Saturday, July 3, 2010

New York: Manhattan


Blossom Dearie: Manhattan


There's just so much jazz either about or coming out of New York City that it seems like we Starbloggers need to represent! Here's a song from the Great American Songbook. Written in 1925 by the duo of Rogers & Hart, this version was recorded in 1958 by jazz vocalist Blossom Dearie. The lyrics stuff in so many New York place names that it could have represented the whole week's theme.

New York: New York City

Cub: New York City


A song about New York City and called New York City seems a bit obvious for this theme, but alas, I was running out of ideas, and this is a great song. So, creativity be damned!

Cub was a Canadian all-female rock band in the mid-90s. For a while their drummer was current alt-country star Neko Case, and many people liked to refer to their style as "cuddlecore", something I've never quite understood, but whatever. The song is a punk(ish) rock ode to the city that they spent the best night of their lives and where they're headed back to as fast as they can.

Friday, July 2, 2010

New York: Rockaway Beach


The Ramones: Rockaway Beach


The first punk rock group. Two minutes. Three chords. Four guys "named" Ramone.

Rockaway Beach (the place), Wikipedia tells us, is the longest urban beach in the United States. It runs along the south shore of Long Island in the borough of Queens and was once known as the Irish Riviera because of the many Irish Americans living nearby.

Rockaway Beach (the song) was penned by Dee Dee Ramone as a surf rock ode to a place he liked to hang out. It became their most successful single in 1977.


New York: Harlem Nocturne

The Lounge Lizards: Harlem Nocturne


There are times when fringe musical genres suddenly burst into the mainstream, and hardcore scenesters declare that anyone who has become popular has “sold out”. These purists then adopt a subgenre that no one else knows about, and continue to revel in the fact that their music is the most obscure on the planet. In the early 80s, Mew York City scenestrers had this problem with punk and new wave. Their solution was no wave.

No wave music never did reach much beyond NYC. It was characterized by a strong beat and dissonant chords. The stranger the harmonies, the better. The no wave acts who became best known were probably the Contortions, Lydia Lunch, and the Lounge Lizards. Not exactly household names, but the musicians who passed through these bands have turned up in some surprising places. The Lounge Lizards are an excellent case in point. The Lounge Lizards seemed to be a band on their first album, but the roster changed with each subsequent release. The constants were the brothers John and Evan Lurie. The group started out playing slightly skewed versions of jazz standards. Harlem Nocturne led off their debut album. The song dates from 1939, and was written by Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers. Hagen in particular seems to have been aiming for an imitation of Duke Ellington’s style, and he succeeded well enough that Ellington would later record it. From there, the song became a standard, and any band with a sax player had to cover it. Even later, it was also adapted for electric guitar. The song has seen more than its share of odd covers, from Bill Hailey and His Comets to Conway Twitty. And if it sounds familiar, you may recognize it from the old Mike Hammer TV show.

Returning to the Lounge Lizards, over time, the Lurie brothers began to take on solo projects. John Lurie started to compose music for independent films, notably those of director Jim Jamrush. Jamrush gave his first serious roles to an actor named Tom Waits, and soon musicians who had played with the Lounge Lizards began to turn up on Tom Waits albums. The most notable of these was guitarist Marc Ribot. Other former Lizards have made their marks in New York City’s avant-garde jazz scene. But the most surprising legacy of the Lounge Lizards is what became of Evan Lurie. Would you believe, kid’s music? That’s right. Evan Lurie made contacts with the right people at PBS’s New York affiliate WNET, and now he writes music for PBS kid’s shows. His greatest success is a little show called the Backyardigans. The next time it’s on, play closer attention to the music. Here are these five brightly colored ultra-cute creatures, with their high chirpy voices. But the music underneath might be Bollywood or Ghanian highlife, or who knows what. Our children are being musically subverted, and I for one am grateful. And it all started with the Lounge Lizards.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

New York: Across Manhattan Zoo

Bobby Womack: Across 110th Street, Part II


Ol' Dirty Bastard: Brooklyn Zoo


Scott Walker: Manhattan


Three fine and very different New York-related songs in one rather scattered post.

First off a cut from the classic Across 110th Street soundtrack, courtesy of Bobby Womack. This is the lesser-known companion to the famous title track. There's a third version as well, an instrumental one which I almost posted during Instrumentals Week before I decided I had posted enough that week already.

Then a track just as rough and seedy as you'd imagine from someone calling himself Ol' Dirty Bastard. And finally Scott Walker, whose excellence should need no introduction or explaining.

By the way, don't miss this New York mix I posted on my blog two months ago. It's really good. It even has David Hasselhoff doing Frank Sinatra's New York New York. Nuff said.

Why the banana? Because to me New York has always been synonymous with The Velvet Underground. So yeah. A banana.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New York: High 5 (Rock The Catskills)

Beck: High 5 (Rock the Catskills)


Assuming that the Catskill's reference in the parenthetical title is deliberate - Beck was infamous in the nineties for taking misheard phrases and using them as adopted in-jokes in lyrics and titles alike - then there's a case to be made that this odd little broken collage of a song from mid-nineties masterpiece Odelay, which fades in and out of a plethora of feedback-heavy beats and melodic interludes covering everything from obscure 70s funk to a chunk of Schubert's Unfinished 8th Symphony, and even crashes to a self-referential halt about two thirds of the way through, is actually much smarter than it pretends to be.

The richly layered stop-and-start cycle of beats pays effective tribute to the evolution of the beautiful Catskill Mountain region of New York, known in the nineteenth century as a high-culture retreat and locus of the Hudson River School of painters, in the early twentieth as the "Borscht Belt", a middle-class summer retreat for predominantly Jewish and ethnic cityfolk looking economically upwards, and in the mid twentieth as a concentrated space for summer camps for city kids. These days, like Beck's narrator, the region is "more dead than alive", peppered with economically depressed working-class tourist towns, hiker's outposts, isolated weekender and summer homes, failing farms and antique shop barns, and deserted hotels even as it struggles to return to the grandeur it once represented for urban generations.

*With apologies for the irresistible visual pun...

New York: Englishman in New York

Sting: Englishman in New York


I’ve always taken Englishman in New York as a humorous piece. Sting presents himself as the clichéd Englishman, jauntily strolling down Fifth Avenue, twirling his cane in an oh-so-dignified manner. By the time the song came out on Sting’s second solo album, he had already spent a great deal of time with the band of all American musicians he had assembled for his solo debut. Yes, they had teased him mercilessly about his Britishisms, but surely Sting had become more used to us by this time. So I think Sting had developed a sense of humor about the whole thing by this time, and I think that’s where this song came from.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

New York: Long Island

Bill Janovitz: Long Island


Driving in and out of Long Island has never been a pleasant experience for me. But Buffalo Tom frontman and LI native Bill Janovitz almost makes being stuck on Long Island sound attractive on this catchy track from his second solo disc.

Incidentally, Janovitz did escape. His family moved to Massachusetts when he was 16.

New York: Chelsea Hotel No. 2

Leonard Cohen: Chelsea Hotel


I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were taking so brave and so sweet
Giving me head on the unmade bed
While the limousines wait in the street
Those were the reasons and that was New York
We were running for the money and the flesh
And that was called love for the workers in song
Probably still is for those of them left

For a fascinating overview of the history and mystery of the hotel, whose many claims to fame include Leonard Cohen's poignant lyrics with a never-spoken-but-always-implied reference to Janis Joplin (above), I strongly urge you read Somewhere In The Suburbia Of Manhattan: The Story of a Legendary New York City Hotel, text and photos by Christof Graf...

Monday, June 28, 2010

New York: Angel of Harlem


U2: Angel of Harlem


Harlem is a well-known Manhattan neighborhood, north of Central Park and Columbia University, tucked between the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. Some call it the home of Black America, as migration of African-Americans from the south to industrial northern cities, and especially New York City, took hold in the twentieth century. The 1920s and later ushered in a cultural explosion of Black expression in music, art, and literature, known as the Harlem Renaissance. Jazz was a huge part of this movement.

Billie Holiday, U2's "Angel of Harlem", grew up in New York City and found fame in the Harlem nightclubs. She had a terrible childhood, a hard life, and an even harder death, but she still managed to create a legend for herself. U2 pays tribute to Lady Day in this 1988 song, from Rattle and Hum.

New York: Banks of the Hudson

Black 47: Banks of the Hudson

[purchase Fire of Freedom]

There's something sinister lurking in this quintessentially pre-millennial Celtic-tinged rock and roll track. Though we know our protagonist is under pressure, a desperate thief chased by an iceman, overdue to be on the run yet willing to spend one more night in "New York town" to assure his girl that he'll never leave, it's not until the very last stanza that we learn about the interracial tensions that also underlie his stress, and his need to get out of New York City.

But this isn't just any bank on the Hudson; according to the landmarks and street names, it's a few blocks from the Lincoln Tunnel, by the pier and the Greenway - a terrible place to hide and a pretty desperate spot for a romantic goodbye, but directly across from the Statue of Liberty. Those who know New York City well will recognize the reference to very specific place throughout, and understand the location as both a perfect spot to call to freedom and the immigrant experience, and just another in a series of naive decisions bound to lead to disaster.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

New York: Shuffle Off to Buffalo

The Stolen Sweets: Shuffle Off to Buffalo


Buffalo is a city in what is now called “the rust belt”. The city’s economy was based on manufacturing, and these are hard times for manufacturers in the United States. But there was a time when these cities were shining and new. The industrial revolution had made them symbols of hope, even in the depths of the Great Depression. So, in the song Shuffle Off to Buffalo, we find that Buffalo is an inexpensive but desirable honeymoon destination.

The song comes from the movie 42nd Street from 1933. Later, it would be a hit for the Boswell Sisters, whose version is the clearest model for the version heard here. The Stolen Sweets bring all of the sentimentality of the originals to these old songs, and they also write originals which sound like they belong to the same era. You can read my review of their most recent album here.