Is anyone still out there?
I’ve taken a lot of guff in the last few weeks from a certain host of Madison’s finest 2-hour radio block for becoming entirely too lax in my blogging duties — it started with kind chiding about the need of an autumn mix that recently morphed into a “maybe you can write a f*cking blog about it” after I posted a Facebook update relaying my excitement about revisiting Rolling Stones Records in Norridge after a years-long absence. Such language from a Grandma!
There’s a good explanation why I’ve drifted away from this medium. Well, maybe that’s up to you to decide whether or not it’s good, but there is an explanation. Over the summer I relocated from Madison to Chicago. I found new employment and also that a lot of my nearest and dearest friends were more than happy to have me back within the distance of a few-minute El or taxi ride as opposed to the 3-hour jaunt between the two cities. This led to me being out fairly often when not in my new office, and I also survived in my new Chicago digs for quite sometime without Internet.
I could be snooty and say that there’s simply too much to do in Chicago to devote time to a blog, but that’s not the entire truth. The truth is, I just got out of habit — my former job stripped me of a lot of my desire to write in free time, even if it was about music. I wouldn’t say I’m back in habit yet, but I’m a lot more positive about writing than I was when I posted the summer mix. Moreover, I’ve got some ideas for new posts (why the hell is Paul McCartney re-re-releasing Band on the Run?), and with the year-end now quickly approaching, I’m realizing it’s time to start compiling my annual “15 of the Best” and, of course, the Christmas mix.
All that in due time. I know it’s been fall for a little while now and I’m a little late in posting this. Blame it on the prolonged summer-ish weather in the Midwest, but today was the first day I was driving to work and felt the crisp tinge of autumn in the air. The smell of it too. Fortunately, I had Volume 4 of the “Ain’t Superstitious, But These Things I’ve Seen…” autumn mix with me. Now you can have it too.
Are you happy, Grandma Cyd?
Autumnal, Vol. 4
Download Part 1 (tracks 1-10) HERE
Download Part 2 (tracks 11-20) HERE
01. Billy Bragg & Wilco – Walt Whitman’s Niece
It’s a blustery opener to the first (and superior) volume of Bragg & Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue, and it sounds a right nice way to open the fourth volume of this blog’s autumn mix. While I wouldn’t tag this tune as breezy – there’s certainly a stiff wind about it, and a bit of fun as the boys put music to Woody Guthrie’s 1946 lyric about a friendly seaman leaving the song’s protagonist alone in a room with some (but not which) niece of Walt Whitman’s. Enjoy the double entendres of seamen, heads and laps. And remember even though the music is just over a decade old, the lyric itself is more than a half century old.
02. Wyclef Jean – Gone Till November
I’ve always wanted to like Wyclef much more than I’ve ever been able to, simply because his output is so consistently spotty. There are moments of genius, and maybe 1997’s The Carnival was the most ready-loaded of the bunch, but when it comes to one good song on 19-track or more albums, I just can’t be bothered. Couple that with the fact that most people saw the writing on the wall when he considered Haitian presidency, I’m as uninterested now in the details of his relationship with Lauryn Hill and/or Pras as I was in 1998 and I’m more likely to hear him shouting basic Spanish over a Shakira single than I am to hear something completely his, and it’s just… meh. Ah, but this is the track that spawned my hope for him. A beautifully lush single that sugarcoats the hard-to-see-through familial commitments of a drug dealer and produces a strong enough emotional swell to surf upon. I would love an album of this kind of stuff. And I more than believe he has the talent in him to arrange and produce an album that merges hip-hop, soul and orchestration like this. The problem is his focus for it seems to be as fleeting as that shot of Dylan in the song’s video.
03. Michael Penn – Out of My Hand
Probably the best cut from Penn’s 1997 album, Resigned. Michael’s always had a knack for writing a good song, but after “No Myth,” the public at large seemed to stop caring. I’ve been a proponent of his on this blog before and I’m sure I’ll continue to be – his songwriting runs in the same vein of Beatle-esque whimsy that Neil Finn frequents. This is a song that never comes immediately to mind for me if I’m thinking of good Michael Penn songs to show people or, much less, putting together a mix, but every time it comes up at random or alongside a host of other Michael Penn tracks, I always stop and go, “Oh yeah … I like this one … a lot.” So if you haven’t heard it, enjoy. There are some pretty phenomenal chord changes in here. I know it’s kind of a tepid thing to compliment, but once you hear it, I believe you’ll think so too.
04. Ride – Starlight Motel
A lot of people are pretty hard on Ride’s final album, 1996’s Tarantula, and I can understand why. Andy Bell’s foil Mark Gardener is virtually absent from the album, leaving Bell to front a three-piece band that seems hellbent on building an album based on the Oasis blueprint—a trait Bell would carry into the Hurricane #1 days before inevitably becoming a member of Oasis himself. Most Ride fans yearned for more of the band’s early 1990’s output, shoegazing stuff of hushed vocals buried in layers of reverb-heavy guitar. I actually enjoyed them more when they went retro, beginning with 1994’s Carnival of Light. I just thought the songs made more sense and the vocals were more intelligible. Call me simple, but there you go. Anyway, I wouldn’t rate Tarantula as one of the finest albums in rock’s history, much less in 1990s history, but the slating it got at the time of release was unjustified. It was a decent album buoyed by some charming little tunes, and this one probably being the best, or at least most charming, of the lot. It’s a pretty obvious veer into Buffalo Springfield territory, but at the end of the day, what’s so bad about that? It’s an optimistic end to a rather pessimistic album, and it’s a nice audio accompaniment to some of fall’s more simple pleasures.
05. Electric Light Orchestra – In My Own Time
I hate the fact that this is an ELO song. I hate the fact that 2001’s Zoom is even referred to as an ELO album, despite the fact that besides Jeff Lynne, only one other member of ELO plays on it. And that other member plays on only one track. George Harrison and Ringo Starr play on more of the album than any other ELO-er besides Lynne, which, maybe makes it the ELO album that Lynne always wanted to make anyway, but still – just make it a damn solo album. Zoom is actually a surprisingly fabulous album, full of the glossy production and sturdy songwriting you would want from the shaded-n-bearded one, but the decision to put it out under the ELO moniker and force some kind of sentimentality from a public that absolutely did not want it (the album tanked and the ensuing tour was cancelled after a few shows) forever nullified this album to the point of general obscurity. Which is annoying on several fronts, the least of which being that this shimmery take on basic 1950s blues gets more propulsion from one of my seasonal mixes than it did from the creator himself. Listen to this on an autumn afternoon and try to tell me it’s no good.
06. Elvis Presley – (Marie’s the Name of) His Latest Flame
It’s by no means a stretch when I tell people I can count the number of Elvis songs I truly adore on one hand. Actually it is. I can count the number of Elvis songs I really like on one hand. I can count the number of Elvis songs I truly adore on one finger. Here it is. My personal opinions and critiques on the man and his oeuvre aside, he delivers a damn fine vocal here, but it’s the backing track that always gets me. It’s a picture perfect shuffle that uses only sparse amplification. The dance-ability of this considering the heavy use of acoustic instruments (and brush sticks, no less) just astounds me. Great, great stuff and a stiff musical counterpoint to one of the most heartbreaking little lyrics ever. And is it just me, or does this song seem grossly appropriate for the Facebook age of people who can’t help but to stalk exes?
07. Happy Mondays – Stinkin’ Thinkin’
This song is the absolute opposite of what made the Mondays so fantastic. It never explicitly asks the listener for forgiveness, it actually asks that all the hedonism and access that the Mondays condoned in their glory years (and bigger hits) be acknowledged. But the whole tone of the song drips with regret, and given where Ryder & Co. were in 1992 (the Yes! Please album being a terrific underwhelm, despite the sheer ridiculousness of its Barbados-birthed backstory), the fallout from Ryder and Bez’s quasi-homophobic rent-boy bashing, and the implosion of Factory Records—it all seemed to make for a downtrodden epitaph. Still, there’s something uplifting about this tune, even if it’s sighing that things probably won’t ever change (for better or worse). It’s the perfect morning after song.
08. Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine
The very first time I listened to NPR, this song was playing. It was a dreary fall day in Madison, Wisconsin and I usually avoid the radio at all costs – a symptom of growing up in a family prone to radio-soundtracked roadtrips that required constant channel changing to maintain signals or find something listenable. The odds of finding anything good were too slim for my liking so I started crafting roadtrip mix tapes, and as long as I’ve been able to drive my own car, the radio has never stayed on for an extended stretch (unless it’s an important Cubs game and Pat and Ronny have the call). But I was switching CDs one day and this was on the radio (I don’t know why it was tuned to NPR, but it was) and all I could think was, “F*ck me, this sounds incredible.” I didn’t associate it with Fiona at first, nor did I associate it with the fabulous Jon Brion, but lo and behold, it was both of their handywork. Thankfully, the people at Epic believed this was one track worth saving from Apple and Brion’s original Extraordinary Machine sessions (which trump the properly released album) and it got to see the proper light of day. The second time I heard this song was at a New Year’s Eve Party in 2005 and I thought, “God, this even sounds good at a party. I must find this album.” Something about it is appealing to me at any time of year, but when the weather runs just a bit colder, it seems to make this thing more effective. And yes, it still amazes me as a listener as it did on that first NPR airing. Oh, and my radio is always set to NPR now, too, just incase you know, something good ever comes on between my CD changes.
09. Elliott Smith – Angeles
I’ve been listening to this song for years, whether it comes up on Smith’s 1997 album Either/Or, or as part of that phone call/Minnie Driver leaving sequence whenever “Good Will Hunting” shows up on basic cable channel in weekend syndication. After all that, I still don’t know exactly what this song means, but having said that, I almost prefer it that way. It sounds cold and lonely and whatever positive sentiments bubble up in the lyric, some cynical undertone pops them—particularly the “I could make you satisfied” closing verse. Still, as cold as could be, this song always leaves me decidedly forward-looking. As if this is the soundtrack to the kind-of-crummy bit, but something better is waiting around the corner. Funny, that, because while I profess to not know what the song is about, I can tell it’s almost certainly not about that. But I digress.
10. Massive Attack – Blue Lines
Every time I listen to Massive Attack, I always think, “God… I really need to dig into this band more,” but to this day, I still haven’t. Maybe someday. This track, the title cut from their 1991 opus always just sinks its teeth into me. I’m not an avid trip-hop fan of any sorts and I seldom find myself singing, er… rapping along to this, but I always listen intently and at the very least nod my head. Something about the whole tone of the song, it’s just very beguiling. And when it came on my iPod the other day during a cool walk by Chicago’s lakefront, it seemed even more effective. For Chicago listeners, I also recommend this driving at night along Lake Shore Drive. For everyone else, find your place to put it on and groove. It’s a very cool groove.
11. Paul Weller – Cold Moments
I believe Weller has the distinction of making every autumn mix to date, so why stop at No. 4? Depending on what day you ask, I’ll probably say that this is the best moment on his 2008 album, 22 Dreams (then the next day I’ll go back to “Have You Made Up Your Mind?”). To my knowledge, it’s the last solo song of his to feature Steve White on drums, and you can audibly notice a tighter beat here than elsewhere on that album, but everything about this song is just so windy-overcast-fall-day crisp, if you will. As someone who positively despises being made to wait for phone calls (I should probably pick a different line of work), I can lock right in with the song’s sentiment, but additional kudos for the sparingly effective organ and “sha-la-la-la-la-la”s. I’m all for Weller’s recent creative burst, but my criticism has been the general loss of songs like this in favor of minute-and-a-half soundscapes with stream-of-conscious lyrics. I like a bit of structure. And where there’s good structure there, it doesn’t even bother me that this song clocks in at five minutes. Frankly, I could take another five.
12. Cilla Black – It’s For You
One of the great Lennon/McCartney originals that the Beatles never actually took on themselves, this was instead lofted over to Cilla – another artist tied to Parlophone Records and under the management of Brian Epstein. The fact that it had the John & Paul songwriting credit helped its popularity (it peaked at #7 in the UK), but the maturity in the production and, dare I say, songwriting, might not have appealed to the same group of kids putting “Can’t Buy Me Love” atop the charts. Though this is a bit of a melodramatic song, it also sounds quite pastoral, and it must have been nice for George Martin to produce something that could employ his ear for larger orchestrational arrangements (the Beatles were still about a year away from doing that themselves).
13. Souvenir – Ne Dis Pas
This is Souvenir’s contribution to the 2000 Beach Boys/Brian Wilson tribute album, Caroline Now! “Girl Don’t Tell Me” just might be my all time favorite Beach Boys tune, so to hear it in French in the breathless vocals of Patricia De La Fuente is interesting enough, but even more enjoyable in that they kept the right balance between the original’s breeziness and immediacy. There are few people that could compete with Carl Wilson as a singer, and I don’t think this version is even a threatening competitor to the original, but kudos for an interesting angle and atmospheric production that sounds right at home on a fall mix.
14. Rhett Miller – Haphazardly
If there is a downside to Rhett Miller’s 2009 self-titled solo album, it’s that it’s a little back-heavy with dreary ballads that veer away from the cleverness for which he’s known and respected. “Haphazardly” could have fallen into that category, save for the absolutely brilliant line “Whoever named the fall sure did a bang-up job – they might as well have been talking about me.” It’s an easily identifiable line for any listener prone to even a slight mood swing, but getting some heavy accentuation from the crack studio band backing Stuart Ransom II, the song carries some bombast to bulk up its self-critical protagonist. Doubt is always a little better when there’s some muscle behind it … don’t ask me why.
15. The Beatles – For No One
It’s probably not fair to call any Beatles song underrated, but even when thinking about Revolver, how many people have “For No One” come right to the fore as an example of why that album’s so great? I would wager not many, although I would also wager that not many people would have a bad thing to say about the tune. The thing that still astounds me is McCartney’s songwriting chops by 1966. The guy’s 24 years old and he’s writing a ballad like this about the pain of middle age. Whether the lady’s muse in question is actually dead or just a sad case of unrequited love, I guess that’s up to the listener, but the Beatles were handling topics like this even 2 years before with songs like “Baby’s in Black.” It’s really pretty amazing to think about when you think about pre-facial hair Beatles, and it’s why I’ll never understand anyone that really wants to argue about anyone in the history of popular music being better. They do here in two minutes what most bands could never even think to conjure.
16. Dean Martin – Who’s Your Little Who-Zis!
This is the lead cut from Dean’s first LP, 1953’s Dean Martin Sings. Martin had actually done the song in his 1952 movie with Jerry Lewis, “The Stooge,” and the LP basically worked as a catch-all for songs that had featured in that movie and a few other cuts (the 12″ version featured Dean’s standard “That’s Amore”), but this little number has always charmed me. In my entire life, I’ve known only one lady who vehemently defended Martin as the greatest crooner of all time. I grew up in a Sinatra-adoring extended family. Dean was always respected, but never considered to be a patch on Frank. In my own rebellious way, I’ll actually staunchly defend Bobby Darin as the greatest crooner, but I think Martin outdid Frank on a number of fronts. Frank had the arrogance and the implied cool about him. Dean just had the cool — listen to the way his voice goes up when he sings “melts your heart LIKE butter…” You can visualize him almost shrugging when he sings it, and it’s just that offhandedness about it that always gets me.
17. Emmitt Long – Call Me
I know very little about Mr. Long and about this song, actually, as I unearthed it on some old Northern Soul compilation. I will say that being in Chicago has freshened my ears for good, rare soul and R&B music — you just don’t get “Mod Night”s in Madison, sadly. This song has an incredibly dusty overtone that I don’t know is a quality of simply not being well-known enough to merit a proper CD remaster or was simply recorded in such simple circumstances that it will be forever how the tape sounds. But really listen to this thing — it sounds like a classic-era Al Green demo. And I mean that in the best way possible. Even the little spoken interlude isn’t too ridiculous. Nice one to do a slow float around the floor to, and you can easily groove to it with or without a partner.
18. Heavy Stereo – Cartoon Moon
I have a lot of faith in Gem Archer, which is what’s holding my interest in Beady Eye as I wait (maybe forever) for a Noel Gallagher solo album. Gem’s writing wasn’t put to good use during his Oasis tenure – he wrote some moderately enjoyable songs, but nothing like the best stuff he penned during his days fronting Heavy Stereo, and I want to believe it was because he was constantly writing in Gallagher Sr.’s shadow. But look back a little ways and you’ll see that Gem has some fine songwriting chops of his own. “Cartoon Moon” could have been a huge Oasis hit (the heavier, full-band version can be found on Heavy Stereo’s lone LP, Deja Voodoo), but this acoustic treatment can be found as a B-side to their rollicking 1995 single, “Smiler.” Sure, the lead guitar lick is an obvious knock off of the lick from “Supersonic” (which, in itself, is an obvious knock off of the lick from “My Sweet Lord”), but listen to that simple lyric – particularly when Gem insists “Shine on me.” He can be quite affecting, you know. I really hope he steps back up to it with Beady Eye.
19. Morrissey – The Loop
I was heartened to learn that Morrissey reestablished this song as part of his live sets in recent years, but it’s still too grossly underrated and generally unknown for my liking. The rockabilly thump is exhilarating enough, but what’s really key about this tune is something that Morrissey never does nowadays – subscribe to the idea that less is more. All the lyric is is one simple verse that’s repeated just once. Yes, friends, there was a time when Morrissey had the ability to say what he meant in the fewest, choicest words possible and not mercilessly drag out a point over an uninspired (and tuneless) backing track. Here’s a glorious reminder.
20. Joe Brown – I’ll See You in My Dreams
I was surprised how frequently I was moved to tears the first time I saw “The Concert for George.” The big reasons for me are as follows: 1.) I’m not a big cryer. During uncomfortable moments, I’m much more likely to burst into laughter – it’s a defense mechanism, and don’t think for a minute it hasn’t got me in a lot of trouble at times. Wakes and funerals, in particular. 2.) I’m incredibly wary of tributes – particularly ones that merit DVD release and big spectacle concerts. I’m all for George Harrison’s music, but do I need to hear Tom Petty singing “I Need You,” when I can just go upstairs and plug in my own copy of Help!? No. Nevertheless, I found myself teary-eyed on multiple instances watching the DVD. From when the Pythons saluted the portrait of George after “The Lumberjack Song,” to Billy Preston’s reading of “My Sweet Lord,” and yes, even Petty’s version of “I Need You” (singing it to/about a dead person just makes it that much of a sadder song). But Joe Brown’s finale of a ukulele-led “I’ll See You in My Dreams”? I was watching it was five other people, and I had to leave the room. It’s the sweetest song, and doing it ukulele style just absolutely killed me. Brown isn’t the first to do it with a ukulele leading it – Cliff Edwards recorded it as such multiple times, but something about Brown’s voice and gentle delivery just makes it the ultimate version. Thankfully, the only time I get really emotional is when I see the DVD. I can listen to the song and just appreciate the tune without getting particularly emotional, and this version, from Brown’s 2004 LP Hittin’ the Hi Spots is a fabulous studio rendition and a perfect closing to this year’s autumn volume.