Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Whip It" / Devo
Back in 1980, a new cable channel called MTV desperately needed music videos -- that's how a crudely produced film snippet by this oddball Cleveland-area cult band got such heavy airtime. That Marlboro Man rancher, lashing the clothes off of his frontier wife -- was that kinky or what?

Some folks would say that MTV "made" Devo's career; on the contrary, I think Devo was responsible for making a whole generation want our MTV. You absolutely HAD to get wired for cable, because where else on 80's TV could you see stuff like this?

Normally I don't go for high-concept bands, but I bought Devo's package one hundred percent. Devo stood for "de-evolution," synonymous with mindless conformity, which we Devo fans were supposed to combat by being free-thinking individuals. How hard is it to get 20-somethings to buy into an agenda like that?

And Devo carried it off in perfect deadpan style, dressed in hazmat coveralls with industrial goggles and inverted flowerpots strapped to their heads. Their robotic stage movements matched those jerky synthesized arrangements (only Devo could cover "Satisfaction" and "Working In A Coal Mine" with all the blues drained out of them). Everything, down to the album covers, was executed with retro flair. Devo was post-modern long before it became a hipster cliche.

At the time, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale were happy to let their audiences think "Whip It" was all about S&M (either that or whacking off).  Casale now says he wrote those lyrics to imitate the parody poems Thomas Pynchon scattered throughout Gravity's Rainbow. And it's true, the song is packed with a rousing Horatio Alger/Dale Carnegie can-do spirit -- "Now whip it / Into shape / Shape it up / Get straight / Go forward / Move ahead / Try to detect it / It's not too late / To whip it / Whip it good." Yessirree!

This track's got an absolutely driven drumbeat, an obsessive-compulsive guitar riff, and a completely daffy synth motif; it's so tight, so uptempo, it sounds just like it came off an assembly line -- and that's the point. "Crack! That! Whip!" is followed by slapping whip cracks, calibrated precisely to a millisecond behind the beat. And I love those lock-step twinned vocals, finishing each other's sentences in the verses: "Step on a crack / Break your momma's back" or "When a problem comes along / You must whip it" or "No one gets away / Until you whip it."

Irony?  Satire?  Tongue-in-cheek?  So old hat. Devo was way ahead of the curve, daring you to suggest that they were anything other than the factory-produced artifacts they claimed to be. Next to them, the Talking Heads looked like art-school posers and the B-52s were simply a party band. Best of all, they were unabashedly American in an era when the U.K. seemed to OWN New Wave music. I adored all those British acts, but I was glad we had at least one band from our side of the ocean, and a lunatic bunch of Midwestern nerds at that.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Time Has Come Today" /
The Chambers Brothers

File these guys in the No Easy Category category -- gospel singers (and really brothers) from Mississippi who got into the folk circuit, went electric with Bob Dylan, and brought a distinctive soul emphasis to their 1968 psychedelic hit "Time Has Come Today."

We've heard snippets of this mesmerizing song on movie soundtracks for years (I mean, c'mon, who has the patience to sit through the entire eleven minutes of this song?). But road-tripping this weekend (between my son's graduation and my own college reunion, I logged 764 miles), listening to Sirius Radio's 60s station, I finally sat through the whole thing, and you know what? It blew my mind.

Okay, let's address the elephant in the room. There is one white guy in this band -- drummer Brian Keenan, an English guy who started out playing with Manfred Mann. And I have to say, this brilliant track is totally anchored by the eerie tempo-shifting drumming.

The rest of the band, the four Chambers Brothers from Mississippi, had already signaled their intentions to move beyond the gospel circuit by moving to L.A. in the early 1960s, where they played at the Ash Grove and, with a little push from Pete Seeger, played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The next stop was probably inevitable: moving to New York City, which is round about when Keenan joined the band.

1968: That was a great year for rewriting all the rules. Sandwiched between the Summer of Love and Woodstock, 1968 found everybody scrambling out of those genre boxes, mixing folk and rock and soul and blues and gospel and jazz and whatever else you had to play. Our ears were open and our sensibilities were remarkably eclectic.  

In my (admittedly fuzzy) memories of this track from the time, I don't think I had any idea whether the musicians were black or white. Why would it matter?  It's not a song you should think about too deeply -- it's all about submitting to the experience, to the tempo changes, to the echo-chambered background vocals, to the Hendrix-like half-sung testifying of the verses. When it came on the radio, you just knew you were in for a spacey few minutes.

But put this up against other long-form singles of the time, like "Inna Gadda Da Vida" or the folky "Alice's Restaurant," and I think the Chambers Brothers more than hold their own. It's mesmerizing without being boring; the instrumental solos don't seem endless and repetitive; and, I don't know about you, but I feel pleasantly on the edge of my seat waiting for that timekeeper drummer to slow down or speed up.  There's an edge of spookiness, but it doesn't belabor the mind-blowing factor. Just submit to the (live, human, totally not drum-machined) beat, and go where it takes you.

Because, hey, wow man, why not?  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"Lady Doctor" /
Graham Parker & The Rumour

Ah, the earworm gods have a logic all their own.  Why this song?  Why now?  There's no rhyme or reason -- but I am not complaining.

It's remarkable, really, that Graham Parker's sound was already so well-forged on Howlin' Wind, his 1976 debut album with The Rumour.  They still do this song in concert, and it sounds as fresh as ever -- that strolling bluesy beat, the loungey soul-infused syncopation, and Graham's trademark bit o' sass. It's not a message song, not a searing autobiographical statement, not a tender love song. It's just a swinging song that hits its mark, over and over again, and I wouldn't change a note of it.  

I'd like to believe there's a feminist note here -- in 1976, women physicians were still more the exception than the rule, and I'm sure back then there were people who refused to be treated by a female doctor. But the lady doctor that Graham's going to isn't entirely valued for her, er, medical ability. (After all, the refrain reminds us that "there ain't nothing wrong with me.") 

She's clearly a babe in a white coat, and his crush on her could so easily seem creepy. But that's one of the things I love about Graham Parker -- his unerring light touch, never crossing the line between cheekiness and bad taste.  The wink-wink puns are there  ("I went in with a heart burn," "be a patient patient") along with the euphemisms ("stretch right out on that couch," "get under the stethoscope") but his playful vocals make it clear he's just having fun. 

And the fun is infectious.

All the vintage soul signifiers are there -- the horn section, the sax solo, the sneaky guitar riffs, the lead singer's testifying drawl.  In 1976, no less, when the music scene was mostly folk rock and punk squaring off at each other, while heavy metal and prog rock hunkered in their caves.  But here's Graham Parker, on his very first album, mapping a new road, with The Rumour oh so ably driving the bus. What's not to love?

Thank you, earworm gods.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

“When A Man Loves a Woman” /
Percy Sledge

Another icon is gone. The great soul singer Percy Sledge died yesterday, after a long struggle with liver cancer.  R.I. P.
Ever since this song came out in 1966, I don't think it ever went out of rotation on radio playlists.  Even pre-teen me, head-over-heels in love with British beat bands, stopped whatever I was doing when this record came on.  I remember seeing Sledge sing it on Hullaballoo or Shindig or one of those shows, pouring his heart out on stage. I was way too young to have any idea what he was singing about, but I knew it was true.
This is the ultimate slow dance, slouching and grinding from beat to beat, each chord shift groaning toward resolution. I remember this song coming on during school dances – one round of dancing this song, and you practically felt knocked up. (Usually I’d wimp out and flee the dance floor.)
You have to go back to the 60s to find a song that believes in love like this song does. Not sweet and innocent love, not pure and noble love -- no, it's torment and sexual obsession he's singing about. The very first notes announce Major Emotion -- those blaring horns, the resonant organ, the ominous bass -- and then comes Percy Sledge's anguished vocal, elevating lust to epic heights. 
“When a ma-an loves a woman,” Sledge trumpets at the outset, flinging his voice into those high notes, pitched just over the key’s octave note. He's testifying, all right, testifying to the glory of love.  
But is love glorious?  Right away things start to disintegrate, slip-sliding down the scale, as he stuffs in the details – “Can't keep his mind on nothing else / He'll trade the world / For the good thing he's found.” The crap that besets this man seems inevitable (in other verses he turns his back on his best friend, spends his very last dime, sleeps out in the rain); but somehow all of it means nothing next to the fact that he’s loving with his whole heart. The stately, almost lazy tempo takes this all in stride; it’s the way of the world, and eternal as the pyramids.

For the first three verses it’s all theoretical; in verse four he confesses that he’s singing from his own experience: “Well, this man loves a woman / I gave you everything I had / Tryin' to hold on to your precious love / Baby, please don't treat me bad.” He’s not accusing her, not exactly, but he does have a sickening sense that he’s going to get the shaft.

He goes back to the third person, but it’s pretty clear he’s raging about his own situation: “She can bring him such misery / If she plays him for a fool / He's the last one to know / Lovin' eyes can't ever see.” Is she cheating on him? Or, in the final verse, is he the one cheating: “When a man loves a woman / He can do no wrong / He can never own some other girl.” We don’t know; probably even he doesn’t know – that’s how muddled up you get when you’re in love.

Whatever’s going on, there’s pain and heartache here, that’s for sure. But as Percy Sledge sings it, there’s not one minute of blame or regret. He knew coming in that the path of true love wouldn’t be smooth – but it’s still the most glorious thing in the world. And if you can’t get that, then you don’t deserve to be in love.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Whenever You're On My Mind" /
Marshall Crenshaw

Oh, my brothers and sisters, I wish I could post here more often. I promise I will do so, hopefully after, oh, let's say June 15th. And in the meantime . . . well, today I was grocery shopping for my mother (90 years old, broken hip, let's not get started) and who did I hear on the muzak?  Yes, Marshall Crenshaw.

Now, Marshall Crenshaw is definitely one of My Guys -- the musicians I love so much, and listen to so much, that I feel like they are my friends. Old boyfriends, even.  And (with the exception of Paul McCartney, who needs no more fans, but I could no more abandon him than stop breathing), My Guys are inexplicably artists who just don't get the attention I feel they deserve. I never hear Graham Parker or John Hiatt on muzak, and I certainly never hear Robyn Hitchcock. Once or twice maybe Nick Lowe, and if so, only "Cruel to Be Kind.*" (*Note: a song co-written with Ian Gomm).

But this isn't the first time I've heard Marshall Crenshaw on muzak. I'm sure there are business marketing reasons why MC has gotten his product into the proper lucrative channels, and I note that it's usually his earlier power-pop-ish stuff (not the magnificent 2009 Jaggedland or even my current favorite, 1999's dark and delicious #447). This particular track is from Marshall's sophomore effort, Field Day, which some haters people trash, and I personally love. But it is more power-pop than his later stuff, and it sounds perfectly plausible coming out of the PA system.

So I asked my sister, with whom I was shopping (I said DON'T get me started), "Do you know who this is?"

Well, she didn't, even though she lived in New York with me in 1982 when my buddies and I were all ga-ga over Marshall Crenshaw. Guess she wasn't listening. And by the time Field Day had come out, she'd decamped to Connecticut.

So what's your excuse?

 Jangly? You betcha. And yet, there's a wistfulness, a yearning to this song that a lot of power pop completely missed out on.  Those hooky guitar riffs spangle in the foreground, while Marshall's earnest and youthful vocals puzzle over his dilemma.  The very thought of this girl sends him into an existential dither -- everything is foggy, he's disoriented in a crowd, he loses track of time -- it's a "reverie," a "fantasy." The jangliness adds a certain star-crossed quality that totally works here.

What really hit me in the grocery aisle today, though, is the rhythmic sophistication of this track. (Yes, I'll admit: I danced with my shopping cart.) We start out in Buddy Holly-ish straight time, but with a sinuous melodic line. Then we shift into that bridge full of syncopated modulations (hey, the guy's confused!), resurfacing in a samba-like chorus of bright and sunny harmonic resolutions. 

We're always driving towards the major key, the 4/4 time. The kid's an uncertain mess, but the song itself lets us know that in the end, he's gonna be all right. And not just all right; better, because he's given in to the copacetic flow. The very thought of this girl will make him better than himself, if he can only give it time. And we're witnesses to his faithful surrender

Did Marshall Crenshaw and his cowriter, the great Bill Teeley, think this all out when they wrote this song?  Nah, probably not. They just wrote it. But that's the mark of real songwriters; their instincts tell them where to go.

And me, dancing in the grocery aisle?  Well, I felt the fug of my mother's illness magically lift, and I felt grateful for my sister's solidarity (even if she didn't know who Marshall Crenshaw is), and I felt just this teensy bit lighter in my heart.

Which is, let's admit it, the whole reason we listen to music.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"What's Shakin' On The Hill" /
Nick Lowe


Ah, Nick Lowe . . . one of the great musical loves of my life.

Much is made of Nick Lowe's comeback "trilogy" (they've actually been repackaged as a box set called The Brentford Trilogy), which includes The Impossible Bird (1994), Dig My Mood (1998), and The Convincer (2004). But in my humble opinion, the comeback really began with 1989's Party of One, where he first began to move into the more subtle, wry, laidback groove that's been his territory ever since.

It's hard for me to believe that "What's Shakin' On the Hill" was written 20 years ago. Nick still sings it in concert (along with the priceless "All Men Are Liars," also from this album), and it doesn't sound one bit dated -- although truth to tell it never sounded like an 80s song to begin with. That simple opening riff -- a series of descending thirds, falling lazily just behind the beat -- eases us into the song like a stroll down a country road.

He invites us into a pastoral scene -- "There's a cool wind blowin' in the sound of happy people" (that internal rhyme of "wind" and "blowin' in" swings us along). Curious, we move toward that sound, already picturing the venue: "At a party given for the gay and debonair." He adds more details, in shorter scraps of lines: "There's an organ blowing in the breeze / For the dancers hid behind the trees" -- just offstage, so tantalizing. But then comes the cruel reality, as the last two lines descend with a sort of sigh, resolving the melody: "And I ain't never gonna see / What's shakin' on the hill."

So why not? I'm dying to know. He's brought us so close, only to snatch it away. In verse two he explains himself, ruefully: "That I someday may be joining in / Is just wishful thinking / Cause admission's only guaranteed / To favored few." And Nick, apparently -- in his classic role as the wistful loser -- isn't on that guest list.

In the bridge, he owns up to the truth: "I'm too blue to be played with / And I get heartaches / So they tell me, 'No dice'." (The casual cruelty of that "no dice" -- what a slap in the face!) If he were younger, he might blame a girl, but he's old enough by now to admit it's his own melancholy temperament at fault. (Music for Grown-Ups alert!) Like Ray Davies in "Waterloo Sunset," he's forever on the outside, a mere observer of life.

With a defensive shrug, he notes, "It isn't allowed / In that carefree crowd / To be seen with tears in your eyes." Well, as soon as Nick tells me that, I realize I don't want to be with that carefree crowd either. Bunch of shallow hedonists. The "gay and debonair" -- HA! No, I want to be outside with Nick, "Kicking cans 'round / While that happy sound / Keeps cracking on." That image of the lonely kid kicking cans around -- how that wrings my heart.

But self-pity's not on the agenda tonight. Stuck outside in the shadows, he confesses, "Though I long so strong to be inside / With the blues is where I do reside," letting the melody crest upwards on "where I do reside." And after the instrumental break and one last go of the chorus, he peters out, muttering "what's shakin'" over and over. He can't quite tear himself away, no matter how resigned he is to his fate.

He doesn't need a lot of details to conjure up the scene -- golden lights gleaming through the trees, shadows pooled around parked cars, an empty roadway gleaming pale in the moonlight. The far-off clink of glasses and ripples of disembodied laughter. And somehow, we know that it's not just a party he's missing -- that hill could represent social acceptance, career success, critical acclaim, domestic happiness, religious faith, whatever.

What kills me is the light touch of this song -- the liting jazzy tempo, the major key, the skipalong melody. (It's really at its best sung solo and acoustic.) He's not slamming against that barred door, nor curdled with bitterness, nor drowning in woe. He's accepted his place on the sidelines of life, though he still feels twinges of envy and regret. It's goddamn Keatsian, that's what it is, delicately maintaining a fragile equipoise between love and loss, between sorrow and acceptance, between now and then and someday.

Or maybe it's just a pop song, you daft fangirl you. Well, that too.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Sad news today of the death of Michael Brown, songwriter for the brilliant 1960s band The Left Banke.  A good time to repost this piece . . . .
“Walk Away Renee” /
The Left Banke
I’ve really been poking around in my mental music vault a lot lately – I don’t know why – and I keep coming back to this 1966 single by the shoulda-been-bigger band The Left Banke. (Extra letters tacked onto words in a band name are a sure marker of the 60s.) I owned this 45 years ago, and played it to death. It was just the sort of song that an adolescent girl would moon over, a classic expression of tremulous young love.

Now I find out that the song was written by the band’s keyboard player, Michael Brown, who was only 16 at the time – and it was written about the bassist’s girlfriend, Renée, on whom Brown had a giant unrequited crush. So that’s why it captures so perfectly the whiny anguish of love lost! Brown apparently also wrote my other favorite Left Banke number, “Pretty Ballerina,” about Renée. (I guess we can assume that the bassist knew Brown longed to cut in on his girl.) The story goes that Brown was about to record his harpsichord part when Renée herself walked into the studio, and his hands shook so badly, he couldn’t play. I love that story.

Using a girl’s name in the title was no doubt inspired by the Beatles’ similarly yearning hit, “Michelle,” just as the classical touches in the arrangement came out of “Yesterday” (though the flute in the middle also reminds me of “California Dreamin’,” another recent hit record at the time). It’s very much a song of its time – and yet it’s timeless, too, all that angsty emotion. It still chokes me up.

The odd thing, when you realize it, is that the singer isn’t begging her to come back – in the chorus, he’s not saying “Don’t walk away, Renée,” he’s saying “Just walk away, Renée / You won’t see me follow you back home.” This unrequited love is too much for him to bear, and he needs out of it -- there’s passion for you. Without any details, these lines somehow summon up a vivid scene; I can just see the girl’s back as she walks away. We’ve all watched someone we love walk away like that. We know how it rips your heart out.

But for a 16-year-old, Brown pretty shrewdly pinned down the life-altering power of this emotion: “And when I see the sign / It points one way / The life we used to lead / Everyday.” There’s no going back, is there? “The empty sidewalks on my block / They're not the same” (though he does cut her a break, adding “You're not to blame”). Here’s my favorite verse: “Your name and mine inside / A heart on a wall / Still finds a way to haunt me / Though they're so small.” Was there ever a sweeter lyric about lover’s graffiti?

So we leave poor Mike Brown, fumbling blindly on his harpsichord, “Now as the rain beats down / Upon my weary eyes / For me I cry.” Yeah, that’s it, that’s the perfect note of self-pity. You nailed it, man.