Was (Not Was): Walk the Dinosaur
I’ve been here over a year now, and I have presented the works of some inspired songwriters with a lot to say. But New Year’s Eve is coming up fast. For one night, I don’t expect anyone to be thinking about lyrics. What is needed is a great song to dance to. So here is Walk the Dinosaur.
I know of three versions of this one. Here is the original. The newest version is by Queen Latifah, and can be heard at the end of the last Ice Age movie. Oddly, the other cover I know of was also done for a kid’s movie. I had no kids at the time, but, for some reason I went to see Super Mario Brothers in the theater. Remember that one? I can’t blame you if you don’t. But George Clinton of all people did Walk the Dinosaur for that one. It was probably the best thing in the movie.
Was (Not Was) were a crazed group from the 80s. Music video was the rage, and a lot of bands could do whatever they wanted as long as they delivered a good video. Was (Not Was) took full advantage of this. They would get bizarre, or just down right silly. A few titles will give you some idea: Man vs the Empire Brain Building, Hello Dad, (I’m in Jail), Zaz Turned Blue. But they had a great sense of the groove. Even so, these days, a major label would never touch them.
So here is one of those great grooves to dance the old year away. And my best wishes to all in the new one.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Monday, December 28, 2009
I used to live with my father in New Brunswick, NJ. One of my chores was to walk two blocks to the nearest bodega, and get the Sunday paper. This would always take me longer than it should have. You see, I had never lived in a city before, and the walk took me past a black Baptist church. I would stand outside that church, and even with the doors closed, I would marvel at the raw power of the sound coming from within. It was the sound and the power of the human voice unleashed. Walking past McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica CA on a certain two nights in 1998 must have been a similar experience. That’s because The Persuasions were in town.
No, I’m not reviewing an album from 1998. Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop is a brand new release. But it is a recording of a 1998 performance that is only now being released for the first time. Even more surprisingly, it is the only currently existing live album by the group. Executive producer Rip Rense says in his notes that there are some unreleased live recordings from the 1970s; if those ever come out, I’ll be sure to let you know.
At the time of the McCabe’s show, one of the Persuasions was celebrating his 59th birthday, so this album is not the work of young men. It doesn’t matter very much. There are occasional dropped notes, there are some lines sung in full voice that might have been falsetto once, and they probably have to take breaths more frequently than they once did. But the power and precision that a cappella music demands is there. The Persuasions arrive on stage with great energy, and it never flags.
Jerry Lawson was the main arranger for the Persuasions during his time with the group, (Lawson left in 2003), and his arrangements here shine. The Persuasions had three basic techniques available to them: they could back a lead vocal line with unison harmony lines; they could have a lead line, a moving bass line, and a cushion of chords sung by the four middle voices; or they could have the moving bass line topped with a call-and-response between the lead and the middle voices. Lawson’s arrangements mix and match these techniques, sometimes within a single song. It never sounds showy or overly busy, but it does make listening to over an hour of just voices continuously exciting.
The Persuasions take the stage, and dive right into I Woke Up in Love This Morning. They capture audience immediately. They deliver a wonderful combination of high energy and the total focus that is so necessary to make a cappella music work. After four up-tempo numbers, they switch it up with the ballad, 500 Miles Away From Home. Here is where they could lose it, if they were going to. Switching gears like this requires the greatest concentration, and they pull it off beautifully. Peace in the Valley follows. This is another ballad, and the first gospel number on the program. They manage to express a devotion to their faith here which has a different quality than the devotion to earthly love that they had expressed to this point.
One of the joys of Live at McCabe’s is the interplay between The Persuasions and their audience. You can tell that they loved their audiences. This recording also preserves much of the between song stage patter, in which the group’s sense of humor is nicely displayed. And you can tell that Under the Boardwalk was a highlight of their shows; here the audience joins the singing, and they group becomes a mighty choir.
The program is a mix of gospel numbers and secular ones. The Persuasions show that they live in the world, but that their faith is strong. So Frank Zappa’s song The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing is an odd choice here. It is true that The Persuasions recorded an entire album of Zappa’s songs, including Meek, but here it stands out of context. The song is a scathing rebuttal of “Jesus freaks”. The performance is as strong as any on the album, but the content is jarring.
Overall, then, Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop is a wonderful document of The Persuasions’ live act. While the group is not at the height of their powers, they do show why they remained vital for so long. I have only one other quibble. If you listen to the album straight through, as intended, you won’t notice. But if you want to put a single track on a home made compilation, you will discover that the spoken introduction to a given song is on the end of the previous track. I was limited in which tracks I could post because of this; fortunately, the material is strong enough throughout that I could work around it.
Tracks removed at the copyright holders request. preview tracks are available for listening here.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Indigo Girls: Uncle John‘s Band
I’ll get to the main part of the post in a moment. I just want to clear off some blog business. There was no album review this past weekend. Basically, it wound up under a snow bank. I had things to do related to the storm, and that was the time I would have used for the review. The review I had in mind will now appear next weekend, and be the last review for the year.
Now then. Today, Oliver di Place is exactly one year old. So I wanted a song that would represent the spirit of what I try to do here. I needed folk, jazz, blues, even world music flavors. I wanted to celebrate good writing and good singing. And, if possible, I wanted something that would be a gift to my readers, something you might not have heard before. That’s a lot to ask of one song. And the Indigo Girls’ version of Uncle John’s Band doesn’t fill the bill completely.
But the Grateful Dead was one of my first musical loves. Various members brought bluegrass, blues, and jazz elements to the band, although you don’t hear all of that on every song, and I wasn’t aware of it at the time. But I think it’s fair to say that the music of the Grateful Dead eventually led me to explore all of those types of music. Mickey Hart would later explore world music, and I would explore with him. And I was always drawn to the storytelling in the Dead’s best songs. Uncle John’s Band is certainly one of those.
I know what you’re thinking. Why isn’t he presenting the Grateful Dead’s original version then? Funny thing about that. As I got older, I realized the Dead’s one major flaw: they were terrible singers. Even with the chance to clean things up in the studio, the original Uncle John’s Band is a fine example of this. And the Indigo Girls do a great job of fixing that, revealing that the song is even better than I thought.
I hope you can find the album this originally came from. It was a tribute to the Dead, called Deadicated, and it has many other gems on it. In a crime against humanity, the label has allowed Deadicated to go out of print. You can buy it at collector’s prices, but I have provided a purchase link for the Indigo Girls’ Rarities album as a more affordable option.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Corners of the World is a feature here that many of you may have never seen. It is my occasional series on world music. This time, I would like to wish you all a joyous holiday season in multiple languages.
Gaudete: Steeleye Span
Let’s begin with Latin. Gaudete is a song that I first learned as a performer. I was once in an amateur chamber choir. Our conductor held us to a high standard, and presented us with a wonderfully varied repertoire. Gaudete, then, was a song we learned for one of our holiday concerts.
The song was written for church services, and the earliest known publication was in a collection of Finnish and Swedish carols from 1582. The song is most likely quite a bit older than that. The lyrics are a joyous announcement of the birth of Christ.
Bruce Cockburn: Riu Riu Chiu
I learned Riu Riu Chiu for that same chamber choir, in a set with two other old Spanish carols. Bruce Cockburn says this about the song:
"This is a Spanish composition of the type known as a 'villancico', dating from the sixteenth century. The language is archaic, some words being unfamiliar to my Hispanic friends and not found in at least the basic dictionaries...”
I was able to find a translation. The words Riu Riu Chiu do not mean anything, but are meant to mimic the sound of a nightingale’s call. The lyrics alternate between various birds proclaiming the birth of Christ, and God’s promise to protect his Son.
The Chieftains with Kate and Anna McGarrigle: Il Est Ne/ Ca Berger
The Irish Chieftains invited the bilingual Canadian McGarrigle sisters to perform these two French carols with them. This is not as strange as it may sound. There are still remnants of Celtic culture to be found in France, especially in Brittany. Il Est Ne and Ca Berger fit together beautifully. Both songs concern the shepherds and others who gathered at the stable to witness the birth of Christ.
Mary McLaughlin: Seacht Suilce na Maighdine Muire (The Seven Joys of Mary)
Speaking of Celtic culture, here is a Christmas song in Gaelic. The lyrics devote one line to each of the joys of Mary, and in this way, manage to tell the story of the life of Christ. This narrative device is often found in the pre-Christian bardic poems of Ireland and Scotland.
Kopela Brodow: Zdrowaś Maryja, Bogarodzico
In Poland, religious songs had to go underground during the communist era. Much traditional culture was also lost. Kopela Brodow is a group that is trying to revive the folk music of Poland. They have recorded an entire album of kodely, or traditional Polish carols. This selection is not from that album, because the songs on that album were performed in English. Zdrowas Maryja Bogurodzico comes from an album of praise songs to the Virgin Mary. Kodely are also found in some of the countries which border on Poland. Remember that this is a part of the world where national boundaries have been redrawn a number of times in modern times.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Edie Brickell and New Bohemians: Air of December
One day, I took the woman who is now my wife to meet a friend of mine. He was the second-in-command at a small record store I frequented, and I often went in to talk music with him. Our musical tastes were almost completely opposite each other, but we strove to find common ground. So the visit went fairly normally, as I saw it. My friend and I got to talking about music, and we got louder and louder. My then girlfriend retreated to the farthest corner of the store in horrified silence. Later, she wanted to know why I frequented the place if I hared him so much. I had to explain that I didn’t hate him at all.
To this day, I count among my closest friends some guys with whom my relationship is largely based on passionate arguments. Often, the subject is politics, sometimes sports. But we don’t hate each other. We respect each other’s passion, even if we think it is misplaced. I guess it’s a form of male bonding.
What does all of this have to do with my song? Well, one day I walked into that record store, and my friend handed me a tape he had made. Nowadays, he might burn a CD or send me a link to a podcast, but this was 1988. He had made a compilation of his favorite songs of 1988. So, of course I had to reciprocate, and this song was on my compilation.
Edie Brickell and New Bohemians made their debut that year. What I Am was the hit, but I have always preferred Air of December. The song is about memory. The key line for me has always been “I swear I remember it that way.” Brickell hints at the possibility that her memory may be wrong. This is the time of year for reunions, and sharing of memories. This song is a useful reminder for those reunions. Maybe it can stop an argument in its tracks. Unless of course, it is an argument you want to have.
[The record store, now long gone, was Hot Trax, in New Brunswick, NJ. My friend’s name was Ray. Ray, if somehow you are reading this, please get in touch.]
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Folk Music. In my earliest understanding of the term, it involved one man or woman, playing a guitar and singing. By that definition, Keegan McInroe is the closest I’ve come to presenting a folk singer. McInroe plays mostly acoustic guitar here. He plays occasional single note runs, but mostly he strums. McInroe does no solos, flashy or otherwise, but he is as fine a rhythm player as you would ever care to hear. For a couple of tunes, he puts down his acoustic, and plugs in his resonator guitar, but it’s still strictly rhythm.
Can you think of anyone nowadays who does an entire album of just vocal and guitar? It’s so rare that we listeners have lost the patience for it. So McInroe needs to do something to vary the sound here. So one song might have a fiddle, another a harmonica, another a mandolin. Trumpet and jaw harp are more unusual choices that also turn up here. I would never have thought of it, but acoustic guitar and trumpet turns out to be a great combination.
McInroe’s voice has a gruff quality. It sounds like he has done a lot of living. In his mellower songs, his voice can convey longing and desire, as well as sorrow. He can also go with a rougher sound for a great bluesy effect.
When I listen to music for the first time, I hear the sound and feel of the music. I usually don’t know what the songs are about until later. When I receive an album for review, I give it that first listen, and I decide by the feel of it whether I want to come back to it. If I do, I find out then what the words are saying. And that happened here.
So call it a coincidence if you like that I went back to review this when I did. Mozelle was Keegan McInroe’s grandmother, and the album is dedicated to her memory. The title track leads off the album, and here McInroe’s grandfather describes his love for her, and his memories of their life together. This sounds like the words you might speak at a funeral, in honor of the newly departed. There would follow a hymn, talking about the promise of a bright hereafter, and on the album this is the traditional Sweet By and By. The rest of the songs on the album are originals.
I can attest that the death of a loved one can make you look back at your life, and that it is what happens on the rest of the album. McInroe is a devout Christian, but he never gets preachy here. He describes a man torn between sin and salvation. Statements of faith interrupt sequences of songs about lost loves and earthly temptation. McInroe, as he presents himself here, is not a man who is better than us because he is saved. Rather, he is a believer who finds it hard to live up to his own beliefs. This makes him thoroughly human. Christ himself shows up in a couple of songs, and McInroe makes Him human as well. The Jesus song has Him stopping by for a visit. He and McInroe’s character share jokes and wine, and Jesus has a message for him. The message is a private matter, and its contents are not in the song, but they don’t need to be. This is a kind of Christianity I have never encountered before, and I find it very refreshing. The Jesus Song is followed by White Elephants. McInroe’s character falls asleep at the end of The Jesus Song, and it seems to me that White Elephants is the dream he has. The lyrics, about dancing and talking elephants, seem silly and slight at first. But this is the surreal language of dreams, and this dream has something real to say. Following the trials McInroe’s character has endured to this point, White Elephants is a song of encouragement.
There are more trials to come, culminating with The Yank. This one strikes me as being Keegan’s effort to make sense of an incident he has heard about. The story, which I don’t want to give away, has elements of Greek tragedy. In trying to comprehend how this could happen, it seems to me that McInroe’s character experiences a bottom. This story brings to the fore all of the spiritual struggles he has been going through. The Yank is also astonishing musically. McInroe plays the rhythm, with a dialog between the fiddle and the trumpet on top. The turbulence of emotions is reflected in the interaction of the lead instruments.
After The Yank, only two songs remain on the album. Waiting is a hesitant, and The Way is an assured, reaffirmation of faith. The Way is the most religious song here, a retelling of the Easter story.
So Mozelle, taken as a whole, seems to me to be a tale of a man wrestling with his spiritual path. His road is not easy. I don’t think the matter is necessarily settled at album’s end. But this is not an album that requires you to share McInroe’s faith. I am not a Christian, but I am taken with McInroe’s honesty in the telling. And I can relate to the theme of struggling with one’s spiritual path. That can happen in any belief system. Even though McInroe supplies specifics, his theme is universal. And his telling is for everyone.
Keegan McInroe: White Elephants
Keegan McInroe: The Yank
Saturday, December 12, 2009
I would like to wish one and all a happy Hanukkah. Even if it is not your holiday, I wish you the joy of the season. I was raised in a secular Jewish household. That may sound strange, but it ties in with one of my selections. So fear not, all will be explained. In this post, I will share what Hanukkah means to me. And I have some fine music to help.
Marc Cohn: Rock of Ages (Maoz Tsur)
Jewish holidays always open with a prayer. Rock of Ages is a traditional one for Hanukkah. Marc Cohn, best known for Walking in Memphis, offers a wonderful version.
Emily Kurn: Light the Lamp
Thanks to Susan for this song. She mentioned it last year in response to the first post I ever put up on Oliver di Place, and this year she sent it to me.
Emily Kurn, like me, is a non-religious Jew. But, like me, she observes Hanukkah and, I assume, Passover. How can this be? More to the point, why? Judaism is more than a religion. Some of us feel it primarily as an identity. These days, we can talk of having lost someone “in the camps”, and nothing more needs to be said. Those victims lost their lives, even if they were not religious. Hanukkah, on its surface, is about the freedom to practice religion, but there is more. There is a sense of heritage, of family, and of connectedness. Kurn captures this idea perfectly. Thank you again, Susan, for this song.
The LeeVees: Nun Gimmel Heh Shin
The story is told that the Greeks had forbidden the practice of Judaism. The Jews hid in caves to study Torah, and posted lookouts. Whenever the Greeks came, the Jews would quickly hide their Torahs, and take out their tops and pretend that they had been gambling. This is why the tops, called dreydls, are part of the Hanukkah tradition. Nun, gimmel, heh, and shin are the Hebrew letters on the four sides of the dreydl.
The LeeVees were started by Adam Gardner of Guster and Dave Schneider of the Zambonis.
Joan Baez: Dona Dona
Dona Dona is a traditional Yiddish song, here rendered in English. The song tells us that freedom must be an attitude before it can produce action. This is a theme that runs through many of the Jewish holidays. You must believe in your freedom before you can achieve it. At Hanukkah, this is related to the belief that the Maccabees could prevail against the Greeks, despite the odds. This belief, and the miracle that sustained it, made the victory possible.
Tom Lehrer: (I‘m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica
[I am unable to find purchase information for this one. If anyone knows what album this is from, please leave a comment. Thank you.]
This last selection has no profound meaning. In the end, Hanukkah is a celebration, an occasion for joy, and a little silliness is not out of place.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Shelby Lynne: 10 Rocks
The winter holidays are upon us. People of faith are celebrating tangible proof of that faith. The Jews give thanks for a small miracle, enabling a day’s worth of lamp oil to burn for eight days. The Christians give thanks for the coming of the Messiah. The scale and significance is completely different, but both are comforts in the darkest time of the year, reassurances that God is there. So 10 Rocks seemed to me to be an appropriate way to welcome the season. Shelby Lynne sings of various hardships, but ultimately, she knows her faith will get her through. This is not a holiday song, but its spirit seems to me to be truer to the season than much of what you will hear in the malls. And musically, 10 Rocks is a joyous celebration. I thought nothing could ever capture this feeling as well as Paul Simon’s Loves Me Like a Rock, but Shelby Lynne has matched it.
Shelby Lynne should be better known, but she is a musical chameleon. She tried to make it in mainstream country, and she has also done an album of western swing. So it is fitting that this song comes from an album called Identity Crisis. The music on this album would be labeled Americana, because it’s hard to know what else to call it. My advice would be, instead of calling it, just listen.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Love and fear. Most songwriters don’t put them together. But to give love, and keep giving it, often involves great emotional risk. And Anne Heaton knows this. Blazing Red opens with the words, “I’m ready to be afraid, I’m ready to jump”.
Heaton plays multiple keyboards here, glockenspiel, and even paper plate, but I’m willing to bet that she does most of her writing at the piano. Most of the songs start with just voice and piano, before the other instruments come in to add texture and emotional resonance. Heaton and coproducer Gary Maurer of Hem make wonderful use of a string quartet on many of the songs, and Heaton’s voice often has the quality of a fifth stringed instrument. I can almost hear the bow moving as Heaton draws out a note. All of this could be an overwrought mess, but that never happens. The emotions here are deep, but never overdone. Blazing Red also presents a rich variety of musical textures, but the album makes sense taken as a whole.
Heaton has a gift for crafting a song. Out to Sea is a fine example. There are lines and phrases that repeat throughout, but listen closely. Heaton changes a single word with each repetition, and it makes all the difference. The progression of these changes tells the story of a woman who finally finds the courage to give her love. In Crystalize, the craftsmanship is in the way the music is put together. First, the basic groove is established with electronic instruments; this one almost threatens to become synth-pop. But then, the strings come in with a call and response pattern between the cello and the other strings. From then on, the strings perform a series of variations on these parts, never playing the same thing twice. If you aren’t consciously aware of all this as you listen, it nonetheless has an effect. It’s not for show either; it fits the song beautifully. Fire Sign has an unusual texture, achieved with just piano, strings, and banjo.
This would all just be cleverness if the songs didn’t hold up. But Heaton presents a set of songs about being poised between love and fear. The musical tensions and releases only enhance the words. A few of the songs end musically unresolved, just as the situations in the songs do. The words describe different emotional defense mechanisms, and the effort, (not always successful), to drop these defenses. The woman in Pieces of Me talks about trying on different personalities in hopes of finding the one that would appeal to the guy she’s interested in, only to realize that the right one is the one that is her true self. It’s not clear whether she realizes this in time. In Where Your Scar Is, she is trying to draw emotion out of a man who is emotionally scarred from a previous relationship. How identity changes in a relationship, and how having been burned gets in the way of giving your heart again, are themes that recur in different forms throughout the album.
So Anne Heaton takes on an aspect of love you don’t often hear songs about, and she nails it. She and her coproducer provide rich musical textures to help put these feelings across, and it works. The emotions never sound forced, and always sound genuine. I just hope that Heaton is luckier in love than her protagonists.
Anne Heaton: Out to Sea
Anne Heaton: Fire Sign
Friday, December 4, 2009
I was born in 1960. The world had lived with the threat of nuclear war for 15 years. Movies about giant monsters were beginning to give way to post-apocalyptic tales. International politics were driven but the threat of mutual destruction. As a child, I was affected in subtle ways. I was shielded from the brunt of the terror. But the opposition to the Vietnam War was probably colored by this, and I am sure there were other, more subtle manifestations. I do know that this fear occasionally made its way into the music I heard. The enormity of this fear is so great that songwriters try to cope by resorting to black humor.
Randy Newman: Political Science
At first, the United States was the only nuclear nation. We were supreme, and could do what ever we wanted. Once that changed, some people felt that we should not have to change that attitude. Randy Newman lampooned this attitude brilliantly in Political Science. But, listening to this song now, I am reminded of how George W Bush conducted foreign policy. Here in the US, we are still dealing with the repercussions from that.
Donald Fagen: New Frontier
Once the Solviet Union also developed nuclear weapons, people became convinced that they had to prepare for the worst. So every home seemingly had a bomb shelter. Thankfully, these shelters have never had to be used for their intended purpose. Still, they are good for something. Donald Fagen explains.
The Uptones: Radiation Boy
The fear of nuclear war became greater as we learned more about the harm radiation could do. Eventually, we learned that the same thing could result from exposure to waste from nuclear power plants. The Uptones describe this in a song that is all the more chilling because of its seemingly joyous sound.
Fishbone: Party at Ground Zero
To Fishbone, there is only one possible response to the prospect of going off to fight against the Solviet Union. You might as well party, because you may not get another chance. The attitude here is similar to Prince’s 1999, but Fishbone is more specific about the source of their concern.
Sting, with Russians, is only one in this mix who chose to tackle his subject head-on, instead of cushioning it with humor. I can see the validity of either approach. Sting delivers a secular hymn for peace.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
J S Bach: Brandenburg Concerto # 1 1st Movement - Allegro
This past weekend was the memorial service for my father. That is why there was no review this week. I originally intended to take the piece I wrote for that occasion and share it here as a final tribute. But, in consultation with my family, I decided to keep that private. I did want to say a little something here, however, before I return to normal posting.
My love of music comes from both parents. My father played oboe, and my mother plays violin, so my introduction to music was classical. My father’s passion for music was such that, late in life, he organized what became an annual event: a play-in of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos for amateur musicians. So I knew what music to post here as a final send-off. Concerto Number 1, featuring the oboe as it does, was his favorite. Here is the first movement.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
I know I said that the review last weekend would be my 100th post. But I realized that, if you don’t include my announcements, and instead count only those posts which include music, I was early. As nearly as I can tell, this is actually my 100th post by that count. So, in honor of the occasion, I wanted to deal with a question I sometimes get asked.
We bloggers hear from artists and their managers, agents, and promoters all the time. They always have the perfect band for your blog. And sometimes it works. But, all too often, it doesn’t. The ones I have the most respect for are those who have listened to some of what I post, and only contacted me afterwards. But I also really appreciate the ones who ask me what kind of music I like. Unfortunately, that is not an easy question for me to answer, because I have varied tastes, and I won’t rule out for this blog anything that catches my ear. So, for my 100th music post, I thought I would attempt to give some guidance to artists and their representatives.
Joni Mitchell: Harry‘s House - Centerpiece
I know I just posted Joni Mitchell, but her music has to be part of this discussion. I value her for her evocative lyrics, and for her willingness to try new things musically. Harry’s House - Centerpiece also includes some fine jazz singing in the middle section. I would like to hear from jazz singers about possibly being featured here.
Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer: I Go Like the Raven
Here is another example of evocative lyrics. Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer also used spare arrangements for their songs, giving each song exactly what it needs. This is a hard quality to define, but one that I have mentioned in my reviews. I Go Like the Raven has a mystical/ spiritual subtext, which is a bonus for me. If your work evokes an unusual spiritual viewpoint, without being heavy-handed about it, I’d like to hear from you.
Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band: Carrie Brown
A blast of bluegrass is always welcomed here. And it doesn’t get any better than the Del McCoury Band. I also appreciate Steve Earle stretching out. Earle is one of our most eloquent political songwriters. Much as I admire Joni Mitchell’s songwriting, I don’t think she is a very good political songwriter. Steve Earle is.
Kate Bush: The Sensual World
I like spare arrangements, but I also love it when and artist can create a rich aural soundscape. This kind of thing can really fall on its face when done badly, but Kate Bush can include Celtic influences and a Bulgarian folk choir in the same song, and make it work. Peter Gabriel is also a master of this. Talking Heads used the intricacies of African rhythms to powerful effect.
The Toasters: Weekend in LA
Finally, I want everyone to know that I love ska. I have featured some of it here, but I would like to do more. If you know of someone who is in a ska band, please steer them in my direction.
So there are five songs that give some idea of what I like. I didn’t have space to talk about my love of acoustic blues and the classic Chicago sound. I didn’t get to any songs that show the influence of classical music. But I hope I have given people some ideas of what I would like to consider for inclusion here. I look forward to sharing the results with everyone, and, as always, I welcome your comments.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Joni Mitchell: River
First you hear a snippet of Jingle Bells on the piano, played in a minor key, as a dirge. Then Joni Mitchell sings:
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
Putting up reindeer
Singing songs of joy and peace...
The song ends with a repeat of this verse, followed by a repeat of the piano figure.
None of that matters. River still is not a Christmas song! Oh, I know that radio stations all over disagree. So you’ll be hearing the song a lot for the next six weeks. But that doesn’t settle the matter. A Christmas song should celebrate the season. The religious ones are full not only of joy, but also of a sense of wonder. Many are quite beautiful. The secular ones are often cute or cloyingly sweet, while a few have a sense of humor. And I am not a Scrooge. I will be featuring some of my favorites here as we move into December. But River does not fit either description.
Instead, River is a breakup song. Mitchell regrets her mistakes in a relationship now ended. Her sorrow and remorse are only amplified, because everyone around her seems to be exageratedly happy, on account of the season. This is one of Mitchell’s must powerful expressions of sorrow, and one of her most perfectly realized piano ballads.
Of course, there are other “something terrible happened around Christmas” songs. And many of them will be played and blogged this season. But none of them are Christmas songs. Some are good and some not, but none capture the spirit of the season. Even one of Joni Mitchell’s best can not change that for me.
Monday, November 23, 2009
Steeleye Span, along with Fairport Convention, burst upon the scene in the late 60s and created a new musical genre, English folk rock. Traditional English folk songs are given rock settings, in a fusion that preserves some of the feel of the source material, but also rocks. Fairport was the better known band, but after going through shifting lineups for many years, they finally called it quits. Steeleye Span, in some form or other, has toughed it out for 40 years, and now there is a new album. Cogs, Wheels and Lovers will be released here in the United States on January 19 of next year, but you can buy it now from their label in England, Park Records, using the link above.
Steeleye has also had changes in the lineup. Lead singer Maddy Prior, who had briefly left the band at one point, is the only remaining original member. Bass player and singer Rick Kemp has also been with the band for some time, although his absences from the lineup have been somewhat longer than Prior’s. And fiddler and singer Peter Knight is also a long-time member. Guitar player and singer Ken Nicol and drummer Liam Genockey are the most recent additions to the band. Together, this has become the longest lasting lineup in the band’s history.
While Steeleye Span started with a repertoire of traditional songs, they added original material in the “folk style”. This is always a dicey proposition, and there were hits and misses. But with Cogs, Wheels and Lovers, Steeleye Span returns to their roots with a set of all traditional tunes. Separately and as a group, these musicians have mined the rich vein of English folk songs for some time, and they probably don’t want to repeat themselves. So most of the songs here are not well known. It is all the more impressive then that the band finds such a rich variety of material of generally high quality. Here are sea songs, songs of love won and lost, even a ghost story and a song about a horse race.
The musicianship here is even more impressive. It’s no secret that Maddy Prior is a fine singer with a great feel for this traditional material. But the band works with limited instrumentation, and creates a rich variety of musical textures. Yes, they can rock out with the best of them. But the unusual feel of Ranzo is achieved with a backing of just handclaps and plucked fiddle, with wonderful vocal harmonies on top. The full band creates the sound of a machine for The Machiner’s Song. And you can feel the thunder of horses’ hooves in Creeping Jane. Elsewhere, the band achieves a lush, but not overdone, sound for the love songs. None of this is for show. Steeleye Span knows just what each song needs, and they have the versatility to provide it.
One of the joys of English folk songs is the stories they tell, and that is certainly true here. Creeping Jane is a horse who knows she is the best, but no one else believes it except her rider. She proves them all wrong in the end. The Unquiet Grave presents a ghost who appears to his former lover a year and a day after his death, to encourage her to be about the business of living. And there is a surprise on the album. Track 11 is Thornaby Wood, a tale with a poacher as its hero. After the song ends, there is about a minute of silence, followed by another song, which I believe is called The Selkie. This is a haunting tale of a seal-man who comes from the sea to claim his infant son. The setting is for just voice and bowed fiddle, and it works beautifully.
So this edition of Steeleye Span proves completely worthy to bear the name. I will look forward to hearing what they do next.
Steeleye Span: The Machiner‘s Song
Steeleye Span: The Unquiet Grave
Friday, November 20, 2009
Welcome to part II of Waltz Time. This time, a waltz is a dance. But not just a dance. Two people hold each other close, and, for a brief moment, the rest of the world does not exist. This moment can be a pause, before reality once again asserts itself. It can be the culmination of a long build up. Or it can be a transformative event, after which nothing is ever the same. But one thing is for sure: the waltz is a moment of magic.
Richard Thompson: Waltzing‘s For Dreamers
Richard Thompson can feel this magic, but here, he can not allow himself to believe in it. Waltzing’s For Dreamers comes from fairly early in Thompson’s solo career, or not that long after his breakup with former wife Linda. A waltz with a stranger provides a temporary refuge from heartbreak, but it cannot last.
David Wilcox: Last Chance Waltz
David Wilcox’s character here looks forward anxiously to a waltz with a woman he was interested in in high school, but could never bring himself to pursue. Now, at his tenth reunion, he has one last chance to declare his love. She is spoken for, so it can go nowhere, but he still feels the need to do what he could never do before. The magic of the waltz makes it possible.
Incidentally, the female voice on this track may sound familiar. It’s Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Small Potatoes: Waltz of the Wallflowers
Waltz of the Wallflowers is a fairytale. I was painfully shy in high school, so this one hits home. I always wished for two things: that I would have the guts to do something like this, and that it would work out this well. But don’t stare!
Owen Roberts: New Paltz Waltz
In New Paltz Waltz, the magic is more akin to a renewal of vows. The waltz here is a reminder of love, and a refreshing of it. Again, putting aside the world and its cares for a brief moment is the key. I don’t like my love songs to be sappy, but I do like them to be tender. New Paltz Waltz is one of the tenderest I know.
Over the Rhine: Mary‘s Waltz
This one comes from an Over the Rhine Christmas album, but it is no more a Christmas song than Joni Mitchell’s River. The song is mysterious, which fits a tale of sharing secrets. The waltz here is metaphorical, but still represents a safe space where the world cannot intrude.
So there is my journey through the waltz. Before I leave, I would like to quickly thank my fellow posters at Star Maker Machine for their help in gathering songs for this post and the last one. And I would like to thank my readers once again for your kindness and good wishes. I feel very fortunate to have created something that has attracted such a fine group of people, and I will continue to try to offer good reasons for you to come back.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
When I woke up the other day with an inspiration for a theme post, I knew it was time to come back. And so, here I am, less than a week from my father’s passing, resuming posting on my blog. I don’t want anyone to think me heartless. The fact is, my father died of Alzheimer’s. If you know much about it, you know that my family and I have been losing him little by little for the last few years. So I began mourning him while his body still drew breath. But I don’t want to dwell on this now. Suffice it to say, as of now, Oliver di Place is back. And thank you all for your good wishes and kind words, and for your patience.
Before I get on with it, just a few words about where I’m going next. My inspiration for this post was the word Waltz. As I started thinking about songs, the post quickly grew too big. I found that splitting it in two yielded two posts, each with a different feel, and each of which made sense on its own as a coherent post. So here is part one; part two will appear later this week, and there will be a special album review this weekend for my official 100th post. The memorial service for my father is coming up, and after that, I will be posting a special edition of For a Song in tribute to him. And then things will get back to normal, with my one year anniversary and holiday posts in December.
For now then, without further ado...
Dan Zanes (with Deborah Harry): Waltzing Matilda
We begin waltz week with Waltzing Matilda. This one, in this arrangement at least, isn’t a waltz at all. And the song has nothing to do with dancing. But, as will become clear, this had to be the starting point.
Waltzing Matilda is one of two songs I can think of which are commonly performed as kid’s songs, but which have also proposed as national anthems. The other song is This Land Is Your Land. In Australian slang, a matilda is a pack made by tying a cloth onto a stick. To go waltzing matilda is pack up your possessions in a matilda and go roaming. In the song, the one who goes waltzing matilda is a “swagman”, an itinerant worker. So our hero the swagman goes wandering in search of work, and decides to rest under a tree near a river bank. He is able to capture a wild sheep, which he is just putting in his pack, when a “squatter” comes with three policemen, and accuses him of stealing the sheep. A squatter is a man who has settled a piece of land and worked it. He now claims the land as his own, but the legal grounds for that claim are weak. Certainly, the sheep is not one of his. Nevertheless, our swagman knows that any judgment in this matter will go against him, and he will be hanged. So he throws himself into the water and drowns. Thereafter, the swagman’s ghost haunts the spot forever.
So this jaunty seeming song is a tale of class conflict, and a ghost story to boot. The slang terms sound silly, especially to non-Australian ears, but the subject is serious. I get the sense that Australians, especially in the early days, had an us against the world attitude, and that is why this song resonates so strongly there. I would love to here from my Australian readers on this in the comments.
Eric Bogle: And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda
Waltzing Matilda is played in Australia at all sorts of important occasions. Here it turns up in a ceremony to see off troops departing overseas to fight World War I. World War I was fought because a series of treaties were written to stipulate that, if a series of events were to occur, various nations would join others to fight others. The trigger for all this was a series of events that “could never happen”, but did. By the time it was all over, all of the participating nations had paid a terrible price.
World War I was the inspiration for many fine anti-war songs. And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda is one the best. Eric Bogle does not glorify the gore, but he does not pull punches. He eloquently makes the point that, in war, casualties must be counted not only amongst the slain, but also among the “survivors”.
Tom Waits: Tom Traubert‘s Blues
Waltzing Matilda is also the jumping-off point for Tom Traubert’s Blues. In this song, Matilda was an actual person, a woman Tom Waits met on a trip to Copenhagen. It is said that an addict or an alcoholic must hit bottom before than can truly begin to recover. No one has ever described that bottom better than Tom Waits does here.
Calexico: Sunken Waltz
Sunken Waltz was written about the urban sprawl in Tuscon, AZ. Carpenter Mike was an acquaintance of songwriter Joey Burns who left and built a tree house outside of town, and then lived in it. This makes literal and concrete the desire for escape that is expressed metaphorically in the beginning of the song. Carpenter Mike winds up living outside of society’s strictures, just like the swagman in Waltzing Matilda. But this one ends on a hopeful note.
Priscilla Herdman: Waltzing With Bears
This is a pretty heavy selection of songs. So I wanted to finish in a lighter vein. Uncle Walter is another social outsider. He reminds me of the woman in the poem, When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple. Uncle Walter is not concerned about the opinions of the world. He has found something that gives him joy, and he intends to keep doing it. And those he loves are invited to join in.
So there it is, the first part of waltz week. And you may have noticed that none of the songs are love songs, at least not in the usual sense. But waltzing has a lot to do with love, so I will make that connection in Part II
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
There is no easy way to say this. I am coming up on my 100th post here and my one-year anniversary. But all of that seems less important today. My father passed on this morning. The memorial service will be next week some time. Needless to say, Oliver di Place may be affected. I don't know that my emotional state will allow me to fairly review albums. And there might not be much here at all for a while. But then again, there might. This blog is a lifeline for me, and I have made many friends through it. So, I'll be playing it by ear.
Whatever happens, know that Oliver di Place will eventually get back to normal. Artists: if you are interested in sending CDs for review, please continue to do so, and I will get to them as soon as I can. If you want to send inquiries, please do, but understand that I may be a little slow to respond.
Above all, to my readers and listeners: thank you for your support and your patience in this difficult time.
Posted by Darius at 1:38 PM
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
She Swings, She Sways is a six piece band. Between them, they can top the usual drums and bass with twin acoustic guitars plus electric guitar and piano. Or acoustic guitar with two electric guitars and trumpet. They can add in a mandolin or harmonica. And guests on the album bring fiddle, pedal steel, and French horn into the mix. The bass player plays a stand up bass, but sometimes he bows it instead of the usual plucking. So She Swings, She Sways can use a lot of different musical textures. They do so, but with great subtlety, and the whole thing holds together beautifully. But Wasted Love Songs is an album that rewards repeated listens, because there is so much going on musically. Some songs are mostly acoustic, while others rock out. Sometimes both things happen in the same song. There is even the occasional waltz.
John Gordon is the main songwriter and lead vocalist. He manages all of this beautifully. The pacing of the album allows for the building and release of dramatic tension, both within the individual songs, and in their sequencing.
And what could be more dramatic than love? On the back cover of the album, each of the eleven songs is dedicated to a different woman. The album opens with a declaration of love, What I Wouldn’t Do, and closes with an apology for all the wrongs committed in a relationship, Even So. In between, Gordon takes us on a journey through the adventures that relationships can be. Gordon is a brave narrator, taking on some difficult subjects with delicacy, but also with honesty. He Loves Me depicts a woman who seeks a white knight to rescue her from an abusive relationship. In Ryan’s Song, a woman must decide whether to try to make a relationship with a drug addict work; there are hints that he may be in recovery by the end of the song. But I was most impressed with Evelyn’s Green and Highway.
In Evelyn’s Green, a man offers comfort to a woman who is dying of an unnamed disease. It is clear that the narrator knows she will not recover, but he lies to her about the seriousness of the situation. Perhaps he lies to himself, in hopes that it will be true. The listener must decide whether to forgive this man for his false assurances. It is clear, however, that he does it to try to comfort the woman he genuinely loves.
Highway gives us a young American on a brief visit to Ireland. He has read in Chaucer and Kerouac about sexual liasons that always seem to result in great pleasure for both parties. Sure enough, he meets a young woman, and they wind up sleeping together. It is necessary for John Gordon to describe the sex scene. He does this discreetly but effectively, but we know that it goes badly. And the narrator must leave for home the next day, so there is no time for him to make it right. The kicker is that he is telling all of this to the young woman’s brother. Is this a final gesture of apology?
So here is a collection of three or four minute songs with rich musical textures and emotional complexity that I would expect to find in a much longer work. Either way, as I said earlier, Wasted Love Songs is an album that offers great rewards for repeated listens. That is a rare thing, to be treasured.
She Swings, She Sways: Evelyn‘s Green
She Swings, She Sways: Highway
Saturday, November 7, 2009
I have been involved in a project modeled after Habitat For Humanity, except that instead of building houses from scratch, we are performing extensive renovations. Because much of the work is done by volunteers, (myself included), it takes a long time. We’ve been working on one house for over a year now. As it turned out, the house needed to have completely new wiring and plumbing, it was is converted from oil to gas heat, walls were removed or moved, all of the windows were replaced... It has been pretty amazing. I wanted to help, but I am not exactly handy. I had always assumed that these jobs were things you paid someone else to do. How they were done was something I thought would always be a mystery to me.
Now the project is reaching the point where the house is starting to be put back together. It is possible to imagine it as a house, and not just a shell. And this got me thinking about houses, and the songs about them.
Pete Seeger: Little Boxes
Malvina Reynolds wrote Little Boxes in 1963, when housing developments were a new thing. She saw them as a symbol of conformity. Reynolds coined the term “ticky-tacky” for this song; you can now find the term in the dictionary.
I chose Pete Seeger’s version of Little Boxes over the Reynolds original, because this is the version I first heard. The song was part of my childhood. My parents embraced the sentiment of the song as a way to encourage me and my brothers to not take the common path, to dare to think for ourselves.
John Mellencamp: Pink Houses
I would love to hear someone like Richard Shindell do a solo acoustic version of Pink Houses. John Mellencamp recorded the song at the peak of his popular success, as the rock anthem heard here. But the song is not that far removed from folk songwriting in terms of structure and lyrical content. Mellencamp presents sketches portraits of three people who dreamed of better things in their lives, prompted by the fact that they were each able to buy a house. But each of these dreams has hit a dead end. These houses may be the same ones Reynolds wrote about, but twenty years later, and with their original owners long gone.
Crosby Stills Nash & Young: Our House
My last two selections are about particular houses. CSNY describe this house as a refuge from the stresses of life. Here, love blooms in a jar flowers in one the windows. In my house, however, one of the cats always tries to eat the blossoms. So this song is not so much about a physical place as a state of mind.
Madness: Our House
Madness performs my last selection, and that fits. Here is a house full of people, always in hurry and often running late. And yet, in the midst of all this, there is a sweet memory of a quieter time. This last one is a house, yes, but also a home. And sometimes the family that lives there gets a chance to catch their breaths, and remember that.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
The Eagles: Hotel California
It’s probably true that most of my readers have never wondered if I like the Eagles. But the answer is usually no. There is, obviously, one exception. Hotel California. I should say that the only music of theirs I ever heard was whatever made it onto the radio, so they may have done other songs I would enjoy. But this is the only one I know.
Hotel California came out at an interesting time. In the 1970s, psychedelic rock morphed into progressive rock, and then faded away. Reggae arrived in the United States, and made a big impression on some people, but never achieved consistent commercial success. The Eagles ruled the airwaves with a mix of country rock and hard rock.
Culturally, the 1970s were about the belief in magic. The works of J R R Tolkien found a mass audience. Star Wars was huge. (I know Star Wars takes place in space, but in theme and plot as well, it is fantasy, not science fiction.) A remake of The Wizard of Oz, (remember The Whiz?), was a Broadway hit. And something called magic realism was coming from novelists in Latin America.
Hotel California is neither country rock nor hard rock. It is related rhythmically to reggae, but the arrangement is hard rock. Like so many songs of that vintage, Hotel California has been covered many times. But the covers of Hotel California include reggae, flamenco, and gypsy versions. It’s almost surprising that this unusual rhythm made onto mainstream radio in the first place.
Then there are the lyrics. Hotel California tells the tale of a man who is traveling through an area that is unfamiliar to him. Seeking a place to stay for the night, he comes upon the title establishment. He decides to stay for the night, only to learn that, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Described this way, it sounds fairly mundane. But why can he never leave? The lyrics never say. There are strange behaviors here, some of which sound like rituals, (“they stab it with their steely knives”). So, although nothing magical is spelled out, I have always taken this to be a tale of magic. Beyond that, the song is a mystery. My interpretation changes every time I hear the song. And that is what I treasure about it. But I still feel weird about liking anything by the Eagles.
Monday, November 2, 2009
Kat Calvosa is a young jazz singer. Chrysalis shows all the joys and pitfalls of that statement. Calvosa shows a great talent for jazz singing, and her band can swing or take it down for a tender ballad. And the fact that Calvosa writes all of her material here is a bonus. But Calvosa shows gives us glimpses of several possible futures. She might continue with jazz, and deepen her groove and develop more of her own voice. She might decide to go pop, and become just another singer songwriter with a pop-jazz touch. Or she might layer on the strings and orchestration in a later release, and go for the Sinatra effect. Commercially, any of these strategies might work, and all are hinted at here. But I hope she decides to go with spare arrangements, and develop her jazz voice. To me, that’s what sounds truest here.
Calvosa sings in a low soprano voice with just a hint of sweetness. She can play with the rhythm without ever losing the beat. Her band supports her well. They can play drums, stand-up bass, and piano. Or, they can change the feel, going with drums, electric bass, and electric piano. Either way, they interweave their lines with Calvosa’s vocals, creating a whole that is richer than the parts. And that is what the listener hears as the album starts. Then, a few tracks in, acoustic guitar and background vocals appear. Late in the album, there is one song that uses electric guitar and organ. Only this last one seems to me to belong on a different album. The rest holds together well.
Chrysalis opens with the song The Brooklyn Dodger, and we immediately get a wonderful introduction to Calvosa’s gifts as a song writer. Here, she imagines an old man sleeping in the subways, and dreaming of life in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. It is never clear whether this a fantasy or a memory, but it doesn’t really matter. Either way, this is a moving portrait of a man with two lives. Baseball serves as both an alternate reality and a metaphor. In the space of an average-length song, Calvosa creates a work of great subtlety and nuance.
The Brooklyn Dodger is no fluke. Calvosa hits the mark with her songs throughout the album. In See It Rise, Calvosa imagines jogging every day past a site where, at first, a beautiful old house stands. The house is torn down, and she jogs past a growing pile of rubble. And she knows that the site will soon contain a new building, a tribute to modern construction, but a structure with no personality. A Rose is a subtle love song, more of a caress than an embrace, and all the more tantalizing for it. Impossible Is Nothing uses billboards as a metaphor for a woman’s growing self confidence. So Calvosa shows an original perspective, and a gift for metaphors.
The only misfire here is The Voices We Ignore. This is a well-intentioned plea for compassion for the less fortunate. It is very difficult to do this sort of thing well, and many songwriters far better known than Calvosa have stumbled. this also the song I mentioned earlier, that doesn’t fit musically with the rest of the album.
But, over all, I really enjoyed Chrysalis. I hope Calvosa sticks with the small group jazz, because it’s a great sound for her. And I am eager to see where her songwriting goes next.
Kat Calvosa: The Brooklyn Dodger
Kat Calvosa: See It Rise
Friday, October 30, 2009
When I was a kid, Halloween was my favorite holiday. It still is. This is the night for good spooky fun. I always thought you should dress up as something scary. But my friends didn’t necessarily agree. So, one year, I was a witch and my best friend was a UNICEF box. That was scary in its own way, but was not what I meant.
Danny Elfman: This Is Halloween
What then are the key elements for a great Halloween? Danny Elfman sets the mood with a catalog of scary costume ideas. This song opens The Nightmare Before Christmas, and does a great job of setting the mood. Here, it does so again.
Shivaree: Goodnight Moon
You need a properly creepy night. There should be a full moon casting strange shadows. A chill wind makes odd noises. Shivaree describes the night perfectly. The title refers back to the classic children’s book, and the song gives it a great spooky twist.
Dr John: Witchy Red
There should be scary stories. Dr John tells a dandy here. I imagine that, in Louisiana at this time of year, they talk in hushed tones of Marie LeVeau. Dr John’s character meets a modern-day disciple.
Rose and the Arrangement: The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnatti
And of course, there needs to be a party. Let’s have great live music and dancing.
What, you may ask, does that have to do with this song? Back when my wife and I were dating, xxxx-xxx years ago, we attended a Halloween contradance. We chose our costumes carefully, making sure we had a full range of motion. The band was assembled once a year for this occasion, out of the members of several local contradance bands. So there was a piano, fiddles, guitar, banjo, a flute or two, I think an accordion... It was a giant folk dance orchestra. We knew some of the musicians from other dances we had attended, but we had never heard any of them sing. So imagine our surprise when a traditional folk-dance piece suddenly medleyed into The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnatti. There was only one possible response: we kept dancing. So this song has a special place in my heart, and must be a part of any Halloween party I have anything to do with.
If you would like to know more about contradances, (like, what are they?), you can see what I wrote about them here.
Warren Zevon: Werewolves of London
Finally, you knew this one had to be in there somewhere. There may be hundreds of blogs posting this this week, but that is one way to define a classic.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Fairport Convention: Tam Lin
Tam Lin is a song I must hear every year at this time. The threads of the tale twist like Celtic knotwork, and a chill October wind blows through the whole thing. Last year, I shared the song for the first time online, on Star Maker Machine. You can still read that post here. The song is a tale of travel between this world and the Celtic Otherworld, and that travel, according to tradition, is most easily accomplished at this time of year. The Celts called it Samhain, and it is the time when the barriers between the two worlds break down.
There is always more to learn about Tam Lin. In preparing for this post, I learned that there is an Irish reel also called Tam Lin. The reel and the ballad are clearly completely different pieces of music. I don’t know how the reel got its name, but I hope to find out. I will be featuring two wonderful versions of the reel next week.
Blog business: This post is the first of two special posts I am presenting this week as my Halloween party. Look for the next one soon. Preparing for this has proven to be more time consuming than I intended; that is why there was no album review this week. That feature will resume this coming weekend.
Also, the fund drive continues. Please give whatever you can. Thank you.
Friday, October 23, 2009
The music of the 1980s grew out of reactions to what was on the radio. Remember that, in the 1970s, radio was the main way people had of learning about music. AM radio in the 60s was all about the pop charts, but FM radio grew to fill a need to provide alternatives. In the 70s, that meant art-rock and the first wave of singer-songwriters. Meanwhile, the charts were full of lushly produced love ballads and the macho posturing of hard rock. A two word description of the music of the period might be, “artful pose”.
Towards the end of the seventies, some musicians sought to break away from that. The big idea behind punk was to smash down the pose, and present something real. Coming close on its heals, new wave confronted the artful aspect, by presenting ditties, songs the reveled in their disposability, and therefore made great party music. It is ironic that punk itself eventually became a pose. And some of those disposable new wave songs were created with such love that they have become impossible to dispose of. New wave music also reacted to the overt emotionality of 70s ballads by presenting an aloof attitude, and exploring themes of miscommunication and alienation.
Meanwhile, radical changes were in store for radio itself. By the mid 80s, MTV had become the main source of new music, with radio following its lead. As MTV scaled back their music programming later, the internet took over, and radio permanently lost its primacy. Meanwhile, radio stations were being bought up, and becoming parts of large corporations. This tended to homogenize what could be heard on the air. The corporate owners also created niche programming, so that a station might only play country, or only hits of the 70s.
Songwriters were thinking about all of this as the late 70s became the 80s became the early 90s. And sometimes, they wrote music about it.
Elvis Costello: Radio Radio
Elvis Costello thought about how listening to music on the radio could limit or broaden, but mostly limit, your choices. And his conclusions became a classic. Costello considers how a musician must rely on radio to gain and hold an audience, and how this can dictate what and how you play. This is both more and less true now than it was thirty years ago. Radio formats are stricter than ever, and maximizing your reach on the internet may mean making artistic compromises too. But it is also easier than ever to seek out unusual music.
Thomas Dolby: Radio Silence
Where Elvis Costello’s radio tries to dictate what kind of music he makes and sells, Thomas Dolby’s serves to expose him to the world. Radio Silence is all about keeping secrets and maintaining privacy in an age of communication overload.
Wall of Voodoo: Mexican Radio
Stan Ridgeway of Wall of Voodoo presents radio in a foreign language as a metaphor. Lines of communication are open, but no communication is occurring. There must also be mutual understanding, no matter what the technology.
Chris Whitley: Dust Radio
In all these radio songs, Dust Radio gives off the most puzzling signal. Chris Whitley even emphasizes this. The song ends with a potential listener retuning the radio to try to get a better signal, and getting other stations by mistake. Whitley seems to be saying that this relationship feels so strong to him that it must be giving off its own signal, but it is nevertheless a private thing.
R. E. M.: Radio Song
R. E. M.’s Radio Song brings us full circle. R. E. M. had been a cult band throughout the 80s, never achieving mass success. By 1991, they were leading off an album with this song, about how a song can get stuck in your head. There is a definite element of sour grapes here. Ironically, the second song on this same album would get stuck in a lot of people’s heads. It was called Losing My Religion.
Fund drive update: Thank you to my first donors. Your help is greatly appreciated. I have also received useful advice from someone who could not afford a donation, but wanted to help. That means a lot to me. Thank you as well.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
What are the qualities I look for in instrumental music? As with vocal music, it must reward close listening. But instrumental must also be pleasant as background music. And, for me, there is one more test. Too long ago, I lived in a space that allowed me to indulge my love of oil painting. I also used to write fiction, and very occasional poetry. For all of these creative endeavors, I found that music helped. There could not be any words to distract me. And, the more finely crafted the music was, the more it enhanced my own creativity. Mozart and Miles Davis were favorites for this. And now, David Grier’s album Evocative must be added to that list. As I gave this one repeated careful listens to prepare for this review, I actually had an idea for a painting pop into my head. Sadly, I cannot do anything about it.
It is a not very useful fact, when listening to Evocative, that David Grier has won awards for his bluegrass flat-pick guitar playing. There is very little trace of bluegrass in this music, and none of the flashy playing one might expect from an award winner. What Grier does show here is his skill as a composer and arranger, and his generosity as a band leader.
The band is Grier on electric, acoustic, and baritone guitar; John Gardner on drums; Paul Franklin on pedal steel; and Jeff Taylor on electric piano, organ, accordion, and pennywhistle. You may have noticed that there is no bass player. There are guests on bass on six of the album’s ten tracks. Two more are solo guitar pieces. But that still leaves two ensemble pieces with no bass. And, on those tracks, the bass is not missed. That is because Grier gives each arrangement just what it needs, never cluttering matters or piling on instruments. Grier calls on other guest musicians to provide color and texture, and does a great job of varying these elements.
The album opens with Meditate. The acoustic guitar introduces a simple repeating pattern. Soon the drums, electric guitar, and electric piano join in, each adding to the pattern and expanding it. But the time the solos start, the original pattern has become more complex, but it is still recognizable. This builds to a climax, and then comes down just the way it built up. The same simple pattern on the acoustic guitar is all that remains at the end.
The harmonies on the album belong firmly in folk/ country territory. But many of the songs are built like jazz tunes. There will a statement of theme, usually by the acoustic guitar, followed by variations played by the other solo instruments, and then a restatement of theme in the guitar, to finish. The instruments providing support and rhythmic motion often vary their parts in subtle ways in response to the soloists.
Grier is equally adept at slow or fast numbers. Road to Hope is a beautiful ballad for guitar, accordion, bass, and drums. Four Dogs Jogging takes off at a gallop, with fiddle and banjo joining in. This may be the most purely exciting piece on the album. And Grier also paces the album well, placing As Easy As Falling Off a Log, a bluesy solo piece played on baritone guitar, in the middle of the album for a quick breather.
I should take a moment to praise the quality of the soloists. In my review of George Strait, I talked about the sweet sound of Stuart Duncan’s fiddle playing, and that is equally true of the three tracks he plays on here. Scott Vestal only plays banjo on only one track, but he displays a great talent for switching without seeming effort between rhythmic background playing and solo turns. And Grier himself gives his electric guitar a smooth singing voice, while playing parts on the acoustic clearly state his ideas while also helping to provide a solid rhythm to build off of.
So here is a wonderful set of instrumental music. The moods and textures vary, but never sound fussy. The whole thing sounds like a coherent whole. And this is music that takes me places, probably a different place each time I listen. Regardless, I look forward to making my next trip.
David Grier: Road to Hope
David Grier: Four Dogs Jogging
The fund drive is still going on. If you would like to donate without having to write something, please feel free.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
I would like to thank everyone who stops by here. I hope you have discovered at least one artist you never would have heard otherwise.
Now I find that I must do something that is difficult for me. Readers/ listeners, I need your help. I have an old computer that has been giving ominous signs lately, and I fear that I will soon have to replace it. To put it simply, I do not have the means to do so. So I am having a fund drive. I know times are hard, but any help you can give would be greatly appreciated.
I'd like to make this fun. Send me a message with your donation. Include a suggestion for a For a Song post. Make the case for why that song should be included. I may use your message as the post if I take your suggestion. Or I may do the song, and credit you for the suggestion.
If you would rather not send a song suggestion, send a comment about the blog. Why do you like it, or what could be better? Have fun with this. And I'll try to find a way to share the best ones.
Whatever else happens, I will not choose what to publish based on the size of your donation. I don't want anyone to feel left out because they can only help in a small way. Also, I make you all a promise. Any funds raised in excess of what I need to replace the computer will be used for expenses related to the blog.
Finally, let me thank you all for your help.
Posted by Darius at 2:53 AM
Friday, October 16, 2009
First of all, let me give a special thank you to my fellow contributors at Star Maker Machine, for their help gathering songs for this post. And let me say that I have left plenty of street songs for a possible future theme there, if anyone is interested.
It’s not hard to find songs whose titles are street names. But it is rare to find that the song is literally about the place. Rather, street names represent, in the minds of the songwriters, a state of mind associated with a place. The most successful of these songs imprint these associations into the minds of the listeners. The better known the song, the harder it becomes to ever see that street name again without making the same connection the songwriter did.
Richard Shindell: Mercy Street
Mercy Street is entirely a state of mind. The song was inspired by the author Anne Sexton. Sexton was a mental patient who suffered from severe depression. She took to writing as a form of therapy, creating poems, and eventually a play, 45 Mercy Street. This therapy created some enduring art, but did not save Sexton’s life. She committed suicide in 1974. The darkness in the song represents her depression.
I could have posted Peter Gabriel’s original version of the song. It is certainly worthy. But Richard Shindell is a musician who always finds his way to the emotional heart of a song, whether it be his own or a cover. I chose his version because I want more people to know about his work.
Nellie McKay: Manhattan Avenue
Manhattan Avenue is a beautiful jazz ballad. The music leads you to expect a sumptuous love story. But Nellie McKay uses this musical setting to depict an impoverished street, inhabited by both muggers and children. Despite the starkness of the setting, dreams also live here.
Gerry Rafferty: Baker Street
Baker Street addresses a character who came to the city seeking excitement, and found loneliness and alienation. After eloquently describing his state of mind, Gerry Rafferty gives him a way out. He can return to the town he came from.
My long time readers may be surprised to see this song here. The basic four piece rock band is augmented by horns and a large string section. There is extra percussion. This is the type of 70s production that I often rail against. But here, all of the elements of the arrangement make sense. The lushness of the arrangement, compared to the content of the lyrics, forms a nice irony. This is a 70s production that works. And that is why this song never sounds dated, when so many others do.
The Beatles: Penny Lane
Gerry Rafferty’s character dreams of a place like Penny Lane. Here every street corner is home to a friend. The warmth of an actual nighborhood has never been described better.
Penny Lane is also a fine early example of The Beatles and producer George Martin’s mastery of the recording studio. It is difficult to appreciate now just how innovative the production on this was.
XTC: Respectable Street
XTC provides a depiction of the dark side of small town life. Here, familiarity breeds contempt. Everyone knows, and judges, everyone. And these judgments include observations of all manner of hypocrisy.
I have always said that what kills a punk band is that they learn to play their instruments. That happened very quickly to XTC. Respectable Street retains the raw energy of punk, but adds a crispness in the guitar parts, and a rhythmic sophistication that is almost funk. The vocals, similarly, retain the strong emotion of XTC’s punk roots, but are sung rather than shouted.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Phish: Fast Enough For You
Fast Enough For You is almost a perfect pop ballad. It has chiming guitars and a soaring vocal line. It has just the right touch in the production: there is no wall of strings, or a horn section, or chorus vocals from a cast of thousands. Any and all of these touches would have killed this song. And it has a line that perfectly expresses how love grows over the course of a relationship: “I’d be happy just to watch you age.” Of course, the song uses the standard format of verse, chorus, v- hey, what just happened?
This is, after all, Phish. In fact, there is only one verse. Then there is the first chorus, then an instrumental break, then the second chorus, then a coda to finish. The instrumental break does not contain the vocal melody, but, structurally speaking, this is the second verse. Because they are playing within a conventional song structure, this doesn’t sound odd. The lyrics to Fast Enough For You are enigmatic, but they seem to describe a situation where one partner in a relationship wants things to move much faster than the other. Once the situation is stated with words, Phish elaborates on the emotions of the situation with their instruments instead of their voices. And they make it work. Most people wouldn’t, and probably shouldn’t, try this with their songs.
So maybe this is a perfect pop ballad after all. But only because it’s Phish.
Monday, October 12, 2009
There is a singer/ songwriter I know of. She has a limited vocal range, and her vocal lines sometimes seem limited as a result, but she manages within these limitations to be remarkably expressive. Her guitar playing doesn’t call attention to itself, but, on rare occasions it comes out that she is a fine player. But the main draw is her words. She writes the kind of enigmatic lyrics that can make close friends get into heated discussions about their meaning, but, with no agreement reached, the conversation is fascinating.
No, I’m not talking about Suzanne Vega. I’m talking about Raina Rose.
End of Endless False Starts is Raina Rose’s latest release. Rose sings in a voice with a deceptive sweetness to it. I kept expecting the album to dissolve into new-age vapidness, but it never happens. In fact, Rose’s voice has a strength to it that creeps up on you slowly as you listen. Her guitar playing is a highly rhythmic strumming, with occasional fingerpicking mixed in. Producer John Elliott creates varied textures for the songs, starting with mostly acoustic instruments initially, then adding distorted electronics in the middle part, and pulling back to the softer sound at the end.
Before I go on, I want to tell you a little about myself. I mentioned that Rose’s lyrics are enigmatic, and I interpreted them through the filter of my own experience. I am the youngest of three boys. When I turned eighteen, my father gathered the family together to tell us that he was leaving my mother. My mother nursed her hurt for several years, and my parents never got back together. But eventually, they became friends again. In due time, I got married. My wife and I had four years together before my daughter was born. Eventually, we also had a son. We are still together, and I don’t foresee that changing.
Now, let me tell you what I hear in Raina Rose’s words. End of Endless False Starts describes the evolution of a relationship. The album begins with Are You Still in Love With the World? When the two characters meet, one or both are on the rebound from a painful breakup. As they set aside the emotional baggage, Desire, physical, emotional, and intellectual, takes over. They become an item. Blind Cyrus reveals that she is a traveling musician, one who suffers a sudden attack of homesickness in the middle of a performance. Air & Water skips ahead in time. Now they have had a son and a daughter, and the children are ready to go off on their own; the couple are about to get reacquainted, after living for the children for so long. The River backs up, to look at their hopes and fears from when their son was born.
Suddenly, in Misaligned Tires, the music changes abruptly. What had been a sunny sound, with only occasional clouds, abruptly turns dark and threatening. The song describes a wild and dangerous ride. He leaves her all of a sudden, as she wrestles with her pain and anger. It’s an amazing and startling moment on the album. After some time has passed, she realizes that she still loves and misses him. This is eloquently expressed in This Ain’t My House. Finally, in Not Not Love, they get back together. The relationship now has a sense of fragility that was never there before, and this is captured beautifully.
The album closes with Starts With a Low Hum. Everything seems to be in turmoil again, and the lyrics here were the most opaque to me of any on the album. But what I think may be happening is that the mother is seeing her experiences repeated in her daughter’s life. All of the old feelings come back in a rush.
Sprinkled throughout all of this are religious allusions and images that I cannot interpret. So there could be a whole other layer of meaning that I am completely missing. What I know is that the words are fascinating, and the album as a whole is compelling and emotionally real. Raina Rose is hard at work on her next one. I hope to have a report here when it’s done.
I should also mention a peculiar thing. There are ten songs listed on the album cover. But, if you pop the disc into your computer, you will discover that there are twelve tracks. Track eleven is a minute and a half of silence followed 20 seconds of odd noises. But track twelve is an extra song called I Would Like to Kiss Everyone. I was strongly tempted to post it here, to make sure everyone got to hear it. It has a great groove, and a very imaginative arrangement. I don’t think it fits in with storyline of the album, but it is a treat.
Raina Rose: Blind Cyrus
Raina Rose: Misaligned Tires