Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Aristocrats: The Princess and the Frog

Michael Smith: The Princess and the Frog


As I was chopping carrots (murderess!) for vegetable soup earlier today, I had a royal epiphany – I realized we’ve showcased plenty of Kings and Queens this week, and my Prince needed a companion as well…

Who better than the Princess in Michael Smith’s song, which I briefly mentioned in my Zippy post for our Silly Songs theme – like Darius, I have no intention of repeating artists, but I’m never one to stand in the way of a love connection (although, now that I think about it, my so-many-frogs-so-little-time princess is a bit too self-absorbed and my dark-eyed prince entirely too melancholy)…

The Aristocrats: Sun King

The Beatles: Sun King


Originally titled Here Comes the Sun King, but shortened to avoid confusion with George Harrison's Here Comes the Sun. It's probably best remembered by John Lennon's mixing of faux Italian, Spanish and Portuguese:

Quando paramucho mi amore defelice corazon
Mundo pararazzi mi amore chicka ferdy parasol
Cuesto obrigado tanta mucho que can eat it carousel

From an 1969 interview:

"We just started joking, you know, singing 'quando para mucho.' So we just made up... Paul knew a few Spanish words from school, you know. So we just strung any Spanish words that sounded vaguely like something. And of course we got 'chicka ferdy' in. That's a Liverpool expression. Just like sort of - it doesn't mean anything to me but 'na-na, na-na-na!' 'Cake and eat it' is another nice line too, because they have that in Spanish - 'Que' or something can eat it. One we missed - we could have had 'para noya,' but we forgot all about it." - John Lennon

The Aristocrats: King of Bohemia

Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy

Linda Ronstadt: King of Bohemia


Linda Ronstadt became a pop star in the 1970s, and mined her pop-country rock sound until the early 80s. But popular tastes veered in other directions, and Ronstadt began to see her commercial appeal recede. So, in 1983, she took a risk, and recorded an album of standards with Nelson Riddle, who had made his name thirty years earlier, as Frank Sinatra’s arranger. Surprisingly, Ronstadt’s risk payed off, resulting in her most popular album in five years. From that point on, Ronstadt’s career has consisted of periodic attempts to record another hit, mixed with albums that she recorded for the shear joy of the music. While she has never had another huge hit with any of the material of the sort that first made her famous, her “shear joy” albums have resulted in some of her finest artistic achievements. It’s just a shame that more people aren’t listening.

The most recent of these “shear joy” albums was Adieu False Heart, recorded with the wonderful Cajun musician, Ann Savoy. “King of Bohemia” is the only song on the album that features Ronstadt without Savoy, but its approach is consistent with the rest of the album. The song is a cover of a Richard Thompson tune, and Ronstadt preserves in her version the one line that is gender-specific, (“With your rich girl rags and all.”) It’s not at all clear to me where the title comes from, and without it, it’s pretty hard to shoehorn this song into this week’s theme, but I really wanted present this.

Richard Thompson: King of Bohemia


It’s not usually my habit to present two songs by the same artist in different posts in the same week, but I wanted to make a case for Linda Ronstadt’s artistry. To my ears, Thompson’s original version sounds like an unfinished demo. The rhythm is choppy, the spare arrangement sounds like it needs the rest of the band, even the vocal seems uncertain, as if Thompson wanted to go back later and finish it, but never got the chance.

Linda Ronstadt took this “demo”, and found the rest of the song. Her arrangement and vocal found a perfect match for the emotion of Thompson’s words. And the result is a thing of beauty.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Aristocrats: Dark-Eyed Prince

Danny Schmidt: Dark-Eyed Prince


I won’t regale you with a laundry list of songwriter competition wins/runners-up… or glowing reviews of his 5 (soon to be 6) CDs… plus a songbook (which, even though I am the furthest thing from a singer/performer, I bought because I love his writing style so much) – I will, however, tell you one of Danny Schmidt's songs, Company of Friends, was quoted in Rob Brezsny’s Free Will Astrology horoscopes (scroll down to Leo, which I am, by the way)… high praise indeed…

Touring musician friend/Waterbug Records founder/president Andrew Calhoun (who I used to book gigs for) is my personal E. F. Hutton of the folk world - when Andrew speaks (Jonathan Byrd, Anais Mitchell, Jack Harris, etc.), I listen! He told me about Danny Schmidt four years ago and I've been enjoying ever since - in fact, soon after, I took part of my commission in DS CDs!

There’s just something about Danny’s rough-yet-tender voice, his incisive guitar-playing and his insightful lyrics that invoke a lump-in-the-throat effect on me… not to mention his penchant for the pun - to borrow a word from the aforementioned Company of Friends, I am smitten...

Parables & Primes remains my favorite, maybe because it was my first… perfectly produced, equally rich and tasteful. In Danny’s own words, about the songs on that CD in general, and Dark-Eyed Prince specifically:

1) They're written metaphorically and symbolically and in allegory and in parable. There are very few moments on this album that, if you can take them literally at all, don't represent something else, also. They're not all story songs, but I think they all pay homage, at least, to the sneaky power of story telling -- that a sharp-fanged truth might better sneak into the house wearing a pretty red hood.

2) They deal with deep-down-in-your-marrow sort of primal themes. They, for the most part, speak to love and loneliness and mortality and health and hunger and the dirty and the divine. These aren't toaster oven songs. These are more fire circle songs. More dirt floor than linoleum. The topics are really pretty basic. Indivisible level kinds of things. Primes, in my mind -- late at night, anyway.

Dark-Eyed Prince: This is a character sketch, basically -- of a poor conflicted soul who keeps trying to reach out and then keeps retreating back into his castle. The painting on the cover sorta struck me as reminiscent of the Dark-Eyed Prince.

Interestingly, when I first saw the cover of the CD, it reminded me of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s work… as I’ve had his Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn portraits (“the vegetable gents”, as my friend Laurie says) in my kitchen for decades – yet one more reason to love Danny…

The Aristocrats: King of the Road

Teddy Thompson & Rufus Wainwright: King of the Road


No week full of kings and queens would be complete without the "King of the Road". Unfortunately, at the moment the Roger Miller original eludes me, but this cover is pretty great, and it definitely fills the void.

This version of the song was featured on the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack, and you can't go wrong with such a classic song when you get artists like Rufus and Teddy with their excellent music pedigrees (Teddy being the son of Richard and Linda Thompson, and Rufus being the son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle) to give their own take on such a great song. This song, the original and the cover, always makes me smile.

The Aristocrats: When We Were Kings

Have Gun, Will Travel - When We Were Kings


Have Gun, Will Travel is Matthew Burke (voice, acoustic guitar, banjo, harmonica), Daniel Burke (bass guitar, voice), Jean-Paul Beaubien (drums, percussion), Nathaniel Oliver (elec. guitar, lap steel, voice), and Joshua Hernandez (viola). It began as the solo acoustic side project of Matt Burke, releasing an EP that managed to produce a few national ripples. Somewhere between that EP and Casting Shadows Tall as Giants, Burke dropped the “solo” and (I believe) the “side”, making HGWT a full-fledged effort. The result is a solid debut of 12 seemingly death-obsessed tracks.

The Aristocrats: The Lady of Shalott

Loreena McKennitt: The Lady of Shalott


No week of songs about aristocrats could be complete without a tale from the Arthurian legends. Here, after all, we have a set of tales in which almost no common folk appear.

I’m sure that most readers are familiar with the main outline of the story of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. But the Arthurian legends also encompass a large number of side stories. In particular, when the knights scatter throughout the countryside in search of the Holy Grail, each knight has his own adventures. “The Lady of Shalott” is the tale of what happens to Sir Lancelot during this time. The telling used here is by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Loreena McKennitt is a Canadian artist with a beautiful, almost operatic, soprano voice which she knows how to use to best affect. She plays harp, piano, and other keyboards. Her music can be found under new age or Celtic or world music; all of those labels have some validity, but none do justice to her music.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Aristocrats: The Jungle King

Cab Calloway & His Orchestra: The Jungle King


I bought my first Cab Calloway album when I was thirteen - his energy, flamboyant stage presence and style equated to Rock And Roll before it even had a name. I was enamored by his powerful voice, he claimed his full throated style came from listening to cantors sing in neighboring synagogues during his in Baltimore childhood. I was lucky enough to catch him perform in a small Hollywood Jazz club during the eighties, he seldom used a microphone, that legendary voice still filled the air.

The Jungle King is one of Cab's better numbers, it's based on The Signifyin' Monkey, which is older than the hills - from Wikipedia:

There are numerous stock songs and narratives concerning the Signifying Monkey and his interactions with his friends, the Lion and the Elephant. In general the stories see the Signifying Monkey insulting the Lion, but claiming that he is only repeating the Elephant’s words. The Lion then confronts the Elephant, who soundly beats the Lion. The Lion later comes to realize that the Monkey has been signifyin(g) and has duped him and returns angrily.

Enjoy Cab Calloway sing how the King of the Jungle was reduced to tears by a wise monkey - a lesson wrapped in Jazzy Jive from the Hepcat King himself.

The Aristocrats: Sultans of Swing

Dire Straits: Sultans of Swing


So many king and queen songs yet to come, not to mention all those folk songs about Lord This and Sir That, but I thought I'd break up the folk and the trend toward western royalty a bit more by sending forth a relatively common but no less poignant or potent poptune from the Sultans of Swing themselves, as led by mastermind lyricist and distinctive guitarrock wizard Mark Knopfler.

You probably know this as ubiquitous and easily dismissable, despite its great hooks and masterful guitar solo (#22 on Guitar World's list of the greatest ever), but the tune has relevance, I think. The song emerged in the midst of the late disco era as an anomaly -- a daringly straightforward rock tune in the midst of a disco and pre-punk era; it took a few months to take off, given the BBC reluctance to play the song due to its "high lyrical content", but eventually reached top ten in the UK and the US; the tune, a first single, originally recorded as a demo and later re-recorded, truly put Dire Straits on the map, driving their self-titled album double platinum, and setting the stage for a long and fruitful career.

The song also holds an unusual place in the musical pantheon: to wit, most bands don't write a song about failed bar bands just happy to be playing the songs until at least their third album (see, for example, The Late Greats, which closes Wilco's fifth release), when they start to miss their roots a bit. Look past the cultural familiarity, and listen with 1978's ears; I think you'll find this song remains a powerful statement for the ages, even as it masquerades as classic rock fluff in an indie world.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Aristocrats: King And Caroline

Guided By Voices - King And Caroline [purchase]

The drunken jesters of the Indie Rock Empire wax rhapsodic about the aristocracy. One of GBV's many perfect vignettes, it has several appealing elements: A killer bass line, the wobbly harmony between the bass and guitar, Bob Pollard's keening voice, especially at the "Overrun by the rank/Roll over like an egg" line, and Tobin Sprout's vocal harmonies coming in at the coda. 94 seconds of perfectly skewed pop economy.

And the wisdom they will sell ...

The Aristocrats: A Pair of Kings from Martin Carthy

Martin Carthy is one of the key figures in English folk music. He was one of the founding members of Steeleye Span. He later was part of the Albion Band. And, by marriage to Norma, he became part of the first family of English folk, the Watersons. But it is his solo work that really makes the case for his importance. Carthy is a tireless researcher who is devoted to preserving English folk traditions, and the versions of many songs that he pieced together from song fragments he found in his studies have become the definitive versions of these songs. Carthy is also a fine singer and instrumentalist. He often plays guitar, but can also be heard on dulcimer and other strings.

Martin Carthy: King Henry


In addition to the version heard here, Carthy also recorded King Henry with Steeleye Span. And yes, this is another of those English folk songs with pre-Christian elements. King Henry goes hunting, and kills the finest deer anyone has ever seen. After a great feast, he and his court retire for the evening. At midnight, a howling wind, followed immediately by the shaking of the earth, announce the imminent arrival of a supernatural being. This proves to be an impossibly ugly female giant. She demands that King Henry kill and feed her his best horse, his hunting hounds, and his hunting falcons. Finally she demands that he “lie with her” until morning. When they awaken, she has been magically transformed into a beautiful woman who presumably becomes his queen.

Tales of human nobles encountering extremely ugly females who transform into beautiful women abound in English folklore, particularly in the earliest forms of the Arthurian tales. A famous example is Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady. The ugly woman is the goddess of sovereignty, and the noble must mate with her to truly become king. In King Henry, it seems clear that the deer that the king hunted was one of hers. In addition, the first food she demands involves the sacrifice of a horse. In pre-Christian times, the sacrifice of a horse was an essential part of the rituals a new king would perform upon assuming the throne.

Martin Carthy: King Knapperty


King Knapperty is an entirely different matter. The tale of maiden who must wed an impossibly ugly king, it is played purely for laughs. It is possible that this song originated as a kind of spoof of tales like King Henry; it turns everything about King Henry completely on its head, and has no ritual significance that I can recognize.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Aristocrats: Royal Blues

Rachel Bissex: Royal Blues


Long story short: musician Rachel Bissex passed away the morning of February 20, 2005 from complications of breast cancer at the age of 48.

Short story longer: I was honored to call Rachel friend throughout the almost-ten-years I knew her – she was kind, she was generous in spirit, she was witty, she was life-embracing, she was a true musician and a “harmony whore” (her words), her beautiful voice tastefully adding to anyone else’s song, even if she was hearing it for the first time.

Upon finding out I was a Dar Williams fan, Rachel told me that, in addition to Dar singing additional vocals, Royal Blues contained many Dar references (diminutive in size, February, footprints in the snow)… and that, one day, she’d tell me the full story, over a glass (or three) of pinot grigio, our wine of choice – I will always regret that day never came…

In April 2005, plans began for Remembering Rachel and in July 2005, a 2-CD set of Rachel's songs sung by her friends and colleagues, including some of the top folk performers, was released, with 100% of all performance, mixing, mastering, distribution, graphic design, hosting and advertising costs donated. This labor of love was dedicated to raising funds to fulfill Rachel's final wish to pay for the college education of her children, Emma Goldberg and Matt Cosgrove…

Long story longer can be found here

The Aristocrats: Queen of Hearts

Juice Newton: Queen of Hearts


This song is one I loved when I was little. It came out in 1981, I was only a few years old at the time. The song has just such a fun beat and her voice is just so clear and fresh sounding, how could a little girl not dance around her room with this record playing?

As far as Juice Newton goes, she's best known for her version of the song "Angel of the Morning", the ballad about being someone's one-night-stand. But "Queen of Hearts" came from the same album, and it certainly has a much different feel. Juice left the pop mainstream for a country music career (something you can somewhat hear in this song) and did quite well, but her debut pop album is how most people will remember her.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Aristocrats: King of Spain

Moxy Fruvous: King of Spain


Royalty, lord it looked good on me
Buried in silk in the royal boudoir or going nuclear free
Or playing Crokinole with the Princess of Monaco
Telling my jokes to the OPEC leaders, getting it all on video

Like so many folkies, I once considered Canadian ex-folkrockers Moxy Fruvous "our" rock band, though looking back, I find that such ownership was primarily endemic to a particular New England ruralfolk mindset -- one extraordinarily provincial, in fact, as evidenced by in-joke C-side Beware The Killer Tents, which name-drops a good several dozen older folk musicians who were in attendance at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival the year that the winds were so heavy that at least one camper's tent took to the air, soaring above the festival mainstage like a bright and tiny hot air balloon, to live forever in infamy and song among a tiny slice of those who were there, and care.

But no matter the in-crowd, and no matter the unplugged geekrock sound, the folk connection is obvious, as is the glee with which they present it. As a general case, though their mid-career work got a bit folksappy, Moxy Fruvous at their best present a particularly ecosensitive mindset mapped in vocal-heavy madness; here, on one of several catchy numbers from their indie label debut Bargainville, they apply this winning solution to a delightful tale of an honest royal's rise and fall a la the same bait and switch that made the classic tale of the Prince and Pauper so memorable, with the abdication of the throne in favor of socialized foodstuffs and good honest work in the northernmost lands of the American continent, where royalty is still celebrated at a distance via coinage and faint-praise tribute, but the people truly rule.

I considered this silly ditty for our previous theme, but it belongs here, too, and I'm happy to have a second chance to share it. Though the band remains on indefinite hiatus after a mere decade of existence (circa 1989 to 2000), I'd encourage those charmed by the Fruvous sound to pursue the Fruhead archives.

The Aristocrats: Pharaoh

Richard Thompson: Pharaoh


In starting to plan my posts for this week, I started thinking about kings and queens, dukes and earls, even viscounts. Then it hit me: why do they have to be English aristocrats? After all there were aristocrats long before there was England. And as soon as I had that thought, this song came to mind.

Pharaoh is actually an old favorite of mine. My first acquaintance with Richard Thompson came through reading about him in the music press of the 1980s. He sounded like the sort of artist I should like, so I went out and got his current album at the time, Amnesia. Over all, I was disappointed. I was told to expect a masterful guitar player, but many of the tracks just sounded to me like noise. But the album ended with Pharaoh, and this was more like it! A slow song with very little guitar at all, and not anything like what I had read about, this was the song that grabbed me and has held me ever since.

Over the years, I have had occasion to reassess the music I liked and disliked in the 80s. Much of what I thought sounded great has aged badly, although a surprising amount has held up. But Richard Thompson’s music sounds better to me with each passing year. And Pharaoh still stands as one of my favorites.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Aristocrats: King Of Carrot Flowers

Neutral Milk Hotel: King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1


From one of the weirdest, most endearing, and at times most disturbing albums in my library, King Of Carrot Flowers is not a tale of vegetable royalty, but of childhood angst and discovery. This, the opening track of the album, sets the stage for a frantic and wild ride through Jeff Mangum's fevered mind.  As the folks at AMG wrote, this album is either the work of a genius or of a crackpot.  I'd definitely recommend checking it out.