Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year

A ballad for ol' '05.

The first recording of "'Round Midnight" by the man who composed it, set to tape on November 21, 1947 inside WOR Studios in New York City. It's from Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Cranium Classics

Good god. At the request of Lefty, I broke out my copy of Ice Cream For Crow to present "Ink Mathematics" to the peoples. The Captain and his Magic Band do angular, they do free, they do poetic, they do crazy. They do advanced calculus and abacus action. Quantum. I remember being in junior high school, driving around "partying," and making requests to one of the local college stations to play "Tropical Hot Dog Night" off of Bat-Chain Puller, which was recently re-issued on disc. This is another one that was once difficult to find on disc, though I think that problem has been remedied of late. I know it rarely makes anyone’s list of favorites by the Captain, but if I had to pick, I think Ice Cream For Crow, his last (after which he packed it in, big time, retiring to the Mojave desert to paint), is the Beefheart record I like best. I remember the Captain making an appearance on the David Letterman show at about this time. He sipped from a bottle of Perrier that he held in a crumpled paper bag. Letterman asked about his name and Beefheart said something about the fact that they clip the beaks off of penguins at the San Diego Zoo. "I’m beefing my heart to the people," he told Dave. They showed a clip from the video ( !) for "Ice Cream For Crow." Moris Tepper, who went on to play with Frank Black and Tom Waits, plays on this record, as does one-time Red Hot Chili Pepper drummer and film scorer Cliff Martinez. Gary Lucas plays on it as well. Lucas still plays Beefheart music in tribute form. I saw Lucas in Hartford a few years back performing duets with Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, who I first heard on WFMU years ago. The two did Chinese pop songs from the 1930s (check out "Please Allow Me to Look at You Again" from The Edge of Heaven). If you’ve never heard Min Xiao-Fen play from the classical pipa repertory, "Ambush From All Sides" is a blistering Jimmy Page-esque conjuring of the flying arrows of battle.

The Pack-It-In Paradigm, Pt. 1

One of my favorite lyrics is from the Rogers and Hart song, "Mountain Greenery." Bing Crosby does a beautiful version. Here are the lyrics:

On the first of May
This is moving day
Spring is here, so blow your job-
throw your job away

Now's the time to trust
To your wanderlust
In the city's dust you wait
Must you wait?
Just you wait ...

I can't wait! But ... wait for what? What happens next?

Well, think of it: You've thrown your job away. You've headed to the Mountain Greenery. Now you're wandering. You're getting fresh air, clearing your head, breathing deep, examining the flora and fauna. Then maybe one day you're alone in the woods, miles and hours and many leaf-trodding foot-steps from the CNN-addled world. As Bob Marley sang, There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air; If you listen carefully now you will hear.

And then you hear it.

Little Wings, aka Kyle Field, heard it. And now he's singing it. His is the music of one man gone off the reservation for good: a rustic surfer poet -- three-quarters Walt Whitman, one quarter Jeff Spicoli -- who is tapping the mystic American folkways piped to us through Harry Smith's 78's.

"So What?" from the album Magic Wand, is a rambling piano meditation on the fatalism inherent in the mountain greenery lifestyle. It's gorgeous, lush and tricky. Tricky? In this ironic/post-ironic see-saw world, nothing is as it appears, just as it never was.

Like Charlie Poole and Bascom Lamar before him, Little Wings is both a weird folk specimen found like a rare and exquisite sea shell on the beach -- and a self-mythologizing artist with a Barnum & Bailey wink. On the one hand, Kyle Fields can, with the help of a game reporter for Arthur magazine, construct a fake hippie persona and language, pretend to live in a paper tee-pee on a beach near Malibu and sport fake Indian clothing for photographers. (This he did. His surf-mystic greeting to the reporter upon meeting him: "Grow.") On the other hand, he's also a true visionary artist with real-life visions.

His flip lyricism -- these lines that seem tossed off as part of a quasi-homeless jibber-jabber -- is, upon examination, careful, deft, deep. It's poetry: Before the land came, after an ice age, favorite songs grew from smokey young rock caves.

He knows what you're thinking. Is this bullshit? And in a single all-encompassing and somehow weirdly life-affirming reply, he answers every possible question you may have about his meaning, motive, authenticity and origin: So what?

Okay, I quit.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Out into the blackness

I promise I’m not going to talk about the genius of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. I’ll try not to talk about their great body of work and their personal drama. I’m not going to talk too much about the Pet Sounds/Smile era, or the fun-loving early hits. Because really, those things have been held up to the light quite a bit lately.

Instead I just want to talk about one song called “Lonely Sea.” I first found this song on Mrs. West’s vinyl copy of the “Surfin’ USA” LP. I remember being shocked it wasn’t included on the otherwise fine “Good Vibrations: 30 Years of the Beach Boys” box set. I was shocked because it’s such a great song, and it seemed so ahead of its time. It has to be the very first really sad B. Wilson song.

It was written by Wilson and Gary Usher and recorded in June of 1962 for the 2nd Beach Boys album. If you just casually put on the LP you might miss it, because it’s surrounded by the more upbeat surf and car numbers. When you first hear “Lonely Sea” you might pick up on the Elvis Presley style talk-singing in the middle of the song. You may then notice Phil Spector’s influence on the composers. But once you listen again and really get it, you’ll hear all the emotional weight and beauty Brian would carry through Pet Sounds and beyond.

I promise you this is the perfect song to listen to if ever you find yourself somewhere near Hawthorne, CA, in the middle of the night, and you can’t sleep because something has gone wrong in your life. You might get in your car and drive down the coast a bit. You park in a beach parking lot overlooking the water, but you can’t really see the ocean on this moonless night. You just hear the hush of the surf, smell the salty air, and listen as the first slow guitar arpeggios of the song roll out from your car stereo, out into the blackness.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Take the Knowledge

If forced to issue a decision on whether humor in music is a good thing, I’d probably have to rule against it, as a general principle. My immediate funny-music association is with Frank Zappa, Spike Jones and Weird Al, all of whom I like a little, but none of whom I want to listen to at length. Gag fatigue sets in. Maybe it's just easier to believe someone whose apparent motivation is to bring you into the psychic hole that they're in, to drag you down, to make you miserable, than it is someone who's working to elicit a laugh. (When I really think about it, I find some of my favorite music to be funny – Bob Dylan, Sun Ra, Raymond Scott, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Joanna Newsom, George Jones, James Brown, the Louvin Brothers and Biz Markie. I chuckle now and again when listening to all of them.)

But Swamp Dogg forces me to reconsider my hardline position. This shit is definitely funny. But he's got the un-P.C. cantankerousness of Merle Haggard. There's an apocalyptic Gil Scott Heron edge, too. And Swamp Dogg has a voice that sounds a little like Cher’s. This is absurdist southern soul (he's from Virginia). The Oxford American featured Swamp Dogg in one of the greatest of their usually very good music issues (2003, it included the definitive, if a little indulgent, meditation on My Morning Jacket by William Bowers and an excellent piece on Esther Phillips [who actually joins Swamp Dogg on one of the other tunes off of this record]). Granted, there's a whiff of beach music to "It's Just a Little Time Left." And after about minute two of the five-minute song, things do go down hill. The "Revely" vamp could be pared down at length. And, yes, that is a Clarence Clemons-esque horn solo you'll have to wade through. You may even suffer from visions of G. E. Smith. Still, I think you'll be glad. Swamp Dogg's gonna tackle race relations, drug abuse, bad baby formula, crime, the welfare state, nuclear waste, and El Salvador -- all before the poopy ending.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Matching White Suits, Part Two

When I hear
"I Want to Be With You,"
I can easily imagine I wore a powder-blue tuxedo to my prom in Cleveland in 1972, driving a car that was about 17 feet long.

Oh what a night!

The fact is, however, I was only one year old at the time and they didn't make tuxedoes that small. But it speaks to the power of the Raspberries--so lofty and lush with pop aspiration and divinely naive about how uncool it was to sound like 1963 in 1972. Chalk it up to Cleveland, city of outdated dreams.

Listening to Fresh Raspberries, the first album, you can hear the unstable seeds of a breakup right away--three different band members taking turns singing, each giddy with the belief that they're going to, um, go all the way, with the unlikely pairing of Wally Bryson's Zep power chords and Eric Carmen's Frankie Vallie vocals ever threatening to spin out of control. But the center held, if only for a berry, berry brief moment. And Eric Carmen put up with his less talented cohorts just long enough to make the best music he would ever make.

As is mandated by Rock History, they were eventually torn assunder by ego battles, with Carmen going on to make the Top 40 cheese for which he was destined ("Almost Paradise" from Footloose comes to mind). The rest drifted off into obscurity. But before some record company convinced them to streamline their sound and format exclusively for hawd rawk, they lighted the way to a future full of the ahistorical pop hybrids, from The Romantics to The New Pornographers. Only the Raspberries didn't call it ahistorical pop hybrid-ism, they called it Cleveland.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Nerves, Raw

I don’t want to offend any Blondie fans out here in Blogland. I love Blondie. However, the definitive version of “Hanging On The Telephone” was originally done by an LA band called the Nerves in 1976. Listen now as the stalker-level desperation in the vocals, the nervous 1/8th notes on bass, the hooky, trebly lead guitar and the demo-quality snap of drums all come together in biting pre-low-fi brilliance. They sound like a band struggling mightily with both their recording budget and their girlfriends. This is reaching-the-end-of-your-rope music.

Clad in powder-colored 3-piece suits, the Nerves were an edgy, raw new spin on well-dressed pop. “Telephone” was written and sung by Jack Lee, who was the emotional standout, the Lennon if you will, of this trio of songwriters. He would later put out a debut album called “Jack Lee’s Greatest Hits, Vol. I.” Damn right! In the McCartney slot is Peter Case, showcased here with the moody “When You Find Out.” It's as if Beatles For Sale were a 70's release. Case would later lead the equally brilliant Plimsouls and go solo. Third place goes to Paul Collins, who also had a band (called the Beat) and a solo career too.

Even in the bitter end, the Nerves were defined by struggle, as Case explains in the book We Got The Neutron Bomb: “Right before the Nerves broke up, we got these really stupid matching suits. I was drunk out of my mind and we got into a big fight in the dressing room at the Masque and we just told each other to fuck off and basically that was it for the Nerves.”

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Sacred Geometry

Credit and thanks goes to my knowledgeable colleague and friend Alan Bisbort, who got me interested in the Beau Brummels after he wrote a piece about great underappreciated albums a few years back, in which he bathed the BBs in praise. Recently he dropped a stack of rare vinyl on my desk, including several Lindesfarne records, Beau Brummels, Pearls Before Swine and other musty gems. In a recent issue of Mojo, the Beau Brummels' Nashville record, Bradley’s Barn, was singled out as a lost classic and compared to all kinds of great things. As it happened, the write-up started me on the lookout for an Everly Brothers record called "Roots," described as something of a return to their country heritage. I picked up a copy of "Roots" in Amherst recently on a vinyl binge with Lefty and Dewey Dell. When I got home and listened to it, in addition to their excellent version of Merle Haggard’s wonderful deathrow nostalgia lament "Sing Me Back Home,"a track called "Turn Around" immediately won me over. When I pop on Bisbort’s copy of Bradley’s Barn, what’s the first song? "Turn Around," which is an original BB number penned by Ron Elliot. For evaluation, here are both the Everly’s and the BB’s verion of "Turn Around."

The Beau Brummels are credited with a lot of pioneering moves and near firsts. In 1964, they were ahead of the curve in emulating the Beatles and Brit invasion bands. Their high harmonies and harpsichord-heavy production pointed the way toward San Fran psychedelia. And the BBs got all country-rock before it was the thing to do.

The Beau Brummels record Triangle got me thinking. I spelled out a dictate -- a rock and roll fatwa -- in the Iron Butterfly posting, namely that more bands should have their own theme songs. Here’s another pronouncement: more songwriters should be writing tunes about geometry. And specifically about two-dimensional shapes. As evidence of the good that comes of it, here’s Linda Perhacs’ "Parallelograms," from the 70s record of that name. And also the BB’s "Triangle." I’m pretty sure someone’s written a tune called "Octagon," but I’m not gonna look into it at the moment because I feel inspired to go pen a song called "Rhombus."

Monday, December 12, 2005

You Can Dance Your Rock and Roll

I love this guy.

Without hyperbole or undue overstatement, it can be safely said that Roy Wood is a mistunderstood genius. Yes. You can argue the merits of The Move or Electric Light Orchestra, the two bands Wood cofounded with Jeff Lynne--I happen to love both. Theirs was a dream of 1950s rock & roll in baroque, the ornate and leafy Corinthian column period. Decadent, yes, but never willing to fully abandon pop for prog, choosing instead to interpret progress as a kind of classical classicism--Beethoven rolling over for Chuck Berry rolling over for Beethoven rolling over for Chuck Berry, ad infinitum.

Ulysses Adrian Wood is a weirdo I can stand behind. The true joy of the man is his endlessly naive ambition, a high romantic belief that rock and roll can somehow leap the heathrows of history and touch the hem of Ludwig and Lord Byron by finding the circuitous route from Memphis to a foggy British pastoral. What's wonderful is he's like a backwoods outsider artist, a visionary willing to sauter on everything from heavy metal to banjo to Rio de Janeiro party rhythms to get where he's going. "You Can Dance Your Rock and Roll," from 1973's Wizzard Brew, is a great example of his overweening sonic pride: he plays every single instrument and overproduces the song so heavily, it nearly implodes under the weight of the multitracks that eventually bleed into one big amorphous rock and roll super-blob. I love it!

But he's tender too. Listen to "Song of Praise," the opener from his finest effort, 1973's Boulders. There's nothing quite like high gospel praise to Jesus than that which is literally sung high--in this case, with backup singers singing in the helium soprano of Alvin & the Chipmunks. Sings Wood and his chipmunks, As long as you believe (I do believe)/You must believe./Capture every word I say.

And I believe Roy believes. And therefore, I believe in Roy.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Ron Wood: I've Got My Own Album To Do

Smell that? That’s Ron Wood soup cooking. Go ahead, taste it. Let me check the kitchen timer. Yes, it’s 1974 and it’s just about done. I’ll have some too. You like the chunks of Rod Stewart in there? Mmm and dig the Ian McLagan flavor. Yeah, there’s some Keith Richards and Mick Jagger chunks too. Is that the exotic spice of some Jeff Beck prog fusion in there too? I like those funky effects pedal flavorings. Yes, that is a bit of George Harrison mysticism and compassion you taste. Mmm, I can still taste a hint of the Creation seasoning. Wait, don’t eat it too fast. Enjoy the slow masterful tempos. There are simply great songs in here. Bands like Son Volt will reheat some of this in about 20 years. J. Mascis will say it’s one of his favorite meals. But for now try not to think about how this big hearty bowl of Ron Wood soup was just a side dish earlier in the Faces, or later just a side dish in the Stones, because for the moment it’s 1974 and it’s the main course. Delicious.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

My Mirage

The odd thing is that there's an Iron Butterfly's Greatest Hits disc out there. How many Iron Butterfly hits can you name? One. You don't often hear very many Iron Butterfly "rock blocks" or even "two-fers" on classic rock radio, and that's because the only Iron Butterfly song that ever gets played on the radio is -- you know. So the creation of a greatest hits disc seems a little unrealistic. But what really smarts is the fact that of the 21 tracks on there, "Lonely Boy" (off of the record called, simply, Ball) didn't make the cut. This song is like Olduvai Gorge and Lucy for a certain branch of rock and roll DNA. Listen to the weird affected palpitating man-flutter of the vocals. It's as if singer Doug Ingle is trying to sing through a whirring fan, emitting little chopped-up bits of the phrase. The stop-action sound is like the vocal equivalent of a strobe effect. There's that, which reminds me most of all of Aaron Neville or Otis Redding. It's acid-damaged blue-eyed soul. But then there's the fake-gruff, tuck-your-chin-into-your-neck-curl-the-lips-and-sing-from-your-gums technique. Draw a line from "Lonely Boy" to Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and from there extrapolate to Creed's Scott Stapp and a million other moaning and groaning head shakers. "In the Time of Our Lives," also off of Ball, did make it onto the greatest hits collection.

Iron Butterfly evidently hung out in the same L.A. scene as Love and Buffalo Springfield. You get the feeling that Kahlil Gibran, Charles Manson and J.S. Bach were equally influential on the sound. Other things to love about Iron Butterfly: the bone-headed stoner oxymoron; and the fact that they have a song called "Iron Butterfly Theme" - way more bands need theme songs. And then there’s the conspiracy theories about the vanishing of their bass player.
In 1999 Maxim magazine ran a really long story about the 1995 disappearance and suspicious death of Philip Taylor Kramer, who played bass in a mid-70s incarnation of IB. There are some fantastic paranoid conspiracy theories involving travel at light speed, aliens, nuclear missiles and the Defense Department.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Sweet Jesus

Help me get in touch with the man who can make me dream again. You know who she is talking about. Silver and shining. It seemed only a matter of time here before the son of God dropped by the Driftwoods. This beauty, was recorded in 1975 on Joan Armatrading’s phenomenal Back to the Night album.

Born in the West Indies but raised in gritty Birmingham, England, Armatrading works the opposites. She’s been backed by Little Feat, Fairport Convention, XTC and the E Street Band. Roars met by whispers as in No Love For Free, the story of the prostitute who doesn’t want to be saved. Every passing hello how are you, you want to know his name. But just because you were there when I needed a shoulder you think I’ll take your name? I love for money. Armatrading has plenty of bigger, brassier numbers, some even reggae inflected but I am a sucker for the sad, slow ones where she wears her soul on her sleeve.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Controlled Spoilage

It’s been noted that some of the main culinary markers of civilization - cheese, wine and bread - are all the result of controlled spoilage. You know, yeast, curdling, all that. Well, with respect to the music of David Gates and Bread, there’s definitely plenty of evidence of both too much control and too much spoilage. Bread was probably the softest of soft rock. Way more soft than rock. Staff of life, emphasis on staff. All the connotations of half-baked yeastiness, sponginess and crustiness apply. Most definitely made from dough. I can’t really figure out how to get around offering up two tracks. “London Bridge” has some surprising Moog eruptions toward the end, and “Look What You Done” is just all pillowy and powdered. Bread makes the Eagles sound raw. But then. But then. There’s simply something subversive about music this neutered (the fact that the guys from Ween have gone on record as being big Bread fans sort of speaks to the transgressive nature, compare the Ween bros.’ very loaf-like “Chocolate Town”).

Trying to meditate on the sound of Bread and what it means, what it points to, spurred this disturbing Borgesian simile: Bread is like a mustache and the opposite of a mustache.

I seem to remember reading that Glen Campbell in his autobiography mentioned that he worked with Gates early on their careers, maybe before they both got to the West Coast. The key to understanding David Gates, it seems to me - the same key to understanding the Flaming Lips and the Five Americans - is Oklahoma. (Campbell is from Arkansas, but you get the idea)

You may be familiar with the Five Americans and their 1967 hit “Western Union,” with its clever little Morse-code riff. They sort of decided that “communication” would be their gimmick and theme, I think. They went on to do a track called “Zip Code” and one called “No Communication.” People had more ideas and feelings to express to one another back then. This one’s called “Reality.” For all you reality-based readers. There’s something very problematic about the Five Americans. For one, the wobbly harmonies make you realize just how much they were not Buffalo Springfield. And the band’s look qualifies as disturbing, I think. There’s a lot of blondness, unfortunate hip-huggers and blank, blank stares. The guys remind me of the kind of master-race labotomized humanoids you’d see on a dystopian episode of Star Trek. Beautiful, but horribly empty. Maybe violent. I believe I’ve mentioned my Melanie-hating office mate. He cannot tolerate the Five Americans either. You be the judge.