Saturday, November 28, 2009

What I Like

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

For a Song - River

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 - Cogs, Wheels and Lovers


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

Waltz Time, Part II

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

Waltz Time, Part I

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

Difficult News

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.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

She Swings, She Sways - Wasted Love Songs


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

Housing Project

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

For a Song: Hotel California

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 - Chrysalis


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