out of my head. 

We could be listening to the Dubliners and the Chieftans singing the auld tunes on St. Patrick's Day or we could be having a rare bit o' fun with Kevin Rowland (aka Dexy). I know which side of the soda bread I'm slathering my Kerrygold butter on.

Monday, March 04, 2024

"The Guy Who Doesn't Get It" / Jill Sobule

Okay, this song has been obsessively occupying my cerebral cortex for at least a week now. Maybe writing a blog post is the only way to exorcise it. Trouble is -- and this, dear readers, is at least two-thirds of why I so rarely post these days -- I've already written about this song. Back in 2007, in fact. Because the songs I love keep coming back to me, and this is one I really love.

Way early in my blogging days, back when iTunes still was a Wild West of user-posted playlists (like Spotify was just a few years ago), you could actually discover new artists from other music fans. Somehow I landed on someone's playlist of great girl singers, or something like that, which is where I first found this song. I instantly fell in love with Jill Sobule's music. I'm way down that road now; I've bought all her albums, seen her several times in concert, subscribed to her Patreon account. So writing about this song is more than deja vu all over again. It's a tribute to how satisfying it is when you see how right your first impressions were.  

Jill Sobule is like this great girlfriend you can sit up late with, drinking margaritas and eating Doritos and getting slaphappy. Her songs are so perky, her voice so kittenish, you don't realize at first how snarky her lyrics are; then suddenly you're in on the joke and you love it -- like in this brilliant song from her Pink Pearl album (2000).

The joke here is not that the girl singing the song is suicidally depressed -- although she is -- it's that her obtuse boyfriend hasn't got a clue. "Can't you see that I am dying inside?", she starts singing, in that sweet-and-innocent voice, even before the listless acoustic guitar and bored-sounding drums lurch in -- "Can't you hear my muffled cry?" On the second verse, a lazy slide guitar joins in as she wearily elaborates: "Don't you know my life's a quiet hell? / I'm a black hole, I'm an empty shell / Does it occur to you that I might need help?/ You're the guy who doesn't get it."

Okay, that's the premise; we've all known/dated/married men like this. But then, Jill being Jill, she pushes the scenario into Luis Bunuel territory: "Say I'm in the tub with a razor blade / You'd walk in and ask me "How was your day?" / Then you'd lather up and start to shave / As I bleed on the new tile floor..." The NEW tile floor; that's the detail that grabs me -- trust a woman to notice, even as she's slitting her wrists, that the blood's going to ruin her nice new floor.

She could say anything and he'd never notice. In the next verse, she compares him to Nazi collaborators; in the second bridge she hauls out one more melodramatic scenario: "Say the car exhaust engulfs my brain/ The Nembutol is racing through my veins / You come in and ask "Are you okay?"/ As I close my eyes forever." Pause and -- wait for it! But, erm...

A plunking piano ambles in, as if it's not even worth the effort to get the notes right. Jill tries the chorus one last time, asking wryly, "What's going on inside those vacant eyes?" And of course she has no answer -- none of us do. None of us ever do. But sometimes, the only thing that keeps you sane is knowing that at least your girlfriends know just what you're talking about.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

"I Say a Little Prayer for You" -- A Bacharach Smackdown

When Burt Bacharach died in February, I started making a playlist -- as one does -- and found myself having to make a lot of choices. I mean, I couldn't have the Dionne Warwick version of every song. In some cases, it was a coin flip -- go with Dusty Springfield here, opt for Jackie DeShannon there, a little Sandie Shaw here, a little Karen Carpenter there. Throw in some Isaac Hayes and a touch of Herb Alpert, and you start to realize just what genius songwriting Burt Bacharach and Hal David were guilty of.

Now don't get me wrong: In the world of Bacharach, Dionne Warwick more than earned her stripes. She not only had the voice he needed -- the range, the clarity, the pitch, the emotional texture -- she also had the musical intelligence for a composer who liked changing keys and time signature so much, damn all the pop music conventions. A child of a gospel choir family, she'd also gone to a music conservatory; she knew her stuff. Bacharach himself called her his muse, and I'll fight you to the death for her versions of "Don't Make Me Over," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." 

But then I ran smack into this conundrum. 

I grew upon Dionne's million-selling 1966 single "I Say a Little Prayer for You." It's a masterpiece, no doubt about it. It's got that brisk scat-like rhythm, the crisp muted horns, and an indefinable undertow of something I can only call Santa Monica surf. And there's Dionne's vocal, delicate and yet razor sharp, recounting all the ways in which she thinks of her man throughout her day. Hal David's lyrics deftly walk us through her day -- waking up, applying her make-up, riding the bus to work, taking a coffee break -- she's a career girl, she has it together, and she's happily in love. David apparently intended the song to be about a woman whose lover/husband is serving in Vietnam (1966, mind you), but there's nothing anxious about this track. She shouts her love to the rooftops (the chorus exults, "Forever, forever, we never will part, oh how I love you") and she's down on her knees thanking God for blessing her with such a love. It's sunny and delicious. As a pre-teen, this told me everything I wanted to believe about how wonderful it would be as a grown-up -- a competent modern female -- to love and be loved.

But now that I am a grown-up, why does Aretha Franklin's version pack such a punch? The edgy growl in Aretha's voice clues us in from the get-go: She's worried about this guy, and for good reason. With that gritty soul arrangement and the gospel choir of girlfriends doing the call and response, she's testifying to her anxieties. Whereas Dionne I imagine springing out of bed, Aretha seems to be hauling herself groggily out from under the covers; Dionne is patting her coiffure into place while Aretha yanks a comb through her hair, attacking those overnight tangles. She doesn't have a lot of down time, and when she does -- the bus ride, the coffee break -- it just opens the door for worrying. Whether he's in Nam and just a no-good lowlife, she's praying for him, asking for protection. Gratitude? Forget about it. She doesn't trust him, she's waiting for bad news. And all those details about her daily life read as the strength of a woman who keeps putting one foot in front of the other, getting up, going to her job, because she's learned she can't depend on anyone else -- and surely not on that man. Even the chorus reads differently: I zero in instead on the feisty lines "Together, forever, that's how it must be / To live without you / Would only mean heartbreak for me..." She can already taste the heartbreak, because she's tasted it before. This is a whole 'nother song.

Well, I put both in my playlist. How could I not? But I'd love to hear which one speaks most to you...

Thursday, October 13, 2022

"Summer of My Wasted Youth" / Amy Rigby

October 3rd, the Loft at City Winery, and I'm finally committing myself to an indoor show in a small space where no one is masked. Do I freak out? Well, for a few minutes, but once I'm there, it's easy to forget what year this is. I'm with my longtime crew of Kinky/Jiggy friends, I'm at my old City Winery stomping grounds (well, um, they moved during the pandemic so it's actually a new place, but they've still got the City Cab on tap and great flatbread pizzas).

My friends are here for the opening act, Rogers & Butler, and they do a bang-up job. Really good band, and great songwriting, although since we are sitting at the edge of the stage we can only hear bass and drums and no lyrics. Erp. Because I am actually here for the headliner, one of my top Girl Songwriters of all time, Amy Rigby. I put her right up there with Jill Sobule, Aimee Mann, and Jenny Lewis in my pantheon of chicks who do the feminist thing with wit and irony and a whole lotta snark. And, being a Lyrics Girl, I really want to hear Amy Rigby's lyrics.

But then she pulls out this old acoustic number, from her 1998 album Middlescence (you can also find it on the excellent 18 Again: An Anthology), and I am a puddle of emotion. 

Most of us have had a time like this, where even if you did have a job (or, as Amy puts it, a "j-o-b," as if it were something dirty and unmentionable), it was a dead-end job you didn't care about. When everything seemed possible and nothing seemed urgent; when your pleasure-to-obligation ratio was WAY skewed to the pleasure end of the equation. 

It's a brilliant title, playing off on that old-fart trope ("ah, my wasted youth" or "youth is wasted on the young") with the truth of the matter, which is that they were also wasted most of the time, dropping acid, smoking pot all day, drinking cheap beers at the Polish bar. Still, was it wasted time?  I beg to differ. She buys a guitar, though she hasn't yet learned to play it; she floods her brain with country music. Whatever music she'll eventually make is in there, gestating. 

A sense of loss haunts every line, the realization that the freedom and fun of the summer of '83 has since vanished. Listening the other night, I was especially hit by that one line, almost a throwaway line: "the summer I believed in us" -- you know from the past tense that she's no longer with that guy, and only now can she see how much disillusion and heartbreak was lying in wait for her in the fall of '83. 

Still, though you can't go back again (and would you really want to?), sometimes you can reconnect with who you used to be. Maybe it's because over the pandemic I went to my high school reunion and stirred up all those old memories; maybe it's because I'm zeroing in on the Medicare years and have a heightened sense of time passing. But this song flushes up so many feelings about one summer in Indianapolis -- not '83, but not much earlier -- and I realize I kinda miss the girl I was then.

Thank you, Amy Rigby, for giving her back to me.

Friday, November 12, 2021

"Well I Done Got Over It" / Bobby Mitchell

Lord know where I chanced upon this beauty -- some show we were watching this summer. (I suspect it was the riveting Chris Rock season of Fargo.) But the minute I heard it, I knew it was going onto my permanent playlist. Have a listen:

Here's what little I know about Bobby Mitchell: Born in Algiers, Louisiana, he had a few local hits with high school friends the Toppers in 1953 when he was just 17; a year later the band broke up when several members got drafted. Bobby kept at the music thing, though,and while he never broke through to national fame, he was a fixture on the New Orleans R&B scene until he died in his 50s.

This particular song was originally recorded by Guitar Slim in 1953 as a slouchy blues number. It's since been covered by Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and I'm sure a host of others. But listen to how Bobby Mitchell transforms it. He leads off with a howl of frustration, a la the Isley Brothers' "Shout" (Mitchell recorded this in 1960, a year after "Shout"), then goes into a finger-snapping cha-cha beat, with a taunting sax and jittery splashes of roadhouse piano. His woman has done him wrong, and no matter how often he claims he's gotten over it, we know he's still riled up. 

Almost as if to punish himself, he keeps rehearsing the facts of the case ("I didn't want you to be no angel"; "Every time I turned my back / You was out with some other man"; "I remember the day I first met you / You seemed to be this sweet little thing..."). He still can't believe he let her fool him like that. And of course, this being a blues song, he has to repeat the title phrase over and over, but with Bobby, it's as if he's still trying to convince himself. Fact is, he is anything but over it.

This song just crackles with energy, with hurt, with drama. We're in the thick of it with him, and there's no telling how things will end up. Mitchell's vocal is supple, emotive, and oh so relatable. It's just a crazy wonderful song, and I can't believe it's as obscure as it seems to be. Which just tells you, there's so much good music out there we have yet to find...   

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

"Ooh La La" / Faces

I'm pretty sure I didn't hear this song on US radio when it was released in May 1973. Yet I'm guessing it has played on enough movie and TV soundtracks since then that it seems totally familiar to me now. And when it came up on Spotify a couple weeks ago, my immediate response was -- "Oh, this song -- I love this song!" And it hasn't left my head since. 

In 1973, if I knew anything about the band Faces, it was that Rod Stewart was their lead singer. At first I'd loved his 1971 solo hit "Maggie May," but I quickly got tired of him as a solo artist. So why would I be interested in Faces?

But here's the thing: Rod Stewart has nothing to do with this track. It was written by the two Ronnies -- Lane and Wood (yes, that Ron Wood, now of the Rolling Stones) -- and although Ronnie Lane usually did lead vocals when His Rodness couldn't be bothered, in this case good ol' Woody took the mike, a rare occasion. 

This may be the album's title track, but it lands as the last track of Side B, and it's anything but a statement song: It's as loose-limbed and carefree as could be. To me, it could just as easily be The Band; it's all acoustic twang, clogging shuffle, and drawl, and Ron Wood's vocals have an unaffected Rick Danko quality that's totally endearing. It's got an offbeat jerky tempo and a rambling melodic line and, well, you just have to collapse into it.

The song's premise is simple -- a grandfather telling a youngster "I wish that I knew what I know now / When I was younger." Lane and Wood were still in their twenties when they wrote this, so hardly grizzled oldsters dispensing advice. But it's not portentous (not like Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages" or Cat Steven's "Father and Son"); the old guy's basically giving the kid tips on how to avoid floozies, and the kid doesn't listen, and now he's woefully sorry. And life goes on...

Aha! My research now tells me where I first learned to love this song: It's played over the end credits of Wes Anderson's Rushmore. (Which honestly is one of the best soundtrack albums ever. I adore Wes Anderson.*) It all makes sense now.

Well, hell, take a listen. Put your feet up. Enjoy. 

*Go see his new film The French Dispatch -- it's a wondrous delight!!






Wednesday, October 27, 2021

"Let's Go Surfing" / The Drums

For years I resisted Spotify and now I'm a convert. Because Spotify gives me what iTunes used to and no longer does: User-created playlists. Some of my favorite artists today I only know because of iTunes user playlists. So how happy am I that I can now discover totally new-to-me songs like this 2009 indie pop gem?

Who are the Drums? I'd never heard of them before this song swam onto my radar. They're an NYC band founded in 2008, and this is the first track from their debut EP Summertime! (They've since released five albums; band members come and go, but the one constant is front man Jonny Pierce.) I haven't yet got around to exploring the rest of their music, I'm still just grooving on this track. Apparently it made more of a splash in the UK than here; go figure. 

I dig that peppy backbeat rhythm track, with its retro New Wave energy, and how it plays against the legato melodic line of the verses. Pierce's vocal coaxes us, "Wake up, / It's a beautiful morning" and I'm ready to go. The chorus swerves into plaintive punk-y mode ("Oh mama / I wanna go surfing / Oh mama / I don't care about nothing"), then turns a little dazed and confused in the chanted monotonic bridge ("Down down baby / down by the rollercoaster"). It's all hooks all the time, and I love it. 

And the best thing about this damn song? That earworm whistling riff.

It's just fun, just pure fun. Enjoy.