Saturday, March 26, 2011

Trouble: Trouble

Todd Snider: Trouble


I have not posted in forever - shame on me!

Back in the days when I was a "regular", you could count on me for two or three submissions a week... and Todd Snider's tunes would show up frequently to illustrate my musical points (samplings can be found here, here, here and here)...

I first fell in love with him from his debut CD, Songs for the Daily Planet, released in 1994 - I always thought Trouble was the best non-country country song ever written. "A woman like you walks in a place like this, you can almost hear the promises break" - does it get any better than that? (rhetorical question... :-)

Trouble: Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen

grant green blue

Grant Green: Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen


This post is courtesy of Mr. Geoviki, who first turned me on to the amazing jazz guitarist Grant Green. I discovered a fair share of guitarists on my own, but Mr. G's the real guitar fan. In fact, while I sit upstairs and write these blog entries, he's down in the mancave practicing chord progressions and arpeggios.

Green released this album of spirituals cum instrumental wonders in 1962, the third in a series of concept albums recorded for Blue Note, and it's brilliant. Not only is Green in fine form, he's accompanied by a young Herbie Hancock on piano. If you like your jazz straight up and accessible, you'll like Grant Green.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Trouble: Trouble (x3)

So many songs are just called "Trouble" - seems the word itself is sufficient to set the stage for artists aching to address the challenges and pain of life. We started the week with a cover of the Little Feet song of the same name; as we come to the end of our theme, here's three more favorites, none of them in their original form, all of them relatively rare and hard to find, even as their original versions are likely familiar to the average audiophile.

Shawn Colvin: Trouble (live)

[out of print; purchase used]

According to chart data and Amazon, Shawn Colvin's 1996 popfolk opus A Few Small Repairs is her best-selling album; it spawned her highest charting single, and garnered two Grammys, for Song and Album of the Year, two years after its relese. But I saw Shawn long before the world saw her coming, on a small stage in a cramped Cambridge coffeehouse, and to me, her best songs have always been the delicate ones, where her little-girl voice and the raw lyrical distance she draws from a portrayed world of pain shine through in their simplest form.

This version of Colvin's Trouble offers the best of both worlds: the song has its origin on A Few Small Repairs, yet here we hear it live, with Colvin's voice able to crackle with the energy of the late-nineties Lilith Fair audience who saw her as both a headline act and an icon of female empowerment. But after all that, it's not so different from the studio version: listen, and you can hear the album arrangement coming through, proving once again how vital the support of Colvin's cowriter, producer, and musical partner John Leventhal is to her commercial success.

The Holmes Brothers: Trouble (Cat Stevens cover)


Everyone knows who Cat Stevens is, though sadly, in a world where religion is a dirty word, many modern audiences know him less as a poetic seeker and more as the seventies artist who converted to Islam after an apocryphal near-death experience and disappeared from the scene for decades. But proud folk artists and others still cover the man's greatest works, most of which date from his delicately textured acoustic period between '69 and '77, and since Trouble was there at the beginning - it's originally found on Mona Bone Jakon, which gets much less in the way of play or props than Stevens' two subsequent discs, Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat - I have several versions of this seminal tune on my hard drive, including this one, featuring the Holmes Brothers' raspy blues harmonies, originally found on the Crossing Jordan soundtrack.

Mutual Admiration Society: Trouble (Jon Brion cover)


Mutual Admiration Society was a one-shot collaboration formed out of LA's Largo, a club which for decades has been a mainstay of the LA singer-songwriter scene. The band's single, self-titled album was rehearsed and recorded in a six day period in 2000, and eventually released in 2004 on bluegrass label Sugar Hill, possibly due to the rising name-brand recognition of the trio of young musicians who play alongside Toad The Wet Sprocket founder and frontman Glen Phillips here - Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile, a group you probably know as Nickel Creek.

The album contains two covers, both relevant to our theme this week: a delightfully gypsy-folk take on Harry Nillson's Think About Your Troubles, and this one, originally penned and performed by Jon Brion, arguably the central figure in the Largo scene, and sadly best known outside of that for penning the soundtracks to several films, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and, embarrassingly, Popeye, starring Shelly Duval and Robin Williams, neither of whom are known for their singing, and for good reason.

Today, of course, Glen, Sean, and Sara still play and record together as part of Works Progress Administration, another on-again off-again collaboration who released their own one-shot album in 2009. And Largo? It still functions as a locus for the likes of Aimee Mann, Brion, Phillips, and others; I'm still hoping to make it out someday, to see the scene at play.

Trouble: Trouble Man

marvin gaye trouble man

Marvin Gaye: Trouble Man


In 1971, Marvin Gaye was coming off the success of his 1971 groundbreaking album, What's Going On (which Motown president Berry Gordy had tried to deep-six because of its deeply political message). The early seventies saw many soul musicians (including Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, and Barry White) scoring for the new genre of movies catering to a black audience. Gaye moved to Los Angeles to write, produce and record the soundtrack for the 1972 blaxploitation movie, Trouble Man. The movie tanked, but the soundtrack lived on, giving us this soulful tune.

There's only three things that's fa sho': taxes, death, and trouble.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Trouble: You've Got Your Troubles

David and Jonathan: You've Got Your Troubles


David and Jonathan, perennials in lists of one-hit wonders for their cover of The Beatles’ Michelle, were actually Roger and Roger — Cook and Greenaway.

If you don’t know their names, you will know their songs. They wrote such hits as Gene Pitney's Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart, The Hollies' Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress and Gasoline Alley Bred, Home Lovin’ Man for Andy Williams, Deep Purple’s Hallelujah, Something Tells Me Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight for Cilla Black; White Plain’s My Baby Loves Lovin’, Blue Mink’s Melting Pot, Whistling Jack Smith’s I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman, Cliff Richards' High And Dry, and Gary Lewis’ Green Grass.

They also wrote a song called True Love and Apple Pie for Susan Shirley. They later rewrote that song with two other chaps to produce the famous Coca-Cola jingle I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke, which in turn became a rather annoying hit for The New Seekers (get the Susan Shirley song and the Coke jingle as well as the story of the song HERE). By contrast, for themselves they wrote songs with titles such as Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellenbogen By-The-Sea (well, they did have another UK hit with the more soberly titled Lovers of the World Unite).

Their first successful songwriting collaboration was You've Got Your Troubles, which was a US and UK top 10 for The Fortunes. The Birmingham band would have a hit with another Greenaway/Cook song, This Golden Ring. The two Rogers recorded the song themselves, but it seems unclear when: one source claims that they did so before The Fortunes recorded their version in May 1965; most sources say David and Jonathan’s version was released in 1966.

Anyhow, the two Bristolians ceased their biblically-monikered George Martin-produced duetting high jinks in 1968, having recorded a flop with Softly Whispering I Love You (four years later a hit for The Congregation). Greenaway was invited to join the newly-formed band Blue Mink. He declined, but recommended Cook, who became co-lead singer with Madeline Bell. Cook and Greenaway wrote the bulk of Blue Mink songs.

After Blue Mink, Cook moved to Nashville, eventually becoming the first British songwriter to be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Trouble: Lookin’ For Trouble

Steve Goodman: Lookin‘ For Trouble


When I think of Steve Goodman, I think first of his wonderful sense of humor. Next, I think of his warmth, and the love for his characters that comes through in songs like The Dutchman. (Yes, I know Goodman didn’t write The Dutchman, but his performance brings out this quality, and it also shows up in his writing.) At first listen, Lookin’ For Trouble is another matter. Goodman’s base of operations was Chicago, and here that city’s blues comes out through him. But listen again. The song is a piece of advice to someone who might still be able to benefit from it. In this take on the blues, all is not lost. Goodman’s narrator is singing this to someone he wants to help, and what comes through most is how much he cares.

Incidentally, Lookin’ For Trouble is a song that I first encountered in a wonderful performance by Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore. Later, I found an equally wonderful version by Red Molly. Both were too recent to include in this post, but, if you like this, you will want to seek out those versions as well.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Trouble: Trouble Every Day / More Trouble Every Day

The Mothers of Invention: Trouble Every Day


Frank Zappa: More Trouble Every Day (Swaggert Version)


Here we have two versions of the same song--though with different titles and very different arrangements--from opposite ends of Frank Zappa's career. The first track, "Trouble Every Day", comes from the first Mothers of Invention album, 1965's Freak Out. Infused with themes of race, violence, social injustice, and sensationalist journalism, the lyrics are, sadly, timeless.

In later years, Zappa revisited the song, speeding it up, addressing current events, and retitling it "More Trouble Every Day". The version here comes from his last tour in 1988, and was released on the album The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life. Like several songs on the album, Jimmy Swaggert is the main target of Zappa's ire. The '80s were a kind of golden age for hypocritical television evangelists. And for Zappa, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

Sadly, Zappa passed away in 1993. One wonders what he would have produced were he still with us today.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Trouble: Trouble in Mind

Big Bill Broonzy: Trouble in Mind


Jimmy Witherspoon: Trouble in Mind


James Blood Ulmer: Trouble in Mind


Trouble in Mind is a primal blues song. I don’t know if anyone knows how old it is. From the lyrics, it could be as old as the railroads, but the versions heard here each present a slightly different set of lyrics. So maybe the railroad reference is a late addition and maybe the song is even older. This is the kind of song that invites such wild speculation, because it speaks of an emotion that goes back forever. Trouble in Mind is the perfect expression of despair. Even the lyric that says, “the sun’s gonna shine in my back door some day,” sounds more like a desperate wish than a statement of faith. Big Bill Bronzy, Jimmy Witherspoon, and James Blood Ulmer are three artists who get that. They understand that Trouble in Mind should be sung and played as a cry from the bottom of a man’s spirit. And yet, these three performances are completely different. Big Bill Broonzy sobs his way through the song. His guitar playing appears and disappears, like a stuttering cry, but he never loses the beat or the shape of the song. Jimmy Witherspoon works within the tight structure of a jazz ballad, but his emotional expression is just as powerful. Gerry Mulligan’s sax part seems to be trying to comfort him and offer support, but Witherspoon is unable to accept this, his narrator is beyond help. Ulmer’s version seems to say that this despair is so deep that it comes from another world. I’ve never heard blues sitar before, but, in Ulmer’s arrangement, it makes perfect sense. His vocal is strangely calm, as if he is all cried out but really no happier.

Trouble In Mind is a blues classic which has also crossed over, not only into jazz, but also into country and western swing. There are many ways to make the song work, and there are also some versions that don’t work. But the ones I have chosen are, I think, a fair sampling.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Heritage -> Trouble: Inara George

Inara George: Trouble


Inara George never really knew her father, Little Feat founder, frontman, and primary songwriter Lowell George - he died when she was five, leaving a young Inara to be raised by her mother. But having Jackson Browne as a godfather, and Van Dyke Parks as a family friend, kept her connected to the arts in her blood: she trained to be an actress, and after a high school reunion jam session led to a major label contract, a career in her father's footsteps seems to have inevitably followed.

I love the poignant, delicate way young, pre-fame Inara takes on this track, recorded as the final track for her father's tribute album in 1997, trading the slow, steady heartbeat of her father's original for smooth balladry and strings. And if you want to hear more from this wry, clear-voiced siren, there's plenty to find: though her first band's sole album is out of print for good reason, her early post-millennium work with Merrick was featured in episodes of (and soundtracks for) Felicity and Grey's Anatomy; fifteen years later, her current bands The Bird and the Bee and retro-girl-group The Living Sisters are all the rage in indie circles.

I know that our Heritage theme wasn't intended to provide comparison between parents and their progeny. It's rare for artists to cover their own parents, after all. But as our theme this week will feature songs with the word "trouble" in the title, I've also included the 1971 Little Feat original as a bonus. After all, it's Lowell's song, to begin with.

Little Feat: Trouble