Thursday, December 31, 2009

In Memorium: Willy DeVille

Mink DeVille: Just to Walk That Little Girl Home


Willy DeVille had one of the most soulful voices ever, but far too few people ever got to hear it. He formed the group Mink DeVille in 1975, and made something of a splash at CBGBs in New York City. This was good for his career at first, but in the long run, his music never should have been associated with the punk scene. That was not what he was about.

The other thing that limited DeVille’s potential audience was the fact that he was a musical chameleon. His music had a foundation in R & B, but he stirred Cajun, salsa, and even French cabaret music into his musical stew. Late in his career, he performed with an acoustic trio. And he did not like to repeat himself. The thing is, many of the things he tried worked. And there was always that voice.

Mink Deville had a stable lineup for two albums. After that the lineup shifted constantly, until finally, Willy DeVille decided to continue his career under his own name. Whatever he called it, the music was always emotionally direct, and satisfying. I missed hearing some of his work. Now, unfortunately, I have time to get caught up.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In Memoriam: Kenny Rankin

Kenny Rankin: Haven't We Met?


Kenny Rankin's album Silver Morning was released in 1974 - my then-boyfriend, now-husband and I were segueing to the next step of our college relationship, me still in school (my junior year) in Carrollton, Georgia and him in a post-graduate job with the Red Cross at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. He would drive down to see me or I would take the bus up to see him... a 10+ hour round-trip journey of emotion: anticipation there... and heartbreak returning - we would alternate visits every three months... for two very long years...

We each had a copy of the album in our respective homes, and it was "our" music during that period of our courtship - for making love, for cuddling afterwards, for those special times when no words were required... Kenny's smooth voice and syncopated rhythms would serenade and soothe us. I knew nothing about him other than he had the power to make time stand still - he made us believe everything would be okay and we would eventually be together for life (and here we are 33 years later, but that's a whole other song... :-)

I never bothered to learn Kenny Rankin's backstory... and we didn't even invest in another one of his recordings (could it get any more magical?) - I only just found out about his June passing, because I was immersed in my mother's life transition this summer, and it feels as if I've lost a friend...

In Memoriam: Liam Clancy

Liam Clancy: Navvy Boots On


Originally the term 'navvy' was used for the navigators who were the men who first dug canals and performed inland navigation in Australia. Skilled at moving rock and earth by hand they were also known as excavators, bankers, diggers, and occasionally as pinchers, blue stockings, thick legs or bill boys tradesmen. They were considered an underclass of people who had their own style of dress and way of life that lasted from the mid-18th century to about the 1940s. The term, though not well known in the U.S. is still being used in the U.K. but with changed meaning: now used for a laborer,usually Irish. Because of that change, it has led many people to believe that all navvies were Irish but they were not. In fact most were English.

Liam Clancy was the youngest and the last surviving member of the original Clancy Brothers. He passed away on December 4, 2009. Regarded as the most powerful vocalist in the group, Bob Dylan regarded him as the greatest ballad singer ever. Tom Clancy died on November 7, 1990, Patrick Clancy died on November 11, 1998 and Tommy Makem died on August 1, 2007. Of his status as the last survivor of the band Liam said: “There was always a pecking order, especially when you’re working with family. But they all died off, and I got to the top of the pecking order, with nobody looking over my shoulder. There’s a great sense of freedom about that”

Being a huge fan of the Clancy Brothers and the Irish-Folk genre in general I was deeply saddened with his passing. Thankfully, they recorded enough music to keep me smiling through the sadness.

In Memoriam: John King

John King: Gavotte I and II (From J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 5, BWV 1101)


When John King passed away earlier this year, he left a gaping hole in the ukulele community. Though he only released two albums, John was a master of the tiny, four-stringed instrument, an author of numerous books, and a generous soul who often shared his extensive knowledge of the ukulele, classical guitar history, and Hawaiian music with anybody who asked, on various online forums and at ukulele festivals.

John was unique among ukulele players in that he played in a classical style known as campanella, originally developed in the early Baroque period for the five-course guitarra española, an early ancestor of the modern six-string guitar. Campanella involves playing each succeeding note of a melodic line on a different string, allowing each note to ring out with bell-like resonance, not unlike a harp. The results redefined what a ukulele could sound like.

Like all our featured artists this week, he will be missed.

In Memorium: Mary Travers

Peter Paul & Mary: Puff the Magic Dragon


I will get to Mary Travers, but first, let me set the scene.

In the late 1940s, there was a group of folk singers called the Almanac Singers. Members included Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Their songs were overtly political, and the group was destroyed by the blacklist. Seeger then formed the Weavers. The Weavers avoided political material, and enjoyed a few hits in the early 50s, but soon they too were blacklisted, and could no longer find work. But the Weavers showed that there was a sizable audience for the ensemble folk sound. The folk revival was in full swing, and soon the airwaves were filled with pop-folk groups. The songs were apolitical, and hit followed hit.

By 1961, Greenwich Village in New York City was a center of the folk scene. Mary Travers was one of the few who actually grew up there. That year, she joined up with Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow to form Peter, Paul & Mary, and they began to play local gigs. The next year saw the release of their first album, which was an immediate success.

But Peter, Paul & Mary’s timing could have been better. The next year, the Beatles arrived in the United States, and the popularity of the pop-folk sound vanished. So how is it that Peter Paul & Mary did not? There were two reasons. Ironically, Peter, Paul & Mary stayed in the public eye by performing political material. They played at civil rights demonstrations, and then at peace marches, which is where I first heard them.

The other thing that kept them in the public eye was one song: Puff the Magic Dragon. This song became, (and still is), a classic kid’s song. The lyrics about the power and the limits of childhood imagination are certainly one reason. But the sound of these three voices are a vital ingredient, and it can’t work without Mary Travers. Of course, it can’t work without Peter Yarrow or Paul Stookey either. I find it hard to separate them.

The group would last until 1970, and then go their separate ways for solo projects. They would find that the magic that happened when they were together was essential, and they would regroup in 1978. From there on, they would reaffirm their commitment to social causes. And they would record two albums especially for children and their families, including a new recording of Puff.

One last thought. If you get a chance, catch a special on PBS called Lifelines. It shows up during fund drives. Here, Peter, Paul & Mary share the stage with some of their inspirations, some of their contemporaries, and some of the musicians they inspired. Mary Travers had lost her youthful figure by this time, but I have the strong impression watching her that she is a mother figure here. To me, hers is the strongest presence among some very strong personalities. It is a quiet strength, calmly watching over the proceedings. I don’t know if that is how it was in the group for all those years. But that is how I will think of her.

Monday, December 28, 2009

In Memoriam: John Dawson

New Riders of the Purple Sage: Panama Red


John Collins Dawson IV, nicknamed "Marmaduke", was the leader and one of the co-founders of the New Riders Of The Purple Sage. Born in Detroit he was the son of a California filmmaker. Before attending the Millbrook School for Boys near Millbrook, NY. where he studied music theory and history, he received guitar lessons from Mimi Farina, Joan Baez's sister.

By 1969 The New Riders were the opening act for the Grateful Dead. Original members of the group included three future members of the Dead; Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, Mickey Hart on drums, and Phil Lesh on bass. By 1970, Spencer Dryden and Dave Torbert replaced Hart and Lesh, respectively. Throughout '70 and '71 the New Riders and the Grateful Dead toured together and in '71 Jerry Garcia was replaced with Buddy Cage on the steel guitar, freeing up both bands to play independently of each other. It was during this same period when along with Garcia and Robert Hunter, Dawson co-wrote "Friend Of The Devil". He also appeared on three Dead albums during the same era.

"Marmaduke" became an English teacher in Mexico in 1997 when he retired from the music business and remained there until his death on July 21, 2009.

I first became acquainted with the New Riders back in the 70's when I first heard their now classic 'Henry' , a song about smuggling dope which I might add was posted by Darius back during the Drug theme.

For this post I've chosen another well known tune, Panama Red, written by Peter Rowan, the title track of their 1973 LP. and while it may be considered a bit mainstream, it's a fine example of this band's music.

In Memoriam: Koko Taylor

Koko Taylor: Wang Dang Doodle


It was a rough decade for the Blues, a genre still heavily dominated by an aging population of once-seminal musicians born in the twenties and thirties. And though everyone has their favorite, no one will be more missed in my household than "Queen of the Blues" Koko Taylor -- a Chicagoan house cleaner, discovered by the legendary Willie Dixon in 1962, who went on to become one of the most beloved and well-respected blueswomen in history, in no small part for her gritty 1966 recording of Dixon's Wang Dang Doodle, which sold over a million copies.

An earthy-yet-upbeat woman in a male-dominated world, Taylor's "rough, powerful vocal stylings" influenced the rasp and bellow of dozens of blueswomen from Janis Joplin to Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi. Her last performance, at the 2007 W.C. Handy Awards ceremony, marked her 29th win, making her the lifetime recipient of more Blues Music Awards than any other artist.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Solstice, Etc.: The All Purpose Carol

Christine Lavin & the Mistletones: The All Purpose Carol


The Runaway Christmas Tree is the source of this wee slip of a song. The album is a family favorite in our house. Most of the content, as the title suggests, is Christmas oriented. But, for 58 seconds, there is this wonderful bit of inclusiveness. I wanted to conclude my posting for this week’s theme in that spirit. If your tradition has not been included this week, I encourage you to adapt this song to your needs. I don’t think Christine Lavin would mind, as long as you properly acknowledge her, and don’t put the result to commercial use. I hope all of our readers from whatever tradition have had/ will have a wonderful winter holiday.

Solstice, Etc.: Light One Candle

Peter, Paul and Mary: Light One Candle


Hanukkah, from a purely Jewish point of view, is a minor holiday. I don’t think much is made of it in Israel. But, here in the United States, its importance is inflated. Hanukkah becomes a statement of Jewish identity in the face of competition with Christmas. There has always been, it seems to me, the fear on the part of Jewish parents that their children would convert to Christianity to get more presents.

But Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary remembers the true meaning of Hanukkah in his song Light One Candle. Hanukkah celebrates the freedom to practice one’s religion in the face of adversity, and the passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next is an essential element of any Jewish holiday. The holiday also recalls God’s promise to look after His children. And, oh yes, there was also some sort of military victory. That’s enough for any holiday to have to do.

For me, the rhythm of Yarrow’s song also recalls the touching of the shammas to the other eight candles to light each in turn. So Yarrow has perfectly captured the spirit of Hanukkah in a mere three minutes. No wonder any number of Jewish musicians have covered this for Hanukkah collections.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Solstice, Etc: Winter Solstice

Ralph Towner: Winter Solstice


What does the Jewnitarian/Pagan set do on Christmas Eve? In my house, at least, once the kids are in bed, we generally turn on the tree, turn out the lights, light a fir-scented candle, and snuggle in front of the fire to something mystical, mesmerizing, and less-than-Christmassy. And though most of the year this sort of stuff is a bit too experimental for me, on a night like this, it's just the thing for atmosphere.

Avante-garde jazz guitarist Ralph Towner, who whet his teeth on the world of free jazz and improvisation with the Paul Winter Consort in the sixties after years of training as a classical guitarist, has long been known among the new-age set for both his preference for small-scale production sans amplification and his penchant for cross-genre fusion of folk music, Indian classical forms, and freeform jazz. Fittingly, this sparse, atmospheric track comes to us from Towner's 1975 sophomore solo album Solstice.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Solstice, Etc.: Hanukkah Medley

All Gods' Children: Hanukkah Medley


What would it sound like if Sun Ra's Arkestra was beat up by a klezmer band? Well, it would sound something like "Hanukkah Medley", the first song on the first side of the first All God's Children cassette (released before the apostrophe had migrated to the right of the "s".)

It starts out with a maniacal laugh, followed by a minute and a half of what sounds like the band warming up. Just when you're ready to give up on it, the noise dies down, bandleader Adam Bernstein counts it out, and we're off on a four-minute, high-speed chase through Klezmerville.

This is music full of energy, full of life. Dancing to it at their many shows in the '90s was a missed marketing opportunity for the next big aerobics craze.

A band that couldn't be pigeonholed, all four songs on that debut cassette sounded completely different from each other. There was a tango, a big-band version of a Woody Guthrie favorite, and the hard-to-classify Gulf War statement "Guns and Humus". The band would follow a similarly eclectic pattern for all their releases.

When I first posted an AGC song here, none of their catalog was commercially available. But as of last week, the complete AGC studio catalog, as well as many previously unreleased live recording are now available. The MP3 of "Hanukkah Medley" I've included here comes from my digitization of my own well-worn cassette. If you want the real deal, hit up the "purchase" link above.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Solstice, Etc.: The Cutty Wren

Steeleye Span: The Cutty Wren


There are two ways I can think of to find songs for Solstice. One can look among the works of neo-pagan singer-songwriters. Here you will find many appropriate songs. There are some musical gems, but also a great deal of music that is unlistenable. I am not plugged into this scene, so I don’t know how to tell the difference.

But, another method should be available. Surely, in places where solstice was once observed, there should be a vast body of traditional material. But, try and find it. At a glance, there would seem to be no trace left of these songs. Actually, there is indeed a vast body of traditional songs for solstice hiding in plain sight. What happened was, most of these songs are considered Christmas songs, and their pagan origins have become obscured over time.

Think about the current example. Maybe you know your scripture better than I do. Is there any reason a wren should be hunted on St Stephen’s Day? Not that I know of. And yet, in parts of the British Isles, that is exactly what happens. There are a number of wren hunting songs, and a ritual procession that goes with the hunt. The wren is placed atop a pole, wrapped in holly and ivy, and taken in ritual procession to be buried. A picture of one such procession can be seen above. You can see the holly and ivy bundle containing the wren. More pictures, as well as a fuller description of the procession and accompanying rituals, can be found here.

I have found references that indicate that the wren in these traditions was originally a gold-crested wren, like the one pictured above. These birds are now simply known as goldcrests. It’s easy to see how this bird could be thought of as the “king of all birds”, given the golden crown he wears. It’s also easy to see how he would be associated with the sun. Solstice, in pagan belief, marks the death of the old sun god, and the birth of the young sun. The old god was ritually sacrificed so that the young one could be born. This sacrificial victim would have been a special effigy made for the ritual. (The notion that the druids practiced actual human sacrifice comes from Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and was probably nothing more than wartime propaganda; there is no archeological evidence to support this idea.) So it makes all the sense in the world that the wren hunt would be a survival of old solstice customs.

So there is probably more than you ever wanted to know about the hunting of the wren. Enjoy the song, and have a blessed St Stephen’s Day.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmastime: Christmas Blues/Blue Christmas Edition

Bob Dylan: Christmas Blues


Heart: Blue Christmas


Screeching in under the wire once again, in an attempt to meet the midnight deadline - we're on the road for our annual family holiday trip to South Carolina and Georgia, with limited time and spotty internet here at the Knight's Inn in Aiken...

I empathized when Anne posted about having a hard time getting excited about Christmas this year... mine for a completely different, but equally valid, reason - this is my first time back to the Atlanta area since Mom's passing in mid-July, and I seem to be paralyzed... with sadness... and fear... and numbness. I really just want to stay home and hibernate until 2010, and am trying to find the proverbial silver lining - there will be so many triggers of grief, but there will be equal sparks of memory. We will uphold previous traditions and make new ones - Mom's spirit will give us the strength and the serenity to navigate this first major holiday without her... but, right now, the blues prevail... and the two songs above run through my heart and mind...

Much has been said about Bob Dylan's venture into Christmas music... and it is very hard to take seriously - however, the fact that "all of [his] U.S. royalties from sales of these recordings will be donated to Feeding America, guaranteeing that more than four million meals will be provided to more than 1.4 million people in need this year's holiday season" goes a long way toward lending credibility to the project (wonderful interview here)...

I've always loved the Very Special Christmas series and, no matter how many people cover Blue Christmas, my favorite will always be the one by Heart on Volume 2 - "won't be the same, dear, if you're not here with me" indeed...

Christmastime: Stocking Stuffer Edition

OK. I have a confession to make. There are a few songs that get played to death this time of year that I actually like. A lot. These are somewhat guilty pleasures for me. I share them in the hope that it isn’t just me.

The Waitresses: Christmas Wrapping


Here, The Waitresses blew their credibility. This great new wave band had burst on the seen with a great come-on song, I Know What Boys Like. And now, a Chistmas song? And a corny one at that. But, this one hits me in my soft spot. I get choked up every time I hear it. And I am really not sure why.

The Pretenders: 2000 Miles (It‘s Christmas Time)


Here is a character who is far from home as Christmas approaches. The theme of separation and longing is a Christmas song cliche from the time of the dinosaurs. But The Pretenders put it over beautifully here.

The Kinks: Father Christmas


And then there’s this one. The deceptively upbeat music frames a tale of kids who are desperate enough to rob a department stare Santa. Sadly, this song is old enough to be current again. On the plus side, The Kinks use this tale to call our attention to the needy, and implore us not to forget them at Christmas.

Christmastime: Christmas For Cowboys

John Denver: Christmas for Cowboys


We started our week with John Hartford on the silent river at Christmas Eve; we end it with John Denver on the lonesome prairie, that clear, high tenor ringing out his preference for the sky and the range, the saddle and the reins on Christmas Day.

The songs both come from and celebrate the opposite ends of the country, one with water and wheel, one with snow-covered plains; Hartford's Christmas is warm and damp with the deep South, while Denver's is cold, windy, and snow-covered. But stick 'em together, and there's something eminently paired about these two songs, something deeply akin about their songwriters.

Guess I've got a soft spot in my heart for songs - and men - that reject the trappings of crass overplayed commercial existence, to celebrate instead the beauty of a workingman's communion with nature, where the the work is sacred, the fire is sustenance, the wide-open horizon is the endless promise of another year, and the starlit sky is a Christmas tree lit from the heavens.

And who can resist one more coversong, for Christmas' sake?

Jars of Clay: Christmas For Cowboys


Christmastime: Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn

Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers: Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn


It's funny--we've posted a week's worth of songs about Christmas, and the closest we've gotten to the religious origin of the holiday is a song by Jethro Tull.

So let's get some religion with the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers and their 1929 recording of "Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn". I got this on a wonderfully quirky CD called Where Will You Be Christmas Day? that includes a wide variety of pre-Beatles 20th century music split neatly into two parts: songs of a more holy nature (including this one), and songs that wouldn't be allowed anywhere near a church (sample song title: "Christmas in Jail--Ain't That a Pain"). It's a nice reminder of a time when regional music still existed and Christmas hadn't yet been commercialized beyond recognition.

Christmastime: Twas The Night Before Christmas

Wynton Marsalis: 'Twas The Night Before Christmas


It's a scientific fact that this song actually has the power to make you cooler. So if you're feeling a little pudgy around the waist; if you suffer from nostalgia for your more youthful years; if your idea of a good time is slumping into the couch and watching Grey's Anatomy, give this song a spin a few times. You just might find yourself wearing a beanie, reading Langston Hughes, and hanging out in downtown cafes until the sun comes up.

If you're not up for that kind of commitment, you may want to consider skipping down to the next song.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmastime: Holly Jolly Christmas

Martin Sexton: Holly Jolly Christmas


What have we here? This is Star Maker Machine, right? I know I didn’t come here for the Christmas songs that are playing at the mall!

Yes, I know. Holly Jolly Christmas certainly fits that category. And I must apologize to Anne, who must have heard the song a million times this year. But Martin Sexton takes this hoary old chestnut and makes it new. And he accompanies himself with just an acoustic guitar, but he makes this song swing. So if anyone knows a mall that it is playing this version, please let me know. I want to finish my shopping there.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmastime: Christmas Island

Leon Redbone: Christmas Island


Maybe visiting Star Maker Machine will help somebody win a trivia contest one day. Consider Lyle Moraine. Moraine was a film actor who appeared in over forty films from 1936 to 1975. But you don’t know his name. The vast majority of his appearances were uncredited. His best known film was probably Vertigo, but again, his appearance did not even warrant a listing in the titles. Moraine also wrote a song once, and that is possibly his best claim to fame. The song, Christmas Island, was a hit for The Andrews Sisters in 1946. There were a flurry of cover versions for about the next ten years, and then silence descended. In 1987, Leon Redbone rescued the song, and made it the title track of his holiday album. Since then, there has been another flurry of cover versions. Jimmy Buffet also made the song the title track of a holiday album. I can find no trace of any other song that Lyle Moraine may have written.

Thankfully, Leon Redbone, while not exactly a household name, is far better known. Redbone has made a career of rescuing old songs. He plays guitar in a style that shows a ragtime influence, and sings in what I would call a warm bass growl. His love of his material is obvious in everything he performs. His Christmas Island is no exception.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmastime: Christmas In New Orleans

Louis Armstrong: Christmas In New Orleans


Christmas In New Orleans celebrates the fact that, in spite of the images of picturesque snowscapes, hot chocolate, ice skating, and rudy cheeks that are thrust upon our senses from every major media outlet this time of year, Christmas in fact comes in many shapes and sizes depending on where you live. Having grown up in the central valley of California, I know that sometimes Christmas involves outdoor tennis matches. Later in life I spent a couple of years in South Africa, so I know that sometimes Christmas is a hot summer day and a braai at the beach. Now I live in the Midwestern US where Christmas is cold and white. Louis Armstrong reminds us that for people in the Crescent City, Christmas is barefoot choirs, Creole beats, and a Dixieland Santa Claus. What could be better?

In fact, with it being -5 degrees outside as I write this, I'm sort of wishing I was there right this minute!

Christmastime: Christmas in Suburbia

Martin Newell: Christmas in Suburbia


Martin Newell's The Greatest Living Englishman is a minor gem of eccentric pop. If it sounds a bit XTC-ish, your ears aren't deceiving you--it was produced by XTC mastermind Andy Partridge. It doesn't hurt that, like Partridge (and Robyn Hitchcock and Ray Davies), Newell excels at detailing the minutia of English life.

"Christmas in Suburbia" starts out describing a pretty normal Christmas, where folks "jingle jangle by electric candle light", but by the end of the song, Martin is waking up in someone else's home with "an angel in the bed". Merry Christmas!

Christmastime: Birthday Card At Christmas

Jethro Tull: Birthday Card At Christmas


The Jethro Tull Christmas Album has three songs on it with 'Christmas' in the title. Two of them are re-recordings: A Christmas Song and Another Christmas Song. What a dilemma. But at least it narrows it down because in my opinion the entire album is magnificent and post worthy. Besides the two old Tull favorites, a new one for the album was added, Birthday Card At Christmas. It's Jethro Tull at their best. If you like Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull and/or Christmas music, or all of the above, this album is a must. It's an absolute gem.

Christmastime: Christmas Face

Fisher: Christmas Face

[Free Christmas Download]

I am having a really difficult time giving two-hoots about Christmas this year. In fact, I am really looking forward to it being over with. One reason for that is because I am working retail over the holidays and the constant Christmas music and lines of demanding people without so much as a chance to take a drink of water can wear anyone down. The stress of decorating, finding gifts, hoping packages arrive on time, and holiday guests and baking is a lot as well. It makes a season that is supposed to be joyful, calm and loving, none of those things for me.

But the main reason is that it's a lonely Christmas, as my boyfriend will be a state away and my brother and his wife just welcomed their first child into the world in late October and were instructed by the pediatrician not to travel with him for at least 2 or 3 months, meaning they will have to remain in California and the rest of the family in Pennsylvania (and you can't get time off from retail this time of year) for the the holidays, making it a lonely one for both of us.

This song has always touched me in a personal way in that sense, since the song is about being away from your loved ones during the holidays and being unable to feel the cheer people expect from you for Christmas.

Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
It doesn't feel the same.
But it feels like California is a million miles away.
And I can't find my Christmas face.

Christmastime: Merry Christmas From the Family

Jill Sobule: Merry Christmas From the Family


Although I learned later that this song is a Robert Earl Keen composition, I fell in love first with Jill Sobule's version on the You Sleigh Me holiday compilation - I remember laughing, wondering what was up with this crazy song... until she got to the harmonized Noel, Noel, The First Noel lyric, when I felt the prick of tears behind my eyelids...

It still hits me that way - they're wacky... they're imperfect... they're family. We can all relate - pun intended...

P.S. Todd Snider has covered this as well, but the bootleg version I have is low volume and virtually unlistenable - would love it if someone has one of better quality to share... :-)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmastime: On Christmas Eve

John Hartford: On Christmas Eve


Master songsmith John Hartford was notorious for preferring life on the river to anything else, even music. So it's no surprise to find him lonesome and soul-searching on a full moon Christmas Eve, staring into the muddy Mississippi, wondering why he prefers the sound of the steam, the sight of the Pitman arm coming around again, the spanish moss and a bonfire on the moonlit banks to family.

To be fair, though, Hartford's simple, loving celebration of the lyrical elements of the Louisiana river setting is its own answer.

It's true that there are many lonely souls this time of year, yearning to be taken in by the company of friends. But for all those who prefer the company of the self at the holidays, this song offers an unparalleled template for comfort and joy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

We Are Family: We Were Family Edition

This week, we have had songs by brothers, sisters, and by parents and their children. But no one else has tackled married couples. Perhaps this has to do with a question: when should two (or more) people in a committed relationship of choice be considered a family? Surely, a same-sex couple, who can not legally marry, are no less a family than a heterosexual couple that can. And were Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer not a family because they never actually married? I wouldn’t think so. Still, society has its opinion, and those would have been controversial choices.

There is also another aspect to this. Were a couple who have since broken up a family while they were together? I don’t think the answer has anything to do with whether or not they had children together. I think the closeness they felt when the relationship was at its best is far more relevant. And the music they made together is often the best clue to this. Let’s look at three examples.

Richard and Linda Thompson: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight


The most obvious example is Richard and Linda Thompson. They were married shortly after Richard completed his original stint with Fairport Convention, and they were together for many years. Their recordings together were always billed as being by both of them, and they achieved a style together that is demonstrably different from how either of them sounds on their own. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is a fine example of that sound.

Joni Mitchell: My Secret Place


Joni Mitchell’s jazz period ended after the Mingus album, (how do you top that?), and the death of bass player Jaco Pastorius. At that point, she did two things that would have been unthinkable to those who had followed her career to that point: she married bass player and producer Larry Klein, and she decided to rock out. The albums from this “rock” period are some of Mitchell’s least known work, and her most uneven. The best songs from this time, however, are as good as any in her catalog, although stylistically different. Mitchell’s marriage to Klein eventually ended, but he worked on her most recent album, Shine, although they were no longer married. So I would say that Klein is still part of Mitchell’s musical family.

Suzanne Vega: In Liverpool


My last example is also the most problematic. Suzanne Vega’s marriage to producer and keyboardist Mitchell Froom only lasted for one album, 99.9 F degrees. I remember that the reviews at the time of the albums release hailed the album as a bold new direction for Vega. And I remember reading an interview with Vega at the time where she talked about how excited she was.

I saw Vega live a few years later, after the marriage was over. Vega reached a point in the performance where she was ready to take requests from the audience. But first, she cautioned us that she would not play any songs from 99.9 F degrees. But, to my ear, there was one song on the album that sounded like the rest of Vega’s material to that point. So I blithely shouted out, “In Liverpool”. Sure enough, that was the one song she had done with Froom that she was willing to lay claim to at that point, and it sounded great that day. So I don’t know how Vega feels about Froom or these songs nowadays. But I also don’t know if that answers the question of whether, however briefly, she and Froom were a family.

Friday, December 11, 2009

We Are Family: Country Brother Teams Edition

Monroe Brothers: Nine Pound Hammer Is Too Heavy

Blue Sky Boys: Are You From Dixie?


With Christmas approaching fast, it´s high time for some heavenly harmonies. And for these, look no further than the country brother teams of the thirties, aiming for that high lonesome sound. This is what inspired famous sibling combinations of a later date like the Louvins and the Everlys.

No matter if it´s Alton and Rabon Delmore from Elkmont, Alabama, Charlie and Bill Monroe from Rosine, Kentucky, or Bill and Earl Bolick from Hickory, North Carolina: these voices were made to soar together.

We Are Family: Kate and Anna McGarrigle

Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Complainte Pour Ste Catherine


In time, Kate McGarrigle would marry Loudon Wainright III, and have two children by him, Rufus and Martha. Kate and Loudon would then split up, but they would all eventually perform together in something called the McGarrigle Family Hour. But, before any of that happened, it was just Kate and her sister Anna. There is also a third sister, Jane, who sometimes appeared on their albums. The McGarrigle sisters are from a suburb of Montreal, and they always wrote and performed songs both in French and in English. I am a native English speaker who speaks no French, and so I have no idea what this song is about. But here is French-Canadian folk-reggae with gorgeous female harmony vocals. The sound of this one grabbed me when it was first released, and it has never let go. That said, if anyone would like to provide a translation in the comments, please feel free.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

We Are Family: The Roches

The Roches: We

The Roches: We Three Kings

The Roches: Big Nuthin'


We are Maggie and Terre and Suzzy
Maggie and Terre and Suzzy Roche
we don't give out our ages
and we don't give out our phone numbers
(give out our phone numbers)
sometimes our voices give out
but not our ages and our phone numbers

From the ridiculous to the sublime to the ridiculous again - I offer up three tunes from three sisters who got their start singing Christmas carols on the sidewalks of New York. They released a duo CD, recorded and performed as a threesome for a while, scaled down to a duo again, enjoyed separate careers... and reunited as a trio in 2007 - their quirky lyrics and exquisite harmonies have made them a cult favorite for decades.

is from their debut eponymous recording in 1979 - of their entire catalog, it's still my favorite (does anybody else seem to prefer the one that made you a fan?). When Darius posted one of their songs a few months back, I commented that if we ever had a Waitress theme, I had dibbies on Mr. Sellack - that challenge still stands!

We Three Kings is from their holiday CD of the same name, released in 1990 - besides the stunning Middle Eastern interpretation of this classic carol, they cover Deck the Halls with a Latin flavor and Winter Wonderland in Noo Yawkese. My children were and 9, 6 and 2 when this album came out... and it's *still* the first one we put on when we begin decorating for the holidays - pass the tinsel... :-)

Big Nuthin'
is from their 1989 Speak CD - it "told the tale of how appearing on a certain television show was supposed to change their career forever, but it turned out in the end to be a Big Nuthin'. When the group played it that year on the Johnny Carson show, the host somehow didn't get the joke." (read the rest of the Oct/Nov '95 Dirty Linen article here)...

Who have we worked with
do we know anybody famous
(anybody famous)
do we know anybody famous
(anybody famous)
and as a point of interest
we spell our last name R-O-C-H-E

We Are Family: Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival: Wrote A Song For Everyone


John and Tom Fogerty had not settled their differences in 1990 when Tom passed away from AIDS, the disease a result of a tainted blood transfusion during back surgery. Their falling out occurred due to Tom's 'lack of opportunity', he felt his contributions were overlooked and brother John had too much control over the band. Tom left the band in 1971 during the recording of Pendulum.

Formerly known as The Golliwogs, the band became Creedence Clearwater Revival when in 1967 they were offered a full length LP record deal, but only if they changed their name. Tom Fogerty's friend Credence Newball (adding an extra 'e' so as to resemble creed, or faith), 'clear water' from an Olympia beer TV commercial, and 'revival' so as to renew the commitment to the band, are the elements that made up the band name.
John Fogerty penned 'Wrote A Song For Everyone' after a tiff with his wife, though it seems it could apply, at least in part, to his relationship with his brother as well. He was quoted in an interview about the song, "But there I was, the musician manic and possessed the only guy holding things up. Without me, it all collapses, so I'm feeling quite put upon. As she walks out the door, I say to myself, I wrote a song for everyone, and I couldn't even talk to you."

Actually posted by Bert, with my assistance due to technical difficulties

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

We Are Family: The Vaughan Brothers

The Vaughan Brothers: Tick Tock


I have to confess, I was never a huge Stevie Ray Vaughan fan. I appreciated him, but never went out of my way to get his music. Same with his older brother, Jimmie. And Family Style, the only album they recorded together, is not a particularly great album.

Don't get me wrong--there's some fine guitar playing, for sure. But overall, it's a little to slick for the blues, and the songs for the most part are forgettable.

Except one song. "Tick Tock" has mesmerized me since the very first time I heard it. With its "time's tickin' away" refrain, it became painfully poignant when Steve Ray was killed in a helicopter accident a month before the album's release. But even outside of that context, it's a fantastic song. Musically, it's a slice of retro-soul blues. The lyrics are a simple plea for world peace, a slightly desperate '90s counterpart to the '60s' "Get Together". Every year, that plea seems a little more desperate.

Tick tock, people.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

We Are Family: The Allman Brothers

The Allman Brothers: In Memory of Elizabeth Reed


Brothers Duane and Gregg Allman grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida and formed various bands... The Escorts, The Allman Joys, The Hour Glass... before eventually connecting with Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks, Berry Oakley and Jaimoe to form The Allman Brothers Band, a Southern rock, roots and blues group who were at the top of their game in the late 60's and early 70's until the untimely deaths of Duane and Berry in separate motorcycle accidents, one year and three blocks apart (they're actually buried next to each other in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia)...

You can certainly read more about the various incarnations of the band since - what I recall personally is that, spending my teen years in Atlanta, I was lucky to see them live, for free, many times in Piedmont Park, Live at Fillmore East changed my life (the band consisted of two lead gutarists, two drummers, a bass player and a vocalist/keyboard player - who does that?!?)... and I had a poster of Duane over my bed until I went away to college in 1972...

In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, which I wanted to post for our Long Songs theme... and again for Leftovers last week but never got around to it either time, is, in my opinion, a perfect instrumental, written by Dickey Betts...

From Wikipedia:

In this performance, Betts opens the song with ethereal volume swells on his guitar, giving the impression of violins. Slowly the first theme begins to emerge, and Duane Allman's guitar joins Betts in a dual lead that sometimes doubles the melody, sometimes provides a harmony line, and sometimes provides counterpoint. The next section has the tempo pick up to a Santana-like, quasi-Latin beat, with a strong second-theme melody being driven by unison playing and harmonized guitars.

Betts now takes a solo that starts from the second theme. This leads into an organ solo from Gregg Allman, with the two guitars playing rhythm figures in the background. Throughout, percussionists Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson play in unison, providing what has been described as "a thick bed of ride-snare rhythm for the soloists to luxuriate upon."

Now it is Duane Allman's turn, and he starts out quietly rephrasing the first theme. He then gradually builds to a high-pitched climax, with Berry Oakley's bass guitar playing a strong counterpoint lead underneath him against the band's trademark percussive backing. Allman cools off into a reverie, then starts up again, finding an even more furious peak. Parts of this solo would draw comparison to John Coltrane and his sheets of sound approach, other parts to Miles Davis and his classic Kind of Blue album. Duane Allman biographer Randy Poe wrote that the solo reflected the emerging jazz fusion movement, but in reverse: "[Allman]'s playing jazz in a rock context." Allman himself told writer Robert Palmer at that time, "that kind of playing comes from Miles and Coltrane, and particularly Kind of Blue. I've listened to that album so many times that for the past couple of years, I haven't hardly listened to anything else." Almost two decades later, Palmer would write of the Allmans, "that if the musicians hadn't quite scaled Coltrane-like heights, they had come as close as any rock band was likely to get." Rolling Stone would say in 2002 that the song's performance found the musicians "lock[ed] together ... with the grace and passion of the tightest jazz musicians," while in 2008, it said the trills, crawls, and sustain of the guitar work represented "the language of jazz charged with electric R&B futurism."

Following the Duane Allman solo, the band drops off and a relatively brief but to-the-point percussion break is taken by Trucks and Johanson, that reflects Kind of Blue drummer Jimmy Cobb's work. The full band then enters to recap the mid-tempo second theme, and the song is finished off abruptly. The Fillmore audience lets a couple of silent beats pass before erupting in applause.

I can still hum/ba-dum/air-strum every note of the 13-minute tune... 38 years later - backstory on Elizabeth Reed's inspiration here (and, interestingly, she is buried "144 steps to the south" of Duane and Berry)...

We Are Family: The Staple Singers

The Staples Singers: Respect Yourself


The Staple Singers, (family name Staples, go figure), were a father and his three daughters. There was also a son, Purvis, but I think he must have dropped out early. Pictures of him with the group are hard to find. Pops Staples died in 2000, and since then only Mavis has been heard from, as far as I know. But in their day, what a joyful sound they made. The Staple Singers originally worked in an acoustic folk-gospel style. But, in the early 70s, they signed with Memphis R&B label Stax. It was there, working in a soul-gospel style, that they achieved their greatest success. Respect Yourself comes from that period, and resonated with the Civil Rights Movement at the time of its release.

Curiously, there was a connection between the Staple Singers and Talking Heads late in the Staple’s career. Their last hit was a cover of the Talking Heads song Slippery People, and Pops Staples appeared in the movie True Stories.

We Are Family: Throwing Muses

Throwing Muses: Not Too Soon


A girl befriends another little girl when they're both 8 years old at school and they become fast friends. A few years later, her divorced father falls in love with the friend's divorced mother and they get married. The two best friends are now sisters. The sisters go on to start a band together. It sounds like the makings of a corny movie or sitcom (hello Brady Bunch!), but is actually the real story behind Throwing Muses, the band started by step-sisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly.

Though most of Throwing Muses later albums were after Donelly's departure from the band to start her band Belly and later do solo work, the band's first few albums featured Kristin and Tanya's song-writing and vocals. As is the case with many such bands, we have our favorites. I am a Tanya Donelly follower myself, and only went back to hear her Throwing Muses work after her solo work. So, for this entry, I am obliged to include one of Tanya's songs, though the band is considered Kristin's baby and her band since she did most of the songs and was the one who stayed with it long after Tanya's exit.

Monday, December 7, 2009

We Are Family: The Neville Brothers

The Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon


I got a chance to see the Neville Brothers live in their hometown way back in my teenage years, in the midst of the Jazz and Heritage Festival, and let me tell you, if you've seen 'em too, you know I'll never forget the swampy energy that oozed from that stage that night like dark voodoo sweat.

Unusually for a sibling act, the Neville Brothers started off separately, making names for themselves as solo and session players; they did not perform together until their uncle Big Chief Jolly brought them together for a 1976 recording session for his Louisiana carnival "tribe" The Wild Tchoupitoulas. On their own, each of the brothers had evolved his own style - Art as the long-time post-doo-wop solo artist and founding keyboardist for The Meters, Cyril as the hand percussionist who followed in his older brother's footsteps, Aaron as the angelic and saccharine soul pop singer, Charles as the rock & roll and jazz session saxophonist. Put 'em together, and the sound is a fusion of all these styles and more: big, bold, smooth and sultry all at once, and every second of it pure New Orleans funk through and through.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

We Are Family: Van Halen

Van Halen: You Really Got Me


Sometimes it's fun to try to post something that meets the theme in more ways than one. It's sort of like sinking a three-pointer in a basketball game.

In this case, brother-band Van Halen is covering a tune by another brother-band, The Kinks.

Alex and Eddie Van Halen started playing music as kids, one on the guitar and the other on drums. What I didn't realize until researching this post, is that it was Eddie who was on the drums and Alex who handled the ax. At some point early in their career their interests shifted, and they traded instruments. The world should be grateful that they did as Eddie went on to become perhaps the most wildly inventive and celebrated guitar player of the post-Hendrix era who, with the help of a one-of-a-kind vocalist, made Van Halen the most successful rock act of the 80's.

Anyone who watched the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert on HBO last week knows that Eddie's influence is still widely noticeable. Case in point: None other than Jeff Beck broke into a classic sequence of Eddie two-handed finger-taps during one of his solos.

I'll let someone else write about The Kinks, maybe the greatest brother-band of all time. In the meantime, enjoy this cover song that is special in the sense that it rocks even harder than the original.

We Are Family: Pieta, Zoe, and Constie Brown

Pieta, Zoe, and Constie Brown: Ella Mae


Going Driftless, a Red House Records celebration of the songs of beloved label founder and folk musician Greg Brown, is hands-down one of my favorite tribute albums. The disc features a plethora of female voices I've grown to love - among them Lucy Kaplansky, Lucinda Williams, Iris Dement, Ani DiFranco, Shawn Colvin, and Eliza Gilkyson - and it makes for a great set, the songs soaring once loosened from the earthly bonds granted through Brown's deep basso voice and loose, ragged style.

But of all the covers on the album, there's no song so delicately, poignantly done as Ella Mae, an early rarity Greg Brown wrote in tribute to his father's mother, here performed by his three singer-songwriter daughters. Though it's the sibling trio that makes the song fit our theme, there are four generations of family here - subject, son, songwriter, and performers - lurking like ghosts in the performance, and the bittersweet ache of family heritage and missed opportunity is palpable in every measure.

Photo: Greg Brown, daughter Pieta, and singer-songwriter Bo Ramsey.

We Are Family: The Shaggs

Three sisters, and one dad with a mission. Austin Wiggins thought it would be just marvellous if his three girls formed a band together, so he bought Dot, Helen and Betty their instruments, paid for their music lessons and even found them a record deal. The resulting Philosophy Of The World came out in ´69 in a small edition on a fly-by-night label, and did nothing. End of story? Nope.

Over the years, that unique album slowly but surely acquired an amazing cult status. And why may that be, you ask? Well, simply because Philosophy Of The World might just be the most primitive, endearing, beguiling, irritating, heartbreaking, skin crawling record you´ll ever hear. A stone outsider classic.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Leftovers (Little Black Book): Sharon and Karen Edition

Leftovers, especially this year, have been a lot of songs from “themes I missed in the time I was here.” That’s as true of my posts as anyone else’s. But I missed our Little Black Book theme because it happened before I became involved in Star Maker Machine. So I never saw the formal definition of the theme. It seems to me that a little black book implies that something illicit is going on. These ladies are not entirely respectable, and you keep them secret. Here are two who fit that description perfectly.

David Bromberg: Sharon


Sharon is not the kind that you can make an honest woman of. To cheat on a girlfriend or a wife, you don’t have to talk to Sharon, or even set eyes upon her. The transgression has occurred as soon as you enter her tent.

Jill Sobule: Karen by Night


Karen is trickier. By day, she seems respectable enough, boring even. But Karen has a secret. To learn it, add moonlight. And no, she’s not a werewolf. Nothing supernatural is needed here.

Leftovers (Fruits and Vegetables): Homegrown Tomatoes

Guy Clark: Homegrown Tomatoes


Jay Ungar & Molly Mason: Homegrown Tomatoes


Like several others of our hardy band here at Star Maker Machine, I start each week by compiling a quick list of likely candidates for the week's theme; from there, I generally dip in as time allows and the whim hits. It's a useful method, I guess, but it sure does leave a lot of good songs hanging at week's end, especially when I've been busy.

Today seemed like a good day to ketchup on a few old playlists, just to see what I missed. So I set the ol' music manager to shuffle, closed my eyes, clicked on a random playlist, and figured I'd just post whatever came up. And to my utter delight, up comes Fruits and Vegetables week, and Texas troubadour Guy Clark, live and grinning, singing of the juicy sensualities of summer's harvest just as the snow finally starts falling outside my New England windows. Yeah, that's a keeper.

Jay and Molly's cover is a swingin' set, too. And why not pick a bonus tomato song, while the fruit's on the vine?

Pink Martini: Hang On Little Tomato


Leftovers (Color My World): The Gold Around You

Mark Bradley: The Gold Around You

[out of print]

I debated about whether this should be in the Metals or the Color My World theme. I eventually decided that it fit better as a color.

Sometime in the late '90s or early '00s, I was in a used record store in New Brunswick, NJ with a friend of mine, killing time before a concert. He unearthed a copy of Mark Bradley's posthumous CD, Extraordinary and asked me if I though he would like it. I told my friend, who is significantly older than me, that he would probably really love some of it and really hate some of it. He bought the CD, and later sent me an email that simply said, "You were right."

Mark was one of a kind. He was the songwriter other songwriters revered. You wrote some absolutely beautiful, personal songs. He wrote political diatribes. He was also fond of off-the-wall improvs with his band Walt Whitman’s Beard. Basically, he lived his life with his heart on his sleeve. His flame burned brightly in late '80s/early '90s New Brunswick, but it didn't last long. When he passed away in 1994, he was only in his late '20s.

I saw Mark perform a couple of times, but his impact didn't really hit me until I attended a tribute concert in 1995 that also celebrated the release of the "Extraordinary" CD. The disc is a mix of home demos, studio recordings, and live performances. "The Gold Around You" is a home demo from December 1993. The low fidelity somehow ads to its charm. The song is about love: The magic of that first meeting, and the insecurities and doubt that can crop up in a long-term relationship.

Paul Rieder: The Gold Around You

[not commercially available]

Paul Rieder (Wooden Soldiers, All Gods' Children, Walt Whitman's Beard, Fiesherman's Stew) helped put together the Extraordinary CD. Later, he spent a few years living in Austin, Texas. While there, he recorded some home demos that have never been officially released, including his take on "The Gold Around You" (as well as several other Mark Bradley covers). Paul's dobro and mandolin playing give his version a appropriately southwestern feel.

Kate Evans: The Gold Around You


Kate Evans (All Gods' Children, ISOE) has a way of masterfully wringing strong emotions from delicate performances, as if there is no filter between her heart and her voice. She sings her version (from her 2000 album, Release) alone at the piano, and you just want to hug her when it's done.

Bonus cover: My own out-of-tune, home-recorded version of this song, recorded in 2005, can be found here.

Leftovers (This and That:): The Joni Edition

Looking back on our This and That theme, I see I'd already posted three times... so it wasn't as if I was feeling under-represented - however, I germinated an idea in my head all week that, because of the scope/breadth/comprehensiveness, I just ran out of time executing. I've been saving this for six months, in anticipation of another chance at Leftovers - in Joni's words:

Come to the dinner gong The table is laden high...


What do songs about anti-war... heroin addiction... relationships... a cocaine connection... duality/dichotomy... a privileged couple on vacation... the slippery slope of success... and anti-war 40 years later have in common? - This Joni... and That Mitchell... on eight separate albums!

Quite simply, her music sustains me... from my first discovery of Ladies of the Canyon at a garage sale in high school (1970)... to her 2007 release of Shine, her poetic and melodic songs make me laugh, cry and think... even years later when I didn't "get" them the first time around - in retrospect, I wish I'd made it my modus operandi here at Star Maker Machine to post a Joni song each and every week as, with her extensive catalog, most certainly one could be found to fit every theme...

I began my SMM apprenticeship with a Joni tune - a bit over a year later, I'd venture to reiterate Janet Jackson's Got 'Til It's Gone: Joni Mitchell never lies...

The Fiddle and the Drum


Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire


Court and Spark


Edith and the Kingpin


Otis and Marlena


Shadows and Light


Snakes and Ladders


Strong and Wrong


Friday, December 4, 2009

Leftovers (This and That): Love and Affection

Joan Armatrading: Love and Affection


Leftovers happen in different ways. Sometimes life intrudes, and there isn’t time to post for a particular theme. Then there are always those of us who missed a theme because we weren’t part of Star Maker Machine yet. But sometimes, a theme is announced and I have a full slate of posts in mind, only to realize after the week has passed that the perfect song completely slipped my mind. That happened to me after This and That week. I can’t believe I forgot Love and Affection.

Joan Armatrading was part of the first wave of singer-songwriters in the 1970s. But, she sounded like no one else. Her songs had a looseness that allowed plenty of freedom for her band. And she could capture unusual emotional states. Here, she depicts a woman in a relationship poised between friendship and love. It is not clear what, if anything, will push it over. But the emotion is delicious with anticipation.

BTW, there is a wonderful cover of this song, done in a medley with Sweet Jane, by a group called Two Nice Girls. If anyone has an mp3 of it, I would love to have it. Please let me know in the comments.

Leftovers (Long Songs) : Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Gavin Bryars : Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (part 1)


(Don't worry if you can't hear any music during the first seconds, it will come, the songs is a crescendo and starts at a very low level)

I first heard this astonishing piece of music at a dance show by French choregrapher Maguy Marin. When we got out of the theater everybody wanted to know where this strange song came from.

English composer Gavin Bryars once recorded a tramp singing a religious song in the streets of London. Then, as he recalls,

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song - 13 bars in length - formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man's singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp's nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.

It's one of the most moving things I've ever heard.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Leftovers (Smiles): Smile Away

Paul and Linda McCartney: Smile Away


Having just returned from the dentist with my 41-year cavity-free record still intact, I though it would be good to revisit the Smiles thread. "Smile Away" comes from the Ram album, which was credited to Paul & Linda McCartney. That says less about Mrs. McCartney's musical abilities than it does about Paul's desire to share his life completely with his soulmate. It's a noble romantic gesture, but practically speaking, this is Paul's second solo album.

The disc is full of loose performances that often go in unexpected places. "Smile Away" is one of the more straight-ahead songs on the album, however. A charming '50s rock pastiche with only a handful of lyrics, it never pretends to be anything more than a catchy tune that will indeed make you smile away.

Leftovers (Drugs): Stoned Soul Picnic

Laura Nyro: Stoned Soul Picnic


The 5th Dimension: Stoned Soul Picnic


Laura Love: Stoned Soul Picnic


Jill Sobule: Stoned Soul Picnic


It was the summer of 1968, a year before Woodstock, a year after the impromptu San Francisco gathering popularly referred to as the Summer of Love: the free love movement was thick in the air, and though the history books have surely magnified the scale of American awareness and participation in the movement, those of us conceived in the midst of it all have been taught to believe that hope was everywhere.

Into the midst of this swamp of countercultural change came two versions of a song: one by its author Laura Nyro, a popular white R&B and soul singer, the other by the popular African-American R&B quintet The 5th Dimnension, who would go on to chart with the Aquarius theme to the musical Hair in the following year. The dual versions became part of the bridge across the rapidly-closing racial divide, and within weeks, Stoned Soul Picnic was atop both the popcharts and the Black Singles Charts; according to apocryphal record, the song was sung on "every street corner", and - given its simplicity and its message - it's easy to see why.

As much as it reflects the civil rights aspect of the sixties counterculture, Stoned Soul Picnic is a product of its times on its lyrical and sensual merits, too. It's hard to figure out what, if anything, this song is really about, beyond the strange feeling that anything could happen, and should, if people would only join together in communal celebration. Other than the word "stoned" in the chorus and title, there's no direct mention of drugs or drug-taking; this is a promise of mood, not an instruction booklet for a movement.

But there's no denying the summery, soulful, swaying melody line of both original versions, which maintains a tone that clings to subsequent covers as if it were an inevitable aspect of the song. And the organic visualizations of nature that show up in every verse sound like a great trip, indeed.

Leftovers (Songs Called Songs): Just to Have You Hum Along (The Futon Song)

Betty Elders: Just to Have You Hum Along (The Futon Song)


Some of you may recall I had a life-changing summer, spending two months in the Atlanta area as primary caregiver for my ailing/aging mom, who passed away mid-July from pulmonary fibrosis - I still checked in with Star Maker Machine during that time (it was a touchstone of serenity when everything else was chaotically out of my control) but I rarely posted (lack of time, energy and my own CD collection trumped intention)...

I regret missing some themes during that period and it's nice to have a do-over (ah, if I could only... never mind) - I'm pleased to be able to offer up this little gem for the Songs Called Songs theme, however belatedly...

When I began my journey into the contemporary folk scene, I was like an addict - I just couldn't get enough, scouring used CD stores to find anything that seemed to fit into this newly-discovered genre. I ran across Betty Elders' Crayons in a bin for $4.95 and, as soon as I got it home and pressed Play, I knew I had scored - just hit a vein, baby!

I was captivated by her voice and songwriting, yet when I got to this song, I was a bit disturbed - it starts out sweet and, dare I say it, cute... but the further along it goes, although there's nary a pet rabbit in sight, it began to sound like a folk Fatal Attraction (bet you never thought you'd see those words in the same sentence, eh?).

I still love the song, but...

I'd crawl through shards of glass I'd be what I was not just to have you just to have you just to have you hum along


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Leftovers (Metals): Ironbound - Fancy Poultry

Suzanne Vega: Ironbound - Fancy Poultry


During Metals week, I was hard at work shopping for a new file host, and making improvements to my blog. So I never got the chance to post this one.

The Ironbound section of Newark NJ is a Portugese enclave. The area takes its name from the fact that it is bounded on all sides by railroad tracks. Newark is a short trip on the PATH train from Greenwich Village, where Suzanne Vega was living when she wrote this. It is not necessary for me to describe it further; Vega does that beautifully.

Leftovers (Name-Droppers): I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone

Sleater-Kinney: I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone


It was just a few weeks ago that we did a Name-Droppers theme. I had a few ideas that week, but only ended up finding time to post once. So now is my chance to make amends.

In particular, I wanted to include (what some would consider) Sleater-Kinney's major opus "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone". In the late 1990's, when the Pacific Northwest was having a huge influence over music, and the riot grrl scene was slowly dwindling away, Sleater-Kinney came on the scene with their all girl punk rock. They pushed the envelope of gender lines in rock music by making songs like this one. A song that's a play on The Ramone's song "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend", except now it's about wanting to be a punk rock icons like Ramone, of wanting fans to idolize them and use them as bathroom alone-time fodder and get fans back to their place after the show. For good measure, they also name-drop Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore.