Friday, February 26, 2010
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
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
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
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).
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)
* - 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
Thursday, February 11, 2010
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
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
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
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
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Friday, February 5, 2010
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
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
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:
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
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.