Saturday, February 27, 2010

If: If I... - The Wizard of Oz Edition

Jackson Browne/Jewel: If I Only Had a Brain

Roger Daltrey: If I Only Had a Heart

Nathan Lane/Jewel/Jackson Browne/Roger Daltrey: If I Only Had the Nerve

Nathan Lane and Full Company: If I Were King of the Forest

[purchase] - also available in VHS here...

Poor Darius - one of our dear fellow Star Makers has been out of commission for the last few weeks, suffering from computer problems, which it appears will take a while to resolve. He sent me an e-mail yesterday (in response to my previous note of concern for him), a bit of which I reprint here:

-----Original Message-----
From: Darius
To: ozwoman321
Sent: Wed, Feb 24, 2010 11:37 pm
Subject: If Darius could post...

Meanwhile, I noticed this week's theme. Do you remember that version I sent you a while back of If I Only Had a Brain?

Sadly, I looked everywhere, on *both* of my computers, and cannot seem to find the version he sent me - I am hoping my offerings above might be a charming substitute...

[This blog post was already written but not yet uploaded... and I went out for the evening, only to return to find Darius is back in the cyber-saddle... with the version he referenced - great news... and I'm still going ahead with my homage!]

It is no secret on SMM that I am an Oz fanatic - about a decade ago, I was flipping through the TV channels and virtually stumbled across a treasure on PBS: The Wizard of Oz in Concert... with quite the eclectic cast: in addition to the four main characters listed above, Natalie Cole was Glinda the Good Witch, Joel Grey the Wizard, Debra Winger the Wicked Witch of the West... Phoebe Snow, Lucie Arnaz, Ronnie Spector, Ry Cooder, Dr. John and David Sanborn were featured... and The Boys Choir of Harlem played various Munchkins...

I found out later that 100% of the proceeds from the sale of the CD benefited The Children's Defense Fund, which was the proverbial icing - it remains a joy to hear and see my literary traveling companions brought to life by some of my musical heroes...

And Toto too? - and Toto too!

If: Cowpunk/Alt-Country Edition

Jason & The Scorchers: If the Money Talks


My run in with The Bottle Rockets earlier this week has had me in a mood to relive the glory days of the alt-country movement with some of the giants of the genre. In perusing my iTunes playlists tonight, I discovered several "If" songs from those early years.

Not so much commentary here since the new week starts in about a half hour here in the East. I would just like to point out, though, the sheer energy and abandon that is present on these tracks. The Scorchers track comes from 1985, The '97's from '94, and Whiskeytown from '96. I truly wish I had been cognizant of the movement back in those days.

Friday, February 26, 2010

If: The Townes Van Zandt/Dar Williams Connection

Townes Van Zandt: If I Needed You


My husband and I saw Crazy Heart the other night - the storyline was fairly lame and forgettable... but Jeff Bridges does indeed deserve the Oscar for Best Picture... and the exquisite tapestry of songs woven throughout keeps the mood and the focus on the music... and the life of the musician. I know lots of people like that... driving from town to town in a not-so-dependable vehicle, not quite sure whether the next venue will be a bar or a listening room... and whether the audience will be a handful or a sell-out - it's easy to pendulum from lucky to lonely in the space of 50 miles...

As the hot air balloon scene begins, I heard the first few notes of the tune and elbowed my husband, "that's Townes Van Zandt's If I Needed You"... and felt the delight of validation as the lyrics kicked in to prove me right - later, Bad Blake, strumming his guitar, says, "That's the way it is with good songs: you think you've heard them before."

Dar Williams: If I Wrote You


I had never heard of Townes until I saw Dar Williams live for the first time in mid-January 1998 - he had died the previous January, she spoke briefly of him during the concert... and "If I Wrote You is dedicated to the memory of Townes Van Zandt", as she writes in her End of the Summer liner notes. I have been a fan ever since - he's the king of heartache and my words will never do him justice... but I highly recommend the documentary Be Here to Love Me for an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at this talented but tortured songwriter...

From a wonderful, but undated, online interview:

Splendid: To me, both "End of Summer" and "If I Wrote You" seemed to be pivotal points in your songwriting, and that your third album marked a point where you were branching out a lot.

Dar Williams: I think you're right about those two songs, absolutely. Especially on "If I Wrote You". I mean, Joan Baez picked that one up immediately.

Splendid: By the way, I'm a big Townes Van Zandt fan, so I was thrilled when I read it was dedicated to him in the liner notes. But where does he play into the song?

Dar Williams: It's not a song about Townes. My manager was a huge fan, and I did start writing it in Austin, and I was writing it in the South, and it had that kind of vibe. And I think I said to my manager, "The way you described Townes... both personally and professionally, it seems like his songs were like his letters to his us, his postcards to us." It seems like, when you were in his company, it was very hard to relate to him, and so it's almost like you needed him to send these missives, and in that way, it did remind me a lot of him in the song. To my mind, the song's about two people with a substance abuse thing going on. And one of them takes off into a different direction. And writes this song basically saying, "I didn't get straight to mock you or tell you what to do with your life. You know, I'm much happier now, but I'd love it for you to feel that you're special, and I need to be honest about the fact that I'm in a much better place than I was, but I don't want to put you down for being where you're at. I never did." And so that's the kind of song you'd want to sing to Townes, 'cause, you know, he did have a big drinking problem. So maybe the thing you'd want to say to Townes is, "I wish you could understand how great you are, and maybe put down the booze," but, then, I'm not on this planet to judge you. And that's why I would never bring it up.

If: If You're Feeling Sinister

Belle & Sebastian: If You're Feeling Sinister


Perhaps it's redundant to post this Belle & Sebastian song here, as every hipster reading this blog surely has this album in their collection already. But as I looked through the long list of "If" songs in my own archives, this one stuck out as one of my favorites.

"If You're Feeling Sinister" (and the album it gives its name too) was my introduction to their world back in 1996, and it was pretty much love at first song. Back then, they took their musical cues from the likes of Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, the Smiths, and the acoustic side of the Kinks. It's a very comfortable spot. Listening to this song fourteen years later, the opening sounds of playing children instantly puts me in a nostalgic mood.

It's been quite a while since I've listened to the album, but while writing this, I'm compelled to go back and listen to the whole thing. As I peek out my window at the gently falling snow, something about the album still feels so right. For me, it's still a perfect album, with songwriting, singing, arrangements, performance, and album cover all coming together to produce something much greater than the sum of its parts.

I've collected nearly everything the band has done since then, and while I have a dozen favorite songs scattered through their discography, they've never again captured the sustained magic that produced this classic. But right now that hardly matters. The first strains of album closer "Judy and the Dream of Horses" are wafting out of my speakers, and I'm in musical bliss.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

If: If You Have Ghosts

Roky Erickson: If You Have Ghosts


John Wesley Harding and The Good Liars: If You Have Ghosts


So many sweet songs come to mind for this week's theme; a search of "if" reveals that my library is filled with pensive love songs of what might still come to pass, and mournful ballads of what could have been, if only things had been different. But somehow, in the end, it's the angry, bitter ones that stick with me. Possibilities unrealized, promises unfulfilled: there's nothing better to rail against the uncompromising darkness of a world that breaks its vows than song.

Roky Erickson's If You Have Ghosts is a bit of a cryptic psych-rocker - the lyrics dabble in a twilight world, and there's not much narrative there. But the license that ghosts grant is clearly stated in the first lines: If you have ghosts, says Erickson, then you have everything; you can say anything you want, and you can do anything you want.

Erickson seems uneasy with this conclusion - he doesn't want his fangs to grow too long - and it's not hard to see why. It's a dark, dangerous justification for bad behavior, this theory of having loved and lost as a needful thing for full human consciousness. But the very existence of the song suggest that whether it is true that to be haunted is to be real, we've all got demons, and they deserve to rock. And for the duration, at least, it all makes a kind of dark, disturbing sense. Especially if we note here that Erickson, who was a member of the strange psychedelic garagerock band 13th Floor Elevators in the sixties, is well known for ending up in a psych ward for undiagnosed schizophrenia not long after leaving the band to begin his solo career. Ghosts, indeed.

Though I cannot find the original Erickson's original is as wild as you might expect; thanks to fellow Star Maker contributor Ramone666 for passing it along. But it's the song, not the performance, that truly matters here. And happily, John Wesley Harding and Co. pay tribute to these complexities with aplomb on the generally excellent 1990 Roky Erickson tribute compilation Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

If: If

Wild Colonials: If


Wild Colonials are a Los Angeles-based group of musicians fronted by Scottish vocalist Angela McClusky, who now is a solo artist. Her vocals are incredible with her signature husky quality, and as powerful as her voice is, she can warble out a ballad and make it sound just as interesting. As if her vocals weren't great enough, the band also includes a fantastic violinist who whales so hard on that instrument that when I saw them play in concert he had lost so many strings by the time they were done I was wondering how the thing was still sounding as good as it was.

The song "If" was featured on their 1996 album "This Can't Be Life". The statement that she is saying beginning with that one little word is "If you don't love me, someone will", in other words, your loss, not hers, she's moving on.

Monday, February 22, 2010

If: If I Could Talk I'd Tell You

The Lemonheads: If I Could Talk I'd Tell You


With its jangly guitars, summery organs, a frickin' whistling solo, and lyrics which I refuse to believe have any meaning, If I Could Talk I'd Tell You is the second happiest song is the world. It has that kind of unashamed euphoria that inspires you to jump around like a moron and kiss everyone unfortunate enough to be within kissing range. Yet it never feels corny, it's just two minutes and fifty seconds of pure joy.

In case you're wondering: The happiest song in the world is of course Petula Clark's My Love.

If: If I Had A Good Dog

Folksinger and painter Eric Von Schmidt seems sadly forgotten these days. A figurehead of the early sixties coffeehouse folk revival, some of his excellent early albums haven´t even gotten the cd reissue treatment yet, while most of his later output isn´t exactly easy to come by either.

There was a time though when Von Schmidt (1931-2007) was held in high esteem. By none other than Bob Dylan for instance, who learned Baby Let Me Follow You Down from Von Schmidt, and played harp on one of his albums under the pseudonym of Blind Boy Grunt. He prominently displayed one of his records on the sleeve of Bringing It All Back Home, and recorded a version of his Joshua Gone Barbados with The Band in their pink Woodstock basement.

In homage, Dylan also wrote that "He can separate the men from the boys and the note from the noise. The bridle from the saddle and the cow from the cattle. He can play the tune of the moon. The why of the sky and the commotion from the ocean. Yes he can."

In the bluesy and funny If I Had A Good Dog, also known as the Male Chauvinist Possum Song, Von Schmidt wishes he had a canine friend, so he´d be able to kill said possum for dinner. And then it would be up to her to skin and bake it of course, preferably with sweet potatoes...

"Bring it to the table, set it down,
And give it all to...