Archive for September, 2009

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I’m feeling more alone than I ever have before.

September 29, 2009

CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR

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Ben Folds Five – Brick
From: Whatever and Ever Amen

Major labels have a funny way of annihilating a band’s essence for the purpose of a hit single. I don’t think this was more prevalent in the 1990s than it ever was or has been in the annals of music history, I just think that I tended to hear a lot more about it during that particular decade. Think of how many bands you remember hearing on the radio or MTV, thinking, “I kind of like that,” and then talking one of the band’s “real” fans who curtly informed you, “They’re not really like that.” And it’s kind of a disappointing thing for a possible new fan to hear because, well, whatever the song in question was that the band may or may not really be prone to writing is the damn thing that got you interested in the first place.

Trust me, I’ve been on both sides of the fence, from wondering why the Cardigans couldn’t write more “Lovefool”-type songs to bemoaning people who only knew Oasis for “Wonderwall.”

But the case of Ben Folds and “Brick” has always kind of made me feel bad for the guy’s introduction into the strongest current of the mainstream. Pretty much before and since, Folds had/has made a name for himself as a smartass singer songwriter with miles of talent and an ear for a hook, but never to take himself so seriously as not to, I don’t know, do a Madman Across the Water-styled cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Sh*t.”

But “Brick” never had a light hearted air about it. The chorus is vague enough to suggest to the listener in passing that this is just a pretty little song to cry over after meaningless break-up, but for anyone who actually dove into lyrics booklets in the 1990s (and come on, who among us didn’t?), it didn’t take long to suss out that this was about an abortion.

And maybe 1997 was the perfect year to have a hit song based on a topic that even four years earlier might have been considered a bit taboo. Not because 1997 was a record year for abortions (I have no way of knowing that, and I have no real desire whatsoever to check into such stats), but because by the second half of the decade, the general young American mindset had gone into an alarmingly apathetic field.

Sure, there were kids like me that got in tune with the Britpop movement, but you must remember America never really latched onto the bubbly sarcasm of “Parklife.” America, frankly, didn’t care about Blur until Damon started singing lyrics like “It wasn’t easy, but nothing is — woo hoo.” Was it to say we were totally devoid of happiness? Of course not. The Spice Girls were popular, as were songs like “Steal My Sunshine,” but that was the kind of stuff you didn’t really fess up to liking in a public high school if you wanted to get through the day without a beat down or some godawful form of public ridicule.

So… midtempo piano dirge about an abortion? Bring it on! It always was a beautiful song, and it still is of course, but it’s the kind of track that poses a challenge to your loyal fanbase. Had Folds and Co. tucked this song away on a B-side or even as a deep cut on Whatever and Ever Amen (which, by the way, can non-fans remember any other songs from?), the band would’ve been revered as all-encompassing geniuses by their loyal minions. Instead, Epic’s decision to make it a monster single (to say nothing of the accompanying video where it looks like every band member might break down in tears simply by playing the song) pushed the song into every Lite FM listener’s consciousness, and gave the three in Ben Folds Five a spot on “Saturday Night Live” and more popularity than maybe they ever wanted.

Thankfully (for the fans), everyone lost interest by 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (which Old 97’s guitarist Ken Bethea once described to me as “a songwriter performing at his absolute zenith”), and things returned to normal. Folds then deconstructed things further by breaking the band up and going the DIY route with Rockin’ the Suburbs before essentially becoming a college tour mainstay and releasing a new song every other week on iTunes. In the time since, a lot of people have wondered aloud why Folds couldn’t just write more songs like “Brick,” and while I might point them in the direction of “Landed,” you gotta figure it must be taxing to do just one song about a personal abortion experience.

And besides, in this kind of economy, who would listen to it? I mean in 1997, when things were going great, and the economy was as fat as your unmarried uncle after Thanksgiving dinner, it was cool to be engaged by such depressing subject matter. Look at the Top 10 right now. It’s all optimistic, party music.

Maybe we all are drowning slowly. It’s just… you don’t need to remind us.

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Don’t seem fair to keep you hangin’ ’round.

September 25, 2009

Last week when I was in Chicago for the Proclaimers show, I spent the day with one of my oldest friends, who got around to lamenting the fact that the only major Chicago representation in the music scene right now comes from bands like the Plain White T’s. He noted the Smashing Pumpkins time has passed and Billy Corgan is thought of with too much indifference (or resentment) these days and it’s a sad state of affairs since there are good bands to be found in the city streets.

I fully agree with him that the good bands are there, but I still feel compelled to ask that when the standard of popularity now is a song like “Hey There Delilah,” does anyone even want to share the stage? I went to the same high school the Plain White T’s did and I remember not liking them back then. I suppose part of me thinks it’s somewhat nice that they found their way out of the suburbs, but every time I start to feel momentarily good about it, I think about their music.

The fact of the matter is the Chicago music scene has a ton of good stuff to its name, and while it may not have the national renown right now that Austin or Portland does, it deserves a fair shake. For this month’s Friday Five, we take a look at five of the best Chicago offerings you don’t know about. And given my general reluctance to go deep into any city’s local scene, you know these songs have to be really good. So listen up and go dig for more stuff from these bands. There’s more out there.

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The Friday Five
“Hi-de-hey — baby, don’t you wanna go?”

Company of Theives – Oscar Wilde
I was just made hip to this band, and quite glad my friend was kind enough to bestow the knowledge upon me. This cut, from 2007’s Ordinary Riches, is all sorts of wonderfully angular Spoon-esque brilliance and was a nice soundtrack from a drive back to Madison from Chicago in the wee small hours of a Wednesday morning. I think I played this song about 18 times over during the drive. Unbelievably hypnotic. The fact that they did a brilliant “Rushmore”-inspired video only endears me that much further.

The Differents – Dawn
OK, this song is about 10 years old and I posted it a few months ago, but it’s fantasticity is still blowing my mind. Differents mainman Lou Hallwas is off with Penthouse Sweets for the most part (who are also pretty damn good mind you), but the Differents were nice enough to reunite earlier this year for the fans that are still around the city and also put out the album they recorded but never released 10 years ago, Fate’s Goin’ On. It’s f*cking hard to make good use of a banjo in any song, alright? And not only do these guys pull it off here, but they give you a chorus that you’ll be singing along to before the song ends.

Hollus – Miss Daisy
Yeah, yeah, this band is full of some of my best friends so there’s personal bias here, but the yardstick by which to measure this band is the fact that anytime this song shuffles up on my iPod at a party, there are a lot of inquisitions. And it’s without me going, “Oh, listen to THIS ONE!” mind you. They’ve got heaps of great rock tunes, but this track is the centerpiece of their Joker and the Queen album that’s up on iTunes and more than worth tracking down. Listen to that chorus. Listen to that electric piano. Listen to this whole thing. Again and again.

The Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra – Invisible Woman Standing on a Bridge
I first got hip to Nick about four years ago when he opened with a solo set for his pal Alejandro Escovedo. Given that it was my first time seeing Alejandro, I went into the show thinking I’d have little patience for whoever opened that night, but Tremulis immediately blew me away with his songs and personality. I subsequently found out he’s got a rock-solid rock and roll outfit when he’s not moonlighting by his lonesome, and if you get the chance to see them, give it a crack — they put on a hell of a show. This cut kicks off last year’s Pinky, one of the best rock ‘n’ roll albums that nobody knows about. If you’re not around Chicago or prone to checking out CDBaby, get your fingers to take you to iTunes and download the beast. It’s quite fabulous.

The Steepwater Band – Lord Knows
I’ve been fortunate to catch the Steepwater boys live a few times and can personally attest to them putting on a good show, full of ’70s-styled rock and roll goodness (they also stop by Madison with some frequency, so you locals would do well to keep your eyes peeled for upcoming show announcements), but I will also say that despite an arsenal of solid songs, I wasn’t ever floored until I heard this song from last year’s Grace and Melody. This thing is perfect driving music, perfect morning music, perfect end of the night music and a perfect microcosm of what “American rock and roll” should be defined by. And at 2:49, it’s short enough to leave you pining for more. Also sports a spiffy video.

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I just hope you got the time it may take.

September 18, 2009

A few weeks ago I was dining out with a friend when Peggy Lee’s version of “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?” came over the sound system. “She had a pretty sexy delivery,” my friend said. I agreed, and we started pointing out various songs in her catalogue that showcased her alluring tones.

“You ever hear Let’s Love?” I asked.

He hadn’t. Not many people have. And I still can’t figure whether that’s a good thing or not.

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Peggy Lee
Let’s Love
Atlantic, 1974

01. Let’s Love
02. He is the One
03. Easy Evil
04. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight
05. Always
06. You Make Me Feel Brand New
07. Sweet Lov’liness
08. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
09. Sweet Talk
10. Sometimes
11. Let’s Love (Reprise)

Let’s not kid ourselves here — there’s something kind of inherently pathetic about an aging crooner trying to a “contemporary” record. The first thing that comes to mind is the jokey end of the spectrum — Pat Boone’s In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, for instance. Then there’s that questionable middle ground, like Frank Sinatra’s 1984 album, L.A. is My Lady. I mean, OK, the Quincy Jones orchestra lent it some credibility, but just try to tell me the synths on the title track or those electric guitars on “Stormy Weather” felt genuine. They didn’t.

Now, if it can’t be done right, it can at least be done interestingly — Paul Anka’s recent Rock Swings comes to mind, but again, there was a bit of tongue-in-cheekness there that I don’t think could be avoided. Paul Anka singing Van Halen is enough of a headscratcher, let alone turning it into a big band tune.

Peggy Lee’s 1974 album Let’s Love is another one that’s tough to get your head around. Although it wasn’t her last album, it kind of marked the beginning of the end — a vain attempt from the mid-1970s into the early 1990s to try to stay relevant when, really, all she had to do was sit back and let the 41 albums she recorded for Capitol and Decca Records from 1948 to 1970 sum up her career. Was everything in there golden? No, but when it includes the likes of “Fever,” “Somebody Loves Me,” “He’s a Tramp,” “A Doodlin’ Song” and “Is That All There Is?” why pad the f*cking resume?

Now, with a title track specially written by Paul McCartney, the Atlantic label behind it and a selection of songs that included writing credits from the likes of James Taylor, Henri Mancini, Irving Berlin and Melissa Manchester, the obvious thought wasn’t that it could be a formidable hit… if it didn’t prove to be a big laugh.

The problem (or maybe saving grace) was that it was neither. Even at the album’s horrendous, synthesized music worst (“Easy Evil,” I’m looking at you), Lee’s voice and delivery somehow manages to keep the whole affair from being totaled. There’s no reason “Easy Evil,” “Sweet Talk” or “Sweet Lov’liness” should work at all, and while they aren’t exactly revelatory, there’s a lot to be said for Peggy that she doesn’t let them become laughable.

But even the weight McCartney should have brought to proceedings is frighteningly absent. A lot of people make jokes about his mid-period Wings material, particularly the piano-led ballads, and I’ve always been one of the biggest Wings apologists out there, but “Let’s Love” frankly goes nowhere. It SOUNDS like Paul McCartney realizes he’s writing a song for Peggy Lee and is forcing jazzy chord changes and haphazard lyrics to live up to God-knows-who’s expectations. I mean people can say what they want about “My Love,” “With a Little Luck” or “London Town,” but hell… at least those songs had hooks.

James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” fares a little better under Lee’s vocal guidance, but the production by Dave Grusin just doesn’t feel right. It’s like he aimed for sexiness, but veered into sleaziness. I mean, “He is the One” has a decidedly Gospel-feel to it (even though I’m quite sure she’s not singing about that He), but picking the faux-porn stylings of “Easy Evil” to follow that just seems perverse. I mean, Lee was 54 when this album was released — part of me wonders if there’s a whole cougar culture out there that uses this record as some kind of rallying music. And if they do, that actually lowers my opinion of cougars. Which is too bad, really.

But again, as bad as it should be, it never veers into awfulness. Earlier this year, I played “Sweet Talk” for a girl I was dating who looked at me — a highly principled music aficionado — as if I’d either lost my goddamned mind or had spent too much time perusing Web sites with Google’s safe search turned off.

“No, no, seriously,” I said to her wordless judgement of me. “Listen to the hook!”

But she just shook her head.

The album did virtually nothing at a commercial level and by the next year she was off Atlantic and onto A&M and would continue label jumping for the rest of her life, which I always kind of felt was sad. Certainly, the musical progression for the last 20 years of her life was not something I’d carry on my own label, but again — with more than 40 albums defining a “classic” period, why push the issue anymore than merited?

I mean, it was never going to get sexier than “Fever” anyway. And it’s my belief that cougars probably use that as a rallying song that makes me think they’re pretty cool after all.

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While I’m worth my room on this earth.

September 17, 2009

THE “AIN’T SUPERSTITIOUS, BUT…” INTERVIEW:
CRAIG REID

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One half of the Proclaimers on becoming more prolific with age, the hunt for new fans and a theory on Scotland’s habit of producing great music.

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It’s an unseasonably warm September night in Chicago, and the Proclaimers are pushing through their set at the Double Door. The crowd size isn’t even a fraction of what the Reid brothers have seen in recent years back home, be it from the Edinburgh stage of Live 8 or, say, T in the Park, but nevertheless, the room is teeming with energy. Right now, the band is commandeering a collective audience pogo and full throated singalong to bouncy little number driven by a painfully easy guitar riff.

Of course, it’s not THAT song —  you know, the one most people think is all the Proclaimers have to their name. It’s “Life With You,” the title track to their 2007 album that fared respectably in the UK, but barely went recognized over here. The way the Double Door swells, however, you’d think it was a major international hit.

“The hardcore fans are right into what we do,” says Craig Reid, the lead vocalist (and, as needed, tambourine shaker, finger snapper and harmonica player). “Those people are always asking about the next record, and hopefully, you know, you win some new fans over along the way.”

Ever since the turn of the century, an almost non-stop cycle of new albums and tours has kept Craig and twin brother Charlie wracking up plenty of frequent flier miles, if not platinum albums. What’s interesting though, is that the prolificacy is now coming at a time when both men are 47 and have families — a point when most stars of decades past opt for balancing family life with the rare television appearance and the even rarer new album.

It’s almost backwards, really. After releasing their debut album in 1987, the Proclaimers managed only two more albums in the next 13 years, and after the commercial hiccup of 1994’s Hit the Highway (despite carrying fan favorites such as “Let’s Get Married” and “What Makes You Cry?”), the Reid brothers seemed to drop out of popular consciousness altogether.

But the launch of their own label, Persevere, earlier this decade begat a creative streak that’s produced five albums (the latest being the just-released Notes & Rhymes on the American imprint of 429), and countless ocean-hopping tours.

“I don’t know what it was, but from ’94 to whenever we just kind of thought we’d been at it for so long,” Reid says. “The thing is, we didn’t get jaded. We always knew we’d come back and starting with Persevere (2001), we just got into this rhythm that I hope we can keep going.”

Notes & Rhymes continues the latter-day Proclaimers recipe of flag-waving choruses, folk laments, rock gusto and a few covers for good measure, but it also shies away from being “same old, same old.”

The album’s best moment, “Wages of Sin,” goes full stop into vintage Northern Soul territory, saddled with horns, female backing singers and an arrangement that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Jools Holland’s big band albums. The Proclaimers haven’t had a song that sounds this dense or urgent since “Hit the Highway.”

“It’s down to (album producer) Steve Evans, who just gave us quite a lot of room to work on the song,” Reid says. “We came in with it just being acoustic, but it was really his vision that got it to that sound.”

The album also ventures into political territory with tracks such as “I Know.” Although the Proclaimers have never shied away from showing their political colors (see: “Cap in Hand”), Reid acknowledges there’s been a bit more political showing in the band’s recent albums. Mixing them with love songs and covers of old or obscure tunes is no big deal, he said.

“I think it comes very naturally,” he said. “You’ve got the right to talk about different subjects, and if you’ve got something to say, then you should.”

It’s advice (political or not) to which many of his countrymen have taken heed. Several critics point to the band’s release of This is the Story in 1987 as a resurgence for Scottish music that would manifest itself over the next two decades in acts ranging from Primal Scream to Belle & Sebastian, Travis and Franz Ferdinand.

Reid says he’s happy to be a part of that lineage and there’s no reason for it to stop.

“I just think the people like to play,” Reid says. “Scots are pretty musical people, and there are a lot of people that like to get out and perform, and it’s great. Long may it continue.”

It’s appreciated back home, of course, and while Craig and Charlie may never see THIS kind of reception over here, I can say with complete confidence that I saw a few new fans converted into Proclaimers reverence by the end of the band’s sweaty set at the Double Door Tuesday.

And at some level, that kind of perseverance seems appropriate for a couple dudes who started off in a punk band in the early 1980s.

“It’s been great,” Reid says. “I just want to keep it going.”

Notes & Rhymes is available now.

The Proclaimers US Tour continues through the end of the month:

Sept. 17 Minneapolis, MN / Triple Rock Social Club
Sept. 19 Denver, CO / Soiled Dove
Sept. 20 Salt Lake City, UT / Urban Lounge
Sept. 22 Seattle, WA / The Showbox
Sept. 23 Portland, OR / Aladdin Theater
Sept. 25 San Francisco, CA /Bottom Of The Hill

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GIMME FIVE (MORE)
Five burning questions for Craig Reid

What’s your favorite Beatles song and why?
That’s really difficult. I think I’ll go with “She Loves You.” Just for the energy and memories growing up. For many years it was the biggest single ever in the UK. It was just a huge song.

What three songwriters, dead or alive, would you like to write a song with and why?
Merle Haggard, he’s just the best song writer I’ve ever heard, and also the most understated. Sam Cooke, he was just a great songwriter. And, uh, hmm. Robbie Robertson. Just because he comes at it from a different angle. He’s very poetic.

The Proclaimers have a longstanding tradition of putting covers on your records, and you’ve done some fantastic ones over the years. What’s been your favorite song to cover?
“Sing All Our Cares Away” which is on the new record, Notes and Rhymes. Damien Dempsey wrote it and he would play it when we toured with him. It’s just a beautiful song.

If you could pick one song that defined you as a songwriter, which one would you choose?
“Sunshine on Leith.” I’d had the tune for a long time, but the words weren’t there. Then I remember I was flying up from London to Edinburgh, and as we were coming in the plane tilted over Leith, and the sun was shining down on it and it was just — there was the light.

And what music are you listening as you travel through the country on this tour?
Mostly a compilation that our drum tech put together on some great old ‘60s and ‘70s stuff. Let’s see, what else? Glasvegas, I like their energy. And the Kings of Leon.

The Proclaimers – Love Can Move Mountains
The lead single from Notes & Rhymes, Reid says this song isn’t just about love between a man and woman, but about anything for which someone holds intense passion. “It’s just how love transforms people lives, and how the power of it comes through in different ways,” he said. Cliche? Perhaps, but listen to that chorus and try to tell me they don’t know how to get right to your soul.

The Proclaimers – Sunshine on Leith
The song Craig says he wants to define the Proclaimers’ songwriting abilities, and rightfully so. I’ve never been to Leith, I have no idea what it looks like on a sunny day (well, anymore than what the album cover projected, at least), but this song makes me feel as reverent about it as “The Joyful Kilmarnock Blues” makes me feel about Hibernian (which is a hell of a lot). I always blast this song in the car (it’s actually a great atypical highway song), and I’ve seldom been as moved at a concert as I was Tuesday night when the band played this and I got to sing the chorus with a roomful of equally impassioned Proclaimers devotees. It is one of the greatest choruses of all time.

Awesome bonus:

Charlie & Craig sample hot sauces in Austin at the SXSW festival this year. Fabulous stuff. Especially the pronunciation of “chipotle.”

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The leaves touch the ground one by one.

September 14, 2009

Autumn’s official start is still a few days away, and here in the Madison area it seems we’re gonna get a few more days of summer weather (which I guess is appropriately after a full summer of almost autumn-like weather).

But you can see the leaves already changing, and with the first weekend of the football season in the books, I’d say now’s as good a time as any to get the third annual Autumn Mix up.

We’ve been through the rules of a good autumn mix twice before, so I’ll skip over those this time around (if you’re interested, check the archives). The point is (like all seasonal mixes) is that this is the quintessential soundtrack for the season — be it an autumn drive down a rustic road or a nice brisk afternoon walk through the colors and falling leaves. Get on wiffit, then…

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Autumnal, Volume III
The official “Ain’t Superstitious, But These Things I’ve Seen…” autumn mix

Download Part 1 (Tracks 1-10)
Download Part 2 (Tracks 11-20)

01. Alfie – Your Own Religion
I really wanted to like Alfie. Nice British name, they hail from Manchester, their singer sounds like a slightly more tuneful version of Ian Brown, but they just didn’t put out enough solid music to sink their claws into me, and shortly after they put out their 2005 album Crying at Teatime, they split for good. Maybe it’s just as well, but if this tune is an indication of the kind of stuff that could have come forward after, then I guess the split is kind of sad. Sure, this song is a little unfocused, and might have been served well by having its producers tighten the one or two loose screws, but this is still blindingly pastoral and a brilliant soundtrack for an autumn drive down a rustic road.

02. Paul Weller – Don’t Make Promises
I blogged just a short while back about the Wella fella’s 2004 covers album, Studio 150. This might be my favorite cut from it, actually – a nice acoustic pop at an old Tim Hardin folk song. Adding horns to songs – especially acoustic driven ones – is a bit like playing Russian roulette, but the gamble works out here and should put a little groove into your step for a nice fall walk through the park. Also – I like the song’s message. I broke up with a girl after she broke a relatively small promise. It wasn’t just because of that, but the point is, she broke a promise. Not cool. People need to take promises more seriously. I listened to this song a lot after that split. It’s still very affirming.

03. Ranchero Brothers – Sweet Thing Pine Bluff
I believe this is the sole recording available under the credits of Paco and Taco Ranchero, who you might better know as Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond from the Old 97’s. The Rancheros were almost as busy as the 97’s in the late 1990s, but solo albums and tours mixed with 97’s albums and tours (and domestic life) seems to have made their appearances all the more fleeting in this century. It’s too bad – there’s a real lulling charm to the way Rhett and Murry’s voices blend over acoustics (might take you a couple listens to realize this song’s about falling in love with a decidedly older woman). You can find this cut on some obscure compilation called Sunny Teriyaki Hamburger Breakfast, but I think it’s high time we call for a proper Rancheros album.

04. The Turtles – You Showed Me
Some people REALLY like the Turtles. I’ve always thought they were alright enough, but I never got into them full stop. I’ve always figured they’re one of those bands where a greatest hits compilation can more than suffice, but I will say that they do often get dismissed to much as that one band that did “Happy Together.” They do have other good songs in their repertoire, and this has always been one of my favorites. Originally part of their 1968 album, The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, this song has been covered a lot in the years since and always seems to show up on every odd soundtrack. There’s a reason — it’s got a good chilly breeze to it. Just as appropriate on an artsy soundtrack as it is on an autumn mix.

05. Madeleine Peyroux – A Little Bit
Madeleine’s 2006 album Half the Perfect World is still my favorite offering of hers – it’s an incredibly intimate and smoky sounding affair, that plays to all her vocal strengths. I suppose it also helps I saw her on the tour for that record, and ever since that show, this has been far and away my favorite song of hers. It’s as cool as it is relaxing and passionate as it is wistful. Plus you gotta love that organ. You just gotta.

06. Paul McCartney – Broomstick
For fans, this is a pretty sought after cut by Mr. McCartney, having only ever made public appearance as a B-side to a limited edition CD single of “Young Boy” in 1997. McCartney teamed with joker, smoker and midnight toker Steve Miller to record “Young Boy” and “Used to Be Bad” on the Flaming Pie album and this was the other product of their collaboration/jam. Kind of sucks that it ended up as a short-run B-side, because for my money, it’s easily the coolest song of the three. Maybe it’s because I got the CD off eBay in the fall many moons ago, but this song always just sounds like a warm house during a cold October afternoon to me. I’ll try not to be that ridiculously poetic about every song.

07. Frank Sinatra – You’d Be So Easy to Love
This old Cole Porter number was dusted off for Sinatra’s debut album on his Reprise label, 1960’s Ring-a-Ding-Ding! The rest of the album was pretty upbeat and swingin’, but he throttled down a bit with this number, although not to the point of the bleak despair that had defined his late 1950s “torch” albums on Capitol. There’s still a healthy beat to this, but there’s so much regret and “damn it all” counteracting the wistful beat and horns that it makes it a really interesting dichotomy. Listen to the way he sings the first “future” at the 0:56 mark. Sure, he was one of the greatest singers of all time — but even with all the tracks he ever put his name to, he seldom hit a single lyric with such perfect inflection.

08. The Last Shadow Puppets – My Mistakes Were Made For You
A lot of people I talk to about the new Arctic Monkeys album are drawing comparisons to last year’s Alex Turner-side project album, the Last Shadow Puppets’ The Age of the Understatement. I can kind of see parallels in a couple tracks, but for my money, the Puppets record still sounds a lot more grandiose and cinematic than anything the Monkeys have done (for better or worse). Turner’s always had a penchant for writing great storyteller/commentary type lyrics and the big, dark orchestration here suits it quite perfectly — admit it, you’ve never heard “smithereens” used so effectively in a song, have you?

09. Dusty Springfield – Summer is Over
The prerequisite “seasonal” song that every seasonal mix requires. But I’m quite fond of this pick — which comes from a B-side of a very early single by Dusty Springfield, 1964’s “Losing You.” Is it as effective as “Son of a Preacher Man” or “The Look of Love”? No, not really, but the fact that Dusty’s long career always seems to get whittled down to those two tracks seems wholly unfair. When you’re listening to today’s retro R&B callback artists such as Duffy or Adele, it’s good to have a point of reference. This is the kind of stuff they’re pulling out from cobwebs for reference.

10. Randy Newman – When She Loved Me
Unless you’re collecting Newman’s soundtracks alongside his commercial albums, it’s pretty easy to forget that underneath the soured voice and brutally sharp tongue is a guy that has a penchant for writing an absolutely heartbreaking melody. This is a piece he wrote for “Toy Story 2,” but it’s performed solo on the piano here from his 2003 “retrospective,” The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1. It’s only about a minute long, but it’s really a poignant little piece that pulls at the heart strings.

11. Buddy Holly – Dearest
I’ve never seen “Garden State” for two reasons – I despise Zach Braff and everyone assumes I would love the movie, or at the very least, the soundtrack. In case you couldn’t tell from reading this blog, I’m very touchy when it comes to things people THINK I’ll like. I did check out a Garden State soundtrack, only to see that it had basically pilfered my music collection and made it “hip” for the masses. The Juno soundtrack did the same goddamn thing, although I did see (and kind of like) that movie. I had Holly’s final apartment demos long before that soundtrack – I just want you to know. And I’ve always thought this was a sweet little love song. Even if it is a pretty blatant rewrite of “Words of Love.” Or “Listen to Me.” Regardless, it works very nicely on this kind of mix, and it’s nothing to do with “Juno.” So there.

12. The La’s – I Am the Key (Key 103, Jan. 1989)
Perhaps the greatest La’s song that never got a proper recording (true blue La’s fans can argue over this or “Was it Something I Said?” until they pass out), the great abandoned Liverpudlian hopes were nice enough to perform this song for a live radio session in 1989 in stripped down acoustic fashion, and I find it moves at a crisp, breezy pace. The session was tagged onto the recently remastered version of their seminal 1990 self-titled debut album, which still holds as the only testament to their genius. That is, of course, unless Lee Mavers follows through with recording with Babyshambles’ bassist. I suppose we’d all love to see what comes of it, but anyone who knows Lee’s history probably stopped holding their breath as soon as he mentioned he’d like to record an album with Babyshambles’ bassist.

13. Dean Martin – Sleepy Time Gal
Dean Martin had such a relaxed delivery that you could virtually put just about anything he ever recorded on an autumn mix. Unfortunately, he’s also at that point of back-catalogue raping (see the recently released Forever Cool for reference — does anyone honestly need a Dean Martin and Kevin Spacey duet? Really?). Besides entirely superfluous duets albums, the other problem of overzealous revisitation is the annual (or semi-annual) releases of “essential” collections. So we all get the same 20 songs over and over and over. Why not just remaster and reissue his back catalogue. I, for one, would LOVE a remastered version of Swingin’ Down Yonder, or the album that this cut comes from, 1957’s Pretty Baby. But I’m sure the revisionists would just love to give me another rehash of “Ain’t That Kick in the Head.” Le sigh.

14. Johnny Marr – Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
I believe the Healers’ first single, “The Last Ride” was released in 1999, and I’m pretty sure the Bert Jansch tribute People on the Highway came out in 2000, so by the time this cover of Bob Dylan’s greatest-breakup-song-ever-written trickled out in 2002, Marr’s voice had already been heard in a lead vocal forum. But I still think this is my favorite vocal from him, and my favorite version of this oft-covered song. It’s not overstated at all, but Marr carries it lightly with just acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica and his voice draws out all the implied pain and frustration the song carries. It’s gorgeous. Perfect autumn song, and hey, if someone happens to break your heart this season, you’ve now got an automatic go-to track.

15. Sam Cooke – Trouble Blues
Pulled from Cooke’s 1963 album, Night Beat, which (on the whole) is about as cheerful an affair as a bottle of barbituates chased by a bottle of whiskey. But as inviting as that sounds, you know what they say about pain producing some of the best art. A lot of people think of Cooke as a pretty wistful dude given some of his more popular recordings (“Cupid,” “Another Saturday Night,” “Chain Gang”), but the guy could sing the blues with the best of them, and with the organ wailing over the minimalist arrangement here, this one runs on downright late-autumn frosty.

16. Travis – Pipe Dreams
The Invisible Band kind of permanently strained my relationship with Travis. A lot of it just felt like a conscious rewriting of The Man Who (which I loved), but there just wasn’t the same “wow” factor in the songs on The Invisible Band. If anything, it kind of felt like they were pulling punches, but “Side” became a huge hit and the album did well to roll out the red carpet for Coldplay’s quick-to-follow domination of this pale-faced, wide-eyed genre. I’ve kind of been skeptical of Travis ever since, but however hard-heartened I may be, sentimentality still resides. Nevertheless, “Pipe Dreams” was one of the two songs on The Invisible Band I really liked (I’ll let you guess the other, and I bet you won’t get it on the first go). The lyrics here kind of shoot themselves in the foot (I think Fran was consciously trying to say something important and tried too hard), but the melody and arrangement is wonderfully warm and stark at the same time.

17. The Rifles – A Love to Die For
The personal jury’s still out on this British group. I was introduced to them last year when I saw them open up for Paul Weller in Chicago and decided that I really liked two of the songs they performed (while one of my best friends dismissed everything they did that night as “utter sh*t”). The songs I liked were enough for me to look into their catalogue, and while I’ve only found a couple more songs I like (this being one of them), I’m still not willing to go to the mat for them just yet. But I’ll gladly promote their better songs, and this lovely little B-side is definitely worth inclusion on this mix. Atmospheric, reminiscent, quite lovely.

18. The Rolling Stones – If You Need Me
Pulled from one of the Stones’ first albums, 12×5, the reason for this is party because of the organ (obviously), but more because I’m a sucker for young Keith Richards’ vocal abilities. In his youth (and even today… just a bit less so), Richards was a perfect harmony singer for Jagger. Listen to how his vocal sails over little Mick’s flash. This song is really quite wonderful, but if Mick had sung it alone, it wouldn’t have had the same pull.

19. Elliott Smith – Happiness (acoustic)
I’m pretty sure this comes from a little French EP that was released around the time of Elliott’s last (during his life, at least) studio album, Figure 8. “Happiness” was always one of my favorite tracks from the album — beat out only by “In the Lost and Found” — but it sounds so much more plaintive in the acoustic format. Mainly because the multi-tracked vocals are 86ed and Elliott’s thin but lovely voice has to carry the song singularly, and it does so quite effectively. Listen to the little quivers on the first “Oh my, nothing else could’ve been done” or the ending coda of “What I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see…” It’s absolutely fabulous. Simultaneously chilling and uplifting.

20. Brenda Holloway – Every Little Bit Hurts
This was Holloway’s first (and maybe only real) hit with Motown, and it spawned a 1964 album of the same name, but listening to it, it really doesn’t have the feel of a hit Motown single. The drumbeat is tight, but buried further back in the mix. The instruments and vocals sound really spread out and it’s almost like there’s a layer of air over everything, keeping the song itself at a bit of a distance instead of right in your face. Of course, it’s also so gorgeous that none of that really matters. While the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas were using singles to sing about young love and fun, Holloway kind of brought a tangible air of regality to the label with this single. And it’s still just as effective 45 years later.

Happy fall, everyone.

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But now that the stars are in your eyes…

September 9, 2009

Caramba, the days are getting shorter and I’m posting more infrequently. It’s nothing to do with me, I swear. Well, I guess it is if you count how packed the days have been lately, and I don’t know if I should apologize for that, but I will. I’m sorry.

With the first week of September done and gone, I realize I’ve missed my normal window for posting the first of my monthly series, “Vs.”, so, on with that then. Today we’re gonna pit two old Vs. pros that have done battle with others, but never each other — Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin.

I’ve gone into long, ramblings analyses of each artist in previous posts — Frank’s kind of one of those undisputed kings that you can’t really ever say anything too bad about, and Bobby (for my money) is one of the most underrated vocalists of all time, despite the fact that he’s recorded the most memorable versions of several standards and was the subject of a Kevin Spacey-led biopic.

Bobby’s career trajectory is pretty interesting in that he spent much of his early career trying to emulate Frank, including hopping over to Capitol Records right around the time Frank Sinatra bailed to go found his own label, Reprise. Whether or not that was the best move for Bobby would make an interesting debate — certainly it got him a lot broader listening base than he’d had with Atlantic in the 1950s, but looking at the work he did on the Atlantic label (including all-time signature versions of “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea”), I’d say it’s not necessarily a given that the Capitol move was brilliant from a catalog standpoint.

Of course, my complaints with Frank’s time at Capitol is that despite genius albums including Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, A Swingin’ Affair! and In the Wee Small Hours, the orchestras they put together for him in LA never swung properly under the records’ producers. There was just a bit too much space in the Capitol recordings — the music wasn’t pouring out of the speakers and demanding you move. Instead it approached nicely, asked you to dance and seemed to understand if you politely refused. If you want to better understand, listen to A Swingin’ Affair! and then Swing Along With Me! from his Reprise label back to back. They’re both great albums, but one is going to MAKE you move.

Whatever production problems plagued Frank at Capitol, the execs seemed to work it out for Darin, who got great musical charge behind his takes on popular standards. Of course, I think Bobby brought a lot of energy into the room himself, but listening to the bands on both artists’ Capitol recordings, Darin’s just seems to swing a little crisper.

It seems only right then, that both artists should have the right production behind them for this month’s “Vs.” in which they take on Duke Ellington’s fabulous “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” The song was originally written and recorded in 1945 and has been reinvented countless times since, but Frank and Bobby both had pretty fantastic go’s at it in 1962.

Darin’s version was plugged into his Capitol album Oh! Look at Me Now, and became one of his best loved recordings, while Sinatra plugged his take onto the Reprise album Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass, which had a band conducted by Neal Hefti (the guy who composed the original Batman theme).

Sinatra seemed to use his album as a way to stick it to Capitol — four of the album’s tracks (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “At Long Last Love,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me”) were songs he’d found great success with during his Capitol tenure, but they do admittedly get more bounce on Swingin’ Brass.

Darin, meanwhile, got his feet wet at Capitol with Oh! Look at Me Now, and perhaps it’s only fitting that the conductor assigned to his album was Billy May, a composer and arranger that worked with Sinatra for more than 30 years. The album played well to Darin’s hopes of escaping the rabid teen following he’d cultivated with his movies and songs like “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover,” but it also garnered a lot of skepticism from critics that viewed him as a pretender to the throne already established and held by the likes of Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Still, Darin could more than hold is own, and if any proof is needed, look no further than “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” While Sinatra puts his trademark pauses and cool into his version, Darin pops along with the beat and keeps his vocal tightly wound over the backing track. The resulting effect is, believe it or not, much cooler than Sinatra.

Of course, that’s merely what I think. You?

frankvsbobby

Frank Sinatra vs. Bobby Darin
“I’m Beginning to See the Light”


Frank Sinatra – I’m Beginning to See the Light

Bobby Darin – I’m Beginning to See the Light

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‘Cos in the sun they say it’s fun — if you get some.

September 3, 2009

Ever since Friday, I’ve been getting a bunch of calls and e-mails about the Oasis split. It’s weird seeing that story pop up on news programs and pages like the Huffington Post. It makes me feel a bit like I’m back in the 1990s. Oasis are suddenly relevant again! A lot of people are leaving general comments on message boards about how they’ve just been treading water since 1996 or 1997, which I would obviously dispute, but if anyone thinks this is really permanent, I offer you this.

The split will not be permanent, and we will have another Oasis album before the already highly anticipated Noel Gallagher solo album.

Here’s why.

noel_liam_risap

1.) Noel Gallagher is still incredibly prolific, but also incredibly lazy. Think about some of the titles that have been lost to the ages — “Slow,” “Daytura Dream Deferred,” “Stop the Clocks.” If you think you’ll hear a proper version of “If I Had a Gun” in the next two years, I’d say you better stop dreaming. Exactly what drive does he have right now to make a solo OR Oasis album? My feeling is little to none. He’s toured Dig Out Your Soul relatively non-stop for a year now, and I don’t care if he was best friends with Liam when the tour started — a year on the road with a sibling is going to drive you f*cking insane. The only reason this didn’t happen on the Don’t Believe the Truth tour was that one — management was clever enough to schedule several breaks in the tour (which resulted in two short jaunts through the US instead of one big one), and two — Twitter and blogging were still far beyond the Gallagher brothers. Anyone who didn’t see this fight brewing in each brother’s respective updates for the past four months was simply ignorant. Anyway, you can imagine he wants to be as far away from the slog of it all as possible, and so he’ll stay away for awhile. He’s rich and has kids. Studios and new tunes are one of the last things on his mind right now.

2.)  Liam Gallagher has Pretty Green to distract him for a few more months, but if you think this fashion designing thing is going to hold his attention for long, again, you’re mistaken. Of course it’s exciting for him now — it’s brand new and he’s got a few ideas to share. The biggest change I’ve seen thus far is that the parka has now gone from green to black. I get the feeling this is indicative of what kind of creative mind is behind this. The fact of the matter is that there are hats, shirts, scarves, jackets, pants and shoes to design. That’s it. Once he’s signed off on a couple of each, the novelty’s gonna wear off.

3.) Liam Gallagher’s fiercely competitive and whether it’s a matter of putting out a solo album or putting out an Oasis album without Noel, he’s got more of a drive to get material out. The most recent example of this is his bemoaning of the fact that the B-sides for Dig Out Your Soul singles were chiefly remixes instead of new songs. I have no doubt right now that Liam already has an album’s worth of material and he thinks it’s good enough to record (or rerecord) properly and put it out for mass consumption. Who knows, maybe on the Pretty Green record label that will likely be developed out of sheer boredom.

4.) Noel’s excuses for leaving included veiled references to band allegiance and support, but you’re a dolt if you think either Gem Archer or Andy Bell are stupid enough to take sides in a brotherly squabble. As good of a songwriter as Noel is, Gem and Andy are the most important musical cogs in the Oasis machine right now, and they’re going to keep a lookout for a paycheck — be it providing the musical accompaniment for Liam or Noel solo album.

5.) Noel eventually will get the pluck to start recording material (and my bet is it’ll be on encouragement from the hyperactive Paul Weller), but the thing about Noel is that even though he stockpiles songs, he also forces himself to write new ones once the recording process starts (this is why I think it will be semi-incredible if we ever do hear a proper version of “If I Had a Gun”) — so once he does start recording, he’ll impose pressure on himself to write new material.

6.) Having to write six songs is a lot more tempting than having to write 12 songs. Which is why all it will take is a helpful suggestion from Gem saying he’s got three or four of his own, and he knows Liam has a couple good ones to provide the onus for a new Oasis album. Studios are different beasts than concert stages. Oasis are big enough to work under their own deadlines — there’s no obligation for Liam and Noel to be together for hours every night. Oasis could conceivably record a new album without Noel and Liam even seeing each other.

7.) Noel and Liam are brothers and they fight. Anyone who thinks this is the end can recall the bust up in Barcelona in 2000. Liam ducking out of the American tour in 1996 before it began, only to rejoin it and have Noel cancel it. Can brothers go on and on without talking to each other ? Sure. It’s happened in my extended family.  But you know what? Noel and Liam simply can’t give up on each other. You know why? Because in every interview each of them has done and will ever do — the interviewer always wants to know how the relationship is. They each have massive egos and self-belief, but they also know they only got as far as they have because of each other. And if you think each of them ISN’T going to be reminded of that every time they go into public for the indefinite future, again, you’re just ignorant.

Of course, if Noel wants to go ahead and prove me wrong and put out a solo album in the next two years with “If I Had a Gun” on it, I’ll gladly shut the f*ck up.

Thing is, though, I tend to be write about this kind of thing.

Oasis – Bonehead’s Bank Holiday
(cos that’s all it is you know)