Thursday, April 17, 2014

Basement Tapes

"Lo-fi," a.k.a. "low fidelity," pays homage to the fuzzy garage-band sound of the 1950s, and is alive and well in certain music circles these days. Groups like Pavement and Guided by Voices can thank Sebadoh, an indie rock band and step-child of Dinosaur Jr., for laying the groundwork for the recent offshoot. A classic example of Sebadoh's early delivery is the band's 1987 album, "Weed Forestin'," which takes the lo-fi concept one step further by making it sound as if the performer is still composing the song. Singer/guitarist Low Barlow recorded much of the album on a 4-track in his parent's basement. But despite the bare-essentials  quality, Forestin' has a beautiful, mesmerizing resonance. Contrary to what you might deduce, Barlow said of the title, "Weed Forestin' meant making the most out of what I had, foresting weeds instead of trees." Here's the hypnotic "Mr. Genius Eyes," which also appeared on the compilation "The Freed Weed."

Friday, April 11, 2014

Drink a Toast to Never

Earlier in the blog, Curt bid farewell to the iconic Lou Reed. His fellow Velvet Underground member, Mo Tucker, was an equally epochal 60's figure. Often mistaken in the early days for a male because of her short locks, Maureen was known to substitute her drum set with metal garbage cans for live performances. Tucker would fade into family life, working for a Georgia Wal-Mart distribution center, before being summoned back for the 1992-3 VU Europe reunion tour. Back in its glory days, the band would occasionally give her a chance to test her pipes. Shifting gears from her usual garage sound, Mo adopts a 20’s timbre in the lo-fi “Close the Door” (as visually interpreted by Edie Sedgwick).

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tickling Ivories

My favorite rock/pop keyboard solo has to be the one featured in the final half of “Uncertain Smile” from The The’s 1983 “Soul Mining.” Uncertain Smile percolates with a modest mid-tempo sound until Squeeze’s Jools Holland takes the lead, holding it until the song fades out. With a jazzy flare, Holland moves smoothly and cleanly up and down the keys. Interestingly, Uncertain Smile was recorded the year before as a single and featured flutes and a saxophone solo. However, the band decided to replace the sax with a piano for the album recording. A staple on ‘80s alternative rock stations, here’s Uncertain Smile.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

No Words Can Describe Them

Bands, particularly during the vinyl days, needing to fill out album playlists, would often resort to brief instrumentals. Considered throw-aways by critics, many of these are beautiful gems that have stood the test of time, and some come from the most unlikely sources. Here are 5 of my favorites, in no particular order:

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Attention David Lynch Fans!

No, this video wasn't directed by the "Eraserhead," but it easily could have been. The enigmatic Natasha Khan and several of her . . . inner demons . . . enjoy a bizarre nighttime bicycle ride in Bat for Lashes's "What's a Girl to Do." With its 50's sensibilities, Do feels like an outtake from "Blue Velvet" or "Lost Highway." Don't worry about what it all means. Just take a moment to summon your inner Goth as you give this little incubus a whirl.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Next Big Car Ad Soundtrack

During the last decade, a Volkswagen television commercial sent people scrambling to find old copies of British singer songwriter Nick Drake's "Pink Moon."  Drake contemporary, Manchester-born Roy Harper provides a similar appeal, offering textured, atmospheric guitar combined with a distinctive vocal range. Harper never received much in the way of U.S. attention, but managed to provide the voice for David Gilmour's "Have a Cigar" and was prominently acknowledged  on Zeppelin's third album. A regular from the 70s British college/countryside music festival circuit, Harper's themes often focus on social injustices or the series of girl friends he had, one of whom was underage (listen to the song, "Forbidden Fruit," for details). Appearing a bit hazy, no doubt from his extensive performance preparations, here is Roy Harper singing the beautiful "South Africa."

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mired in 60s/70s Folk Rock?

Fast forward to the recent explosion of rusticated bands like Mumford & Sons and the Decemberists, likable but ultimately forgettable ensembles. If you want to hear something truly divergent from this school, cue up Iron & Wine's 2007 "The Shepherd's Dog." Sam Beam and company turn the folk sound on it's ear, building abstract landscapes with a foundation of acoustic guitar as heard through a psychedelic filter. This is a gateway album to be listened to in it's entirety, and, to be fair, it's a bit of an acquired taste.

Imagine you're in a club enjoying an acoustic troupe when you begin to realize that someone spiked your drink. The opening "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car" moves along at a catchy pace, but as you get deeper into the playlist, Sam, his accompanying sister Sarah, and others introduce sounds, instruments, and keys that stretch your initial patience. Will you flee from this unconventional cacophony or give it a chance to mellifluously blend into the arrangement, as it ultimately does? A second listen to songs like "Carousel," draws you further into the Dog's addition. This is Iron & Wine's magnum opus but it's definitely not for the folk puritan. Fortunately and unfortunately, it may leave you craving for more.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Meaning of Life

Following the 80's theme . . . this is my favorite video of the early MTV "New Wave" era. "Something About You" features the Isle of Wight's Level 42 and was essentially a one-hit wonder for U.S. audiences, despite the band's homeland popularity. The video is not so much a story as an anecdote, presented in outtakes as we see singer and bassist Mark King sing along--or fail to sing along--with the soundtrack. Set during a brief underground train ride, each of the band members explores a fantasy about fetching British actress, Cheri Lunghi, who you may recognize from movies like Excalibur and The Mission. At times, you can virtually feel the gusts of air blowing through the cabin. As the crew disembarks from their car, they fail to notice Ms. Lunghi as they walk past her. To add a nightmarish air, a King doppelganger appears as a vaudevillian reality check for each band member's flight of fancy. BTW, in the book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "42" is the answer to a question about the meaning of life. Check out, Something About You.

Monday, December 30, 2013

RIP Lou Reed

In thinking about what went down in 2013, the big thing that jumped out at me was the death of Lou Reed in October.

I was incredibly sad when I heard that Lou Reed had died. I know that he had been ill, that he had had a liver transplant, but it never really registered that he could die.  It felt like Lou had survived so damn much, he had to be invincible.

I was driving on 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul when his death was announced on The Current, our local alternative rock station. The next day someone had hung a huge, homemade RIP LOU REED banner on one of the footbridges across 94. I wish I had a picture of it.

Lou and I go way back. I first discovered Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground when I was in high school. The songs! They were loud, angry, sarcastic. Kind of like me at the time.

 Lou gave me something besides a bad attitude, though. In 1992, when Magic and Loss came out, I was volunteering at an AIDS foster care home where I helped take care of people who were dying. I had moved to Minnesota a few years earlier, not too long after my father died from cancer.

I was pretty broke in 1992, but Lou Reed was one of the handful of artists that I will find some way to see when they're in town, come hell or high water.   He was at the Orpheum in Minneapolis - pricey stuff, but worth it. We managed to get tickets before it sold out (lousy seats, though).

Lou looked and sounded fantastic. He played Magic and Loss from start to finish, and then played cuts from New York and Songs for Drella. It was an awesome show, and it will forever be known as The Show That Made Andrea Cry. Magic and Loss is a sad album. It's also a really angry album. Seeing and hearing the songs played brought back the all of my sadness, hurt, regret, and anger from seeing lots of people die too soon, my father included. Up until the point, I really didn't feel like anyone else understood how I was feeling. But Lou did. He got it.

Please rise for our belated seasonal anthem ...

The Ventures' CHRISTMAS ALBUM [1965] is the greatest Xmas album ever recorded. Don't even pretend that Phil Spector wall-of-sound yuletide wailing or the Beatles' happy-Christmas-to-just-our-fanclub quickies or even the mighty Vince Guaraldi can compete.

This LP is a Swiss Army knife of an Xmas LP -- put it on in the background for your holiday party and enjoy mostly ignoring it while you pretend to enjoy chatting with your guests; put it on while wrapping presents for your ungrateful loved ones and occasionally stop to guess where the next song is headed after the first twelve bars; or, I shit you not, put on your headphones and treat it like a Pink Floyd album, but without the 1AM-conversations-in-your-dorm's-stairway levels of pretension.

The combo playfully twist convention by taking a pop tune of the day and warping it into a Christmas classic: "What'd I Say" sets the groove for "Jingle Bells," the Lonnie Mack stomp of "Memphis" paves over the tinsel swing of "Jingle Bell Rock," and "Blue Christmas" finally gives you something to think about on the off chance that you ever hear the Searchers' "When You Walk Into the Room" on the radio or while browsing in a used-vinyl store, etc.

For me, the track to go back to over and over, especially through a pair of ear buds, is "Snow Flakes," their take on "Greensleeves" mixed with a little of the Zombies' "She's Not There."

If the soundtrack of all our Christmas seasons must forever be the soundtrack of the boomers' childhood Christmases*, then let this album get the most play.

* It's not a coincidence that the only new song of the last 30 years to make it into heavy rotation in the malls and on lazyass-December commerical radio is Mariah Carey's "All I want For Christmas Is You," a song so boomer-retro that Spector probably embellishes a false memory that he supervised the track's final mixdown with his pistol in Carey's mouth every time he hears it. Speaking of which:

OK, fine -- here's one Christmas song that we can probably claim for our own; even as a filthy, agnostic Jew, I can get into this medieval French carol about the animals in the manger doing what they could to care for the newborn baby Jesus.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Super Hits 1982, Part 8

Yeah, I'm back.

Eddie Schwartz, “Over the Line,” #91, 3/27/1982

Second single from Schwartz following “All Our Tomorrows” is slightly more rocking than the first, but didn’t do as well on the American charts. A native of Toronto, Schwartz apparently charted higher in Canada than in the States. After a third album in 1983, Schwartz has pretty much stuck to songwriting and producing for other acts – his songs have been recorded by Pat Benatar (“Hit Me With Your Best Shot”), The Doobie Brothers (“The Doctor”), Paul Carrack, Joe Cocker, Donna Summer, and others.


Olivia Newton-John, “Make a Move on Me,” #5, 4/3/1982

Olivia was certainly becoming less subtle about what she was after around this time. The second single from Physical became a top five hit in the United States, and top 10 in Australia and Canada. It’s almost a forgotten single – it wasn’t even included on the American version of her 1992 best-of Back to Basics – but it was pretty inescapable when it was out (although not as inescapable as “Physical” itself, which was #1 for ten weeks).


The Pointer Sisters, “Should I Do It,” #13, 4/3/1982

A throwback to the girl groups sound of the 1960s, this turned out to be a fine followup to their hit from the previous fall, “Slow Hand.” The sisters had placed six singles in the Billboard top 20 up until this point; “Should I Do It” marked the first time two of those songs came from the same album (in this case, Black and White). Of course, two years later the aptly titled Breakout contained four top 10 hits, but who knew in 1982 the best was yet to come?


Sister Sledge, “My Guy,” #23, 4/3/1982

Third and last top 40 hit for the four sisters who had hit the big time three years before with two Nile Rodgers-Bernard Edwards produced disco classics, “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family.” (I wonder how the Philadelphia-born Sledge girls felt when “We Are Family” was picked up as the theme song by the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Phillies’ cross-state rivals.) The sisters made a smart move here: when you’re not getting hits, remake an old Motown song (written by Smokey Robinson, “My Girl” hit #1 for Mary Wells in 1964). Sister Sledge would chart in America one more time three years later with “Frankie” (which hit top 10 in five different countries but only climbed to #75 in the States), but they still perform (separately and together) today.


Foreigner, “Juke Box Hero,” #26, 4/3/1982

Third single from the 4 album, so named because a) it was their fourth album, and b) there were only four guys in the band by this point. (Wikipedia lists thirty-six different full-time members of the band since they started recording in 1977.) This one didn’t chart nearly as high as the first two singles, “Urgent” and “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” but it’s been a mainstay on classic rock radio stations for years.


Stevie Woods, “Just Can’t Win ‘Em All,” #38, 4/3/1982

Second top 40 single for pop/soul singer Woods, after “Steal the night” broke into the top 30 in late 1981. All three came from the same album, Take Me to Your Heaven, which was released through Atlantic Records subsidiary Cotillion. However, don’t be mistaken by the label association; it’s not like this will remind you of any of Atlantic’s R&B releases of the 1950s and 1960s.  (Note: and You Tube are combining to not let me embed the one existing video of this song, so I'm adding a link instead:


The Go-Go’s, “We Got the Beat,” #2, 4/10/1982

Now we’re talking. Second single from their #1 LP Beauty and the Beat, and a truly terrific pop single. Written entirely by guitarist Charlotte Caffey (Caffey and Jane Wiedlin wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs on the album), it was an instant “get up and dance!” song during its time out, and still resonates today.


The J. Geils Band, “Freeze-Frame,” #4, 4/10/1982

Wow, two great songs in a row – how often does that happen? Title track from their 1981 album, it didn’t quite match “Centerfold” on the charts, but it came close, and it’s a lot easier to explain this song to your kids than try to explain what a centerfold is. Cool video (for the era) with a lot of paint being splashed around as well.


Meco, “Pop Goes the Movies, Part 1,” #35, 4/10/1982

And back to Earth we come. Meco Monardo had been doing disco versions of movie themes for a few years, hitting the charts with everything from “Star Wars/Cantina Band Theme” in 1977 (his only #1) to “Theme From Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (“Goodbye! Goodbye!”) in 1978, and even a disco Wizard of Oz medley. With a few years between Star Wars movies, and with medleys still being popular, Meco strung together a pile of themes from classic movies, added the usual disco backbeat and/or handclaps, and out it went. It’s out of print now, and thus long forgotten – probably just as well. (In my book, it takes a very special kind of chutzpah to put disco handclaps on “Suicide Is Painless,” a.k.a. the theme from M*A*S*H.)



George Duke, “Shine On,” #41, 4/10/1982

Duke passed away earlier this year, but he sure got around during his lifetime. After notching a top 20 single with “Sweet Baby” in 1981 (as part of The Clarke/Duke Project with Stanley Clarke), Duke came up a little short here with this catch pop/soul number. The guy’s played with soul and jazz stars (Clarke, Frank Zappa, Flora Purim, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Deniece Williams, David Sanborn, Teena Marie), and his songs have been sampled by such current artists as Common and Ice Cube.


George Benson, “Never Give Up on a Good Thing,” #52, 4/10/1982

Benson had a ton of hits between 1976 and 1983, but he never managed two top 40 hits on a single album – or, in this case, on the two-album greatest hits set The George Benson Collection, either. This was the followup to the similar “Turn Your Love Around,” and did manage to make the top 15 in the UK. The parent album is probably his best anthology, if you can live without “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (which was lopped off when the original CD was released due to time constraints, and hasn’t been added back since).


Sugarhill Gang, “Apache,” #53, 4/10/1982

Third and final Hot 100 single for the first rap group to make the top 40, on Sugarhill Records. They still tour, however, and did a CD aimed for the children’s market (with a remake of “Rapper’s Delight” more appropriate for the small fry) in 1999. Have you ever been over to a friend’s house to eat, and his momma’s cooking just ain’t no good?


Shooting Star, “Hollywood,” #70, 4/10/1982

For a band that charted three singles in the early 1980s, none of which made it above #65, these guys sure have their fans – they’ve released seven studio albums and are still around today (albeit with only two of the original members). Fairly standard rock from the era, but obviously someone was listening.


Chris Rea, “Loving You,” #88, 4/10/1982

Fourth US chart hit for the native of Yorkshire, England, but this song is remarkable for being the first time Rea charted higher in the UK than in the States. Having finally shaken loose of producer Gus Dudgeon (who handled his first two albums; Rea was so dismayed by the way they sounded that he hasn’t allowed his biggest US hit, “Fool (If You Think It’s Over),” to be released digitally in anything but a self-produced rerecording) and the label managers who suggested he change his name to Benny Santini, Rea would slowly build up his career to the point where he had six consecutive albums hit the UK top 10, including a pair of #1 albums in The Road to Hell and Auberge.


Huey Lewis & The News, “Do You Believe in Love,” #7, 4/10/1982

First of 21 chart hits over a 12-year time span for the band, who got their start as Clover (although only Sean Hopper was among the band members that backed up Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True). After Clover broke up, Lewis and Hopper picked up three members of a rival SF-based band, Soundhole, and later added guitarist Chris Hayes, before signing to Chrysalis Records. Their first album didn’t do much, but the second one broke big, thanks to this made-for-radio  singalong song.


Bertie Higgins, “Key Largo,” #8, 4/17/1982

In 1982, you could do this: make a top 10 hit with an adult contemporary homage to a Humphrey Bogart movie from 34 years before. Higgins was a singer-songwriter from Florida whose main claim to fame up until this point was playing in Tommy Roe’s backing band, but he hit the jackpot with this song (admittedly, some of the lyrical references were from Casablanca, which was an earlier Bogart movie that did not feature Lauren Bacall). A little goofy, but also a good change of pace for Top 40 formats, and probably made for some happy film buffs in the days before VCRs were standard in households.  (This video gets some creepiness point if, as claimed on one web site, the woman in the video was pulled out of high school to do the shoot; Higgins would have been roughly twice her age.)


Stevie Nicks, “Edge of Seventeen,” #11, 4/17/1982

And yet another song misinterpreted. I read somewhere that this was Stevie’s oblique reference to losing one’s virginity, but it’s actually a song about the deaths of both John Lennon and an uncle of hers (so the white-winged dove meant something completely different). “Edge of Seventeen” comes from Tom Petty’s then-wife, who told Nicks the two met at the “age of 17” in a thick Florida accent. Anyway, this was the third hit single from Nicks’ Bella Donna album.


Van Halen, “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” #12, 4/17/1982
Cool, another good song, although opinions may vary. I’ve always liked the Roy Orbison originally, but this added some edge. Possibly a sign that Eddie Van Halen’s songwriting well was running dry (the next single was also a remake, in that case “Dancing in the Street”), but he bounced back well two years later with 1984. The biggest single for the band to this point, and the first single from their album Diver Down.


Cover Me: Original Versions of Hit Songs

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Do You Hear What I Hear: 10 Obscure Christmas Songs

You're probably as insanely tired as I am of hearing the usual plethora of Christmas songs, so cleanse your aural palate with lesser-known versions and original tunes you might never have heard. (The Bessie Smith song is extraordinary.)

Some of these are taken from a classic punk/new wave compilation from the early 80s on Ze Records called A Christmas Record.  It was for me the first time I ever heard the Waitresses' still-great "Christmas Wrapping". You can listen to the entire album on YouTube.

Suggest your own little-known favorites!