Saturday, March 17, 2018

Winter 2018

The one single thing I like about this time of year is, if the music is good I can stay indoors, pretend the weather isn't there and JUST LISTEN!

My batting average hasn’t been great the last few years but things are different this time around. Perhaps it has something to do with my almost utter failure to stick to this decade, which was one of my New Year resolutions.

Plus, I did some mental traveling. I barely do the physical kind, so it’s a start.

And where did I (fake) go?


The Congo:

Not the place that comes to mind in January (then again…), but then there is Black Panther, so...


Konono No. 1: Congotronics (2005)

I wanted to get something by these guys for a while and when it came time to choose I ended up going with their 2004 debut. Doh!

I love the idea of this record. A bunch of guys make their own instruments and amps by pulling parts from junked cars and other crap, and then plug them in and play. A real garage band.

So you get a weird mix of the rhythms you’d expect, but with a raw distortion. And not like electric guitar distortion, unless it’s in your friend’s basement, and the amp’s been dropped a few times. Not slick at all, so you feel like you’re there.

It’s evocative, but over the course of an hour, a bit repetitive. Probably good for dance parties, though.

B+

“Kule Kule”


New Jersey: 

Yes, really.


PM Dawn: The Bliss Album…? (1993)

How could I go wrong with a “band” that brightened my 1997 with their first album - a mix of hip-hop and melody (And why hadn’t anyone thought of that by then?) - making both better?

Their love for the Beatles - only alluded to on their first record - just comes bursting out here with their cover of “Norwegian Wood”, which doesn’t top the original (how could it?) but is both faithful to it and all PMD anyway.

But it doesn’t quite measure up to the first record. When you do the same thing a second time round, it’s got to be much better to really knock you on your ass. If I heard this one first, no doubt I’d love it but I didn’t.

F*cking Jersey.

B+

"Norwegian Wood"


Alabama:


Waxahatchee: Out from the Storm (2017)

Ah, the joys of simple rock n roll! Especially when wedded with straightforward lyrics from a new (to me) voice.

Thanks to her ex for inspiring such pointed lyrics. Bad relationships should always produce such good music.

Straightforward (musically and lyrically) neat (maybe a little too neat), and very, very consistent.

A-

"Never Been Wrong"


Washington State:


Mt. EerieA Crow Looked at Me (2017)

Just a guy strumming his acoustic, singing very simple, direct songs about the untimely death of his wife.

Although history proves otherwise, he believes death - or at least this particular one - is not something to make art about. And he tries to stick to this by making the songs so unadorned and matter of fact that you simply can’t escape the subject matter by focusing on the music.

And not melodramatic. Just troubling and uncomfortable - as he describes in one of the songs - when you’re having a dinner party and someone just starts talking about their spouse’s recent death. Because, like he says, death is real.

No grade, because I don’t know what to make of it yet.

Quiet, haunting, devastating.

And in its way, perfect for the cold grey days of February.


Ireland:

Mom interrupted all of this with the one year anniversary of her death.

At the time I made a playlist for her, and found myself listening to it several times during the week of the anniversary. It’s fucking long - 95 songs - but I got through it three or four times, and in an odd way, it provided a break from my explorations by focusing on the very familiar.

Ever fearful of pointless nostalgia, I typically avoid doing this. But this time it really helped.


Indianapolis:


Wes Montgomery: Smokin' at the Half Note (1965)

Browsing amazon.com is the new record store trip for me. It's where I trip across stuff I've had my eye on for a while, but then because I see it now, it seems like the right time to try it.

So here’s this jazz guitar guy I’d always wanted to hear. But since, aside from Charlie Christian, I never warmed to jazz guitar since I’d only hear muted chords when I want ringing leads, I’d held off for quite a while.

And WM isn’t much different from what I expected/feared, but at least he had Miles Davis’s old rhythm section (circa Kind of Blue) backing him up, how bad could it be?

At first, it was a bit flat, but that rhythm section is so tight it keeps you listening. And eventually, you come to like his tone, his leads, and yes, his fast, smooth chord changes.

Good for mornings and nights. Play Charlie Christian during the day, though.

A-

"Impressions"


North Carolina:


Superchunk: Majesty Shredding (2010)

These guys came out of the early nineties amongst the grunge acts and never got quite the level of attention that Nirvana or Pearl Jame got.

I was so impressed with this on first listen! Right out of the gate, it’s fast, loud and tuneful. But each subsequent listen struggled to keep up. I think it's one of those records where your mood has to match it; otherwise, it’s just clatter. But when they do match, it’s the best record of the year so far.

But for now, I’m gonna grade ‘em tough.

A-

"Digging for Something"


England:


Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Lovely Creatures (2017)

And while all of this is happening while I do a deep dive into the Nick Cave oeuvre via this three-disc retrospective, none of which I’ve heard before. Ah but that's what winter is for! Unless it sucked, in which case, it could have gotten ugly.

The first disc is all arty poetics and gothic pseudo-Americana like only a pretentious Englishman can concoct. Not terrible, but it didn’t exactly encourage me to move on to discs two and three, which are an improvement.

Disc two leans toward ballads. Since mediocre poetry/gothic Americana can devolve into really awful and embarrassing soul-bearing. I was relieved to find that Nick actually has a bit of a heart. The melodies don’t hurt either.

In my year-end wrap-up I described disc three as Dylanesque, but I was mistaken. It’s really Springsteenian (ish? ist?). Again, a risky move, but Nick pulls it off with surprising grace.

I’m still finding my way through this extravagant (haven’t watched the DVD yet) box set (thanks, kids!), but for now, I don’t regret the plunge I've taken.

B+

“Where the Wild Roses Grow”


Back Home:

By my count, decade-wise I’m 3 for 6. Not bad for me.

Happy St. Paddy’s day, by the way.

But I'm done with it, so now let’s get this f*cking season over with, okay?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

2017 Leftovers

There was so much good music last year, and so much of it pop, instant gratification was the order of the year, and there were some artists I didn’t even get to mention.



Todd Snider: Agnostic Hymn & Stoner Fables (2012)

Todd’s a pal of John Prine and Jimmy Buffet, but if you think you’re going to get good time happy music a la Buffet or even personal soul searching a la Prine, uh, no. Todd likes talking about people who have gotten the short end of the stick.

This is strong stuff, delivered with loud and sloppy rock and roll. Todd doesn’t f*ck around, and calls ‘em as he sees ‘em.

Todd’s taking no prisoners here. Before we’re even halfway through, he’s giving us the history of religion, the financial crisis, thrill kill kids, a big middle finger to Nashville and a pathetic love story. All through the lens of smalltown folk.

Like a good strong drink, it’s great, but not something you should have too often.

A-

"In the Beginning"



Margaret Glaspy: Emotions and Math (2016)

This is strong but not loud. “Muscular” is the word that comes to mind. This young woman plays with minimal accompaniment. She’s got a husky voice and plays a distortion-drenched electric guitar.

She’s about halfway between early PJ Harvey and TuneYards.

She can sing and play. She’s also unreasonable and impossible to please.

The tunes are wiry but insistent. Every time you hear them you hear a little more than before.

A-

"Emotions and Math"



Destroyer: Kaputt (2011)

This is oh, so smooth. The smooth singing, the smooth background, the smooth sax. Christ, even the smooth guitar playing. It’s almost like being in an old nightclub. And since it maintains that same tone throughout, it can really get on your nerves if you were hoping for something more energetic or raw.

But when an emotion occasionally rises to the surface, it’s pretty moving.

It’s very easy to listen to, and so gets played a lot.

But it’s not quite addictive.

B+

"Chinatown"



Gillian Welch: Time the Revelator (2001)

This is not bad at all, but Ms. Welch’s voice is a bit too mellow for my taste. It suits her well on the first and last cuts, which are slow and languorous.

But the guitar playing is just plain sloppy. Oh, you meant it that way you say?

“Everything is Free” is the best song here. It’s relatively short, and Gillian is pissed. It’s got a nice melody. I wish more of them were like it. However, I do really the last slow one, where she gets it all right.

B+

“I Dream a Highway”


Joe Ely.jpg
Joe Ely: The Best of...

He's a singer out of Texas from back in the seventies. He’s got a clear, strong tenor. Not too deep and not too wimpy. And - what a relief - he doesn’t wear a f*cking cowboy hat.

This is lean and occasionally mean. It’s spare and clean. It only rocks out when called for.

Ah, but not quite compelling.

B+

"She Never Spoke Spanish To Me"


Grandaddy.jpg
Grandaddy: Under the Western Freeway (1997)

Slow weird and hazy as hell. Even The Sophtware Slump kicked in sooner than this.

And it keeps getting interrupted by crises whenever I put it on, but that’s not Grandaddy’s fault.

It does wear you down after a while, but not enough. Try the great Sophtware instead.

B

"Go Progress Chrome"



Randy Newman: Dark Matter (2017)

Randy’s getting soft. There are at least three songs that convey actual vulnerability.

There are the “political” ones, too, which are always fun.

But it doesn’t quite pack the punch of albums like Good Old Boys or 12 Songs.

B+

"Wandering Boy"



Various Artists: American Classic (2017)

This five-disc set of Americana, blues and a lot more is like a cleaned up version of Anthology of Folk Music - a six disc monster, legendary in its time.

This one’ll take a while to digest.

But it’s looking good.

A

"I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground"



Nick Cave: Lovely Creatures (2017)

Nick’s been around for quite a while but I had nothing by him at all. So why not plunge into the abyss with this three-disc set?

Nick is one of those Brits who’s a little too committed to American folk and yet feels he has to add his own weirdness to it. Early Americana (see American Epic) is weird enough, thank you very much

But he goes for ballads on disc 2, and then Dylaneque rock on disc 3.

So this might not be the torture it first portended.

B+

"God Is In the House"



Sonic Youth: Dirty (1992)

It’s taken me a while to admit it but I just don’t like Kim Gordon. She can’t sing and doesn’t bother to write anything resembling a melody. I much prefer the more cerebral side of SY. But for every one of the latter you get one of the former, So it doesn’t get a lot of play.

B

"Theresa's Sound World"



Courtney Barnett: The Double EP, A Sea of Split Peas

Courtney’s got the rare talent for coming up with simple melodies and effects that, together with her laidback vocal delivery add up to way more than the sum of the parts.

In its way, even better than Sit/Think. A little more laid back and melodic. you can certainly hear the seeds of the Sit/Think songs here.

A nice surprise at the end of the year.

A

"Don't Apply Compression Gently"


So that’s it.

I’ll be focusing on records from the current decade for a while. Oh, except for the two I’ve gotten already, neither of which is.

So my performance regarding new Years resolutions can be described as “typical”.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Seventh Annual Jaybee-bies: Listening to Fiddling While Rome Burns

Best of Times, Worst of Times, Ho-hum:

So how good a year was it (Musically speaking)?

Great! I’m usually complaining about now but this time around I really can’t.

There hasn’t been anything quite as great as last year’s Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest, but 2017 was way more consistent than 2016.

It’s been such a good year musically that even though I didn't get any great holiday (my definition) music, I realize that was probably too much to ask for. In a way, I did get it, just too early, and everything since then has been trying to catch up. Most of it great stuff, too. Just not for the holidays.

It was so good that my son’s record - good as it is - just made the top 10. But I have to grade him hard here, don’t I?

And how bad a year was it?

Well, my mom died in 2017, along with an uncle, aunt and cousin. I made a playlist for her. The effort involved digging into a lot of music from my childhood, which was emotionally draining. So it’s a good thing that the music was there for me.

And, of course, there’s this sociopath trying to destroy the country, but hey, what the fuck, right?


(I Still Suck at) Resolutions:

I still say “awesome” and “let's get on the same page” way too much.

I don’t get 10,000 steps in a day.

I don’t write 1,000 words per day.

I don’t exercise.

I don’t eat enough vegetables.

I eat too many sweets. (Hey, I thought dark chocolate was a health food!)

I could probably cut down on the drinking a bit.

So how can you expect me to follow my musical resolutions, like getting guitar lessons from my son Michael?

So how did I do with last years resolutions?

Buying fewer CDs: A  mp3s: 20  CDs: 9

Buying Current Year Music: B-  Still pretty crappy. Just Randy Newman, American Epic (if that counts, Nick Cave (if that counts), Jens Lekman, the New Pornographers.

2018 Resolution: 

Catching up on the current decade: I’ll be focusing on the 2010s and so may not do so well on the Current Year Music resolutions. Nothing like clashing resolutions to start off a successful year!


Top Ten Albums:

Tied for first:
Innocence Mission: Glow (1995) - Their seeming lightness is overcome by sheer joy.
New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (2017) - A big ole box of hooks and snark. 
King Creosote and John Hopkins: Diamond Mine (2011) - Like Glow, this one is so fragile you think it's going to break, but it never does.
Loudon Wainwright III: Older Than My Old Man Now (2012) - An older, wiser man looks death, and even worse - family - in the eye.
Courtney Barnett: The Double EP, A Sea of Split Peas (2013) - She's sly, she's funny, she's a bit insecure, but she's got a great deadpan delivery

6. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Style (2015) - Some hooks and sounds even more brilliant than Denial, but hampered by airplane-hangar sound.
7. Jon Hopkins: Immunity (2013) - In a genre not reknown for deep emotion, this one wears you down until you hear the heart beating underneath.
8. Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now (2017) - He writes in a style even my mom would have liked, and happens to be pretty great, too.
9. Todd Snider: Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables (2012) -  Strong medicine, this explains how Trump happened. I'd buy it if he could have explained why Bernie didn't happen.

Tied for tenth:
Death Cab for Cutie: The Open Door EP (2009) - Expert, driven, tuneful music.
Forlorne: The Old and Weathered Glass (2017) - Son of blogger gets even better.
Low: Things We Lost in the Fire: (2001) - This one feels like they know 9/11 is coming and they're already in mourning.
Roots: How I Got Over (2010) - Combines the best of Kanye and Lamar.
Future Islands: Singles  (2014) - Just a shade shy of awful, they manage to do all the right things to make it almost soulful.

Yeah, I cheated. There are fourteen.

Honorable Mentions:
Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and the Jazz All Stars, Kanye West, Miles Davis, Cloud Nothings.

Am I saying that the Top Ten are better music than the Honorable Mentions? Yes, but just for now.


Most Fun: New Pornographers

Most Bracing: Todd Snider

Most Work (But Worth it): Kendrick Lamar, American Epic

Most Work (And Possibly Not Worth It): Nick Cave

Most Surprising: Innocence Mission

Most Disappointing: Sonic Youth: Dirty

Best Artist: Courtney Barnett

Favorite Songs: My favorites can be found here:


Observations:

Pop beat out everything. It beat out hip-hop and jazz. Hip-hop because it’s not one of a go-to genre of mine, and jazz because those records were already familiar to me and thus lose out to the new.

One might think protest music would be the order of the day but sometimes pop - not stupid, empty pop, but instead smart, brainy pop - was the right medicine.

Last year’s music gave me hope. Let’s see how far into 2018 it gets me.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Top One or Two Hundred Whatevers, Part Three: Guitar Solos

This just another group of ten, with no attempt at being comprehensive. Just ten I immediately think of, or that are playing in my head at any given time.

But it’s better that way. This isn’t something I should have to think too hard about.

Oh, and the number of artists is ludicrously low. My mind is usually all over the place, but in this case these solos have gotten all the way into the lizard part of my brain. I’ll do another post if I make it back out to the monkey part.


Television:

Supposedly punks because of their intensity, they actually know how to play their instruments. Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd are both great guitar players.

There’s all kinds of loveliness on their second album, but it’s the first one that shook the world.

“See No Evil”:
The first guitar bangs out a primitive rhythm in a low register. The next one plays a repeating pattern that can only be described as snarling, this time in a higher register. Then Tom Verlaine chokes out - in yet a higher register - the words What I want, I want now! so you know these guys really mean business.
But it’s not quite fast enough to let the soloist just coast. It’s setting a level of intensity that will have to be heightened or it will all be for nothing. But Richard Lloyd's solo finds exactly the right space by going up yet another register, but not too high. Not yet. He plays a simple riff but builds the notes and the speed until there’s nowhere else to go, at which point he ends it with a descent (or is it an ascent?) into supremely controlled chaos.

“Marquee Moon”:
Nine minutes long, with dueling guitar solos taking up the middle, this one reminds me of climbing a mountain. Slow at first, but gradually increasing the intensity until it’s at a fever pitch.
It climaxes with a rush to the top of the mountain where you can feel the wide open space and even hear some (prehistoric?) birds. (You always risk sounding like an idiot when writing about rock and roll, don’t you?)
It was the song playing when a life change occurred. Friend and then Roommate Mike was moving to Europe.
While we shared an apartment, he and I would stay up all night drinking, talking and listening to music. On the day he left, I put this album on as he was getting ready. I picked it because we both loved it, and knew it would be the last one we’d listen to together.
He was all packed and waiting for the ride when this song came on, and it really felt like we were climbing that mountain. At the end, Mike put on his wings and jumped off the top, and I stayed behind because that’s what I do.
After the climax, it starts all over again. On the original vinyl, Tom Verlaine gets out a couple of lines of the verse before it fades out at 10:08, leaving you with the feeling that it continues on forever while you (but most likely me) have to head back down the mountain to face real life again, or perhaps the cemetery that they mention earlier in the song.


Crosby Stills Nash and Young: 

Yeah, who would have thought?

“Carry On” (Live Version):
In theory, this long live version of a pretty tight studio song should suck. But I’ve got it basically memorized. Sloppy, self-indulgent but brilliant nonetheless. The singing doesn’t even try to match the polished harmonies on the original, but that is more than made up for by the passion. Again, dueling guitars - this time courtesy of primal Neil Young and fluid Stephen Stills - that are worthy of the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead and Eric Clapton. Who said more isn’t better?


Eric Clapton: 

And speaking of this idiot, I like to recall the time when he could do no wrong (music-wise, that is):

“Let it Rain”
It helps that this is a very pretty song with a chord progression that just encourages a guitar hero to go nuts. But on the studio version, Eric manages to balance control, passion and invention. I used to love when it came on the radio when my Led Zeppelin-loving friends were around.

“Crossroads”
Yeah, I know that it’s been spliced together from several performances but as a piece of recorded art it’s astounding. There are so many shifts of phrasing, tone and angle of attack that it simply can’t be absorbed all at one time. You have to pick the part to pay attention to or risk exhaustion.

“Badge”
Who knew Cream could do a perfect pop song?  But here it is. Beautifully vague but evocative lyrics, emotional singing, George Harrison’s lovely guitar and then Eric's solo. In terms of compression, emotion and technique this might be his best.

“Sitting on Top of the World”
From Goodbye this is an overlooked masterpiece. It’s rough and raw with at least two changes in tone. But he is all over it. Intense as hell.


Stephen Stills:

“Go Back Home”
From the first Stephen Stills record, but it’s Eric Clapton who solos on this. Apparently recorded in the middle of his heroin addiction, he didn’t even remember doing it.
It starts off slow and easy but then halfway through Clapton jumps in and there is just no turning back. Another example of him improving a song without completely taking it over.

And as long as we’re talking about guitarists who are all over someone else’s record….


Derek and the Dominos:

“Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad?”
This is really all about Duane, and I must add that it’s not just the solo, but also the frantic pace of the damned thing. And then there are his fills that only tighten the screws further. So the bar is set very high when it’s time for the solo. And Duane doesn’t let us down. He matches the blistering pace and then some.
Clapton does his level best to keep up (and without Duane his would have been a perfectly good solo) but he may as well just be playing rhythm. And in a way, he kind of is.


And that’s it for now.

Okay, I know I left a lot out but since I limited myself to ten, my conscience is clear.

Like the first two One or Two Hundreds which were about voices and melodies and emotions, these guitar players provide the same thing without saying a word.

But I’m sure you can think of a zillion records I left out.

Come at me, bro!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Older and (Hopefully) Wiser

Once a year - Thanksgiving at my brother’s house - we say Grace before dinner.

We usually force one of the kids to do it, 'cause that’s one of the fun things parents get to do. But this year my older brother Pat volunteered.

2017 was a tough year for us, with several of our relatives passing away. Mom was bad enough, but the hits kept coming, with Uncle Pat and Aunt Theresa, too. And all that by March.

The kicker, though, was our cousin Gene, who was just a couple of years older than us. It was the first death in the family of our own generation.

So Pat touched on that when he started Grace, and although he is probably the strongest of the siblings, he still got choked up part way through.



Loudon Wainright III: Older Than My Old Man Now

I first heard Loudon Wainright III on was with Album III back in 1972. (Remember “Dead Skunk”? It’s the leadoff track here.)

It was a good, but not great, album. LWIII was obviously talented, brutally honest, and funny. But maybe a bit too clever. His songs have always been autobiographical, but while writing about being a bit of a jerk can provide entertainment, it can also be limiting.

Well, he’s been at it for decades now, and you could count on hearing him on your local Americana station on a regular basis with a funny, clever or topical song. He was probably no one’s absolute favorite, but he was always damned good.

But now, after two failed marriages and finding himself older than his dad was when he died, he’s having to come to terms with big things, like family, aging, illness, and well, dying.

In doing so after all these years, he approaches greatness.

LWIII touches on a number of styles here: blues, talking folk, cabaret, ballads. These are tried and true vehicles for such subject matter.

He's always had a pleasant voice, but it seems to suit him and his themes a lot better now. Instead of being youthful and callow, it’s now aged, and still funny as hell.

It starts off okay, with a slick, jazzy tune that introduces the themes but that's a bit too general about them.

But after that, things kick up a notch or two with “In C” which both spoofs the somber solo piano arrangement he’s using while simultaneously kicking ass with it. The lyrics are mordantly funny, but deadly serious, with the following summary of his first marriage:

But I blame myself
And I blame her
The cruel and foolish people that we were

This is followed by the title song, an acoustic blues number about how his father’s death should have freed him from their tempestuous relationship, but only left him adrift. He starts it off by reading a piece by his father, about the very same thing.

“Double Lifetime” - a talking folk song - is about wanting more time, since we tend to f*ck up the time we’ve been given. And as more time goes by, this request seems eminently reasonable to me.

And he keeps at it, mixing styles and inviting his ex-wife and kids along.

The best of these family collaborations is probably the one with his son Rufus ,"The Days That We Die". Their relationship has been troubled and the song is about, well, troubled father-son relationships. Because the cycle continues.

And then there's "My Meds" which I can definitely relate to, and the hilarious “I Remember Sex”, a duet with Dame Edna.

Another highlight is “Somebody Else” with Chris Smithers - whose sandpaper voice is the perfect foil for LWIII's smooth tenor. It’s about the guilt and, yes relief, you feel when you hear about someone else’s death:
He was a guy, just somebody I knew
Once he paid me a compliment, right out of the blue
I was so relieved it was he who was dead
Just a guilty survivor, could’ve been me instead

The peak may be the wordless interlude near the end. Just LWIII humming tunefully. Those few seconds contain all the joy life can bring despite the pain and loss contained in all the other songs.

But even with that, he’s smart enough to end it with “No Tomorrow”, which gives good advice yet pulls no punches.

So, like the life he’s lived for the last seventy-one years, this record is filled with ups and downs.  Sometimes hilarious, brutal or tragic. Sometimes all three at the same time. But always true.

They say living well is the best revenge.

Hell, sometimes just living is.

A


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tenth Anniversary, More or Less: Top One or Two Hundred Whatevers, Part Two

I made a rather random start to this back in 2014.

It was inspired by an hour killing time in a Starbucks in Philadelphia. We were waiting to see my daughter in a show there, and I  was having one of their overrated hot chocolates. But they more than made up for it with their musical selections, which were - as the kids say - bangin’.

Within that hour they managed to press so many of my buttons that my wife and son couldn’t for the life of them understand why I was getting so choked up.

Which inspired my 200th post

At the time, I only managed to list ten, and I promised a follow-up, but the parameters of the thing were so all over the place that I’d never really come up with a comprehensive list. Even when I tried to impose some order on it and break it into sections, I could never be sure I was remembering everything I wanted to remember.

But I did want to put a few more songs together, and eventually found ten more from that old reliable decade: the 1960s. It’s a cop out I know. But at least I’ll clear them out of my head, which will allow me to move onto other things. I’ve already started my 1970s list, and who knows? I may even be able to come up with ten songs from my least favorite musical decade: the 1980s! (Yeah, you heard me, 1980s lovers!)

And, no, it’s not my 300th post, in case you were wondering. Think of it as my 10th Anniversary, since my first post was in September of 2007:


So here goes. Ten miscellaneous, but brilliant, songs from the 1960s, in no particular order:

Downtown - Petulia Clark:

When I was about six me and my family would sometimes visit my Uncle Frank’s bar, and he’d throw a bunch of quarters in the jukebox to keep us kids entertained.

My recollection is that he just punched in the same record over and over again. I concluded that this was how you were supposed to use a jukebox, and for years I’d do the same thing, until people begged me (around when “Winchester Cathedral” came out) to stop.

I vividly remember the first time my uncle did this, which was for this song. And the effect on me was electrifying.

So let me pick it apart and try not to ruin it in the process:

First, the lyrics are totally of the time. Britain as finally coming out of its post-WWII depression. I’m sure the words spoke to a lot of lower class folks struggling to make ends meet. And most Americans could identify, too, even if we were doing better than they were.

The message of forgetting your troubles for a while was pretty universal, if not revolutionary. So how do you put that across in a memorable way? Let’s look at the melody.

The first two lines (“When you’re alone and life is making you lonely…”) use the same melodic phrase. It’s quite good, so why not repeat it?

The next two (“Just listen to the music…) have a different repeated melodic phrase line. It’s a bit more conventional than the first, but it goes into a higher register and so builds the tension. In other words a perfectly good setup for the chorus of a perfectly good pop song.

But that’s not what happens. The singer’s friend is still not convinced. Maybe her troubles aren’t trivial. A perfectly good pop song just won’t do.

So, there’s that little line “How can you lose?", where the melody pauses its ascent, and seems in danger of trailing off, as if the singer is still desperately trying to find a way to persuade her friend to go.

But then she finds her inspiration with the next two lines (“The lights are much brighter there…”). The melody is still struggling to break free, and with the next line (“You can forget all your troubles…”) it does.

The chorus, of course, is wonderful - everybody recognizes it - but it’s kind of simple too, and it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if that little interlude of struggle and resolve wasn’t there to make the victory all the sweeter.

It’s the chorus I noticed when I was six, but it’s that little interlude that gets me now. That interlude - so packed with emotion and melancholy - is like a prayer. When the chorus comes you can practically hear Britain transitioning from post-war black and white into sixties technicolor.

I would normally despise an arrangement that is so packed to the gills with brass, singers and even - to my surprise - Jimmy Page on guitar. But maybe the very glitziness of it is there to remind you that this joy will be temporary. That you still have to go home to your troubles and cares the next day.

But still, it makes you glad you’re alive.


98.6 - Keith

Another British record with an orchestra instead of a rock and roll band, but I don’t care.

I alluded to my love for this song here but I don’t think I quite put it across.

The couplet that gets me is:
My baby’s got me on another kind of highway,
I want to go to where it takes me.

Now that could just be an obvious drug reference, but to me, it’s about how the person you love can change you profoundly for the good. I’m pretty skeptical about people changing so when you convince me, that’s saying something.

There’s also something about Keith’s singing - modesty, maybe - that adds to the impact. A more accomplished singer would have ruined it.

Not convinced? Well then forget about the next one.


Western Union - The Five Americans

Again, referenced in the same post as 98.6, because of two lines that get to me.

After singing about heartbreak he drops these hopeful lines
I'll be on my way, 'cause
There's another girl for me

And it’s like watching the end of The Tramp.


Society’s Child - Janis Ian

This is a hit-you-over-the-head message song, so I’ll be brief.

This one’s got:

  • Heartbreaking lyrics
  • A soulful vocal
  • Hooks galore

 and what all great songs have:

  • An unhappy ending



Both Sides Now - Judy Collins

Yeah, I know. It’s a glossy pop record and thus has less “integrity” than any other version. 

And god knows, I blame Judy for practically giving me a depression, with her versions of “Send in the Clowns” and “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (meaning they were that good) but she absolutely nails it here.

Her voice captures and exploits every single hook, melodic turn and lyric and the strings do what they’re meant to do - underline the emotion. And they do it without getting schmaltzy.  A great pop record.


Things I Want to Say - New Colony Six

Prior to this year, I might have heard this record twice - once when it first came out, and then again in the early 1980s when me and the Mrs. were first going out.

I didn’t know the title or the band, and so wandered in the wilderness for forty years or so before I finally managed to mentally assemble a line of lyric, which I then googled. And there it was!

When I played it again I feared it wouldn’t have the same impact that it did originally. But no. It was all there.

Another heartbreak song. In this one, she dumps him, but the guy reacts by wishing her well. (And I thought I was super passive-aggressive with my “I’m the better person” act!)

But seriously, this one effortlessly gets to my feels via a canny use of some minor chords and a melody that avoids going too sweet, which would have ruined it.


Moon River - Audrey Hepburn

As a young victim of “The Andy Williams Show”,  I got to hear the first line of this song every week for years. But that line - really just the words “moon river” all by themselves - are merely pretty. The kind of pretty a rock n roll lover like me despised for years.

That was until I saw "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" and heard the whole song. Those two words by themselves gave away nothing about the melancholy to follow. What was Andy thinking?

The melody is pretty good, but it’s the pairing of it with the chord changes that are exquisite and deeply moving.

Not rock and roll and I don’t care.


Daydream Believer - The Monkees

I went through several Monkees phases. First, there was the clueless fandom of an eight-year-old.

But what was worse was the desperate need to be cool of a thirteen-year-old. My friend and I came across a 45 of this song and proceeded to destroy it. We convinced ourselves we’d never want to hear that song (that I secretly loved) ever again.

What a fool was I! The song would only come back to haunt me.

And now, I'm in my third phase as a geezer who simply cannot deny the brilliance of this and many other Monkees songs

But you don’t need me to tell you how beautiful this one is, so ‘nuff said.


Pleasant Valley Sunday - The Monkees

I was at a friend’s house one summer’s day and they had this single. We spent the afternoon playing side B(!), which was “Words” (quite a good song). Over and over again. All afternoon.

Why? Because we thought it was Side A. After all, it had been featured in the show recently, not “Pleasant Valley Sunday”.  (Did I mention this in my stupid moments in Rock History post? I should have.)

PVS uses a speeded-up version of the guitar riff from the Beatles “I Want to Tell You” and I must admit that the Monkees made it - dare I say it? - better.

Again, an obvious choice, even if Carol King didn’t like their version.


Sometime in the Morning - The Monkees

Thanks to old friend Billy (whose house we were in for “Pleasant Valley Sunday”) who pointed out how great this song was.

I hear a bit of “Cousin Kevin” from Tommy in the guitar.  But their secret weapons here are writer Carole King and singer Micky Dolenz.

This song will bring back childhood memories like no other. One of their very, very best.


So there you have it. Ten more Great Moments, or Whatevers. And more to come in, oh, five years or so...

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Aftermath

My posts are almost comically untimely, but thanks to a pathetic asshole with a rented truck, I’m momentarily back in sync with the rest of the world.


9/11:

I remember. Usually it's things immediately surrounding the day, as opposed to the day itself, which will always be a f*cking nightmare, and just too much to bear.

I remember a lot of friends and family members covered in soot walking across bridges to get home. And later finding out about three acquaintances who didn’t make it. Me? I got off scot-free, and still feel residual survivor’s guilt. (Beat’s the hell out of not surviving, right Jaybee? Right.)

I remember places, too. Spots where you can stand and be pretty certain somebody died right there.

And things, like charred pieces of paper floating all the way to my house in Brooklyn.

And about what would happen next. It turned out even worse than I imagined.

And how long it took to feel joy about anything.  You have to mourn first. And then have some hope.

And yes, I remember music, too. What I was hearing at the time, but also what it made me feel under those circumstances. Sometimes not at all what the artist intended. But a handy container for my emotions nonetheless.

The memories feel frustratingly random, until I suddenly realize why I'm remembering it.

Like how, in late August of that year I was at J&R Music World - my favorite record store at the time - which was just a few blocks from the Trade Center. And how, while I was there, a dozen firemen came in to check on a reported smoke condition. Then it hits me how unlikely it was that any of those guys made it on 9/11.

I bought a lot of records that day, but don’t play them often. Like Luna’s Penthouse, an otherwise excellent record, but one whose lyrics and music - admittedly taken out of context - only serve to remind me of the day:

Like “Chinatown”:
In the tiny tiny hours
Between the evening and the day
We have placed our final bets
We have come out to play

Lookin' lost in chinatown
Why are we hidin' from our friends
Rushing 'round in taxi cabs
Is it time to make amends

You'll get yours and i'll get mine
You can't be lucky all the time

It’s about running around the city late at night and having fun. But to me it sounds like the end of the era of a carefree New York.

And “Sideshow by the Sea Shore”:
And all the comforting words
Provide no comfort
We can all go mad together
That's what friends are for

Maybe about not having a good time at Coney Island, but under the circumstances the words sting.

“Moon Palace” is meant to sound slow and lazy, like most of the rest of the album, but it ends up sounding shellshocked and weary.


Mourning and Hope:

Earlier that year, I started a new job, which began to suck almost immediately. I consoled myself with streamed music (at least until the network manager told me I was being naughty).

Those music streaming services never quite persuaded me to get anything by the bands they played, possibly because in my mind they all got jumbled up into the big messy ball that was  9/11 and an awful job.

But this past 9/11 got me thinking about that time again. And I finally felt comfortable enough to get something by a couple of those bands.



Low: Things We Lost in the Fire (2001)

An appropriate title, don’t you think?

And the opening lines to the first song “Sunflower” begin:
When they found your body...

Well, it certainly starts in the right place, doesn't it?

This one is all about texture and harmonics. The pace is funereal - it rarely picks up to even a trot.

The two lead vocalists sing low and minor key harmonies most of the time. Nothing very sweet here.  And on the rare occasion when they get a little melodramatic, it doesn’t work for me.

The moody, mournful tone is otherwise sustained throughout the record, yet I’m never bored. That's pretty impressive.

And it expresses - accidentally or not - what I’m feeling about that day, and 10/31/17, for that matter.

A-

“Closer”



The Innocence Mission: Glow (1995)

They sound like an American version of the Sundays, especially when they play fast, but that isn’t too often.

Karen Peris’ sandpaper voice is a little too cute for my taste and the “hit” “Gone to Yellow” has what had sounded to me as a contrived melody. I took it as being pretty on the outside but maybe a little hollow inside.

But their insistently melodic songs (which would have sounded vulgar in late 2001) won me over. The lyrics aren’t dumb. Just sweet.

Like in "Keeping Awake":
Hearing your voice in the blue light
Calming people in the house
Traveling upstairs -
Good to be there
Now, right now

Like someone who arrived home safely - something we can’t take for granted anymore.

I catch religious overtones in the words, which are not my cup of tea, but if it brings them hope who am I to complain?

And they sound it. Hopeful, I mean.

A-

“Keeping Awake”


Going for Joy:

And Hope, like I said, is what you need if you ever expect to get to joy again.

Is it wrong to want joy after all that horror? It does feel a little selfish sometimes. I guess as long as it isn’t heedless - of what happened or of what is happening now - it’s okay.

After all, we’ll need our strength. And I don’t where else to get that from except joy.

And it turns out that even Luna has a little hope, even if it’s just in the music itself: