Saturday, September 10, 2016

Teach and Learn: What Can We Learn?

Just like his opener about New York City with its “hustle, bustle and pride,” Cole Petrone’s original material on his “Songteller” album delivers plenty of lively snap and satisfaction. His mature, multi-layered pop sound is both moody and moving. With a little luck, Cole Petrone might just experience the same kind of commercial breakthrough that James Taylor experienced in the early 1970s when he developed a musical relationship between his own private expressions and the larger concerns of his audiences. Based in British Columbia, Petrone considers himself an amalgamation of both songwriter and storyteller. Thus, his album’s title, “Songteller,” describes the musician’s approach as weaving a part of his life’s tapestry, using words and melody to chronicle significant moments from personal experience.

“What Can We Learn?” doesn’t poke fun at the educated as much as it has a strong, broader statement about being kind, courteous, considerate, respectful and most-importantly open-minded to others’ opinions. The song’s bottomline is “What makes you think you’re so smart?” Another question crops up in the melodic “Little Did I Know,” when Petrone asks, “Why deny this love that burns so bright?” as he sings with fond remembrance of that special someone who took his breath away.

The upbeat “What Can We Learn?” also include a small, understated horn section of trumpet, sax and trombone. Born in Puerto Rico to an American father and Nicaraguan mother, Petrone channels the same kind of sentiment as The Beatles’ “money can’t buy you love.” He says he wrote “What Can We Learn?” while seeking to understand his peers while working in Russia.

His album has other highlights. Based on inspiration from a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream” recounts the orator’s famous words as Petrone calls for freedom to ring and the voice of reason to belong to all the ages. Perhaps inspired more by the songwriting of James Taylor, a song like “See You Again” is a reflective outlook on life and love that was written as a tribute to his father. Many of his songs also document the questions that Petrone contemplates during life’s journey. “Angels Above Berlin” leaves us wondering why it took so long? Petrone was living in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell.

His is an interesting approach to songtelling that keeps us asking hard-hitting, provocative questions. Inspired by a six-year-old boy at the Ronald McDonald House, “Only Because” is a humorous take on the inquisitive mind needing real answers about who, when, where and why. With a full palette of proficient instrumental accompaniment including guitars, piano, organ, bass, drums and more, Cole Petrone has created a praiseworthy project.

Closing the album, “Should’ve, Would’ve, Could’ve” is a motivating reminder that we’d better get busy, get productive, and enjoy life while we still can. The question to reflect upon is “When they find their youth is gone, what will they do with all that sun?”  Cole Petrone is a songcrafter that doesn’t simply rely on old standard clichés or the lowest common denominator. He has enough years under his belt to confidently present his world-weary wisdom. It’s sometimes whimsical, a little quirky, and certainly quite fun. Check out his “Songteller” album on his website or at CDBaby.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Number Nine/September: Brand New, 1996

September is upon us and the Back-to-School commercials have been diluting our regularly scheduled football games for weeks. For those of us who don’t remember what visceral feelings the dread of the first day back to school manifests, we’re left with the occasional nightmare of being late to a class we can’t find or finishing an unending homework assignment while everyone we know watches us fail. That can’t be just me, can it?

In my last years of public schooling, I was firmly entrenched in music enlightenment from the likes of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Bad Company and Boston’s eponymous albums, The Essential REO Speedwagon, and The Beatles’ Revolver, but the music that most vividly returns me to that time of my life is a band more my contemporary, Brand New.

A rock band from Long Island, New York, Brand New seemed to me to be one of the few bands at the time that had a combination of the same themes I loved from the older music I was listening to. They brought intelligent and understandable lyrics to a similar spectrum that spanned from hard rocking to gentle ballads all while channeling the sexiness of Mick in Miss You and the bedroom eyes of Kevin Cronin in Keep on Loving You. Brand New’s second album, Deja Entendu was their crowning achievement at the time and I still see that familiar astronaut from the album cover, whether it’s on the CD in my car or the thumbnail on my computer.

In early 2006, while Brand New was working on their third album, nine demo tracks were leaked on the internet. Untitled 02, later officially titled 1996, is the song from the leak that most interests me. Even before the first chorus, it’s a rare listener that doesn’t have a singular name for who this song sounds so much like. That name, fans referred to the leaked song as “Morrissey” until the official title came years later, is chiefly suggested by the emotionally morbid lyrics sang in an unpredictable cadence that jumps from meandering to syncopated sprinting and the heavily reverbed, almost sorrowful guitar licks. After the flashback-inducing beginning, Brand New begins to strengthen their own touch on the song by using their familiar guitar sounds and a crowd-provoking chorus.

Admittedly a lyric guy, the most cerebral part of the song for me is that chorus, a tongue-in-cheek, self-congratulatory toast to the singer and his mourning friends: “And so three cheers for my morose and grieving pals/and now let’s hear it for the tears that I’ve welled up/we’ve come too far to have to give it all up now” The sentiment is possibly more relevant than ever now that media spends more time discussing which celebrities and politicians did or didn’t send their condolences after every death or tragedy than on the event itself.

The song had still been just a demo all these years, from the time I was a teen through the entirety of my twenties, until earlier this year Brand New released 3 Demos, Reworked, an EP that contains three of the original leaked demos and their new, re-recorded versions. Unfortunately, some of my favorite words were changed in the reworked version and a lot of the grit and edges have been sanded down. I suppose that’s a metaphor for time itself and the notion that one can get a clear look into the past.


Yes, those Searchers, 12-string wielding pop group from Liverpool, who, following in the merseybeat jet stream of the Beatles, were 2nd band from that city to have a hit in the U.S. (OK, 2nd equal, as the Hippy Hippy Shake by these guys also made the hot 100 that day in March 1964, but that was their sole hit and had nothing to do with nine or with september, this fortnights assignment.) So what had the Searchers to do with nine or September? Have patience and listen to this song, which doesn't, but was their 1963 debut single, a cover of an original by the Drifters, worth a listen if only to confirm the consistency of sound across the decades:

The remarkable thing about the Searchers is that, despite you, or your parents, only remembering their early 60s output, they are still going strong. Or, still going, anyway, and with sole first to last man standing, John McNally, plugging away on guitar and vocals OK, it is a while since their star was high in the firmament, but the cabaret and nostalgia circuits will still produce an audience, eager to revisit a youth, however distant.

Their heyday produced a glut of singles, all made distinctive by the harmonies and chiming electric 12-string guitar, widely attributed to the Rickenbacker model, and which preceded and arguably influenced Jim McGuinn, as he then was, of the Byrds and their sound. Intriguingly, as I prepared this piece, I discovered that, despite active promotion of this mythology, maybe that is what it was, certainly to begin with. Here is latter-day guitarist, 1969 onward, on the subject.

OK, to task, here is a song relevant to topic, number 3 in the US, their take on Lieber and Stollers chestnut, 'Love Potion Number 9':

OK, so not such a great song, or not one I am fond of, but it kept them in the charts, their run eventually dwindling as the 60s petered out. But then a remarkable situation took place a decade or so later, when Seymour Stein, a longterm anglophile music fan, signed them, in 1979, to his Sire label, possibly odd label mates alongside the Ramones and the Talking Heads. That was enough to jog my attention and I kept an ear open. Still the jangle, but now morphed into a new-wave sensibility, the choice and covers and image keel-hauled to have a more contemporary appeal. I bought into this, as the songs and sound were sturdy enough to hold muster against newer upstarts. I even bought their ever so nearly hit single, 'Hearts in Her Eyes', which has a pleasingly Dave Edmunds/Rockpile vibe. I bought the album too and commend it, from which my 2nd contrived link to this weeks subject arrives, another version of the song celebrated by Andy de la Raygun below.

After that? Sadly nothing. After 2 fairly well-received albums, on the verge of their 3rd, Sire got bought up and the Searchers were dropped back into the chicken-in-a-basket circuit, where they still plod on. I guess it's a living but the shame is immense. They were stars once, given the chance of being contenders again and it was shattered by the vicariousness of the biz. Pity. I wish 'em well.

Buy! You've got oldies or the goldies

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Number Nine: Hey Nineteen/Steely Dan

purchase [Hey Nineteen]

I have always liked Steely Dan. Becker and Fagan, whatever the critics say, have always hit the right spot with me: a mix of rock and jazz that is right down my alley - I think some folks call it jazz rock. Some be-little it.

Sure, I know the critique that their compositions can't be played live without lots of backup support, and, yes, that is an issue. Of limited import. Their compositions are primarily studio based. They've played with some of the best session musicians and produced so many classics that it really doesn't matter if the two of them (because that's all that Steely Dan really is) can't reproduce the identical album recordings on stage without assistance. So what?

Their hits are classic - they stick in your mind for decades (Yes, it has been decades) and ring true as memes for generations 30 plus years forward.
Here is an interesting piece about them that you might want to peruse - no point in my repeating/copying what someone else has eruditely scribbled.
But look at their lyrics: irreverent but relevant.

That's 'Retha Franklin
She don't remember
The Queen of Soul

irreverence: She don't remember what?
Relevance: she is the queen of soul

The Number Nine/September: Big Star, September Gurls

Big Star, September Gurls

In terms of musical discovery, I find myself often turning to the influences of those who influence me. Reading about an artist’s musical education often effects my own explorations into past genres and movements. In a beautiful, somewhat karmic turn, the influences of my influences become my own influences.

I find musical biographies the most interesting way to discover new, or otherwise unheard, music.  Digging deep into the history of music is as interesting and digging into actual, archeological history: what you find from the past informs the future. That’s why Magic Sam is almost daily listening for me. That’s how I discovered the Red Dirt Music movement, Jimmy LaFave, Stoney LaRue, and Jason Boland. 

In the same vein, I love a good name drop in songs. A few songs come to mind: Adam Duritz lamented Richard Manuel’s  (The Band) suicide along side the metaphorical impermanence of his own life in If I Could Give All My Love. John Mellancamp is pretty big name dropper (R.O.C.K in the U.S.A). The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon has made a brilliant career out of not only name-dropping, but wholesale lyrical montage, or is it collage, by taking lines from famous rock songs and seamlessly weaving the lyrics into his own. And, as we shall explore further later on, Paul Westerberg famously paid reverential homage to Alex Chilton and declared we could all use a ‘little Big Star” in the class ‘Mats track, Alex Chilton

I’m spanning across some divergent ideas here, but the point is: I feel listening to an artist who really moved you necessitates digging into their musical heritage. The same holds true for contemporary artists who run in the same packs. But, this is September, and history class is in session, so let’s dwell there, back there, not in the back of the classroom, but in the stacks. Dust off your vinyl, pull out your vintage t-shirts that you bought when brand new and let’s talk about a band I have always loved, to a degree, but have a complicated relationship with: I'm talking about the aforementioned Alex Chilton's Big Star.

I came to Big Star, and Alex Chilton, because of Paul Westerberg and The Replacements. Big Star, I know a little about; The 'Mats? I worship at their altar, so it was almost a necessity that I dig into someone they wrote a song about.

But, as often happens, one man's treasure doesn't always turn out to be the same or the next. The reason I say my affinity for Big Star is complicated is simple: like a lot of short lived bands, their catalog runs the entire spectrum of absolute greatness to songs that, while I might not call them bad, do probably speak to why they never hit it bigger than they did. They wrote great songs, and they put of some junkers. I feel a band like The Who exists on the same level: some of the greatest rock songs ever written and some of the worst. Literary minded folks could say the same for say, Charles Dickens. Big Star has that appeal and occupies that strange place between greatness and…mehhhh. The great stuff is just that; a lot of the rest of it is filler, at best.

I think that inconsistency has kept me from making a total embrace. But this is also me being utterly, assholishly subjective...I've had this discussion about the Grievous Angel, Gram Parsons. I think his short lived career was marked with nothing but brilliant, but I know a lot of folks thinks Return of the Grievous Angle is the starting and stopping point when it comes to evaluating his output. 

Add to the fact that the hipsters have gotten ahold of Big Star  (at least their t-shirt) which makes any relationship to a band, movie, book or whatever a heck of lot more complicated. 

Big Star's Alex Chilton is an eponymously blistering tribute to one of Westerberg’s heroes. The lead singer of Big Star, Chilton never hit it huge, or as huge as he probably should have, but he was a critics darling, and many a rocker’s legendary founding father of power pop. You’ve heard Big Star, for sure, but a lot of you (not you, SMM readers), might not know it. Their most well known track owes its celebrity to serving as the theme song to That 70’s Show. In the Street. Google “Big Star Hanging Out”—you’ll know exactly what I’m talking out.

While Big Star had many great songs, my favorite remains, and believe me, this doesn’t put me in unique company—a lot of people love this song—September Gurls. It’s a brilliant, chiming, churning pop gem, as great a radio song as I’ve ever heard. It makes its way onto almost all of the mixes I make, and I can't think of a song I more want to hear when I’m sipping drinks on a summer day.  Or that goes better with any beautiful girl you fall in love with, even if it's from across the room or jsut walking down the street.  September Gurls is two minutes and 56 seconds of a pop jewel in the crown of love songs. And will always be the soundtrack for a heart that breaks way too often at meeting, and losing, one of many girls from one of many dreams.

It was never a big hit, but September Gurls makes multiple lists of greatest pop songs ever. The Bangles covered it on their 1986 LP Different Light, and much in keeping with the theme of this post, it was their version that led me down a long path to Big Star (influences of influences, remember?). Though I should state that since I was listening to The Bangles, in 6th grade,my musical tastes hadn’t quite refined yet to the point where I would not listen to The Bangles. The Replacements followed within a few years, after I’d grown a little more discerning. Yet, now that I’m even older, I can kind of get down with The Bangles, and see they had some great songs—their cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter has a fiery snarl that the original folk duo could never have achieved…not that they needed to, but again, I love seeing how the influence of a precedent setting artist informs the later one, and how different the sound becomes.

All that being said, influential or not, popular or not, Big Star deserved more. And not this enlightening bit of trivia from MTV.

Thanks, Katy Perry.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Number 9/September: September Fifteenth

Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays: September Fifteenth

In 1981, after my junior year in college, I went to Europe with my two roommates, Jon, who was also a junior, and Neal, who had just graduated. We flew into Brussels and had open tickets home from London, and a Eurailpass. We had very little pre-planned, in the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era, so every day was an adventure as we had to figure out what we were going to do, where we were going to stay, where we were going to eat and how and where we were going to travel. As best I can recall, our major information source was a book called “Let’s Go: Europe,” which was at the time, considered to be the best source for student (read: “cheap”) travel, and we used it, despite its Harvard roots. (In researching this article, I found out that the Let’s Go organization was founded by Oliver Koppell, who became a well-known New York politician and lawyer, and an early business manager was Andrew Tobias, who became a prominent writer.)

This lack of planning and lack of options like Google and Yelp resulted in lots of serendipity. We stumbled upon a rustic street fair in Lucerne, fireworks in Paris, a free Gil Evans Orchestra concert in, I believe, Florence, and had many other adventures. We mostly stayed in cheap hotels, filled with other students who wanted a bit more privacy and flexibility than youth hostels, although we did stay in one very nice hostel in Switzerland.

Another vestige of the era was that wherever we went, there were actual record stores, and I would occasionally break away from my friends, who were not nearly as obsessed with music as I was, to paw through their wares, looking for things I couldn’t find in the U.S. I did bring back one LP, Sky’s debut, which somehow survived the trip. But one thing that was somewhat strange to me was that many record stores allowed you to listen to new records to sample them before, the store presumably hoped, you would buy them. I remember walking into a store, I think in Switzerland, and seeing the new Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays album, with the unusual title, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. I had no idea what to expect—I was familiar with Metheny’s solo work, and his great albums with the Pat Metheny Group, which featured Mays on keyboards—but why was this album credited only to the two of them?

Luckily, I was able to ask to hear the album. The title track is a long, side-length piece that was at times atmospheric, and at others it was filled with driving percussion—sort of a mix between jazz, rock, Latin and ambient music. Of course, I didn’t get to hear the whole thing—they skipped ahead to move things along. I don’t specifically recall my reaction to our featured song, "September Fifteenth," but I know that I got the album after I returned home from our trip (which was shortened by the air traffic controller’s strike that led to President Reagan destroying the union, and which forced us to scramble to get ourselves home), and I listened to it often.  I got the chance to hear The Pat Metheny Group at Princeton later that year, and while I do not recall whether they played this song (they probably didn't, based on setlists from other shows from the same time), I do still remember being embarrassed by percussionist Nana Vasconcelos when I asked him a dumb question between sets.

"September Fifteenth" is, simply, a beautiful song. It is dedicated to Bill Evans, the great piano player, who died on that date while the album was being recorded.  Evans, who cut his teeth playing with Miles Davis before beginning a distinguished career as a leader of his own groups, was an influence on both Metheny and Mays. For the most part, the song is a guitar and piano duet, with some synthesizer, mostly at the beginning. You can hear how Metheny and Mays pay tribute to Evans, if you compare "September Fifteenth" to Evans’ own work with guitarist Jim Hall, who was also a huge influence on (and ultimately a collaborator with) Metheny:

Pat Metheny is one of the biggest stars in jazz—he tours and records often, with various groups, exploring different styles of music, both inside and outside the jazz world. As I was writing this piece, I started to wonder, where the hell was Lyle Mays? And to be honest, it isn’t easy to find out much about his recent life. His last album with Metheny was released back in 2005 and his last solo album was released five years before that. The most recent thing that I was able to locate from Mays is this video from 2011, recorded at the TEDxCaltech conference.

It appears to be an attempt to meld three of Mays’ loves—music, technology and math. As Mays says in this article:

What do you get when the IT Department is the band? Jimmy Branly (drums) is a recording engineer. Andrew Pask (woodwinds) is a programmer who works for Cycling 74 (the company which makes the brilliant MAX software), Bob Rice (guitar and sounds) is a sound designer/engineer/synth programmer, Tom Warrington (bass) is a math wiz, Jon 9 (visualizations) designs, builds, and provides content for video installations, and Rich Breen could build (and nearly has built) recording studios MacGyver style. And what kind of music should one make when Stephen Hawking is in the audience at CalTech? Jazz alone doesn’t cut it.

Read the article if you want to know more, because I cannot even attempt to summarize what is going on. But the music still sounds good, and it is therefore a bit sad that Mays isn’t out there more, playing and recording music.