Friday, July 13, 2018

JULY: Fourth Of July

Purchase Shooter Jennings, "Fourth Of July" 

Shooter Jennings, heir apparent to the legit country music crown, is doing his goddamnest to keep the weird in country weird. I'm talking real weird, the opportune word here being weird. Jennings is, of course, the son of country royalty Walon Jennings, and he's done his best to give a one finger salute to the Nashville establishment and make music his own way. And while it might not always be country, it's also rarely anything else you might recognize.  He's done things his own way, and he's shredded out some of the best, and the strangest, country tracks you'll ever actually enjoy.

Shooter's has one boot deep in tradition, as you'll hear on the tag line in this track, featuring a very drunk, but also very royal, George Jones, slurring out "He Stopped Loving Her Today." What else you'll hear, way out in the the other realm, is a bit outta space and outta time. Shooter doesn't really do music you'd feel comfortable labeling. This is evident in almost anything you might randomly pick from his Spotify profile. So yeah, hopefully, at this point, you're digging in. But, go deeper into his albums and you'll see how Jenning's "eff you genius" cuts across genres without approval, permission or apology. Jennings makes music his own way, which is a terrible cliche, but I can't think of a better way to describe how the crown prince has found his own feet in the whirlwind and followed up on what his father, the king, laid out out for him to follow. Case in point: he cut an album with Stephen King, 2010's Black Ribbons, which is one of the most interesting, spaced out, deeply current-events-rooted and sonically wild concept albums I've ever heard. Though, the unique factor is true for pretty much anything Shooter Jennings has recorded. If you haven't done it yet, listen up.
I promise you'll love what you hear.

And even though we're not talking about the track, as this is about "Fourth of July", his kicker "Fuck You, I'm Famous", from the same album is a beautiful antidote to our current near-dystopia scatter shatter, end of the world blues...Happy 4th of July, kids...hope those explosions outside are just kids shooting off fireworks..and not the revolution we really need.

July: Shine On Harvest Moon

Milton Brown: Shine On Harvest Moon


Leon Redbone: Shine On Harvest Moon


Asylum Street Spankers: Shine On Harvest Moon


Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster: Shine On Harvest Moon


The term “classic” is certainly overused, but I think it’s fair to say that Shine On Harvest Moon has earned it. The song was written and originally recorded in 1908, and countless artists have performed it since. At this point, you could also call it a folk song, and I can live quite comfortably with that as well. The versions I have chosen show only a small part of the range of possibilities for performing the song.

Milton Brown is one of the subjects of a fierce argument in the field of western swing music. Bob Wills is widely known as the father of western swing. In fact, however, Wills, though not heard here, cut his musical teeth in Milton Brown’s band. So adherents feel that the title of creator of western swing should belong to Milton Brown. On the basis of this 1935 performance, I would say that one can hear western swing beginning to take shape, but we are not quite there yet. To be fair, however, I would have to listen to a lot more of both Brown’s and Wills’ music before giving a real opinion. It’s an assignment I would not mind at all, given the time.

I am sure I must have heard other versions of Shine On Harvest Moon, but this one by Leon Redbone was the first to make an impression on me. This is actually one of the best known songs Redbone recorded. He specializes in finding forgotten gems from the American songbook, and giving them the folk orchestra treatment heard here.

I included the Asylum Street Spankers here because, first of all, they do a great job with the song. But this version also restores the original female lead vocal, and the delivery here is close to how the song was originally sung. Also, the Spankers restore the original order of the months. Most performers nowadays sing, “January, February, June and July” But the original lyric is heard here: “April, January, June or July”, with April stretched somehow to three syllables. The Spankers opt for a musical feel that somewhat recalls Redbone’s version, but adds the klezmer feel of the clarinet line and the doubletime verse at the end.

I was done with this post, or thought I was, when I came across my last selection, by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. Here is an instrumental version during a theme dedicated to lyrics. This version is just so sweet I had to include it. This is small combo jazz from 1959, at a time when bebop and cool jazz were all the rage, and free jazz was about to make its appearance. But this performance harkens back to an earlier time. I would put this on a short list of tunes to play for someone who is just hearing jazz for the first time.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

July: Armstrong

Nanci Griffith: Armstrong

It isn’t a particularly profound or original observation to point out that 1969 was a pivotal year. There were Woodstock and Altamont and tons of amazing albums, Nixon’s inauguration, the Stonewall Riots, the Mets won the World Series, the U.S. secretly bombed Cambodia while the antiwar movement gained strength, the Beatles had their picture taken on Abbey Road and performed for the last time, the Manson family went on a murder spree, Sesame Street debuted, and Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. Just for starters.

But if you had to pick the number one event of 1969, you’d probably pick the small step for man, and giant leap for mankind—Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, which took place in July, 1969. I was 8 when it happened, and I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch history being made. (Most of the other times I was allowed a late bedtime that year related to the Mets). As a kid in those days, there was little more exciting than watching rockets launch—we’d stare at the TV, waiting for the countdown, and what seemed like the slow climb of the rocket into space.  Which may be why MTV's early branding included videos of rockets and moonwalks. The moon landing was something truly amazing, especially when you consider that the watch I’m wearing now probably has more computing power in it than the entire Apollo 11 mission used.

While watching the landing, John Stewart, formerly of the Kingston Trio, wrote a song, “Armstrong,” which is about how despite all of the problems in the world, and our differences, everyone watched, or heard, about Armstrong’s amazing feat. I can honestly say that I never heard the song, but here it is:

(That’s the single version, which is different from the version released a few years later on Stewart’s album, Cannons In The Rain. I never heard that version either.)

The song has been covered a few times over the years, but the one I did hear was by Nanci Griffith, on her album Clock Without Hands. In fact, the album features three Stewart covers, including “Armstrong,” and Stewart plays acoustic guitar on the track. (Pete and Maura Kennedy, who I saw at Clearwater, contribute mandoguitar and vocals). It is a pleasant folk song, and Nancy Griffith’s distinctive vocal style works well. And the lyrics mention July.

The Dexateens, an underappreciated band from Alabama, released a song called “Neil Armstrong” a few years ago on their excellent album Hardwire Healing, which was produced by the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood and David Barbe, who was in Sugar and has produced Truckers albums. Matt Patton, the Dexateens' bass player now fills that slot in the Truckers. Unlike the Stewart song, though, the Dexateens seem to be focusing more on how the moon shot, and his celebrity, affected Armstrong. And the lyrics also mention July.

Apparently, there are some people who believe that it was actually Louis Armstrong who was the first man to walk on the moon. He wasn’t, of course (although he sang “Moon River”), but he died in July—on the 6th, in 1971, at his home in Corona, Queens, about a mile from Shea Stadium, where the Mets lost 5-1 to the Expos.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018


Can it really only be 16 years since the Decemberists first peered around the corner into existence? Strangely, and I speak as a fan, it seems so much longer. Not, it is true, to the taste of all, the vocals of bandleader Colin Meloy being possibly the main hurdle to mass approval, together with their unworldly appearance,  the senior common room at a Cahoots/The Band theme night, and their downright odd arrangements, a quirky mix of the archaic with the unexpected, conspire to a niche version of world famous. Which is just fine in my book. And 'July, July' is perhaps the standout track on debut LP 'Castaways and Cutouts'.

Colin Meloy reminds me of Richard Thompson in a strange way, a catalyst of tradition and electricity. But maybe not so strangely. (Yes, I am going to talk about Meloy mainly, rather than the band, regardless of how tremendous are his cohorts, instrumentally, and they are, without him as prime singer and songwriter, they are meaningless. His band and he calls the tunes.) Constantly ploughing his own singular furrow, undoubtedly indebted to the british folk revival of the 60s and 70s, yet ears attuned to influences elsewhere. He has produced a series of solo albums, EPs really, devoted to such disparate bedfellows as Shirley Collins, Sam Cooke, Morrissey and the Kinks. But are they so very different? In Meloy's hands, often just his guitar and marmite voice, sometimes with spectral backing vocals, the similarities become immense.

See what I mean? OK, so 'Summertime' is hardly unique to Cooke, but what a version this is, drawing into focus what a great song it is, a steamy Tennessee Williams 3 acts in a few simple verses. And so too the songs of Stephen M. and of Ray Davies, let alone the trad. arr. seamed by Collins. I have to question, mind, quite what Meloy now has to say about the increasingly bizarre rants of the erstwhile Smiths frontman, whose image he has allegedly inked on his skin.

The Decemberists, of course, plough similar, albeit augmented by the trappings of electric rock music, chucking in accordion and stand up bass where necessary, and now, in 2018, the introduction of synthesisers and similar new-fangled. And now, instead of ancient mariners, they sing about village idiots.

Having caught them live in Birmingham (UK!) on their 'King is Dead' tour, I found myself initially uplifted, ahead of finding their cerebrality perhaps fits better with the recorded than the live. And there is then a strange dichotomy between the earnest lyrical scene-setting and Meloy gradually morphing into a demented ringmaster, corralling the crowd into choral participation. (I should add I am the frowning geezer in the crowd who never sings along, when asked to, or claps or waves a lighter. I can't abide all that stuff.) However, when they recently revisited the canon of 60s/70s folk in the guise of 'Offa Rex', their collaboration with folkish gamine, Olivia Chaney, this I wanted to see, so wanted to see. Still do. Interestingly they are keeping mighty quiet as to who the support on their forthcoming UK tour might be, my hope and money on Chaney..........

A final thought, for those who have ploughed through the vids above, and can't quite get it. This helpful instruction manual might help.

Still with me? Probably the best place to buy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

July: Mercy on Broadway/Laura Nyro

purchase [ New York Tendaberry]

As Darius notes, there are plenty of great July 4th songs to choose from, but that was never my personal intention in selecting the <July> theme. shows ~ 2000 songs with July in the lyrics (some repetition), so there's a lot to consider. Somewhere in that long list, among others that I would/could write about, I picked out "Mercy on Broadway". A song I wasn't familiar with, but a name that I was.

When I think Laura Nyro, I think "Wedding Bell Blues". On the second round around, I think "Eli's Coming" [Three Dog Night]

and "Stoned Soul Picnic" [The Fifth Dimension]

and "And When I Die" [Blood, Sweat & Tears].

For these, it's someone else's version of her powerful song-writing that comes to mind first. But rather than diminish Nyro's legacy, the fact that these greats chose to cover her work and hit the top of the charts with them only embellish her rightful place.

On the one hand, I want to lament our loss - Nyro died age 49 of ovarian cancer - the same age as her mother of the same. That IS sad. On the other hand, she left behind a style and a musical repertoire that is still strong decades later, a larger legacy than most can aspire to.

Come to "Mercy on Broadway". Yeah, it includes the per-requisite <July> in the lyrics - more than once in fact (unlike some of the other 2000 in the July lyrics list, where the word shows up once), and she uses month names in various other songs as well - in tune with the seasons?

Nyro was a New Yorker, so her reference to Broadway is apropos. Her references to the fare of the side-streets is equally real - she played the streets and subways of the city in the 1960s.
But it's the combination of her vocal shifts and, as Elton John put it, her "rhythmic and melodic changes" that place her apart. It's her cross over between R&B, jazz, blues and pop that made her songs so accessible to all the other bands. Like several other songs she wrote, it builds/morphs from jazzy blues to full out rocking by the end of the song.

For the record, the Christine Spero Group put out an entire album of Nero songs, but it doesn't include "Mercy".

Sunday, July 8, 2018

July: Money For Floods

Joan Baez: Money For Floods


Richard Shindell: Money For Floods


We’re About 9: Money For Floods


“My name is Eliza I live by the river My daughter Louise will be three in July…” A little digging uncovers a large number of songs to choose from for our new theme. However, I love a challenge, so I wanted one that did not reference the fourth of July. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great fourth of July songs that I hope we get to over the next two weeks. But there is also Money For Floods.

It wasn’t a hit, but Joan Baez has recorded the most popular version of the song to date. I often find that people who don’t like Joan Baez object to the sound of her early recordings. These were pure folk, and Baez’ voice at the time was admittedly an acquired taste. She had a high soprano voice that could sound shrill to some, and with only her guitar playing as accompaniment, you could not miss that voice. But two things happened as time went on. First, Baez began to experiment with fuller arrangements of her music. Some of these experiments, to my tastes, served her poorly, but she was certainly one of the most innovative folk artists of her day, and the best of this music still sounds fresh today. Second, Joan Baez was very young when she started, and her voice had changed noticeably by the time her career was ten years in. By the time she recorded Money For Floods, Baez was singing in an alto to low soprano range. This mature voice is capable of emotional depths that Baez could not achieve in the same way in her youth. The early shrillness, which I never minded, is a distant memory on this recording. Money For Floods is a song that gains a great deal by being sung by a woman, and Joan Baez delivers.

Baez has a few songwriting credits sprinkled throughout her career, but she is best known as an interpreter of traditional songs and the work of other writers. Such is the case here. Money For Floods was written by Richard Shindell. Shindell can write and sing a song from a woman’s point of view and make us believe in the song, because he is just that good. His arrangement of the song dictates that the sound begins intimately, and then swells at the first chorus, and the other versions I present here each follow this pattern in their own way. It is a musical metaphor that is fully explained in the lyrics by the end of the song, and it is a brilliant device.

Finally, I have included a version of the song in an a capella arrangement. We’re About 9 finds a way to make this work in a minimal arrangement that derives its power from its sparseness.

I found one more version of Money For Floods that I chose not to include, by Rob Rowe. Rowe has a voice that I find to be overly dramatic for the song, and his band doesn’t find the emotion of the song, to my ear. Also, Rowe changes the lyric so that the point of view is male, and that just doesn’t work for me on this song.