Friday, March 7, 2014

Scrabble Value Letters (Z): Zomby Woof

[Purchase Asphalt Orchestra - Zomby Woof]
[Purchase Frank Zappa - Zomby Woof] 

I learned about Frank Zappa in college, though I had heard "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" on the radio once before when a disc jockey made fun of it. I liked it anyway.

So Apostrophe and Joe's Garage (Act One) and Chunga's Revenge are favorites of mine for their combination of juvenile humor and complex musicianship, Then I lost interest in the man, even if I still bought a number of his albums. He became more of a misogynistic misanthrope to me than anything else--doesn't he like anyone or anything?

When this topic came up, I searched through songs I had in old playlists and the word "zombie" came up. Zombies are a hot topic in movies and TV shows and songs, of course. I considered posting a few that approached the subject from different angles.

Then this song popped into my head. The Frank Zappa and the Mothers version is off Over-Nite Sensation, which has a lot of great tunes, but also some of his rudest, most sexist lyrics. The album version starts out with Frank falling asleep and transforming into Ricky Lancelotti's crazed zombie/wolfman sex fiend, with Tina Turner and the Ikettes on backup vocals (uncredited on the album).

I figured I would check for You Tube videos. There are the requisite guitar jams; they are fine, but just not my cup of tea. And there is the video above. Crazed street musicians taking on the master?

It turns out the Asphalt Orchestra is an offshoot of Bang on a Can, the New York City "new music" promoters..They are professionals, looking like they are having a lot of fun. You have to see it to appreciate it, and man, I do.

At this moment, the Asphalt Orchestra has a Kickstarter Project to record their version of the Pixies' first full LP Surfer Rosa. It might not get funded, but we have not heard the last of them.
The Asphalt Orchestra is a 12 member post-modern "marching band." They have worked with other musicians such as David Byrne, St. Vincent, and Brian Eno.

by Paul Tessene

(SMM welcomes Paul and looks forward to reading his regular postings in his own name starting after this post on his behalf)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Scrabble Value Letters (X): X-Ray Style

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros: X-Ray Style

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros: X-Ray Style (live)


Who knows? Maybe I will still get to my first idea for our current theme, a song starting with Z. But Z has been well represented, so I wanted to see what could be done with X. I‘m glad I looked into it, because X-ray Style is a fine addition to our theme.

Joe Strummer is justifiably best known as a founding member of the Clash. That’s understandable, since the Clash lasted for ten years, and nothing else Strummer did had the same popularity or influence. After the Clash broke up, Strummer did solo work, acted in films, worked on soundtracks, and was an occasional member of the Pogues. But the Mescaleros were the other band that Strummer really made his own. X-Ray Style is a good introduction to what this band was about. Strummer’s political concerns were a constant in all of his work, including the acting projects he chose, and X-Ray Style once again displays Strummer’s concern for the downtrodden in various societies around the world. The music has a tropical feel, and is a continuation of the global musical exploration Strummer had begun with the Clash albums London Calling and Sandinista. What I find most interesting though is Strummer’s approach to the vocal on X-Ray Style. I have presented videos for both the studio and a live version for a reason. The song comes from The Mescaleros’ first album, and Strummer is trying to decide how to present himself. The punk shouter of the past is gone, he seems to be saying, and his vocal on the album is restrained at first. Strummer seems to be saying that this is more thoughtful music, and he wants us not just to react viscerally, as we once did to his music, but now he asks us to think as well as feel. Still, this is Joe Strummer, and he was always passionate about what he did. His vocal gains more bite as the song proceeds. I assume the live version comes from a time when Strummer had lived with the song for a while, and also gained greater comfort with his new band. It’s a plugged in version that loses none of the wonderful lilt of the original, but Strummer begins with more of an edge in his voice, and gets more intense as the song goes on. He never reaches the all-out abandon of his Clash vocals, but the live X-Ray Style sounds more like the same singer.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Scrabble Value Letters (Z): Zip City

Drive-By Truckers: Zip City
[purchase Southern Rock Opera]

There is one member of my family who would be disappointed if I had the chance to write about songs that begin with the letter Z and didn’t write about “Zip City,” maybe my son's and my favorite Drive-By Truckers song not written by Jason Isbell.

In the early days of the Truckers, Patterson Hood dominated the songwriting, but Mike Cooley’s smaller output was often more memorable. I once saw a quote from Hood somewhere in which he essentially said that he wrote tons of songs, not all of which were great, and that Cooley wrote fewer songs, and they were all great. I can’t find the damn quote, but I know I saw it. And if you look at the commentary that Hood writes about all of the band’s albums, he invariably refers to a Cooley song as his favorite on the album. Sure, there is a bit of modesty there, but I honestly believe that Hood is sincere.

The new English Oceans, released today, has 13 songs, 7 by Hood and 6 by Cooley—but for the first time, Cooley sings a song written by Hood. Stuff like this is just manna for fans. I could have streamed the new album, but I’m waiting for my CD to arrive (hopefully in today's mail) before listening to it. I’ve liked what I have heard, so far.

But back to “Zip City,” from the Truckers’ breakthrough album, Southern Rock Opera. This was the album where a band that wrote songs like “The President’s Penis is Missing,” matured into one of the great American rock bands. Using a slightly fictionalized version of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story as a jumping off point to discuss perceived misconceptions of the South, modern southern mythology and the power of rock ‘n’ roll, it is an album that grows on me every time I listen to it.

“Zip City” is probably the Cooley song that fans most want to hear, and I think the band plays it at most every show (the version I posted is from a 2010 show at Webster Hall in New York that I was lucky enough to attend). And it is great live. Despite that, being somewhat of a contrarian (polite for “smartass”), the song is omitted from Cooley’s live solo album, The Fool on Every Corner,” which was released in late 2012. And it wasn’t like he didn’t play “Zip City” during the live performances that were used to create the album. Here’s proof. He just chose to leave it off.

What makes “Zip City” such a great song? Start with the story—although at the base, it is a classic tale of teenage lust, there is a twist. The seventeen year old narrator displays incredible maturity—he knows that he is never going to marry the girl, and he resignedly tells her to keep her drawers on, because it just isn’t worth the fight. And add to that the overlay of the narrator’s recognition of the hypocrisy of his girlfriend’s father, a church deacon, and the subtle references to the aimlessness and boredom of the narrator’s life. But then there are the lyrics, which are typically brilliant. For example, after telling his girlfriend that she should keep her drawers on, the singer predicts the dead end life his girlfriend faces:

By the time you drop them I'll be gone 
And you'll be right where they fall the rest of your life. 

The bleakness doesn’t stop there—Cooley describes her family like this:

Your Daddy is a deacon down at the Salem Church of Christ 
And he makes good money as long as Reynolds Wrap keeps everything wrapped up tight 
Your Mama's as good a wife and Mama as she can be 
And your sister's puttin' that sweet stuff on everybody in town but me 
Your brother was the first-born, got ten fingers and ten toes 
And it's a damn good thing cause he needs all twenty to keep the closet door closed 

I particularly like his description of the closeted brother.

There’s more, but better you should listen to the song, which, according to Hood is “90% true and is my personal favorite song on the album.”

And, if you want to learn more about the actual locations in the song, and see pictures, check out this blog.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Scrabble Value Letters (Z): Zydeco Honky Tonk

     You don't have to be born in a bayou to appreciate this swinging instrumental from Buckwheat Zydeco's 1987 album On A Night Like This. It has been called the most important zydeco album ever made. Not the best. But the most important. With covers of tunes from Bob Dylan ( "On a Night Like This") , The Blasters ("Marie Marie"), Booker T and the MG's ("Time Is Tight")  and the great Clifton Chenier ("Ma 'Tit Fille"), On A Night Like This broke new ground for zydeco music... beginning with a record release party like no other.

   It happened at the Island Records 25th Anniversary Concert . With no notice, Stanley "Buckwheat Zydeco" Dural Jr was shoved on stage with Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. "Buck" sat at his Hammond B-3 organ.  Sharing his bench was In a Night Like This producer GeorgeFox who recalls what happened in Michael Tisserand's book The Kingdom of Zydeco:

   Ringo is like six feet away on the right, and he's looking over like "What the fuck is this?" And Clapton was maybe five feet in front of us, and Buck gets up there, and Clapton does this solo, and Buck played it on the organ and bumps it up a notch. And Clapton plays what Buck has just played, and he bumps it up a notch. And they're getting into this furious cutting contest, and Clapton hasn't even turned around at this point . And all of a sudden four thousand people are screaming , and Eric just stops playing, and he turns around and he puts his hand out to Buck and says "I'm Eric Clapton. Who are you?" It was just one of those kind of moments.

   Now that's the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Buckwheat Zydeco would soon be touring with Clapton. The album would make many critic's top 10 lists and, by 1988,  you couldn't sit through a TV commercial break without hearing zydeco. Buckwheat Zydeco performed at both Clinton inaugurations and during the Closing Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. You can hear his music in The Big Easy and Adam Sandler's The Waterboy .At 66, Buckwheat Zydeco is still going strong.