Thursday, November 30, 2006

Modern Moral Dilemmas Solved (En Español)

In an age of global madness, it's increasingly difficult to distinguish truth from fiction, right from wrong, good music from bad. In a world where Matt Lauer must define for a nation when Iraq has turned into a "civil war," figuring out whether Grace Slick's solo material is "good" listening is pretty much anybody's guess.

Which means I could just as well call "¿Come Again? Toucan" a marvelous gem of a tune or its opposite. As Grace tells it, the issue is translation: Mistakes are made because words are misunderstood. It's all in how you talk. The song is from her first solo outing, 1974's Manhole, an album title that in itself deserves a special prize. It has a deceptive '70s jazzmatazz slinkiness to it, a la J-Mit (that's Joni Mitchell to you), but builds into something unexpected, a true blue cry for help in a world gone haywire. You can feel it: The cool, detached session-player grooviness barely constraining Grace Slick's rising impatience with the glass house she's in. I'm adding this to my proposed Cormac McCarthy movie soundtrack, too, if only for the declarative bandito cry at the start and later Slick's goofy-gal Lily Tomlin moment: "Geez, I wish I knew Spanish..." Listen close.

"¿Come Again? Toucan" - Grace Slick

Okay, not a bad number. But that's kid play compared to this Gilbert O'Sullivan stuff, which even ardent taste contortionists are challenged to classify as "good." On the one hand, there's the Paul McCartney-gone-wild esprit de ham element, piano frivolity borne of the love of Tin Pan Alley; on the other there's the inbred Irish sad-sackism curdled into a pop porridge that a lot of right-thinking people just have to shove to the middle of the table when Grandma Gilbert serves it up. I don't blame them. But, alas, I love these songs and find myself listening to them over and over and over and over again. It's my own pop jingoism, I guess: my music right or wrong. It started with loving "Alone Again (Naturally)," which Mr. Poncho covered here previously, and led to these cuts from his 1972 American debut, Gilbert O'Sullivan: Himself. I've included O'Sullivan's winsome LP opener in the first tune.

"January Git" - Gilbert O'Sullivan

"Bye Bye" - Gilbert O'Sullivan

After all that, Freddy Fender will resolve our quandries, make sure the center holds. Freddy Fender is the solution to immigration, foreign policy, domestic spending, nuclear disarmament and the estate tax. He eliminates borders and eminates good will. He offers Gilbert some sunscreen. He teaches Grace some Spanish. Fender's best album is his least appreciated, I think, "Swamp Gold" from 1978. After his Tex-Mex and country hits, he finally had the Billboard credibility to make the album he always wanted to make, hiring a crack R&B band to help cook up the soul album of his dreams. He still threw in the Spanish-language sections to keep his audience on board, but the style and spirit were a detour and a revelation. There's something sweet and vulnerable about his subtle sufferin' succotash lisp when he sings the great Donny & Marie number, "I'm Leaving It All Up to You." And yet he's not afraid to funk up the white-bred Morman pop with a hazardous fuzz-rock solo if that's what it takes to get over. But what really grabbed me was "When It Rains It Really Pours," with its cosmic synth opener, the conga-driven blast-off and the unique borderland soul styling that made Freddy a genuine melting pot singer. It's not really Mexican or Texan or even New Orleans style (or Utah, for that matter), it's just soul. What Grace was getting at. Borderless and beautiful.

"When It Rains It Really Pours" - Freddy Fender

"I'm Leaving It All Up To You" - Freddy Fender

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Weather Systems of Romance

My first year in Southern California was an El Nino year. It rained like hell. Big storms blew in from the Pacific as I sat around in a Hollywood apartment, listening to the radio and wondering why the hell I moved there in the first place. I think it was for the weather. Or the work. Neither of which was quite what I had hoped.

Not to mention I didn’t have a real friend in the area. But then I met her one night in a dive bar at Hollywood and Vine. We exchanged numbers and then eventually mix tapes. Hers was better. My favorite song on it was and is “Just For A Moment” by Ultravox, from their 1978 album Systems of Romance.

I guarantee you it is the perfect song to listen to if you ever find yourself in a small apartment in a new city with someone special on a rainy night.

Just For A Moment - Ultravox

Thursday, November 16, 2006

All Record Stores Must Pass

Recently I went to my local Tower Records for their Going Out Of Business Sale. I felt like a scavenger, but that didn't stop me from buying a couple of things I never would have bought at full price. One was an early Ultravox album, and the other was the 2000 reissue of All Things Must Pass by George Harrison.

Here's a few lines from "Isn't It A Pity:"

And because of all their tears
Their eyes can't hope to see
The beauty that surrounds them
Isn't it a pity.

There are two versions of this great song on the album, and I still don't know which one I like better. Galaxie 500 also did a great cover of it. I can't think of a more compassionate song. Guess I'm getting soft. All this hippie stuff is really getting inside my head.

Isn't It A Pity - George Harrison

The Man, Let Him In

Leave it to David Gates and Bread to, in their own quiet way, provide a little air-whipped serving of soft radical counter-contrarionism. Everyone’s always talking about sticking it to the man. But isn’t that just such an easy position to take? Fighting the power has become de rigour. That’s why Bread’s "Move Over" is so intense, so shocking, such a mustachioed blast.

Gates says, in effect, Hold on, not so fast, people. Maybe we’re not approaching the problem the right way. "Move over," he sings, "move over and let the man come in." That’s what I’m talking about. If you can’t beat ‘em, let ‘em join.

This is one of those songs that's basically all hook; the verse could be a refrain. The chorus actually sounds a lot like a snippet of some classic 60s tune that I can't place. The weird violin is vaguelly Dirty Three-ish. Here's another, earlier wrong-headed reflection on Bread.

"Move Over" - Bread

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Before the Flood

There’s cause for celebration. The day passed by unnoticed, with all of the exciting impending political upheaval, but as of about November 1, we’ve been up and sailing for a year now at the Driftwood Singers Presents. All thanks to Lefty for pioneering the technology that went into converting old moldy vinyl into new crackly MP3s. If nothing else, this forum has helped to virtually replicate that experience of sharing music, talking nonsense and listening raptly with a handful of rabid and obsessive music-fan friends. Another, more personal, cause for celebration is that after dealing with a receiver that was on the fritz and on the blink, a crappy system that got increasingly worse over the past eight or so years, I finally got a proper component that won’t go silent for stretches, require beatings or drive me to have a temper tantrum ( I promise, it’s safe to come back over for a drink). In honor of all that, here’s a few bits of sound pleasure.

Listening to Lefty’s post on Bad Brains made me go dig up my copy of I Against I to relive some of the proto-nu-rap-metal glory of "Sacred Love." It was so much better than most of the music that it presaged, but you can sure hear the seeds of Living Color and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Follow For Now in this. The story is that H.R. sang his vocals over the phone from prison, or at least that’s what I was told. If apocryphal, it’s still great.

I watched The Devil and Daniel Johnston last night, which was pretty excellent, and the movie certainly conjured those days, say 1988 to 1995, when it seemed like all any of us could do was stew in a kind of brewing madness, whether it fully reached a boil just depended on luck and circumstance and genetics and chemicals and whatever else. Listening back to college rock from the pre-grunge days reminded me of just how unhinged and in-its-own-galaxy some of the music was. And at the same time, some of it was so close to being radio pop that it’s hard to remember what made it seem out of the ordinary.

It was all pointing toward something – Limp Bizkit, the Pixies, Nirvana, Little Wings. Kurt Cobain really did everyone a service by turning the world on to two of the best songs off of the Meat Puppets II record. Same with the countless people he turned on to the Vaselines, the Raincoats and Daniel Johnston. I saw Nirvana once in Detroit, on the In Utero tour. The Boredoms opened, then came the Meat Puppets. When the Boredoms hit the stage, after the initial excitement, the grunge converts quickly turned against the Japanese noise mongers. People were flipping them off, booing, the four or five of us tried to compete with our applause and cheers, but it was pointless. The Meat Puppets weren’t at the best phase of their career, but it was nice to see them win some fans and make some cash. We actually got to go grab a beer with Cris Kirkwood after the shows. We were probably trying to play it cool, but it was a big deal – having been sort of introduced to the joys of weird independent music through the Meat Puppets. I remember that I actually had a cassette tape with Steel Pulse live in Tokyo on one side and the Meat Puppets Up on the Sun on the other. I was moving out of my reggae dude, Deadhead phase into something else, nudged along by REM, the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, Talking Heads, the Replacements, the Minutemen, Butthole Surfers and the Meat Puppets. Later, it would become a source of shame, to have been something of a hippie, but the connection and transition makes complete sense to me now. The Meat Puppets certainly owe as much to the psychedelic noodly excursions of the Dead as they did to anyone. And I can really hear plenty of the wide-eyed nature worship of Little Wings there. This music is like the Proustian cookie for me, it summons up remembrances of autumnal afternoons wandering through cow pastures, walking the railroad tracks or tipping over dead pine trees out in a cemetery – weed, no money, vague artistic ambitions.

I’m not so sure that the Big Dipper aged quite as well as I expected. It’s still a great song about a guy trashing his house during a blow-out party, but I think there’s probably one or two too many choruses.

“Sacred Love” - Bad Brains

"Up on the Sun" - Meat Puppets

"We’re Here" - Meat Puppets

"Ron Klaus Wrecked His House" - Big Dipper

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Slipping and Sliding

Like so many, Johnny Paycheck doesn’t get the proper respect. The success of “Take This Job and Shove It,” which was written by David Allan Coe, sort of dwarfed everything else he ever did. But I particularly like this earlier Billy Sherrill production. There’s something offensive, yet brilliant, about the dorky stunt harmonica playing. Paycheck’s voice didn’t quite have that expressive puffy foghorn moan that makes George Jones so miraculous. His play-acting of the hell-raising bad boy is less believable than Merle Haggard’s and certainly less compelling than the obviously pathological David Allan Coe, still Paycheck had his own thing going. “Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets” is basically just a bit of bedroom bragging: he may be a poor and generally no-good dude, but the rich lady seems to make a point of coming over to visit for some sweet lovin' whenever her sugardaddy of a husband leaves town. I always find the chorus: “Slide off of your satin sheets, slip into your long soft mink/ You know where to find my door/I know what you’re crying for,” to be vaguely dirty, with all the sliding and slipping, fur and door-finding.

[A Driftwood clan side note, the picture of Paycheck on the cover of this record (not the one pictured) always reminded me a little of Lefty’s dad.]

"Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets" -- Johnny Paycheck

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Badfinger Goodband

I remember in one of my film classes we briefly studied the evolution of genres. Westerns, gangster movies and most genre films tend to go through these stages:
Stage I: origin of the genre (for example, the early Western film The Great Train Robbery);
Stage II: a high-classical period (example: Stagecoach);
Stage III: a baroque period (see examples below);

Then other stages occur before the genre finally dies out. Something like that, as I recall. It's been awhile, so please forgive the vagueness. Anyway, the baroque period is defined in part by self-consciousness, where the film you watch is somehow aware of itself as a genre film. This self-consciousness manifests itself in parody (Blazing Saddles), hybrid genre films (SciFi + Western = Westworld) or mannered attempts to get back to the classical period (if I had actually become a film scholar I would put a great example here other than Young Guns...Wait, Fistful of Dollars. Much better).

Consider this my self-conscious post for Driftwood Singers, because today I have come to speak about Badfinger. This band is the ultimate example of a Driftwood band, as I understand the intentions of our Founding Fathers and Mothers. Forgive me if I'm too on-the-money here, but Badfinger has all the essential ingredients of a Driftwood-featured band:

1) They have bad hair. (See above.)

2) They are probably misunderstood by the casual music listener. Badfinger is forever in the shadow of the Beatles. At worst they're seen as almost a boy band created by the Beatles corporate venture Apple Corps Ltd. If I had my druthers, Badfinger would be much more obscure and the casual music listener would have no idea who they are at all, but I won't fault them for their success.

3) They made music in the period after the Beatles and before the Ramones, which was nothing but a total wasteland of corporate rock and mellow sappiness, if you believe the average Rock Expert.

4) They are great songwriters. Yes, Paul McCartney wrote one of their hits, but please be advised of their fine originals below.

There's much more to say about Badfinger. Their story would make one hell of an episode of Behind The Music. But let's just listen now, shall we?

Day After Day

Without You

No Matter What

So that's my self-conscious post. Hope you found it was more Fistful of Dollars and less Young Guns. By the way, Portastatic does a fine cover of The Finger's song Baby Blue. Now I advise you to get your big Goody hairbrush, find a bedroom mirror and please do rock out to the Badfinger. Thank you.

Brains, Still Bad After All These Years

As a high school skateboard nerd, I spent many a summer afternoon grinding the rails in some empty parking lot with Bad Brains blasting on my Sony Walkman. My Steve Olson Skull Skate was strictly Minor Threat- and Bad Brains-powered. At home, I would stare intensely at this picture of HR (right) while flipping my favorite BB's cassette, 1988's "Live," over and over, dreaming of the epic pit. I'd crank up "I" and "At the Movies" to prime myself for an all-ages warehouse punk show on the outskirts of town, lacing up my combat boots and spiking my hair with cement-like gel -- No matter what they say, never give in! Never give in! Reagan made us all very earnest. When I eventaully picked up guitar, I spent hours trying to emulate the wiry, precision punk-metal chaos of Dr. Know's solos. It was impossible. What was so amazing was that the pure machine-gun fury was met with sweet downbeat reggae numbers that opened my static suburban universe to the mysterious splendors of B. Marley, Peter Tosh and Big Youth. The discovery of weed was only a matter of time.

It's an old story.

And now they're back, according to Pitchfork, cutting a new record with Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch producing. That's exciting, although it's quite unimaginable that they can ever reproduce the savage energy of the early years. Who can? The discovery of these two YouTube performances -- "Attitude" and "Sailing On" from 1979 -- is a revelation. It's 1950s rock and roll as reimagined by late 70s black free-jazz punks. If you're not moved by these, you're not movable. Dig HR's foot work!

Bad Brains - Attitude 1979

On a recent visit to Washington, DC, the original Bad Brains home, I got a another copy of "Live" at Crooked Beat Records, where they have a vast selection of great old DC punk. (The very cool owner, Bill Daley, transplanted the store from Raleigh, NC, and has an amazing selection of used vinyl, which is why this site was able to enjoy the craggy strains of the Rick Danko solo album.) As in memory, "Live" Bad Brains is raw and beautiful fury. The guitar on "I" is pure scorcery, HR's scream blood-curdling. Play LOUD.

"I" - Bad Brains

"I Against I" - Bad Brains

"I & I Survive" - Bad Brains

"At the Movies" - Bad Brains