For the past 11 years, I’ve lived on my own during winters.
In Milwaukee I would walk around Marquette’s campus some days in winds that were so biting, they would cause you to tear up. Then when the small tears ran down your cheeks, they would freeze. Then, for reasons that I’ve still not made sense of, I decided to do this for five hours a night for minimal pay as part of the school’s safety patrol program. One night my fingers were so frozen that I couldn’t turn the doorknob to get back into my apartment at 12 a.m. Moments after my roommate awoke to let me in, I removed my boots and socks to gaze down on toes that were the most beautiful shade of purple this side of a proper paisley shirt.
In Madison I got to know the concept not only of bitter cold, but lots of snow. I was there during the winter that saw more than 100 inches of snow accumulate. Left turns became “try it ‘n’ see” gambles as you couldn’t see oncoming traffic due to the snow piles stacked up on medians. In addition to getting nailed by every snowstorm that picks up steam over the Midwest (as Madison is smack dab in the middle of that jet stream time and again), you also get horribly bitter temperatures. Rhett Miller once had the cajones to make a tour stop to Madison on a subzero February night. He regaled the audience with a tale of playing in Madison during the Old 97’s formative years, crossing a street to run a quick errand before the show, and ending up flat on his back in the middle of the street after losing his footing on ice. “As I laid on my back, looking at the night sky,” he told the crowd, “I thought to myself: ‘People DON’T have to live here.’”
He has a point. My sister wasted no time in moving to Tampa after graduating college.
But after 9 consecutive Wisconsin winters, I thought moving to Chicago would be a bit more bearable. For one, technically, Chicago is south of Madison and Milwaukee. As such, it’s out of the smack-dab-center of the jet streams that would bury Madison every December-through-March. But then last February, we got snowmageddon. The worst snowstorm to hit Chicago in 44 years, and one that left running cars buried on Lake Shore Drive.
I mention all this to say that this past winter has been very, very weird.
I thought I had a good plan of attack in that I stuck a 10-day vacation to the UK into December (not that British winters are that much more attractive than Chicago winters, but at least you find yourself crossing the street in Manchester at the same time as Johnny Marr—true story) and a weeklong getaway to Las Vegas in January. I thought it would break up the unbearable frozenness of winter nicely. Thing is, the weather in Chicago really did that for me and everyone else in the city. Sure, we had a few snowstorms. But the snow rarely stuck around more than three days as for every snowstorm or deep freeze we entered, a three- or four-day stretch of unseasonable warmth was right around the corner to do away with the snow and give everyone a nice break.
Did I mind it? Hell no. No one in Chicago did. And after the past decade of winters I’ve endured, it was a nice break.
But it also reminded me of my former newspaper job in Madison when I would talk to various state lawmakers. Every winter, without fail, I would find myself on the phone with some GOP senator or representative and to kick off the call, I’d start the conversation off with a banality such as “Cold enough for ya?” or “Didn’t think it could get worse than last winter …” Without fail the GOP senator or representative would reply to this with a hearty laugh and banality of his/her own: “And the Dems are still trying to make us buy into this global warming business!”
Look, I’m not about to go political or Madison-granola-friend-of-the-Earth on you. This blog isn’t the forum for that. But given the weather we experienced these past few months (which should put the Farmer and his “bad winter a-comin’!” Almanac right out of print), well, something’s f*cked.
Ironic then that I just caught that “Mr. Plow” episode of “The Simpsons” which ends with this Kent Brockman comment:
Could this record-breaking heat wave be the result of the dreaded “Greenhouse Effect”? Well, if 70-degree days in the middle of winter are the `price’ of car pollution, you’ll forgive me if I keep my old Pontiac.
My old Pontiac is starting its expensive decay into old age.
But at least warm days and the shedding of heavy jackets on a consistent basis is something we can look forward to in spring. Feel the sun. And the rain. And the wind. Here’s your spring mix.
Spring Chicken, Vol. 4
01. Big Audio Dynamite – Medicine Show
I only discovered Big Audio Dynamite recently and am kind of kicking myself for being late to the game—particularly as the band were just in my area last year on a reunion tour while I was completely unawares. I picked up a vinyl copy of their 1985 debut, This is Big Audio Dynamite a couple months ago and that was my first time hearing this cut, which opens the LP. Sure, it meanders a bit and goes a bit overboard on movie samples (I can spot “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Fistful of Dollars”), but it’s a got a nice steady drive about it that made me smile and say aloud on my first listen: “This is really cool.” It’s kind of like that first day of warm weather after a few months of winter. That renewal of hope. Sure, the song’s about a roving band of cons that eventually get punished for hoodwinking consumers, but … well, it gets cold again after that first day of warmness, doesn’t it? (At least most winters it does.)
02. Ann Peebles – I Can’t Stand the Rain
You know, ‘cos April showers and all that … right? Anyway, I’ve known this song for years through various covers and samples, but I only got around to hearing Peebles’ 1973 take on it within the past couple of years and I was surprised that it spawned so many covers and samples. Obviously it’s a great song, but I’ve always bought into Paul Weller’s theory that songs should be covered only if you feel you can improve on them or add something. That’s why you seldom see him recording Kinks or Small Faces covers. This song is so fabulous in this form, I don’t see the need to slice it or reassess it. Sure, it’s a fun song to sing along to and probably jam on, but this is so good as is. Why not just constantly defer to it?
03. Icarus Himself – Girl>Boy
I’m a big fan of this Madison outfit and I’ve seen them live on a couple occasions. Every time they’ve performed this song, I’ve thought “God, that’s great.” Still, I don’t actually know how to pronounce the song’s title. Like “Digging Holes,” the other song I adore from the band’s 2010 “Mexico” EP, there’s a lot of uneasiness on the track, but its tempered with an air of hope and a hint of celebration. This is a band that deserves more attention. Pay ‘em some.
04. The Kinks – Misty Water
“Misty Water” was recorded in early 1968 and intended for the “most successful flop of all time,” The Village Green Preservation Society. But after Pye Records got a bug up its collective arse when Ray Davies pitched the album as a double, a lot of whittling down occurred to make 15 songs fit on one piece of vinyl and some phenomenal tracks got shelved in the shuffle. “Misty Water,” a whimsical ode to the days of fog and haze was one of the unlucky ones stranded in the vaults (or on bootlegs) until the 3-CD deluxe edition of Village Green came to light in 2004. Thank God that happened, eh?
05. Dean Martin – Louise
This is a cut from Dean’s first LP, 1953’s Dean Martin Sings. Like a lot of mid-tempo to upbeat stuff that Dean tackled, this song just has a wonderful ease about it. Feels nice and breezy, and that’s really enough to make this particular mix. Although, can I add this: I’m always amused at how easily a Dean track slides in between modern tunes and vintage British rock? He’s just a hell of a bridge for any mixer. I’m kind of surprised more people haven’t cottoned on to that.
06. The Temptations – I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)
A few days ago I was pleasantly surprised to see David Ruffin’s name trending on Twitter. Apparently he’d been highlighted on some show or other and so people felt compelled to say (in 140 characters) what a great voice he was. Can’t argue with that, but the other Temps might have a few things to say after: “Yeah, he could sing, BUT …” Ruffin was just a bit of an asshole which explains why, despite great performances like on this track from 1968’s Wish it Would Rain, the Temptations would see fit to dismiss him, despite him still being such a powerful vocal presence. Not like David’s the first or last ego to find himself in a musical group, but the nice thing about music groups is that they tend to leave work behind that makes you forget all that extraneous BS and go, “GodDAMN they were good.” Besides, David needs a bit more exposure than just “My Girl” or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”
07. Paul McCartney & Wings – Get on the Right Thing
Originally laid down during Paul & Linda’s sessions for the 1971 LP Ram, “Get on the Right Thing” wouldn’t find its way onto disc until 2 years later when Macca’s new outfit, Wings, put out Red Rose Speedway. Likely included at the urging of Denny Laine (Laine once said in an interview that though he loved it, McCartney never felt satisfied with it, the vocal was an end-of-the-day afterthought with no finalized lyrics that he feared McCartney would fail to improve upon if he tried again), it probably ambles on a bit too long and comes off as a bit nonsensical. How, pray tell, is a penny kind? But Macca’s raw vocal, particularly when the song dives into its first chorus, is one of the finest he laid down and proves Denny had a point when he suggested it was too dangerous to risk losing that flare in favor of a more concentrated set of lyrics and/or structure. Loose as it may be, you can’t deny the power contained within. And without it, the cringe-worthy Red Rose Speedway would’ve only been worse.
08. The Association – Windy
Despite its titular subject matter, the song is really more sunny, isn’t it? For years I’ve been meaning to dig into the Association a little deeper. Still need to do it. They had a run of some great singles, including this, from 1967’s Insight Out, “Along Comes Mary” and “Never My Love,” and something about their whole vibe whenever they’d show up on Ed Sullivan clip shows amused me. It’s a California band, but they never really exuded laid back calm as much as a “OK, we’ve come straight from the office where we just spent some time crafting a really, oh, what’s the word you kids use, far out new pop smash!” You can’t argue with the product though. Earworm though this song may be, you’ve loved it for years and its use in “Breaking Bad” to soundtrack a montage of sleazy-motel-hooker Wendy’s various dealings only made it cool for a new generation. Dig that harmony over the outro.
09. Crowded House – Archer’s Arrows
Since Crowded House reformed in 2007 with Time on Earth, I haven’t paid much attention. True, “Nobody Wants To” made my 2007 “15 of the Best” and this track, from 2010’s Intriguer now gets elbow room on a seasonal mix, but aside from a few great tracks too sparsely peppered on the albums, they don’t have the magic that they did in the 1980s and early 1990s. Or Neil Finn’s solo albums for that matter. Maybe it’s a petty complaint, maybe I’m just growing old and a bit more cynical myself. But what’s frustrating about it is “Nobody Wants To” and this song are as good as the best of Neil’s back catalogue, so I find myself wishing he’d step up to the plate with these kinds of efforts with a bit more regularity. If not, OK. We’ve had a lot of great stuff from him. And when a tune like this comes along, I suppose it’s just gravy.
10. Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love
The title track to the Scots’ fine 2010 album, “Write About Love” doesn’t sound quite as 21st century as it does like a summer 1965 single. And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. The other surprising factor? We learn how good of a singer actress Carey Mulligan is. She had to have a bit of game to step up to the plate here – it’s an immaculately crafted pop song with tight production, brilliant orchestrational flourishes and (as would be expected by now from B&S) cleverish lyrics pertaining to a school assignment. Mulligan handles it easily. Maybe if the acting thing doesn’t work out, you know, the Belles will leave a spot open.
11. The Rolling Stones – Sad Day
I got into an argument a few years ago with one of my best friends because I had the gall to call this song one of the top 3 Stones songs of all time. Given the depth of the Stones catalogue, it’s a ballsy statement to make, but to this day, I still stand by it. I don’t think many people would agree with me (that’d mean it places above at least one of the following: “Gimme Shelter,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Satisfaction,” whatever your favorite Stones song is), but there’s so many things about the song that strike me. For one, lyrically it’s built as a classic blues lament—guy wakes up to find his “Dear John” letter with the morning mail, and includes the immortal line: “There is the only one thing in this world that I can’t understand—that’s a girl,” yet it’s a sunny (by Stones standards) backing track. For two, the piano/keyboard parts by Jack Nitzsche are absolutely ramshackle and weave in and out of time, but they’re brilliant. For three, the song was an absolute afterthought for the Stones. Recorded in 1965, they stuck it on the B-side of the American “19th Nervous Breakdown” single in February 1966, but completely forgot to show it to UK audiences until 7 years later when it was included in a compilation. I love when bands just completely forget about perfectly wonderful tunes like that. Makes a music fan’s catalogue scouring that much more rewarding. Maybe it’s not as good as the Stones’ 10 best. But you know what? It always affects me much more than many of the Stones’ best. So I stand by my top 3 placement.
12. Badfinger – Sweet Tuesday Morning
I go through two phases with Badfinger. One in which they’re completely off my radar for months at a time. And then I hear one song—maybe it’s “No Matter What” or “Day After Day” on the radio, or maybe something like “Midnight Caller” pops up when I set my iPod to “shuffle”—and all of the sudden its “I must listen to this band incessantly now for the next few weeks.” The recent rerelease of the non-Beatles Apple catalogue has prompted me to repeatedly play their 1971 pièce de résistance, Straight Up. This cut, a Joey Molland-penned and sung tune, has been there all along throughout my fascination with Badfinger, but for whatever reason, it’s just begun to sink in recently. It’s in the same vein as a “Here Comes the Sun”; obvious joy at the dawning of a new day with new prospects, but that kick drum gives this thing a great pulse without ever letting the song veer into schmaltz.
13. Robbie Fulks – When I See an Elephant Fly
Fulks is an excellent songwriter, even if his popularity may suggest otherwise. Stick any Fulks-penned tune onto your nearest sound system and there likely will be at least one lyric that makes you smirk, but if you’re the curmudgeonly type that would rather not appreciate a smarmy turn of phrase, perhaps you’re better served taking in a cover that seems out of place for an alt-country pioneer to embrace (Cher, No Doubt, ABBA … the guy just wheeled off a whole album of surprisingly good Michael Jackson covers). Here he takes on one of the finer tunes from the Disney catalogue and whittles away the pretty overt racism the singing crows delivered in “Dumbo” so that you can enjoy it (seriously—dig those lyrics) in a folksy, well-harmonized setting. Quite endearing.
14. The Monkees – Cuddly Toy
I’ll be honest: if Davy Jones hadn’t passed recently, this cut wouldn’t have made it. I’ve always fashioned myself as a Monkees fan/critic/apologist (as all real Monkees fans are), but in going back through the tracklists of all my seasonal mixes since 2006, I was astounded to see that I’d never included a Monkees song in any of the ranks. Maybe it was a gross oversight on my part, or maybe I was endlessly waiting for the right opportunity to drop. More than likely, I just looked over the Monkees as I was assembling these things. That’s OK. They’re an easy band to look over because when you’re presented with a set of Monkees albums, you think, “OK, one great song on this one, three great songs on that one, two great songs on this one” and it gets to be a bit daunting to think of cherry picking through so much material. But with Jones’ passing, I found myself actively searching through Jones-sung tracks, and just as with “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” for my memorial piece a couple weeks ago, I remembered “Cuddly Toy”—Harry Nilsson’s original that the band included on 1967’s “we’ll let the pros play the instruments again” album, Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. Sunny as hell, and don’t Jones and Dolenz sound great together? Fun legend: Apparently the suggestion that this song is about group sex sent the group’s management into a rage. Given that Nilsson wrote it, the jury might still be out.
15. The 88 – Love is the Thing
Introduced to the 88 in Madison in November when they opened for and then backed up my all time favorite songwriter, Ray Davies. I dug a few of the songs from their opening set, but this is the one that made me think, “OK, I’m gonna go out and get some of their stuff.” Few of their other songs charge me up like this one does, but that’s OK, because it’s always a wonderful thing to find a new tune to get excited about. Especially as you grow older and more curmudgeonly towards “the music of today.” To the best of my knowledge (that is, Google and YouTube searching), the basic tracks on this song were laid down on an iPhone. As a current Android customer, that’s intriguing. But to pull back and look at the larger picture, boys, if love isn’t a wonderful thing, then certainly technology is.
16. Nat King Cole – Almost Like Being in Love
Because what is spring if at some point you don’t feel like you’re in one of the happy bits of a Nora Ephron movie? You know, the world where business tycoons fall hopelessly in love with their competition and men willingly give up their fiancées without putting up so much as a hint of a fight? Spring, baby. Hope springs eternal. And if Nat’s voice doesn’t make you feel hopeful, well, sucks to be you. This might be the runaway favorite from his 1953 album Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love, but that whole album is worth your time. Lots of good stuff on there, so when the bookstore closes (as it surely will), or you flip out about the goddamn wagon wheel table, have the album on hand to brighten your spirits.
17. Fountains of Wayne – Hey Julie
I have an ongoing debate about Fountains of Wayne with my girlfriend. She’s dismissive of them as lightweight, easy “bubble gum” pop, and I always find myself shaking my fists above my head like a gorilla and exclaiming “That’s not a bad thing!” The funny thing is that I tend to dismiss most of Fountains of Wayne’s material myself. I usually end up enjoying one-third to, at best, one-half of their albums. But when they hit the nail on the head, as they do here, (from 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers, or, as you know it, “That ‘Stacy’s Mom’ CD”), it’s so good. My argument for good Fountains of Wayne material is that it hits me in the way the good stuff from the Beach Boys circa 1965 did. You know they’re on the cusp of something great, but they’re still kind of finding their legs and falling back into early pop sensibilities. Again, not always a bad thing—I still get pumped if “Help Me Rhonda” pops up on shuffle, but you know the good stuff that you REALLY want to show your friends is still to come. The only problem with Fountains of Wayne is that we’re kind of perpetually waiting on that cusp. But that’s OK. Give me a “Hey Julie” or two per album, and I’ll continue the argument with my girlfriend.
18. The Reflections – (Just Like) Romeo and Juliet
This is one of those songs that just makes you feel good. I had a CD a few years ago with this song on it, and I was driving an old friend around Madison and this song comes on. The friend goes, “I love that you have this song.” I reply, “Well, of course.” Not another word. We both just sat there listening to it and doing our respective foot tapping/head nodding/steering wheel and dashboard drumming. As it goes, this song, which was a single on the Golden World label in 1964, would prove to be the Reflections’ only hit. But coming out of Detroit and being a hit on an R&B label tells you that for a group of four doo-wopping white boys, they had a bit of soul and boogie about them. I always say that this drumbeat is still probably pounding inside Lee Mavers’ skull.
19. Beady Eye – In the Bubble With a Bullet
You know, last summer I went to see Beady Eye’s first American show with some of my dearest friends. It fell on a beautiful summer Saturday, it was a small gig with a lot of energy and I was on an absolute high because I’d spent a few minutes chatting with Liam f*cking Gallagher at the hotel bar the evening prior. After the gig, we came out and remarked what a great show it was, how Liam’s voice was absolutely electric and we were buzzing off all the power generated in the Metro that night. Then Beady Eye left town and we began waiting for Noel’s album and his eventual arrival in Chicago (April 1). I kind of feel like most of my friends took the same attitude toward Beady Eye that the media did, (e.g. “OK, that’s very nice, boys. Oooh! Noel’s coming. Why don’t you go back and play in the sandbox while we talk to daddy…”). It pisses me off. In the end, yes, Noel’s album is better than Beady Eye’s. But that doesn’t mean Beady Eye should be waved off completely simply because Noel’s back in the fold. Sure, Beady Eye are squandering arguably their best songs on the B-sides of limited edition vinyl singles that you probably won’t acquire unless you have more than a passing interest in the band, but listen to this. Just listen to this! This is as good as anything latter day Oasis pulled together, and frankly, I like it just as much as classic-era Oasis stuff. This is sunshine. When that bass drum kicks in and you’ve got this on in a car that’s cruising, there’s no denying good times are coming.
20. Irma Thomas – Time is On My Side (live)
On my first pass of putting this mix together, I included Irma’s original 1964 take on the song (which was only a B-side with lyrics that were finished in the moments before Irma arrived at the studio), but after watching the first season of “Treme” and picking up Treme: Music From the HBO Original Series, Season 1, I opted for the live take of the song that includes Allen Toussaint on piano and Dave Bartholomew blowing his horn. It’s a bit tighter than the original, particularly in the “Time. Time. Time. Is on my siiide…” bit, but also, I’ve always adored how Irma’s voice has aged with time. It’s seriously aged like fine wine, which is a rare quality in many singers, whether they’re female or male. I find myself digger her vocals a lot more in recently recorded tracks. There’s an air of sophistication to her soul, which I love. And if you haven’t seen Treme, by the way, you should check it out.
Happy spring, everybody.