Friday, December 21, 2007

'Tis the Season for Sharin' Karen (& Willie & Freddy...)

     One of my favorite sub-genres of record-collecting is Christmas albums, much to the bemusement of my reason for living.  It's a little bemusing to me as well--I bought one, then another, and before I knew it I had a "collection" of them.  I use quotation marks because it really isn't much of one, less than ten (but growing!)  I'm not even that into Christmas, either.  I guess there's just something about the combination of vinyl and Jesus' birthday.  Once in a while something magical happens!  Something like...
Of course, I had to include something from the Carpenters' Christmas album.  I listened to it for the first time the other day, and I discovered a tune that was suitably morose and over-orchestrated, and a little disturbing--just the kind of thing you'd want on a Christmas album (at least one that the Carpenters were doing).   It left me chuckling and shaking my head in wonder, once again.


People! In honor of the holiday season, we bring you Volume 5 of Snap, Crackle & Pop, our annual all-vinyl compilation, an ever-deepening exploration of the dusty, dated and teetering record collections that haunt and delight our lives. Everything you will hear on this collection is the result of a diamond-tipped stylus entering an inscribed modulated spiral groove on a specially-lathed disc of polyvinyl chloride. It is of the highest possible fidelity known to mankind. These songs arrive to your ears via the attics and garages of our ancestors, from assorted record stores, stoop sales, junk shops and library giveaways of the northeastern United States, and also from eBay (as far away as Australia). All 24 were lovingly selected during hundreds of hours of inquiry by our dedicated researchers. Brothers and Sisters, we wish you a very merry holiday season and, as always, "good listening.”

Here is the ZIP file of SNAP, CRACKLE & POP, which will require a few minutes to download and unpack into 24 mp3 files, but which will bring a LIFETIME of aural joy. And here is a PDF of the CD cover, for printing and insertion into the CD jewel case of your choice. Finally, herewith is the list of treasures you'll soon hear.

Every Now and Then - Bobby Peterson (Atlantic Records 45" Single, 1962)
I'm Satisfied - Bee Gees (Spirits Having Flown, 1979)
People Used To - Donovan (Open Road, 1970)
I'm So Young - The Beach Boys (Today!, 1965)
Drop the Pilot - Joan Armatrading (Track Record, 1983)
The Long and Winding Road - Ray Charles (Volcanic Action of My Soul, 1971)
Children - Joe South (Don't It Make You Want to Go Home, 1969)
Child of Mine - Carole King (Writer, 1970)
Wasted Days and Wasted Nights - Freddy Fender (Before the Next Teardrop Falls, 1974)
Captain Kennedy - Neil Young (Hawks & Doves, 1980)
American Squirm - Nick Lowe (Labour of Lust, 1979)
Vincent Van Gogh - Jonathan Richman (Rockin' and Romance, 1985)
Thank You - Bonnie Raitt (Bonnie Raitt, 1971)
Don't Walk Away - Electric Light Orchestra (Xanadu Original Soundtrack, 1980)
Girls Can Tell - The Dixie Cups (Red Bird 45" B-side, 1964)
Anything for My Baby - Kiss (Dressed to Kill, 1975)
Out of Left Field - Percy Sledge (The Best of Percy Sledge, 1969)
Secret - Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (Crush, 1985)
Long Way Round - Gerry Rafferty (Can I Have My Money Back?, 1971)
I Love You - Eddie Holman (I Love You, 1970)
Call It a Day - Rab Noakes (Rab Noakes, 1980)
Little Kings of Rock and Roll - The Revelers (Pioneering the Future With... 7" single, 1998)
Motel With No Phone - John Anderson (John Anderson 2, 1981)
Sherry Darling - Bruce Springsteen (The River, 1980)

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

It’s a Gas

I guess everybody who grew up in the 70s had a cousin who was way into Cat Stevens. If you’re “troubled” by Cat Stevens, this little video clip won’t help matters. It comes from a live concert, not too long before he converted to Islam. It’s worth watching because you can see clear flashes of rage and frustration in Stevens’ eyes during some of the between-song banter, and I think he even has a hissy fit at one of his roadies for not setting his mic at the right angle or not having a flower on his stand somewhere on this video. Anyway, he reveals himself to be a certain sad, lamentable character type: the malevolent hippie. Someone so torn up by inner anger that he has to resort to this sort of cartoon antithesis of his true nature in an attempt to hide themselves from themselves and everyone else. I’ve known several of these guys. They try, perhaps admirably, to conceal their violent and aggressive tendencies under a veneer of stoner laidbackness, but it’s a transparent sham. They want to strangle and beat people, and they can’t face up to it. I’m not saying that Cat Stevens was all those things, just that you can see in his face that the hippie ethos wasn’t working for him. Perhaps Islam was a better fit. More structure.

I don’t even really want to spoil this little clip for you. JP and I sprung it on Lefty one night, and I think it may have scarred him.

"Banapple Gas" - Cat Stevens (live video)

Ok, if you endured that, you deserve some sort of reward. Here's a Cat Steven's treat. This is old, pre-beard, back when Cat was a swinging London dandy. The production is beautiful, and, of all the versions of this song, I'd have to say that Cat Steven's (he who wrote it) is the bestest.

No disrespect to Rod Stewart, who seems to get a lot of unnecessary disrespect.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Artist Formerly Known as Cat Stevens

     Cat Stevens is one of those artists whose music I associate with childhood.  There was a period when my older siblings would play his records all the time, and a lot of his songs still resonate with me today. I always wonder about the music I heard and played when I was a kid--whether I still like some of it today just because of the memories that are intertwined with it.  I'm sure I wouldn't feel the same about it if I hadn't heard it until the onset of so-called adulthood.  I think that especially holds true for the Cat.  His music always reminds me of some cousins of ours who had a house in the Adirondacks--I think they were the ones who "turned on" my two older sisters to him.  I remember them driving a huge green pre-SUV, a Chevy Suburban perhaps, with Grateful Dead bumper stickers on it--very mysterious and a little scary to a highly impressionable eight-year-old boy growing up in rural seclusion.  For a few years in the late '70s we would visit them in the summertime, and they would come and see us in Vermont during the winter holidays.  The older ones would smoke pot and drink Jack Daniel's with my sisters up in their room--I have a vague memory of one sister coming down to the living room and sitting in a blissed-out fog while my cousins' dad apologized to mine for his sons' less-than-benign influence.  I think I drank champagne for the first time with them at one of our New Year's parties.  I'm pretty sure there's a group photo somewhere, taken at the house in the Adirondacks, in which someone is holding up a Cat Stevens album.  One summer their cat had some kittens, and we took one home--and named it Cat Stevens, of course.  We already had one cat, a male named Toddy, and I don't think the kitten was fully weaned, because we soon noticed that Cat Stevens was sucking on Toddy--and it wasn't on one of his nipples.  (I guess you could call that kitty porn).  I can't remember what ended up happening to Cat Stevens the kitten, but Toddy lived to a ripe old age, without the benefit of any more feline blow-jobs (as far as I know).
     I got a little excited the other day because I finally listened to the song that Dolly Parton did with Yusuf Islam, as he's now known (it's a cover of "Where Do the Children Play").  My excitement was soon replaced by a feeling of disappointment.  Islam doesn't even sing on it--he only plays acoustic guitar, which hardly even counts.  I was hoping for some kind of east-Tennessee-meets-former-West-End-pop-singer-turned-Muslim musical summit.  It was not to be.  "Where Do the Children Play" is one of my favorite Cat tunes, and I'm posting the original instead of Dolly's version because although I'm a big fan I still have to say hers is pretty cringe-worthy.  I'm also including an early oddity called "Come On Baby (Shift That Log)".  Besides the great title, it's got this nicely incongruous stylistic identity crisis--one minute acoustic guitars and strings, the next a Stax-style soul groove.  
     Even though the fact that the artist Cat Stevens ended up transforming himself into the Muslim Yusuf Islam is sort of sad and problematic to me, I still grudgingly respect him for his earnestness and honesty.  It's true, you can't really listen to some of the songs anymore, but even "Peace Train" sounds pretty good in an era of seemingly endless war.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Aboriginal Trenchtown Garage Soul

We made a little discovery here last week at the northernmost branch of the Driftwood network. Dewey Dell and Lefty had headed into the snow for a snap caucus. Shepherds pie was made and eaten, bottles of Chimay were uncorked and emptied, tumblers of Knob Creek filled and re-filled. Lefty and I stepped into the frigid night to get the sting on our face, get the heart pumping. Vinyl was spun, top-secret CDs played.

The discovery was a small one, but in our musty, tea-stained little world, it was sort of like when the yard-sale fanatic realizes he’s purchased a framed jigsaw puzzle that actually has a draft of the Constitution pasted to the backing. Or the museum clerk who dusts off an old canvas in the storage room only to find a Velasquez study. Or it was the scene in the legal thriller where there’s a montage of everyone cramming for the big case, eating Chinese take-out, struggling against the odds and the clock, and a breakthrough is made; crucial documents are unearthed in the stacks of manilla folders. Or maybe it’s just more like the guy who thinks he’s out of smokes and then rejoices when he realizes there’s still one left in the pack before he throws it out.

As you know, we get all worked up about the Bee Gees here. Just about any period of their music is cause for windy hyperbole and extended verbal groping. We’ve posted from Trafalgar, Odessa, Mister Natural, the disco era and more. And so, after a night of festivities, the next morning Lefty and I were kicking some vinyl about, mostly trying to minimize the throbbing in our heads. I was going through my Bee Gees collection to see if I had anything that Lefty was missing. And I put on side two of Rare, Precious and Beautiful. It was on low.

What do you call this? Aboriginal blue-eyed Trenchtown garage soul? We were thoroughly stumped. There are places where the entire sonic spectrum sounds like it could have been generated from the metallic plinking of teensy-weensy tines on some music box. Listen to "Monday’s Rain." The apotheosis of vocal vibrato. The pinched highs, the nasal trills, the chest-exploring lows. Acrobatic falsetto, saved for the very end. Then, the tin-can percussion and quasi-balalaika on "Jingle Jangle." And "Born a Man" with its dada pygmy scat outro and little twist of misogyny. These songs are like Russian dolls, with scooped-out hollowed centers save for the miniature reproductions of themselves inside.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Darn Good Question

     First of all, any album cover that features the artist seated at a table wearing a suit and tie and holding a bottle of beer says to me that something good is within.  (That might even be the legendary Tootsie's Orchid Lounge--note the graffti).  Secondarily, it seems to me that being a Charlie Walker fan is somewhat akin to rooting for the underdog--sorta like being a Red Sox fan, back before they started winning all those World Series.  But let's be honest.  This song is "Heartaches by the Number" by any other name, and I'm fairly certain that it was recorded after Ray Price became a big star with his hardcore honky-tonk sound.  Now then: that raises two issues.  One, that originality is not an issue when it comes to country & western music.  Melodies, themes, and lyrics are used, re-used & abused time after time.  And two, Price eventually abandoned that classic "Heartaches" sound in favor of a smoother "countrypolitan" style, whereas Mr. Walker did not.  So if you're a traditionalist, your sensibilities will make you gravitate towards the songs of Charlie.  And if you're a Driftwood Singersist, who the hell knows what you'll be listening to tomorrow?
     At any rate, it's a question that the wife and I often pose to one another.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

It's A Thin Line

     If you're like me (and who isn't?), your curiosity is piqued when you see a song with the title "I Hate You".  And if said song happens to be sung by Ronnie Milsap, then your curiosity quickly mutates into an overwhelming urge to hear it.  Then, upon hearing said song (again, if you're like me) you feel pleased.  It's a good country song with a punk title.  I didn't have any inclination to listen to Milsap until an early song of his appeared on one of those great Oxford American compilations.  I'm including that tune as well, 'cause it's a surprisingly decent slice of white r&b from a guy who later became known for a style that's, um, a little different.  He lets loose with a good healthy scream towards the end--listen for it.  I didn't think he had it in him, either.

The French Girl Connection

I’m going through a wannabe-Canadian stretch. It started when I picked up a two-LP Best of Ian and Sylvia set recently. Then, last week, I stopped in at an anomalous local Canadian-American diner and had both poutine (fries topped with cheese curds and gravy – the signature French-Canadian junk food) and creton (head cheese) for the first time. I haven’t dusted off my Margaret Atwood books or anything, but it’s coming close. I think a bottle of Maudite is in order.
Canadians hold a special place in the Driftwood cosmos – Leonard Cohen, Buffy St. Marie, Gordon Lightfoot, Rick Danko, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bryan Adams, Rush, Tegan & Sara, Feist, Black Mountain, they all have the mass to generate gravitational pull. My relationship with Ian and Sylvia is a little more complicated; I feel like an abused spouse when it comes to I & S. We had something once, but every time I go back looking for the spark of love, I get wounded, or else I’m left wondering what was there to begin with.

For a group seemingly renowned for their paired voices, the vocal harmonies are awfully peculiar – more a distracting tugging apart than a coming together. The way Sylvia’s singing fails to match up with Ian’s – more in a tonal, harmonic sense than in a rhythmic, phrasing one – reminds me of color separation in poorly done printing. It’s like the yellow bleeds out around the edge and overrides the red, or you can plainly see the two component parts instead of the other third color they’re supposed to make. Even that effect has its fans.

I posted Gene Clarke’s superior version of Ian and Sylvia’s "The French Girl" not long ago. I mentioned that Dylan and the Dead had allegedly rehearsed that tune when they were playing together in 80s. What I hadn’t realized was that Dylan also recorded versions of "The French Girl" during the Basement Tapes sessions (The Genuine Basement Tapes Vol. 5). On the Dylan disc, "The French Girl" comes right after "Four Strong Winds," another Ian and Sylvia tune, so he must have been having a I & S mini set. The inclusion of "The French Girl" on the Basement Tapes, which were used as demos for songs that lots of other artists covered, makes me wonder if Gene Clarke got the idea to cover the Ian and Sylvia based on hearing the Dylan versions. No telling. But it does sound like Clarke lifted the bass figure from the Ian and Sylvia version, which was arranged, incidentally, by Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals (oddball side note: Ian and Sylvia’s 1970 cult country rock album/band The Great Speckled Bird was produced by Todd Rundgren; and I think there’s not-so-great bonus footage of them on the DVD of Festival Express).

"The French Girl" - Ian & Sylvia

"The French Girl" - Bob Dylan