Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sub-Prime Scenario

With the fundamentals of the soft-rock economy all cratered out, seeping thick plumes of sulfuric smoke, and with consumer confidence in the coke-pop sector showing signs of kamikaze-esque nose-diving, the northern branch of the Driftwood Singers Presents convened an emergency summit here at the Pioneer Valley retreat this past weekend. With one big cosmic credit-default looming, we clutched to moldy scraps of vinyl and malfunctioning strings of digital music in hopes of squeezing a drop of solace out of the justifiably forgotten jams of yesteryear. When that didn’t work, we turned to the sure-fire comforts of controlled spoilage – cheese, wine, and self-immolation (not quite controlled, but definitely spoiled). As our soul-financing team huddled in a borrowed minivan, exhaling a mix of hand-roll tobacco smoke, fumes of Belgian ale, essence of Rioja and ganja smoke, (cue Songs of Excess) the answer came to me in the form of a No Country For Old Men-style pressure-gun blast to the forehead. And then it was gone. I’ve been holding a smoldering vigil for that pearl of wisdom ever since. Going into the crisis, I’d intended so share a few soothing tidbits. It may have been only the beginning of the Big Big Bailout.

“Live For Today” has, for my money, the best “1, 2, 3, 4” in all of rock and roll – and it doesn’t even come at the start! Add to that the righteous “sha-la-la-lala” and the devastating retarded triplet business at the end, not to mention the whole reckless premise of the song, and you’ve got a mammoth achievement.

“Live For Today” – Grass Roots

Hey Dummy!

Ever since some researchers discovered that the Internet has crushed our attention spans and fostered a new kind of "reading" that causes users to "'power browse' horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins," I've decided to stop writing so many "words" and just make our readers "winners." Also, I've changed the font size for E-Z ree-ding.

1. Last weekend
The Driftwood Singers viewed "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the 1978 movie musical. No plot to speak of, but lots of satin pants and soft rock, including these two gems:

Got to Get You Into My Life - Earth, Wind & Fire

Oh! Darling - Robin Gibb

2. If like some people I know you were drunk and baked in a minivan on Saturday night while the rain poured down and the stereo blasted at top volume and someone attempted to smoke tobacco from a modified soda can, you may or may not have enjoyed these songs by the estimable New Orleans drifter par excellence,
Bobby Charles.

Street People - Bobby Charles

I must Be in a Good Place Now - Bobby Charles

3. Since you probably rejected our other posts for having more than two sentences per paragraph, you likely missed these previous entries. Too bad, because these songs are FUCKING AWESOME!*

In Terms of Two - Chicago

The Good Love - Percy Sledge

The Look of Love - Burt Bacharach

* I suspect Internet users prefer ALL CAPS F-BOMBS, so let's just watch the site meter jump, shall we?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Songs of Excess

Last night I watched the new Holy Modal Rounders documentary, Bound to Lose. Talk about cautionary tales. Acid, booze and ass, for sure, and speed and heroin thrown in to the mix as well. Beat folkie proto-punk wiseguys thumbing their nose at the Sing Out crowd, transmuting the songs of the people into prurient nut-job lullabies and sing-alongs. It’s as much Beefheart, Ween and the Butthole Surfers as it is Bob Dylan and The New Lost City Ramblers, though it’s that too. The fact that Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber are, more or less, still alive is some kind of testament to the transformative powers of substance abuse; the fact that they can still sort of rehearse and get up on stage together is a triumph of dumb flesh over self-destructive energies, time, gravity and fate. Oddly, since he’s likely the more erratic and ultimately impenetrable of the two, the film tends to delve more into the life of Weber, leaving the genius of Stampfel largely unexplained. Christgau makes a funny appearance and delivers a juicy one in championing the Rounders as the next greatest folk geniuses after Dylan: “Joan Baez …. P.U.,” he says. Another choice moment comes when the surviving members of the band get back together for a reunion tour on the West Coast. The bass player, who appears to basically be living in a bus in the foothills surrounding Portland, Oregon, stands outside of a crappy club, after a crappy soundcheck. “After the utter humiliation of it all, there are some fun times to be had,” he deadpans. Other than the tune on the Easy Rider soundtrack, the Rounders had always existed as more of a legend than actual music. I had a friend who spoke about “The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders” as the sacred text of the music we listened to. The foundational document of freak music. But I had never heard it. I guess I heard them playing along with the Fugs on one of those classic records, but I never knew it was them. It’s nice to know that they were as much of a mystery to themselves as they were to everyone else. Stampfel doesn’t quite know why they never got any cash from the royalties. Footage of the band playing on Laugh In – with Ruth Bussy goofing around, getting up in the band’s faces – is hard to believe, too. In fact, drummer Sam Shepard (yes, that Sam Shepard) doesn’t even remember the appearance.

The film announces interviews with Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, Loudon Wainwright III, Wavy Gravy and others, but the last two only show up at shows, and listen with smiles on their faces while the lunatic Weber entertains/scares them. Weber and Stampfel engage in some Dinosaur Jr. style onstage bickering, none of which is much fun to witness. But the music is so compellingly bonkers.

“Half a Mind” conveys the general spirit of the Rounders pretty well. I wanted to save it for the next Drift-a-tron battle royal, but I couldn’t hold off.

“Half a Mind” – the Holy Modal Rounders

Big Baby

     My, but this is some funky stuff.  It's got sublime horns, dirty guitar, screams (as James Brown once inquired, "Can I scream, brother?"), and it was produced by Curtis Mayfield-- 'nuff said.  Check out the picture--the muu-muu, the Picture Cook Book.  So awesome.   I love the references in "Mighty Mighty"--red beans & rice, oxtail, Thunderbird, etc.
     James Thomas Ramey, aka Baby Huey, hailed from Richmond, Indiana (see, it isn't just the land of Larry Bird and John Mellencamp). Unfortunately, he was a rock 'n roll casualty, in 1970, at the tender age of 26.  "I'm big Baby Huey, and I'm 400 pounds of soul.  I'm like fried chicken, girls, I'm finger-lickin' good."  Mmm-hmm.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Chicago Contra Chicago

I don't approve of Chicago. WAY too many horns. The whole band sounds like a warring group of hirsute session nerds who can't decide what they actually want to sound like and so end up sounding like a committee formed to preserve the idea that white folks are funky too. That said, like a lot of groups that have, like, 45 members and at least three who think they're the "genius," you get such a hodge-podge of experiments -- "let's throw this against the wall and see if it sticks" -- you're occasionally going to get something interesting. In the case of Chicago, the ones that work are typically by Peter Cetera. If you just compiled Cetera's stuff you'd probably come away with an entirely different band. So on side two of Chicago VI, from 1973, you find "In Terms of Two," which is a truly strange piece of work, an experiment in left-turn chord changes and the welding together of disparate styles, some kind of Celtic folk-rock a la Fairport Convention soldered on to some kind of mongrel country-folk pop experiment by Cetera. My friend Doug thought this sounded a lot like solo Frank Black stuff, how Black Francis likes to throw a counterintuitive chord into the mix and achieve an angular, bent quality that still sounds pop-ful. All in all, I think it's a great Chicago song, despite the presence of Chicago.

"In Terms of Two" - Chicago

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Optimist

That's what Percy Sledge is. An optimist. And I think that's why he kind of topped off and faded away: You can't stay satisfied for long and still be a "soul" man. He was courting over-happiness from the start: You'll remember that his biggest hit was basically a peon to just plain old loving a woman. I'll Be Your Everything is from 1974 and it really seems Percy Sledge's soul-man narrative arc has reached a crossroads, where he can continue the manic depressive life of the traditional soul belter -- suffering lost love in the depths of misery and then soaring high again on new love -- or he can embrace emotional health. In the traditional style, it's Jesus who is about to kill his career. He's got religion and royalties and he needs to sing it in that direction now, celebrate that. And since he's got to be true to himself, to his soul, there's something slow and attentive here, a savoring of every little guitar filigree and rim shot, like he knows this is the last declaration, some parting advice to the listener. Though it's the fourth cut on the first side, it sounds like his last song. And as it builds, the tall glassy symphonic orchestra rising, choral angels with matching golden vocal pipes like a single miraculous golden church organ, Percy Sledge is right where he's always wanted to be, right at home, the gates of heaven wide open. And where can he really go from there? The message is basically the denial of suffering through higher power. This is my theory on why you never really hear from Percy Sledge again. Sure, he could have pretended and powered through on fumes as a "suffering" soul man, become a collection of well-practiced feints and mimes that telegraph "soul." But the last message of love on the last good album by Percy Sledge may be the deepest and closest to home because he doesn't.

The Good Love - Percy Sledge

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Age of Nostalgia

“The age of recording is necessarily an age of nostalgia,” wrote Geoffrey O'Brien in his music memoir Sonata for Jukebox. It's such an obvious observation -- if it's recorded, it already happened -- and yet not something you immediately think of when you're wailing on your air guitar to Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak," is it? But in the last couple of years I've really come to embrace the idea that musical taste is basically memoir, a subtle social and personal pyramid scheme. As Stephen Metcalf, a great critic, wrote while reviewing the O'Brien book: "When anything can be made to last forever, the process is inherently deflationary -- too few lives chasing too many memories. For respite we cleave to monuments: Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles." Right, and the monuments are therefore a social handshake so that whatever bond that music created in us doesn't break apart and leave us wandering all alone with our Iron Butterfly albums (heaven forbid). The end result is you'll never run out of bands who replicate Neil Young and the Beatles. It's a canon of comfort and it's called being a conserve-a-tive.

This is all a long way of saying there's something about Burt Bacharach that I've only just begun to put my finger on lately, but it's deep. O'Brien wrote a whole essay about Bacharach and how he informed a kind of urbane, commercial lifestyle in the 60s that was embedded in advertising and TV. It seems so obvious, but I wasn't around in the 60s, so as I listen to Reach Out, an album Bacharach conducted and arranged in 1967, I realize how so much of this style -- the symphonic horn lines and cleanly executed exotica rhythms -- crept into my brain almost subliminally in the 70s and 80s. Mainly through TV theme songs and incidental "clean up in aisle five" K-Mart muzak. If I think of my music experience linearly, his sound was probably the first track laid down in a 64,000-track recording that culminates in a mix I call my "taste" -- the pop Rosetta Stone.

It took me some time to find my way to this realization, but if you listen to these songs, which I love against all good judgment, you may begin to see/hear what I'm talking about. It came to me through appreciation of 60s-era Duke Ellington, the post-rock of Air and Tortoise, the Bachrachian jazz of Ben Allison, some Dusty Springfield cuts, some early 70s Bee Gees -- but really, a whole helluva lot of things that seemed to ultimately converge at Bacharach. And I've concluded that's because Bacharach is not just the sum of his parts, but a kind of one-man pop gestalt, a cultural uber-shape that informed everything. When I hear his arrangement of "The Look of Love," I can feel the shape of my living room while watching "Barney Miller" at my father's feet, the shape of the brightly-lit aisles at Sears with my mother in the late 70s, almost touch the long lines of the boat-sized Buicks and Oldsmobiles in the parking lots outside that Sears. It's like the part of my brain that was molded in the 20th Century starts to glow in the dark, illuminating the architecture of memory -- as if it IS the architecture of memory, and the therefore subconscious cue for why I like Duke Ellington, Air, Elvis Costello and all manner of melodic pop set to lush accompaniment. Realistically, I know it's just because the Bacharach sound came to represent a polished professionalism that absorbed all styles, the pop template of all that was completely acceptable to anyone anywhere at any time. He bridged the Greatest Generation's big-band to the Boomer's groovy swing and therefore single-handedly poured the concrete on which mainstream American pop could be housed. But that's where I grew up: Inside an aural JC Penney, wandering the wide, illuminated aisles of pluralism and style and hope, the unified field of commerce set to flugel horn and cha-cha-cha.

So as the world breaks apart (like, MAJOR cleanup in aisle five) and something unrecognizable takes its place, for better or worse, it's come to this moment where I'm sitting here listening to "Bond Street" -- which is, as far as I can tell, that ridiculous song they play when Benny Hill is chasing girls about the lawn -- and I'm hearing how, wait, hold up, there are parts of this that are really great and somehow ... pure. Like, what's with that strange bent horn note at the end that races off into infinity? And how great are those leisure-wear horns on "The Look of Love"? Why do I get subtly emotional when those backup singers start up on "Reach Out to Me"? Why is it so comforting to me when that little trumpet squiggle pops up at the end? Why is that little Mary Tyler Moore piano tinkle in "Are You There (With Another Girl)" so downright tragic? Honestly, it's nostalgia. But all recordings being equal, what isn't at this point?

The Look of Love - Burt Bacharach

Reach Out to Me - Burt Bacharach

Bond Street - Burt Bacharach

Are You There (With Another Girl) - Burt Bacharach

In the course of posting this, I tripped upon this amazing blog called Malls of America, featuring vintage photos of malls, exteriors and interiors, over the last 50 years.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Affirmative Action

In the spirit of echoing Liza’s and Lefty’s Nietzschean yeasaying, I thought it would be good and fitting, in this election season, to dust off one of the golden chestnuts from the American Song-Poem Anthology. The questions, set to a syrupy disco groove, remain: Can our government be decent and honest? Jimmy Carter said yes.

“Jimmy Carter Says Yes” – Gene Marshall

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Say Yes: The Driftwood Singers Inaugeral Podcast

I don’t wanna know ‘bout wrong or right
I don’t want to know
- I’m anywhere tonight

-- Captain Beefheart

It was only a matter of time until TDSP dragged its sorry ass into the future. Truth is, it's a miracle we're even on the Internet. But now we've gone and done it: created a podcast. Actually, I did this alone without Mr. Poncho's knowledge or seal of approval, so it's a bit of a half-breed, an off-the-reservation vision quest that may or may not lead my people to the Happy Hunting Grounds. Consider it test marketing. This was created about four months ago but I let it sit in the wine cellar for a bit to see if it turned to vinegar over time. Turns out I didn't yammer on too much. In fact, I stopped talking altogether after about the fourth song and mostly just let the playlist run on and on in an imitation of free-form FM radio (a la WFMU). Eventually we'll just start recording our interplanetary space travels in the Drift-o-tron (a stationary car and select driftwood on the hi-fi), which will take you deep into the Driftwood braintrust where no one other than us should really be. And maybe not even us (grown men, supposedly). Until then, give this a test drive.


(NOTE: If you wonder what the songs are, just email us and we'll send you the playlist.)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

With the Quickness

In the words of Suzanne Somers, “I wore my green sweater today, and smiled.”
The chill is on, here in western Mass. I’ve been living in New England now for 10 years, and today I went apple picking for the first time since I’ve been up here. When I was a kid growing up in Duchess County, NY, we used to live across from acres and acres of apple orchards. We’d pick as many apples as we wanted, practically in the back yard, so the thought of making a quaint family outing of wandering around an orchard always seemed kind of weird. Next to the orchards we’d go and play in these sand and gravel holes– we called the whole place The Pits. My brother would set traps for raccoons and ground hogs, and he’d go out in the ice and snow and mud to club the poor fuckers who were left alive in the traps. Then he’d clean the pelts and get a few bucks from somebody. We were all headed for such a life of great northern redneck realities. I remember – you’ll like this – getting a BB gun for Easter one year (pretty awesome, weapons for Easter), and my brother took me out to The Pits in the snow, we set up some spent cans of spray paint at a distance and started shooting at them. I remember one of the cans, punctured by my little shiny bb, spinning, and flipping and hissing as it painted the snow red.

Lately I’ve been thinking of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos For the New Millenium. In it Calvino champions sets of opposed polar qualities – I remember he writes about the virtues of quickness and the beauty of lightness. Embedded in his argument is the equal praise for the opposite quality; quickness gains its charm in part because of the balanced appeal of slowness, likewise fizzy weightlessness and gravity. I thought of Calvino again when listening to some free MP3s I got from Light in the Attic Records. They’ve got some high life and afrobeat samplers coming out and they’re giving away a few typically long songs. The three-minute pop song has so many devout believers, but the epic jam seems like a more suspect and often-maligned endeavor. This tune by Rex Lawson isn’t quite a marathon, but boy do the slide-rule effect of piled-on coiled guitars, disorientingly relentless syncopation, and stately horns upset the temporal flow.

“Oko” – Rex Lawson and his Rivers Men