Sunday, December 31, 2006

Take Back The Cocaine, Baby

Seeing as it's New Year's Eve, I thought we might consider this unique point of view on partying from Waylon, Willie and the good people of Buddha Records.

"I Can Get Off On You" - Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson


Saturday, December 30, 2006

Snap, Crackle & Pop: Vol. IV

Every year Dewey Dell and I put together a compilation of vinyl-only tunes for friends and family, culled from our ever-expanding and space-eating LP collection. Some of it's relatively obscure, some just crowd-pleasing pap you could hear on a classic rock station. Much of it has appeared on this blog at one time or another. Snap, Crackle & Pop: Vol. IV hit the streets last week and while it's a limited edition item (we only make 20 copies), this year we're going internerd stizz and offering it up for mass consumption. That is, if you're able to unzip a HUGE file zipped up by WinZip, the Windows program that compresses stuff to a .zip file. If you can't do that and simply MUST have a song on here, lemme know and I'll post it.

CLICK HERE to get the file (83 megs). [Editor's Note: Due to popular demand, we've reposted the link here. Enjoy.]

That's the cover, above. And here's what's in it:

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother • Olivia Newton-John (from Clearly Love, 1975)
To Go Home • M. Ward (from Post-War, 2006)
Love Will Never Pass Us By • Ronnie Milsap (from Love Will Never Pass Us By, 1975)
Marie Provost • Nick Lowe (from Pure Pop for Now People, 1978)
Will You Love Me Tomorrow • Linda Ronstadt (from Silk Purse, 1970)
North Country Girl • Pete Townsend (from All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, 1982)
How Much Fun • Robert Palmer (from Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, 1974)
Angel of the Morning • Nina Simone (from Here Comes the Sun, 1971)
Down to the Station • BW Stevenson (from Lost Feeling, 1977)
Mecca • Gene Pitney (Single, 1963)
Big Legged Woman • Jerry Lee Lewis (from Rockin’ Rhythm and Blues, 1969)
When It Rains It Really Pours • Freddy Fender (from Swamp Gold, 1978)
Cheek To Cheek • Lowell George (from Thanks I’ll Eat It Here, 1979)
Mexican Divorce • Ry Cooder (from Paradise and Lunch, 1974)
Pan Am Highway Blues • ZZ Top (from Tejas, 1976)
I Will Be Good - Amalgamated Sons of Rest (from self-titled LP, 2001)
We Gotta Get You a Woman • Todd Rundgren (from Runt, 1970)
Wah She Go Do • Bonnie Raitt (from Takin’ My Time, 1973)
Tullahoma Dancing Pizza Man • Eddie Rabbitt (from Rocky Mountain Music, 1976)
Musta Got Lost • J. Geils Band (from Blow Your Face Out, 1976)
Let’s Get Together • Lobo (from Just a Singer, 1974)
Love’s in Need of Love Today • Stevie Wonder (from Songs in the Key of Life, 1976)

"They’re Always Writing Songs" (About Songs)

I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I can’t figure out why Carole King's "I Didn't Have Any Summer Romance" isn’t one of the greatest songs ever. It reminds me of the meta-song element of that wonderful Pavement song "Gold Sounds" where they sing about how "they’re coming to the chorus now," of those weird Merle Haggard songs about songs within songs.

For teenagers looking for pop bubblegum, this is some pretty dark stuff, like finding a mini Three Penny Opera as the treat at the bottom of your box of Cracker Jacks. This is from the excellent Sundazed compilation The Dimension Dolls, which features girl and girl-group Brill Building singles by Carole King, The Cookies and Little Eva. There’s a lot of silly juvenile teen-pop and dance-craze numbers, but Carole King’s early solo stuff ("Crying in the Rain," "He’s a Bad Boy" and others) puts the goose bumps on the arms.

Friday, December 29, 2006

It’s a Struggle

If you wanted to raise objections to the music of the Strugglers, I could pretty much anticipate any critical move you might make against them: the pained tone, the confessional lyrics, the languid feel. But I find myself still loving this stuff. I first heard the Strugglers on the excellent compilation Songs for Another Place. They get extra points, I guess, for being from Carrboro, NC. Some singers have emotional reserve, and it’s admirable; one senses the mixed feelings, the reluctance to give in to the full nakedness of singing. But this guy’s voice is lovely in its discomfort, while still somehow being completely open even as he clamps himself shut with a whining moan. It may be a cliche for bands to write songs about the rootlessness, dislocation and loneliness of life on the road, but who hasn’t sat inside a moving vehicle and watched sadly as the scenery speeds by?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

One Must Have a Mind of Winter

Winter’s here. The sun stood still at the shortest day. And now the days grow cold. I’m wearing a scarf in the house. Shit is getting frio. Here’s some winter music.

This is from Mike Heron’s 1971 record Smiling Men With Bad Reputations. This is yet another from the vault of Alan Bisbort. Heron was a member of the Incredible String Band, and this record has a pretty amazing list of players – Richard Thompson makes an appearance, John Cale plays on a few tunes, and the Who (minus Roger Daltrey) play under the name of Tommy and the Bijoux on one track. The whole affair was overseen by legendary folkrock producer Joe Boyd (who also produced everyone from Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, and Nick Drake to 10,000 Maniacs and one by R.E.M., Fables of the Reconstruction, always one of my favorites). But despite all the heavy-hitters and the trail of big associations, Smiling Men is a bit of a letdown. At its best it evokes B-grade Nick Drake, but the whole thing, with its Indian wanks, droning wanks, and heroic rock wanks, doesn’t really cohere.
"Feast of Stephen" has catchy "shalalalas" and some nice, almost obnoxious, muscular drumming. It reminds me a bit of the sad stoner-hobbit North Country vibe of Lindesfarne’s lovely "Winter Song." All this stuff treads pretty dangerously into Thistle and Shamrock territory, but I’ve been rocking the forthcoming Alasdair Roberts disc, The Amber Gatherers, and the wife and I have been watching some of Simon Schama’s History of Britain that he did for BBC (that’s where the war-themed "Sloth," with its amazing meandering extended borderline psychedelic guitar solo that dances around the curls of fiddle, fits in), and I just finished re-reading Jane Austen’s Emma, so I’ve got my anglophilic standing stone on.

New Year's Resolution #9

Try to be good. Or Whatever. Hear here:

I Will Be Good - Amalgamated Sons of Rest

Dewey and I have been sitting on this record by the Amalgamated Sons of Rest for a couple of years now but I only lately rediscovered it and realized it had this "hidden" track on it. The band is a one-off indie-folk supergroup composed of Will Oldham, Jason Molina and Alasdair Roberts, doing solemn sea chanteys. Oddly, it was recorded on Sept. 10 through Sept. 12 in the year of our unholy disaster 2001. Side two of the vinyl edition has just one song, the aforementioned hidden one, with the rest of the side used for an elaborate and beautiful hand-carved etching of a whale capsizing a boat and some unfortunate sailors getting thrown about. It's hard to capture with a camera, but here are two attempts.

Here you can almost see a boat at the bottom of the disc, the whale in the upper left and dudes getting thrown around the black vinyl sea, the clearest one being the little stick figure near the label:

Here is the whale up close:

Meanwhile, THE DRIFTWOOD SINGERS PRESENT move into the future (read: scrapheap of history) with a MySpace site. Visit often and don't forget to add us as your dubious new friend in the year 2007.

Monday, December 25, 2006

JAMES BROWN, 1933-2006

Rest in peace, Mr. Brown.

Merry Holiday Time (To the People)

Happy Holidays, people! Whether you're Christian, Muslim or Jew, you love the live rock 'n roll. That's just God's way. So this season, THE DRIFTWOOD SINGERS celebrate with selections from the amazing online archive of live recordings collected by the late and legendary (and Jewish) concert promoter Bill Graham. We hear tell it's probably going to get shut down soon because of lawsuits by the bands, so check it out before it's too late! Meanwhile, unwrap these gems and enjoy.

Emmylou Harris: Live at New Victoria Theatre, London, Nov. 25, 1975:

If I Could Only Win Your Love - Emmylou Harris

Grievous Angel - Emmylou Harris

Elton John: Live at Fillmore West, San Francisco, Nov. 12, 1970:

Elton John - Country Comforts

Elton John - Amoreena

Stevie Wonder: Live at Winterland, San Francisco, March 3, 1973:

Me and Mrs. Jones --> Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You) - Stevie Wonder

Miles Davis: Live at the Fillmore East, March 6, 1970:

Miles Davis - It's About That Time

Miles Davis - Miles Runs the Voodoo Down

Huey Lewis & the News: Live at the Country Club, Reseda, Ca., April 1, 1982:

Do You Believe in Love - Huey Lewis & the News

Bruce Springsteen: Live at Winterland, Dec. 15, 1978:

Santa Claus is Coming to Town - Bruce Springsteen

Born to Run - Bruce Springsteen

J. Geils Band: Live at Fillmore East, New York, June 27, 1971:

First I Look at the Purse - J. Geils Band

Black Sabbath: Live at Asbury Park, NJ, Aug. 5, 1975:

The Hole in the Sky - Black Sabbath

Elvis Costello: Live at Winterland, San Francisco, June 7, 1978:

(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes - Elvis Costello

The Charlie Daniels Band: Live in Peoria, Il., Aug. 19, 1979:

Long Haired Country Boy - The Charlie Daniels Band

David Bowie: Live in Montreal, July 13, 1983:

White Light/White Heat - David Bowie

Saturday, December 23, 2006

2006: The Guilt, The Shame, The Ugly iTunes Truth

I really shouldn't be doing this. Since I probably didn't even buy 10 albums in 2006, I have no place sharing a Best of 2006 List with you nice people. Yet here I am. As a concession, I'm just sharing 10 selected tracks (some singles, some album tracks) that show up at the top of the list when I sort my 4,919 iTunes by year. Here they are, re-sorted alphabetically by track name:
1) "Crazy" - Gnarls Barkley. Maybe you've heard this one once or twice? Yes?
2) "Don't Speak (I Came To Make A Bang)" - Eagles Of Death Metal, perhaps bringing more sexy than #7 on this list.
3) "Level" - The Raconteurs. Better than that first single, in my book.
4) "Punkrocker (featuring Iggy Pop)" - The Teddybears. I play this one a lot. My girlfriend is already sick of hearing this one, and she loves Iggy, and me.
5) "Rear View Mirror" - Grandaddy. Another great track. Another great LP. See also YLT.
6) "Ride a White Horse" - Goldfrapp. I like the sexy. I like the T.Rex reference.
7) "SexyBack (featuring Timbaland)" - Justin Timberlake. Best track since "Rock Your Body."
8) "The Race Is On Again" - Yo La Tengo. See description for #5.
9) "The W.A.N.D." - The Flaming Lips. See description for #8.
10) "Wild Mountain Honey" - Steve Miller Band. I've never heard of this Miller guy, but apparently it took him 30 years to finish his record. Fucking stoner. It's awesome, though. It's called "Fly Like An Eagle."

Monday, December 18, 2006

Listory of the World, Part IV

Here's my top 10 albums of the year list, as filed with the Idolator Jackin’ Pop Poll. I agonized over it a bit, struggling with the incriminating indie-rockness of it all, but in the end, I made peace with the effete nature of my taste, upbringing and essence. Here it is:

1. TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain
2. Ladyhawk - Ladyhawk
3. Joanna Newsom - Ys
4. Richard Buckner - Meadow
5. Priestess - Hello Master
6. Jason Molina - Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me GO
7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones
8. Shearwater - Palo Santo
9. Brightblack Morning Light - Brightblack Morning Light
10. The Sword - Age of Winters

There was a great piece by Louis Menand in the New Yorker a few years back about End of Year critics' lists. With typical surgical reasoning and insight, Menand spelled out all of the standard expectations and assumptions about critics' lists – about the need to establish some of-the-people cred by including something totally middle-brow and for the masses, about the urge to fold in one or two mentions of works from another culture, so as to demonstrate that one isn’t blinkered by American cultural hegemony, etc, and also the required choice of an oddball neglected masterwork to prove to readers that the critic is still doing their job, slogging through all the garbage to find the unappreciated gem.

It’s true, the TV on the Radio sometimes seems to scream "challenging work of genius!" in an annoying way, but that’s what it is. Every time I hear the opening track I’m re-amazed at the weird mix of abrasiveness, android soul-funk and Eno-Fela hypnotic groovalism.

The Ladyhawk has been in steady rotation since late spring and it has rarely failed to please. It started what I thought might be a possibly pleasant wave of grunge revivalism, with the rubbed-raw scream-singing, the juvenile alienation and fixations with substance abuse and sex. I just love the echoes of the Band and Crazy Horse, plus the sneaky bits of jazzy chords and heroic drumming. Plus they’re Canadian and they have a little hidden homage to Neil Young’s Trans tucked into their record cover. Listen to "Sad Eyes."

As Sasha Frere-Jones wrote about Joanna Newsom, "unfuckwithable." You can talk about acquired tastes and West African harp techniques and terza rima and epic song cycles and fluid meter change, and all, but she’s just smarter and more talented than pretty much everyone else.

Richard Buckner has such an amazing voice, it’s like some weathered rock face, heat-blasted desert, prismatic mountain sun, smell of rain, nobility of beast, some Chief Seattle shit. Buckner sometimes reminds me a little of Richard Thompson, but he does that country-fied mellismatic melodic wiggle that we associate with George Jones. There’s a funny dynamic in the music, a kind of nervous tension between the energetic backing players and Buckner’s I-have-stared-into-the-face-of-eternity-and-I-have-a-hangover voice. Every time I put this on I’m moved to head-shaking by how good it is, and I’m always a little surprised at how the brilliance of Buckner’s voice actually eclipses whatever is happening in the songs.

Priestess – They’re from Montreal. They rock. Singer sometimes sounds like Diamond Dave. Band kicks it like Motorhead when they want to, but sometimes they want to go Def Leppard style, and more power to them. I think the record is nearly perfect from start to finish. You get a mix of flooded feelings – embarrassment and pride at how dumb it makes you feel.

Jason Molina - I thought Magnolia Electric Co.’s "What Comes After the Blues" was fantastic. So short, so pretty, so miserable. Every time I hear the song that ends with Molina singing "I thought I saw the light," I get all wrapped up in smirky thoughts about uncertainty, grace and redemption. His solo record reminds me of songs based on folk tales. There are all these elemental forces and animal spirits. Nothing extra. Somewhere on there he sings "While I lived was I a stray black dog?" You have to ask yourself.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - I think that sometimes bands can be judged on hair. And Karen O and YYYs have the hair to backup any artistic ambitions. (The same principle holds true with Tegan and Sara – you can pretty much tell they rule by their shellac-like futuristic butch mullets). YYYs remind me of Missing Persons. I love all the rabid yips, the guitar-nerd sounds, the righteous drumming.

Shearwater - this one takes a little time to sit with. The main guys is an ornithologist, so that pretty much guarantees a certain amount of satisfaction. I believe the Palo Santo is the tree from which they get yerba mate, another clear indication of artistic goodness. The record isn’t exactly homogeneous, it skips around from weird glammy Jesus-Christ-Superstar-esque pounding urgent piano anthems to creepy/sad acoustic laments. There’s a tune called "Sing, Litte Birdie" that is just heartbreakingly beautiful.

Brightblack Morning Light - super-slow nature-worshipping, neo-folk, blues funk. It’s like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on a mix of some gnarly vision-inducing Carlos Castaneta root-magic and loads of cough syrup. Excellent horn arrangements pop up in surprising places – like 5 minutes into a jam. They play with a dog on stage. See what I’m saying?

The Sword: dungeons-and-dragons stoner metal from Texas. Totally Frank Frazetta.

I thought briefly of putting the Beck and Arctic Monkeys records on there, but then my obscurantist predilections overrode. As for re-issues, I've already plugged the Karen Dalton and the John Phillips here.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sad Salvation

Well, what we should have foreseen as the inevitable has happened: last night, while unwinding after a busy day of driving, baby-watching and preparing for our separate holiday departures, the wife and I were watching a little TV and we got roped in to Bravo’s culinary reality show Top Chef. After the emotional trauma that is Project Runway, we’d been doubters about Top Chef. Fashion can be judged simply by appearance, food isn’t quite like that. You gots to taste it. Still, there are enough operatic personalities, brooding geniuses and annoying assholes on the show to keep you interested.

At any rate, it might be a source of shame, regret and concern to now be potentially hooked to another empty TV show, but it wasn’t a total wash. During the show I was looking at the January issue of Mojo, which has, you won’t be surprised to learn, yet another Bob Dylan cover. Mojo rates the entire Dylan catalog, which is pretty funny. It won’t be too much of a spoiler to reveal that Dylan and the Dead comes in last place (even after Down in the Groove!). I remember seeing in interview with Bob Weir where someone was asking him about that tour with Dylan and the interviewer said "I think that may have been the worst record that either the Dead or Dylan had ever done." Weir was a pretty good sport about it, laughing and laughing.
Aside from all that, the Mojo has a couple nice small artist essays about their favorite Dylan discs: Ray Lamontagne made me want to go listen to New Morning again right away. And Cat Power wins even more respect by waxing at length about the genius of Desire.

But what really got me cracking up was the little write-up about the making of Blonde on Blonde, which charts the ups and downs, frustrations and near breakdowns leading to its recording. There’s a snippet of an Nat Hentoff interview with Dylan that appeared in Playboy. I’m sure it’s not new to Dylanologists, but Dylan’s explanation of the endless question, why he switched from folkie to leather-clad rocker, is worth quoting at length:
"I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I’m in a card game. Then I’m in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, take me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down ..."

The article continues, with Dylan explaining how he got a job as a Chinaman, survived a house fire, witnessed a stabbing and shacked up with a teacher who invented a refrigerator that could turn newspaper into lettuce.(!)

This was enough to make me want to go and finish listening to the MP3 of Bob Fass’s radio show Radio Unnamable, on which Dylan appeared in 1966. The New Yorker ran a great story about Fass and his show. And they had an audio file of the show available on the New Yorker web site. I don’t think that either the article or the audio file is still up though. The radio show is an hour long, I seem to be having some difficulty posting it, perhaps because of the length/size. I’ll keep trying.

Editor's Note: They're on the New Yorker website. Click HERE.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Movie Music

I had a stack of records I was planning to transfer to MP3 and post here, but I couldn’t figure out what the connecting thread was. But then it hit me: all the songs were either taken from soundtrack records, or they were by artists that I’d discovered from a movie soundtrack.

My childhood television-watching memories mostly consist of vast catatonic stretches gazing at Saturday morning cartoons, maybe a little weekend family time with the Love Boat/Fantasy Island double-whammy, or some after-school moralizing from The Brady Bunch. But I have a couple recollections of having my mind blown by watching old movies on the telly. One was a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movie - slapstick, songs, buddy adventure, world travel - it had it all. Another powerful movie experience involved catching “To Sir With Love.” I’m sure that the story was vaguely compelling, but what really captivated was the scene with Lulu singing the title song at the tear-jerking climax. Listening to it now, it’s surprising how much the song is obviously an ode to the Smokey Robinson/Motown school, complete with the classroom/love lessons, the dramatic strings and the opening almost Latin rhythmic bass line.

“To Sir With Love” – Lulu

Years later I scored the soundtrack at a yardsale. I think I also found the Coleman Hawkins/Milt Jackson record (and a large book of aerial photographs of Mecklenburg Country) at the same sale. On relistening to the music, I had a brief infatuation with the Mindbenders, the mod crew who rock out at the school dance. This song “It’s Getting Harder” just rips. From the opening two-beat drum intro to the requisite backwards guitar solo.

“It’s Getting Harder” - the Mindbenders

Screaming Jay Hawkins was another movie discovery, thanks to Jim Jarmusch and “Stranger Than Paradise,” which also turned me on to John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards. “I Put A Spell on You” was the song that got me. Then I got the record Frenzy and heard “Hong Kong,” which is sort of frm the same greasy-waltz template. It’s certainly ethnically inappropriate, racialist, insensitive, and stupid, but god it’s good.

“Hong Kong” - Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

As it happens, I also had the soundtrack from Hair on the stack (Broadway version, not from the movie, which we just watched a bit of the other night, great Twyla Tharp choreography - did you know Diane Keaton was in the Broadway production?). This is one that I remember finding in my mom’s record collection. I was shocked to hear songs about LSD and sodomy (not to mention masturbation and pederasty). And the funky “Colored Spade” continues to freak me out. There are a handful of really beautiful songs on the soundtrack, but one of my favorites is “Frank Mills.” You may remember that the Lemonheads covered this tune on It’s a Shame About Ray, about the same time they had success with their cover of Mrs. Robinson. Evan Dando was always a bit of a softie - they covered the Gram Parsons tune “Brass Buttons” on an earlier record.

“Frank Mills” - from Hair

As I think about it, the movie music theme could probably be drawn out for weeks, but one more artist/movie deserved inclusion. Though I’m pretty sure I’d heard Skip James, I had never really paid particular attention until I saw Ghost World in 2001. The tune “Devil Got My Woman” features prominently in the story, and I think I went and ordered the complete Skip James that night when I got home from the theater. James is one of those amazing Delta blues characters who disappeared for years, everybody thought he was dead, only to be “rediscovered” in the ‘60s by some astute folk/blues revivalist. James actually made a come back and performed at the Newport Folk Festival. You can catch some amazing footage of him on YouTube.

Obviously, James’ voice is incredible, but left me shaking my head was his piano playing, which is a crazy wide-open dematerialized fragmented approximation of Delta blues guitar playing. There are so many dramatic gaps and holes and pauses in his playing on “How Long ‘Buck,’” but you can feel the pulse chucking underneath it all, even more so when nothing is happening.

“How Long ‘Buck’” - Skip James
I thought about dropping the Pink Floyd tune from the end of Zabriski Point, from the great slow-motion explosion while the credits run, but I hate that movie.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Shameful Truth About My Top Ten Albums of 2006

The unvarnished truth is usually varnished for a good reason. In the case of my Top Ten albums of 2006, the reasons for my choices, I've concluded after some shallow introspection, were indeed spurious. In some instances, downright shameful. You've seen how thin my arguments were on albums 10 and 9. I'd be much more qualified to come up with a Top Three list. Without further handwringing, here's the AWFUL TRUTH of the other eight albums I've not yet addressed:

8. Ladyhawk's self-titled debut Ladyhawk. This is reckless: I only picked this because a) Mr. Poncho said it was cool and I like and respect Mr. Poncho, and b) I ran out of albums to fill out my list. I haven't liked most of what I've heard this year and I did like this (like!), if only because it sounded more like Neil Young & Crazy Horse than Neil Young & Crazy Horse sounded on that anti-Bush album.

The Dugout - Ladyhawk

7. Belle & Sebastian's The Life Pursuit. I actually only love about three or four songs on this album, but the ones I do love are truly smashing. I'm a sucker for this whole gay Scottish 60s R&B sound. Here's my offer to all the bands out there: if you put hand-claps on your record, I'll pretty much put you in my Top Ten, okay? Like this:

Funny Little Frog - Belle & Sebastian

6. Joanna Newsom's Ys. Remember when Ray Davies wrote "speculative" liner notes for a Kinks covers album a few years ago because he hadn't actually heard the songs yet? I HAVEN'T EVEN HEARD THIS ALBUM! I ordered it on vinyl from Drag City and they're still waiting for the factory to crank some more of them out. I've had a lot of back and forth on the email with a guy named Christopher. I put this on my list based exclusively on a really compelling description my friend Doug gave the other night while eating a hamburger.

5. Dixie Chick's Taking the Long Way. I put this on because a) I'm also from Texas and hate George Bush, and b) I had an exquisite summer revery listening to this album on headphones while riding a ferry to Nantucket last July. Even though this song has all the depth of an episode of Friends, I actually got a little verklempt listening to it:

The Long Way Around - Dixie Chicks

4. TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain. Listen up, okay? This album is annoying. Don't argue, it is. I was just afraid Kelefa Sanneh would stop respecting me if I didn't put it in my list somewhere. Also, I had an influential weed-powered listen to the opening song that made me think everybody's probably right. Yes, this stuff is advanced and futuristic and ingenius and thrilling. But sometimes it's also not very fun to literally hear.

I Was a Lover - TV on the Radio

3. M. Ward's Post-War. This is part of my legitimate Top Three list. Beauty matters and this is beautiful. Don't argue!

Poison Cup - M. Ward

2. The Decemberists' The Crane Wife. Again, Top Three. If you're constitutionally strong enough to deal with Colin Meloy's annoying voice (and, yes, it is annoying), you can't not listen to this album and realize it's a piece of genius. Fairport Convention meets Pink Floyd, but better than both because of the epic storytelling. And it sounds fan-fucking-tastic, no doubt about it. Mr. Poncho calls this "twirly moustache music," which it is (and that's pretty funny, Mr. Poncho!). But by minute 7 of the 12-minute "The Island," this thing is blowing the moustache clear off your skeptical face.

The Island - The Decemberists

1. Bob Dylan's Modern Times. I didn't want to have to do it. I didn't! Who wants to be so predictable and lame and retrograde as to choose BOB DYLAN as your No. 1 pick of the year 2006? It's like choosing the DVD reissue of "Citizen Kane" as your favorite movie of the year. But! Alas! This opening song alone is so many orders of magnitude better than anything else out there (period, full stop), there wasn't really another option. To paraphrase Laura Dern, it's "Johnny Be Good" at heart and weird on top. Listen and read these lyrics and then feel bad you didn't make this album your No. 1 pick.

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I'll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman's church, said my religious vows
I've sucked the milk out of a thousand cows

I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain't no angel and neither am I
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I'll say this, I don't give a damn about your dreams

Thunder on the Mountain - Bob Dylan

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Justifying My Love, Part 2: Booty Callings

It's probably unfair to include Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys on my Top Ten of '06. For one, it's got 43 songs on it. For two, it's got dozens of people on it, from great to repugnant (Brian Ferry to Sting), all made unfailingly interesting by the fantastical, grim, barnicle-encrusted sea chantey genre. Even Sting is good! I can't stress enough how effing wonderful this album is. As much as I'm suspicious of any record cooked up by a movie actor (Johnny Depp, who sings and collaborates as "Jack Shit"), this was a genius idea on its face. The songs, all real traditional tunes, many from the 17th century, share a similarly circular haul-away-boys song structure and lyrics full of rotting morals, desperation and spiritual sea-sickness, a drunken cast of kings, whores and gamblers -- everything that rock-and-roll aspires to be and usually isn't anymore (hence the Captain Jack Sparrow/Keith Richards nexus). Tom Waits has basically had this netherworld to himself for 30 years and now here's an excuse for David Thomas (Pere Ubu), Van Dyke Parks and Akron/Family to try on his stinking, clanking, fish-filled boots. Just marinate in a few of these and enjoy. (By the way, I got the above image from a website describing some infamous lesbian pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.)

Lowlands Low - Brian Ferry & Antony

Baltimore Whores - Gavin Friday
(Listen closely, this one's really gross.)

The Grey Funnel Line - Jolie Holland (absolutely gorgeous; if only more pirates had had trumpet solos!)

Dan Dan - David Thomas (50 seconds long!)

Sally Brown - Teddy Thompson
(son of Richard)

Bully in the Alley- Three Pruned Men (Some kind of Irish supergroup with the exceptionally-named and appropriate-looking Id Busarus on lead vocal; also, Gavin Friday of the Virgin Prunes)

Blood Red Roses - Sting


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Justifying My Love, Part 1

Over the next week or two, I'll attempt to explain, elaborate, explicate and generally rationalize some of my 2006 Top Ten album picks, recently submitted to the Jackin' Pop Critics Poll put on by the music blog Idolator. It's a personal challenge that will surely reveal the random subjectivity and dangerous lack of any real aesthetic framework involved. I can confess right up front that I've not heard every album produced in 2006, so already I'm building my empire in the sand next to an oncoming tsunami. That said, the Sophists proved you can prove anything with fancy words. And I've got some fancy words, trust me. Like specious and nugatory.

Here's Lefty's unchallengeable list for '06:

Bob Dylan - Modern Times
The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
M. Ward - Post-War
TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain
Dixie Chicks - Taking the Long Way
Joanna Newsom - Ys
Belle & Sebastian - The Life Pursuit
Ladyhawk - Ladyhawk
Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy - The Brave and the Bold
Various Artists - Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys

Now don't FREAK OUT, I've got perfectly good reasons for some of these. We'll address the Dixie Chicks pick later on. In honor of my cofounder, let me start by posting "Pancho" by Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy, from the strange covers album The Brave and the Bold. The original was by country singer Don Williams, whose main claim to fame (as far as I'm concerned) was his appearance in Smokey and the Bandit II. Interesting: The song isn't from the 1970s, but from a low-key 1998 album by Williams, I Turn the Page, that didn't get much critical reception except maybe in Branson. But forget its unlikely provenance, the song's real strength was its ability to draw a sweet emotional human-like feeling from the oft-aenesthetized Will Oldham. It was an unexpected gem that popped out at me only after repeated listenings to the album.

Pancho - Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Like everyone else, I was initially preoccupied by the cover of Springsteen's "Thunder Road," which is so arch and android-like it defies easy interpretation. The icy jazz treatment drains out the top 40 heat and leaves it cold, warped chrome. It's creepy and endlessly mesmerizing, especially the thick, lasery opening riff. But then I realized that all the other songs were amazing in their own very distinct ways, with even the "failures" offering a cracked fascination. "Pancho," of all of them, is the easiest to feel and understand, an unlikely straight-up cover with a lush and supple arrangement that creates a fragile, blown-glass version of the original. The Richard Thompson cover "The Calvary Cross" is another that's surprisingly elegant, only slowly revealing its power over time with patient listening, especially with headphones. Hey, 2006 was a long year! This album got very mixed reviews when it came out last January, but to paraphrase Jim Croce, you can't put Bonnie Prince in a bottle. Or maybe you can, but then he ages well inside the bottle and later you decide his is actually one of the best albums of the year.

The Calvary Cross - Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Thunder Road - Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy

PS: I see I've given short shrift to Tortoise here, a group I generally find lacking in ... songs. But they're really sensational on this album, playing warped but precision chops off Oldham's shambling presence. The combination is a winner.

Good Times Machine

Continuing our theme of diving into the secret (read: shameful) vault of specious 1970s jazz albums that might -- just might! -- actually be worthwhile, I bring you O'Donel Levy. Yes, that's him in the tux. His album Windows from 1976 is so underrated, AllMusic doesn't even bother to review it, just slapping two-and-a-half stars on the sucker and calling it a day. That might be smart. But I bought this sealed in plastic and brand new in a junk shop in Brooklyn based entirely on the album cover, which features Levy jamming on his Gibson hollow-body electric while maxing and relaxing in his pimped-out Chevy, lovingly dubbed (and stenciled) "Good Times Machine." The music? Funky. Jazzy. Funky and jazzy. Fusion! Listen, there's some geniunely groovy guitar work on the opener, "Panama Red," especially when he applies echo effect to add psyche flavor to his noodlings. I also love that he decides to end the song on a big, fat synth fart that can only be interpreted in stankonian semiotics as "da funk." As with Mr. Poncho's offering in the last post, I can't entirely stand by this -- especially not the theme song for his van, which I include here as a cautionary warning against diving too deep -- but "Panama Red" isn't a bad little tune for, say, sweeping out your garage or something. The whole thing comes off as a cross between "Suicide is Painless," "Copacabana," and "clean-up in aisle five." But in a kinda-sorta okay way!

"Panama Red" - O'Donel Levy

"Green Machine" - O'Donel Levy

Monday, December 11, 2006

Slight Return

The itemized list of grievances against Return to Forever is indeed a long document. Maybe the most fitting description of the band also serves as the most succinct and damning criticism: fusion supergroup. Or maybe another pair of equally odious words will suffice: Al DiMeola. At any rate, after reading Nate Chinen’s excellent article in the NYT about jazz MP3 blogs working to redeem the 70s – the lost decade of jazz. I went rummaging through some stinky stacks of dusty vinyl with a mind for sharing a spurned track a two. If RTF weren’t spurned, I don’t know what was.

This track, "Sofistifunk," comes off of RTF’s 1975 record No Mystery. I always loved the percolating nonsense talk of the synth, and the way the track builds from there, with sideways backbeat-displaced drums, bobbing-and-darting bass line, and even the gnarly slur of Al’s guitar. If some hip-hop wiz hasn’t already sampled that opening groove, I’ll be shocked. Things do take a turn for the worse about 45 seconds in, when part B kicks in, with its more straight feel and Al’s big seed-spilling solo. This tune is definitely one of RFT’s best, and that’s surely because it’s one of the few written by drummer Lenny White. Which buffers you, sort of, from the general Scientological frippery of Chick Corea, the shameless guitar heroics of DiMeola and the bass player’s many-fingered big moments of Stanley Clarke.

"Sofistifunk" - Return to Forever

Let me now offer an all-purpose apology for sharing a little too much.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sacred, Secular, Extraterrestrial

Before she became the popular face of gospel music, before she sang at the Washington Monument leading up to MLK’s speech, Mahalia Jackson had to arrive on the scene. She moved up to Chicago from New Orleans in the 1920s, part of that huge wave of African-Americans who migrated north. Those from Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee often ended up in Detroit or Chicago. If you were living in Virginia or North Carolina or Georgia, you might point yourself north and wind up in Philadelphia or New York. It was in Chicago that Jackson met Thomas A. Dorsey, a blues singer from Georgia who’d had a conversion experience (plus a few nerous breakdowns) and switched from raunchy blues to writing and selling gospel songs.

I found this record, No Matter How You Pray, at a thrift store in St. Petersburg, Florida back in the 90s (it pops and sizzles like hot oil). It’s on Apollo Records, which was the label Jackson recorded on (selling millions) before becoming an official Columbia Records star (she had recorded a few earlier 78s on Columbia in the 30s). Aside from her powerful, bluesy singing, part of the Mahalia sound is the overlay of organ and piano. The piano bangs out some percussive chords and the organ cooks away underneath, providing heavy bass in places. There’s also some Latin-sounding shaker and conga action back there, a little like a sanctified mambo. When you work in Connecticut, being "on your way to Canaan" takes on a whole different meaning, but this track still captures the electricity of divine inspiration. It’s not hard to imagine walking past some unadorned storefront church on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and hearing this jam coming from inside.

The heavy organ also reminds me of Sun Ra, another southerner who relocated to Chicago. I like to think of Ra, born Sonny Blount in Alabama but who claimed to be from Saturn, Thomas Dorsey, who recorded some seriously raunchy double entendre blues and hokum tracks under the name Georgia Tom when he wasn’t penning his sacred material, and Mahalia, all working in the same city, mixing it up – sacred, secular, extraterrestrial.

"I’m On My Way to Canaan" - Mahalia Jackson

"What’s That I Smell" - Georgia Tom (a.k.a Thomas A. Dorsey) and Hannah May
(Skynyrd owes them, big time)

"Super Blonde" - Sun Ra and His Arkestra
(Recorded in Chicago, 1956)

"Peace in the Valley" - George Jones
(written by Thomas A. Dorsey)

(I prefer this version to the more famous rendition done by Elvis. I love the way the song conjures those idyllic visions of heaven as depicted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses on their pamphlets — playing children, lions laying down with lambs, etc.)

Friday, December 08, 2006

Conflict Resolution (konflikt uchwała)

It seems there's a battle royal going on in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint section of Brooklyn over the lack of Polish musical acts in the concerts thrown at McCarren Pool, an apparently indie-rocker-infested park located smack dab in the middle of ... a giant Polish enclave. The hipsters may pay the exhorbinant rents, but it's the Poles who collect it. So may I suggest the Greenpointers seek out one Tadeusz Nalepa. Yes, fans, he's still around! The founder and lead guitarist of Breakout, the famed 70s Polish prog-rock band. As I've reported before, I found their 1976 masterwork NOL (short for Niezidentyfikowany Obeikt Latajacy, Polish, of course, for Unidentified Flying Object) at a stoop sale in Greenpoint back in 1995. Time has passed but the timelessness of Polish prog rock has not. Please give a listen to this sample, then track down Tadeusz and let the Polish-Hipster healing begin.

Taki Wiatr - Breakout

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Slouching Toward ... Something (Not just bad, but inappropriate)

As Captain Beefheart once sang, “Everything’s wrong, at the same time it’s right.” That’s sort of how I feel about John Phillips’ solo debut, known as John the Wolfking of L.A, which has recently been re-issued on CD for the first time. In the end, wrong wins out over right (as usual).

Exploring the slippery and mysterious nexus between Don McLean, Jim Croce, Arlo Guthrie, Dan Fogelberg, Harry Nilsson and Harry Chapin, on one side, the record also brings to mind Gram Parsons, Dylan and Lou Reed. Phillips, a famously dissolute character, had a vestigial air of hippie royalty from his days fronting the Mamas and the Papas. Recorded in 1970, you can see and hear the full-on 60s comedown in this record. This music makes a perfect counterpart to Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.” You sort of wish that Joan Didion had written a whole book about this – I’m sure she would have reduced the lanky folkster to a dry pile of dusty reeds. With nice pedal steel, the record has a warm country-rock vibe that gets transposed to the wasted, sun-damaged, free-loving, poncho-wearing logic of southern California. Perhaps all I need to say is that two of the best songs are called “Topanga Canyon” and “Malibu People.” The opener “April Anne,” is peopled with Dylan-esque characters: Easy Riders, Jingle-Jangle Faggots, Midnight Cowboys and Drunken Gigolos. It has to be said, there’s something completely pervy about Phillips. And of all the types of perv – the pervy priest, the pervy teacher, the pervy redneck, the pervy biker, the pervy businessman – I don’t think there’s anything more creepy than the pervy hippie. Like the hippie dream itself, the record starts out good, full of open-hearted promise and hazy light, only to curdle into a self-deluded mess. The faux-gospel version of “The Mermaid Song” is really inexplicable [in the words of JP, “that one’s really egregious; it really takes points away; not only does it not sound good, but it makes you think that he doesn’t understand music, like a lot” – (she also points out that Phillips famously let Mick Jagger sleep with his young daughter)], though I did hear it while re-reading Moby Dick and was reminded of the awesome scene at the mariner’s church in Nantucket where the preacher delivers the sermon from a sort of crow’s nest. And “Black Girl,” Phillips’ version of “In the Pines,” is also completely unnecessary. Worst of all may be the bogus Louis Armstrong-style scatting on “Down the Beach,” which isn’t only bad, but inappropriate. But what really starts to gall is the growing suspicion that Phillips is lamely attempting to make some sort of grand pan-American travelogue, complete with the foul-smelling ersatz Cajun jamboree of “Mississippi”and the got-to-ramble cliches of “Holland Tunnel.” The stylistic appropriations are done without much regard for anything.

Now that the venom has been spilled, let me try to pull back a little. The first three tracks “April Anne,” “Topanga Canyon” and “Malibu People” are only a slight remove from Gram Parsons’ solo stuff. It’s soft-serve weed-smoking folk country. The similarity will either make you bend toward Phillips or perhaps to doubt your unquestioning appreciation of Gram Parsons.

Of course, beyond the music, there’s the issue of the record cover, which features Phillips in profile, wearing a sort of white top hat, a cravat and a bearskin coat. The freaky thing about it is that Bob Dylan made almost a replica of it on the cover of his 1976 record Desire. Was Dylan ripping off Phillips as it appears he has since done with the verse of Confederate poet Henry Timrod? Or was Phillips and his wide-ranging ways just an early iteration of what Dylan would become?

"April Anne" - John Phillips

"Topanga Canyon" - John Phillips

"Malibu People" - John Phillips

"Tropical Hotdog Night" - Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band