Friday, September 04, 2015

"Walking on the Spot" / Crowded House

I missed a lot of music in the 1990s -- pregnant, with two toddlers, who had time in 1994 to listen to pop music? And I'm guessing that Crowded House, hailing from New Zealand (via Australia), didn't make much of a splash with American audiences anyway. I have two friends who are confirmed Crowded House fans -- one from Spain and the other from Northern England.  I don't mean to make excuses for myself, but it is possible -- just possible -- that this record was never played in my hearing until a year ago.

But now that I've heard it -- oh, who could NOT fall in love with a melody this gorgeous?

Okay, now here is the lazy internet research. Crowded House grew out of a NZ band named Split Enz, which I think I must have heard of in the 1980s but ignored because MOST 1980s MUSIC SUCKED! (and even Uncle E will admit that.)  Two of their songs did lodge for a time on US charts, "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong." At least, when I listened to the iTunes samples of those songs, they were immediately familiar. So far, so good.

But my test of a great band is that they get better the deeper you go in their album tracks. (I'll admit that this litmus test is based on my experience as a Kinks fan. But hey, we all come from somewhere.) On that criterion, Crowded House hits it out of the park. The deeper I dig in their repertoire, the more I like it. When I finally dug out this track, from 1993's Together Alone album, I knew I had hit gold.

It's the soulfulness of this song that gets me. They have me by the third chord change, as an edgy discord switches up the lush intro. The synthesizers give us just a taste of accordion, Paris, melancholy wheeze, before resolving. I'm already in a vulnerable place, emotionally, and jeezus, the lyrics haven't even started!

And when they do -- oh man oh man, are we in tenebrous territory. "The odd times we slip / And slither down the dark hall / Fingers point from old windows / An eerie shadow falls." Poetry, my friends! But the shifting melody totally supports it, keeps us on uneasy ground.  

Crowded House's leader and songwriter, Neil Finn, has spoken about the making of this album as a mystical, brooding time. The band was living on Karekare beach in New Zealand, and Finn says everyone in the band was affected by the stark surrounding landscape.  Now that I know that, I can almost hear the rising tide in this song, the long sweeping curve of melody restlessly shifting in and out of minor key.

And yet it's not a downer, not totally. He's "walking on the spot / To show that I'm alive / Moving every bone in my body / From side to side." (Love the scansion on "bone in my body.")  I'm guessing there's an affair going on, possibly adulterous ("Will we be in our minds when the dawn breaks? / Can we look the milkman in the eye?" -- shades of "Tempted" by Squeeze).  But then again, he and a companion could just be going on a drug bender. At any rate, he's too wrapped up in his own moodiness to explain anything clearly. 

Things go further south in the last verse, as he sinks into his emotional hangover:
Walk around your home
And pour yourself a drink
Fire one more torpedo, baby
Watch the kitchen sink
Lounging on the sofa, maybe
See the living room die
Dishes are unwashed and broken
All you do is cry

Compare this to Nick Lowe's wistful losers-in-love -- "Lately I've Let Things Slide," "I'm a Mess," "I Read a Lot" -- or, a closer fit, to Joe Jackson's despairing "Solo (So Low)".  It's a dark night of the soul, all right.  But hey, he's still walking on the spot. Still upright, still moving.  It's a small victory, to be sure, but y'know?  Sometimes you're lucky to get even that.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Happy birthday, Elvis Costello!

My Top 25 Elvis Costello Lyrics

So why am I still an Elvis Costello fan, thirty-seven years after that fateful day when I first heard This Year's Model?  (I still owe you, Craig.)

Because I'm a lyrics girl -- and this guy's lyrics still wriggle inside my brain pan as few others do. 

Puns? yeah, he's a punster supreme. But it's more than puns; it's nuance, and allusiveness, and a novelist's nose for character conflict. Every one of these tracks is a finely tuned short story, for those of us willing to devote a morsel of imagination to filling in the blanks.

Oh, and yeah, he gets a pretty solid musical groove on too.

So here are the lyrics; click on links to see previous posts about these songs. (I TOLD you this guy runs deep with me.)  And if you're curious, I'm sure there are YouTube videos of all of these. C'mon, peeps, do I have to do all the work?


And though the passion still flutters and flickers, it never got into our knickers – "Just About Glad" (Brutal Youth 1994)

Don’t get smart or sarcastic He snaps back just like elastic Spare us the theatrics and the verbal gymnastics We break wise guys just like matchsticks.  – "The Loved Ones" (Imperial Bedroom 1982)

I wish that I could push a button and talk in the past and not the present tense And watch this hurting feeling disappear like it was common sense. – "Brilliant Mistake" (King of America 1985)

You either shut up or get cut out, they don’t want to hear about it, it’s only inches on the reel to reel, and radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anaesthetize the way that you feel – "Radio, Radio" (This Year’s Model 1978)

Why do you talk such stupid nonsense, when my mind could rest much easier?  Instead of all this dumb dumb insolence I would be happier with anaesthesia – "Riot Act" (Get Happy! 1980)

Let me get this straight -- Did I hallucinate this fine and helpless feeling? – "When Did I Stop Dreaming" (North 2003)

I was down upon one knee, stroking her vanity -- "Big Boys" (Armed Forces 1979)

I woke up and one of us was crying. – "I Want You" (Blood & Chocolate 1986)
Just look at me, I’m having the time of my life, or something quite like it. – "London’s Brilliant Parade" (Brutal Youth 1994)

Charged with insults and flattery Her body moves with malice Do you have to be so cruel to be callous? "Beyond Belief" (Imperial Bedroom 1982)
So you knock the kids about a bit because they’ve got your name -- "Little Palaces" (King of America 1985)
I can’t stand it when it goes to reel to reel, too real too real, I can’t stand when I get those punch lines you can feel – "B Movie " (Get Happy! 1980)

In a perfect world where everyone was equal, I’d still own the film rights and be working on a sequel – "Every Day I Write the Book" (Punch the Clock 1983)

Your mouth is made up but your mind is undone. – "Accidents Will Happen" (Armed Forces 1979)

I’ll build a bonfire of my dreams and burn a broken effigy of me and you -- "Indoor Fireworks" (King of America 1985)

I’m in a foxhole, I’m down in the trench, I’d be a hero but I can’t stand the stench – "Opportunity" (Get Happy! 1980)
I want to chop off your head and watch it roll into a basket. – "Senior Service" (Armed Forces 1979)

I don’t know if you’ve been loving somebody, I only know it isn’t mine"Alison" (My Aim Is True 1977)

And you know what I do, when the light outside changes from red to blue"Motel Matches" (Get Happy! 1980)

She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake – "Watching the Detectives" (My Aim Is True 1977) 
You can’t show me any kind of hell that I don’t know already – "Hand In Hand" (This Year’s Model 1978)

But it’s easier to say “I love you,” than “yours sincerely,” I suppose -- "Big Sister’s Clothes" (Trust 1981)
You lack lust, you’re so lackluster, is that all the strength you can muster? – "Possession" (Get Happy! 1980)

Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor, you’ve got to cut it out – "Lipstick Vogue" (This Year’s Model 1978)\


I don’t wanna be your lover, I just want to be your victim – "The Beat" (This Year’s Model 1978)
And yours?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

"Sitting in the Midday Sun" /
The Kinks

Okay, MINOR Kinks track. Preservation Part 1 if you want to be precise. An album that was delivered to me at college, because I was the de facto college newspaper music reviewer in 1973 and that was the record album that they were desperately trying to sell.

And, oh, by the way,  I had already been converted to an insane Kinks fan, so of COURSE I was going to review this album, and review it well.

 But -- let me go on record with this -- in the 42 intervening years I have seen absolutely no reason to alter my critical assessment.

The Kinks' resident genius Ray Davies adopts in this album the wistful persona of The Tramp (a character who inexplicably fades from view in Preservation Part 2,  an album which has its own glories.) I'll confess it here: I like Preservation Part 1 more than Preservation Part 2. And perhaps it's because the Everyman figure of the Tramp gets lost in PP2.  We need that Everyman perspective to help us negotiate through the property struggles of Preservation Part 2, as the real estate developers (hello, reality check: WHO ELSE WOULD BASE A WHOLE ROCK OPERA ON REAL ESTATE NEGOTIATIONS?) scheme to destroy communities.
And after all, it's the Tramp who sings "Sitting in the Midday Sun." It's a brilliant antithesis to the Kinks's huge hit "Sunny Afternoon," where the singer is ostensibly scaling things back, but he's still
got the yacht, the stately home, et cetera. In "Sitting in the Midday Sun," he has totally let go, meditating upon the "currant bun" (Cockney rhyming slang for "sun"), giving up on all the rest.
There's an almost Beach Boys groove going on, "with no particular purpose or purpose / For sitting in the midday sun." There's the background singers, the twee organ, the whole sense of a track waiting for the resident genius to sign off.
And the resident genius is Ray Davies. Which, basically, tells you all you need to know.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Late Night Shuffle

Lately, the playlists I've been concocting for my iTunes library have been more about mood than era, genre, or theme. (Sample titles: Trippy, Mellow, Groove, Upbeat and Laid-back.) Sometimes you just want a certain sound, a certain slant of light.

Take my new playlist, Late Night, for example. I know exactly what I mean by that term: haunting, reflective, disassociated.  Whether you're high or just bone-weary, you're not entirely in your sensible daytime mind. And there are certain tracks that perfectly nail that frame of mind.

So, herewith, a curated shuffle from that playlist, for your late-night listening pleasure. Click on the blue titles to see YouTube versions of the songs, if you don't know them.

1. "Billy's Blues" -- Laura Nyro
From More Than a New Discovery (1967)
Oh, Lord, the hours I spent in my teenage bedroom mooning over -- well, I won't say who, but Laura Nyro was my enabler then, and I can never resist the moody urban soul-inflected sound of her music. "Billy's blue / With his head hanging to / His shoes" -- and I'm right there with him.

2. "Somewhere Friday Night" -- The Turtles
From Turtle Soup (1969)
Okay, I'll admit I have this album in my library specifically because Ray Davies of the Kinks produced this album. But I truly loved the Turtles, back in the day -- their song "Happy Together" scored high on my 100 Favorite Singles list -- and who could fail to love this jazzy, trippy track? As it morphs restlessly from major to minor keys, insisting "there's something wrong here" -- stylish paranoia indeed.

3. "Not Cause I Wanted To" -- Bonnie Raitt
From Slipstream (2012)
As I've mentioned before, this recent Bonnie Raitt album is a magnificent example of #MusicforGrownups. I love how Bonnie's grown into the rasp in her voice, as the songwriting underscores her rueful world-weary persona. Deconstructing the end of a long-term relationship -- a late-night exercise invariably served with a side of regret.

4. "Something About What Happens When We Talk" -- Lucinda Williams
From Lucinda Williams (1998)
I'll admit it -- I'm jealous about the way male rock fans swoon over Lucinda Williams.  I sincerely wish she wasn't so good.  But she IS that good, and sometimes even I can't resist her grit-edged voice and her truth-telling lyrics. Here she's kicking the tires on a relationship that could go one way or the other -- and why is it that I'm willing her to take that leap?

5. "Out in the Parking Lot" -- Guy Clark
From Workbench Songs (2006)
"Sitting on a fender / Of someone else's truck / Drinking Old Crow whiskey / Hot Seven-Up..." How's that for scene setting? West Texas's singer-songwriter Guy Clark is a national treasure, and a storyteller par excellence; let me count the ways..

6. "Endless Sleep" -- Nick Lowe
From Jesus of Cool (1977)
Actually, this didn't make it on the album; it's a bonus track on the recent re-release of my idol Nick's seminal 1977 album. I can kinda see why this woeful low-fi track, with its intimate match-strike intro, whispery mike-kissing vocals, and misery-dogged lyrics  -- "When you're walking in the street / Spoiling for a fight / Hoping for a miracle / And there's no miracle in sight" -- didn't make it onto this masterwork of pop deconstruction. But late at night, isn't this just where we want to schlump around?

7. "I'm in the Mood Again" -- Elvis Costello
From North (2003)
Ah, Nick's old partner in crime, Elvis Costello, indulging his jazz side on this idiosyncratic 2003 album. You can't blame him, besotted as he was with his new wife jazz pianist-singer Diana Krall. But I have to say, he makes it work, in this stylish ode to the City That Never Sleeps.

8. "Superstar" -- The Carpenters
From Carpenters (1971)
Did I say "haunting"? This brilliant track is haunting on SO many levels, as I explain here.

9. "Walking After Midnight" -- Patsy Cline
From Patsy Cline Showcase (1961)
Probably the best late-night song ever. Forget the jaunty beat; this is an ode to doggone lonesomeness, with Patsy's trademark heart-on-her-sleeve wistfulness. I love how this 1961 re-recording of her 1957 hit foregrounds her amazing voice; yeah, the added background singers throw in a note of cheese, but hey, it was 1961.

10. "It's Getting To Be Evening" -- Charles Brown with Johnny and Shuggie Otis
From Great Rhythm and Blues Oldies Vol. 2 (1974)
R&B royalty indeed. The great singer Charles Brown, bandleader Johnny Otis, and his prodigy son guitarist Shuggie Otis, coming together for this laidback, boozy, sexy stroll through the wee small hours.  This track absolutely defies you to be in a hurry. Where else could you possibly be going at this time of night?

Sunday, August 09, 2015

A "Summer" Shuffle

Lazing on a sunny afternoon, no energy for a full post.  A shuffle, then, from a playlist I put together, titled -- such originality! -- Summer. Click on the song titles to see videos . . . . 

1. "Master Blaster (Jammin')" -- Stevie Wonder
From Hotter Than July (1980)
A little funk, a little reggae, and you've got this jubilant #1 soul hit from 1980.  First track, side two, of Stevie's best-selling LP in the UK.  "Everyone's feeling pretty / It's hotter than July / Though the world's full of problems / They couldn't touch us even if they tried." Stevie wrote this ecstatic anthem to celebrate the peace agreement signed in April 1980 to end 15 years of civil war in Zimbabwe. True, this pact put the controversial Robert Mugabe into office, where he's still entrenched, despite economic failures and a shaky human rights record. But the effervescent mood of this song endures, jammin' until the break of dawn.

2. "Summer Skin" -- Death Cab for Cutie
From Plans (2005)
Ah, the summer romance fated to die after Labor Day -- a pop song staple, and Death Cab gives it a particularly haunting treatment, all minor key and reverb and weltschmerz. From the "squeaky swings" to the lovers peeling their freckled sunburns, we know this love won't last. But how delicious to revel in its evanescence . . . .

3. "Number Every Summer" -- Jon Lindsay
From Escape From Plaza-Midwood (2010)
A suburban kid's summer, nostalgically recalled by one of my favorite indie artists -- if you don't know his stuff you should. I love the sound effects of pool splashes and kids shouting, and the dense production quality, as if swimming in a vat of Coppertone. So evocative.

4. "Fourth of July" -- Dave Alvin
From King of California (1994)
More melancholy scene-setting, this time from ace California roots-rocker Dave Alvin. "On the stairs I smoke a / Cigarette alone / Mexican kids are shooting / Firecrackers below." In the throes of a dying marriage, they've forgotten it's supposed to be a holiday; would it make a difference?

5. "Jamming" -- Bob Marley and the Wailers
From Exodus (1977)
No question that this reggae classic song inspired Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster" (see No. 1 above) -- Stevie's lyrics even mention that Marley's on the radio.  In Rasta slang, "jammin'" means smoking ganja, which is more than just getting high -- it's a religious act, invoking Jah and Mount Zion et cetera. No pot on hand? This grooving track delivers a pretty effective contact high of its own.

6. "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" -- Vampire Weekend
From Vampire Weekend (2008)
A little more world beat, bouncy and syncopated, with a bracing dose of post-modern irony.  Who else but these Ivy League hipsters would rhyme Louis Vuitton and Benetton with reggaeton?

7. "California Sun" -- Los Straitjacket with Dave Alvin
From Sing Along With Los Straitjackets (2001)
At last, some uncomplicated sun and fun.  Here's our pal Dave again, singing this vintage surf guitar classic (the Rivieras, 1964) with the instrumental trio Los Straitjackets, known for their goofy luchador head masks.

8. "Watermelon Dream" -- Guy Clark
From Old Friends (1988)
Who needs a beach for summer fun?  Guy Clark invites us to a laidback Texas backyard party -- watermelon slices, peach ice cream, roman candles, and a porch swing. Sink into it.

9. "Beautiful Texas Sunshine" -- Doug Sahm's Tex Mex Trip
From Groover's Paradise (2008)
And while we're in Texas, here's the irrepressible Doug Sahm (remember the Sir Douglas Quintet?), sauntering through a twangy ode to the hill country and the girl he left back home.

10. "Long Hot Summer's Coming On" -- Black 47
From Bankers and Gangsters (2010)
Forget the country -- we're back in the steamy urban summer, courtesy of Black 47's Larry Kirwan, honorary president of the Irish Republic of New York City.  And -- here's a nifty coincidence -- Kirwan sets this song in the summer of 1980, same as our first song. Dig all the topical references, to arsonist Gasoline Gomez, CBGB's founder Hilly Kristal, rocker Tom Verlaine, rock critic Lester Bangs. Hot and gritty, yes, but a summer to remember.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

"Questions for the Angels" /
Paul Simon

I've been simply haunted by this beautiful song for the past couple days. 

Paul Simon's gone through all the changes: folk music, folk rock, protest rock, world music. Thanks to my beloved older brother, I was an early Simon & Garfunkel fan, bought a guitar so I could play their songs, and clung to them through the 60s. But after 1986's Graceland he somehow slipped off my radar; even if I had been listening to the radio anymore (which I wasn't, for one reason or another), his new songs weren't getting airplay.  
But along came Sirius radio, which has so many channels it can afford to dig deeper, and one day, out of the blue, I was gobsmacked by this dreamy acoustic track from Simon's 2011 album So Beautiful and So What. 
It's mostly just Paul and his guitar (though dig the harp riff before the angel chorus), and really more art song than folk song. I love the tentative tone of Simon's world view, the mature I-don't-want-to-force-this-on-you approach. How lightly he leads us to it. "Pilgrim on a pilgrimage / Walked across the Brooklyn Bridge / Sneakers torn."  He shows us the homeless on their "cardboard blankets" -- all very PC. There's that evocative bit about "if you shout for love in a bargain store / You get what you bargained for" and the self-referential moment as he describes "an empty train in a railroad station / Calls you to its destination" -- those of us who grew up with "Homeward Bound" cannot fail to flag that reference to "I'm sitting in a railroad station / Got a ticket to my destination."
For good measure, he throws in an up-to-date reference in the bridge, with a vision of a Jay-Z billboard, acknowledging modern consumer culture (Paul Simon has always had an ear to the ground). This does not work if it is not poised in counterpoint to the real world. 
Plenty of unanswered questions float through this song, from the homeless man's "Who am I in this lonely world?" to the last verse's "If every human on the planet / And all the buildings in it / Should disappear / Would a zebra grazing in the African savannah / Shed one zebra tear?"
But the part that really gets me is that ethereal chorus. It's so understated -- a few plucked harp notes, a halting tempo, a shift to a higher key -- and yet musically arresting. Following that chromatic melody with its restlessly changing keys is like watching the angels dance on the head of a pin. 
(I can't help but wish that I could hear Art Garfunkel sing this; after all these years, it seems that that's still the angelic voice Paul Simon hears in his head.)  
The first time around, he poses the question "Who believes in angels?" and answers it "fools do / Fools and pilgrims all over the world." But the second time around, he admits "I do." Ranking himself with the fools and the dreamers, yes, okay, and casting his lot in with the believers in something beyond ourselves. It's a powerful message of spiritual questing, but conveyed with such finesse.
Yeah, I've got questions for the angels, too. I'm not one-hundred-percent sure they even exist. But the music urges me to explore further.  Letting me know that it's not all settled, that there are still issues up in the air. 
Because there are more things in heaven and earth, yo dog, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Friday, June 19, 2015

"Flying Into London" /
Graham Parker and the Rumour

Selfish thing that I am, I've been hoarding to myself this incredible new album Mystery Glue.  I should have written about it weeks ago, I know.  But then, one thing I've learned about being a Graham Parker fan:  Give the songs time to marinate and you'll discover they're even better than you thought at first listen.

I did try, honest. I have half-written posts on so many songs from this rich album -- "Pub Crawl," "I've Done Bad Things," "Fast Crowd," the deliciously self-deprecating "My Life In Movieland," the deft media satire "Slow News Day" (which, I read in an interview, Graham identifies as his "Ray Davies song, more like the Kinks than the Beatles" -- oh, yes.)

And then I went to see Graham and the Rumour last Friday night at the Tarrytown Music Hall and I had to go back to square one.  Seeing GP on stage reunited with his original backing band kicks the whole thing up a notch. As good as Parker's solo stuff has been (and seriously, I'll fight anyone who claims there's a better album than Struck By Lightning), watching him being re-energized by his old bandmates is such a thrill. They were fantastic on their first reunion album, Three Chords Good, but lordy, lordy, lordy -- they are totally swinging in that groove now.

And, as I was dancing in the side aisle with my international band of GP peeps (because, yes, I AM that kind of fangirl), this was the song that completely bowled me over.


So what was it that so struck me last week about this song? I suddenly realized that Graham, who has for years been such an insightful outsider-observer of the American cultural scene, has now had to confront returning to his homeland, England, with all the baggage that entails. Yes, it's where he's from, and where several (not all) of his reconnected bandmates still live. But that doesn't mean going home is simple.

Those opening riffs, both the guitar and the organ lines, sound almost defiantly country & western to me, and the whole song has a relaxed, soul-infused swing that is anything but BritPop.  "Flying Into London" isn't exactly a talking blues song, but it does pack in the lyrics (echoes of Dylan?), as if nattering away will help keep his anxiety at bay.

There's a wariness to this song -- "It's just one long back road in my soul tonight" -- he knows that he's not returning to the same place he left (""I might as well be landing on Mars"). He can even feel it physically -- "My mind gets loose and my heart gets tight." GP is a master of the cleverly inverted cliché, but this one seems especially apt -- I know just what that feels like, don't you?

There's no faked-up drama here -- not with that strolling tempo and major key -- it's just life, throwing another curve ball. You get the sense that, like a cat, he'll land on his feet, but he's registering every nuance in the meantime.  In verse two, he underlines this: "This internal geography just drives the stress / And you don't get a road map or a GPS" -- that's homecomings for you. Anybody gone to a college reunion lately? I have, and this song nails it.

In true poetic fashion (because I do believe that this man is a poet worthy of taking his place alongside Keats and Shelley), he works all the metaphors, the turbulence and the clouds and "the warning lights were on all this time." There's an element of regret as well, for the beloved left behind "cleaning up my mess" and  "I didn't see the tears baby, pooling in your eye." Because every homecoming is also a leave-taking.

And that's where Graham, bless him, leaves us -- struggling with the emotions of connection, here, there, and everywhere. "Yeah I've left it, left it all behind," he claims, but we know it's not that easy. And here are his old pals, singing (very far forward in the mix) a cheery "Whoa-oh-oh whoa-oh-oh [beat beat, chord change] whoa oh-oh-oh." How much do I love those up-front-and-personal Rumour backing vocals?  In my humble opinion they are the soul of this extraordinary album. Where the genius Graham Parker happily lets his bandmates stand and deliver.

Is there a better singer/songwriter working today? I seriously doubt it. But where you're this good, why not let your supremely talented bandmates have a piece of the action?

I have to say, I love this whole band. I adore Brinsley Schwarz's and Martin Belmont's inventive guitar riffs, Andrew Bodnar's snaky bass lines, Steve Goulding's funky drum tracks, Bob Andrew's soulful roadhouse groove on the keyboards. It all works so gloriously together. But then it all comes back to Graham Parker. Who wrote the songs. Who sings the songs.

And the man is a freaking genius, so . . . I don't know. Once I sign onto an artist who truly moves me, I'm in for life. And this guy?  I am so in his camp.