Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sing, Sing, Sing (With A Swing)

Music lovers love lists, and I am not immune to this trait. I often wile away time ranking and reranking various songs, albums, artists, etc. One such mental list I keep batting around stems from a feature Playboy ran back in 1999 where it asked musicians to rank the greatest songs of the past millennium. Though Playboy certainly meant for the songs to come from the 20th century, the British guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson, a student of musical history, took the exercise quite literally and gave songs dating back to the 11th century. Sadly, Playboy didn't use his list.

Every since I heard of this feature, I have bandied about a list in my mind. Not as broad as Thompson's, I've wondered what my list of ten songs of the past hundred years of popular music would contain. Mind you, this would not be a list necessarily of the best songs (though certainly all of them would be excellent) or of favorite songs, but of ten songs that best represent the past century of recorded popular music.

What a challenge! How many rock songs would I include? Jazz? Blues? Vocals? International? Would I include an Elvis song if I felt a Little Richard song better portrayed the raw energy of early rock? Would I include a song by the Beatles, whom I consider to be the greatest and most influencial rock group of all time, if another song of that era, say "Satisfaction", is better representative of that era? Crosby or Sinatra? Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker? The Ramones, The Clash or The Sex Pistols? Would I include anything from the past 20 years?
Obviously due to the difficulties of these questions and more, I've never been able to pin down a firm list. Multiple songs have come and gone from the list (and some have returned again). The challenge of narrowing ten representative songs is just too great, and yet one song has consistently remained on my list's many permutations:

"Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing)" by Benny Goodman

"Sing Sing Sing", recorded by Goodman in 1937, was written the prior year by the bandleader Louis Prima (quite a musical personality himself — hmmm... perhaps the subject of another blog best known today for his swing hit "Jump Jive An' Wail" and his voice of the orangutan King Louie in the 1967 Disney film The Jungle Book). Though vocal versions have been recorded by many artists including Prima, The Andrews Sisters, and Anita O'Day, it is the Goodman's instrumental version that is the most known.

The song is a high point of the swing era and just sizzles. Goodman's band at the time was a supergroup of sorts with trumpeters Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Chris Griffin (Duke Ellington called them "the greatest trumpet section that ever was"), Jess Stacy on piano, and the incomparable Gene Krupa on drums. The big band swing is followed by a number of outstanding solos including Harry James's blowing session two-thirds through followed by Goodman's fluid clarinet. At the end, Krupa, who has kept a steady tom-tom accompaniment throughout, bursts into a prolonged machine-gun roll with a power seldom seen on swing records. All in all, it's the perfect example not only of big band era swing but also of the brilliant soloing that helps define jazz. For these reasons, not to mention the irresistable groove of the song, "Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing)" has stayed on my list.

Now if only I could decided whether to put the classic 1936 original on my list or the 12-minute essential live version done at the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.

Monday, March 8, 2010


While I was watching American Idol with my family the other night, I was delighted to hear one of the early favorites, Crystal Bowersox, perform the beautiful Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Long As I Can See The Light." Creedence songs are not unknown on the Idol stage, though typically consist of poor covers of “Proud Mary” done in Tina Turner’s style. Hearing this latest performance, I was drawn to listening again to Creedence’s solid late 1960s albums. During the course of just over two years, CCR put together a string of six outstanding albums before dissolving in acrimony with a final clunker, Mardi Gras (1972).

Though originally from California, CCR’s great success was capturing a Southern style, feel-good, roots rock sound. John Fogerty, a tremendous songwriter, wrote several great socially conscious songs, although often not as directly as his San Francisco region counterparts. “Run Through The Jungle, which many associate with Vietnam, was actually a comment on gun culture. “Fortunate Son” dealt with jingoist attitudes toward the war.

One of his earliest protest songs was the bleak album closer on the generally upbeat 1969 album Willy and The Poor Boys. I’m not sure if Fogerty has ever provided a clear meaning of the cryptic lyrics. Certainly, given the era, the song title and descriptions of burning lawns brings to mind the civil rights era. Drummer Doug Clifford in a late 2009 interview for Goldmine provides a broader perspective:

“It’s so powerful, and it’s taking a shot at the powers who were running the whole mess at the time. It sort of set the tone for the following albums, I think.”

Regardless of the true meaning, the song itself sounds eerie and, despite limited lyrics, is able to stretch out its themes over six minutes. The minor key blues, the sparse twang of the bass, and Fogerty’s blistering guitar solos all contribute to an atmosphere that is haunting, probably more so than any other Fogerty song. Though “Effigy” is quite a departure from the rest of the album (which also contains “Down on the Corner,” “Fortunate Son,” and “The Midnight Special”), it is a rich piece that reflects that turbulent time and yet still unsettles listeners today.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Playlist of Years

A playlist of songs with years in the titles (and mostly with a year AS the title) leads to some interestingly different styles that actually blend nicely together. Many of these songs have an understandably nostalgic theme. I try to keep my playlists at about one hour (a good estimate for a workout or a bus commute) so obviously some songs were left out. Among the also-rans were New Order's "1963" and Patti Smith's "1959". Also given the George Orwell novel, the year 1984 had multiple candidates; I actually included two, but did omit David Bowie's "1984" (I assure you) not based on quality. I'm a tremendous Bowie fan, so I'm not too concerned as he'll appear in several future playlists I'm sure.

Playlist of Years
1) "1974" by Ryan Adams
2) "1984" by Van Halen
3) "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" by Richard Thompson *
4) "1979" by The Smashing Pumpkins
5) "1921" by The Who (off Tommy)
6) "December, 1963 (Oh What A Night)" by Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons
7) "Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman **
8) "1941" by Harry Nilsson
9) "1985" by Manic Street Preachers
10) "1970" by The Stooges ***
11) "1977" by The Clash ****
12) "1984" by Spirit
13) "1992" by Blur
14) "1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)" by Jimi Hendrix *****
15) "1999" by Prince ******

A Few Notes/Trivial Observances:
* - The synthesized instrumental "1984" (on Van Halen's album of the same name) normally transitions into the synth-opening of their hit "Jump", but here really transitions nicely into Richard Thompson's outstanding ballad of the motorcycle that brings two lovers together. This is one of my favorite Thompson songs in no small part to his incredible acoustic work.

** - Newman's song of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that ravaged Mississippi and Louisiana was made all the more poignant in the wake of the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. This song also echoes a government idleness here embodied by President Coolidge

*** - The Stooges interestingly have songs called "1969" (which appeared on their self-titled debut) and "1970" (from Funhouse)

**** - The Clash's "1977" was the B-side of their first single "White Riot" and contains that wonderful punk music lyric "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977"

***** - First of all, the transition from Spirit to the ambient noise on Blur's "1992" to Hendrix really works here. Secondly, as amazing as many of the songs on Hendrix's album Electric Ladyland are, this 13-minute song may indeed be the album's masterpiece, a perfect (and trippy) synthesis of acid-fueled psychedelia, blues and hard rock.

****** - Prince's "1999". Well, duh...even I can't avoid the obvious choices :)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Buy This Next! - Otis Redding Edition

Buy This Next! essentially lists an artist’s key albums in order of how I’d recommend them for acquisition. Perhaps, you’ve heard a couple of songs from an artist or own a greatest hits package; then, try the first album listed. Maybe you own the first two albums listed already; then, try the third album. In a way, I suppose, one could interpret this as a best of-list or a ranking of quality, but such lists tend to elicit such strong emotions (“How dare you rank Revolver above Sgt. Pepper’s! Pistols at dawn, you upstart!”). I mean these lists purely as an exercise in how I would purchase the artist’s albums if I were first getting into that artist. As always, I’d love to hear other’s opinions too

In this age of auto-tuned excesses, it’s a perfect time to revisit the purity of the early soul/R&B singers. Aside from Sam Cooke, no voice mastered the nuances of soul as much as the great Otis Redding. So many greatest hits albums have been released of Redding’s music, but turning to his original albums provides some wonderful listening. In a way, Redding is an easy artist to begin the “Buy This Next!” feature, as he never put out a poor album during his all-too-brief life. Gems can be found on all of them.

Otis Blue – the obvious first choice (though not necessarily my favorite; see #2). Otis Blue is the album that makes all the best-of lists, as it contains “Respect” (written by Redding, though the Aretha Franklin version is most known) and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. It also contains Otis’ frenetic cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” and the tremendous opener “Ole Man Trouble”. Essential for all, soul lover or not.

The Soul Album – less well known songs but Otis is in top form here. This album is my personal fave. His phrasing on “Cigarettes and Coffee” and “Just One More Day” is perfect. “Shake” is one of his best Sam Cooke covers, and the old blues song “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” sounds so natural in a soul version. Tremendous.

Live Otis – if you’ve ever seen footage of when he performed for the “love crowd” at Monterey, it will be obvious why his live performances are so touted. Redding exudes energy and power; the sweat flies out of the speakers. Several live collections are out there, and most are great. The two released near or immediately after his death are the best. Live at Europe is often touted as one of the best live albums ever, but I prefer In Person at the Whiskey a Go Go which is from a more intimate setting and features his regular touring band.

Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul – despite its unwieldy title and a hideous album cover that would send modern buyers running, this is a perfect album, containing “Try A Little Tenderness” and his excellent cover of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”. Enjoy the tender soul of lesser known songs like “My Lover’s Prayer” and one of the best versions of that old chestnut “The Tennessee Waltz” that you’ll ever hear

The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads – mainly an album of cover songs, but Redding on his second album had become of a master of the cover. Check out his version of Jerry Butler’s hit “For Your Precious Love” and Sam Cooke’s “Nothing Can Change This Love”

Pain In My Heart – His first album, with a number of covers, all serviceable, but no one at this point in Redding’s career would choose his versions of Cooke’s “You Send Me”, Little Richard’s “Lucille”, or Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” over the more known versions. Still, this album contains the great title number as well as “These Arms of Mine” which (despite all the contenders) may be Redding’s most beautiful song

Dock of the Bay – several posthumous collections came out soon after Redding’s tragic death in December, 1967. This one was first, best, and contains his most known song “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. Worth checking out though points off for containing three previously released songs. Interestingly contains “The Hucklebuck” which, despite a number of swing-era versions, I still think of as the song Ralph and Norton dance to on The Honeymooners.

So go down the list and enjoy! Redding was truly one of the greatest soul singers ever, and his voice remains today impassioned, moving, perfect

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Eli, The Barrow Boy

The Portland group, the Decemberists, tend to have a polarizing effect on listeners. Instead of most indie groups today that either choose to paint lush soundscapes of ambient noise or to use distorted guitars hearkening back to garage rock, the Decemberists use of instruments like the harpsichord, dulcimer, and accordion distinguish them among many of their compatriots. Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy,influenced by British folk, creates a unique sound as he weaves tales of odd characters often with a nautical theme. Listening to a Decemberists album is like being transported to a 19th-century fishing village where one is sharing a tankard with a grizzled, mysterious old sailor keeping you captive with his odd tales of the sea. The characters in Meloy’s works are bizarre and strange, like Richard Thompson antiheroes (yet even MORE warped) . Such people inhabit the songs of the Decemberists’ third album Picaresque from 2005: an infanta riding an elephant, an engine driver, a revenge-filled mariner stuck in the belly of a whale. Each tale seems stranger than the next.

Perhaps this is one of the challenges facing listeners in enjoying the Decemberists’ music. After all, at the heart of music in general is the ability to understand the feelings elicited in a song (one reason why so many songs are written about love). How can one possibly understand the experiences of the child of a Chinese trapeze artist or of a harbor town prostitute? In addition, with each song on the album more and more grim and bizarre, at times Meloy’s lyrics can seem a bit contrived. Still, among some haters, consider me a big Decemberists fan.

Among these odd scenarios, the tried-and-true themes of loneliness and unrequited love still resonate in many of these songs. “We Both Go Down Together”, for example, tells of the ultimate fate of two lovers from vastly different backgrounds. One of my favorites, “Eli, The Barrow Boy”, is a story of lost love. It is a brief tale compared to many of Meloy’s songs, and much is left to the listener’s imagination. It’s not really too surprising (if you know the Decemberists’ music) that both Eli, a seller of “coal and marigolds”, and his true love end up dead, but we learn nothing about their romance or exact death. Still, in the song’s haunting beauty, we are drawn to Eli, only imagining the depth of his feelings that carry over to his afterlife.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Perfect Day

While I was watching the Olympics last night, I turned away to get a drink only to hear the sound of a familiar song on an AT&T Commercial. “Is that Lou Reed?” asked my wife correctly. I often wonder how advertising pitches must develop, especially when an idea to use an almost-40-year-old song by a proto-punk monotone singer is suggested. Granted, Reed’s music isn’t completely new to commercials; I remember his appearance on a Honda scooter ad in the 1980s. Still, as someone who knows and appreciates the song, I was delighted to hear it in this format.

“Perfect Day” appeared on Lou Reed’s second solo album Transformer in 1972 a couple of years after he left The Velvet Underground. The Velvets were a tremendously influential band on punk and alternative music though their albums barely dented the Billboard Album charts (their debut on original release made it all the way to #171). Reed’s self-titled first solo album (which he recorded after working as typist at an accounting firm) did no better, making the success or failure of his second album quite crucial.

Enter David Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson who were influenced by Reed’s Velvet Underground work. Both would produce Transformerwhich would become a top 40 album in both the US and the UK propelled by the success of the single “Walk On The Wild Side”. The album is a perfect mixture of Reed’s garage rock roots and Bowie/Ronson’s polish – a glam rock classic (Reed’s picture on the cover even fits the mold).

“Perfect Day”, using an uncharacteristically sparse arrangement by Ronson, begins slowly with simple piano and later crescendos using a string accompaniment. Reed’s vocals are atypically tuneful and wonderfully expressive. Of course, I chucked over how the commercial focused on the idyllic chorus (“Oh it’s such a perfect day. I’m glad I spent it with you”) while ignoring both the undercurrent of emptiness (“You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else. Someone good") as well as the cryptic final repetition (“You’re going to reap just what you sow”). Still, I was happy to just hear this great album track on network television. After all, when sitting with your family watching the Olympics and your wife surprises you by not only pointing out a Lou Reed song but also knowing it’s produced by Bowie, it really is a perfect day.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Birds Playlist

Monday Playlist

I've decided that each Monday that I would try to post a different playlist. As I've stated before, playlists fascinate me because 1) I've always been more an "album guy", 2) I enjoy the idea of linking at times completely dissimilar music, and 3) some playlist songs you might never listen to otherwise.

Based on a recent theme at the wonderful Music Gourmets group, this week's playlist will be - Birds. Though one could launch in a number of directions with this broad theme (groups with bird names, songs with the word "bird" in the title), I've decided to have each song naming a different type or species of birds (no Linnaeus titles here, though).

Bird Playlist
1) "Dodo/Lurker" by Genesis
2) "Bluebird" by Buffalo Springfield
3) "Hummingbird" by Leon Russell (live off Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs & Englishmen")
4) "Bye Bye Blackbird" by Miles Davis *
5) "Ostrich Walk" by Bix Beiderbecke
6) "Back at the Chicken Shack" by Jimmy Smith
7) "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow (Baretta's Theme)" by Sammy Davis, Jr. **
8) "Albatross" by Fleetwood Mac ***
9) "Blue Jay Way" by The Beatles ****
10) "Fly Like An Eagle" by The Steve Miller Band
11) "Duck Tail" by Joe Clay *****
12) "Cold Turkey" by John Lennon
13)"When Doves Cry" by Prince

One could go on and on with this theme, but I drew the limit at a one hour playlist. Special mention to Faith No More's "Woodpecker on Mars" which almost made the cut (and has an awesome title)

Some notes:
* - Interestingly, jazz music is filled with songs with different types of birds, much more so than pop music. I've included three in order, starting with "Bye Bye Blackbird". Several great versions exist - I go between Miles and Ben Webster/Oscar Peterson for favorite rendition
** - How could I possibly leave out Sammy's ultra-cool theme song from the '70's cop show Beretta. Between this, the Rockford Files, Ironsides, etc, the '70s police/detective genre contributed many great "hip" songs to pop culture
*** - Wonderful instrumental by the Peter-Green led, blues-based version of Fleetwood Mac
**** - I enjoy "Blackbird" more but it's certainly more common that this George Harrison-penned song off "Magical Mystery Tour" named for a street in Hollywood
***** - Joe Clay was a Lousiana rockabilly artist. When he appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1856, Sullivan had him play a version of the Platters "Only You" instead of this energetic song

Saturday, February 13, 2010

I'm Not Calling You A Liar

I must admit that I'm not the type that ravenously delves into new music. Many people will purchase new releases quickly, hit or miss. I tend to wait a bit, gather reviews and opinions of those I respect, and purchase releases often months (er...or years) later. Still, it's not a bad method of culling out music, and the purchases I do make tend to be winners.

Given this, I have not yet purchased or digested all the 2009 releases that I might want yet, but one of the joys of last year that I did get too was Florence + The Machine's Lungs. Interesting album title, but, boy, does lead singer Florence Welch have a set of them. I love the sound of the female voice, and rarely do you hear one as strong as Welch's on the pop music scene. Still, for a powerful voice, there is a great deal of nuance in the voice of this 23 year old Brit, and she shows a lot of maturity for a debut.

Florence + the Machine quickly got a lot of exposure last year. The fast paced, punkish "Kiss With A Fist" was used in the Megan Fox film "Jennifer's Body" as well as an episode of the sit-com "Community". Another number was used in on of the generic police shows filling our airways. Besides the life that pours from songs like "Kiss With A Fist" or "The Dog Days Are Over", Welch and her cowriters have an interesting, well let's say, humor in their lyrics. "The Girl With One Eye" describes a macabre way the title character becomes one-eyed. "The Bird Song" involves a Poe-like tale right out of "The Tell Tale Heart".

Among all the wonderful uptempo songs, I particularly enjoy when Welch tones it down a bit. "I'm Not Calling You A Liar", has (slightly) less bizarre lyrics, and really shows control as the song winds about and Welch's voice moves amidst the strings and percussion between lilting vulnerability and aching strength. Just wonderful! Enjoy this live youtube of her at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Walking On A Wire

Following his departure from the classic English folk/rock band Fairport Convention, songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire Richard Thompson would release one poorly-selling solo album before joining with his new wife Linda for a series of outstanding albums. Their marriage would take some interesting turns including a three-year musical hiatus while they joined a Sufi Muslim commune, eventually their relationship would end in divorce. Still, in Linda, Richard had found an perfect partner to interpret his songs vocally, especially their dispirited themes. Their final album together, Shoot Out The Lights, released right before their divorce is often linked with their failing marriage. This connection may not be entirely fair as Thomsom's songs were never (before or after this album) particularly cheerful; furthermore, many songs were written a couple years earlier prior to the Thomson's marital problems. Still whether fair or not, the songs on this album, especially those sung by Linda Thompson, convey an emotional bankrupcy made even more poignant by the real life events that were occurring.

The entire album is outstanding, but today's song Walking On A Wire really is a highlight. Linda's voice conveys perfectly (and quite beautifully for the topic) how a slowly failing relationship can be so draining; you can feel the fatigue in the slow tempo.

"This grindstone's wearing me
Your claws are tearing me
Don't use me endlessly
It's too long, too long to myself
Where's the justice and where's the sense?
When all the pain is on my side of the fence"

With lines of regret ("I wish I could please you tonight") and uncertainty ("It scares you when you don't know whichever way the wind might blow"), we get the feel of a disintigrating relationship, and the singer is just too tired to fight it. Richard finishes the song with an agonizing guitar solo that perfectly caps the song. Now 28 years later, I'm not sure how important or relevant it is to know how closely this song mirrored the duo's own emotions at the time; the song itself, no matter when you hear it, still rips through your heart.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Detroit 442

When thinking of Blondie, many remember them as a glossy pop group responsible for a number of top ten singles (“The Tide is High”, “Call Me”, “One Way or Another”, etc.). Remember, though, the group started out in the mid-’70s out of the New York City punk scene. Blondie played in places like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City with such artists as the Ramones, Patti Smith and Television. American punk bands often had more of a melodic sensibility compared with some of their British counterparts like the Sex Pistols or The Clash (early on at least): the Ramones would cover late '50's/early '60's fare ("Do You Wanna Dance", "Needles and Pins"), the opening of Patti Smith's "Free Money" has a beautiful melody accompanied by solo piano. Compared with these artists who are still viewed as seminal punk bands, many forget Blondie's gritty roots, indeed because they were embraced by the establishment and would become top 40 fixtures.

Blondie’s early music was harder and less produced but always tuneful, and Detroit 442 (found on the Plastic Letters album and on other compilations), with it’s relentless tempo and harsh guitars, shows a different side of Blondie. By the time of their third album, “Parallel Lines”, they had perfected the product seen in their hits. Even the album covers reflect this change with "Plastic Letters" showing a tired, possible drugged looking Harry sitting on the bumper of a police car; contrast that with the more put-together appearance of Harry on "Parallel Lines". Debbie Harry was always a more assured vocalist than her later image of fashionplate or coked-out sex symbol would suggest. In this song, she is abrasive growling and spitting out lyrics menacingly. Oh, by the way, it's also a great, fast paced driving song if you're making such a mix.

Check out their first two albums, Blondie and Plastic Letters, to see an energized, tougher side of Blondie. I've embedded the youtube video, but for a rougher version of the song (and of Harry), I've included another link below.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Lonely Shepherd

Context is everything.

I remember music commercials in the late 70's/early 80's and hearing about this mysterious Zamfir. Apparenlty he was "Master of the Pan Flute", which sounded mysterious for the very reason a young teen might be unacquainted with what a pan flute exactly is. Still, he joined the ranks of others like Slim Whitman or Floyd Kramer. Who was buying these records? No adult that I knew either in my parents or grandparents generation had these artists. Could they have really sold more than artists that I HAD heard of, like Elvis and The Beatles?

I bring up this story not to defame Georghe Zamfir (yes, Zamfir is his last name), the Romanian musician who single handedly revived interest in a cultural instrument that was fading away. I picture a young generation of recent pan-flautists that 30 years ago didn't exist. Even the boy Manny from the wonderful TV comedy "Modern Family" plays a similar instrument in an episode. Furthermore, I've never been "Master" of anything, so Zamfir's got one up on me there.

Needless to say, aside from 10 second snippets in commercials, I had never heard anything by Zamfir, and probably would have been short-sighted enough to continue this trend. Happily, Quentin Tarantino has more vision, for he used Zamfir's "The Lonely Shepherd" in his Kill Bill saga. As I listened to the excellent Kill Bill, Vol.I Soundtrack, I heard this haunting piece (played with the James Last Orchestra) and was immediately drawn back to memories of the movies. It sets the mood for philosophical musings of Michael Madson and is played at the end as the wonderful David Carradine/Bill calmly questions Sofie Fatale. Zamfir's atmospheric playing really sets the tone and is joined by the orchestra's brass mid-song to convey a grandeur that fits in well with other spaghetti western pieces used throughout the film.

Of course, the context of the song in the film really means everything, and Taranrtino particularly is an expert at choosing lesser-known songs to create moods in his films. Think how other songs, like Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" or Bernard Hermann's "Twisted Nerve" (which whistles as Darryl Hannah in nurse garb prepares to kill The Bride) even have heightened grandeur in the context of the film. Think how cheesy fare like Santa Esmerelda's cover of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" are not only tolerable but effective is scenes like the final showdown between the Bride and Lucy Liu's O-Ren Ishii.

All of this makes me wonder if I would still enjoy this song as much (or even have come across the song at all) if it wasn't placed so perfectly in a great film. After all, I didn't call any 1-800 numbers after those commercials in the '80's, nor was I particularly drawn to Zamfir's work in "The Karate Kid". Also, I haven't rushed out after this soundtrack and purchased other Zamfir albums, despite that it's my favorite song on a great soundtrack.

So, I give you the video of this piece below, though, if you've never seen "Kill Bill", you might have a completely different perspective.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Monday Playlist

Is there any better week for a dedicated playlist than Monday? Oh sure, you could have a playlist centered around every single day of the week (my guess is a Thursday playlist would be the most difficult to create, though I already have some ideas). Still, what with the beginning of the work week and the letdown of finishing a weekend, we'd all probably agree, Monday is a challenging day. Today was especially difficult given the excitement (and later hours) yesterday of the Super Bowl, and coming down off a diet of high carbs and grease didn't make getting up this morning easier.

So, below is my Monday Playlist. Some of the songs are quite obvious choices, especially Fleetwood Mac and the Boomtown Rats. Extra credit will be given to the Tegan and Sara song which mentions Monday in the title three times.

1) "Monday Morning" by Fleetwood Mac
2) "Monday" by The Jam
3) "Come Monday" by Jimmy Buffett
4) "Stormy Monday" by The Allman Brothers Band
5) "Monday, Monday" by The Mamas & The Papas
6) "Rainy Days And Mondays" by The Carpenters
7) "Blue Monday" by Fats Domino
8) "New Moon on Monday" by Duran Duran
9) "Monday Monday Monday" by Tegan and Sara
10) "I Don't Like Mondays" by The Boomtown Rats

You'll notice that I'm not immune to 1970's kitsch by my inclusion of the Carpenters. You'll also notice I have not included an obvious choice, "Manic Monday" by The Bangles. I assure you this omission was intentional - I've never liked that song despite any positive attributes singer Susanna Hoffs may have, vocally or otherwise.

Now let's all have a great week - before long we'll be singing Friday songs (the Easybeats, anybody?)

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Yesterday, on satellite radio, I caught Casey Kasem's American Top 40 show from way back in 1971. The top ten consisted of such songs as Climax's "Precious and Few", Nilsson's "Without You" and Don McLean's "American Pie". Yet among those soft-rock hits was something different: a groovin' funk number by Dennis Coffey called "Scorpio" which peaked at #6 on Billboard's Pop Chart. Coffey was an outstanding session guitarist who played on such great numbers as "Cloud Nine" (The Temptations), "War" (Edwin Starr), and "It's Your Thing" (The Isley Brothers). Often our hindsight view of funk concentrates on a few key artists like James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, or Funkadelic, but a proper perspective of funk really should focus on the diversity of the era's singles. Coffey put out only two top 40 instrumentals, but both "Scorpio" and its follow-up hit "Taurus" are classics of the era and have been sampled several times since in hip-hop numbers. "Scorpio" sizzles with all the classic funk elements including heavy organ and a strong bass line by Bob Babbitt (it even adds some bongos in for good measure). The original is a bit harder to come by (iTunes and other sites have only rerecorded versions), but youtube has some great videos of the youth on Soul Train dancing to it. There's also an excellent version done by the Kashmere String Band (and released on the Stones Throw compilation Cold Heat: Heavy Funk Rareties 1968-1974 that's easier to find and worth checking out.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Riverboat Shuffle

When listening to classic jazz from the 1920's, I am often amazed how a 20 minute cornet solo can speak to me more than a 5 minute hard bop solo. The ability to convey a warm, powerful melody in such a succinct period of time is a gift; few possessed this gift as Bix Beiderbecke did. Bix's solos conveyed such a warm tone and beauty; nowhere is that clearer than with his work with Frank Trumbauer and his Orchestra. In songs like "Singin' The Blues" and "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans", Bix's cornet shines over his bandmates. "Riverboat Shuffle", written by Bix's friend Hoagy Carmichael, too is a wondeful, lively piece with Bix's solos the highlights (though Eddie Lang does some nice guitar work). Bix had recorded a solid rendition before with the Wolverines in 1924, but the 1927 remake with Traumbauer's group is even better. The two Columbia collections "Singin' the Blues" and "At The Jazz Band Ball" are still the essential discs to catch Bix's peak period. Sadly after a short stint in the Paul Whiteman band, Bix's alcoholism would catch up with him; he died in 1931 at age 28. Louis Armstrong said of Bix, "I've heard a lot of cats try to play like Bix, but ain't nobody play like him yet."

Friday, February 5, 2010


I was delighted when I saw Rodrigo y Gabirela's latest album 11:11 was at the front display at Barnes & Noble; it's about time this Mexican guitar duo got some high-level attention. Talk about some guitar pyrotechnics! Their rapid acoustic guitar work is as much influenced by metal as it is by flamenco. Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero met in Mexico in a metal band. Abandoning their electric guitars, the two relocated to Ireland gaining notoriety on the local scene. Their self-titled album (which has outstanding reworkings of Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and Metallica's "Orion") was released in 2006 and hit number one in Ireland, quite an interesting feat for a Mexican acoustic duo. "Tamacun", the album's opener, ripples with life, propulsive, fast, infectious.

Watch the duo play it in the video below: I'm not sure which is more impressive - Rodrigo's speed picking or the percussive strumming of Gabiela's rhythm guitar (love the synchronized head banging too toward the end).

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Teenage Depression

Eddie & the Hot Rods were not, as their name might suggest, a doo-wop group or a fictitious leather bound movie band. Instead they were an energetic British early punk rock band (or, depending on your point of view, a late pub rock band). Influenced by 60's rock and early pub rock groups like Dr. Feelgood, Eddie & the Hot Rods (who never had any Eddie's in the band ) played simple bare-bones rock and roll; they just played it faster and louder than most earlier groups, helping to pave the way for punk rock in Britain. Yet at its core, the Hot Rods' music came from good old rhythm and blues (in fact the flip side of today's song was Sam Cooke's "Shake). Their 1976 single, "Teenage Depression", hit the UK top 40 and appealed to the same sensibilities as the Stones and Who spoke to kids a decade earlier

"Same thing every day, well I can't get out of bed.
Too many questions are confusing up my head
I can't stand the thought of another day at school
But I know the weekend's coming so I gotta keep my cool."

Listening to the fast driving beat today, "Teenage Depression" really sounds very similar to the garage rock songs that influenced it. Indeed, soon music by groups like The Clash and The Sex Pistols (who opened for the Hod Rods at the Marquee Club only to be kicked off tour after the Pistols smashed the Hot Rods gear) would be even harder and faster, and The Hot Rods would decline in popularity after a couple more UK hits.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

You Can Close Your Eyes

I can't say that I'm a tremendous fan of Linda Ronstadt. Her song selection is flawless; her early albums in the 1970's highlighted such songwriters as Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Neil Young. Here interpretations are hit-or-miss, often very much the product of their era. Still, sometimes everything comes together perfectly, and the 1974 album "Heart Like A Wheel" is a prime example. Choosing a country-rock feel, Ronstadt is in her element as she covers songs previously performed by Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, and The Everly Brothers. The most famous covers are well known: "You're No Good" and "When Will I Be Loved", both of which hit the charts at #1 and #2 respectively.

The album is really flawless, including today's song: the disc's closer, James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes". Ronstadt's version is much stronger than the original, beautiful but certainly with a haunting, world-weary vibe. The background strings are perfect, tasteful and fit nicely with the acoustic guitar that open the song, and the slide guitar that joins in mid-song. I have often sang this to my children as they are lying in bed. Truly, this is one of the most beautiful songs I know.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Detroit Playlist

Though this blog typically will follow, in this iPod era, a "Song of the Day" format, periodically I would like to throw in other fare, e.g. album reviews, best-of lists, and playlists. Playlists fascinate me - I almost want to enjoy them more than I do. I'm old enough to have been raised as basically an album type of guy, and when I sit down for a spell or workout, I almost always gravitate to listening to entire albums. Still, the idea of grouping often-disparate songs together linked by an often flimsy themes sometimes can make for some pretty fun listening, especially when some of the songs on the playlist would seldom be listened to by myself at any other time.

Today's playlist will be centered on the city of Detroit, Michigan. Now one could create a list (and perhaps I will after I write this) on artists/bands from the Detroit area. Great Motown songs alone could dominate this playlist. Artists as diverse as Madonna, Sonny Bono, Mitch Ryder, and the Stooges have come from in (or around) Detroit. Come to think of, it would make a pretty good playlist. However today's list will center on Detroit the city either with songs having Detroit in their name, or songs with Detroit locations in them, or even songs centered around historical events regarding Detroit. Enjoy:

Detroit Playlist
1) "Detroit Rock City" by KISS
2) "Motor City is Burning" by MC5
3) "Detroit 442" by Blondie
4) "8 Mile" by Eminem *
5) "Hotel Yorba" by The White Stripes **
6) "Panic in Detroit" by David Bowie
7) "Black Day in July" by Gordon Lightfoot ***
8) "Detroit City" by Tom Jones ****
9) "Detroit Breakdown" by The J.Geils Band
10) "Detroit Medley" by Bruce Springsteen *****

A few notes:
* - The 8-Mile Road refers to the M-102 which runs across northern Detroit
** - The Hotel Yorba is a hotel in southwest Detroit that apparently, according to Jack White, the White Stripes are banned for life
*** - Lightfoot's song refers to the July 23, 1967 Detroit riots
**** - "Detroit City" was a 1963 country single by Bobby Bare, but any chance I have to schmaltz up a playlist with an artist like Tom Jones, I'm gonna grab it (Jones actually does a nice job
***** - Long a favorite of Springsteen shows, I was delighted when the "Detroit Medley" (which includes some Mitch Ryder & the Detroit faves, such as "Devil With The Blue Dress", "Good Golly Miss Molly", "CC Rider", and "Jenny Jenny") was finally officially released on the wonderful Hammersmith, Odeon, London '75 live double disc

Monday, February 1, 2010

Gimme A Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer

Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues", had faded from popularity from her 1920's heydey when she recorded this brassy 1933 single for Okeh Records, but it remains one of her brassiest, expressive moments. Not only does the title convey a certain down-to-earth quality, but the lyrics evoke a late night event in a smoky club in Harlem or a crowded apartment "rent party". Bessie is tough and world weary, and when she belts out "Check all your razors and your guns. We gonna be arrested when the wagon comes", you fully express the police to bust down the door any second.

The single is notable for the great musical accompaniment present. The four-song Okeh session (which included the also-wonderful "Take Me for A Buggy Ride") included Buck Washington on piano, Jack Teagarden on trombone and Frankie Newton on trumpet. Benny Goodman (who's playing is masked by Smith's powerful vocals) was reportedly in the next studio, but joined in just to play with the amazing Smith.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself

Jack White’s choice to cover the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself is an odd one, but it works (perhaps it’s not that unusual, as the White Stripes list Cole Porter and Loretta Lynn among their influences on their Facebook page). Sure, it’s not as good as the classic Dusty Springfield or Dionne Warwick versions, but it’s different...grittier with heavy guitar, and ultimately, less desperate, which is, I suppose, what Jack intended. The song was released as a single in 2003 and can be found on the excellent White Stripes album Elephant

Here's the Youtube video for the song (directed by Sofia Coppola), though it's difficult to focus on the song with Kate Moss dancing

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Picture Book

Ah, the power of advertising!

I am often struck by how just one song can open one's mind to an album, a group, a musical genre. Back in college, I was quite biassed against the Who because, at that time, I had been inundated by certain radio staples (e.g. Baba O'Reilly) that kept me investigating their albums further. A senior gave me a cassette of "Who's Next", and I felt obliged to listen. First song, of course, was Baba O'Reilly, but when I got to the second song "Bargain", I discovered a Who that I had not heard before. So impressed, I would soon own most of their albums.

Fast forward to 2004, when Hewlett-Packard used the Kinks Picture Book in one of their commercials. An infectious, sing-songy tune, I was immediately drawn to it. No surprise - I had always liked the Kink's singles and radio staples. Still, it made me realize that, though I owned several Kinks singles collections, I had very few of their albums. Well, you can guess what happened next.

"Picture Book" appears on the Kinks' 1968 album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, quite a different album from the psychedelia of the day (e.g. The Beatles White Album, Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland", Jefferson Airplane's "Crown of Creation"), but not wholly independent of the era's sensibilities. Still, much like their British contemporaries The Small Faces (who released "Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake" that year), the Kinks produced an album of tunes influenced in both topic and style by England's past. The album as a whole was a concept piece that hearkens back to days in the English countryside and small towns and is both sentimental and twee.

"Picture book, your mama and your papa and fat old Uncle Charlie, out boozing with their friends.
Picture book, a holiday in August, outside a bed and breakfast, in sunny Southend."

Of course, the album at the time (though critics liked in) was not very successful. The Kinks had been declining in popularity from their mid-60's heydey, and were banned for unclear reasons between 1965-1969 from touring in the United States. Certainly this contributed to lesser exposure in the US. During this time they produced a series of amazing albums ("Face to Face", "Something Else"), that, like "The Village Green...", are lyrical, melodic and nostalgic; consequently, they don't often grab you at first listen like, say, a Stones or Beatles album. With repeated listens, one is hooked - hopefully songs like "Picture Book" will serve as a gateway to such wonderful music.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Every Little Bit Hurts

Did I mention that I love cover songs? Oh, yeah, I did...on the first day of this blog. Surprisingly, after the Beatles, I'd have to say one of the best groups to choose consistent cover choices would be the Clash. And while (given their reggae influences) it doesn't seem unusual for them to cover, say, Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" or Toots & the Maytalls "Pressure Drop", their rendition of Brenda Holloway's "Every Little Bit Hurts" seems an odd choice at first. Holloway was an early Motown singer who only had a couple more top 40 hits including the 1967 single "You Make Me So Very Happy" which hit number 39 in 1967 (this tune, which she cowrote, would become more famous with the 1969 Blood Sweat & Tears version). Still, the Clash's take on this gem works as Mick Jones keeps true to the original. Simple and surprisingly tender

The Clash's rendition was released on the 1991 boxed set "Clash on Broadway", a really fantastic collection released in the early days of the boxed set. The single, though, is easily obtained through iTunes, Amazon, and others. Other enjoyable covers of this song to check out include the Spencer Davis Group (with Steve Winwood on vocals), The Small Faces, and, most recently, live by Alicia Keys

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What Song to Start With?

Welcome to the inaugural post of the "Music For A Lifetime" blog. I decided to launch this blog to share some thoughts on songs that are worth listening to - some you may know, others you may not (B-sides, album tracks, lesser known artists). Hopefully you're here 'cause you love music and, like me, are always looking for ways to broaden your musical horizons. Maybe I'll bring up an artist who you haven't listened to or thought about in awhile. Hopefully you'll share your musical thoughts too.

Although I might discuss artists, albums or news (or perhaps even nonmusical thoughts), the focus will generally be on the songs themselves - how they sound, how they make me feel, why they're important to hear. Where to begin though?

Our first song will be I'd Rather Go Blind by Etta James (1967)

The soul revival is quite popular today, and, being a fan of such music, I’m delighted. With all due respect, however, to Duffy and Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone before that, all pales in comparison to the greatest female soul and blues singer ever, Etta James. For examples of the furious power in her voice, I highly recommend buying her live album “Etta James Rocks the House”. Today’s selection, “I’d Rather Go Blind” on the other hand shows her soulful side, her despair. Though from the title, you might guess not a happy peppy selection, the emotions in Etta’s voice are strong, heartbreaking, beautiful. This song was a B-side of the wonderful top 40 single, “Tell Mama”. As you'll discover, I'm a tremendous fan of cover songs, so I'd like to mention Rod Stewart (way before he started doing anemic covers of pop standards) did an excellent version off his 1972 album "Never A Dull Moment".

Here's a video of the incomparable Ms. James (more mature at this sitting) singing this song: