Friday, September 28, 2007

It's Not Easy Bein' Ol' Blue Eyes

     I remember seeing this record somewhere, picking it up, looking at the song titles and shaking my head in disbelief (and then buying it soon after).  Frank did a version of Something, the great George Harrison song?  But then I remembered hearing that it was his favorite Beatles song, so okay, fine.  But why, oh why did he feel compelled to do a version of Bein' Green?  (Why wonder?)  Now don't get me wrong--I am a fan, I really am.  But this song just shows once again how horrible the great ones can be.  (There's a Bob Dylan outtake my brother-in-law once played for me called "Straight A's in Love" or something.  Just awful).   And this is on a greatest hits compilation, no less.  I'm a Muppet fan as well, but I never really liked Kermit very much.  I'm more of a Gonzo kinda guy.  
     I wanted to include Aretha Franklin's version of My Way because I never knew there was one until recently, and because once you hear it you'll forget all about Frank's version (and Bein' Green too, I hope).  It's as though she's saying sorry Frank but this is definitive, no hard feelings.  (Of course she would probably never say that).  There's a moment towards the end where she sings "the one" and draws it out to such an ecstatic length--three or four syllables--and the note goes sharp with an intensity that gives me chills.  (If you listen closely you can also hear some spontaneous hand-clapping, which just adds to the overall transcendence of the moment).   It reminds me of  Merry Clayton's singing on Gimme Shelter, when her voice breaks on the word "murder".

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Sword and the Stoned

For a long while I shied away from the music of Middle Earth. Trolls and spells, hairy feet and scepters with purple crystals on top, all that twenty-sided-die one-legged-flute-solo shit, typically sung with tea-stained breath through crumbling teeth.


Well, Lindesfarne cracked open the gates of Mordor for me a bit and now I find myself shaking my head in disbelief at Donovan's 1970 album Open Road, the birth of the so-called Celtic rock genre. Donovan's backed by a band called Open Road and let me here list the band members in honor of how much these guys fucking rock: John Carr on drums, Mike Thomson on bass and lead guitar, Mike O'Neill on piano. Donovan's wispy way with a folk hook is leavened by a massive folk-prog drum and bass attack that gives Don instant heft -- the Sword of the Stoned. Heh-vee, my frond.

This album didn't go over in its time and the group disbanded. Too bad. As Wikipedia describes it, "Many of the songs on Open Road ponder the negative side of industrialization and the lost peacefulness of a previous time." That's practically a mission statement here at The Driftwood Singers. It's Donovan taking a journey into the black heart of the 20th Century via Hobbitan, a preface to everything from Ronnie James Dio to Genesis to Joanna Newsom and Mastodon. Lyrics, please:

i am the juggler of fortune and fame
let me not hear facts figures and logic
fain would i hear lore legend and magic
feathers of raven
slithers of coal
armour of silver
in the mackrel shoal
sun in the west
tis ruby blood red
travelers a-weary
do make their bed

("Roots of Oak")

I'm so enthusiastic about this I'm posting half the album, combining the last three songs together, a thrilling trilogy that starts with the gorgeous proto-indie rock "Season of Farewell."

Celtic Rock - Donovan

Roots of Oak - Donovan

Changes - Donovan

People Used to - Donovan

Season of Farewell --> Poke at the Pope --> New Year's Resolution - Donovan

[Noted: Hat tip to Ms. AGV for giving me this album. It's a gem.]

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"I Got a Problem"

Talk about getting blindsided by history. Is this really what 1986 sounded like? I think back on that year as being Life’s Rich Pageant and True Stories. I think of Husker Du and U2 – big sounds. Even for Neil Young completists, Landing On Water is often overlooked. It was his next-to-last record on Geffen, the one between the country-ish Old Ways and the wrong-headed Life. Listening to it now, it seems to have split the difference between the rock of Reactor and the retardo-futuristic kraut-disco robotics of Trans. But on Landing On Water the drums are turbo charged, man-made, with Steve Jordan bashing away on trashy toms. (It’s only Neil, Jordan and co-producer Danny Kortchmar, on guitars and synths). I’ve sometimes found Jordan’s playing, admirably stripped down as it is, to still be over-energetic. It’s that same hopped-up vibe that makes this interesting.
It was in 1986, in fact, that I spent a weekend at a Zen monastery in Japan, for a school project (I was in high school there at the time.) I remember thinking that maybe, instead of actually writing a paper on Zen and my experience, I might simply turn in a blank page to demonstrate how much I’d learned. It was a bad idea and I’m glad I didn’t do it. I almost succumbed to the same specious logic here, figuring that I needn’t say anything on a post of Neil’s "I Got a Problem." It speaks for itself. It’s music that has a problem. Every time I hear this song, I think of "A Love Supreme," a bonehead version as rendered by Bob the Builder.
I interviewed the frontman of French Kicks earlier this year. We started talking about what he’d been listening to, and he said that he’d been particularly into Landing On Water and that he found the production and overall aesthetic to be similar to the French Kicks approach. A lot of people got problems.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Truth May Be Betrayal, Lies and Treason

You realize that we live in a completely Puritanical, sexually paranoid, post-AIDS-crisis world when you consider that sensitive songwriters once approached the idea of what was basically anonymous sex as a potentially sweet and romantic subject. Strangers in the night. Etc. Take "The French Girl," a song penned by Ian Tyson, of Ian and Sylvia, and issued as a previously unreleased bonus track on the Sundazed edition of Gene Clark’s 1967 solo debut, which he made just after he left the Byrds. Django West awakened me to the glories of Gene Clark in a post a while back about the excellent song "So You Say You Lost Your Baby". Not only is this anonymous sex, but the exchange seems possibly to have been accomplished without actual "verbal" communication. ("She laughed each time I asked her name/... Her friends down at the French cafĂ© has no English words for me.") Words fail you in the end. I learned, from Googling the lyrics to this song, that Dylan and the Dead evidently rehearsed this tune, but never actually performed it live. I wonder if it might have been the rehearsal that Dylan alludes to in Chronicles, that almost drove him to walk out on the whole thing. But just check the poetry or the lyrics and the way the melody unfurls in unusual ways, climbing, counter-intuitive.

Listen to the little bells, the insistent "la-la-la" backing vocals, the shakers, the declamatory bass line, tambourine at the chorus, the baroque piano, (is there harpsichord back there, too?). It’s like the folk wall of sound (arranged by Curt Boettcher, who went on to work with the Association and the Beach Boys, among others), which is fitting, since members of the wrecking crew were on these sessions.

I think this whole record is pretty amazing. But just to give you a sense, check out the completely Dylan-esque poetry to the lyrics on "Echoes" and "So You Lost Your Baby." There’s a lot of elaborate orchestration on "Echoes," which is like some sort of Jimmy Webb peyote mini blowout (arranged by Leon Russell). Django West already pointed out all the marvels on "So You Lost Your Baby" – moon trolls, and whatnot. But here’s the previously unreleased acoustic demo, as devastating as the full-on production, listen for those patented self-harmonizing vocals; he’s like the ghostly half of the brother duo with himself.

"The French Girl" – Gene Clark

"So You Say You Lost Your Baby" - Gene Clark

"Echoes" - Gene Clark

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Buckeye Funk

     Dayton, Ohio is the hometown of my dad, the Ohio Players, Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices), Kim Deal of Pixies/Breeders fame...and Steve Arrington.  Does this make it some kind of music mecca?  Not really, especially since my dad can't even carry a tune.  I do remember him sitting down at the piano when I was little and playing random chords while shout-singing "Come to Breakfast!" and other hits.  It was my introduction to improvisation (of a sort) though neither one of us knew it at the time.
     But back to Steve Arrington and his Hall of Fame.  I noticed this cd a while ago at the library where I work, and I finally checked it out the other day.  I really was just fascinated by the album cover--it looks like a drawing you'd see in some high school yearbook, done by the guy or gal who's considered the best artist in the senior class.  And it's so creepy the way there are no eyeballs--I know it's supposed to be a bust, but it's as though it's part marble and part flesh.  The other thing I think is so funny is the song title "You Meet My Approval".  Talk about damning with faint praise!  It's a passably funky tune, and it actually reminds me not of other funk bands but rather Gang of Four.  You can imagine them listening to this or stuff like it and then going off and recording "I Love a Man in Uniform".   (It's kind of hard to imagine them singing "The girl is hot!", however).                               Arrington was the singer/drummer for the band Slave before opening his Hall of Fame. Michael Jackson was a big influence: "He's not elaborate in terms of riffs, but he is in terms of nuance."  Hmmm... Anyway, at some point in the mid-'80s Arrington saw a sign (both literally & figuratively) on the streets of NYC, became born again, and started his own church--the Amazing Love Full Gospel Church in Kettering, Ohio.  It's a classic progression.
You Meet My Approval--Steve Arrington's Hall of Fame

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Fresh My Farm

Spurred by that fleeting summer feeling, JP and Sister Bernice and I bolted down to NC for a mad-dash, last-ditch surge of desperation in search of sun, familial festivities, slow-cooked meats and yet another excuse to sip on bourbon and water. What we learned, or what we already knew (having lived in the northeast now for near 10 years) and were reminded of, was that people there are simply nicer. Or, at least, they act nicer, which is basically the same thing. Flying in on Friday afternoon and out again on Sunday morning, we had a mini checklist to start x-ing off. First stop Gus Sir Beef, home of the most righteous fried squash anywhere, also the restaurant with perhaps the best Greek-redneck-argot slogan around: "Fresh My Farm." Within minutes of our convergence (sister, three nieces, grandmother, brother-in-law) the waitresses were hanging out around our table, stroking babies’ heads in a way that our Massachusetts neighbors would think a presumptuous, inappropriate, and possibly unhealthy (germs) violation of personal space (not that I don’t dig Yankee aloofness). I switched from Bud to sweet tea, which seemed like some kind of divine one-two beverage change-up/sucker-punch.

I’d been meaning to post Alan Jackson’s "Gone Country," mostly just because it’s a great, funny, funny song. I must have forgotten how caustic it is, really; I almost doubled over laughing listening back to it and realizing that one of the verses is basically a dig at Bruce Hornsby, or Bruce Hornsby types, with that patented Hornsby piano articulation flown in for full effect. It’s brutal. On the one hand, the song ridicules all the wannabe rednecks (you know who you are), and those who think that cranking out a country tune is somehow easier than anything, but at the same time, it’s also sort of understanding, too. Of course they’ve gone country, why wouldn’t they? This, I know, is fraught territory, and JP, Dewey, Lefty and I have hashed it out before. But, in keeping with Lefty’s recent endtimes jeremiad, I’ve decided that swampy, humid, new south living may be the alternate universe to my universe’s ass. I’m just waiting for the right pair of boots.

Other things learned and relearned: slow-cooking meats on the poolside grill while sipping beers, playing with the little ones and occasionally taking a dip is a sacred and preferred form of disassociation. That’s what the Bobby Bare is all about: beer, kids, cooking. Also: the cicadas at night sound like the Tarheel State version of the Balinese monkey chant.

"Gone Country" - Alan Jackson

"Singin’ in the Kitchen" - Bobby Bare

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Stella Hues

Credit where credit is due: Mr. Poncho has slowly turned the stone from the cave that held what I thought was the lifeless, talentless body of Ryan Adams. I'm no moon-eyed convert mind you, but I see the basic talent and attraction after giving Easy Tiger a few spins. But what finally convinced me was hearing the new Willie Nelson album, Songbird, and how it really pops compared to the avalanche of somewhat lackluster stuff he's kicked out in recent years. Turns out Ryan Adams produced it, hedging beautiful recording fidelity with a raw, garage-y backing band (the Cardinals) and a great song selection that pulls Willie off the typical standards, feathering in a Rick Rubinesque hipster-modernist aesthetic (like Parson's "$1,000 Wedding" and Cohen's "Hallelujah"). To see what I mean, listen to Willie doing the Grateful Dead's "Stella Blue" (Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter), a magnificently aching rendition with a fantastic feedback-wheezing crud-mud guitar that adds minor-key watercolor washes where Willie might typically use more obvious acrylic lines. The guitar solo at minute 3:55 is transcendent.

Stella Blue - Willie Nelson

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Life on The Bay of My Way or The Highway

Dadgummit this world is relentless! The news, the wars, the fear, the candidates, the hurricanes, the whole celebutardistic mob beating the holy hell out of anything with Good left in it! All the crap-o-lyptic horrors percolating on the crumputer screen of doom, gouging our eyes out with pop-up ads featuring dancing female aliens wearing lipstick and bikinis...

It's end times, I tell ye!

So as long as it's the End of History (and fuck you very much, Francis Fukuyama, you supposedly-reformed neocon twit), I'm cherry-picking the good shit from the old days and calling it the bedrock for a new society, starting now. (Yes, we've been down this road before -- and we'll be back no doubt!) Anyway, I don't care if Osama bin Ladin dyed his beard black last month so he looks like a younger, sexier fanatic, or if Dick Cheney is manipulating the world's oil prices on his Xbox. Me, I've got heaven in a wild flower, infinity in the palm of my hand. I'm getting alternate universe on this universe's ass. I'm tacking into a quiet cove called The Bay of My Way or The Highway and rolling up the jib and dropping anchor.

All of which is to say, "Welcome, friends! Here's some music."

1. In the Bay, most of the talk you'll hear on the beach will sound like Professor Longhair. I quoteth he: "Tipitina! Yu-la mah-la wah-la dah-la, tra la, ti na na..."

Tipitina - Professor Longhair

2. One night in 1987 I lay in bed before sleep with this song in my headphones for the first time, ears entirely virgin to reggae. Literally, no lyin': I wept the first time I heard 1975's Live!. Oh Jah! Fools filed it forever under "frat boy" after Legend saturated the dorm rooms, but lest we forget, this is perfect music. And pretty much crystalizes the New Bay Way:

Trenchtown Rock - Bob Marley

3. It came from the campfires of Brothers Wilson and Spector, back in ancient times. The Holy Drum Beat tells us a secret we must keep passing down through the ages. Heart. Beat Beat. Heart. Beat Beat...

The Bear - My Morning Jacket

Forever - The Explorers Club

4. Sometimes it's okay not to sing. Just listen.

All I Have Are Memories - The Byrds

Delfonics Theme - The Delfonics

5. In the cove, no poem is ever the same twice. Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer are poets who make up verse on the spot, trading lines in front of audiences to create spontaneous works. Here's one riffing on the word "hillbillies."

My sister
is no hillbilly
Can you believe they built that fence
around the place where all of the hillbillies
It seemed wide open
but secretly
the hillbillies were there.
I know a hillbilly
and I love a hillbilly,
but they're not the same.

Hillbillies - Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer

6. Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald facing off against Hall & Oats in street combat? All that and more on the comedy film series "Yacht Rock," which is the best comedy film series ever made about the secret history of late 70s/early 80s soft rock. Watch and weep with laughter and joy. As I was telling Mr. Poncho, this stuff pretty much makes obsolete our blog's raison d'etre.

Click here, scroll down a bit and watch the videos now.

7. Yacht Rock's comedy is matched only by James Brown attempting Spanish. Vaya con Dios!

Please, Please, Please - James Brown

8. When you're rough and salty from a day spearing fish in the ocean, a slight chill on the skin, cocktail in hand, breeze blowing your Hawaiian shirt open to reveal your chest mat, you'll hear this streaming from a warm transistor radio as the pink and purple sunset fades into evening stars...

Gulf Shores - Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

9. A suggestion: Werner Herzog as Secretary of Beauty, Department of Madness. What say ye, Lord Herzog? This is from a collection of Herzog film music called Requium for a Dying Planet and it's absolutely awe-inspiring music for meditation of the earthly divine. (Hat tip: D. Stone)

Dank sei dir Gott - Ernst Reijseger

10. Over Labor Day weekend, two visionary bald guys with guitars and a drum machine were playing Grateful Dead covers on the lawn in front of their house in Westchester County, New York. Despite the heavy amplification, there was only one person "listening" -- a woman curled up on a lawn chair reading a book. Two guys + amps + trees = love. Before I tromped down a nearby hiking trail, they were playing this:

Me and My Uncle - Grateful Dead (Winterland, 11/11/73, Set 1)

11. Here's another bald dude playing on a lawn: The Pixies, live at the Newport Folk Festival in '06, totally acoustic, totally awesome.

Wave of Mutilation (Newport Surf) - Pixies

12. Secretary of True Feelings, Department of Honesty. Purple Heart for Valor in the specific theater.

Vincent Van Gogh - Jonathan Richman

13. And don't forget the youths.

Weed - The 1990s

14. Finally, the bedrock of any society. Because they're better. Because they're stronger. "Woman, I know you understand the little child inside the man. Please remember my life is in your hands."

Woman - John Lennon

Monday, September 03, 2007

Jingling Jollies

I really just wanted to post this song because I’m having one of those revived love-affairs with both my headphones (crappy as they are) and my shuffle function on iTunes, and I happened to stumble on this most beautiful and most somber of Duke Ellington pieces - more flute than any man could bear. But since it’s the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, let’s make it in honor of New Orleans. The rolling, tribal tom-tom reminds me of Animal Collective and Panda Bear, only because that’s what I’ve been listening to and thinking about for the last two weeks. But just stop for a moment and put your head inside this arrangement. The flowing woodwinds, the punctuated muted brass, the climbing, climbing. It’s almost unspeakably beautiful. And, at the same time, if you listen sideways, it could just as easily have been the theme song to some 70s cop show.