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.

 

 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

"Sway" / Dean Martin

How did I get here? I have no idea. We've been working our way through the classic TV series The Sopranos, which sneaks in a ton of iconic Frankie and Deano music, and a recent episode of the adorably quirky What We Do in the Shadows features a faux Rat Pack. But this particular Dean Martin track was already on my iTunes, and every time I listen to it I fall more in love with it. 

Now, I greatly admire the work of Francis Albert Sinatra, and I feel a fond buzz for Sammy Davis Jr. But Dean Martin is my Rat Pack fave. I mean, listen to the warmth of that voice, those emotive swoops and shivers. That mambo rhythm is so freaking seductive, and Dean's delivery adds an extra shiver of excitement. ("When we sway I go weak..."). Is it overproduced? Yeah, maybe, but I wouldn't give up those strings for anything.

"You know how, sway me smooth, sway-hay me now..."

"Sway" is Dean before he became enshrined as Deano, when he was still known mostly as Jerry Lewis' straight man. (Yet another mind-blowing layer of Dean Martin's career.) While Martin was one of many 50s Italian crooners, this song isn't Italian at all; it was written as "Quien Sera?" in 1953 by Mexican bandleader Pablo Beltran Ruiz, rewritten with English lyrics by Norman Gimbel (who a decade later would translate for us "The Girl from Ipanema"). Martin recorded it soon after the original, in 1954. It wasn't his biggest hit ever -- for that, you'd have to go to his schmaltzy 1963 "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime" -- but it did hit a respectable #15 in the US. And for my money, this sexy supple number blows that hit out of the water.

Because the wink-wink was always Dean Martin's ace in the hole. Sinatra was ineffably cool, Davis was earnest, Martin was ironic. He had to be ironic to stand up against Jerry Lewis' full-frontal low-brow comedy; in the Matt Helm movies, he was the ironic anti-Bond. His weird and wonderful late 60s-early 70s TV show The Dean Martin Show was, I firmly believe, a groundbreaking post-Laugh In send-up of the variety show genre. He cultivated a drunk persona to give himself room to be loose, to improvise, to be in real time.

The irony here is all flirtation, of course, the engaging to-and-fro of the mambo. Yet it feels remarkably sincere, doesn't it? I love it. I hope you do too.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

"Autumn Almanac" / The Kinks

Fall is hands-down my favorite season. I mentioned that to my husband the other day and he huffed and said, "I guess." But it isn't up to him; it's MY favorite season. 

First, because it's the time of year when you go back to school, and I was always that annoying girl who couldn't wait for school to start again. (Cue up the Staples commercial.)

Second, I have a fall birthday (October 8 if you have your calendar handy), and third, I grew up in Indiana where the fall colors are every bit as awesome as they are in New England. Though, lucky me, I now live in New England where I can enjoy them there too. 

Plus I wrote my college thesis on John Keats, whose ode "To Autumn" is on my short list of the greatest poems of all time.

So naturally this Kinks song should tick all my boxes. But oh my brothers and sisters, it is a Kinks song, written by the Kinks' presiding genius Ray Davies, and therefore . . . well, sit back and strap in. 


It opens with timeless pastoral charm: “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar"; "Breeze blows leaves of a musty-colored yellow"; his friends gather for “tea and toasted buttered currant buns.” The sound is an old-timey music hall softshoe, with corny horns, plinky piano, and sugary backing ooh’s; good times, good times.

But once Ray Davies has hooked us, he begins to sneak in class details, the satire layering in plumping rhythms: “I like my football on a Saturday, / Roast beef on Sundays, all right. / I go to Blackpool for my holidays, / Sit in the open sunlight.” (Any Ted Lasso fans here?)

In the last verse, Ray lets his narrator hang himself: “This is my street / And I’m never gonna leave it,” he stoutly declares, “And I’m always gonna stay here / If I live to be 99 / ‘Cos all the people I meet / Seem to come from my street”). Well, yeah, if you never go anywhere else, that’s who you’re bound to meet, innit?

This single was released October 13, 1967. I see it as an answer to the Beatles' single "Rain," which came out in May 1966: The Beatles dreamily sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun, while the Kinks -- blocked by a US ban from touring internationally -- focused on the guy who swept the garden's leaves into his sack. Yin and yang.

But what strikes me most in 2021 is how eerily well Ray Davies captured the owner of that garden, that little tract of English earth. Far from being a nature lover, a friend of the planet, he closes himself off from everything outside his garden gate. He votes for Brexit; and if he's American, he votes for white supremacy, for anti-vaxxing, for Trump. 

Deep breath. 

On the other hand, it's just a brilliant pop song, where moon-and-June love lyrics have been thrown out the window in favor of sneaky satire and a damn good pub singalong. 

God save the Kinks.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

"Der Kommissar" -- After the Fire

Sometimes the song finds you. 

Okay, so everybody else is writing about the Rolling Stones and how sad they are about Charlie Watts dying. Yet here I am, fulfilling the brief of this blog, writing about this strange piece of 80s flotsam just because I can't get it out of my head.

Spotify cast this song my way, on some random exercise playlist. Of course I knew it -- well, sorta -- but did I? As the kids used to say on American Bandstand, it had a great beat and I could dance to it. But that simply doesn't account for how it has lodged in my brain for the past couple of weeks. And so, apologies in advance if I am now passing that earworm on to you.

 

For years I've maintained that the 80s was a decade that nearly killed music. But Spotify algorithms betray me again and again, and now I have to face how much 80s music I actually do love. Not that I know much about this band, After the Fire. Wikipedia tells me they were a British prog-rock band with Christian overtones, who went New Wave around 1979. This 1982 track -- an English-language cover of an 1981 song by Austrian artist Falco -- was their one and only US hit, and they split soon after. Which is a shame, because this catchy number ticks off all the boxes on the New Wave checklist: whipsaw rhythms, synths, offbeat subject matter -- and you can't deny the hooks.

Yes, it's more than a little paranoid -- all those repeated "Don't turn arounds" and that ominous "The more you live, the faster you will die." But those of us who grew up fearing both the Nazis and the Commies easily feed into this.  Downward driving melodic lines smash up against propulsive "uh-ohs." In 1982, the Cold War was still engaged, the Berlin wall was still in place. This song earns its edgy vibe.

Maybe this wouldn't have climbed the charts if the video hadn't been so stylish and cool. After all, this was the MTV era, when a snazzy video could leapfrog a song to chart success. But I don't even remember the video, and I respond like a lab rat to this song's strangulated vocals, jerky syncopations,  and sexy undertone.

It makes me laugh out loud and it makes me want to dance. And in this crazy world, what more could you want?