Tuesday, February 17, 2015

So I Got to Thinking About This Album . . .

Bridge Over Troubled Water /
Simon and Garfunkel

Sometimes late at night this is the album I most want to hear.  Because when it first came out, in 1970, I was just getting old enough not to have a set bedtime; I could sit in my darkened bedroom next to my fold-up stereo listening intently to this record after midnight.  I'd been an S&G fan since Wednesday Morning 3 AM  and knew every note of edgy, arty Bookends by heart.  Bridge Over Troubled Water was pushing the envelope a bit -- what was with those panflutes on "El Condor Pasa"? -- but it seemed a no-brainer to me to study this record until I mastered its intricacies.

Turns out, the key to the whole thing was something I couldn't have known in 1970 -- that this was going to be their last record.

Only now do I realize that the whole thing was a break-up record.  No, not a romantic break-up record, but the break-up of a musical partnership/friendship that had begun when these guys were in sixth grade.  Sixth grade, fer chrissakes.  That's way longer than most marriages.

I started to reflect on this several months ago when I first wrote about "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" after the death of my brother, the original Simon & Garfunkel fan in our family.  Ever since then, I've brooded over other tracks on the LP on long solo car trips (nowadays my best listening time, since the fold-up stereo has been replaced by an iPod).  Now, I figure, it's time to do the track-by-track analysis this magnificent album deserves.

SIDE ONE

1. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" You start out with one of your greatest songs ever, not just because it's the album title track, but because . . . well, because you know the rest of the album is strong enough to follow it up.  Eventually it gets big, anthemic, with all sorts of strings and horns and crashing cymbals.  But it starts out gentle and tender AND THEN dials back down to that level a couple of times. (Ahem, Mr. Springsteen -- once you're at 11 you don't have to stay at 11.) 

Paul Simon had been listening to a lot of gospel music when he wrote this, and it shows. There's a hymnlike benevolence in that modest first verse -- "When you're weary / Feeling small / When tears are in your eyes / I will dry them all." But already the chords are modulating, and the bridge to the chorus begins to rove all over the scale, escalating the drama -- "I'm on your side / When times get tough / And friends just can't be found." That desperate-sounding last line was custom-tailored for Garfunkel's voice, seguing straight into a chorus that would deliver his greatest vocal opportunity ever.

Story is that Simon wrote the first two verses, and then in the studio Garfunkel insisted they needed a third verse. Simon grudging supplied one, which he never really liked. "Sail on, silver girl / Sail on by / Your time has come to shine / All your dreams are on their way." There's been endless speculation about who the silver girl was -- but just note how the stuff about shining and dreams is later echoed in "The Only Living Boy in New York."  I maintain that Paul Simon knew this majestic song was his parting gift to Art Garfunkel -- and a better gift he could never have given.

2. "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" A taste of Paul Simon's soon-to-come passion for world music, this one sounded so weird to us in 1970. In fact Simon just supplied English lyrics to an existing Peruvian song (okay, he didn't know it was under copyright and later had to pay the composer royalties) and it's got an almost na├»ve, folksong-like simplicity ("I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail" et cetera), considering that they guys really hadn't been folksingers anymore for years. But what's it about? "Away, I'd rather sail away" -- a desire for escape, which Garfunkel sings in a yearning voice pure and clear as the mountain air of the Andes. It's effably wistful; it still sends a chill up my spine, panflutes and all.

3.  "Cecilia"  A simple chugging retro-rocker, you say?  "Cecilia / You're breaking my heart / You're shaking my confidence / Daily." (You know what a sucker I am for internal rhymes.) The girl's two-timing him, and he loves her, and he wants her back. Hmmm. And Art Garfunkel was off in Mexico, in the set of Catch-22, pursuing his acting career  ("when I come back to bed / Someone's taken my place.....")

4. "Keep the Customer Satisfied" I hardly ever think of this song, and now I'm listening to it and it is so good.  Though he disguises it as a traveling salesman's lament, being hassled by the local law ("Deputy Sheriff said to me / Tell me what you came here for, boy"), it's obviously about Simon's weariness with life on the road as a musician. "Gee but it's great to be back home," he starts out, in a descending line as if he's collapsing on the couch. And in the chorus, a rising line of semi-hysteria: "Everywhere I go / I get slandered / Libeled / I hear words I never heard in the Bible / And I'm one step ahead of the shoe shine / Two steps ahead of the county line / Just trying to keep my customers satisfied / Satisfied." These are lyrics that still run my head in the oddest situations.

5. "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright"  A song about an architect? Think again -- how about a farewell to a partner who had been studying to be an architect when their career took off? And yet (mirrors within mirrors) it's Art singing the farewell words, as if to Wright/Simon. That lagging syncopation -- "So / long / Frank Lloyd Wright / I can't believe your song is gone so soon" -- sounds dazed by the realization -- he's still scrambling to catch up. "I barely learned the tune / So soon / So soon..."  But the verse that really comes home for me is the next one: "So long / Frank Lloyd Wright / All of the nights we'd harmonize till dawn / I never laughed so long / So long / So long." (You know me and word play; that "so long / so long" never fails to delight.) I think of all the late night conversations I've had with people I truly loved -- my brother, my college friends, fellow writers, music buddies -- laughing, jumping from subject to subject with lightning flashes of irrelevant relevance. And I'm suddenly overwhelmed by nostalgia for it, and envisioning the late nights Paul and Art must have spent together, sharing their lives for so long. "When I run dry / I stop awhile and think of you" -- what a beautiful statement about how we need other people, the partners in our life work that feed our wellsprings. "Architects may come and / Architects may go and / Never change your point of view," Art gently remarks in the bridge. The implied message? People who change your point of view are the only people worth messing with. AMEN.

What a beautiful sentiment. And yet . . . . it's a valedictory sentiment, a magnificent farewell gesture. But a farewell all the same.

SIDE TWO

6. "The Boxer"  Okay, this one was written much earlier, in 1968, and was released as a single in 1969, so technically it doesn't have to fit the break-up theme.  But while it's ostensibly about a prize fighter, it's really a musician's road song.  He complains about leaving his home, about being in the company of strangers, about railway stations -- it's "Homeward Bound" redux. And that battle-scarred figure in the clearing, isn't that weary, self-pitying Paul Simon?

7. "Baby Driver"  Another earlier song, the B-side of the "The Boxer." But lo and behold, even though it's in many ways a throwaway retro rock-n-roller, what's that refrain about "hit the road and I'm gone"?  It's about a sheltered kid longing to break out, restless for adventure -- sounds like somebody's jonesing for a solo career.

8. "The Only Living Boy in New York" Perhaps the most poignant song on a album jam-packed with poignancy, which is why it crops up still in movie soundtracks (Garden State, The Normal Heart).  It's addressed to someone called Tom (Simon & Garfunkel were originally a duo called Tom and Jerry) who's flying down to Mexico, which is where Garfunkel was filming Catch-22. ("I know your part'll go fine . . ."). And there's Simon shuffling around his apartment, watching TV, feeling existential.  Wanting his friend to succeed ("I know that you've been eager to shine") and at the same time consumed by jealousy and loneliness and urban neurosis.  If this isn't the last straw in their relationship, it's pretty damn close.

9. "Why Don't You Write Me"  Another uptempo throw-away? Maybe. But it IS about broken communication and loneliness and an edge of despair. "Why don't you write me / A letter would brighten my loneliest evening / Mail it today / If it's only to say / That you're leaving me." Break-up Alert!!!

10.  "Bye Bye Love"  Not even an original song, but an old Everly Brothers chestnut. But hey, it's probably something they sang in their early Tom and Jerry gigs, and what's it about?  A break-up.  The singer has been betrayed by his girl ("There goes my baby with someone new / She sure looks happy / I sure am blue") and he's saying goodbye -- not to her (she's toast) but to the happiness of being in a relationship.

Which reminds me -- I recently read an interview with Simon in which he admitted that he's addicted to vocal harmonies, that he still hears harmonies whenever he writes a new song. Is this because he spent his formative years in a vocal duo, or is that why he stayed in that vocal duo for so long?  Because, let's be honest, even in 1970 we S&G fans were aware that Paul Simon was bringing most of the talent to the partnership. And yet, and yet . . . the one thing Garfunkel added was something so special, so ethereal, that Simon can be forgiven for not wanting to jettison it. I do not believe he stuck with Art Garfunkel out of habit or fear, but because he was hooked on the beauty of those harmonies. And really -- who wouldn't be?

11. "A Song for the Asking"  Listening to this song, I'm bowled over, all over again. What a beautiful valedictory coda, delicately sung by Simon.  We always think that the sweetness all came from Art, but no, Paul brought it too.  He's laying this tender little tune at his friend's feet, and with a touching humility:  "Thinking it over, I've been sad / Thinking it over I'd be more than glad / To change my ways / For the asking / Ask me and I will play / All the love that I hold inside."  Okay, yeah, sure, Paul may have written this for his first wife Peggy, whom he'd only recently met.  But this mood of vulnerability and anxiety must have also been due to his faltering partnership with Art.  Putting it at the end of the album, of course, makes it a bookend to the anthemic majesty of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," signaling a new direction. And hey, to end this Simon and Garfunkel album with what is, to all intents and purposes, a Paul Simon solo song?   Hasta la vista, brother.
  

Monday, February 16, 2015

"I Was Made to Love Her" / Stevie Wonder

Ah, that harmonica.  Who else but Stevie Wonder?

I had been thinking about Stevie and the harmonica lately -- something I heard on the grocery store musak, although I couldn't swear it was a Stevie tune. But that sweet, swinging harmonica made me suddenly hunger to listen to Stevie Wonder.

And then, by serendipity, in an email thread I learned this morning that some dear buddies from my first New York City job were all also having Stevie Wonder marathons to combat the cabin fever of being snowbound.

But of course! 




It's early, granted -- 1967, when Stevie was just sixteen years old, before he really took the reins of his own career. Though he co-wrote this song, his mother, Motown songwriting headmistress Sylvia Moy, and his producer Henry Cosby had a hand in it as well. (Moy was from Arkansas, which is why it begins with the baffling line "I was born in Little Rock," whereas Stevie originally hailed from Saginaw, Michigan.)

But he claims it was autobiographical, about the first girl he ever fell in love with, and the pure joy of first-time love runs through it like a shot of adrenaline.  He's already trying out his own version of talking-blues-soul -- "You know my papa disapproved it / My mama boohooed it" (can't you just imagine Bob Dylan crooning that?).

On the invaluable website Song Facts, I read that Henry Cosby took Stevie to a Baptist church in Detroit to show him how a gospel preacher might sing this. He also dragged people off the street into the studio so that Stevie could sing it to an audience -- Stevie always sang better with an audience. Now there's a brilliant producer for you. Whatever he did to coax the magic into being, it worked.

Maybe it was the older songwriters who pushed this song into a celebration of long-standing love ("That's why we made it through the years"). Stevie had probably been with that girl for weeks, months if he was lucky, not "years." But he sells it with such confidence, I never questioned it.

What really sticks with me, though, is the images of those kids -- "I was high-top shoes and shirt tails / Suzy was in pigtails," and in the last verse, "I was knee-high to a chicken when that love bug hit me."  Seven years later, Stevie would start out "I Wish" (on his masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life) "Looking back on when I / Was a little nappy-headed boy."  What a journey he'd traveled between this song and that one.

But it was a huge, I mean HUGE hit in 1967, preventing from hitting Number 1 on the charts only by the massive megahit "Light My Fire" by the Doors.  (Think of those two songs emerging at the same moment in time.)  That commanding bass (James Jamerson?), that sassy guitar line, crisp horns held back in the mix, and above all the soaring exuberance of Stevie's harmonica.  An instant classic, it was. And it sounds as fresh today as it did 48 years ago.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014

The Voyager / Jenny Lewis

Maybe it's a girl thing, but I drag my feet when it comes to Jenny Lewis.  (Note that this is the LAST post in my Favorite Albums of 2014.) She's like the cool girl that everyone else in school adores -- not the homecoming queen, but the smart pretty one with quirky fashion sense. (If this were Heathers, she'd be Winona Ryder.)  And, face it, I'm jealous of her indie It Girl status.

And yet, when I finally sit down and listen to her albums, her songs get stuck in my head, and the lyrics eerily reflect my own outlook on life.  She spins a world in which everything is tentative, provisional, unreliable, a worldview perfectly reflected by her wary, waifish voice.

I might as well give into it. This is her third album, and I've liked every single one of them.  Who am I kidding?


 From what I can tell, Jenny Lewis is not the kind of chick that men ignore. Yet here she is, clinging to a relationship in which she does NOT have the upper hand ("bet you tell her I'm crazy") and slowly coming to the realization that the Other Woman's strength is precisely that she is not quite such as handful as our girl Jenny.

"She's not me / She's easy" -- maybe for you guys, that's an easy equation to work out.  But for me and my (intentionally or not ) complicated female friends, watching this play out is HARD. I've been there; I've done that. But in the long run....

I love how the harmonies bloom on significant syllables, how the sophisticated guitar line weaves in and out like a watchful friend.  It's a world of maybes, couldas, possiblies, and the song has just the right amount of doubt hanging it all out to show.

One of the reasons I hate year-end "best of" lists is that, sometimes, it takes a while for a song or an album to worm into your brain. This Jenny Lewis album is like that.  The more I listen, the more I . . . well, like isn't the word. Absorb, maybe, or eventually click into the mindset of it.

Unfortunately, we live in a crowded musical universe where everybody's jostling for clicks, hits, downloads. Jenny Lewis's Indie It Girl profile may help her here; I'm willing to bet that there are another three or four unheralded singer-songwriters that I'll never know about that I would have loved, whose work will never percolate to the top.

But that's no reason not to finally admit it:  Okay, Jenny Lewis. You're now officially one of My Girls.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Counterfeit Blues / Corb Lund

My favorite Albertan. (I would say my favorite Canadian musician, but that would be unfair to Ron Sexsmith, Neil Young and Dan Bryk.)

I'll give my good friend Nick S. credit for turning me on to Corb Lund, although to tell you the truth he only planted a seed -- it was 2012's Cabin Fever, stumbled upon in a year-end frenzy, that really leapfrogged him into my roots-rock pantheon. Oh, hell, let's admit it, he's a country singer. And me, who grew up vowing that I hated country music -- well, let's just say I know what I like and I like this.

Though I'm tempted to focus on the haunting "Truth Comes Out,"  I'm just too in love with this track -- "Gonna Shine Up My Boots" -- to pass it up. And -- bonus points! -- the video is a total hoot.

 
 
 
While this album starts out with a Dylan-esque talking blues track called "Counterfeiter's Blues," note that the album itself is called Counterfeit Blues -- and I'm guessing that's because Corb Lund has too sunny a personality to do more than fake the blues.  That must be why these smarty-pants comic songs of his are so infectious. 
 
But really, it's a tightly crafted little song.  Our cowboy hero has such a simple agenda:  "I'm gonna shine up my boots / I'm gonna go into town / I'm gonna scrape up twenty dollars / I'm gonna throw it around."  (Love how each line of that refrain move up a triad, with the escalation of hope.)
 
Of course, it never stays simple. Next thing he knows, he's bought a dance, and met a girl, and in order to win her hand he's got into a card game. And when he wins, he buys a ranch, and then -- well, I won't give away the ending, but you can see where this is going. 
 
The repeated chorus, with its parallel phrases, helps anchor us in this shaggy-dog time-telescoping tale. (It makes me think of that wickedly wise John Mellencamp song "Love At First Sight.")  But it's worth noting that the cowboy himself is no fool -- he's the one telling us where all this is going. And in the last verse (wait for it), he resolves everything with a down-to-earth shot of wry wisdom.
 
This song makes me smile every time I hear it come on.  And hey, that's no small thing.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Lights Out / Bishop Allen

Just when I was starting to feel sad that there hasn't been a new Bishop Allen album since 2009's Grrr -- lo and behold, the guys have come out with a new one, Lights Out.  Memo to self:  Do everything you can do to help promote under-the-radar bands like these, the antidote to the Justin-Bieberized mass-market conglomerate that is slowly strangling modern music.

But I digress.


Besides my well-documented penchant for pop singers with glasses, there's a lot to love here. Bishop Allen may have started out documenting the neuroses of first-date jitters, but on this album they've moved into fruitful new territory:  the neuroses of keeping a long-term relationship going. If it's not quite yet #Music for Grown-ups, it's getting close.

Justin Rice's flat-tish vocals convey such a weariness with modern life, played against the uptempo jangle of the background.  (Dig how back in the mix they keep those baffled vocals.)  Those repeated "if's" tell us what a crossroads he's reached.  She's misunderstood, he's sorry, but at some point he has to stop apologizing.  "If I could give you the keys to the kingdom, I would," he offers, but she seems to have moved past that. "Start again" doesn't mean a fresh start for these two, it means her veering off to begin a new life -- and at some point, that begins to sound like a relief for him.

Smart as they are, these guys don't go overboard with the poetic lyrics, but there's still some deft songcraft, as in the sustained film imagery of "Play the song, roll the credits / Let it fade to black / Out of script, out of time, / And the scene is done." Sometimes all it takes is a repeated word:  "Call a car, call a friend / If you can, call anyone." (Reminds me of John Hiatt's wrenching "What Do We Do Now?" -- "should we call the kids or call the cops?")

Subtlety like this is in short supply these days, and yet these guys produce it track after track. Nuanced songs like "Black Hole" ("all those years collapse in the tiniest of shrugs"), "Skeleton Key" ("Let the gates from their hinges swing with your skeleton key"), and the deceptively simple "Breadcrumbs" ("The only thing you ever leave me is breadcrumbs / The only place they never lead me is home") -- the finely calibrated wit goes on and on.

Musically, it's agreeably straightforward, which I also dig -- who says you have to wow everybody with your multi-world-hyper-sophisticated musicality?  (Vampire Weekend, I'm watching you.)  Sometimes all you need is a cool smart friend to lament your life woes with. Bishop Allen provides that service. I'm so happy they're still here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Dottie's Charms /
Jill Sobule

What?!  I haven't written yet about Dottie's Charms?  Man, I really can't believe I missed posting this, because this totally endearing concept album by Jill Sobule floated me through several dreary months this year.

Here's the concept, in a nutshell:  Jill bought this charm bracelet on eBay and began to muse about what each charm symbolized in the life of its anonymous owner.  She asked several writers and poets each to write lyrics about one of the bracelet's charms, which Jill then set to music. (When I saw her this summer at the City Winery, she actually passed that precious bracelet around the audience -- gotta love it.) 

It's a life in miniature, and in other hands it could have turned out hokey. But Jill's genuine curiosity about what makes people tick is one of her defining traits. She's one of the special ones, the artists whose work plumbs to the heart of what makes us human.

A sample track, for your delectation:

 
 
As a child of the Midwest, this one goes deep.  I remember my (possibly all-time closest) friend Beth Wood doing her term talk on Mackinac Island, making it sound so alluring. It's still on my travel bucket list.  
 
Jill's lyricist on this one was music journalist David Hadju -- a New Jersey guy, granted, not a Midwesterner. Still, he gets a lot of things right -- not just the fine points of Mackinac/Mackinaw pronunciation, but its essence ("quaint as crochet," "it's like Bermuda in Michigan," and -- spot on, here -- "No glitz, no buzz / Preserving a history that never quite was.")  Of course he can't resist mentioning the 1980 time-travel fantasy Somewhere in Time, filmed on Mackinac, and its male lead, the late great Christopher Reeve. (Moment of silence.)  Yeah, yeah, I know the original novel Somewhere in Time was set in New York City -- I'm a huge fan of that book, I even once snagged a signed letter from its reclusive author Jack Finney. But I'll give the moviemakers a pass for changing the location, because who could resist filming on Mackinac Island?
 
Then, hidden inside the travelogue, we discover a wisp of a story about a fleeting affair. The details are few and tantalizing -- "The kiss in my vestibule, / The stain on my slip." I can't help imagining it was illicit, maybe even adulterous. But Dottie's sure not telling.
 
Jill's musical setting is perfect:  A little old-fashioned finger-picking, almost square-dance music, switching to a dreamy waltz in the chorus.  Sung in her winsome girlish voice, it's a tentative reverie, a page from a private memory book.  I can just picture sixty-year-old Dottie twirling the charm on her bracelet, lost in reminiscence.
 
Did she love the guy?  Was he the great love of her life?  Probably not -- but it meant enough to her that she bought that charm for her bracelet.  Along with ten other charms, all with tracks of their own, telling other pieces of Dottie's patchwork life.  
 
I highly recommend Dottie's Charms. In my humble opinion (okay, I can't resist), it's the year's most charming album. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Vanishing Act /
Edward O'Connell

I've been a fan of this guy's work ever since I happened across his 2010 album Our Little Secret. What a pleasure to find this new installment of his trademark wordsmithery and power-pop songcraft. Here's a taste:



I've always been a sucker for laid-back rock waltzes, a particularly apt choice for this regret-soaked song about a relationship that can't live up to its promise. O'Connell can work a metaphor like nobody's business, and he masterfully threads imagery of a magician act throughout -- the blindfold, the smoke and mirrors, a "trick to amaze and astound."  He wraps it all up in the chorus:

The years disappear
But is love hiding near
In a heart where it needs to be found
Let nobody see that we're bound
To burn the ropes, 
Break the chains and then kill the magician 
There's no point in wishing 
For a curtain to pull back 
If our love's a vanishing act.

Let's call the whole thing off, in other words, but he uses his own verbal prestidigitation to soften the blow. 

The thing is, it isn't just clever word play, it's intimately tied to hard-won wisdom about how love can slowly veer off the rails, racking up disappointment after disappointment, souring and curdling until there's nothing left. Yes, O'Connell's voice and singing style bear an eerie resemblance to Elvis Costello, and you know in my book that's a huge plus.  But whereas Costello's early deft word play was sometimes empty cleverness, O'Connell's always reflect some psychological acuity.  Music for Grown-Ups, to the nth degree.

Early Elvis was bitter and sometimes downright mean;  O'Connell instead has a gently weary persona of the sympathetic loser, the good guy who's been unlucky at love.  It's a bit of a magic trick to combine that wittiness with true-hearted yearning, but he masterfully pulls it off, track after track -- and it's immensely satisfying.  Engaging head and heart -- that's not so easy to do.  Kudos, Mr. O'C.