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Give up your secrets and let down your hair and sit with me here by the firelight.

September 21, 2012

Well my calendar informs me that Autumn officially begins tomorrow, so here we are for the sixth (6TH?!) time with your soundtrack for the season. I inherited a convertible this summer from my grandfather, so I’m not as excited to embrace the cold weather as I might have been in years past. Nevertheless, the car comes with heated seats and I can always roll the windows up for a little bit more insulation. If the top’s down, this’ll be the soundtrack for the next few weeks. Just must be careful that the leaves don’t fall in …

Autumnal, Vol. 6

01. Jimmy Ruffin – What Becomes of the Brokenhearted
David’s older brother never quite got the notoriety (for better or worse) of his younger sibling, who was arguably the most famous of the Temptations. Still, he did manage to get his hands on this song, which was released as a single in 1966 (pretty decent year for popular music, it turns out), and remains one of the most powerful and long-standing cuts to come out of Motown’s stable. The song threatened to get bastardized by a run of cheesy covers throughout the 1980s and early 1990s that culminated with Paul Young’s dreadful cover. It’s still a popular choice for artists looking to pad their albums or soundtrack albums, but thankfully common knowledge seems to conclude that Ruffin’s original take with the Funk Brothers’ backing is the best of the lot. It is. Listen—is there a better way to kick off a fall mix?

02. The Doors – The Spy
I’ve been a big fan of the Doors for many years, but I have a relationship to their music that’s different from your typical, high school, Doors T-shirt wearing dude with an interest in bad drugs and even worse poetry. I actually think Jim Morrison’s a good singer, I think some of his lyrics are fairly decent, but in general, I’m a big fan of the band itself. For whatever mythology Morrison has come to symbolize, it’s taken away far too much from the fact that Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore were fabulous musicians and found a way to put some really listenable hooks underneath what could often be under-the-influence psychobabble. I think The Soft Parade is their best album, but in recent years, I’ve been coming back to Morrison Hotel, or, as it’s more generally known, “the one where they tried to become a rock band again … to varied results.” It’s known because it boasts “Roadhouse Blues” and “Peace Frog,” but I think this song’s the show-stealer. It’s slinky, sexy, more than a little stalker-ish and has some fantastic little builds before falling back to just being a little rolling tumbleweed of a thing. It just sounds cool. Every time I hear this, I want to hear it again.

03. Centro-Matic – Triggers and Trash Heaps
People who’ve been following this blog since the long, long ago—you know, in the before-time—will remember that this song actually landed on the “15 of the Best” from 2006. I knew nothing of Centro-Matic at the time, the Fort Recovery album had been sent to me for review in a Milwaukee magazine and I just fell madly in love with this song. Of course, as 2006 became 2007, 2008, 2009 and on and on, this song slipped out of my rotation. My parents gift of an iPod Classic for me last year saw me dive back into my piles of CDs and I quite happily rediscovered this. I don’t know why this song conjures up such a Fall-ish feeling in me—maybe I was listening to it a lot during the Autumn of ’06, or maybe it’s just that blend of a cold lyric with a nice musical backdrop. It’s a magic little thing to hear.

04. Billy Preston – When You Are Mine
I was a bit disappointed when that huge rerelease of Apple Records’ catalogue landed a couple years ago, because there were so many records that for years had just gone completely missing that we now had access to and it was kind of startling to learn how little of it was thoroughly good. For the most part, the albums that you were able to get fairly easy over the years (read: Badfinger’s Apple output) represented the good stuff. But one noticeable exception was Billy Preston’s second Apple offering, Encouraging Words from 1970. Working with a core group of musicians that included George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Bobby Keys, Billy laid down some fabulous originals and actually got to release his own versions of “My Sweet Lord” and “All Things Must Pass” more than a month before George Harrison unleashed All Things Must Pass on the masses. This is one of the soulier cuts from the record—something that has both a relaxed and danceable groove to it, and one of the main reasons that proves that the huge Apple catalogue reissue wasn’t a total waste of time.

05. John Lennon – Watching the Wheels
As a staunch defender of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career, it’s often Lennon’s half of Double Fantasy that I turn to every time some John Lennon apologist wants to make the tired argument that Lennon was the only ballsy Beatle and/or the only one who did anything worthwhile after 1970. Lennon’s murder in 1980 reframed the argument, of course, but if you look within the space of the 7 studio albums he released after the Beatles’ demise and before he was killed, only Plastic Ono Band stands as the all-out classic. Imagine is very good indeed, but it’s not as thoroughly solid as you might want to remember. And if you look at his half of Double Fantasy, with a love song to his son, a love song to his wife, and a few songs that muse on the effects of growing older, it seems to me we’re dabbling in a tried and true McCartney formula. Could Lennon handle it better lyrically? History would suggest as much, but “Watching the Wheels”—to my ears—comes straight out of the Macca playbook, and wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on Tug of War. That’s not a knock—“Watching the Wheels” has always been fabulous. It was used to great effect in “Wonder Boys” and it makes Lennon’s murder seem all the more tragic in that it’s a (finally) relaxed glimpse into the mindset of a guy who spent most of his life trying to be a character because he was a bit frightened of actually facing himself. It’s a brilliant song. Just don’t defend it and try to tell me McCartney’s post-Beatle career was sh*t.

06. Gruff Rhys – If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)
Super Furry Animals man Gruff Rhys made a stunningly pretty little solo album last year called Hotel Shampoo. Although I chose “Sensations in the Dark” to represent the album on my “15 of the Best” countdown last year, I wrestled with it being this song instead. I think “Sensations in the Dark” got the nod because of the horns and the fact that I like having a bit of a boogie to it. Plus, this slides into an autumn mix so nicely, so I knew that’d be around the corner for it in 2012. This is a lovely little song, although I still can’t figure out if it falls into the straight up “love” or “heartbreak” category. Maybe a little of both. Eh, if it sounds good, who cares? I know dudes who dig it and girls who dig it. Take from it what you will, just enjoy it.

07. Pisces – Sam
I really have no clue what to make of Pisces, and I don’t think many people do. They were a Rockford, IL-based psychedelic outfit in the late 1960s, but they didn’t get any real momentum or notice behind them until The Numero Group record label cobbled together a few singles and released the album A Lovely Sight in 2009. This is one of the cuts from the album, and it just blows me away on two fronts. For one, this sounds more advanced than most of the things I’ve heard this year, and it’s already 44 years old. WTF? The second thing is that this amazing little piece of music has ties to Rockford, IL? I’ve driven through Rockford many a time. Wisconsin state senators have holed up there. It’s not a particularly amazing place. So to even have some hand in this piece of music’s creation is just all sorts of a pretty flower breaking through concrete. Breathtaking little piece of music here.

08. The Monkees – As We Go Along
I saw the Monkees’ 1968 film “Head” a couple years ago, and apart from it being entertaining in the same strange way as “Magical Mystery Tour” is (although I think “Head” edges it out in terms of general oddball-ness), you can’t really deny the soundtrack. “Porpoise Song” is arguably the best thing the Monkees ever did and this song is not only one of the greatest love songs ever, it’s the go-to counter-argument for anyone defending the Monkees from a “Ah, they never did anything substantial” rant from a non-believer. As trying as all the mugging and “I’ve often equated it to Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan” soundbyting in interviews can be, Micky Dolenz could sing. Go ahead, try singing this song. It ain’t easy. It’s beautiful.

09. Billy Bragg & Wilco – When the Roses Bloom Again
This track was originally recorded for the first Mermaid Avenue set in 1998, and footage of the band working on the song even made it to the album-accompanying documentary “Man in the Sand.” However, as release date neared, someone pointed out that the song’s lyrics weren’t actually those of Woody Guthrie (whose previously-unseen lyrics the band wrote music too for three volumes worth of Mermaid Avenue discs), but had been copyrighted by A.P. Carter of the Carter Family. Well, then. The Wilco arranged version did make it out on some soundtrack a few years back, but found it’s place back in the Mermaid Avenue corral with the release this year of The Complete Mermaid Avenue Sessions. It’s a lovely lyric, but it’s the arrangement and Jeff Tweedy’s fragile delivery that really push the emotions up to 10. Not ashamed to admit that the ol’ lip will quiver now and again when it gets to that last verse.

10. Belle & Sebastian – Blue Eyes of a Millionaire
Belle & Sebastian basically is a band that’s specially designed for Autumn mixes. Poetic, gently delivered lyrics over lulling arrangements. Sure, you can always find a spring or summer tune out of the Scottish crew, but the world they sing about seems to me to be one of a permanent grey Autumn day. This was recorded with the stock of songs for 2010’s Write About Love album, but didn’t actually find its way out into the mainstream until a year later when it was released as a B-side on the “Come On Sister” single, continuing their tradition of autumnal little B-sides such as “The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner” and “I Know Where the Summer Goes” etc.

11. The Impressions – Can’t You See
Curtis Mayfield’s last stand with the Impressions, 1970’s Check Out Your Mind! is a pretty great record in general, but this track is the out-and-out stunner. For as heralded as Mayfield became for being a socially-conscious writer, I kind of look at his love songs in the same way that I do for both Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg: I always find myself thinking, “I’d rather have a bit more of that, actually.” This is everything you’d want in a soul love song, from the big roaming bass line, the orchestrational swells and the beautiful vocal interplay between Mayfield’s falsetto and Sam Gooden’s bass. Sweet love songs seem to suit spring mixes more, but this is both cool and warming at the same time—seems more appropriate for autumn.

12. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Alone on the Rope
This track surfaced and disappeared in odd fashion last year. It was put on offer as a bonus track for people who downloaded the Oasis man’s solo debut off Amazon’s German site, but only a day later it was removed and never to be asked about or alluded to in any interview with the Chief since. Of course, we live in a connected world, where one day on Amazon.de means all Oasis fans will find a way to get it up on YouTube and into their own personal iTunes collections. Maybe Noel’s holding it for another album, maybe it’s just another in a line of those amazing songs that pepper the Oasis legacy (see also: “Underneath the Sky,” “Angel Child,” “Flashbax,” “The Boy With the Blues,” “I Believe in All”) that show up on a B-side or some remote deluxe edition of an album that never gain the fair shake they deserve, but the fact is it’s out there and it needs to be heard. This pretty much shatters everything on Noel’s debut and finds him in a moody and soulful corridor that he doesn’t usually go down, but when he does (“Talk Tonight,” “Sad Song”), the results are almost always stunning.

13. Nat King Cole – Looking Back
This would’ve been particularly poignant (or maybe creepy) if it had been released closer to Cole’s 1965 death, but the single from 1958 is still a lovely little gaze into the rearview mirror. What I dig about Nat’s stuff as the 1950s turned into the 1960s is that he didn’t mind chasing up and coming sounds. Although his legacy is pretty firmly planted as a crooner and fantastic pianist, you can turn to his stuff and find blues or even a bit of rock and roll (“Send For Me”), even if it is quite muted. It’d still be years before Sinatra or Martin would feature an electric guitar so prominently on one of their records, but Cole didn’t shy away from it. Maybe he didn’t attack the musical shift with the same gusto as Bobby Darin, but the fact that he could merge the stuff that the old folks liked with the stuff that the new kids were into is something not a lot of his contemporaries tried. Sinatra does in 1958 and it’s an entirely orchestrational arrangement. Cole does it and he has a guitar-bass-drums trio anchor the ornamental orchestration.

14. Bebel Gilberto – Words
This song closed Bebel’s 2007 album Memento, and despite the lack of musical augmentation, it’s ended up as my favorite track from that effort. Giving credence to the notion that sometimes a lone guitar can pull more emotion from a song than a full orchestra, Bebel shifts gears between English and Portuguese to make sure her fan bases in North and South America (and wherever else people understand those languages) get the message. Of course, having a voice that’s as seductive as Bebel’s helps matters too.

15. Dexys Midnight Runners – All in All (This One Last Wild Waltz)
Still not entirely sure who this song is directed at—maybe an old teacher or a hard-to-please parent, but damned if it doesn’t sound gorgeous. This comes from Dexys’ 1982 classic Too-Rye-Ay, or as you might know it, “The one where they wear Dungarees and do ‘Come On Eileen.’” For better or worse, Dexys is little remembered stateside beyond “Come On Eileen,” and although that song is pretty fantastic (yes, it is), it’s time for a reappraisal. Kevin Rowland not only penned some magnificent songs, his delivery is close to inimitable. This song seethes disappointment and a specific level of frustration, but also a real sense of making peace with it all. Perfect metaphor for the season, and I can’t imagine any other singer nailing it like this.

16. Lucinda Williams – Still I Long For Your Kiss
Amazing bit of countrified soul from Williams’ 1998 breakthrough album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. This is one of those songs that sounds like it’s been around forever—you could imagine a Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn version resting in the vaults, but you could also imagine someone like Dusty Springfield or Janis Joplin having had a go at it too. That’s a hard feat to accomplish, but it always seems to happen on the simplest songs. On another note, why does the accordion sound so friggin’ good on this? I suppose you have to have a country twinge about you to think “accordion” when it comes times for overdubs, but maybe more rock and pop artists should consider it. Here I was thinking it was just for polkas …

17. Edgar ‘Jones’ Jones & The Joneses – Another Side of Huny Brown
This song was originally released as a B-side to the “Mellow Down Pussycat!” single in 2007, but resurfaced this year on the reissued and expanded edition of Soothing Music For Stray Cats. Mr. Jones told me a couple weeks ago that had the Joneses stayed together, this song would’ve found a place on the follow up to Gettin’ a Little Help From the Joneses, but alas, that was not to be. At least the song has found its way onto a couple releases and it’s got all the cool briskness of a jazzy little blues number warning you about the dangers of female kind (and to my knowledge, there are plenty more). Some of those dangers are covered in other songs on this mix or other songs in your collective consciousness. Choose not to heed those songs’ warnings at your own peril.

18. Donny Hathaway – Jealous Guy
Lennon gets another crack on this mix, and from his solo career to boot. (Ack, what kind of Macca fan am I?!) Although this song, which was candy-coated with strings and gentle piano for the aforementioned Imagine album here gets reworked as a thumping little soul number for Donny Hathaway’s Live album from 1972. I’m seldom if ever a fan of covers of Beatles or solo-Beatle songs, but this is one of those extremely rare cases in which I actually find the cover preferable to the original. Not to take away from Lennon’s version, but Phil Spector’s strings-heavy arrangement veered the track into that same “pity me” territory that kids use when they employ big eyes or crocodile tears to soften their parents’ anger. Hathaway’s reading actually brings the pain of the matter home more effectively. Seems more genuine to me.

19. The Waking Eyes – Digital Glue
One of my favorite bands ever to come out of the cold, friendly fields of Canada, the Waking Eyes seemed to have disappeared over the past couple of years. I didn’t monitor them that closely to see what they’ve got up to, but I’m sure “side projects” of which I’m not aware abound. This track closed their last LP, Holding On To Whatever It Is, and with Rusty Matyas’ pained vocal leading the charge, this is one of the great unheralded torch songs of the last decade. The fact that it’s actually about recording a song digitally adds some meta-level to it that makes it more awesome. I’ve recorded plenty of bedroom demos on my little MacBook. This song makes me believe it’s a much more beautiful practice than it probably is. But that’s what great music should do, right?

20. Candie Payne – Turn Back Now
From a young Liverpudlian songstress who got a bit more recognition out of her Mark Ronson-produced single “One More Chance,” this track is actually where I like to think it’s at. The slow burner closed her 2007 album I Wish I Could Have Loved You More, and it serves as a brilliant little closer to an autumn collection. Onto the cold days, then, with all the sweet sighs and tinges of regret over things we missed in sunnier days. Ah well, that’s what next summer’s for. Provided it doesn’t all come to an end by New Year’s Eve. At least ‘til then you’ll have the Christmas mix to look forward to.

Happy Fall-ing, everyone.

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