Friday, January 23, 2015

Free Willie

Quotes Supplied by Mrs. Jaybee!

“Can’t We Just Sit Here and Have a Nice Meal?”:

Well, no.

So there’s Mrs. Jaybee and me sitting down to brunch, with a piano player (if I say pianist, everyone giggles) playing in the background. Because that’s what brunch is, right? Breakfast, but with a piano player.

I’m trying to impress the Mrs. by guessing the songs he’s playing. I say “The Lady is a Tramp”, but of course I’m wrong. She tells me it’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”.

She corrects me a couple more times. If it were a competition she’d be kicking my ass. But she just sits there patiently trying to eat her Chesapeake Omlette in peace while I take shot after shot and my Crab Benedict gets cold.

I don’t get them all wrong (there were a couple of Beatles songs, you see).  But why am I even trying?

It’s Willie Nelson’s fault.

“Do I Have to Hear ABout Your Allegedly Deprived Childhood Again?”:

But before I get to him, let me try to explain this behavior by revisiting my deprived childhood.

It was in war torn Berlin. No food. No heat. No air conditioning. No cable. Okay, I may be remembering it wrong.

It was actually Brooklyn. There was plenty of food, heat and even A/C. But while our parents provided us with all the basic comforts, they couldn’t help but also dish out a lot of negativity about my beloved rock n roll music.

I’d deal with it by going on the counterattack. I’d ridicule old music and dare to say it was inferior to rock  n roll. My logic went something like this: old movies were in black and white, people always had to dress up, and the bands had no electric guitars. Case Closed.

In retrospect, the parental reaction to our music was understandable. Rock was, after all, storming the citadel of what was considered to be acceptable music.

And their music wasn’t representing itself very well, on TV at least. Lawrence Welk, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Joseph Goebbels. You get the idea.

It wasn’t until I started going out with Mrs. Jaybee that I even began to scratch the surface of the alleged Great American Songbook, whose appellation I objected to more for what it implicitly left out (rock and roll) than what it actually contained.  Hey, it's not my fault said Great American Songbook up and left for Liverpool in 1963.  Get over it already.

I’d eventually hear better singers who would sing all those old songs that everyone recognized but me. Even Mrs. Jaybee sang along!  It turns out she knew all those songs! How did this challenge to my Musical Authority come about?

Well, in Mrs. Jaybee’s actual deprived childhood, she spent a lot of time in front of the TV, escaping. And she didn’t have the luxury of two parents deriding her musical taste. This made it easier for her to hear old music without prejudice.

I guess I had the luxury to be bored with/depressed by my surroundings. She had to take what she could get.

And in the process, she learned all those songs.

It Takes an Outlaw:

Willie Nelson.jpg

In 1978, punk was storming the Rock citadel. (Ah, the irony!)

Willie Nelson - a well-respected country singer and songwriter, but by no means a household name yet -  picks this time to look back - and off to the side - to rediscover several American “standards”, and in doing so, makes them real for me for the first time.

So how did he do it? Did the look - ponytail, beard, jeans and tee shirt - similar to a lot of rock musicians, help break down my defenses? Or does that look signal a lack of pretension?

Or was it that there’s about the same amount of time between the writing of these songs and his recording them, and between the release of this record and my hearing it?  To put it another way, did I just have to grow up a little? Let’s All Do the Time Warp (yet) Again, shall we?

The key - I think - is that Willie sings in that smooth, relaxed voice of his. None of that overbearing vibrato that was popular way back in the day to distract you from those otherwise jazzy chord changes and sinuous melodies. And here, he really nails it.

He also throws in a couple of more recent - but by no means new - songs, which only serve to buttress the concept that they can all sit together on the same record and play nice.

And a small band to keep it all nice and simple.  Not much bigger than, say, the Beatles.

Willie was way ahead of the curve on this. This record was released way before a bunch of washed up rock singers began to pontificate about the abovementioned Great American Songbook, which I guess is what you do when you’re done playing in apartheid South Africa.

I wonder how these versions sound to people who’ve always liked these songs? I assumed some kind of sacrilege must have been committed for me to like them. But Mrs. Jaybee likes them. She always was very open-minded. That’s how she got to be Mrs. Jaybee. And now, will I come to like other versions of these songs? Time will tell.

I've expressed my frustration with the very good but not quite great music I was hearing throughout 2014. This record is a glaring exception. It's outside my comfort zone, and yet done so well, that I enjoy every minute of it. And it may be the most consistently appealing record I’ve gotten all year. Okay, there’s nothing that knocks my socks off, but every single track rolls them down a bit.

So, now to answer the question of why I persisted in guessing the song titles during brunch.

Well, it was because I got the first one right.

It was "Stardust".


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Holiday Music Fail

Premeditated Fun:

Ever since some key albums imprinted themselves on my brain during past holiday seasons - thus forever coloring my recollections of those times - I’ve been trying to engineer the holiday spirit via pop music.

I figure I’m getting music anyway. Why not try to time it and select it in such a way that the holiday spirit is guaranteed?

Insane! I agree. Real life should be providing the spirit, not music.

Engineered Joy! Guilty! But spontaneity is really overrated.

And, of course, people remind me of, uh, Actual Holiday Music, which I’ll admit exists, but which has only a limited effect on me. Here’s the whole sad tale.

So there’s nothing like hearing great new music on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving to give the overall holiday season an added bump.  

And when it works, it works!

Don’t believe me?

Digging the Fossil Record:

Here are some records I will forever associate with past holiday seasons, and the years they marked:

1969 - Abbey Road, of course. It played constantly during Christmas break. A great memory from a childhood that was about to end.

1975 - Liv by Livingston Taylor - Slow and sad (just like me!), but Sweet Revenge by John Prine
snapped me out of it.

1976 - Valley Hi by Ian Matthews - Beautiful enough to overcome a lot of solitude.

1977 - Sailin’ Shoes by Little Feat - The opening number - “Easy to Slip” - took about two seconds to kick in, and first made me aware of the impact music could have on my state of mind during the holiday season. The rest of the album can barely keep up.

1980 - Remain in Light by Talking Heads - It had just come out and was capturing everyone’s attention. It was nice to feel young and part of what was going on at the time.

1983 - High Land, Hard Rain by Aztec Camera - It has more than enough melody and emotion to overcome its minor flaws, and haunt my imagination for the entire holiday season.

1985 - By now I was consciously seeking out music to accompany the holidays. 
Wise Guy by Kid Creole and the Coconuts started the season off with a bang, assuring me before the first cut was over, that it was going to be a good holiday. Getting married that year had something to do with it, too.
And that’s where Listen by A Flock of Seagulls (Yes, those FOSGs!) comes in. Mrs. Jaybee got this one, and since I’m the self appointed music arbiter in the house (it’s in the pre-nup) I’ll decide what’s good and bad, thank you! But in the spirit of the holidays, I tolerated this. Then it kicked in at New Years, when Mrs. Jaybee and I, after having been out and about for most of the night, stayed up even later just talking and listening to this. If this sounds lame (and I don’t blame you) play “Transfer Affection” at 4am with the one you love.

1986 - Paul Simon - A truly great album at any time of year, but it’s one you can listen to by a quiet fireplace. Don’t worry if you don’t have one. This record will make you feel like you do.

1990 - Go Betweens: 1978-1990 - Please refer to the abovementioned sad (not really) tale

1991 - All of this and Nothing by The Psychedelic Furs - A truly F'ed up year. Was it my dad’s fatal bout with cancer that made this hard rock record (most of which I’d already heard) resonate so much? “All of This and Nothing” explains all of this, and none of it.

1992 - Harvest Moon by Neil Young - Two am on Christmas morning, after the guests have left. But the hidden masterpiece is the strange “Natural Beauty”.

1993 - Lucinda Williams There were a lot of other records happening at the time that were almost as good, but “Side of the Road” and “Crescent City” gives this one the edge. One of my all time favorites.

1996 - Moving by the Raincoats - Nothing major, but sweet and weird. I was feeling weird myself at the time.

1997 - Diary of a Mod Housewife by Amy Rigby - Beauty, both lavish (“Sad Tale”) and spare (“Knapsack”), and a dose of reality (“Beer and Kisses”). Good for new beginnings.

2007 - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood by Neko Case - It had to compete with Oceans Apart that year, and because it was a little weirder, took a back seat for a while, until we kept playing it and playing it and playing it, well into Spring.

2009 - I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thompson - You could listen to this one by the fire when Paul Simon is over. Actually, put this one on first.

2010 - Push Barman to Open Old Wounds by Belle and Sebastian - The young people call it “twee”. I call it incredibly beautiful, sad, and guaranteed to put you into a major depression. What the hell???

2011 - Sophtware Slump by Grandaddy - So sad!” son Michael said. But you wake to be happy again.

“Survey Says!”, Just in Reverse:

Aside from a consistent theme of utter desolation (perfect for the holidays!) - plus a bit of joy to keep you going - what else do these records have in common?

They’re song-based and melodic. As simple as that. And they kick in right away. No multiple listens needed to know what you’ve got.

You’ll notice there are some years missing. That’s not because I somehow don’t remember. Nerds like me keep records!

Those years are the ones where the music just didn’t work, like when I got hilariously wrong with Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth. A very worthy album but completely inappropriate. (Duh!) The holidays are not the time to get adventurous. It just proves that Great Music does not necessarily equal a Great Time.

And 2014?:

And it didn’t work this year, either. What went wrong?

Well, first, the albums have to be pretty great. That’s a tall order under the best of circumstances, and not much has risen to that level lately.

The other reasons I’ll give below. I’m tempted to review these albums on how they function as holiday music but that would be a mighty harsh assessment.  I’ll just do my best to rate them as albums and explain how none of them put me in the holiday spirit:

Hokey Pokey.jpg

A perfectly good album, but wow, what a let down! This is unfair. After the powerhouse I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight how could I think another R&LT record could compete? Oh, it's beginning to emerge from the shadow of that classic to stand on its own, but I doubt I’ll ever consider it an equal.
So we now know that the strategy of going with an old reliable can actually backfire! B+

Rain Dogs.jpg

Really? I thought this would sound nice?  Why didn't I just get more Sonic Youth? It starts off with a song about a one-armed dwarf, for chrissakes, and goes from there. I thought I might be able to catch Tom before he took the plunge into the ditch, but by this point he's definitely hit it, and bounced a time or two. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I like Mule Variations, but it did take 20 listens or so to get there. There’s no time for that during the holidays! Not bad at all, just nothing I'd play around the Christmas dinner table, unless I was trying to clear the room. B

Built to Spill.jpg
Probably the best of the three. A new artist (to me). Song driven, I’d heard. But it wasn’t clear on the first listen. Guitar driven, I’d heard, but I didn’t know it would be an angular, noisy guitar. The whiny vocals (Freedy Johnston going apesh*t.) can put you off, too. The lyrics are right up front and interesting, the chord changes very idiosyncratic. Very worthwhile, but just not pretty enough for this wonderful time of year. A-

So 2014 was a pretty big fail.

No music to fill my empty head during boring meetings at work. No magic added to my life via music.

As much as I talk about music, I ran out of things I felt like listening to about two weeks ago, and my house had something it hadn’t had in a long time - silence. For hours or even days at a time.

So I may need to take a break. Music was just not of huge interest to me this month, or at least it couldn’t overcome what real life occasionally dishes out.

It’s probably a temporary thing. Tomorrow something could come out of left field, blow me away, and me and music are best buddies again. It’s happened before.

But right now I’m feeling doubtful. I no longer look at album lists and see potential joy. Just temporary encounters that may offer limited fun, but no transcendence. Perhaps I expect too much.

Or I could try to find the Magic in real life. It’s there, along with the Loss, which is what I tend to dwell on. I’ll just have to resolve to recognize the Magic while it’s happening.

Now that’s a tall order.

Monday, December 29, 2014

In Between the Go-Betweens

Brutal Youth:

I was a relatively well-behaved teenager, which meant I had a lot of time on my hands. So I’d think up little projects for myself to pass the time. Things that would never occur to my more fun-loving (or rather, fun-having) friends. 

I’d recycle my record collection, or total up the running times of my albums (40 minutes was my standard of excellence). Or pore over album liner notes obsessively (Hugh McCracken, anyone?)

See a pattern here? It’s okay, it helped cut down on the masturbation. Slightly.

Another one of the projects I’d assign myself was to go deep into an artist’s catalog - buying most if not all of their albums, at least until I noticed the law of diminishing returns kick in.

Well, some things never change. They may take a lot more time - or a lot less, depending on what you’re talking about - but I still find myself doing them. But let’s get back to music, shall we?

Once a Nerd...

I’ve been on this on-again-off-again quest to get every album by the Go-Betweens. The off-again aspect of it can be attributed to real life occasionally butting in, but it’s also due to a slight, but totally unreasonable, sense of disappointment.

It started with Go-Betweens:1978-1990 which, over the 24 years since I got it, has become one of my all-time favorite albums. (Good luck finding it, though.) 

This is an embarrassing admission. I always found it lame when one of someone’s top albums was a “Best of”. It smacks of laziness, middle age, parenthood and Merlot.

And when you start with a “Best of”, and then decide to go deep, aren’t you just bound to be disappointed by the original albums? Not necessarily.While “Best of"s purport to be the cream of the crop, no sooner is one released before fans begin to carp about the song selection.

Most of the time I find “Best Ofs” to be frustrating. You’d think they’d be fantastic, and sometimes they are. But sometimes the very variety of these albums make the individual songs not sit together well. Thus the original albums are the more satisfying. 

Or sometimes the song selection sucks.

Which should have been the case here, since GBs:1978-1990 is actually a best-of/compilation of rare cuts and B-sides. By definition, a mixed bag. The regular albums should be just as good, right?

There are about ten GB albums, so where to start? You want to get your money’s worth, so you avoid albums with a lot of the songs from the Best of. But then, doesn’t that suggest it’s a weaker album? What to do?

I finally got around to getting Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express - their fourth album, with only one song on the compilation - a few years later. Good, but not as hooky or stirring as I’d have liked, and so I paused.

About ten years later I got Ocean’s Apart, which came out after GBs:1978-1990 and an extended band hiatus. It’s one of my favorite albums of the 2000s. So maybe they were worth further exploration, after all.

Then came Spring Hill Fair - their third, with three picks. About halfway between Liberty and Oceans in terms of production and muscle, but just missing a little magic. So I put my toys away for a while.

I tried again last year with Tallulah - their fifth, which was very good! But it was clear that GBs:1978-1990 got the best songs - all four of the them! - from it.

Maybe it was time to stop. After all, what were the chances that the next one would have any revelations? And yet, spurred on by glowing on-line user reviews (let’s deal with that at another time) I was still intrigued enough to continue.

Always a Nerd:

So here's the latest installment in my undiminished, yet still slightly disappointing quest:

Before Hollywood.jpg

Their second record, more or less. Quiet, bare. But propulsive. Purported to be a significant leap forward from the debut.

One thing that always set the GBs off from other singer/songwriter bands is the engine they constructed under each song. It always had a lot of horsepower. Forget about being female, Lindy Morrison was simply one of the best drummers around. And their guitar-bass interplay always made them a band rather than just a bunch of musicians standing around and playing with the songwriters.

This was necessary, though, since Robert Forster, who wrote intriguing songs, was never big on singing pretty. David Byrne seems to be his inspiration, but things aren’t weird enough here to warrant such  mannerisms.

And I wish they stuck to their guns with the arrangements. For some reason, they throw in an organ, even though the best songs here - “Cattle and Cain” and “Dusty in Here”, both of which naturally appear on
GBs:1978-1990 - are the ones that are the very barest. Given how everyone was dabbling in synthesizers at the time, it must have been their half hearted attempt to stay “current”.

But despite such awkward corners but there is a personality emerging that would result in some of the best songwriting in the 80s. This may be their best balance of band and song without production. The GBs have almost arrived! B+

Best of the Best ofs:

So the GBs don’t make it easy. Each album has high points that keep you around long enough to hear the rougher stuff. The funny thing is that GBs:1978-1990 was like that too.

And now that I’m a few albums into the catalog my estimation of GBs:1978-1990 - which I’d already marked as my favorite non-Christmas holiday album - just keeps going up.

Which makes me think that while there are at least two more of their records I’ve got my eye on, I should slow down a bit.

After all, what’s the big deal? I don’t have Yellow Submarine yet, either.