Saturday, August 8, 2009

Long Songs: Mortal City

Dar Williams: Mortal City


This song took a while to grow on me; for years, I skipped past it, looking the harder, more upbeat tracks which have made Dar Williams a force to be reckoned with in the contemporary world of radio-ready folkpop.

But sit in a lonely chair, perhaps with your eyes closed, locked away from the hustle of multitasking, and really listen, and the song unfolds gloriously, revealing itself as a gorgeous piece of quiet, still short fiction, a girl in an ice storm finding her center in a frozen eternity. Dar's broken, breathy octaves were never more appropriate.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Long Songs: Longing for More Edition

The Poozies: Ma Plaid/ Freya Dances


Ma Plaid is a traditional Scottish tune which, as recorded by The Poozies, comes in at about six minutes. But the group placed it in a medley with an original instrumental, Freya Dances, which brings the whole thing in at 7:07. It is a tribute to Mary MacMaster, who wrote Freya Dances, that it serves as the perfect coda to Ma Plaid; I cannot imagine hearing the one without the other. MacMaster and Patsy Seddon were the harp duo Sileas before joining The Poozies, and this one sounds very much like a fuller arrangement of their work in that earlier group. Kate Rusby and Karen Tweed complete the lineup.

Ma Plaid, on its surface, appears to be nothing more than a love song to a man who has departed for distant shores, and who the narrator hopes will return to marry her. She keeps the plaid that he gave her to remember him by. But there may be more going on than that. She starts by singing, “this is not ma plaid”, and proceeds to describe her plaid for the rest of the song. But whose is the plaid at the beginning? It is possible that the object of her love may be Bonnie Prince Charlie. He led an unsuccessful uprising against the British rule of Scotland in 1745, and many apparent love songs from Scotland from that period are veiled references to a yearning for Scottish independence. The matter is not certain, but Ma Plaid may be one of these songs. In that case, the plaid at the beginning would represent British rule. Following the 1745 uprising, Bonnie Prince Charlie was exiled, which would account for the departure of the lover in the song to distant shores.

Joni Mitchell: Song for Sharon


Joni Mitchell began her exploration of jazz with the album Court and Spark, and continued with The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Hejira was the next step in the journey. On this album, Mitchell stripped down the arrangements. Most songs feature just guitar, bass, and drums. About half of the songs anticipate Mitchell’s future explorations, and these feature her first work with bassist Jaco Pastorius. The remaining songs either use no bass at all, or feature Max Bennett, who had been with Mitchell since Court and Spark. These songs represent a consolidation, as Mitchell sums up where she has been. Musically, Song For Sharon is one these “consolidation” songs. It breaks no new ground for her, but is a solid addition to her catalog.

The song comes in at just over 8 minutes, mostly because there are a lot of words. In this way, jazz freed up Mitchell; she could write the song without worrying about length, and say all that she had to say. I read the words this way: on a ride back to Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry, Mitchell’s character thinks of Sharon, a friend from childhood. Mitchell’s character imagines a letter to Sharon, and her thoughts ramble through her day, life in New York City, and how different their lives turned out. The whole thing is a verbal improvisation, more jazz than the music that accompanies it. I am not sure the letter ever gets sent, or even written.

Traffic: The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys


The whole concept of jam bands tickles me. In the 1960s, every band I cared about jammed. It was a badge of honor, and essential to what performing live was all about. When I started hearing about bands who would try to recreate the sound of their albums in concert, I found the idea offensive. I still do. But The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys is something else. This is the purest attempt I know of by a band with roots in the sixties to recreate their live sound in a studio recording. Here are all the solos and mood changes one would expect in a live performance. The whole thing threatens to fall apart in several places, but never does. The result is a breathtaking listening experience.

So what is the song about? Well. Jim Capaldi of Traffic was in Morocco with actor Michael J Pollard, working on a movie that wound up never getting made. I’ll let Capaldi explain further:

“Pollard and I would sit around writing lyrics all day, talking about Bob Dylan and the Band, thinking up ridiculous plots for the movie. Before I left Morocco, Pollard wrote in my book 'The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.' For me, it summed him up. He had this tremendous rebel attitude. He walked around in his cowboy boots, his leather jacket. At the time he was a heavy little dude. It seemed to sum up all the people of that generation who were just rebels. The 'Low Spark,' for me, was the spirit, high-spirited. You know, standing on a street corner. The low rider. The 'Low Spark' meaning that strong undercurrent at the street level.”

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Long Songs : Diaraby

Ali Farka Touré & Ry Cooder : Diaraby


I first thought of posting the great Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed, but then to my surprise I realized that his song "Era Mèla Mèla" was less than 7 minutes long, so I'll save it for another theme. I first heard him on a great German compilation called Desert Blues, along with a lot of artists that became favorites of mine.

But there are other great long tracks on these two CDs, and of course, this famous Ali Farka Touré/Ry Cooder duet. Ali Farka, when this record came out, was hastily advertised by marketing executives as "the source" of the blues, while the Malian griot himself claimed that one of his masters was … John Lee Hooker. The perfect "round trip" influence between the old and the new world.

Anyway, this music makes me long for the dusty and red roads of Mali and Burkina Faso, where I made wonderful trips and made many friends in 1996 and 1999. Now I'm older, I have young kids, and cannot travel so far for the moment. But just looking at a picture or listening to such a song takes me back there for a while.

now the question is : will this post recieve more than the "0 comments" I usually get when posting something that is a little bit too "foreign" or non folk or rock ? (please consider that as a friendly teasing and an invitation to comments)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Long Songs: Marquee Moon

Television: Marquee Moon


Well it seems like a lot of the SMMers are on summer vacation, so here's another one from the new guy.

Television sprung from the same mid-'70s CBGB's scene that gave us Blondie and the Ramones, but they weren't really punk or new wave. While their peers were putting out two- and three-minute bursts of pop energy, Television were stretching out, jamming with a purpose. The interplay between guitarists Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine was the draw, and that was never more fully realized than on the nearly 11-minute title track off their debut album from 1977.

I didn't discover Television until their 1992 reunion album. And while that's an okay album, it wasn't until I went back to their first album that I discovered what all the fuss was about. After getting past Verlaine's adenoidal vocals, hearing this song was a revelation.

Long Songs: Deacon Blues

Steely Dan: Deacon Blues


Steely Dan, in their heyday, made a habit of being sneaky. They would use all these jazz harmonies in their music, and get people who “hated jazz” to love it. The album Aja was their commercial peak, and the sneakiness was here in full measure, if you knew what you were hearing. But with Aja, Steely Dan managed another bit of sneakiness: they took a long song to #19 on the pop chart. I know that Roundabout by Yes had charted even higher a few years earlier, but that was a 3:27 radio edit. Does anyone know if Deacon Blues was the longest song ever to reach the top 20 up to that point?

Another thing about Deacon Blues: I grew up in a non-sports household. About fifteen years after the release of Aja, I finally found out the meaning of the line, “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide...” But I loved the song anyway. There was one other sneaky thing about Steely Dan. When I asked my older brother to explain some of their lyrics, he would smile in an evil way, and say, “you’ll understand when you’re older.” Now I am, and I finally do.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Long Songs: Future Games

Fleetwood Mac: Future Games


I was extremely happy to see Boyhowdy post the original Fleetwood Mac version of "Black Magic Woman" last week. I'm a big fan of the Peter Green-era Mac. In fact, I almost posted their full version of "Oh Well" this week.

But I also have a soft spot for the Mac's Bob Welch years, too. In some ways, they are the lost years, when the band was searching for a new identity. They were well past their blues beginnings and their acid-rock adolescence, but had yet to mature into the LA hit machine they became when Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham came on board.

They released a lot of mediocre albums during this period (1971-74), but they contain a clutch of unique, atmospheric Bob Welch songs. My favorite is the title track to their first album with Welch, "Future Games". It clocks in at over eight minutes, but it never overstays its welcome. I really have no idea what Bob's singing about; I just love the way it sounds, floating out of the speakers.

Long Songs: Matty Groves

Fairport Convention: Matty Groves


My first thought when I learned of this week’s theme was, “There must be one of those English folk songs with tons of verses that would work this week.” And, of course, there is.

There was a time when most people in England, particularly the lower classes, were illiterate. Songs like Matty Groves served the same role that tabloid newspapers do now. And the juicier the story, the more details people wanted. And in this case, details are what they got.

As songs like this worked their way into the body of traditional material, they tended to acquire verses from other songs. So it is impossible to say what actually happened here. Enjoying songs like this is like enjoying the beauty of a patchwork quilt. And this musical quilt is a particularly fine example of the form.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Long Songs: Weird Al Edition

Weird Al Yankovic: Albuquerque


Recently, Weird Al Yankovic has taken to ending each of his albums with ridiculously long songs that are possibly even more absurd than his usual fare. If you have a half-hour or so to spare, I'd like to share those songs with you here.

The trend began with "Albuquerque" from 1999's Running with Scissors. The song is basically one large tangential rant involving rabid weasels, hermaphrodites, Leonard Nimoy's butt, and a lucky snorkel. All of these things are mentioned only to drive home the point that Al hates sauerkraut.

Did I mention that these songs might be a bit absurd?

Al followed that exercise with "Genius in France" from 2003's Poodle Hat. This time Al pays tribute to the late Frank Zappa with a track that jumps around from style to style with tons of dynamic shifts to an intentionally unsettling effect. Frank's son Dweezil Zappa plays the guitar intro to the song.

Finally... from 2006's Straight Outta Lynnwood... comes "Trapped in the Drive-Thru." If you've ever seen any of R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" videos, then this one needs no further explanation.

Kudos to any of you who can make it through all three of these.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Long Songs: Rose Rouge

St. Germain: Rose Rouge


My first trip to Amsterdam was as an adult, in March of 2000; my wife had just miscarried after several years of earnest attempts at bearing a first child, and although the doctor advised against flying, we really needed to get away from it all. I have fond if somewhat inevitably hazy memories of a week museum-hopping and roaming the castles and small rustic villages of the countryside, sitting by the side of canals eating bread, cheese, and salami -- about all we could afford on my teacher's salary.

But my strongest memories from that week are of St. Germain's Tourist, an album whose jazz-informed rhythms, jazz-club instrumentation, and long, trance-inducing tracks emanated from what seemed at the time like every coffeeshop and bar, providing the perfect atmospheric soundtrack to what otherwise could have fast become an insular and morose period in our lives. I bought the disc at overseas prices -- a comparative fortune, back then -- and have kept it with me ever since. Rose Rouge is one of the shorter pieces on the album, but it really blows away the blues, even now.