Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Would You Like to Feel Sublime?

Ding Dong - Nellie McKay

One of my favorite albums of this century, twelve years in, is "Get Away From Me," the 2004 debut from singer/songwriter/keyboardist Nellie McKay.  Uniquely for a first album, it was a double CD.  What ties together the mix of pop and rap and cabaret and more is McKay's good humor and intelligence.  Playful both lyrically and musically, GAFM holds up well today.


It was hard choosing which song from GAFM to use for this post.  I landed on "Ding Dong" for its juxtaposition of melancholy lyrics with a bouncy melody and the way its lyrics are open to various interpretations.

Speaking of interpretations, I try to avoid asking musicians what their songs "mean," as I feel that the best songs mean different things to different people - including the songwriter.  Also, it would be like asking a comedian to explain a joke - it's either funny or it isn't.  A song either works for you or it doesn't.

"Ding Dong"

After the jump, seven questions get answers from a witty Nellie McKay.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

I'm Shouting All About Love

All Those Years Ago - George Harrison (Al Kooper on keyboards)

Hit the "play" button in your mind and listen to "All Those Years Ago," George Harrison's 1981 tribute to John Lennon.  As with songs, the vocals are most prominent in memory.  Then what do you hear?  Probably George's unique slide guitar.  Next?  That great keyboard part.  Who's playing it?  Al Kooper.  

George, Ringo, Barbara Bach, Al Kooper
Photo © Al Kooper
Now, the people I've interviewed for this blog have all been very kind and each one is an accomplished and talented musician.  But Al Kooper is a whole other level.  Initially I was going to list his career highlights, but it was way too long.  Then I pared it down to the highlights of his highlights and it was still a bit long.  So I cut it down once more to produce what appears below.

 Besides his work on a song featuring three Beatles, he also:
  • Played the fantastic organ part on one of the milestone songs in pop music history, Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone."  The story of how this came to be is a great one; he recounts it memorably in Martin Scorsese's documentary "No Direction Home."  Kooper also played with Dylan at the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
  • Speaking of stones that roll, Kooper played the piano, organ and french horn on another 1960s masterpiece, "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
  • He founded the innovative jazz rock band Blood Sweat & Tears - only to be kicked out by the other members, who wanted to pursue Top 40 hits (which they accomplished).
  • At age 21, co-wrote the #1 pop hit "This Diamond Ring" by Gary Lewis & the Playboys.
  • He discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, signed them to his Sounds of the South label, and produced their first three albums (which included "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama.")
  • Wrote the book Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock 'N' Roll Survivor and played in the Rock Bottom Remainders with other authors (Stephen King, Amy Tan, Matt Groenig, Dave Barry, etc.).
  • Was a faculty member at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
  • Released a dozen solo albums and landmark LPs with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills.  He sings, plays keyboards, guitar and more.
  • Scored Michael Mann's Crime Story series, among other film and television work.
And so on and so forth.  Google him for more details.  A personal favorite of mine is his production of the live Joe Ely EP, "Texas Special." 

Also, if you want to find great music - and you do - then you need to follow his weekly playlist here.

After the jump, Al cheerfully answers seven questions about "All Those Years Ago."

Friday, July 13, 2012

I'm fighting for my soul

Long Hard Times to Come ("Justified" theme) - Gangstagrass

"There are only two types of music: good and bad."

This famous quote is usually attributed to Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, but occasionally to others.  What matters most is that it's true.  The songs I choose to feature on this blog all fall into my personal definition of "good" - which means anything from 1970s bubblegum pop to a country song from the 40s, a just-released alternative tune or an instrumental version of something written centuries ago.  My tastes are broad, though I do tend toward melodic songs and interesting harmony.

"Long Hard Times to Come" falls into a few very interesting categories besides "good music."  First off, it's a television theme song, a genre which encompasses a wide range of music over the last 60 years.  Funny, but it seems the best shows often have the best songs - or maybe it's a Pavlovian process whereby we associate something we hear repeatedly (the song) with something that gives us pleasure (the program).  

"Justified" is one of the best dramas on television, up there with "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men."  Each episode starts with an compelling cold open, leading to a dramatic moment and then, satisfyingly, the THUMP... THUMP... THUMP of a bass drum that kicks off "Long Hard Times to Come." 

Besides being a theme song, LHTTC is distinct because it sounds fresh - it's a blend of bluegrass and hip hop.  Certainly a polarizing genre - some people don't like it at all.  But many more do.  If you haven't heard it, take a listen to the full version of the song and decide for yourself:



After the jump, Rench, the singer/producer/songwriter behind Gangstagrass, answers seven questions about "LHTTC." 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Moving with the Wind

Everything Has Its Way - Katie Costello

A couple of years ago I stumbled across "Kaleidoscope Machine," a jaunty tune about being a little off kilter, and was immediately charmed. Turned out it was released in 2008 by Katie Costello, 17 at the time.  I've followed her career with interest ever since, especially as she is an independent artist, with all the attendant challenges and opportunities.  You can see a bit of how she uses her creativity to connect directly with listeners at the top of the video later in this posting.

Last month Katie released a new EP:



Below the fold, she performs "Everything Has Its Way" from the EP and gives insightful answers to seven questions...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Don't You Cry Now

Forget Him - Bobby Rydell

Teen idols get short shrift.  Male pop singers from the late fifties and early sixties - after Elvis was inducted into the Army and before the Beatles conquered America - are often overlooked.  Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Brian Hyland - good looking, clean cut guys who sang catchy if simple love songs.  Paul Anka and Neil Sedaka, who wrote their own songs, are perhaps better known for their 1970s comebacks than for their teen years.

In any musical genre, there are records that are disposable and others that work magic on open-minded ears, to coin an odd phrase.  So it goes with the output of the original American idols.

My favorite song by one of these artists is Bobby Rydell's "Forget Him."  Yes, he was another young, handsome fellow from Philly who sang songs aimed at young girls, but he had (and has) the best set of pipes in his peer group.  Something in the combination of strength and vulnerability in his voice on the lines "So don't you cry now, just tell him goodbye now, forget him and please come home to me" charms me every time.

34 Top 40 hits.  Streets named after him in Philadelphia and in Wildwood, NJ.  The high school in "Grease" bears his name.  A starring role in "Bye Bye Birdie."  Fifty years of touring the globe.  And he still takes the time to graciously answer my questions - look for them and for video of "Forget Him" below the fold.




Thursday, May 24, 2012

As Evil As A Wet Hen

Maybe - The Three Degrees

How often does someone cover a song better than Janis Joplin?  I can think of just once: The Three Degrees' version of "Maybe."  Originally one of the first hits by a girl group when recorded by the Chantels in 1958, "Maybe" peaked at #110 in 1970 for Joplin.  The Three Degrees released their take a couple of months later and it became their first Top 40 hit.

The Three Degrees may be best know for their gorgeous ballad, "When Will I See You Again" and for the vocals on the theme song for Soul Train, "T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia).  They've been touring and recording for more than 40 years -- the longest running female vocal group in history.



Below the fold, a video clip for "Maybe" from 1970 that's a lot of fun.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Starry Skies Back Home

Minnesota - Northern Light

Back in the day, before the world got so small, regional hits sometimes appeared on the pop charts.  One that was big where I grew up never made the national Top 40 - though it did crack the Top 100 - but is fondly remembered by many from Albert Lea to Zumbrota and all points in between: "Minnesota" by Northern Light.

Songs about places appeal to our natural hometown pride.  Shoot, name a city in Texas and odds are I can name a song about it.  Next to love songs, place songs may be the most durable genre.  That's because at heart they are love songs, too, directed not at a who but at a where.

NY - Frank Sinatra.  Georgia - Ray Charles.  Los Angeles - Randy Newman.  San Francisco - Tony Bennett.  Minnesota?  Northern Lights.

After the jump - what the Beach Boys would have sounded like if the beach was Lake Minnetonka instead of Malibu - and answers from Northern Light's David Sandler.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A letter from you know who

A Letter from Anne Marie - Grant Hart

Minneapolis was an amazing place in the 1980s.  Prince, Hüsker Dü and the Replacements were reinventing pop, punk, funk and rock.  Recently, Gorman Bechard directed a documentary about the 'Mats, "Color Me Obsessed," and has now turned his sights to the very compelling Grant Hart of Husker Du.  I encourage you to check out the project on kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1542689813/every-everything-the-music-life-and-times-of-grant) and to pledge if you can.



A quick thought before I get to one of Grant's songs:

Songs that one loves are generally easy to categorize - those that were huge hits; those that feel like they should have been; and those that will only appeal to a smaller audience for whatever reason.  I usually can sort my favorites into these buckets without a problem.  But once in a while there's a song I could listen to endlessly on a loop and I can't quite grasp if it's something a lot of other people would like if they heard it or if it's just me.

"A Letter from Anne Marie" by Grant Hart is a prime example.  To me, it could be a Phil Spector produced track for David Bowie from the 1970s that became an FM staple.  Or maybe a lost Lennon track from the White Album.  But that's not to say that it's a facsimile of other artists - it's a total original by Hart that he sings with real passion.  It strikes home to me.  Everyone can relate to waiting in vain for a letter that never comes - even though now, only 13 years after the song was released, a personal letter arriving via US Mail is a rare thing.

Below the jump: the music and some thoughts from Grant, who graciously responded to my queries with humor and great candor, as you will see.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I got the notion

(It's So) Nice To Be With You - Gallery

Comedies rarely win the Academy Award for Best Picture, which is a shame.  Evidently, some people feel only "serious" works of art are worth rewarding.  In pop music, sometimes songs that are simply fun and cheerful get short shrift, but how often have you chased the blues away by listening to a happy song?  If you're anything like me, many times.  There is great value in that.  No guiltiness in that pleasure.

"(It's so) Nice to be With You" by Gallery hit #4 on the charts in 1972.  The band had two other Top 40 hits in the next year or so... and that was it.  What I like about this single is its purity - the title really says it all.  The lyrics don't get any deeper than that, the melody is lively and very singable.  Pure pop.  Perfect for singing along to with the windows on the car rolled down on a spring day.

The 70s were the last heyday for happy pop songs.  Soon enough, punk and new wave and hip hop and grunge and more would come along - all great genres, to be sure, but something's lost but something's gained...




I reached out to Jim Gold, the singer and writer of "(It's so) Nice to be With You" and his answers to my seven questions appear below the jump:

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

WILLLLMA!

Live At Bedrock - Bruce Springstone

The things that make Bruce Springsteen great are the very things that make him ripe for parody: his earnest working man populism, the distinctive sound of the E Street Band, his penchant (in concert) for leading into songs by telling long stories. Back in 1982, Tom Chalkley and Craig Hankin created a pitch-perfect send-up of the Boss, releasing "Bruce Springstone: Live at Bedrock." The a-side was The Flintstones' Theme Song, the b-side "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

And it's great fun. The patter about a man coming home from the factory to his wife culminates in a perfect "WILLLMA!" before the familiar "Flintstones... meet the Flintstones..." kicks in. Tom gets Bruce's vocal mannerisms just right and there are little musical nods to various BS songs along the way.

Tom and Craig are working on a graphic memoir about those days - you can check out the successful Kickstarter project here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/620762079/if-id-known-back-then-a-graphic-memoir.

They generously answered seven questions for a blog that had yet to debut; I'm grateful for their kindness and quite happy to feature them in my first post. Read on and please feel free to comment.

1 - Did you ever meet Springsteen or hear from him directly about "Live from Bedrock"?
CRAIG HANKIN: When drummer John Ebersberger & I interviewed Max Weinberg for City Paper in the summer of '84, he told us that, during the "Born in the USA" recording sessions, one of the E-Streeters (Nils Lofgren, perhaps?) played a copy of "Springstone" through the studio speakers.  His bandmates looked at each other quizzically at first, trying to figure out what they were hearing, then howled with laughter.



The year before, Clarence Clemons & the Red Bank Rockers came to Johns Hopkins for a concert.  After the show, I went backstage to meet Clarence & give him a copy of the record & a Springstone t-shirt.  Couldn't have been a nicer, more gracious guy.  Happily mugged (with) me for a photographer and the shot (attached) wound up being published in Billboard and Cashbox.



2 - Will Bruce Springstone ever come out of seclusion to play live or record another song? 
TOM CHALKLEYWe are considering including a recording with our comic book, which would have at least 2 Springstone songs that have had only minimal exposure, and possibly a third.

3 - The b-side of the single is also excellent: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."  Did you record or consider any other songs for the b-side?
TC: I have always been of the opinion that "New York, New York" would be a great Bruce song but we did "Ballgame" because we guessed it would have popular appeal (that was right!!)




4 - Tom, did you study Springsteen's vocal mannerisms or were you just singing by instinct?
TC: I listened to a lot of Springsteen in those days, esp. "Born To Run" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town" -- and I'm both an incurable mimic and a baritone like Bruce. So that came easy but I practiced a lot!

5 - The single is in the Guinness Book of World's Records?  Tell me more.
CH: In 1994, WJMP 1520 AM, an Akron, OH sports talk radio station, played our version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" 57,161 TIMES IN A ROW as a protest against that season's Major League Baseball strike.  Apparently, that was enough to land us in the Guinness Book of Sports Records.  (WJMP lost so many listeners during the protest, they ended up changing formats; we're still waiting for ASCAP to pay us the royalties we're owed.)

6 - When did you first realize that the single was going to make a splash? 
CH: Almost immediately.  Ken Tucker wrote a rave review in the Philadelphia Inquirer a few days after the record's release.  The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Village Voice, USA Today & Billboard all followed in short order.  Within 12 weeks, we were being played on 200+ radio stations across the country.


 7- I love the artwork on the record sleeve.  You are both successful visual artists now; who created the single's jacket?
TC: The front cover is by our drummer, John Ebersberger -- brilliant cartoonist! -- and the back cover (aping the style of the front) by Tom C.