Saturday, November 4, 2017

Discography Year Two - Week 9

We've passed into November and soon it will be a year of Trumpian gloom (he's like a Dickens villain that even Dickens thought was poorly sketched and unbelievable), but thankfully I have you wonderful people in my life. We have our normal eclectic collection of great music to keep us going.  The other day I put up the Christmas lights up on the scraggly Charles Brown worthy evergreen at the end of my driveway as an homage to Iceland.  When I was there last year one of the peculiar things they did, that I loved, was put their Christmas lights up early, leave them up late, and keep them lit all night long, which was their defiant flipping off of the darkness.  I told my son that I was going to follow suit when we returned to Vermont, and I, for once, kept my word.  The Discography discussion is the musical equivalent of Icelandic lights.

Gary Beatrice

Lovin’ Spoonful, Do You Believe in Magic?

I try to choose current songs for our selection, but the truth is that since my diagnosis I'm listening more to older songs. In some cases the songs are 5-10 years old but my mind registers them as new, and in other cases the songs are just a couple years younger than me.

The Lovin' Spoonful were remembered unfortunately for their dirty name, and fortunately for their energetic New York City sound. I grew up listening to New York City AM radio and I spent many a night believing that a great rock tune was magic. Today it's "young girl" lyrics are misogynist but since I was 7 when I had the earphones under my pillow the girls I dreamed of were young.

Much of the Spoonful music doesn't stand up in 2017 but this song is every bit as wonderful as it did when I first fell in love with rock n roll.

Dave Wallace

Lilly Hiatt - Records

I recently listened to Trinity Lane, the new album by Lilly Hiatt on NPR streaming, and it really knocked me out.  I had heard of her before (yes, she's John's daughter), but had never listened to any of her previous albums.  Packing more of a punch, both musically and lyrically, than I expected, Trinity Lane is terrific and demonstrates that she's an important artist in her own right.

Hiatt's been clear in interviews that she's gone through some tough times over the last few years, including messy relationships and substance abuse.  Records, one of my favorite songs on the new album, details some of those times, as well as the solace she's found in music:

Six years ago, hope was nothing much 
Waking up to a stranger’s touch 
I gave up vodka, I chilled out on weed 
That record still hung on to me 

I’ll take lonely if it means free 
It’s never how you thought it’d be 
But that record waited up for me 

That record waited up for me 

Phillip Seiler

I have two tracks this week from another band that I think is criminally underrated and unknown. The most recent track from them, and the original focus of this post, is an interesting song for both the material it mines and the structure. 

By Prefab Sprout

If there is an origin story for rock and roll more classic then a deal with the devil, I don't know what it would be. How many songs have mined this territory? So it takes some major courage to think you have something to add to the mix. Paddy McAloon, the songwriter and now only band member of Prefab Sprout, is definitely up to the task. The song fascinates me. There is no chorus that I can discern, no bridge, nothing we would consider to be required for a pop song. And yet, it all holds together driven by this understated and relentless acoustic guitar strumming. Our singer relates his encounter with the devil and the offer he presents. Our singer seems hesitant by the temptations, asking for the details of the cost which are never fully provided. But then the inevitable happens: 
"In his hands were papers, he told me they were signed / My memory is hazy I'm sure that I declined" Certainty.
Soon though:
"In his hands were papers, he showed me they were signed / My memory is hazy I thought that I'd declined" Doubt.
"My memory is hazy I'm sure that I declined" What have I done...

I especially love the repeated lyrics throughout the song as we feel the singer's hazy recollection.

But Paddy has been crafting beautifully constructed tunes for decades. Like so many artists I fall for, he can be frustrating and inconsistent but I admire anyone that follows their own muse into the unexpected. And I can't talk about Prefab Sprout & Paddy McAloon (the story of why they are no longer a band is tragic as medical conditions actually prevent Paddy from being able to record with other musicians) without highlighting the wonder that is their song "Bonny"

This album, Steve McQueen (originally called Two Wheels Good in the US), is a master work from start to finish: jazzy, melancholy, quiet but powerful as if there is this well of energy boiling under the surface of every track. It featured a number of tracks that almost broke through "Johnny, Johnny", "Appetite", "When Love Breaks Down" but for me the star is "Bonny." Lyrically beautiful and clever:  "I spend the days of my vanity" starts the track and then...nothing. Vanity indeed! And then the chorus:

I count the minutes since you slipped away
I count the hours that I lie awake
I count the minutes and the seconds too
All I stole and I took from you

Pure regret all punctuated by this acoustical guitar that sounds as if it wants to explode from all the emotion it holds. Finally it all builds to  toward a conclusion "All my silence and my strained respect" followed by the exclamation mark of piano chords like fists to the sky and then one of my favorite lyrics ever "All my insight's from retrospect / but Bonny don't live at home". Too late. Always too late.  

Cheryl Casey

My song submission this week was chosen for no other reason than I can’t get the damn thing out of my head: ‘Til Tuesday’s Voices Carry

It all started earlier this week when I was catching up on my episodes of the podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression.  (By the way, if you don’t know it, I highly recommend it.) Two weeks ago the guest was Aimee Mann, who I very much love as a singer/songwriter. Of course, the mega-popularity of Voices Carry was referenced several times, and since then, it’s been on constant loop in my brain. 

This stuck song situation has been both good and bad: bad because anything on which I’m stuck and ruminating for this long is just irritating by default; good because I haven’t really heard the song in a while and its recent intrusion offers a meaningful reminder to applaud all of the women whose voices are ringing loud as of late in response to sexual harassment and assault. In the last two weeks, I’ve had 3 female students confide in me that they were absent from class or will be turning in work late because of time and energy spent supporting a friend (either here in Burlington or in their hometown) that had experienced and was reporting a sexual assault. 

The ‘Til Tuesday video ends with Aimee Mann singing out loud in Carnegie Hall, refusing to be hushed, to be quiet anymore. Finally, voices are carrying.

I’m totally bordering on the cheesy, obvious, and trite, but with that song so stuck in my head, I couldn’t not think about these things.

Kathy Seiler

Dark Night of the SoulLoreena McKennitt

Loreena McKennitt is yet another brilliant female Canadian musician. Her music is often categorized as Celtic and “new age” but is much broader than those two categories. She also, in my mind, looks like a red-headed Helen Mirren. But I digress.

McKennitt has an ethereal sound to her singing and plays the harp on many of her songs. I don’t own all of her albums, but have a few of them, and I think The Mask and Mirror album is my favorite. Much of the music on this album is inspired by her travels in Spain and Morocco and her liner notes reflecting on culture and religion for the album are pretty amazing. I almost posted the song The Old Ways, from her album The Visit, which is the most mystical and haunting song I’ve EVER heard, so give that a listen if you are so inclined. For this week’s post though, I’ve chosen Dark Night of the Soul, because it’s based on a poem. And it’s November, and thus begins the season of long, dark nights.

When I first heard this song (more than 20 years ago), I thought it was a beautiful and tender song about two secret lovers meeting in the night. When I listened again, I thought it was about two male secret lovers meeting in the night. Then when I read up on it, I found out it’s about meeting God in the night, as your lover and as you leave your life. I also discovered it is based on a poem by St. John of the Cross, a Spanish poet and Carmelite (Christian) priest who lived in the 1500s.

I am struck every time I hear this song by the narrative. God is your lover. Your ultimate, true lover. Apparently, Carmelites seek direct experiences with God, which I suppose is why this poem/song is written as though God is an actual, physical being with whom you can commune. The intimacy between you and your God that is expressed in this song is not something I’ve come across while growing up Protestant, or what I know from Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu friends (but then again, I’ve never been very good at religion). Buddhism doesn’t have a God so there isn’t any link there either. I don’t know why, but I find it very intriguing that if you are going to believe in God, that they be as accessible to you as your true love would be. That’s some kind of beautiful.

Dave Kelley

"The Randall Knife"    Guy Clark

Over the last few weeks I have been listening to a lot of music created by the great Texas singer/songwriters of the last forty years or so.  By definition, that means a lot of Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, and Townes Van Zandt.  I have loved their music for some time and will always continue to return to it.  I owe my love of Guy Clark, hell the fact that I know of Guy Clark, to two towering musical geniuses:  Townes Van Zandt and Gary Beatrice.  Thanks gents.

I am a minimalist at heart and am most moved by artists, be they writers, singers, or film makers who are able to do more with less.  I really enjoy James Ellroy, but will always prefer Jim Thompson and his economy of words.  I adore the fact that several of the Coen brothers director's cut releases of their films are actually shorter than the theatrical releases, and one of my favorite aspects of Lucinda Williams' lyrics is that they convey so much in so few words.  Eric Clapton once said that the silence between the notes is more powerful than what is being played.  Amen.

I find this song to be hauntingly beautiful and melancholy.  Clark speaks the words as opposed to singing them, and really just strums an acoustic guitar underneath the lyrics.  No showy musicianship or high production values here.  I find the impact of the song as a whole to be so powerful.  It is hard for me to listen to it without getting a bit teary eyed.

Now my dad did not have a Randall knife, but like Clark's late father who was the inspiration for the song, he was a WW2 veteran who died too soon.  Since I showed my agnostic side a few posts ago, I guess I am balancing that out by showing my spiritual side here.  My dad was a very devout Christian who believed firmly that you should preach the Gospel through your actions at all times and only through your words when specifically asked to do so.  He did not wear a cross, a crucifix, or religiously themed cufflinks.  I think he would have found it unseemly to do so.  I was raised to think that anyone who went out of their way to tell you how patriotic or religious they were, was not to be trusted.

Dad did carry a cheap metal cross in his pants pockets.  Always.  I doubt if it cost a quarter when he got it many years ago.  You might get fifty cents for it now.  The only person he carried it for was himself.  I doubt anyone outside the family knew he had it.  It was not a talisman or intended to ward off evil.  It certainly was not there to impress anyone.  It was just a small and tangible reminder to him of what he believed.  He knew it was there, and God knew it was there.  That was all that mattered to him.

Dad died in 1984, and I still have that cross in a safe place at home.  I do not carry it for two reasons.  The first is that I am absent minded and would probably lose it.  The second and more important reason is that I do not deserve to carry it.  The first time I heard this song I thought of that cross, and I still think about it every time I listen.  I am sorry if this reads more like a writing assignment handed out by a therapist as opposed to a blog post.  I guess the season and the weather have put me in an autumnal state of mind.  

Kevin Andrews

There was a time when I took classes during the morning in downtown Philadelphia and in the afternoon volunteered/interned/got in the way at a little place called something like the Peoples Print Shop. I don’t remember the name. It was part of a larger group that included a medical facility and other businesses I don’t remember. The 19-year-old me admired their change the world spirit. The 20-year-old me wanted to be paid. Anyway, the walk from Market St. to South St. was probably 12 or so blocks and half way I’d stop and have lunch in one of the many parks in the old part of the city.  I vividly remember the sound of women’s shoes clicking across the pavement and the rhythm it created. One minute it was quiet and then the beats would fade in and fade out. Sometimes they would syncopate, other times it was cacophonous. This song, which I heard for the first time around then, reminds me of this. 

Portrait of Those Beautiful Ladies is from one of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s last albums, The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color. Yes, the fourth side was blank, mostly. It was released about 6 months before he had a stroke in 1975 which left him confined to a wheel chair. Blind since he was two, this made it even more difficult to play 3 instruments simultaneously as he was used to doing. Many of the songs on the record appear twice with different arrangements. The second can be found here

Alice Neiley

One word for you all: Shalala. Or is that three words? Sha, la, and la? In any case, I’ve been thinking a lot about what vocalists/composers call “non-lexical vocables” lately. Not all of them, either, because between traditional yodeling, the endless use of scat in vocal jazz, and doo-wop tunes like “Mr. Bassman” and “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp Shoo Bomp)”, that would be all consuming, leaving me quite unable to life my life productively.

I won’t spend much time on the tunes where “shalala” appears in backup vocals (The Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You” for example), because I’m more interested in what “shalala” developed into. These days, it seems to be more frequently used as an expression of something otherwise impossible to express. At least that’s how I think about it, because really, what else does ‘shalala’ sound like, except a release of the uncontainable? Uncontainable joy, usually.

Think about it: “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, one of the best (if slightly overplayed) “shalala” songs ever made: the “shalala” is the little dance you do in your room when you’re in love, the one that would be embarrassing in public, or the road trip with your feet out the window, or, if nothing else, the glittery sheen of memory. How do you express the truth of those moments in words? Yeah, that’s right. You don’t. You “shalala” them.

Yet another excellent Canadian singer songwriter, Emm Gryner, tried for years to work “shalala” into a song because she felt it was necessary, even healthy, to include that level of abandon and happiness. If her song “Ageless” weren’t excellent enough—great melody, great lyrics “you’re ageless, contagious”, and Emm Gryner’s voice is fantastic—the “shalala” reinforces the mysterious nature of agelessness, the ageless spirit, the way people often remain ageless in our memories, and more often in our hearts.

The Counting Crows “Mr. Jones” uses “shalala” in a slightly different, more edgy way (naturally), an expression of almost desperate hope, desire to be loved, to be somebody. It’s almost verb-like in its intensity.

My favorite, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, is Al Green’s “Shalala.” First of all, I saw Al Green live a number of years ago, and it changed my life. He was electrifying. He actually flicked sweat on me. Not intentionally, but you get the idea. Anyway, he elevates the importance of these “non-lexical vocables” by using them as the title. Titles command a certain amount of respect, after all. The main reason for my favoritism, though, is his voice. I mean…can you beat that shalala-ing? Mellow, unabashedly joyful, sweet (but not sugar sweet…like…molasses sweet), and sexy. You didn’t think ‘shalala’ could be sexy? Ah, well, you must not have heard Al. You can thank me later. For now, continue on with your day, and go “shalala” a bit, would you?

Gary Scudder

John Coltrane, Blue Train

There are songs that are almost too obvious to promote here in the Discography, or to discuss with a group of friends while enjoying adult scholarly beverages, and Coltrane's Blue Train is one of them.  Actually, this would be a great thematic week: Songs That Are Too Obvious To Be Appreciated.  In our mad rush to promote the unknown or newly discovered we often forget the iconic, and the fact that the songs or bands are iconic for a reason. Blue Train is the first track of Coltrane's 1958 album of the same name.  The ensemble is brilliant: Coltrane (tenor sax), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Kenny Drew (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and "Philly" Joe Jones (drums).  I have to admit - and I hate to admit (because I'm always appalled at my own ignorance) - that I knew nothing of Lee Morgan, and he is a revelation on this album.  I'll have more to say about him next week.  Coltrane opens the song brilliantly and then Morgan jumps in about the three and a half minute mark, and he just blows it out for three minutes before handing it down the line.  I guess you could listen to it without snapping your fingers, but I don't know how.  The album is just essential.  As much as I love A Love Supreme, Blue Train is simply more accessible.  A Love Supreme is almost, if this makes any sense, spiritually exhausting, whereas I can listen to Blue Train endlessly (as I have been for weeks now in my car).  There are no bad songs on the album.  Lazy Bird, arguably the "weakest" song on the album is utterly infectious, and would be the best song on most albums. I celebrated his beautiful cover of I'm Old Fashioned on this album in last year's Discography.  As the kids used to say, "all killer, no filler."  Actually, that made me think: how soon will the phrase "like a broken record" go out of use because it will have no context?

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