Saturday, February 25, 2017

POUR: Moi, Ca Plane - Plastic Bertrand

Just because my country has voted to BRexit Europe doesn't make me any the less the polyglot Francophile. (Pretentious? Moi?) So, given a paucity of songs pouring out this, that and and the other, or like this, that or the other, what am I to do? My first choice has had several appearances here, so it has to be the glory that is Plastic Bertrand.

Roger Allen Francois Jared, a member of that scatologically slim brotherhood, Famous Belgians, isn't really all that famous, even arguably in Brussels. But he did have an international hit single in 1977, a number 8 in the UK, and, highly convincingly for a foreign language song, number 57 in the U.S. Billboard chart. And while it only peaked at 11 in his homeland, of course the french and the swiss granted it toppermost off the poppermost, with number 1s.


It wasn't even his song, it having been originally written and performed by his record producer, Lou Deprijck, always denied by Jared until a 2010 court case eventually confirmed the truth. In fact, he hadn't sung any of the songs on his first 4 albums. Ooops. I think this truth spoils the story, if I am honest, but thankfully there has yet to be a case questioning the validity of one Elton Motello, who sang a loosely "translated" english version.

Thankfully leaving that behind, I thought it entirely essential to reveal another genuinely francophone version, courtesy the excellent Nouvelle Vague. From their 3rd album, this is what the band had to say about it. (O, so it wasn't sung by a french person either......)



Finally, and unnecessarily, above is a version I had never been aware of, NYC's finest, Sonic Youth, covering it. I wondered why too.

Find the original here

(And I bet you are still reeling that Audrey Hepburn was belgian?)

Friday, February 24, 2017

Pour: Coffee and Tea Edition

The Ink Spots: The Java Jive

[purchase]

Manhattan Transfer: The Java Jive

[purchase]

I will always associate this song with being excused from gym class. It happened in my senior year of high school. I had sung in the men’s chorus, (which was a way of getting out of homeroom), for three years, and the conductor urged me in my junior year to take choir as well. I also took choir as a senior, but I never even considered taking Schola Cantorum. This was the elite small singing group and class, and I never thought I would be good enough. I was, however, a rarity in high school especially, a true basso profundo, a low bass. I could sing notes below the staff with authority. So it happened in the middle of my senior year that one of the basses in Schola Cantorum broke his leg in a skiing accident, and could not perform with the group for the rest of the year. My choir teacher, who also taught Schola, basically strong-armed me into the group. He even got me excused from gym for the remainder of the year, which meant I got credit for nine classes in an eight period day. Java Jive was the first song I learned with the new group.

Java Jive was originally done by the Ink Spots, as presented here. I did not know that until years later. When I found the Manhattan Transfer version, I thought my search was over. In fact, I don’t think Manhattan Transfer has ever done an original song, but they do have a marvelous way with covers. Their Java Jive starts out being pretty faithful to the Ink Spots, but, at the bridge where they start listing the beans, they begin to make the song their own, and they take it out in style. The original lyric here says, “unless it is a cheery cheery bean”, which I have to assume was period slang. Manhattan Transfer’s pronunciation here is muddy, and some later versions sing it as the nonsensical, “chili chili bean.” I have never tried using coffee beans in chili, and I don’t expect to.

Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights: I’m a Little Teapot

Finally, our theme would not be complete without a version of I’m a Little Teapot. I have played the hero here, wading through some truly appalling examples of how bad children’s music can be to find this one. It’s a bit obscure now, and I could not find a purchase link. But this one was a big band hit in 1940. There was a dance that went with it, the Teapot Tip. The song was written a year earlier, and a dance that was more appropriate for very young children, and also easier, was also created at that time. I don’t have all of the details, but I believe the kids’ version was basically the moves that kids do to the song to this day. If you have ever sat through the preschooler portion of a dance school recital, you know the moves I mean. Meanwhile, in my big band version, I believe the singer is Ronnie Kelton. This is the only version of the song I could find that includes the lyrics about Napoleon.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Pour: Jose, Weather Girls & Supertramp




purchase [ Jose Feliciano ]
purchase [ Weather Girls ]
purchase [ Supertramp ]


The current theme [pour] came came to mind from a number of places: a theme that hasn't been done before... a theme that is somehow current ... a theme that might spark the disparate contributors and therefore interest the audience. Actually, it was raining cats and dogs as the theme idea was in gestation. Buckets.  But at the the same time, it occured to us that there are a number of things that pour: liquids .... yes; ... some solids as well (marbles and beads pour well), but also emotions. Emotions, as in what a vocalist or a piano player puts into his/her performance: they pour out their hearts, and it is that which makes one performance  different or better than another. It is songs where the artist pours out his/her heart that draw us in and that we love.

There is no small list of songs that include "pour" either in the title or the lyrics: poring rain, pouring out my heart, pouring  liquid or other.

Of course, as a child, you likely learned: It's raining, it's pouring ... the old man is snoring.
Jose Feliciano's Rain make the most of it.



But - keeping in mind that pouring has multiple connotations ... here's a couple more:
Weather Girls:

 

Supertramp:
it's the sax player that is pouring it out here ...


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Small Town: Swann Street


Purchase: www.dischord.com

Here’s a band that never really was: Three was an offshoot of two DC bands, Minor Threat (drummer Jeff Nelson) and members of Grey Matter, with early involvement from Dischord Records creator and DC musical founding father, Ian MacKaye. Mackaye and Nelson had just recorded a legendary (in my town) two song project called Egg Hunt, and were looking to form something new. Sadly, Three never got off the ground, save for one album, a brilliant rock n roll album, far afield from the discordant, angry nue-punk we expect from Dischord, called Dark Days Coming.

On that album, which I heard first on vinyl, which places it in its own special category of my musical memories, is a song called Swann Street. Swann Street is anthemic in the very best ways, slow burning through a solo acoustic guitar opening before winding up full-on with tidal wave drums, Townshed-esque power chords, and a chorus meant to sung stadium-sized loud.

Despite the refrain to “keep your ear to the ground”, which is radio-worthy and demands a sing-along, there’s an odd, somewhat out of place line, …”these berries smell like shit/I don’t know why,” which places this song firmly in DC territory. The song is named after the street in Dupont Circle, Swann Street, where singer Steve Niles lived. The berries are a reference to the Gingko trees that line the streets of DC, especially in my old neighborhood of Dupont. Famous for dropping a particularly stinky berry, everyone in DC knows the springtime nightmare of stepping on a gingko berry and then carrying that sticky, jellied mess into their home, grinding it in the carpet—getting it out shoe tread is worse than dealing with dog poo. The smell of ginkgo permeates the city in spring and never fails to make one wonder: who the hell planted these trees? They had to know…

According to Dischord.com, where I had to turn to get a lot of this info, Three imploded before Dark Days Coming was released, but Grey Matter went on to release a number of seminal Dischord albums, and in 2008, at the Black Cat’s 15 Anniversary show, they performed a superb rendition. Hearing the audience singing along reminded me of both what a great song this is, but also how insular, in the best way, the DC music scene was (is).  This is a secret classic, and when I meet someone who knows this song, knows how great it is, there is an instant bond, in the way the great songs can bind us together.

I’m not doing the song justice: I picked it because even now, at 45, the song turns me up inside like it did when I first heard it, back in 1990. Sometimes, when I try to put into words what songs mean, I feel like I’m somehow taking away from the neural-spark that a great song ignites inside that ineffable joy, a sharpening of the soul, a infinite initial reaction that, despite the years, will always repeat.  

Swann Street is a boundless, wound-up blast; a rock anthem worthy of bands far bigger in size than Three and it never fails to remind me of home. And, DC, despite being a seat of power and almost always the center of the world’s attention, is really just a small town. But, then, home should always feel that way. Here's a few versions of your new favorite song:







Friday, February 17, 2017

SMALL TOWN: TRUCK STOP LOVE



purchase Truck Stop Love


For a young college student, the transition from late spring final exams to full-time employment in summer is liberating. It’s also strange. You transition from hours upon hours of intense intellectual work to hours upon hours of menial, brainless labor: laying cement, cleaning toilets and in my case waiting tables.

Truck Stop Love, which has about 300 hits for most of its songs on YouTube, made poignant, alt country rock music that reflected beautifully on its time and place: the early 90s Midwest. Live, the Manhattan, KS band was unbridled and loud as hell. They were my soundtrack in the summer of 94’ and a band that deserved major attention.

The song “Townie” (75 hits as I write) is an anthem for the ones in ripped jeans and dirty t-shirts who roll around like tumbleweeds in the empty summer sun from one coffee shop or bar to the next--budget of a couple bucks. The opening of “Townie” floats--like much of the song--one guitar jangles and the other is fuzzed up. The scene is set:

“Bob’s at home lookin at her locket…You’re 22--hands in your pocket--looking for a friend to get you high. Should I get a haircut? Do I look like a Jimmy Page? You’re 22, got no money in your pocket. Looking for a girl to take you home.”

It’s one of a few Truck Stop Love songs, including the sweet and crunchy “Other Stars” that reflects on hair and haircuts. And hair was very important at this time.  Long hair was coming back and was the preferred style of grunge bands. You don’t forget Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain’s hair whipped over their shoulders or Kim Thayil playing his evil licks behind a gate of dark curls. As a college kid, you wished you had just come into school with long hair. Growing it out took time and made you come across as a wannabe. Once it got to the shoulders and you settled in with it for a couple months, you were cool. I cut mine just a couple weeks into a potential pony tail stage. It was skunky looking, and I never thought it was me.

“Small town boy, got a tattoo on your side….Small town boy, got a chain hanging from your pocket”. You’re 22, playin’ pinball in your pocket. Waiting on a lost cause to get you by.”

I stayed in my university town an extra year after graduation and was on the verge of becoming a “Townie”. The town began to shrink, however. Hitting bars started giving me a creepy embarrassment and the occasional flash fear of being a lifetime waiter. The thought of becoming that philosophy major who stuck around for twenty years to continue working in his favorite bar and hit on college girls sparked me to get the hell out of there. I ended up teaching in a tiny town in Japan.

"Hey Joe, you got some smoke? Well I got some fire. I’ll pay you back anytime. ('yeah right')."

I saw Truck Stop Love Twice. The first time was when I booked them for 250 bucks to play at our university as part of a punk show. The young kids who typically came to shows usually wanted fast and loud, so I was nervous that TSL might underwhelm when playing next to Compound Red and Alligator Gun, two great live bands from Milwaukee. Making matters more difficult was that one of the two singers, the one who sang on “Townie” and “Stagnation” (“I’ve been down to your bar/It looks the same or did you remodel?”), had a sore throat and wouldn’t sing. But when the audience of 40 started chanting “Townie! Townie!” the other band mates badgered him into it. The band had to be surprised a university audience knew and liked a song enough to call it out. Actually, as Music Director, I had kept their debut e.p. on our college station’s CMJ charts for about 6 months.

TSL stayed at my house that night. I remember the singer getting sick of the Possum Dixon cd I was playing and going up and changing it himself to Pavement. A German teacher, who was an old punk, sat down and gave the band a lecture on how to bring more attitude to their music, which was endured by the band as long as the Leinenkugels kept coming.

When I woke up the next morning and made my way downstairs, they had already left, a pizza box was against the wall and it said, “Thanks, Jake. We’ll see you again. Truck Stop Love.”

A year later after I had graduated I saw TSL in my university town again. They were without the above guitarist/vocalist and most of them had cut their hair. The sound wasn’t nearly as thick and gutsy as I had remembered. They basically seemed like a decent bar band at that point. Their album “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”, which was put out on Scotti Brothers, which had also released their brilliant e.p., did very little on college radio. They looked ready to fold. But for a year, their music described my life like poetry.




Thursday, February 16, 2017

Small Town: Devil Town


[purchase the soundtrack]

Lots of TV shows have been set in small towns, but my favorite, by far, was Friday Night Lights. In fact, I’d argue that season 1 of the show was as good as any first season of any show I’ve seen. While there were some creative ups and downs over the show’s five season run (really, Landry killed a guy?), it still ranks as one of my all-time favorites. If you haven’t seen it, it is available on Netflix, and elsewhere, and you really should.

I’m not from Texas, and I’ve never lived in a place where football held such importance as the fictional town of Dillon, where the show is set, but what made the show so great was the way that it created a world that was nevertheless recognizable to more than small town dwelling Texans. Not only recognizable, but relatable.

The show also used music well. I’ve written before about the role that Explosions in the Sky had, although not as prominent a role as it did in the film on which the TV show is loosely based, but it also used popular music in a way that enhanced and commented on the narrative. Many articles have been written about the show’s music, so it isn’t just me.

One of the most memorable musical moments comes at the end of the first season, a season that started with a tragedy and built toward the Dillon Panthers’ rocky road to “State,” the championship game in (now demolished) Texas Stadium. SPOILER ALERT: The Panthers win, with an improbable second half comeback. Look—it is a TV show, and in its first season, with no guarantee of renewal, so forgive the creators (notably, Jason Katims, who went on to create Parenthood, and used a number of FNL actors as guests) if they wanted season 1 to have a happy ending.

After the triumph on the field, and the requisite hugging and mugging, the scene shifts to the team’s victory parade down the main drag in Dillon, with what seems to be the whole town out to cheer. But rather than set the parade to something easy and triumphant, they used the song “Devil Town,” which is anything but.

Originally written and recorded by Daniel Johnson, a talented songwriter who has battled mental illness, but whose voice, admittedly, is an acquired taste,“Devil Town” has been covered by others, probably most famously by Bright Eyes. In fact, when the Friday Night Lights episode was shot, the editor used that version, but when they sought permission to use it in the final broadcast, Bright Eyes declined. Bad move, Conor. Instead, the publishing company suggested a number of other artists, and the creative team decided to commission Austin, Texas singer/songwriter Tony Lucca to cover the song which was used in the scene.  It was also used earlier in the season, and again toward the end of the series. And in a very creepy promo for the show.

The song focuses on the dark side of a small town, and its references to the town’s residents as vampires resonated as a commentary on the odd hero worship that the residents of Dillon, and by extension, other similar places, had for a bunch of athletically gifted teenagers. Prior to writing this, I watched the episode in question again, to see how the song worked in context—and it really was perfect. The entire season didn’t shy away from showing the darker side of Dillon, while also providing a fair number of uplifting ones.

The show essentially starts with the team’s golden boy quarterback, destined for glory, getting paralyzed on the field, and ending up in a wheelchair. That opens the door for the feel good story of the shy, artistic and sensitive backup quarterback to learn leadership skills, have a relationship with the coach’s beautiful daughter and win the state championship. There are characters who are dealing with missing parents, or bad parents, or no parents, as well as strong families. There is love, lust and betrayal, both by adults and teens. People struggle to survive, and others succeed. The show illustrates both racial divisions and racial harmony. There are dreams achieved, and dreams dashed. There is the pure joy of watching a team come together and triumph, and there are craven boosters who use the team for their own benefit. And during the parade sequence, all of this was summarized in the faces and expressions of the characters, as the song played.

Fittingly, the episode, and the season, ended on an ambivalent cliffhanger. We see the victorious coach, who announced his intent to leave the team for a Division I college job, but had expressed second thoughts to his wife, listen to his paralyzed former star turned assistant coach lecture the team on what they need to do in the off season to repeat as champs, in language that could have come from his own inspirational speeches. He enters the locker room and receives a slow-clapping ovation from his team.

Will he go, or will he stay? Season 2 is also on Netflix.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Small Town: In A Town This Size



purchase John Prine [In a Town This Size]


There are a number of things that I like about John Prine.

There's the cynical lyrics about things that should be so damn serious but that he manages to cut to shreds; there's the simplicity of the song structure (yeah, most popular music is I-IV-V) but he makes a lot of that; and then there's his guitar chops - nothing outrageous, but mighty solid. This song is so typical of John Prine's guitar - just about crystal clear - nothing crazy but perfectly there.

For Valentines' day:

You cant steal a kiss
In a place like this
How the rumors do fly
In a town this size