October 4, 2011
This week, we're listening in on music from Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Wilco, and Nick Lowe.
Wilco recently cemented a strong bond of kinship with English singer-songwriter, producer, new wave pop maestro, country rocker, pub-rocker and all-round indie legend, Nick Lowe. Not only did the band, currently touting excellent new album The Whole Love, set out on a Fall tour with Lowe in support, they also cut a cover of "I Love My Label" -- Lowe's ode to Stiff Records, the imprint that had signed him in its fledgling days. The first single ever released on Stiff was Lowe's "So it Goes" (1976), and with its punk-fueled, DIY ethic Stiff would help to change the landscape of rock with a roster of artists that included Wreckless Eric, Elvis Costello Ian Dury. Wilco's version of "I Love My Label" is a fitting celebration . . . in honor of their own newly launched label, dBpm.
Lowe's graduation from the '70s and from Stiff, where he also took on house production duties (for the likes of the Pretenders and the Damned) marked a move towards roots and country rock, and it was alongside Dave Edmunds, in Rockpile, that the breadth of the man's songwriting talents became fully apparent. With "Now and Always" -- from Rockpile's one and only album, Seconds of Pleasure (1980) -- we were reminded that genius sometimes loves company. "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" (originally released by Lowe's earlier band, Brinsely Schwarz, and famously covered by Elvis Costello) had hinted at greatness to come, and with "Now and Always" Lowe masterminded perhaps the greatest Everly Brothers track never written or recorded by the Everly Brothers. It's gorgeous, sad and chained to unbreakable pop harmonies.
In 1983, four albums into a solo career, Lowe exercised his inner soul man to great effect with "(For Every Woman Who Ever Made a Fool of a Man, There's a Woman Made a) Man of a Fool" -- in sentiment and tone, it's the kind of track that you could imagine in the hands of Solomon Burke or Sharon Jones. By the time 1990's Party of One rolled around (with Dave Edmunds again on board as producer) Lowe's ascent to a graceful, soulful, highly personal place was confirmed by standout track "What's Shakin' on the Hill," a slow-paced gem that folds an intelligent meditation on life and loneliness into its mellow, jazzy shuffle.
September 27, 2011
This week, we're listening in on music from Radiohead, Tony Bennett, and the career of Antonio "L.A." Reid.
On this week's podcast, we mulled over the evolution of Radiohead, from introspective, grunge-flecked alt-rockers to groundbreaking rock/electronica experimentalists and beyond, noting that a common thread -- their excellent understanding of pop song structure -- connects an early track like "Creep" with standout recent material like "Lotus Flower." With that in mind it's worth revisiting "High and Dry," a song so strong, melodically and lyrically, that it's capable of moving freely across generic lines . . . and it makes a great place to start exploring English singer/pianist Jamie Cullum's remarkable talent for reinventing crossover jazz. When Cullum chose to cover "High and Dry" on Pointless Nostalgic (2002), he defied career expectations of a straight-up, Connick, Jr.-like approach to the standards.
Cullum proved that a smartly chosen, re-tooled rock track could co-exist in perfect harmony alongside songbook classics and jazz landmarks like "Well, You Needn't" (Monk) and "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" (Sinatra). The Cullum version of "High and Dry" replaces the original's acoustic/electric backwash with jazz bass and piano flourishes that lose nothing in the translation. Third album, Twentysomething (2003), fortified that bold approach. Next to Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" and Lerner & Loewe's "I Could Have Danced All Night" we find Cullum's standout cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Wind Cries Mary" -- sure, it's lighter than the original, and features a positively jaunty brass arrangement but, once again, Cullum's ear for a rock track with crossover potential is flawless.
Fast forward to 2009's The Pursuit -- Cullum's fifth and most recent studio album -- and we find a distinct shift: here, he gives a clutch of standards a clever spin ("If I Ruled the World" is overhauled with a touch of Portishead), and he includes lots of self-penned material (including the single "I'm All Over It"), but when it comes to inventive modern-era covers, he overlooks the rock stockpile and instead opts for dance-pop: his treatment of Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music" is every bit as successful as his reinvention of "High and Dry."
Download music from this episode.
September 20, 2011
This week, we're listening in on music from Cake, The Zombies, and the Drive soundtrack.
Almost a mid-'60s after-thought in their homeland, yet better appreciated here in the States on the evidence of three big hit singles -- "She's Not There" (covered by Nick Cave and Neko Case for True Blood's Season Four premiere), "Tell Her No" and "Time of the Season" -- British Invasion legends the Zombies required several decades of staunch underground support to earn the golden seal of greatness they so richly deserved. Their 1968 album Odessey and Oracle, released after they had split and played live thanks only to a run of artfully arranged 21st Century reunion performances, has claimed a place alongside Love's Forever Changes and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds as one of the best and most influential albums of the Sixties.
Aside from their stunning heyday output, much of what happened in the wake of the Zombies' "decomposition" is also worth discovering, and we can especially recommend frontman Colin Blunstone's solo track "Say You Don't Mind." Written by Denny Laine (The Moody Blues, Wings), who also recorded his own version, the track rounded out Blunstone's 1971 debut album, One Year, and showcases his remarkable voice -- always laced with a strong hint of vulnerability and sensitivity -- to perfection. Set to an orchestral string arrangement that's by turns jaunty and heart-melting, the lyric tells of a flawed lover who's made mistakes ("stupid fish, I drank the pool") but wants a sincere shot at reconciliation. Will he get it? Well, any man who can sing as sweetly Blunstone would almost certainly find his entreaties not only welcomed, but accepted.
Bassist Chris White and classically trained keyboard wiz Rod Argent, who had split songwriting duties in the Zombies, continued their creative alliance during the '70s -- and they receive a joint credit for "Hold Your Head Up," a highlight from the back catalogue of the sonically ambitious Argent and opening track on 1972's All Together Now. Although White didn't actually play with that outfit, the eponymous founder got to explore several fascinating art-rock avenues, and with this cut he lays down a keyboard solo for the ages. It's a radical departure from the Zombies, and rocks hard enough to give the likes of Deep Purple a run for their money. Finally, we'd like to point you towards "Crestfallen," that gorgeously melancholic late-'90s confection by the Pernice Brothers, for no other reason that, if you love the Zombies, there's a good chance that you'll fall hard for it.
September 14, 2011
This week, we're listening in on music from The Black Power Mixtape and George Strait.
As a follow-up to our thoughts on new documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, and to complement the various landmark songs we touched on -- including the Isley Brothers' "Fight the Power (Part 1 & 2)" and "Give the People What They Want" by the O'Jays, both included among Black Pride Essentials -- we'd like to broaden your activist playlist here by recommending a couple more tracks with strong connections to the civil rights movement. Each one is a poetically deft combination of ideas and images, and each carries a timeless power and immediacy.
Stevie Wonder's "A Place in the Sun" made the Top Ten in 1966 -- like Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" (1964) the tune spoke to the desire for change without addressing specifics, and stands as a reminder that there was far more to the Motown hit machine than apolitical pop and soul. The message is bold and serious and, even though the song contrasts with Wonder's more groove-driven Up-Tight era material, the artist's interest in poetic social commentary was anticipated by his previous single release, a righteous crossover cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."
Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" is arguably the best known of all American folk songs, and was memorably performed (by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen) at President Obama's inauguration. Guthrie wrote it in 1940 as a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," and took a fluid approach to the basic lyrical skeleton, making changes and amendments when the occasion demanded. Many singers (amateur and professional alike) have covered the song without the verses that allude to "private property" and the "relief office" with its queue of hungry people. Springsteen called it "the greatest song ever written about America," and included a tremendous concert version on his Live/1975-85 collection, while the soulful interpretation offered by Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, which invests the tune with extra civil rights significance, was smartly added to the soundtrack for Up in the Air.
September 6, 2011
This week, we're listening in on music from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Glen Campbell, and Kirk Franklin.
Glen Campbell's new album, Ghost on the Canvas, is no ordinary record, for a number of reasons -- and not the least remarkable of them is its air of farewell, occasioned by the diagnosis of his Alzheimer's disease. In this respect, the album shares a common bond, and an uncommon bravery, with Warren Zevon's The Wind (2003), recorded after the late singer-songwriter was told he had inoperable mesothelioma, and completed a fortnight before his passing. News of Campbell's illness was announced shortly before he began his ongoing Goodbye Tour, so that fans would understand if he messed up the occasional line. He also wanted to raise awareness of the condition -- a noble move from the former hulking hell-raiser best known for the likes of "Wichita Lineman" and "Rhinestone Cowboy."
Ghost on the Canvas should not be viewed as a conventional charity record, more as a contemporary reappraisal of singer-songwriter genius, in the mould of Johnny Cash (the American Recordings with producer Rick Rubin) or Solomon Burke (check out Nashville and Don't Give Up on Me) -- fans of Campbell will already be familiar with his renaissance covers album from 2008, Meet Glen Campbell, which is well worth seeking out if it passed you by. From that release, we'd like to highlight several tracks, the first of which is a seasoned approach to a tune by a young man -- the introspective "These Days" was written by a 16-year-old Jackson Browne, and in the hands of the septuagenarian Campbell it could hardly be more poignant. The pace and lyric of this song suits the big man to perfection.
Nico also covered "These Days" (back in 1968), and another Campbell version worthy of mention is "Jesus" -- it was first waxed by the Velvet Underground for their self-titled third album from 1969, with no shortage of languid big-city cool, but Campbell lends it a fully reverential country-gospel sincerity while retaining his fine-tuned delicacy of touch. The tempo increases for his take on Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," which becomes an easy-rollin' highway classic, de-punked, flecked with country, and dipped in the restorative waters of wistful memory.
August 30, 2011
This week, we're listening in on music from Nick Ashford, Jerry Lieber, and Willie Nelson.
Ingenious humor; an ear for the nuances of African-American conversation; the raw, heart-pounding essence of early rock 'n' roll -- these elements were crucial to the song-writing formula perfected by Leiber & Stoller, the creative team responsible for tracks like "Hound Dog" (first recorded by Big Mama Thornton, then brilliantly covered by Elvis Presley), "Love Potion No. 9" (The Clovers, et al) and "Yakety Yak" (The Coasters). Mike Stoller wrote the music, Jerry Leiber (who passed on August 22, age 78) supplied the lyrics, and the record-buying public were quick to appreciate the pair's genius, opening their wallets for classic pop songs by everyone from The Drifters and Peggy Lee to Wilbert Harrison and Johnny Cash & June Carter ("Jackson"). What tends to get lost in overviews of the golden Leiber & Stoller touch, though, is an acknowledgement of their politics -- sometimes implicit, never overstated, and often cleverly woven into their trademark wit and melodic dynamism.
"Riot in Cell Block #9," a hit for the Robins in 1954, explodes outrageously out of the gates with a wailing siren, machine-gun sound effects and the line "On July the 2nd, 1953/I was serving time for armed robbery." Like "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and their tune about a numerically identical love potion, it's a story tune, but one which hints at a sympathy for, and knowledge of, the African-American experience. Leiber and Stoller, both white Jewish kids who attended Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, broke the race barrier with African-American girlfriends as teenagers, and both frequented the nightspots of Central Avenue, a hotbed of jazz/R&B and a factory for black street vernacular. "Riot in Cell Block #9" is a tune that belongs to hot nights, smoke-filled clubs and the electrifying spirit of rebellion.
The Coasters' hit "Shoppin' for Clothes" (1960) mines both senses of the phrase "black comedy" relating a poor man's attempt to purchase a fancy new suit at a department store. After a wonderfully poetic exchange between the would-be purchaser and the salesman, detailing "the latest in tweed, with the cut-away flap over twice," "buttons of solid gold" and "pure camel-hair," the kicker comes when the shopper's credit is checked . . . and declined. Another Coasters tune, "What About Us" (1959), also spins its lyrical conceit around the wealth divide, contrasting steaks at the Ritz with hominy grits, and showcases Leiber & Stoller's talent for delivering hard content with a soft touch.
August 23, 2011
This week, we're listening in on music from the15th anniversary of Pitchfork.com, Steve Cropper, The 5 Royales, CMA Festival, and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The release of a new album by Steve Cropper -- Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales -- put us in a Memphis soul frame of mind earlier this month, and set us scrolling through the gilt-edged list of the Stax guitarist's various collaborators over the years. As a lynchpin member of the label's house band, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Cropper bent his six-string in the company of the greatest, Sam & Dave and Otis Redding among them, not to mention his star turn backing John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the Blues Brothers Band, which famously careened onto celluloid in 1980 under the direction of John Landis. Of all the star soul vocalists Cropper has worked with, Eddie Floyd remains one of the most overlooked, and most dynamic . . . and he's still turning up the heat in the live arena well into his eighth decade.
"Knock on Wood" (1966) is Eddie Floyd's best known song -- but, by and large, he's been better appreciated in the U.K. than here in the U.S., which makes him something of a buried soul treasure this side of the Atlantic. Cropper co-wrote that track, originally intended for Otis Redding (whose own version appeared in 1967), alongside Floyd: the pair often worked as a songwriting team at Stax. However we'd like to highlight "Big Bird," a hugely under-rated and explosive tune, beloved by soul aficionados, and covered by a variety of artists in the decades following its 1968 release. The Jam added a version to their 1982 live album Dig the New Breed, but Paul Weller and his crew only hinted at the song's possibilities: that's because the original's soul-blasted guitar and horns, arranged with gritty brilliance, are practically inimitable.
1967's "Raise Your Hand" (another Cropper songwriting collaboration) is also well worth seeking out. Chances are, you're already familiar one of several live cover versions by Bruce Springsteen, or perhaps the Janis Joplin cut (notably the pumped-up, curtain-raiser performed at Woodstock in '69). It's a timeless, feel-good call to celebration, a gospel/party hybrid tune buoyed on joyous clouds of brass, and anchored by Floyd's unbreakable vocal.
August 17, 2011
This week, we're listening in on music from The Help, Glee: The 3D Concert Movie, and Game.
It would have been easy to pepper the soundtrack to the just-released movie The Help with message songs from the '60s, the decade in which the film is set. After all, tunes such as "People Get Ready," "A Change Is Gonna Come," or "The Times They Are A-Changin'" would fit neatly, perhaps too neatly, into the overall narrative. But Kathryn Stockett's novel, and the movie based upon it, are much more nuanced than that; the choices in the film's soundtrack are most definitely reflective of the book's attitude.
Sure, you can't really touch on the decade without Dylan, but he's represented here by "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," rather than the fistful of his songs that might immediately leap to mind. Where the soundtrack really finds its mojo, though, is in the tunes that haven't been played to death on oldies radio, yet still drop the era right into your ear. From the Philly-based dance craze sounds of The Orlons' "Wah-Watusi" and Chubby Checker's GRAMMY®-winning "Let's Twist Again" to the swagger and sweetness of Crescent City native Lloyd Price's "(You've Got) Personality," the music sounds both familiar and fresh, which is by no means an easy balance to achieve.
With Bo Diddley's oft-covered "Road Runner" (not to be confused with Jr. Walker & The All Stars' later hit), the soundtrack surprises us once again by highlighting a song that, unlike most of Diddley's catalogue, didn't feature his trademark shuffle beat. And choices like honky-tonk hero Webb Pierce's "I Ain't Never" and Johnny Cash's "Jackson" remind us of how country music lived cheek by jowl with soul and pop on the south-of-the-Mason-Dixon radio dial.
No soundtrack of the South in the '60s -- or any time, actually -- would be complete without a couple of hands-in-the-air, Sunday-go-to-meetin' songs; once again, they upend the crates to shake loose a couple of gems. Mavis Staples, perhaps best known for her vocal on The Staple Singers' chart-topping "I'll Take You There," raises her voice on high to a rockabilly gospel beat in "Don't Knock." And Dorothy Norwood, who once opened for the Rolling Stones, takes a tad more traditional approach in her foot-stompin' "Victory Is Mine," a song she co-wrote with fellow gospel star Alvin Darling.
August 9, 2011
This week, we're listening in on music from The Concert For Bangladesh, MTV's 30th anniversary, Otis Redding, Debbie Gibson, and Tiffany.
It's been a little over a decade and a half since a John Hiatt album cracked the Top 50, so it's kind of understandable that he might have been flying under your radar. Truth to tell, John has never been a flavor-of-the-moment; he just keeps on putting out records that tunnel into your heart and mind in a straightforward testament to substance over style. Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns isn't exactly a return to form, because that would imply he had departed from it; it's just a damn fine album from a damn fine songwriter, and those are perhaps harder to come by now than when Hiatt started recording, nearly forty years ago.
He opens with "Damn This Town," recounting a laundry list of hard luck from insanity to incarceration, an angry indictment of the misery that seems almost as though it's rooted in the community's soul. If John Mellencamp's "Small Town" is a Valentine to the virtues of avoiding the big city's vices, then "Damn This Town" is its dark-side doppelganger, smoldering with rage, badly-kept secrets, and unfulfilled dreams.
In "Down Around My Place," Hiatt surveys a sort of post-Apocalyptic landscape, his world-weary vocals recalling the same sort of "been there, seen that"-ness that Johnny Cash brought to his cover of "Hurt." But Dirty Jeans is by no means an unrelenting trudge down Agony Avenue; with the intoxicating delight of love gone right in "I Love That Girl" and the easygoing contentment of "I Don't Want To Leave You Now," Hiatt balances the emotional books in a most satisfying way.
The album closes out with "When New York Had Her Heart Broke," a song Hiatt wrote in the wake of 9/11 -- a day he happened to be in the Big Apple. Like the rest of us, Hiatt struggles with the horror and enormity of the moment, but cradled inside the ashes of the ruined skyscrapers, he finds the spark and spirit of rebirth. And in so many ways, that mirrors his own journey: if life beats you down, you get back up, roll up your sleeves, and make magic all over again.
August 2, 2011
This week, we're listening in on music from Amy Winehouse, Fountains of Wayne and Go-Go funk.
In the week when our thoughts turned, all too soon, to remembrance, it struck us that Amy Winehouse not only bequeathed to the world a stunning collection of modern soul-girl originals, she also turned us onto outstanding artists from past eras -- notably the Shangri-Las. Every lived-in note on the British singer's greatest songs is thick with a sense of drama rooted in heartbreak and passion, and a heightened level of life-stripped-bare intensity was something she shared with the legendary girl group from Queens, whose tragi-centric pop was a guiding creative force (at the singer's insistence) during the production of 2006's Back to Black.
Some see the Shangri-Las as a proto-feminist inspiration to the riot grrrl underground punk movement, and they were certainly viewed as "bad girls" during the '60s, but Winehouse adored the tracks on which a girl's infatuation with, and devotion to, her boy is all-consuming, and bound to end in worse than mere tears. The group's teen calamity sagas "Leader of the Pack" (their biggest hit) and "Give Us Your Blessings" are a great place to start exploring their work, and the perfect introduction to the production genius of George "Shadow" Morton, whose brilliantly orchestrated slices of dark, mysterious tragi-pop made a dynamic counterpart to Phil Spector's towering pop operas.
If you'd like to go deeper with the Shangri-Las, don't overlook their debut hit "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)" -- the song is saturated with pain and regret, and is set against a backdrop of crashing waves and seagulls, which may sound corny, but the overall effect is mesmerizing. The narrative elements of "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" and "Past, Present and Future" (the latter featuring a melody borrowed from Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and not a single syllable that's actually sung) are remarkable, while "Out in the Streets" -- later covered by Blondie, inspired by Mary Weiss's incredible lead vocal -- brings on such a fierce rash of goose bumps, it ought to carry a warning.