Monday, October 27, 2014

"Save Me" / Aimee Mann

"Pretending" / Michael Penn

And here's the scary thing: These people are married to each other.

Rabbit hole exegesis:  I just wrote about Aimee's version of Harry Nilsson's heartbreaker "One" and somehow that led me to binge-listen to her soul-shivering "Save Me" from the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia.  Not exactly an upbeat tune, this; in fact, I have it on my iPod in a playlist called "Moody," which is a euphemism for "totally depressive: handle with care."

The title reminds me of Fontella Bass's classic "Rescue Me" -- all appetite and sassy demands -- but "Save Me" is an entirely different sort of song. It's not about physical desire so much as the head games we ladies play with ourselves, way too often. Against that loungy-yet-ominous tempo, it starts oh-so innocuously -- "You look like a perfect fit." But against that downward-loping chord sequence, how swiftly she re-adjusts this, typing herself as "The girl in need of a tourniquet." 
And then the chorus cycles in, diving to the crux of the matter. "Can you save me / Come on and /  Save me. / If you could save me / From the ranks / Of the freaks / Who suspect /  They could never love anyone." A-HA! There we are. Raise your hand if you have EVER counted yourself in that not-so-exclusive club. Every time that chorus repeats, I feel tagged.
Note that she doesn't say the expected "freaks who suspect they will never be loved." Sure, there are legions of those, too. But those "who will never love anyone"? That's an even sadder and lonelier bunch, trapped between their own inadequacy and their crippling consciousness of it.  And in a later verse, as she references sufragettes ("the long farewell of the hunger strike"), we find ourselves clinging to our split desire to be independent and yet beloved.
 As the bridge puts it, "You struck me down / Like radium [Marie Curie alert for us smart girls!] / Like Peter Pan / or Superman / You will come...."   We've all been programmed to believe in heroes who will swoop in and save us.  How hard it is to give up that faith. But here we are, still hoping....
And what do I follow it up with on that same playlist?  What else but her husband Michael Penn's equally disturbing "Pretending"?  Hello! We don't even need to change keys between these songs. (What is it that made me re-visit Wikipedia to make sure that these two are still married?  Note that I do not use the phrase "happily married....")


From Penn's 2005 album Mr. Hollywood Jr., this winsome track puts the hunt for love into a different context: It's a quest for affirmation that never stops. In halting rhythms he announces: "Let's say that was then / Here we go again /  All our friends are filling the room, / It's like a play / And the words that I'll say are not for you." Even after these two misfits have found each other, the wearying need to affirm each other never stops.

And does it work?  Penn's chorus is sadly pessimistic: "It's on a happy ending / But baby, I'm pretending." He HAS to be honest with her; he's a decent guy, after all. And I sense that he does love here, as much as he is capable of loving anyone. But there's the rub: the only kind of guy she could be happy is also exactly the kind of guy who can't make anyone really happy. He thinks too much, he feels too much, he's unable to live in the moment. And he is brutally honest -- an absolute prerequisite from her standpoint, and yet the fatal flaw in the whole set-up.

The delicate acoustic setting of this song underlies how fragile this state of mind is, a structure of diminished and suspended chords, sung in Penn's sweet yet underemotive tenor. "Baby, I'm pretending / Even though I know better / But I can't refuse 'cause, / Although on a ruse / You've come to me depending,  / Baby, I'm pretending..."  He genuinely wants to be there for her, he knows how much she needs him, but he's hyper-aware of his own weakness.

This song is such a gut punch. He knows she needs him to provide "anything sure that's attached and secure," "a lifeline," "something to show / That I really do know." And -- Lord, he wishes it weren't so -- that's exactly what he cannot provide.

Music for Grown-Ups, indeed. And sometimes I wish I weren't a grown-up.  

Friday, October 24, 2014


Harry Nilsson / Al Kooper / Three Dog Night / Aimee Mann

Don't you just hate it / love it / go CRAZY when you find out that a song you know like the back of your hand is really another song by another artist who has even more of a claim to it?

Well, this particular tune keeps upping the ante for me.  First of all, like everybody else in my generation, I knew the Three Dog Night mega-hit from 1969.

What a great song, I thought. It may be the only Three Dog Night song I ever really liked -- no, wait, that's not fair.  I also liked "Eli's Coming" (until I discovered the Laura Nyro original).  In later years I'd also find out that "Try a Little Tenderness" was infinitely better when Sam Cooke sang it, and that "Mama Told Me Not To Come" should only have ever been sung by its original author, the incomparable Randy Newman. Sigh.

But I digress. The Three Dog Night "One" hit the charts in 1969 and it seemed so cool, those opening lines with their intriguing circular logic: "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do / Two can be as bad as one / It's the loneliest number since the number one." Heavy, man, like a Zen koan. But then  three years later when I hit my Al Kooper phase (a short but not negligible chapter of my fangirl story), I fell in love with Al's baroque and haunting 1968 version. It forever wiped the 3DNite single from my memory.

Now is that a thing of beauty or is it not?  I love those sawing strings, the sweet clarinet (or is it an oboe?) weaving in and out, the triple-tracked overlapped vocals -- even the (at the time not yet hokey) rainfall and thunder effects at the end.  For a song that's all about loneliness and disconnection, this elaborately concocted studio montage layers on the borderline schizophrenia, doesn't it?  Stay alone for too long and you too will go stark staring mad.


So anyway...the years pass, and DECADES later I encounter this existential version by the way-too-underrated Aimee Mann, used in the soundtrack of the seriously disturbing 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia.

(There are other YouTube versions. I picked this one because I still need to see images of Philip Seymour Hoffman whenever I can. RIP PSH, you genius.)

If Al Kooper's highly-wrought version was haunting, Aimee Mann's stripped-down version is equally haunting. Every bar of this song expresses existential loneliness.  How relentless is that electric piano, tapping out the repeated chords? And I love how Aimee's affectless yet melismatic voice curls knowingly around the phrase ends. Oh, yes, she is a lady in pain, and IT IS OUR COMMON PAIN TO WITNESS.

Now, we need to fast-forward just a few years to, okay, 2013.  Here I am, blogging away, and I dig up a tribute album called For the Love of Harry  -- the very same album for which Aimee Mann's "One" was originally recorded. For me, this album becomes a rabbit hole worthy of Alice in Wonderland, wherein I at last truly discover Harry Nilsson -- an artist of whom I had always been aware, through a handful of hit records and the fact that he was with John Lennon and May Pang on the Kotex Night. But now I REALLY discover Harry Nilsson, he of the glorious God-given voice and a songwriting sensibility that marries Beatlesque pop with Summer of Love California Dreaming and the American standard playbook.

A genius, pure and simple. And yet I NEVER BEFORE REALLY REGISTERED THAT HE WROTE "ONE."

And yet here it is, the one and only original "One," from Nilsson's 1968 album Aerial Ballet.

The story goes that Harry wrote this after phoning someone and getting a busy signal -- remember the obnoxious beep-beep-beep of a busy signal, back in the days before answer machines and call waiting and cell phones?  The whole song is underlaid with that off-putting busy signal, counterpointed with a yearning cello line that speaks volumes about the human desire for connection. But more than anything, it's Harry's pure and sincere vocal that sells this song.  I am here alone, it says, trying so hard to make a connection, and the technology won't let me in. And his heart is hurting -- "it's just no good anymore since you went away / Now I spend my time / Just making rhymes / Of yesterday." Major and minor and suspended chords overlap, and this poor schmuck is wading through it all, heartsore and hapless.

Is this a killer song or what?

So what's a girl to do? I'm willing to throw Three Dog Night under the bus, but how can I betray my decades-long loyalty to Al and my sister bond with Aimee?  But oh, Harry, my lost dark prince, how could I not love your original best?

I know, I know -- we don't have to choose, we can simply love them all. But for me, loving them all entails being hyper-aware of how Al and Aimee were nested in Harry's original.  A great song -- a truly great song -- enables great cover versions. So be it if my personal history ran through the cover versions first. Harry, you were worth waiting for.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"You Don't Own Me" / Dusty Springfield

How did I never know this song was originally recorded by Lesley Gore?

Wait -- it was 1963. It hit #2 on the charts. Where was I? (Okay, yes, deep in a Beatlemania haze, but STILL...)

Then it swung by me again in 1964, on Dusty Springfield's debut album (in the US) Stay Awhile/I Only Want to Be With You.  Was it released as a single in the States?  I have no idea.

Nevertheless, I remain firmly convinced that I never heard Lesley Gore's version at the time and that Dusty's is hardwired deep in my girl-group DNA. And, yeah, you know I am a Lesley Gore fan, but hey, Dusty is on my shortlist of Golden Girls. This song means the world to me because of how Dusty sang it.

One thing Lesley and Dusty had in common -- a very, VERY complicated sense of wanting autonomy and yet craving love. Dusty tended more towards the victim end of the spectrum, which to me made it all the more affirming to hear her declare: "You don't own me / I'm not just one of your many toys." (Ah, that well-placed word "many," and what a special shiver of disgust Dusty gave it.)

The demands pile up from there on, escalated with key changes: "Don't say I can't go with other boys," "Don't tell me what to do/ Don't tell me what to say,"  "Don't put me on display," "Don't try to change me," "Don't tie me down" -- yikes!! But the weary doggedness with which Dusty sings it tells me that she's make these requests before and they've fallen on deaf ears.

In both Lesley's and Dusty's versions, the requisite pop strings and horns undergird her (putative)declaration of freedom:  She doesn't tell him how to live his life, so surely he should understand that she is "free / And I love to be free / To live my life the way I want / To say and do whatever I please." So why do I sense that this cry of independence is not being heard by the man in question?

Wow. This is 1963/64, long before Helen Reddy's 1975 "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar." Feminism was still just a glimmer of an idea; if anything, it was nothing but Helen Gurley Brown and Sex and the Single Girl (a 1962 book quickly subverted by the 1964 Natalie Wood movie.)

Sure, both Lesley and Dusty would eventually be identified as bisexuals/lesbians. Did that give this proto-feminist anthem a special oomph? Maybe so from their perspective; but for me, that is totally irrelevant.

Because, yes, do I still snarl this under my breath when a domineering man tries to push me around?

You betcha.

Monday, August 25, 2014


...but alas, the other passengers in the car needed to sleep, make phone calls and work on their laptops while we drove. So I spent eight hours in the car AND DID NOT GET TO LISTEN TO MY IPOD PLAYLISTS AS I HAD PLANNED!!

Needless to say I am pouting about this, big time. Because I am JUST THAT PETTY, when provoked.

So all I had were the tunes in my head, which for whatever reason produced this random playlist.

OneRepublic / "Counting Stars"

Look, I'm not saying I like this song. But as current pop earworms go, it's pretty earwormy. My 19-year-old daughter (whom we just took back to college -- hence the long drive) makes me listen to pop stations when we ride in the car together, as we did earlier this week.  I find this song much less offensive than others. (How's that for damning with faint praise?)

Jenny Lewis / "Rise Up With Fists!"

The leap from OneRepublic to Indie It Girl Jenny Lewis makes sense only in some convoluted fold of my gray matter. (Probably because 3 weeks ago I was reading that she released a new album, The Voyager, and I'm still dithering about whether or not to buy it). I guess my problem is that I keep wanting her to be Jill Sobule and she just isn't as loveable as Jill. But then, who is?

John Hiatt / "She Loves the Jerk"

Maybe in the car I was beginning to think too much about the fact that I have this new John Hiatt album on that iPod, which I haven't yet been able to listen to properly. But out of nowhere, this early Hiatt gem planted itself in my cerebral cortex, and it lodged there for at least 150 miles. Which is a good thing in my book.

The deep, deep songcraft here slays me every time. Simple plot: Guy loves girl, who loves another guy, but spends hours on the phone confiding in the first guy, who we can all see is better for her . . . yadda yadda yadda. But seriously, how could you not love lines like, "'Well you married the wrong guy,' is all I ever say / But she'll never let him go /He's a no-good so-and-so, / Though she knows it will never work, she loves the jerk." And so the dance goes on.

Jill Sobule / "The Guy Who Doesn't Get It"


And then, because of Jenny, it did eventually come back to Jill.  And if things landed on this song in particular -- well, remember, it was a long drive and OTHER PEOPLE IN THE CAR WOULDN'T LET ME LISTEN TO MY IPOD. In such situations, I find my girlfriend Jill to be a great comforter.

This is the first song that hooked me on her incredible body of work, for which I shall forever be grateful, as I explain here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- Genius Class

Okay, over the rules One More Time. Not the The Best Opening Riffs-- too many songs, too little time -- but 25 Favorite Opening Riffs, in five 5-riff installments. The arbitrary rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. Doesn't have to be a guitar riff, but vocals don't count. 3. Has to be a true opener -- the very first notes of the song, proclaiming this song's distinctive DNA. 

Remember how, back in the day, AM radio DJs used to gab during song intros, trying to sneak a few more words of banter/announcements/advertising messages?. That used to drive me crazy. Transistor held up to my ear, I wanted to prove my pop savvy by being the first in the room to shout "I love this song!"

I know I said I was leading off with the "no-brainers." But some of you may have noticed -- and, if you're anything like the music fans I think you are, been distressed by -- the absence on that list of the REAL no-brainers. Which are, forthwith and henceforth...

Sunshine of Your Love / Cream

Sheer genius here, to double the bass riff with the electric guitar -- a particularly fuzzy guitar as well, with a wah-wah pedal and Marshall amps. The great bassist Jack Bruce wrote that commanding riff and it dominates the song -- those first four notes (LISTEN HERE!) sliding seductively into a dark downward spiral, over and over. Every bassist I know has learned this riff -- but it just doesn't sound the same without that scratchy guitar on top.
NOTE: Invoking the "one riff per band" rule, I decided on this rather than "Layla," even though they're by two different Clapton bands.  Sorry, Slowhand, but the competition was fierce.

Satisfaction / The Rolling Stones

Oh, the one-riff-per-band thing made this very tough. So many great Stones riffs -- but in the end, how could I have picked anything else? Talk about fuzzy guitars -- Keith Richards added a fuzzbox to his Gibson to get this snarling, snarky tone just right. It's only three notes, up and down a tiny minor-key scale, but how perfectly does it encapsulate the song's theme of pent-up frustration -- up and down, over and over, never breaking out of that narrow range.  It makes me want to smash things -- which is, presumably, the point.

You Really Got Me / The Kinks

Oh, why did I impose that one-riff rule?  Well, basically, because otherwise this entire list of 25 might well have been nothing but Stones, Kinks and Queen riffs, with a Beatles tune here and there. But of all the great Kinks openers (and yes, I AM prejudiced in this matter), how can we deny the riff that started it all for them?  As with the previous two songs, the distinctive tone of the guitar makes all the difference; in this case, the mutilated amplifier of Dave Davies, turning his electric guitar into an angry buzzsaw. Ricocheting between two notes, with just enough syncopation to sound erratic and dangerous, it's an aggressive cry of sexual frustration that will not be denied.

Summer in the City / The Lovin' Spoonful

How long does it take the Lovin' Spoonful to claim your eardrums? Two notes plus one drum-whack. True, the notes are ominous, swelling organ tones and the drum-whack is punitive to say the least. But oh, for sheer economy of effect, this gritty urban anthem of seizing conditional pleasure scores BIG-TIME.  Considering that everything else this band had released was mellow jug-band stuff -- "Daydream," "Do You Believe in Magic" and "Younger Girl" -- this hard-hitting 1966 urban song reminds us that the Lovin' Spoonful were originally a New York City band. And their reward for working so hard?  Their only #1 hit.

Hard Day's Night / The Beatles


Okay, I too resist the idea that the Beatles get to win all the prizes. Even though I was a true Beatlemaniac back in the day and still adore my Chosen Beatle (Paul McCartney), I would love to spread the accolades around. But let's face it: with one discordant guitar chord, the Fabs announced that their hit record was going to be better than your hit record, and they were right. They win for sheer economy of effect; they win for the streamlined drive of the track that followed. This song is a relentless, exhilarating ride into the heart of pop and out again. It was the title track of the first LP I ever owned (note: the American version, really a film soundtrack, but I so loved that movie) and I would love to be objective.

But I can't.

But really: One chord and you KNOW what song this is.

And isn't that the definition of a great opening riff?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- Jazzing It Up

Next installment of 5 in my 25 Favorite Opening Riffs. The parameters: 1. One riff per band. 2. No vocals. 3. Must occur right at the beginning of the record. This is all totally subjective, folks, and they're in no particular order. Enjoy!

So far we've been talking rock riffs, mostly, but here are a few that venture into jazz territory -- and announce those intentions right off the bat.

Moondance / Van Morrison

Two backbeat piano chords, repeated. A few light brushes on the drums. And then That Voice, slipping in like butter. "Oh, it's a marvelous night for a moon dance...."  Talk about Less Is More.  Eventually we'll get a divine jazz solo, plus Van's jazz-freak vocal swoops and scats (it's as if he becomes the saxophone himself); pianist Jeff Labes really gets to fly with his piano improv in the middle eight. But it's those first chords -- cool, laidback, effortlessly syncopated -- that set the whole swinging thing in motion. Sometimes you only need two measures....

Undun / The Guess Who

What? No Canadians so far?  I'm sure that violates broadcasting protocols north of the border, so let's slip in this 1969 gem. It's like "Moondance"'s minor-key cousin, with a little more Latino beat.  Guitarist Randy Bachman, later of Bachman-Turner Overdrive (a best riff runner-up for "Taking Care of Business") has said he based this song around some new jazz guitar chords he'd just learned; it sure doesn't sound like any other Guess Who song. That opener is quick and crafty: Three guitar chords, syncopated, with a few smacks of offbeat drums, and a percussive vocal choo-pah! on the backbeat. (We'll soon see where they got THAT idea...)

Build Me Up Buttercup / The Foundations

Stairstep guitar strums, underlaid with tambourine -- and yes, bongos! -- it's so simple, and it's all about the syncopation. (Do you sense a theme here?)  Soon enough we get the second motif, layered on in counterpoint by a percussive electric piano; it's upbeat, happy pop, and just jazzy enough to make you snap your fingers and bounce in your chair. Oh, give in to it; just get up and dance, folks; you know you want to. And the singer hasn't even started yet!

Time of the Season / The Zombies

Start to finish, this is one magnificent song (read here my full take).

But today, let's focus on that brilliantly crafted intro. Like the opening of "Under Pressure," it's pure percussion, but put together like a Swiss cuckoo clock. As I dissect it, it's two beats on a tom-tom, one thump on the bass drum, then a hand clap, then a block, then a vocal gasp. All in rapid succession, intricately syncopated; it takes a downbeat plus two beats, no time at all. Repeat three more times, and it's what, eight seconds? But by the time Colin Blunstone starts singing, we're already spooked out. Brilliant.

House of the Rising Sun / The Animals

Hilton Valentine's unspooling guitar lick, hung on stairstep notes from Chas Chandler's bass, sets the whole song up, as if he's casting a fishing line and deftly reeling us in. Minor-key glissandos, rising ominously upwards, will soon be handed over to Alan Price's prophesying organ. (Which will eventually blow things into another stratosphere in the middle eight.)  I suppose this isn't technically jazz: It's more like mission revival meets the blues. But oh, is it dark, and OH is it compelling.  Still sends shivers up my spine, every time.

Friday, August 15, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs --
Keyboards and Bass

Next up in our 25 Favorite Opening Riffs. Remember the rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. No slow fade-in's or drum fills -- hit that riff from the get-go. 3. No vocals. (Sorry, Little Richard.). 

Blondes DO NOT have more fun, and the guitarists DO NOT get all the good intro riffs. Cases in point....

Whiter Shade of Pale / Procol Harum

In the Progressive Rock Hall of Fame -- a hall of fame that, by the way, I am never going to visit -- this 1967 track still stands as the opening salvo that first defined prog rock. I would maintain that there IS no "Whiter Shade of Pale" besides this Bach-Lite motif played on the Hammond organ by Matthew Fisher. In 2009, Fisher won a lawsuit to get equal songwriting credit with the two original co-authors, claiming that the riff he created was an essential part of the song's enormous success. Duh -- ya think?

Baba O'Riley / The Who

The Who had so many great opening riffs, it was hard to pick just one -- but this 1971 classic can't be denied. True, the Who's opening riffs didn't always connect to the songs that followed. (I spent years trying to find their song "Teenage Wasteland," only to discover -- so recently, it's really embarrassing -- that this song IS "Teenage Wasteland.") Pete Townshend claims he wrote this to deplore the number of kids stoned out of their gourd at Woodstock, conveniently forgetting that the Who themselves were stoned out of their gourds at Woodstock. Hmmm.  He also invented the name Baba O'Riley as an amalgam of mystic Meher Baba and minimalist composer Terry Riley, both of whom inspired him at the time. And that weird space-frequency organ riff that starts it all?  Townshend says he generated it electronically by feeding Meher Baba's life information into a synthesizer, then played the resulting melodic phrase on a Lowrey organ, using a marimba repeat function.

Oh, Pete, you art school poser. Not one whit of that information improves my appreciation of this riff.  I prefer to believe that it dropped from outer space into Keith Moon's garden. Because, man, it's really cool, isn't it?

Super Freak / Rick James

It all starts with the bass, the Great Instrument of Funk. Messing around in the studio, trying to cook up one more track for his 1981 Street Songs LP, Rick James doodled this bass lick first, then layered on guitar, keyboards, and campy vocals, hoping to give it a little "new wave texture." Presto: One of the most fun and outrageous funk-soul songs ever. Interesting Footnote #1: After MC Hammer "sampled" (or, um, STOLE) this lick for "U Can't Touch This," Rick James sued him for co-writing credit -- and won, garnering his first Grammy award in the process. (Raise your hand if you think "Super Freak" was ten times more deserving of a Grammy than "U Can't Touch This.") Interesting Footnote #2:  With MTV swiftly becoming THE way to market pop music in the US in 1981, Rick James filmed this video -- but MTV wouldn't air it because they didn't play black artists. And to think that just a few years later, Michael Jackson would soar to the top of the charts due to his MTV ubiquity....almost makes you feel sorry for Rick James.

Sweet Dreams / The Eurythmics

Ah, the 1980s -- the decade that almost killed rock music (hi there, Uncle E!). So many earworm synth riffs, so little time. I was tempted to go with Hall & Oates's "You Make My Dreams" just because, you know, my long-standing fangirl crush on Daryl Hall. But then I remembered what it felt like in the 1980s when this Eurythmics song dropped at a party, and . . . well, it's no contest. To plagiarize from my own previous blog post: "It was mechanized, soulless, and yet it functioned perfectly as a bass line (Dave Stewart in fact invented the riff by playing a bass line backwards), stalking the underbelly of the song....a scenario of hope and aspiration, turned to despair by that relentless automaton beat. I picture robots on an assembly line, hustled heartlessly along. But it was a killer dance track, and in the Eighties, that was what mattered."

Under Pressure / David Bowie & Queen

Surely one of the weirdest and most divine pop collaborations ever.

Two masters of the Opening Riff, battling it out for diva top honors. This well may be the best percussion opener ever: one cymbal brush, then those handclaps, punctuated with stabs of electric piano (the piano is a percussion instrument, may I remind you), all strung along by that exquisite two-note bass line.  Fun facts to know and tell: Queen bassist John Deacon improvised this riff in the Montreux studio where they threw this song together, and then they all went out for pizza. When they came back from the break, Deacon had forgotten the riff.  Luckily drummer Roger Taylor remembered it -- and the rest, as they say, was rock history.