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.