Friday, June 14, 2013

And Bands: It Beats Me Every Time

Peter Bjorn & John: "It Beats Me Every Time"

One of the major pitfalls of buying digital albums is that you don't get all the real, touchable things that come with a physical purchase. The case (is it a jewel case or just a simple cardboard sleeve?), the CD itself (will the disc art match the album art, like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Take Them On, On Your Own, or will they be separate entities, alien to each other in their own world), and — most important to me — the liner notes. The liner notes usually contain the lyrics. The lyrics that the band wrote. What exists on lyric websites are almost always approximations based on what the transcriber thinks they're hearing, and that is usually far from accurate. (Tangentially, this is another reason why I love extreme metal; nobody is out there saying I think he's growling "blah blah blah" and then writing that nonsense on a lyrics site. Death metal lyrics get transcribed from the liner notes directly to the websites.)

Take Them On, On Your Own inside of case...

...and disc.

What I'm getting at is this: I bought the digital version of this album (Falling Out: Planekonomi, 2004), so I have to rely on the websites for the lyrics, but they're not always accurate, so there are some discrepancies in what you'll find on various lyric sites for this album. The refrain, however, comes through crystal clear, and the message (whatever some of those slurred words in the verses are) is unmistakable: "We need to talk."

To start, according to Peter Bjorn & John, this album primarily deals with, as the title suggests, people falling out of love from the things and people they fall in love with:
"In everyday life we tend to compromise. This is neither good nor bad. Well, in art it's merely negative, when in life it's just necessary. We give up things we believe in to avoid being left behind, or locked out. In this compromising life we also tend to fall in love. Not just with people, but with places, philosophies, societies and our picture of what life should be. We stare sheeplike in the direction of this ideal picture. But we'll never get there. That way we're bound to be let down. We get confused. And we hurt each other. 
But these clashes, bullfights and mannered conflicts are there for a reason. We need them there in order to grow and to move on. We need to be confused. Sometimes we fall out with ourselves, and our expectations of ourselves. These are the hardest ones. But also the most important ones. Here are our songs about falling out. Some about falling in as well, but mostly out. Have a listen."
This song seems to be directly about a person. The narrator is in a relationship and is about to leave, perhaps for a tour (I gather that the main character of this song is none other than the actual band member who wrote it, bassist Björn Yttling). But while he's (presumably) been enjoying the relationship, he's conflicted. Being away from home for a long time calls relationships into question that way, and not knowing whether you want to keep things together or not can sometimes be reason enough not to. Just before he leaves, he finds out he'll be gone for several weeks, so what to do now? There's an appeal here for him, to be sure. Enough to keep him on the tipping point every time he thinks about it: "I just can't figure out what you're up to. It beats me every time." But reevaluating everything brings up a key point in his decision: "But I know what you've done for me ... it's nothing." 

What sort of relationship status will our character be posting by the end of the song? It's left undeclared, but perhaps there's a bit of revelation in the second stanza: "Taking out the trash and by mistake I throw away the keys."

Compared to other PB&J songs, this one doesn't stand out as a particularly ripe choice for lyrical criticism. To be honest, it gets a lot of repeats through my speakers because of that dead-on drop in tone at the end of each refrain. That's the sort of sonic turn I love!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

And Bands: Eric Clapton Edition

John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers: Steppin’ Out


Delaney and Bonnie with Eric Clapton: Poor Elijah


Derek and the Dominos: It’s Too Late


There are some pretty obscure pieces of trivia in the Guinness Book of World Records, but “Artist associated with the most And Bands” is probably not one of them. My guess would be that the record is held by Eric Clapton.

Eric Clapton’s first recorded work was with the Yardbirds, but the style that he became famous for first began to take shape during his brief tenure with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Clapton only made one album with them, in 1966, but that was enough to start his legend as a blues-rock guitar god. The album was simply called John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton. Mayall had a deep love of the blues, a great talent for finding sidemen who would go on to greater glory, and a horrible singing voice. He was also generous to his bandmates. Steppin’ Out is one of several instrumentals from the album that prominently featured Clapton’s guitar, and the album also included Clapton’s first recorded vocal, on Ramblin’ on My Mind.

Of course, Clapton cemented his early fame in Cream, starting later in 1966, but I have excluded them from this post for obvious reasons. Cream was followed by Blind Faith, another band that does not fit our theme. But the opening act for Blind Faith was Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. Clapton quickly became one of those friends, and his association with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett would last longer than Blind Faith did. The Bramletts made important contributions to Clapton’s first solo album. Bonnie even co-wrote one of Clapton’s early solo hits, Let it Rain.

Finally, this post would not be complete without Derek and the Dominos. The band consisted of Clapton, plus Delaney and Bonnie’s rhythm section, joined on their best known album by Duane Allman. They are seen here on Johnny Cash’s old TV show. Cash knew well the connections between country music and the blues, and it’s great to see that the in studio audience appreciated this as well. I’m not that the audiences for what passes for country music these days would respond this way, although I would like to think so.


Ruben and the Jets: Cheap Thrills

Purchase Link

OK, guys, I'm playing with you today, but you probably knew that. I felt the opportunity for a double "and band" too tempting to pass, hence the apparent contradiction between the title and the subsequent link. For those who don't know, "Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets" was the 4th LP by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, or, strictly speaking, the Mothers of Invention, but, hey, it's my column, and it's what we all called 'em. This record, a pastiche of and paean to Zappas love of doo-wop, deliberately played the Mothers entirely in role, as a  mythical band, Ruben and the Jets, with  Zappa being their leader, Ruben Sano. Arriving on top of his earlier and decidedly uncommercial product, perhaps as the original singles made no mention of Zappa or the Mothers name, the songs received considerably more airplay and exposure, ironically, than when it became re-released with the "real" name of the band. Indeed, jocks felt they had unearthed some old original songs from the 50s. This is an old trick, not forgotten by many a band and canny producer to this day.
My exposure to this, over the other side of the atlantic, and barely into double figures of age in 1968, its year of release, was somewhat arduous. Indeed, it was, I am shamed to admit, only as I researched this piece that I ever got round to listening to any of the tracks.(Please don't tell anyone I know.) Because Zappa was always to me a far better idea than a reality. I'll explain. During my early teens many, many afternoons were spent in one particular record shop, which had a very liberal approach to letting local schoolboys while away their days, headphones on, going thru' the racks. As well as filling my ears with what I wanted to listen to, generally standard UK rock, I could fill my eyes with all the weird and wonderful names and album covers of innumerable west coast bands, as they were then called. So, as Deep Purple choogled in my ear, I was leafing through Stoneground, It's a Beautiful Day, Captain Beefheart, Moby Grape etc etc. And Frank Zappa, with and without the Mothers of Invention, clearly the ugliest group of reprobates ever. Which was high praise. My guess now is that the owner of the shop was a fan, but, given their duration of stay in the racks, I sometimes wonder how many ever got sold. Believe me, there is somewhat of a difference between L.A. and Eastbourne, Sussex. I did eventually buy "Hot Rats", loving it to this day, but other and earlier Zappa was, shall we say, rather too difficult an appreciation to aquire, so I had to remain with just liking the image and dropping the name.
So, fast forward forty plus years and what do I think? Hmmm, Ok, I suppose. I guess you had to be there....... But I defend my right to upholding this self-deception for much of my life. I dare say I am not alone, especially when I note Beefheart is also in the list mentioned above.
When and if, having been blown away by my enthusiasm, you get to listen to the link, you will discover this a bit different from the one currently available for purchase, the originals having fallen victim to a later re-mix, by Zappa, with some change of musicians, causing uproar within hardcore afficianados. The youtube link is a vinyl rip from the original version.
Should you be looking for any other product by the "Ruben" band, you will probably find another LP, confusingly also by Ruben and the Jets. Just to be awkward, this is a conceptual tribute band, formed to emulate and take forward the success of the brand. Their producer, awkward as ever? Frank Zappa!

Monday, June 10, 2013

And Bands: Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band

conor oberst & the mystic valley band - dutchess stadium. wappingers falls, ny - 7-18-09
Photo courtesy of Katherine L. Ehle
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: Danny Callahan
[purchase the studio version]

It struck me that I’ve been writing for this blog for about a year and a half without posting about one of my favorite bands, Wilco. Not on this blog, at least. I’ve seen Wilco perform a few times, and their shows are almost always memorable. My favorite one, however, was an outdoor show in 2009 at the minor league baseball stadium in Wappinger’s Falls, New York (home of the Hudson Valley Renegades). It was a beautiful summer night, I was there with my son, we stood close enough to the stage to hear well without being too close, and the band was incredible. Because it was at a baseball stadium, they shot Wilco t-shirts into the crowd between sets. And we got one.

I turned my son on to Wilco, and he became a big fan. In turn, my kids have introduced me to a number of musicians that I now enjoy, and Wilco’s opening act that night was an artist that my son loved, Conor Oberst. It took me a while to appreciate him, and I will argue that his music has improved over the years, as he has matured, become somewhat less affected and simplified his writing. I loved his later Bright Eyes album Cassadaga and his self-titled “solo” album. But on the tour in question, he was performing as “Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band,” making them theme-appropriate.

Some artists need to be reined in to prevent their excesses from overwhelming their brilliance, and I think the fact that even though Oberst was the clear leader, it was more of a band than a solo project, made their output extremely appealing. In fact, as much as I was looking forward to seeing Wilco, I was hoping for a good set from the opener.

And Conor and the Mystic Valley Band kicked ass. Their set consisted of mostly songs from their then-current album and the “solo” disc, and I even recognized most of them. The band put on a great show, and I think that they impressed and even converted most (if clearly not all) of the audience, some of whom sadly had no interest in appreciating the quality of the performance and just wanted to get on to the headliner. They set a high bar that night, and Wilco actually surpassed them, which is no shame.

“Danny Callahan,” from Oberst’s self-titled album, is one of my son’s favorites, and for good reason. A great, almost bouncy, melody is coupled with literate and uplifting lyrics, but about a very serious subject, the death of a young cancer patient, failed by “Western medicine”.

That night, my son and I stood in front of a large taping rig, and we later found out that the show was recorded and posted at the incredible site, which offers a huge archive of interesting and usually amazingly well recorded live shows from the New York area. This recording is from that great evening, when my son and I saw two transcendent sets, standing in centerfield under the clear Hudson Valley sky.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

And Bands: Bill Janovitz and Friends

Bill Janovitz: Tumblin Dice
[Janovitz's website]

And so … for the next two weeks it’s “Bands with <and> in the name”. You could make a game out of this: how many such bands can you think of without Internet help? But the real/money question is: how many can SMM highlight and which would you have had us mention? (You can do so in the comments)

For the most part, bands in this category include the famous leader in the name (ex: Eric Burdon and the Animals), but there are almost equally many others where the “lead” is a figment (Derek and the Dominoes).

Bill Janovitz is prolific. He founded Buffalo Tom back in 86 and they are still playing together out of the Boston area. If you do a YouTube search for him, you’ll find clips of Bill Janvitz and Crown Victoria, Tanya Donelly and Bill Janovitz and more collaborations/ands. One of his projects has been a coversong blog started back in 2007 where you can read his thoughts about and download close to 100 songs. In his blog, he says:
I would love to share what I have been listening to more often, and as an artist, I encourage such use of music as another outlet for exposure. I don't want anyone posting files for downloads of whole records as thievery, but a sample tune or two would be fine.
Several years back, I had the fortune to pick up a couple of songs by Bill Janovitz and Crown Victoria, from in what was then a legal process. Despite Bill Janovitz’s sentiments about sharing, the song I wanted to post has been flagged as copyrighted by my file hosting service, so I can’t share it here.