Archive for July, 2009

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Think of me what you will.

July 28, 2009

CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR

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Tom Petty – You Don’t Know How it Feels
From Wildflowers

Does anyone else remember how big Tom Petty was in 1994 and 1995 and wonder why/how the f*ck that ever happened?

I mean it’s not as if Tom was ever that much of an outsider — if a formidable run of even-handed rock singles from the late 1970s through the early 1990s (although, seriously, about “Don’t Come Around Here No More”… what was up with that?) hadn’t already positioned him to be a working man’s favorite and something that both serious and passing music fans could agree upon, surely his position alongside George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys meant he was worth a shake.

But even with a backlogue of songs like “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” “Free Fallin'” and “Learning to Fly,” Petty always threatened superstardom, but never brazenly embraced it as he did in the wake of 1994’s Wildflowers. Heavy rotation on MTV, VH1 documentaries about his career, Rolling Stone cover stories and heaps upon heaps of praise from the new breed’s brightest stars (Billie Joe Armstrong’s outspoken fandom in a Rolling Stone profile of Green Day, Dave Grohl becoming a temporary Heartbreaker for Petty’s 1994 SNL appearance) — Wildflowers was an album for everyone that year, no matter what your taste may have been.

And fortunately, it was an album that deserved the attention it got. Trading in Jeff Lynne’s shimmering production work for the more earthy tones of Rick Rubin, Petty got a more in-your-face sound that made songs like “Only a Broken Heart” and the title track seem all the more intimate and straight-ahead rockers like “Honey Bee” or “Cabin Down Below” seem all the more ballsy. And whereas “It’s Good to Be King” should have been a throwaway on any other album (and would have been, I bet), such was the dominance of Petty and Wildflowers at the time that it instead yielded a hit single and had fathers and their Nirvana-fan, flannel clad sons singing along in harmony.

Technically, Petty started bridging the generational gap with the 1993 single “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which he recorded as the obligatory new song for his first Greatest Hits compilation. But it was Wildflowers‘ lead single, “You Don’t Know How it Feels” that really pushed the man into the center of the spotlight.

And 15 years later, I can’t say I’m completely sure why. It’s a good song, but it’s far from his best. It’s a cool video, but it’s not the most eye-catching thing ever to befall music television (even if the ridiculous edit of “joint” in the bridge made it a little more legendary). Hell, even “You Wreck Me” might arguably up it for the best single off the album. “You Don’t Know How it Feels” is really just Tom doing his “Look, if Bob Dylan’s not going to do his thing anymore, I’ll do his thing” schtick to a T.

It might be no coincidence that when Dylan indeed did start doing his thing again with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, Petty’s career ambled off track for awhile. The She’s the One soundtrack had it’s moments, but they were fleeting, Echo‘s were even fleeting-er and if you’re a fan of any part of The Last DJ, well, we have nothing more to say to each other. 

Then again, if any chorus perfectly personified an individual’s mindset in 1994 (whether you were aged 12 or 72), what better sentiment was there than “You don’t know how it feels to be me”? Didn’t matter if you thought the rest of the words were nursery rhyme-style cringe worthy (“People come, people go, some grow young, some grow cold”) — that chorus made Tom Petty everyone’s spokesman for a good while. Don’t believe me? Then why the hell did you think it was so poignant when Tom Cruise barrelled down the road in Jerry Maguire visibly losing it as he screamed along to “Free Fallin'”? Simple. Because you’d probably screamed along to it too.

And you’ll probably scream along again to “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” After all, John Lennon once said the best songs are always the simplest ones. It didn’t get much simpler than this in the 1990s.

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Think of how exciting it would be if you should discover you felt like me.

July 24, 2009

I know what you’re thinking.

“Good God, man, there are but seven days left in this fair month of July and you’ve not yet done a ‘Vs.’ post this month!”

Well first, let me say, you speak very eloquently.

Second, let me say the computer where I put together the infamous Vs. photographs (that is, the computer that carries Photoshop, which I can only use in its most rudimentary way) was acting a bit wonky this month. Thankfully it’s functioning somewhat properly and you get the great artwork to go along with this month’s Vs. post.

And how exciting this month’s post is.

One of the most notorious things about Motown Records — especially in its heyday — was the label’s proclivity to leave really good stuff permanently sealed in the vaults. Amazing cuts from some of their top artists, amazing ALBUMS from some of their top artists (David Ruffin’s self titled 1971 album springs immediately to mind). 

Now, usually stuff was left in the vaults for probably a pretty good reason. It’s hard to think of a time between 1964 and 1972 when Motown wasn’t the label imprint on some chart topping song or album. Berry Gordy ran the company in a very formulaic way designed to sustain chart dominance — he even employed juries to listen to newly recorded cuts and determine whether it was a hit or not before the songs went out for release. 

And with powerhouses like Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield as just some of your core songwriters, you can imagine a lot of great stuff stockpiled quickly, and a lot of stuff just naturally got swept underneath the rug while it was waiting — “The Tears of a Clown” didn’t become a major hit until about five years after it was recorded.

Still, the vault raiders that have since made special, limited-time-only releases of albums like Ruff’s aforementioned solo album and compilations like A Cellarful of Motown, have made fans simultaneously thank God for letting someone unearth all these forgotten treasures and curse God (or Motown execs) who thought some of this stuff was not up to snuff the first time around.

The greatest example of this has to be a song called “All I Do is Think About You,” written by Stevie Wonder and originally recorded at the end of 1965. The song is a mid-tempo ballad, bolstered by a signature in-the-pocket drumbeat, lovely strings and angelic backing vocals. 

David Ruffin’s girlfriend and Marvin Gaye’s foil Tammi Terrell added her vocals to the backing track in January 1966 and delivered (what pretty much anyone who’s heard the song can tell you) a perfect pop single. Three minutes in length with a wistful and pained vocal, “All I Do is Think About You” was probably the best unrequited love song ever committed to tape at the time.

But for whatever reason, Motown execs blanched at the recording. It’s hard to ascertain why. Maybe they wanted to keep Tammi focused on duets with Marvin. Maybe they wanted a good vehicle for Brenda Holloway, who’d experienced some amount of success with label when she debuted in 1964, but had not managed to keep a successful run of hits like other women on the label.

So the engineers kept the backing track recorded in December 1965, removed Tammi’s vocals from the mix and let Brenda have a shot at singing the song.

Where Tammi took the song to a wistful and innocent place, Brenda inserted a bit more pain and anguish into proceedings (not surprising when you figure her big hit for the label up to that point was the heartwrenching “Every Little Bit Hurts”). 

It still was a kickass affair, but again Motown did nothing with the song. Both Tammi’s and Brenda’s versions were shelved and the song was completely forgotten about for more than a decade before Stevie Wonder himself dusted it off, rewrote a few lyrics and gave it a disco feel for his 1977 album Hotter Than July.

It’s hard to dismiss anything by Stevie Wonder, but all it takes is one listen to the versions that were never previously heard to prove that Stevie was way out of his league doing his own song. 

Thankfully, Tammi’s version found the light of day on the Cellarful of Motown anthology and Brenda’s surfaced on the Brenda Holloway Anthology

What you have here, then, is a “Vs.” first — two versions of the song with the exact same backing track. So comparison really comes down to the two ladies’ respective deliveries. 

I’m crazy about Brenda Holloway. I think she was the most underrated and underutilized weapon in Motown’s arsenal, but really, Tammi’s version is perfection. It’s the innocence in her delivery that really sells this song. 

But that’s just me. What says you?

 

tammivsbrenda

Tammi Terrell vs. Brenda Holloway
“All I Do is Think About You” 


Tammi Terrell – All I Do is Think About You

Brenda Holloway – All I Do is Think About You

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They don’t listen, they don’t seem to care.

July 22, 2009

Good lord, two long days of work and two nights out, and look what you miss.

Gordon Waller of Peter & Gordon fame died on Monday, which probably isn’t going to start a three-week Larry King run with Miko Brando, but I must admit that I was a bit saddened when I heard the news.

It’s not because I’m any great Peter & Gordon fan — admittedly, the stuff I’ve heard I do quite like, but when they weren’t making Paul McCartney or Del Shannon cast-offs into significant chart hits, they were just covering other people’s songs. Don’t get me wrong — they did it in a very charming and lovely way, but it’s not as if the world lost one of it’s greatest songwriters Monday.

However, it did lose a pretty good dude. I met Gordon back in 1999 at Beatlefest in Chicago, which I attended with my friend Brian. We did a lot of perusing through the marketplace at the fest — the miles of vinyl was enough to keep Brian entranced for hours — and we’d once in awhile check in on some of the featured guests.

Gordon was one of them, and I think everyone kind of wished Peter had shown up instead (after all, Paul had dated Peter’s sister for all those years, so there must have been good stories there — seriously, Beatlefesters think like that). Brian and I kept joking about how fabulously anticlimactic it was to go around saying “I met Gordon,” but we found it so funny that we kept showing up every time Gordon was scheduled to talk or perform.

And you know what? We actually started to really dig Gordon. He seemed affable enough and although he wasn’t in his best singing voice (some sort of throat ailment he kept dousing with some kind of cherry-flavored medicinal spray), when he’d go into “World Without Love” or “Woman” or “I Go To Pieces,” it was really f*cking cool. We jokingly chanted “Gordon! Gordon! Gordon!” between songs, but honestly, I think there was a bit of sincere appreciation on both our parts in the chanting.

On the way home from Beatlefest that night, Brian and I joked about approaching Mark Lapidos (the guy who’s either a genius or the most ridiculous superfan on earth for starting Beatlefest) and taking a very New York-style business tone:

“Salutations, Mr. Lapidos. We’ve enjoyed this Beatles fest. But I think we have a better offer for you. Mr. Lapidos, what would you say if we proposed a Gordon fest?”

We thought it was hilarious, and would forever refer to Gordon in a somewhat joking matter (the way you do with legendary second bananas like Oates or Herb or the other dude from Wham!), but every time I hear a Peter & Gordon track, I do often find myself thinking it is pretty stellar. Makes you wonder why Peter hangs out with Pamela Anderson all the time now. I mean, 15 years ago, sure. But now?

Anyway, part of me hopes that somewhere on the other side, Brian and Gordon are having a good chat where you can’t tell if he’s taking the piss or being genuine, and Brian’s already talking about his discussions with St. Peter for a proper Gordon fest (again, it’s hard to tell if it’s sincere or genuine — but that’s the kick).

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Peter & Gordon – I Go To Pieces
From the 1965 album of the same name, I still think this is the duo’s most majestic moment, and they did a way better job with it than the song’s composer, Del Shannon. Sure, “A World Without Love” is a bit more hummable and likely to stick around in your head, but if you play it back-to-back with this, it becomes very obvious which one was a song Paul McCartney didn’t even bother taking to the other Beatles.

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Turn it up. That’s enough. So you know it’s got soul.

July 17, 2009

Surely one of the greatest purchases I ever made in my life was the complete box set of “The West Wing,” which I know I’m not the only fan of. If you haven’t watched the show, I can only say spend the pretty penny and get into the series now, or at the very least, fill up your Netflix queue. 

As far as the debate goes about which direction the show headed after Aaron Sorkin left following the 4th season, yeah a lot of the humor was traded for heavy drama, but don’t tell me you weren’t loving following the Santos campaign. 

Of course, the one thing that kind of stunk following Sorkin’s departure was the flair for really good music to back comedic and dramatic moments. Sorkin’s always seemed to boast a good ear for a tune — it was “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” that introduced me to Corinne Bailey Rae and has forever implanted “Trouble Sleeping” deep in my psychosis. 

With “The West Wing,” Sorkin had a good go-to guy in “Snuffy” Walden (who wrote the show’s majestic theme song) to provide proper musical accompaniment to tense or funny moments. But that didn’t mean he shied away from dipping into his own CD collection to make things just a bit more salient, either. 

Usually I hate the use of “contemporary” pop music in television and movies (particularly the way people like Cameron Crowe use it in things such as “Vanilla Sky” as if to say, “Look what great taste I have in music!”). Maybe that’s the same thing that Sorkin does, really… but I love Aaron Sorkin, so there.

For this month’s Friday Five, we look at five of the best musical moments from “The West Wing.”

westwing

The Friday Five
Rocking the West Wing
 
 

Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms
Song can be heard on: Season 2, Episode 22: “Two Cathedrals”
Song can be found on: Brothers in Arms

Poignant as all hell. Bartlet has just lost his faithful friend and secretary Delores Landingham in a car accident. He also just disclosed to the country that he’s suffered from multiple sclerosis for years, but never let the American people know while on campaign or in the White House. Staff is trying to perform damage control, but all the press wants to know is if he’s going to have the stones to try running for re-election. C.J. plants a doctor in the audience to try to get the first question to be a medical one and try to control the press conference. Bartlet brushes off the plant and takes the re-election question instead. And the second season ends. What you don’t get from this clip is a flashback from earlier in Bartlet’s life — where Landingham points out that whenever he puts his hands in his pockets and smirks, it means he’s made up his mind to do something. Mark Knopfler’s poor man Bob Dylan impression blends in perfectly. 
Best exchange:
Bartlet: “I’m sorry, Sandy, there was a bit of noise there. Could you repeat the question?”
Reporter: “Can you tell us right now if you’ll be seeking a second term?”
Leo: “Watch this.”

Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah
Song can be heard on: Season 3, Episode 22: “Posse Comitatus”
Song can be found on: Grace

Yes, I know, Buckley’s reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has become a staple for almost every quasi-emotional season finale out there, and maybe it’s my preference for both Jeff and “The West Wing” that led me to include it in this list, but it’s hard to argue with the emotional weight the song adds to the scene. After learning that her stalker has been apprehended, C.J. realizes she can finally start seeing the special agent assigned to her, Simon Donovan, socially. C.J. has to join the President and staff to see a performance of the “The War of Roses,” and Donovan patiently waits outside, then drops by a convenience store to buy her flowers. What he thinks is an unlucky twist of fate for a mugger ends up being an unlucky twist of fate for him as the mugger’s partner jumps out from hiding. C.J. is told the news, Shakespearean dialogue reverberates, Josh costs Amy her job and Bartlet is pressed to make a decision on whether or not to covertly kill a known terrorist. “Hallelujah” somehow makes beautiful sense.
Best exchange: 
Josh: “You can’t win the White House while the middle class thinks you disdain work and responsibility!”
Amy: “I would hope not. And I congratulate you for punishing poor women as a symbol of the strength of mainstream values!” 

Massive Attack – Angel
Song can be heard on: Season 4, Episode 22: “Commencement”
Song can be found on: Mezzanine

The Britpop outsiders (don’t even tell Massive Attack they were Britpop) provide the perfect atmospheric backdrop as tension mounts between Josh’s girlfriend and his long devoted secretary, Donna. Bartlet’s youngest daughter Zoey celebrates her Georgetown graduation with her slimeball of a French boyfriend, Jean-Paul, who dopes her up on ecstasy. Danny Kincannon grills C.J. to find out if the White House covertly killed a terrorist. And then all hell breaks loose as Zoey goes kidnapped in the exact way her father predicted in Season 1. It’s chilling and it makes you glad to have the DVDs, because I can only imagine waiting weeks and months to find out what happened next at this point of the story was veritable torture. 
Best exchange:
Donna: “His sister died in a fire while she was babysitting him. She tried to put it out, he ran outside. He went off campaigning, his father died. He wakes up in the hospital and discovers the President’s been shot. He goes through everyday worried that someone he likes is gonna die, and it’s gonna be his fault. What do you think makes him walk so fast? Anyway, when you looked at the list of replacements, and said, ‘That’s a windfall,’ what he heard was, ‘Thank you, Josh, you did it again. More for us.'”
Amy: “You said, ‘You have to get Josh…'”
Donna: “Yeah. That was — I didn’t mean to say that you don’t … get him.”
Amy: “Are you in love with Josh?”

Ronny Jordan (feat. Dana Bryant) – The Jackal
Song can be heard on: Season 1, Episode 18: “Six Meetings Before Lunch”
Song can be found on: The Quiet Revolution

Perhaps one of the show’s most defining moments — to celebrate the confirmation of Mendoza as the Bartlet administration’s first appointment to the Supreme Court, C.J. breaks out an old lip-synching act she used to do on the campaign trail, much to the delight of the rest of the West Wing — particularly her male counterparts. The cut was originally pulled from Ronny Jordan’s 1993 album The Quiet Revolution, and apparently both Allison Janney and Richard Schiff used to lip-synch and air-guitar (respectively) to this song in Janney’s trailer. Sorkin popped in on them once during a performance and got such a kick out of it, he wrote it into the show. Millions were gratified.
Best exchange:
Josh: “There’s a little speed bump with Jeff Breckenridge. Leo gave it to me ’cause he thinks you’re burned out on Mendoza. I told him I thought that was ridiculous. What do you think?”
Toby: “You’re talking to me during ‘The Jackal’?”
Josh:  “I was just –”
Toby: “Never talk to me during ‘The Jackal’!” 

Van Morrison – Caravan
Song can be heard on: Season 3, Episode 21: “We Killed Yamamoto”
Song can be found on: Moondance

The chemistry between Josh and Amy Gardner is almost there — they’re all set to spend Sunday together, but as always, a snafu gets in the way of Josh’s romantic happiness and Donna tells him he has to get back to the office for a meeting. “Caravan” has always been one of the best things in the Van man’s arsenal, so it was nice to get to see it appreciated. For what it’s worth, Mary-Louise Parker has never looked sexier than she does in this scene. Well, almost never. And yes, I kind of dance like she does to this song.
Best exchange:
Donna: “How does a person get to Bismarck?”
Josh: “The Iditarod, Donna. They have an airport. It’s the capitol.”

 

Have a good weekend, all.

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But romantically, I’m incurable.

July 14, 2009

Welcome back to the working week — hoping you all had a grand weekend. I know I had quite a good one, even if “Bruno” did feature a little too much male genitalia for my personal comfort. Still made me laugh, but it’s one of those movies you leave going, “Yeah… so….”

Thankfully, that didn’t happen ’til Sunday afternoon and got me out of the house to avoid witnessing the Cubs drop the 2nd of a doubleheader to the goddamn St. Louis Cardinals. I did get to see the Cubs beat the Cards Saturday and in the first game Sunday, however, so that was pretty fabulous.

What’s more, my good friend Grandma Cyd invited me back to the guest mic on her fabulous radio show, “The Heavy Petting Zoo” Saturday night. 

I certainly hope you listened but if you didn’t, here are the highlights you missed.

*A brief appreciation (I use that term liberally) of Tab Hunter, who celebrated a birthday on Saturday, and a resuscitation of long-since dead rumors about shenanigans between he and Debbie Reynolds (although we quashed those rumors just as quickly as we revived them)

*A realization that I (maybe unsurprisingly) know pathetically little about Elvis Presley, so much so that I couldn’t even tell you who wrecked his and Priscilla’s home (even after an ever-so-encouraging, “Come on, EVERYONE knows this” from Grandma Cyd)

*Sinatra’s “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)” off the Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely — the finest version of that song ever and the greatest bit of piano ever committed to acetate

*Some left field song by a dude named Rolf about pinching wrinkles

*A single handed resuscitation on Grandma Cyd’s part of the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ career (despite this being a show committed only to playing songs from the 1930s to the 1950s)

But despite all that good listening, somehow — completely unbelievably, I might add — I think we totally avoided playing Bobby Darin. Which I’m still losing sleep over two days later. The guy’s one of my all time favorite artists, and he makes some kind of showing on the show almost every single week and yet… nothing on Saturday… on the show I’M CO-HOSTING.
 

 

"Dude... Paul... Seriously... WTF?!"

"Dude... Paul... Seriously... WTF?!"

As atonement for the sin, I’m going to give you a double dose of Bobby here — and what’s more, a couple tunes that are absolutely fabulous but that you might not even know.

Bobby Darin – Hush, Somebody’s Callin’ My Name
The one absolutely stellar cut from an otherwise pretty lackluster album, 1960’s Bobby Darin Sings for Teenagers Only, this song is so friggin’ fun, it’s almost criminal. What’s impressive (and worth noting, all you songwriters and arrangers out there), is that it’s so effective with only the most minimal accompaniment. This is just piano, bass, drums and light horns. The only real ornamentation is the tambourine. No overstated background singers, no handclaps, no over-the-top superfluous scat. Not that all that crap ruined OTHER Darin songs, it’s just kind of worth remembering that this guy could fuse enough verve into any song with his natural delivery. This thing is contagious. Seriously. See how quickly this song’s play count racks up listens in your iTunes library this week.

Bobby Darin – Have You Got Any Castles, Baby
Darin’s more successful (and critically acclaimed) album from 1960, This is Darin was for the teenagers’ parents and showcased why Darin was just as formidable big band leader as Sinatra or Dean-o. The song, written by Richard Whitling and Johnny Mercer, dates back to the 1930s, but Darin (as he did with so many standards) pretty much wrapped up the ultimate version with this take, confidently assuring a killing-by-revolver of a few dragons, a cheap laugh in the “you’ll never get into Westerns that way” aside and, perhaps more importantly, a willingness to step aside and let the band (conducted by Richard Wess) take the spotlight themselves.

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You said this would happen and you were not wrong.

July 9, 2009

In addition to my chronicles of Ronnie Lane’s time in Austin, I’m also working on a book that takes what I hope is a humorous (and very self-deprecating) look at my trials and tribulations in the dating world. For the most part it’s just for the kick of telling some funny stories that I’ve told friends for years, but if it ultimately proves to be an advice piece for any novices out there (and aren’t we all?), hey, all the better.

Of course, I tend to be a bit all or nothing when it comes to break-ups, pretty much entirely severing contact and any means of contact with a girl once a relationship is ended, because as I’ve come to realize too frustratingly before in my life — what’s the point? I’ve heard that dating is about who wins and who loses, but I think that becomes a lot more definite in the break up. Frankly, I’ve lost too many times in my life and it’s never a good kick.

Of course, it’s always funny what kind of music one reverts to in this mental state. As I mentioned a couple posts back, when my first girlfriend dumped me, I listened to the Beatles’ “I Need You” to a point of pretty much making everyone else in the house absolutely detest the Fab Four.

I remember when one of my college roommates split from a girl he’d dated for three years, he not only listened to Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane like it was Dr. Phil motivational recording, but actually had the audacity to say to me during one of his many spins of “Sunday Morning” — “You know, you never really realize what these kinds of songs mean until you’ve had that kind of heartache.” I would’ve punched him in the nose if it wasn’t for the fact that he was hurt enough as it was.

Transcribing a lot of the stories I’ve told for years has allowed to take an analytical look at myself over the years. Although I like to cast myself as the victim (who doesn’t?), I kind of see now that there were definitely some situations in which is I was a pretty thorough jerk. 

That said, I’ve also dated some head cases to varying degrees. What I find interesting as I transcribe some of these stories with my iTunes on shuffle, certain songs will come on and seem achingly appropriate (I swear to God, I’m ready to adopt Randy Newman’s “Lover’s Prayer” as my personal creed), even if they weren’t the particular tunes I resigned myself to in the bleak days following a break-up.

For instance, one song that always manages to take my breath away whether I’m in a happy relationship or enjoying singledom is Billy Bragg’s “Little Time Bomb.” I’ve said it countless times before, but I’ll say it again. For as much hoopla as Billy stirs with a political song, he’s absolutely unparalleled when it comes to transcribing feelings of heartbreak and frustration when it comes to the subject of love.

The song still finds its way to some of his live sets, but with far too little frequency for my liking. It also never gets the attention it deserves on compilations, unfortunately resigned to the position of a deep cut on Bragg’s exquisite 1988 record Workers Playtime. 

But if the song doesn’t perfectly capture the thoughts of a man jilted by a woman who’s obviously no good for him, but may be all the more attractive for that very reason, well… I don’t know what song would.

“He holds your letters but he can’t read them as he fights this loneliness that you call freedom.”

Of course, almost any line from the song is worth it’s own place in the book of wisdom, but I’ve always felt a special affinity toward that one. When the book comes out, you’ll read the rather humorous story (if I do say so myself) as to why.

Here are few versions of the song which all are fantastically wonderful in their own way.

TimeBomb

Billy Bragg – Little Time Bomb (Demo)
From the remastered deluxe version of Workers Playtime, the lyrics here are almost there but are still being cleaned up. Part of me wishes he’d kept the expletive in (“If there are no losers, then what the f*ck is this?”) It’s one of those rare, very appropriate uses of the “F” word. 

Billy Bragg – Little Time Bomb
The album version from Workers Playtime — dig how much regality the horns bring to the otherwise stripped affair.

Billy Bragg – Little Time Bomb (live)
A recent live rendering for the iTunes Live series. Bragg is just alone with guitar here, but again, the song works on such a strong level with such little accompaniment. The repetition of the “In public, he’s such a man…” bit is particularly effective.

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You listen to me, listen this time.

July 7, 2009

Well, if you must know — no, I haven’t been in mourning over the Michael Jackson issue, I’ve just been swamped with work and travel in the past couple of weeks and haven’t had a chance to update the site. 

Caramba.

For some reason (maybe not unsurprisingly, however), the Jackson post became probably the most popular post ever on this or the former blog page — netting more than 2,000 views in one day alone. I feel so unreasonably popular.

But anyway, onwards with music postings.

It’s a new month, and I say it’s about time we take a look at another album that’s gone pretty much forgotten since it’s release.

 

Bernard Butler (Friends And Lovers)

Bernard Butler
Friends and Lovers
Creation/Columbia, 1999

01. Friends & Lovers
02. I’d Do It Again If I Could
03. Cocoon
04. Smile
05. You Must Go On
06. No Easy Way Out
07. Everyone I Know Is Falling Apart
08. What Happened To Me
09. Let’s Go Away
10. Precious
11. Has Your Mind Got Away?
12. You’ll Feel It When You’re Mine

 

It’s really hard to figure what went wrong with Bernard Butler’s second solo album. Coming only one year after his critically lauded solo debut, People Move On, momentum should have still been in the ex-Suede guitarist’s favor, but as it usually goes, timing seemed to kill this album. Not that it’s a thoroughly amazing record — even Bernard admits as much. But as bad as everyone seems to want to remember it? Hardly.

By 1999, Butler had established himself as his generation’s Johnny Marr (who just happened to Butler’s own personal hero). He’d provided the musical muscle for a lyrically astute and sexually provocative frontman in Brett Anderson with Suede, before abruptly leaving the group during the recording of Dog Man Star citing irreconcilable creative differences. In the mid-1990s, he teamed with David McAlmont to produce the glorious single “Yes,” and the somewhat lackluster Sound of McAlmont and Butler album. By the end of the decade, he’d shared the stage with Paul Weller and the Verve and was heavily in consideration for a role in Oasis following Bonehead’s departure. 

A solo album seemed the logical next step by 1998 and while People Move On did boast some glorious moments (“Stay” — one of the most criminally underrated tunes of that or any decade), it seemed like the novelty of the one-off solo album from a famous guitarist was enough to placate fans and critics (see the similar popularity of ‘solo’ projects by John Squire, Johnny Marr, Keith Richards, et. al).

Sure, Butler suffered from the same problem that most guitarists turned frontmen do in not having the vocal chops of the frontmen they’re more closely associated. Following Brett Anderson would be one thing. Following Anderson and then David McAlmont proved an altogether more Herculean task.

But People Move On proved Butler could pen a good tune and while not possessing the most golden of vocal pipes, certainly was no slouch when it came to singing either.

Did it merit a follow up? I think fans would say yes, and I think most critics figured the merits of the album were worth repeating.

On most days, I’d almost consider Friends and Lovers a better album than People Move On. Both are uneven affairs, but Friends and Lovers returns a few more beautiful moments in my humblest of opinions. 

The problem is that by 1999, no one f*cking cared anymore. You could bask in the Britpop afterglow in 1998 — and as Butler had experienced varying popularity in the Britpop era in TWO bands, he was certainly due his own returns. But in 1999, that whole scene was beyond passe.

The Spice Girls and Prodigy had confusingly proved to be the biggest dual British successes in America since the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Oasis were stuck in a creative rut and losing original members by the month. Damon Albarn was writing multiple singles about how distraught he was over his breakup with Justine Frischmann. Kula Shaker split and no one flinched.

See, had Friends and Lovers been issued even two years earlier, it might have been considered a great triumph of the decade in Britain. Creation Records handled distribution, there were at least three solid singles to be found, and the musical tipping of the hat to 1960s and 1970s rock and roll classics were just the kind of reasons why punters were filling soccer stadiums.

Yet, the combined critical response proved to be, “What? Another solo record? Why?” Creation Records was in the midst of closing shop, so promotion lacked and while the album yielded a few inspired cuts, it was a pretty trying piece as a whole.

But masturbatory indulgences aside (I’m looking at you, 8+minute “Has Your Mind Got Away?” and pointlessly meandering “Cocoon”), the good moments were particularly good.

“You Must Go On” was a solid single and the video provided an enjoyable showcase of Butler’s jagged dance moves. The title cut is one of the most arresting things Butler’s ever put his guitar (or voice) to, and “Let’s Go Away” is the kind of song bands whittle away their careers trying to write. 

While people in Britain at least got to hear “You Must Go On” and the title track by way of promotion on television shows, it proved not to be enough to move copies of the album. In America, some kind of “Come on, you owe us for ______” agreement got the album a brief release on Columbia, but it went out of print almost as quickly as it came into print. 

Which is a shame. People should look back on things like “Animal Nitrate” and “Yes” as fine examples of Butler’s fretwork and songwriting abilities. On the same token, his post solo-career work with a reunited McAlmont & Butler and production and songwriting work with Duffy is also pretty damn great.

But to just ignore Friends and Lovers because it was categorically unimportant in 1999 is just stupid. I mean, sh*t, was Robbie Williams’ “Millennium” really that much better? There are a few songs that are worth at least equating to “Stay,” folks.