Saturday, December 31, 2011

Song #69 of 9999 - Scalinatella by Mike Patton

Song #69 of 9999

Title: Scalinatella
Artist: Mike Patton
Year: 2010
: Mondo Cane


Okay, it's New Year's Eve so maybe no-one will be paying attention, but I must still post! Yesterday's Italian song by Quartetto Cetra got some nice positive attention so I thought I follow up with a recording that came out 65 years later but comes from the same tradition. 

Mike Patton is, most famously, the lead singer of the funk-metal band Faith No More. But his career has taken him to some unusual places for a rock singer, including collaborations with avant garde composer John Cage (oops, I meant Zorn, not Cage), voiceover work for video games, and singing in an "operatic piece" in Bologna, Italy. While living in Italy, Patton became fluent in Italian and, around 2007, began working with a 30-piece orchestra performing Italian songs from the 50s and 60s.

"Scalinatella" (the "little staircase"), written in 1951 by Roberto Murolo, is sung in a Neapolitan dialect and tells the story of a love lost to another man, the protagonist imploring the staircase:

Scalinatèlla                                      narrow stairs
saglie ‘ncielo                                    go up to heaven
o scinne a mare                               or go down to the bottom of the sea
cercammélla                                    look for her
trovammélla,                                    find her,
pòrtame a chella                              bring her to me
sciaguratèlla!                                   that foolish little girl!

By all accounts I've read, Patton nailed the dialect, apparently no easy feat for a non-native Italian speaker. This typifies the kind of dedication he pours into his work and why he is so revered as an artist.

By the way, I usually only post studio recordings, but this live recording from a concert in Amsterdam may actually be better than the original recording so I thought I'd make an exception.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Song #68 of 9999 - Crapa Pelada by Quartetto Cetra

Song #68 of 9999

Title: Crapa Pelada
Artist: Quartetto Cetra
Year: 1945
: I Successi Del Quartetto Cetra

Okay, I'm tired of posting Christmas songs so that's done. Starting January 1, a year-long project! Each week will be devoted to a specific year, starting with 1960. However, so as to not get bogged down in a decade that some people don't like, I will go through the years like this: 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, 1961, 1971, and so on. The last week of the year will be set aside for the best songs of 2012. Sound good? Great, I'm glad we're all in agreement.

I'm currently obsessed with the show Breaking Bad. I have two more episodes to go before being completely caught up and I only started watching it two weeks ago! (There are 45 episodes total.) One of the characters in the show (Gale, a methamphetamine-making chemist) was playing the song "Crapa Pelada" (translation: "Bald head") by the Italian vocal group Quartetto Cetra while he prepared a meal, singing along with pinpoint precision to the rapid-fire staccato delivery of the Italian lyrics. It was one of my favorite moments in a show full of favorite moments, the song serving to masterfully define the character in about sixty seconds without dialog or even much action. Very clever use of a fun song I had never heard before. Hope you like it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Songs #66 & 67 of 9999 - Snow Miser Song/Heat Miser Song from The Year Without a Santa Claus

Songs #66 & 67 of 9999

Title: Snow Miser Song/Heat Miser Song
Artist: Rankin/Bass
Year: 1974
TV Show
: The Year Without a Santa Claus

I was talking to some friends at work the other day who were unfamiliar with my favorite Rankin/Bass Christmas show The Year Without a Santa Claus. One reason I love it so much is because of these guys: The Snow Miser and The Heat Miser, sons of Mother Nature who hate each other for obvious reasons. Whatever drugs Rankin and Bass were taking in the early 70s were the right ones because this stuff is hilarious to a little kid and I was six when this show aired (although I can't be certain I saw it that first year--who knows?) Not much more to say than that; I'll let these guys do the talking. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Song #65 of 9999 - Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses

Song #65 of 9999

Title: Christmas Wrapping
Artist: The Waitresses
Year: 1981
Album: A Christmas Record

This may be considered a guilty pleasure song. I'm not sure—do other people hate it? I have a soft spot in my heart for The Waitresses. (I have a soft spot in my heart for actual waitresses too, but that's kind of irrelevant.) While not as cool as "I Know What Boys Like," "Christmas Wrapping" a pretty good track. I love the flat delivery of singer Patty Donahue and the "we're not quite over disco" style of the backing band. I like how the horn riff is so off-beat, both figuratively and literally. I also like the double meaning of "wrapping," continuing the tradition of other early-80s white-girl "raps" like Blondie's "Rapture." Anyway, that's about all I have to say about this song. Three more days of Christmas songs I guess...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Songs #63 & 64 of 9999 - It's TWOsday!

Song #63 of 9999                                                Song #64 of 9999

Title: Happy Xmas (War is Over)                       Title: Wonderful Christmas Time
Artist: John & Yoko/The Plastic Ono Band        Artist: Paul McCartney
Year: 1971                                                           Year: 1979
Album: N/A - single release only                        Album: N/A - single release only

It's TWOsday and I'm breaking out two Christmas-time singles that are likely well-known to anyone reading this blog. (Is anyone reading this blog?) If ever there were two songs placed side-by-side to exemplify just how different John Lennon and Paul McCartney are (or certainly were by the time The Beatles had disbanded), these would be the ones.

Lennon's penchant for expressing personal, often intimate, feelings in his music, along with his use of the pop music medium to bring attention to social issues that concerned him, forms the core of his solo work in its entirety. His devotion to the anti-war cause saturates his 1971 Christmas song, which is really a protest song against the Vietnam War set in the context of a holiday that his audience (the American public ostensibly) considers the happiest time of the year. If this song, with its anthemic chorus, didn't motivate you to speak out against the war or grasp that it is within the power of the people to affect foreign policy ("War is over if you want it"), then nothing will. I realize we live in different times, but is there anyone in the pop music world today who could stir the masses the way John Lennon (and, to be fair, a few others—especially Bob Dylan) could?

Certainly not Paul McCartney. His "Wonderful Christmas Time" is insanely catchy but has zero substance. "The moon is right/The spirit's up/We're here tonight/And that's enough." Ding dong. Was there ever an artist more ready for the carefree 80s? Hey, I'm not a grinch, but if we're going to compare the output of Lennon and McCartney post-Beatles, I'll take Lennon's uneven, often dated, collection over McCartney's beautiful melodies and angelic voice supporting mindless lyrical pap any day.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Song #62 of 9999 - Sister Winter by Sufjan Stevens

Song #62 of 9999

Title: Sister Winter
Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Year: 2006
Album: Songs for Christmas

One of the things that makes Sufjan Stevens insufferable at times is his bent toward incorporating his Christian beliefs into his music. On the other hand, it probably makes him the perfect person to release a Christmas album, n'est-ce pas?

What began as an annual tradition of handing out a CD full (well, half-full) of interesting and unique arrangements of Christmas classics coupled with original Christmas-themed songs turned into the 2006 box set Songs for Christmas. The box contains five EPs collected over the course of six years (he took a year off while making Illinoise) that had heretofore only been heard by close friends and family. The set is uneven but there are several gems and one can easily get a sense of the time and care that went into producing these gifts.

"Sister Winter" features a spare arrangement of pulsing piano quarter notes, string glissandi and guitar arpeggios supporting a plaintive vocal. The chorus delivers delicate falsetto harmonies that float above each repetition of the chorus. The gradual crescendo, spread across nearly four minutes, culminates in a very satisfying manner with a brass choir singing in support of Stevens's wish for a happy Christmas. A favorite detail of mine is the final chord ringing in the "wrong" key long after the song has faded away.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Song #61of 9999 - Christmas Song by The Raveonettes

Song #61 of 9999

Title: Christmas Song
Artist: The Raveonettes
Year: 2001
Album: N/A - single release only

Yesterday, I criticized TJ Maxx for their terrible "shopper-friendly" mix of music. To be honest, it actually improves at Christmas time because there's less Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow. But I must admit that yesterday they got me good by playing this song by The Raveonettes that I had never heard before. Thanks to Shazam, I was able to get the name and artist and voilà!—you're reading about it in my blog.

So how did the Raveonettes manage to elude me for more than a decade? After all, they won the 2001 Best Rock Album DENMARK. Regardless, they have a twee sound marked by Everly Brothers-esque harmonies and spare arrangements that seems perfectly suited to the melancholy Christmas song. With "Christmas Song," they employ the tried and true I-vi-IV-V progression, evoking instant recognizability even from first-time listeners. The gentle vocals are made ever warmer with loads of clingy reverb and nothing in the arrangement is wasted, with every guitar string bend and staccato tick placed perfectly with loving care. A new favorite of mine, I hope you enjoy it too. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Song #60 of 9999 - Thanks for Christmas by Three Wise Men (XTC)

Song #60 of 9999

Title: Thanks for Christmas
Artist: Three Wise Men (XTC)
Year: 1983
Album: N/A - single release only

It's Christmas time and we're all being bombarded with 600 versions of "The Christmas Song" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" or whatever. I know there are some REALLY bad pop music Christmas songs out there (and apparently you can hear them all at TJ Maxx), but there are also some very good ones. My goal this week (and probably next) is to give you an original Christmas song a day (no covers) that maybe you've never heard or haven't heard in a really long time or maybe you've heard it but didn't know who it was or....well, you get the idea.

One of my favorites is "Thanks for Christmas" by XTC, but released under the pseudonym Three Wise Men. Released around the same time as Mummer, it has received approximately the same amount of attention as all other XTC singles: almost none. Also, like a lot of what XTC do (does?), it is so distinctly English with its piccolo trumpet solo and crotales (or whatever they are). I love that the song has a chorus in a different key than the verse and there are some clever little touches in the arrangement. The chorus is itself an excellent use of melodic diminution as the same melody is reduced rhythmically by half not one but twice in succession. If I had one complaint, it would be that the bridge is unsatisfying, but it does set up the key change to the last chorus nicely and it's Christmas so I shouldn't complain. Thanks for "Thanks for Christmas," XTC!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Song #59 of 9999 - (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding by Elvis Costello & The Attractions

Song #59 of 9999

Title: (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding
Artist: Elvis Costello & The Attractions 
Year: 1978
Album: Armed Forces

Recently caught Wilco at Meriweather Post Pavilion and was treated to a fine opening acoustic set from songwriter Nick Lowe. Lowe began singing "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and my friend Erik and I just kind of looked at each other blankly and asked "Why's he doing a cover of this Elvis Costello song?" What made it even more weird was he had just played a cover of Costello's "Allison" and we had to kind of remind ourselves that this was Nick Lowe and he had a gigantic catalog of songs and what's going on? I even thought for a moment that maybe Elvis Costello was going to surprise us all by walking out on stage, but that would have been a pretty brash move for an opening act.

A couple of clicks on my phone later, Erik and I were astounded to learn that the song wasn't written by Costello at all and that (surprise, surprise) it was a Nick Lowe concoction. Which brings me to tonight's cover that improves on the original. Go hunt down the 1974 Lowe version, released originally under the band name Brinsley Schwarz, and you'll find that the arrangements are almost identical: the same tempo, the same jangly guitar, the same drumbeat (excepting the chorus) and Lowe does an acceptable job with the lead vocal. But the song gets bogged down by the outdated message, coming across as naïve and precious in the post-Vietnam era. Just four years later, when Costello releases his version (subsequently produced by Nick Lowe), punk has arrived and Costello's anthem is laced with as much irony as his stage name and Buddy Holly glasses. Musically, the lush harmonies and syncopated drums in the chorus of the original are replaced with the now-familiar wail of Costello and the persistent driving backbeat of The Attractions. It's a great song (in either version, really) and a perfect catalyst for Costello's post-punk ascent.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Song #58 of 9999 - Heaven by DJ Sammy & Yanou featuring Do

Song #58 of 9999

Title: Heaven
Artist: DJ Sammy & Yanou featuring Do 
Year: 2001
Album: Heaven

When you're married and you share an iTunes account, you get to hear all kinds of music you never dreamed of (assuming your spouse is cool). My ex has very good, and quite eclectic, taste in music and I was lucky enough to be around occasionally when she was blasting stuff that was awesome, annoying, old, new, terrible, wonderful--there was a lot of it and she filled in some gaps for me. "Heaven" by DJ Sammy & Yanou featuring Do may not be the definitive proof that she has good taste, but I grew to like it and I think it is an infinitely better use of the material than the schlocky Bryan Adams original. Being completely out of the loop as far as this song is concerned, it could be that everyone has heard it to the point of being sick of it (especially my friends in the UK where it apparently spent a lot of time at the top of the pop charts), but if you have only heard it a dozen times or so, it's quite refreshing. So here's to ex-wives and being in the dark where über-popular dance music is concerned!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Song #57 of 9999 - Respect by Aretha Franklin

Song #57 of 9999

Title: Respect
Artist: Aretha Franklin
Year: 1967
Album: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You

Continuing with the theme of covers that improve upon the originals, I believe I have one that will even pass the test of purists: "Respect" by Aretha Franklin. Otis Redding's RnB classic was released in 1965, achieving top 40 status and helping to establish Stax Records as a real force in the world of black music. Franklin's version catapulted her to superstardom, earned her a Grammy, went to number 1 on the "white" music charts and became the soundtrack for the women's liberation movement in America.

Not unlike Frank Sinatra with "My Way" and Whitney Houston with "The Greatest Love of All," Aretha Franklin assumed ownership of "Respect" in a way few song interpreters are capable. Certainly, the arrangers did their part with smart horn writing, clever backing vocals and additional lyrics spelling it out for us both figuratively and literally. But it's the voice that cinches the "crime" that prompted Otis Redding to say "that little girl done stole (it) from me." The world had never heard anyone quite like Aretha Franklin and, although there have been many imitators in the ensuing decades, her rendition of "Respect" stands as a singular pop music achievement.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Songs #55 & 56 of 9999 - It's TWOsday!

Songs #55 of 9999                          Song #56 of 9999

Title: China Girl                             Title: China Girl
Artist: Iggy Pop                              Artist: David Bowie
Year: 1977                                      Year: 1983
Album: The Idiot                            Album: Let's Dance

 So yesterday, I decided to post Jeff Buckley's brilliant cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and then impulsively posted to Facebook that all this week I would feature "covers that improve on the original." Almost immediately, I was chastised by my good friend Paul who said Buckley's version was not an improvement and they both have their merits. Faced with another opportunity to get yelled at, I planned to post a couple of Lou Reed covers which would most certainly result in people calling me crazy.

But while searching for Bowie's version of "White Light/White Heat," I discovered much to my surprise that his 1983 hit "China Girl" is actually a cover of a 1977 Iggy Pop recording. Bowie had written the song for Pop to sing and then recorded it later for his Let's Dance LP. I know I miss stuff sometimes, but I was absolutely astonished to learn this. But surely, the Bowie version is better, right?

I love the David Bowie version of this song, especially the vocal performance, the bass line, Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar solo, the keyboard tracks, well, everything--it's a perfect pop record. But the Iggy Pop version is fascinating. Noisy guitars, detuned bells, a similar but less certain vocal--it's really enthralling. The part that begins "I stumble into town..." is downright frightening. A stunning raw complement to Bowie's polished gem.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Song #54 of 9999 - Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley

Song #54 of 9999

Title: Hallelujah
Artist: Jeff Buckley
Year: 1994
Album: Grace

Among the YouTube comments for this Leonard Cohen cover is the following: "I forget everything.. for 6:54 mins, EVERY TIME." Seems about right. Many have covered this incredibly poignant and simple song, from John Cale (whose version inspired Buckley's cover) to k.d. lang, but I don't think any comes close to matching Buckley's fervent rendition which occupies a higher place for me than even the original. Buckley's guitar work is as mesmerizing as his voice and one cannot help but hear the song as a prescient lamentation to his untimely death, which makes it all the more plaintive. A beautiful interpretation of an extraordinary song.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Song #53 of 9999 - Desire Be Desire Go by Tame Impala

Song #53 of 9999

Title: Desire Be Desire Go
Artist: Tame Impala
Year: 2010
Album: Innerspeaker

While in London recently, I went into about a half-dozen record stores looking for vinyl I can't find in the United States. I didn't really find anything but I did hear this band playing in one of the joints. I thought it must be some late 60s psychedelia band that I missed; everything about it said it was old. I asked the guy behind the counter and found out it came out last year(!) and was by a band with a name that it VERY DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND WHEN SPOKEN BY AN ENGLISHMAN. Thankfully, the guy spelled it out for me: I-M-P-A-L-A. Tame Impala.

I wrote it down, figuring I'd just buy it in the States and avoid risking damage on the flight. Well, guess what--no vinyl in the US. Ordered from someone in Scotland and it arrived yesterday. After one spin, the whole album isn't blowing me away like this song did, but I think it will grow on me the way my other UK find (Atlanta-based Deerhunter) did last year. Many have commented on how much the lead singer of this Australian band sounds like Lennon, but in this track he seems to be doing his best George impression. I love everything about this song, but especially the fuzzy guitar, 6/4 time and tempo change in the chorus. The transition back to the verse after the first chorus is terrific. Here's hoping you hadn't heard this before and are sufficiently intrigued.

The video, by the way, is not official but seems to be in the spirit of the tune. Not sure about the Beatles clip at the end but it doesn't detract. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Song #52 of 9999 - Pitseleh by Elliott Smith

Song #52 of 9999

Title: Pitseleh
Artist: Elliott Smith
Year: 1998
Album: XO

I feel a little bit like Elliott Smith has been forgotten. Unlike most artists who die too young, his music seems to have gone out of fashion rather than being immortalized. Perhaps I just overestimate his initial popularity? Maybe, but I think it has more to do with the complexity of his songs. They're not easy in any way. Even those that appeared on his earliest albums, which give the illusion of being simple due to the low fidelity and stripped-down arrangements, are complex musically and personal to the point of making you feel like you're eavesdropping.

I was going to post "Independence Day," which has the type of snaking chromatic chord progression that defined Smith's unique style. But the song that really grabbed my attention this morning while listening to XO for the first time in many months was "Pitseleh." Some of the lyrics in this song destroy me every time I hear them. When he says "I'm so angry/I don't think it'll ever pass," it must resonate with anyone who's ever struggled against their emotions. Truly one of the saddest songs I've ever heard, it can wreck you if you're in the right/wrong frame of mind.

Song #51 of 9999 - Let My Love Open the Door by Pete Townshend

Song #51 of 9999

Title: Let My Love Open the Door
Artist: Pete Townshend
Year: 1980
Album: Empty Glass

I had this song stuck in my head a bit today. I really like it a lot--it's a very simple idea with an equally simple little chord progression. The backing vocals seem to represent an early 80s trend among aging rockers to bring back the doo-wap style vocals of the 50s (see also: John Lennon's "Starting Over"). But the half-time middle section is reminiscent of the dramatic music of the Who's rock opera period. Much more reserved, but in the same ballpark.

That's all I've got to say tonight. Getting to this late and very tired. Enjoy the song!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Song #50 of 9999 - Magic Hour by Fruit Bats

Song #50 of 9999

Title: Magic Hour
Artist: Fruit Bats
Year: 2003
Album: Mouthfuls

It's funny how some songs work their way into our lives. I cannot for the life of me remember how or when I heard this song. It seems like the kind of thing that would show up in some Zach Braff movie or something, but I think I only think that because the song references the Garden State and Zach Braff made a movie called Garden State with a soundtrack featuring The Shins who are obliquely connected to Fruit Bats.

So regardless of how this song found me, I was instantly hooked by this opening stanza:

I'll wait till I see a cloud
Shaped like the Garden State
And little stars are cars at turnpike gates
And the moon is Delaware

This is the kind of lyric that not only paints a picture in your head but it evokes a specific feeling. Like being in a Zach Braff movie and you're laying on the ground next to some girl looking up at the sky (in this scenario, you are Zach Braff) and talking about your fears and the future. But then the song gets even better when the chorus somehow uses a transitional Bb chord to magically modulate from C to D. It's a really cool and surprising progression made even more clever by the waltz-like syncopation in the drums upon arriving in D. Supremely clever and understated.

Zach Braff would have been so proud.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Song #49 of 9999 - I Want You Back by The Jackson 5

Song #49 of 9999

Title: I Want You Back
Artist: The Jackson 5
Year: 1969
Album: Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5

I used this song as an example of polyphonic texture in my AP Music Theory class yesterday and it just reminded me how much I love the song. One of the best bass lines ever recorded, expert production and a wonderful performance. This video is from 1971, so Michael was probably 13 at the time and clearly already had a commanding stage presence. And now I will just shut up and let you listen to the song. Don't be afraid to dance!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Songs #47 & 48 of 9999 - It's TWOsday!

Songs #47 of 9999                          Song #48 of 9999

Title: Hey Ya!                                 Title: The Way You Move
Artist: Outkast                                Artist: Outkast
Year: 2003                                      Year: 2003
Album: The Love Below               Album: Speakerboxxx

It's late so I don't have a lot of time and yes, I'm picking the hits from these albums and you've heard them a thousand times before but that doesn't make them bad. The problem is this double-LP, which is really incredible from beginning to end and will leave you constantly changing your mind about which of the two is better, is really pretty raunchy and this is a bit of a family show so you get the hits. But there are SO many good songs on this experiment gone right that I highly recommend you just get yourself a copy and listen to it like it's 2003 again.

So what's the deal with this record? The members of Outkast, an insanely talented rap duo, decided to make solo albums. Big Boi made Speakerboxxx and André 3000 made The Love Below. This type of thing usually signals the beginning of the end for bands as the individuals embark on a quest for solo accolades and new musical direction. But instead of releasing the records separately, they packaged it as a double album and released under the band name. The record went on to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, each record spawned a #1 single and the band's fan base grew exponentially.

Not coincidentally, I just placed an order for it on vinyl a few days ago. :D

Monday, December 12, 2011

Song #46 of 9999 - Mermaid Smiled by XTC

Song #46 of 9999

Title: Mermaid Smiled
Artist: XTC
Year: 1986
Album: Skylarking

As you know, I have returned to vinyl as my preferred format for audio listening. After 25 years of buying CDs and MP3s, it's kind of fun to hunt down vinyl versions of LPs I have enjoyed during the digital age and even more fun to purchase heavy-weight reissues lovingly remastered by the artists who recorded them.

By far, my favorite reissue is Skylarking by XTC, which is particularly interesting because it's probably one of the first albums I ever bought on CD back in 1986. I cannot even begin to tell you how excited we were about CDs and I feel almost the same way about this new vinyl release. There are all kinds of cool extras like banned original artwork and interviews with Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. But what's really special about this double-LP is that it spins at 45RPM and sounds amazing as a result. The bass is so crisp and present and production details I never notice before just pop right out. It's probably not even my favorite XTC album, but this release is amazing.

Likewise, "Mermaid Smiled" is not the best song on the album; in fact, it didn't even appear on the US release back in 1986. But it's one of the tracks that benefits the most from its audio makeover. The twelve-string guitar glistens and the vibes are, well, vibrant. Mid-track, the song delves into Latin bop thanks to Colin Moulding's bass and muted brass swells reminiscent of those penned by Bernard Hermann for Taxi Driver. The track is over before you know it and you want to hear it again.

Finally, one of the things I really love about this album are all the stories about how much the band hated working with Todd Rundgren, who produced the record. The liner notes of this new release go into detail about how Todd insisted on working on the tracks in order and how the band would immaturely sing mean nursery rhymes about him prior to his arrival in the studio. But also how they would realize they needed a string quartet and Rundgren would come back the next morning with a complete and perfect arrangement. It may have taken 25 years but Partridge can now admit that the album is a masterpiece of production and Rundgren was able to get something from them they didn't know they had. I just love the idea of a work of art coming from such a miserable experience.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Song #45 of 9999 - Falling Slowly by The Frames

Song #45 of 9999

Title: Falling Slowly
Artist: The Frames
Year: 2006
Album: The Cost

Started my day with some coffee, the newspaper and Mumford & Sons. The British band provides good Sunday morning music with well-paced energy and sleepy-eyed ballads. But you already know that because everyone knows Mumford & Sons, right?

So let's travel a couple hundred miles northwest and check out the Irish band that could have been Mumford & Sons if anyone was paying attention. I must admit I had never heard of The Frames until I saw Once, the 2006 movie about a Dublin busker and a Czech immigrant who develop a complicated friendship and begin writing songs together. In the movie, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are unassuming and real and, absent any physical relationship, their musical collaborations mark their most intimate moments. The movie is a favorite and the music is spectacular. Many of the songs had been previously recorded by Hansard's group The Frames and, well, we're back to where we started.

The Frames aren't likely to provide you with the choral harmonies Mumford & Sons favor on their latest record, but their melodies are stronger, Hansard is a better singer and their arrangements are top-notch. I'm pretty sure there's room on your iPod for both. :)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Song #44 of 9999 - You've Really Got a Hold on Me by The Miracles

Song #44 of 9999

Title: You've Really Got a Hold On Me
Artist: The Miracles
Year: 1963
Album:The Fabulous Miracles

In London recently, I saw a West End production of Backbeat, a new musical chronicling the early career of The Beatles, with particular attention paid to Stu Sutcliffe, the band's original bass player, and his relationship with John Lennon and Astrid Kirchherr, Sutcliffe's photographer girlfriend. I found the production to be quite enjoyable, most notably the band performances which were loud, raucous, well-performed and quite realistic. It was fun to forget that these weren't actually The Beatles circa 1962 on the Hamburg club scene.

The Beatles were covering a lot of songs from the U.S. at the time, including just about everything from Chuck Berry to girl groups to Motown. One of the songs featured in the show was Smokey Robinson's "You've Really Got a Hold On Me." The Beatles were a great cover band and they learned a lot from songs penned by other great writers. Listening to the actors singing Smokey Robinson's lyrics, I was struck by just how great they are in their simplicity.

I don't like you but I love you
Seems that I'm always thinking of you
Though you treat me badly
I love you madly
You've really got a hold on me

These lyrics are so indicative of the type of lyrics John and Paul would become so good at writing later on. There's nothing innately clever about them at all–they are simple and to the point, completely sincere and they work. When coupled with Robinson's melodies, the song becomes a masterpiece of pop. I love the way the third line takes on a bluesy lilt over 7th chords. Later, the stop-time insistence of "hold me....hold me....hold me....hold me..." elevates the song to a higher plane by adding yet another hook. It's reminiscent of the kind of repetition John would use so effectively in songs like "Please Please Me" ("Come on...come on...etc.")

I think that sometimes we believe The Beatles just appeared out of nowhere writing the best songs ever and, although they were certainly gifted, it was fun to be reminded by this musical about the great songwriters that so influenced and shaped their understanding of rock and roll.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Song #43 of 9999 - Shock the Monkey by Peter Gabriel

Song #43 of 9999

Title: Shock the Monkey
Artist: Peter Gabriel
Year: 1982
Album: Peter Gabriel ("Security")

I had been thinking lately about whether it's better to have a sound that defines or belongs to a specific time period in pop music history or whether it's better to produce songs that withstand the test of time or seem to belong to no discernible decade, even if it means limited or no commercial success. I think most of my friends would choose the latter and there is something appealing about having a legacy that remains fresh. But there are plenty of examples of artists who wrote great songs for a specific generation, then reinvented themselves for the next or faded into obscurity. I was thinking specifically about Prince, whose Purple Rain seemed absolutely brilliant in 1984 but seems so so dated now. There are a million examples of either, I'm sure, and admittedly, it's not a very deep subject, just something I've been pondering.

Which brings me to "Shock the Monkey" and much of Peter Gabriel's solo material (but not all of it). Gabriel's initial foray into dance music seems timeless to me, like it could be released tomorrow and no-one would bat an eye. This has almost everything to do with the sounds Gabriel chooses to use, as if he were able to magically filter out any sounds that were destined to be associated with the 80s. There are no DX-7's here and certainly no stock sounds that I've ever heard. That slightly detuned brass whine is cool even thirty years later. The percussiveness of Tony Levin's bass (or perhaps Chapman stick) stays fresh by avoiding the slap and pop of more in-the-moment bassists like John Taylor of Duran Duran. Even the electronic drums tend to sound bigger and fatter than anything available at the time. The production is not just ahead of its time–it truly defies the typical pop time stamp. And Gabriel's lyrics about how "jealousy can release one's baser instincts" are still weird and probably will be for some time to come.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Song #42 of 9999 - Tears Dry on Their Own by Amy Winehouse

Song #42 of 9999

Title: Tears Dry on Their Own
Artist: Amy Winehouse
Year: 2006
Album: Back to Black

Just read a review of the new posthumous release from Amy Winehouse. While it sounds like it might be okay, I don't know why anyone would spend any time listening to leftovers and cover songs when they could go back and listen to 2006's Back to Black. The album is an absolute masterpiece and, while it is obviously inspired by and borrows from 1960s soul and girl groups, it is really unlike anything else I have heard in my lifetime.

When an album is this good, it's sometimes difficult to pick a favorite track to feature, but in this case, it is so easy for me. "Tears Dry on Their Own" elicits an immediate response from me in a way few songs can. It's kind of hard to describe really. Maybe there is some nostalgia involved–the main groove is sampled from "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"–or maybe it's just that descending chromatic bassline against the wood-meets-metal rim clicks, but something magical happens as soon as the tracks begins. Then you hear the voice. The song is a perfect showcase for Winehouse's nasal lower register which resonates with regret as she tells the story of falling for a man who was only meant to be an affair. When the short little bridge at 1:36 begins with its pedal bass and rising backing vocals, you know something important is going to happen and when it comes (the word "blaze" at 1:41), it's an astonishing moment in the short and complicated career of an amazing artist.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Songs #40 & 41 of 9999 - It's TWOsday!

Songs #40 & 41 of 9999

Title: Crazy
Artists: Patsy Cline/Willie Nelson
Year: 1961/1962
Album: Showcase With the Jordonaires/And Then I Wrote


I've been making a list of themes to use for the future so I can make this blog a little more interesting and not lose the momentum I have to sustain for the next (gasp) 25 years. One of the themes I have is "Cover Songs That Are Better Than the Originals." In tonight's post, we look at two recordings of the same song, but which is the original and which is the cover? (Which is better is pretty obvious in my opinion, but I think they're both pretty great.)

Willie Nelson wrote "Crazy" in 1961 while he was trying to establish himself as a musician and composer. He had a deal with a publishing company and, like a lot of songwriters of the time, he wrote songs that were never intended to be recorded by the composer. Instead, they were shopped around to singers in the same way people now write songs for Britney Spears or Justin Bieber. It really wasn't until The Beatles came along that we began to see recording artists writing their own material as a rule.

"Crazy" was written for Patsy Kline and it is perfect for her. The soaring melody with leaps of a sixth or seventh and frequent arpeggios requires vocal strength across an octave and a half. Cline makes it sound easy, varying the dynamic level of her voice, letting it break for effect and belting when the lyrics call for it. It is a perfectly controlled performance and deserving of the accolades it brought her.

Nelson's performance came later when his songwriting fame afforded him the opportunity to make records of his own. His understated performance with occasional lapses in pitch and pseudo-spoken word has rough edges we would probably not accept from our crooners, but seems perfectly fine coming from the mouth of the composer. 

The song itself is a masterpiece--equal parts country and jazz--and Nelson's performance allows us to notice this more than Cline's, which has a tendency to mesmerize us to the point of forgetting the song could ever have belonged to anyone else. It is as much her song as "Respect" belongs to Aretha Franklin or "My Way" belongs to Sinatra.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Song #39 of 9999 - Sink to the Bottom by Fountains of Wayne

Song #39 of 9999

Title: Sink to the Bottom
Artist: Fountains of Wayne
Year: 1996
Album: Fountains of Wayne

Last night, I found out that the first Fountains of Wayne album and Utopia Parkway are being reissued on vinyl in February. I celebrated by promptly pre-ordering them. This is very exciting news because it ends my quest of trying to track down an original copy of the 1996 self-titled LP while simultaneously resisting the urge to order it from some guy in Japan who appears to have an endless supply for $69.99 plus shipping...from Japan.

I owned Fountains of Wayne for a long time before I ever seriously started listening to it. It wasn't until I heard an interview with them on Fresh Air and realized that they were trying the same kinds of songwriting tactics a friend of mine and I were (obviously with more success) and also that their songs were so damn clever. I went home, flipped through my CD collection and sure enough--there it was, practically untouched for at least a year. I popped it in my player and haven't been the same since. Although they have released a lot of great records over the last 15 years, I don't think any have captured the energy and spontaneity of their first, which propelled them to power pop icon status. In a perfect world, I would be featuring "Survival Car" or "Joe Rey" but alas, YouTube has only live versions of those tracks. Instead, you get the bizarre official video for "Sink to the Bottom." You could do worse.