Welcome and Explanation

Well, it seems like music was bleeding over a lot into my other blog, The Queer Next Door. So I decided to start a separate blog just for music alone. Since I have a nauseatingly big CD collection, I am constantly listening to music that I haven't heard in years. And when I do, I understand just why I loved the music instantly or grew to love it over time.
This is not a place for new music (I'm old).
This is not a recommendation site (this is only my taste in music, y'all ... I'm just sharing).
I am definitely not a music reviewer. (Most critics are just bitter and cynical... just sayin')
Most of the music will come from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. You can say that I'm stuck in the past. Most times, you're right.
Enjoy, if you'd like.
And thank you for reading... TQND

Monday, March 21, 2011

Running from Remedy to Twice As Hard

Tonight when The Man and I got home from dinner with friends, I came into the office to start surfing, reading  blogs and checking e-mail.  I loaded up the music on my iTunes with the Genius tool  Now if you are not familiar with Genius, it is a device on iTunes that will automatically build a playlist of songs based on one that you select.  Tonight, I picked Remedy by the Black Crowes to form a playlist.

One of my favorite pleasures is stumbling across songs in my music collection that I have never heard.   The first song on the list of 25 was Stranglehold by Ted Nugent.  Now, I never really was a big fan of the Nuge.  My older cousin Terry was into Nugent and had a couple of his albums back when I was a kid.  With the first bars of the song before the lyrics began, The Man strolled into the office and said "Oh, Stranglehold.  Cool!"  (My guy amazes me at the oddest times.  Here is a man who is comfortable listening to both Cher and Rammstein).  I was only familiar with a couple of Ted Nugent tunes:  Cat Scratch Fever, which kinda just annoyed me and Free for All, which I actually enjoyed and remember from my teens with adolescent delight from the "When in doubt, whip it out" lyric.  Anyway, I'm sure I will return to Stranglehold to listen again.  It’s a good rocker.

The next couple of songs that came up were songs that I am very familiar with:  Authority Song from John Mellancamp's Uh-Huh album (I wore out that cassette tape while I was in high school) and Jealous Again by the Black Crowes (which I couldn't get away from listening to the radio back in the early 90s).

Next came a couple of classic rockers:  Monkey Man and When the Levee Breaks.  I heard the Rolling Stones song from listening to Let It Bleed many times and the Led Zepplin song was on steady rotation on AOR radio when I was a teen.

The song that came up after that was a bit strange for me.  The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band.  If I'd been creating the mix manually, I would have never included that song.  The song has always been in my musical life from the time I watched The Last Waltz with my uncle back when I was ten years old.  And then Up on Cripple Creek came up in the mix.  iTunes was determined to pair The Band with the Black Crowes.  Though I didn't see much influence from one to the other, who am I to question Apple?

Next up, the original song to build the mix: Remedy.  This is one of my favorite rootsy rockers.  I saw the Crowes tour behind The Southern Harmony and Music Companion and it was one of my favorite shows.  They tore down Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium.  But the song rocking like early 70s Stones sounded unusual following a couple of more-mellow Band numbers.

Unchained by Van Halen, which I knew now but completely missed when I was a teen.  I guess since Fair Warning was a bit darker than their other work, I had jumped directly from Women and Children First to Diver Down.

Returning to the Black Crowes, the mix went to Thorn in My Pride and then to Back in the Saddle by Aerosmith.  And then to a very Black Crowes influencing Tumbling Dice by the Rolling Stones.   Followed by 7mary3 performing Cumbersome, another song in my collection that did not sound familiar.  I liked it, but it sounded too grungy and tough to me for this mix.

And then back to Van Halen’s Dance the Night Away, now a bit too poppy for the mix.
But then it jumped to Thank You by Led Zepplin, which I would not have matched with Remedy (but Led Zepplin sounds pretty good with most anything).

And then onto Pearl Jam’s Not for You.  Again, too grungy and tough.

Back to Van Halen again for Running With the Devil, too hard-edged to be paired with Remedy.

Tuesday’s Gone by Lynyrd Skynyrd came on next, and suddenly I was back as a teen driving my green Ford pick-up on the dirt roads in northern Louisiana.

The Waiting, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.   Yeah, I would throw this in with Remedy.

And back to the Stones with Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, the song that obviously most influenced the Crowes for Remedy:  blistering guitar work,  full background vocals, long instrumental break, its strutting style.

And bouncing back to Led Zepplin What Is and What Should Never Be.  Again, I couldn’t see the connection to Remedy, but I’m not in charge here.  Genius is.

Pink Houses, again from Mellencamp’s Uh-Huh.  The Stones influence shining here too.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with Here Comes My Girl came next.  I don’t get the connection between the Black Crowes and Petty but maybe I not thinking about it in the correct frame.

Pearl Jam’s Corduroy came next, but as I said before “too grungy and tough” (but this is my favorite PJ song, so I let it play and took the time to backtrack and edit).

The set ended with Twice As Hard, so I guess ending a playlist based on an artist’s song with a song by that same artist is really kinda awesome.  I’ll have to try that with Genius again sometimes.  But for now, I’m going to rock myself to the bedroom.  G’night.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Let's Meet on the Corner and Act Like We're Old Friends

Josh Rouse surprised me.  Damn him and damn me.  When I get surprised by a musical artist, I hold their music in my mind and get a bit fanatical: often buying their complete catalogue, listening to their songs incessantly, sharing my enthusiasm of the music with friends. 

One of my favorite resources for discovering artists is the website allmusic.com.  The site reviews almost every new CD that is released.  On February 22, 2005, I checked the site and was surprised.  Dammit.

Josh’s CD “Nashville” had been released.  And it had garnered a four and ½ star review (out of a possible five stars).  AND with its designated bold-gray “check,” the CD had been selected as his best release (out of a then-total five solo releases).  I had noticed that a couple of my friends whose musical taste I respected had Josh’s previous CD “1972” in their collection, but I hadn’t heard that CD.  

The “Nashville” title threw me off at first.  Though I had in my youth, I was not listening to much mainstream country music at that time.  But the review on allmusic included phrases like “sunny melodies” and “bouncy and dreamy,” so I was sure that the CD was Pop (my favorite genre).  In addition to reviews, the site offers song samples.  I listened to the first song sample for “It’s the Nighttime.”  With its steady rhythm, simple yet rich arrangement, and Josh’s slightly raspy tenor, I liked the song immediately.  Then just a little way into the song sample, I heard steel guitar.  The sound was a weakness for me, rooted in my listening to a lot of 70s California rock like the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. I might have listened to other song samples at that time, but the review and that one song sample could have been enough support for me to buy the CD.

When I first played the CD, I was immediately captivated.  “It’s the Nighttime” began with a bit of studio feedback , a background count-in of “2..,3..,4…,” then a strummed acoustic guitar without accompaniment until the steel guitar soon joined in.   The song had all the right elements for me: an easy shuffle tempo, great harmony vocals, clever lyrics. 

“Winter in the Hamptons” followed; an upbeat pop number with a driving yet lithe tempo complete with “Ba-da-da, Ba-ba” singing, hand claps and bright background vocals.

And then the CD utterly hooked me.  The sounds of sweet strings entered, swelling slightly, fading and then expanding again.  The strings were accompanied by disconnected but unified individual piano notes falling down the scale.  The strings and piano disappeared to feature Josh’s acoustic guitar and clear voice for the first verse of “Streetlights.”  The major and minor key shifts grounded the wistful ballad: piano and strings working themselves in and out, bass guitar and drums accenting.  The song that had started so simply became full and breathtaking, returning at its closing stages to the easy sway of the beginning.

While the first three songs pulled me in, the remainder of the CD kept me snared:  the lazy feel of “Saturday,” the heartbreaking piano prayer of “Sad Eyes,” the coffee-house philosophy of “Life.”  In the span of 40 minutes, Josh Rouse ran the gamut from capriciousness to despair to encouragement.

After that first experience with Josh Rouse, I did get a bit fanatical.  I purchased most of his catalogue, I listened to his songs incessantly, and I shared my enthusiasm for his music with my friends.  He continues to surprise me.  But that’s all right; I enjoy surprises.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In Tribute to the King & Power Pop - Phantom Planet "The Guest"

Before they got adopted by “The O.C.” I fell hard for Phantom Planet. Their song, “California” from their second album The Guest, had been adopted as the theme song for the TV drama focused on the young and affluent tweens in the conservative wasteland below Los Angeles (which all middle America seemed at the time to think of as Wonderland). With its chorus, “California, Californiaaaaa…Here we come” that built from a spare beginning to where it was less a theme song than an anthem. The perfect song for the age and income set – those middle class kids with white-bread dreams of the Golden Coast.

But I fell in love with Phantom Planet before that. I think I caught the video for “California” on-line. A simple, mostly black-and-white video that showed the guys just kidding around, playing music, being goofy. Simple but endearingly sweet. It looks like a bunch of young guys having a great time. Young guys that admittedly came from Upper Middle Class families. A little spoiled, but having a good time in a completely innocent fashion. But it wasn’t the video that snared me. It was the music. The song was Power Pop. And to me, Power Pop is like heroin. The song begins simply with just an elementary piano riff, that most anyone could pick out on the keyboard. But in great Power Pop fashion, the song swells and retracts, explodes and retreats, erupts and crumbles.

I bought the CD just for that song. Now everyone does this from time to time. That one song, and then you discover that the rest of the CD sucks. (It’s actually only happened a couple of time for me, I’m an excellent judge of music … aw, shucks). That did not happen for me with The Guest.

Because immediately after the opening of “California” came “Always on My Mind,” a superb Elvis Costello knock-off. It was like “Elvis-lite” from the This Year’s Model period.

And after that, what was to be the second hit from the CD, “Lonely Day,” a song with an almost-Jamaican shuffle. You can imagine the steel drum band behind the guitars in the verses before the music kicks in the chorus and turns a little more bar-band based. Cool song. It was less successful as a single than “California” but it didn’t have the strength of "The O.C."  It is a better song, by my measure.

The ballad “One Ray of Sunlight” comes next. It’s a sweet song. Alex Greenwald, the lead singer and chief songwriter, croons and wails convincingly. It’s a nice break from the earlier pop madness.
“Anthem.” Here they almost lost me. This song was trying too hard. The first verse was a bit neat; I thought the guys were trying to be ironically cute.
I woke up today, a song was swimming in my head
And I hummed it to myself as I got out of bed.
And on the way to take a shower it all just dawned on me
That a song like this might just go down in history
I quickly ran back to get my guitar, a pen and some paper
I liked how the tune was going. And then the chorus came in all earnest. That almost ruined it.
The verses of the song continue in an ironic tone. And they are catchy. And then the chorus comes in again and almost ruins it again. Well, that’s what I thought at the time. I like the song a bit more now, but I had to grow to love it. It’s a bit tattered and garage-sounding. I can dig that.

Then the band pulled me back in with the ragged “In Our Darkest Hour.” A bit more of the Elvis-influence pop, this on the more rock-oriented angry Elvis in the style of “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” or … well, … “I’m Not Angry.” It was quick angular music that ended like garbage cans rattling.

This noise is followed by the smooth, sliding “Turn, Smile, Shift, Repeat,” a bit of Radiohead-influenced pop with Alex Greenwald singing in a slightly-monotone voice. The song just plods along for almost 5 and ½ minutes. But in an interesting way. It is quite similar to “Karma Police,” but drained a bit of its threat by the young band.

And then “Hey Now Girl” follows quickly on the heels of the creeper before, with rather techno-like beat, but dissolving rapidly into a straight-ahead rocker, a la Matthew Sweet, Cheap Trick, The Romantics, The Cars, … Elvis Costello. A full chorus with great harmonies, and a bouncy beat. If you were listening, you were probably tapping something.
And then, something very funny. Phantom Planet threw it all out for everyone to see. See what big Elvis-worshippers they were. With its opening couplet of:
Everything is ok
Everything is fine.
Which sounded identical to the first song from This Year’s Model’s “No Action”
I don’t want to kiss you
I don’t want to touch
“Nobody’s Fault” proved it once and for all. The songs were structured in the exact same fashion. The same angry/hurt tone. The same way that Elvis’ song chugged along like all the wheels were about to fall off. Phantom Planet actually toured with Elvis following the release of The Guest. And I got to see them together here in Houston. Apparently, the big guy was impressed with all the adulation of these young gents and their own chops. They were convincingly producing very good tributes to some of the great music that preceded them. And making it fresh.

The rest of the album is just as good. “All Over Again” is the group at its most alternative, what was closest to the mainstream in rock at the time of this CD’s release. And the song works as a reliable jam. The following song “Wishing Well” is a bit more experimental with industrial sounds and cold emotionless vocal in the verses and an impassioned dramatic chorus. It borders on trite, but it’s enjoyable. You can hear the ELO and Queen influences here mixed in with the Radiohead. The album ends in the acoustic “Something is Wrong,” a whispered voice over a lone guitar. The ballad closes a brilliant listening experience.

(Since I purchased the CD soon after its release, I also got a bonus disc with three songs. “The Guest,” the title (?) song, at which I understood perfectly why it was not included on the CD proper. It was a sneering almost drunken song that did not fit the mood of the other songs at all. A live version of “California,” which I did not particularly care for. It almost illustrated why the song could get tiresome quickly. It missed the quirkiness of the studio version, the chorus sounded forced, a lead guitar blared the riff that formerly was reserved for the piano. The sweetness and gusto was muted. But the bonus disc also included the edgy “Do the Panic,” another of the power pop Elvis Costello or Matthew Sweet inspired gems, later to be a single from their fourth CD, Raise the Dead.)

I listened to this CD constantly for weeks, maybe months. And then The O.C. crushed it for me. I couldn’t get away from “California, Californiaaaaa…Here we come.” I heard it all over the radio; I saw it on the ubiquitous TV ads for "The O.C."  One day at lunch, one of my co-workers gushed over the show and the theme song. I think I put the CD away for a while soon after that.

I was living in Los Angeles when the record company released the third CD from the group, the self-titled Phantom Planet. Great expectations. The ads were everywhere. Bus stops, park benches, building facades. But the public had a different reaction. "The O.C." glimmer had faded a bit. The sunny pop had retreated and been replaced by Strokes and Interpol influences kicking the Elvis and Cheap Trick ones to the curb. I’m certain it sold somewhat well at release. I purchased it. But it was much harder-edged than the sophomore album. I did not buy their fourth album, nor did many other people, I believe. I heard nothing of its release, and merely stumbled across it while shopping one day.

The band is now in now “on hiatus,” interpreted by many in the industry as “broke-up.”

The CD rarely comes out off the shelf. I almost never have the CD in my truck to listen to during my work commute or trips homes to see family or for random road trips. But if the computer music system picks a track from the CD randomly, I will often pull up the entire CD and listen to it all the way through. It always holds surprises, at how these “kids” pulled together an entire album of influences and entertained me and themselves all the way through.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"The Hardest Part Of Living Is Loving"

I was aware of her, even interested. I am not certain of the first time that I heard her sing, but I am fairly sure that it was on the Academy Awards show. She performed her Oscar-nominated song “A Soft Place to Fall.” Now either before or after that, I purchased the soundtrack from The Horse Whisperer, which had featured the song. The soundtrack was an absolute alt-country jackpot with performances by Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Dwight Yoakum (just to name a few). But now, thinking back … I think I had first noticed Allison Moorer by catching her video for “Set You Free,” a smoky break-up song that was featured on her debut Alabama Song. And I believe I noted how similar her voice was to the amazing Shelby Lynne. To my un-astonishment, I found out later that they were sisters.

In any event, I did not purchase Alabama Song then.

But when The Hardest Part was released, I purchase it as soon as it was available. On the strength of hearing “A Soft Place to Fall” and seeing the video for “Set You Free” only once, I was compelled to grab her second offering. Well, those earlier brushes with her music plus some incredible photography on the CD case. On the front cover, Allison was lying on a black hardwood floor in a spaghetti-strap top, her fair locks spilled around her head, her porcelain skin illuminating the darkness. The back cover: Allison leaning slightly forward in a doorway, her red hair framing a beautiful face, blue eyes piercing the air. She was my dreamgirl.

Ok…to the music…

At first listen, I was deceived a bit. Starting with a lone fiddle with a mandolin, acoustic guitar and brushes on the drum joining in after the intro bar, The Hardest Part begins with the title track. Sounding like dancehall music from western Kentucky. You could think of Loretta Lynn or Kitty Wells and not be too far off the mark.
The hardest part of living is loving
'Cause loving turns to leaving every time
With its lovelorn lyrics, the song establishes the mood for the entire set. But not musically.  The ride was going to be a bit more full than the simple hillbilly waltz of the title song.

Southern-fried slow guitar chords open “Day You Said Goodbye” with Moorer singing slow and easy. Half-way through the first verse, easy background vocals, bass guitar and drums fill out the arrangement. But the song opens wider in the chorus with a jam-packed backing of organ, piano and harmonica added to the mix. The song sounds like it could have been in the softer segment of the canons of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws or some Deep-South outfit.
I’d rather die than face a new day
'Cause I always wake to find
That I'm feeling just as lonely
As the day you said goodbye
Allison sings this mid-tempo burner with soul and depth, trying to woo her love back to her.

Which bring us to the easy groove of “It’s Time I Tried,” the first of the songs on the recording that earned Allison comparisons to Dusty Springfield back in her Memphis period (Allison's sister Shelby would later record an entire album of Dusty songs). "It's Time I Tried" eases in on a descending bass slide, a clocklike backbeat, an easy steel and random guitar licks. Throw in some sweet strings at the chorus, and it’s a thrilling little song. At the bridge, Allison echoes herself by talking the lyrics as she sings them:
All I do is long for you
When I turn out the lights
‘Cause nothing’s left but loneliness
To hold onto at night
And the song comes to an end with sustained sweet strings.

The Dusty influence is manifested on the following song as well, "Best That I Can Do." It is another song of resignation over a broken heart that will not heal, which Allison sings with warmth.
Someday I’ll do better but ‘til then,
I can’t let you know how hurt I’ve been.
I wish I had you back with me
But I won’t play on your sympathy
To get you in my arms once again.
The interplay of the steel, the lead guitar and the strings in the instrumental break borders on enthralling.

The song “Think It Over” comes next with one of my favorite moments of the recording. In a fragment of studio banter prior to the start of the music, Allison says “Wait…let me get the sweat off my fingers…” (but she says ‘fangers’ like a good Southern girl). In the boogie-groove of the song, she calls a man out for the dog that he is:
I know why you cheat on me,
(Always running round and round)
Every time I turn my back.
(You’ll never change)
Every woman loves a bit differently
(But hurts the same);
That’s what keeps you going,
That’s what keeps you trapped.
The song rips past on a track of spite and anger.  Sorta like her version of "These Boots Are Made for Walking"

The only true love song of the set, “Bring Me All Your Lovin’” makes up for the bile and blues of all the other heartbreakers. The song is so sublime that Trisha Yearwood covered it for her Where Your Road Leads CD (where Trisha had the incomparable Buddy Miller harmonizing with her). The song speaks to a lover in simple terms offering an insight on just how easy it is to keep the singer satisfied.
There’s nothing at the Five and Dime that I really need.
Your kiss is the only gift that means a thing to me.
And another Dusty song follows. The slow shuffle “Is It Worth It” outlines the end of a dying relationship. Again, Allison sounds prepared to accept the fact that the end of the line has been reached.
Is it worth the both of us staying?
If you think so, then you’re the only one.
Not stated with a swagger, but with a shrug.

The incredible “Send Down an Angel” comes next. In a perfect world, this song would have topped the country charts and crossed over to big success on the pop charts as well (it could have happened in the late 70s or early 80s). Beginning with a straightforward piano accompanied by a mellotron (played by the late musical genius Jay Bennett, formerly of Wilco), the song builds, layer upon layer of organ, guitar, steel, strings, until Allison's full-throated prayer for relief from a bad match descends into a sigh at the end. It’s the type of song that one could imagine Tammy Wynette or even Martina McBride having a go at. The song continues the theme of “Think It Over,” but instead of pointing the finger, the lyrics here take an introspective slant:
When it comes to love, I’m in the dark.
I don’t understand
Why I stand by my man.
All he’s ever done is break my heart.

I can’t find the answer by myself.
I need help.
The recording moves along to the walking rhythm of “No Next Time,” where Allison lays down the law to her man (played here by Lonesome Bob, the gruff-voice country guy harmonizing). The final straw has broken the back, and the musical confrontation marches along for over six minutes. Bob sings in the final chorus with Allison joining in on a vaguely mocking tone:
I didn’t mean to break your heart
I apologize
If you’ll just give me one more chance
They’ll be no next time
I promise I will never break your heart again.
And you know by her resolve, that there indeed will not be an “again.”

The set ends with the only other love song on the CD. “Feeling That Feeling Again.” So maybe there will be a “next time.” This song covers the old ground of terminating a relationship and realizing that everything is wrong with the ending.
I thought I had put it behind me
I guess that why I’m so surprised
That my heart started racing
When I ran into you tonight
And just like love that so many have experienced, it’s a big circle: the thrill that sustains us through “Bring My All Your Loving,” the anger and realization of “Think It Over,” the heartbreak of “Day You Said Goodbye,” the loneliness of “Send Down An Angel.”

But the set does not really end with “Feeling That Feeling Again.” There is a hidden untitled song at the end of the CD. The song is simply a strummed guitar, a cello and Allison singing, recounting the true story of the murder/suicide that took her parents lives. For its length, the brief song shows you exactly from where she and her sister Shelby came.

Although their respective music careers have taken them on vastly different courses, I continue to follow the music of both women. The hardest part of living may be loving.  But loving Allison Moorer's music is the easiest part of all.

Friday, May 7, 2010

"Could You Tell Me Why I Feel So Sad about It?"

Something bad happened. I read that it was personal. I read that it was professional. I read that it was romantic. Without sounding cruel, I’m glad “it” happened (whatever "it" was). Everything Changed came from that something bad.

I lived in California back then. My partner (at that time) and I traveled from Los Angeles to the Bay Area to visit his son and daughter-in-law and to see her string quartet perform at Berkeley. And on that trip, we visited Amoeba Music. Abra Moore had just released her third solo album, so it was on the new release endcap at the store and on sale. I picked it up. I had her previous album Strangest Places (I got it as a freebee from working in a music store a few years earlier). I enjoyed that CD, mainly due to songs like the sweet “Your Faithful Friend,” the burning “Never Believe You Now,” and the pop syrup of “Four-Leaf Clover.” I liked the CD.  I only liked it.

On the drive back to Los Angeles, we took the Pacific Coast highway. I think we alternated between only two discs on the way home. The Original Cast Recording of Promises, Promises, the Broadway show by Bert Bacharach, which featured the first appearance of the Dionne Warwick classic “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (my then-partner's choice), and my choice, the new Abra Moore disc.

While I did have to endure the Broadway recording in intervals, Everything Changed was the perfect soundtrack for the ride along the cliffs of the coast. The album opens with “I Do” like the horizon over the ocean: the hum of a keyboard chords joined by arpeggios on a synthesizer, then additional broken chords on the piano and ascending scales on a muted horn … like the sky opening up. Abra sings softly at first with her voice breaking slightly when the music swells and the chorus begins. She sings to assure that she understands and will always be there. To whom? I’m not sure. Friend? Lover? Family? Not important, I suppose. The song is a wonderful start to the set. Abra is there for you.

The next song “No Fear” starts with a spare arrangement of beats and padded chords with an almost hip-hop groove that continues through the drowsy first verse with Abra singing solo. At the chorus, the song opens just a bit wider with added background and echoed vocals and a rich arrangement with full strings and stronger beats. The languor returns on the second verse, but in the second chorus the song builds again to the bridge (the boldest part of the song). The groove of the song was a perfect accompaniment to the white-knuckle drive high above the ocean. Again, Abra sings a song about how you can rely on her.

Which brings us to “Big Sky.” This song begins with Abra softly alternating between two notes with her voice, with a guitar chiming in softly, picking out complementary notes. Then an electric guitar propels the song to its true start where the piano, bass and drums join in. The people of EA games had Abra re-record the song in Simlish (the “fake” language used in Sims) so it could be added to the game. The song really does sound like pure joy.

Did I start this post saying that something bad must have happened? Sounds pretty rosy so far, huh? Here’s where it all appears to have fallen apart … and it must have been painful…

Like “I Do” and “Big Sky” before it, “If You Want Me To” seems to materialize out of nowhere with a swelling sustained chord that is joined by a plucked guitar alternating between notes and perfectly sweet strings. Abra’s soft voice starts with:
If you want me to
I’ll lie about the way it really feels
And if you want me to
I’ll turn around and forget the whole deal
It’s a heartbreaking moment. The love and dedication offered in the first three songs was misspent.
She sings:
‘Cause I followed you
Just the way that you wanted me to
And you reached out your hand and took hold
Then you let go

I’ve fallen in love with you
And it just burns

“If You Want Me To” is followed by the explanation of “Taking Chances.” Abra outlines what got her to this point of emotional catastrophe. And how simple and reasonable her romantic demands truly are.

Bad love is bad love. “Melancholy Love” You can already tell that this is not going to go well. The song sounds light and charming with its skittering beats and light keyboard touches, but take a listen to the lyrics…
Well, I’ll meet you in the middle
And I’ll crawl to the edge
And I’ll stand there forever
Just to see if I can
And I’ll cry a river
As I lay in your bed
No, no, no … Abra. This is not good for you. But at least she realizes it; later she sings:
We were running wild and young
It was only just for fun
Wasn’t It?
This melancholy love

Could you tell me why I feel so sad about it?
“Family Affair” starts with just piano and Abra’s singing:
I sleep all day
What makes me feel this way?
And everything’s a bust.
What happened to the Abra who was singing so happily for “Big Sky”?

“Pull Away” – piano, soft strings and Abra singing. More despair.

…will we let go slow...?
“The End” – acoustic guitar and Abra singing. More hopelessness.

…no reason to pretend anymore…
“Everything Changed” – piano and Abra singing. More anguish.

…I’m standing in the shower. I’m crying…

“Paint on Your Wings” – guitar and Abra singing. More pain. But this time, Abra appears to be singing her father to sleep for his last time.
Waiting for you to let it all go
To give up this fight
You’re finally going to know
What’s on the other side
Sweet, but still heartbreaking.

“I Win” – piano, strings and Abra singing. More resignation.
O.K. I win,
You finally lost me
You’re letting me go
I’m walking away

…I can’t get you out of my heart.
And after all that heartbreak… with the final song “Shining Star,” it seems like she’s worked through it all and has come to a beautiful realization:
As blind as I am
As cruel as you are
I always thought
You’d be my shining star

You keep calling me back to you
But what are friends for?
What if I travel around the world
And only see your face?
The music is joyful again and resolved. But it was a long trip getting there.

I cannot play her CDs around "The Man" anyway. Like I’ve said before, Abra breaks his little-girl-voice rule.  But I do listen to the CD often; it is on my iPod and the CD lives in my pick-up.  Frankly, it's a rare occasion that I can listen to this CD all the way through.  I can usually make it to “Melancholy Love” before it starts to get unbearable. Not the music, but the mood. The emotion that saturates the songs from “Family Affair” through “I Win” is overwhelming sad.

I’ve only been through one break-up since this CD was introduced into my collection. And to be honest, for a couple of months I listened to a lot of those Everything Changed heartbreakers. But that’s why people need music like this.

So Abra … I’m sorry you had to go through it. But … thank you so much for sharing it with us.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

"Don't It Always Seem to Go..."

While not my most favorite Joni Mitchell CD, Ladies of the Canyon is the first recording of hers that I bought strictly because I wanted to hear Joni’s voice and music. I purchased this CD after listening to a lot of Blue (my favorite Joni disc). But I was stuck in Connecticut visiting the man that I was dating at the time, and I was without Blue.

The boyfriend had an appointment with a doctor (or an attorney or a dentist or an accountant – I don’t really remember). What I do remember is deep snow everywhere, and as a southern boy, I felt quite a bit out of my element. So I dropped him at his appointment and headed for shelter. And my idea of shelter is always some place where they sell music.

The nearest music retail was a local Barnes & Noble or Borders or something like that. Book, coffee bar, music … you know the place. I skipped the books (I’m sure that I had some Faulkner with me anyway), I skipped the coffee (these folks wouldn’t make the brew Louisiana-strong to my taste), I headed directly to the music section.

I found the Joni Mitchell recordings. I sure that they had Court and Spark, For the Roses, or Mingus (most music retail during that time, 10 years ago, stocked those), but I grabbed Ladies of the Canyon. I at least knew a couple of songs on the disc. I purchased it and headed back to my boyfriend’s vehicle to relax and wait on his call to retrieve him.

As soon as I plugged the CD into the player, I knew that I had made the right choice.

The recording begins with a gently-picked guitar and Joni’s easy soprano singing the first verse. Throughout that first stanza, it is just the guitar and her clear voice, describing a small town scene at morning time. At the first occurrence of the chorus, a piano joins in, stepping into the spotlight with individual notes. Joni’s voice rises higher on the chorus, and then the piano fades at the beginning of the second verse … leaving the simple plucked guitar and Joni’s voice to again take over. “Morning Morgantown” repeats this pattern until its end, and it matched the sleepy snow-covered western Connecticut village perfectly. I probably listened to the song twice before moving on to the next one.

“For Free,” a song where Joni contrasts a street clarinetist with herself, starts with a solo piano (always pleasing to me). The song is a simple story with a spare arrangement with the piano, a solo violin, an acoustic bass, and eventually, a clarinet solo at the end. This song too fit the winter mood brilliantly.

After the quiet and unhurried first two songs, “Conversation” picks up the tempo just a bit. Still with just a straightforward strummed guitar, and a great little story about an infatuation with a married man. Joni performs some vocal acrobatics at the end of the song with the arrangement swelling to include her own background vocals (sounding a bit like the “colored-girls” on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wide Side”).

I certain that the boyfriend must have called at this point, because of all the songs on the disc, these three still have the biggest impact. Now, I know that there are other great songs on the disc: “Willy” is a wonderfully sweet love song, where Joni’s voice is only supported by piano. Her version of “Woodstock” is here and beautiful: this song that she wrote with perfect imagery about the music festival from only hearing about the experiences of her friends, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – who eventually recorded the tune. “The Arrangement,” the sad recount of an unconventional relationship hit a little too close to home for me regarding my current circumstances with the Connecticut boyfriend. “Rainy Night House” is a magnificent song that really should be listened to on a rainy night with a candle burning. The title song is rather pretty, a love song to Joni’s women friends in Laurel Canyon, with a charming melody and a sugary chorus. “The Priest” presents itself as an archetypal minor-key folk song, even if the lyrics are somewhat avant-garde.

The majority of the recording is fairly somber, as you may have picked up from my descriptions of some of the songs so far. But remember, this CD is the one that introduced us to a couple of Joni classics: the charming “The Circle Game,” (which has been covered by artists like Harry Belafonte, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie) and the joyous environmentally-challenged break-up song “Big Yellow Taxi” (brought back to the charts most famously by Counting Crows – up to #5 on the Adult Top 40)

The Joni version of “Big Yellow Taxi” is absolutely supreme, with its driving guitar strums, pulsing island rhythms, comic lyrics and 60’s-style girl-group background vocals. But I don’t have to tell you that, if you have heard the recording. Nobody does this song like Joni, including the seemingly-forced cackle at the end that dissolves into giggles.

The Connecticut boyfriend and I ended the relationship shortly after I bought this recording. It ended with my receiving a box of everything that I had ever given him along with a note that said “Auf Wiedersehen … Better Luck Next Time” I really didn’t mind. I think I threw everything in the trash. But I certainly still have that copy of Ladies of the Canyon that I purchased in New England.

I have the album on my iPod, of course. I still can’t listen to it while The Man is in the truck with me…

Joni and I will win him over yet.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Everything is Possible, But Nothing is Real"

I didn’t even own Vivid. But I had a subscription to Rolling Stone back in the early 90s. One issue, the featured CD review in the magazine was the the follow-up to Living Colour’s debut, the release Time’s Up. It got a tremendous review. So I purchased it without hearing a note. The review was that good. Of course, I knew their music. You could not get away from “Cult of Personality” back in the early 90s. Plus, “Open Letter (To a Landlord)” and “Glamour Boys” got pretty decent airplay as well, both on the radio and MTV. But I hadn’t felt the need to purchase Vivid.

When Time’s Up was released, I was living in a small rural Louisiana city. I bought all my cassettes at the local discount store. Of course, they had nothing that I wanted in stock. But the two clerks (both moms in their 30s who worked while the kids were in school) who alternated days at the music counter, would special-order whatever I wanted. And then laugh good-naturedly about the bizarre names of the groups, artists and titles. If it wasn’t country music, the moms had never heard of it.

I had them order the new Living Colour cassette for me. When I exited the store and first plugged it in my pick-up’s stereo, I wasn’t ready. The title song, which kicked off the set, began with the sound of many clocks ticking and chiming. Then after three drumbeats, the intro-chorus galloped off at breakneck speed at what seemed to be a fractured rhythm. I was a bit uneasy. At the first verse, the song slowed and hit a groove. Corey Glover, the lead singer, yowled through that verse, and the rhythm section of bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun rammed the song steadily forward. The guitar of Vernon Reid (the group’s leader) remained masked behind the mix. But after the vocal broke, Reid ripped into a guitar solo worthy of Mr. Hendrix. I was only three minutes into the album, and all I could think was “Holy Hell!

“Time’s Up” ended abruptly. And immediately, an odd rhythmic vocal began to pulse … followed by (what?) the voice of James Earl Jones. This piece “History Lesson” was smooth and easy, with layered voices of different people with Jones’ speech being the most prominent. The voices gave a quick summary of the black experience in America in less than a minute. (I had a pretty good idea that Living Colour would lose all the southern rockers at this point – but they had already hooked this southern queer).

Next up, the opening riff of “Pride” was quite similar to that of “Cult of Personality” (with the accompanying drum toned down a bit). It was a slower groove than “Cult” but still rocked. “Pride” continued the theme of “History Lesson” emphasizing that “history’s a lie that they teach you in school.” The song just seems to begin again midway through with a repeat of the tough opening riff, and Glover singing soulfully over the hard-rock canvas.

The end of “Pride” bleeds into spooky, arched, synthesized-string chords and then into a funky bass-and-drum line and Glover scatting over the top of the music. And then, after a quick guitar lick from Reid, the horns come in. Dang! I was really hooked now. They were throwing everything in the mix. “Love Rears Its Ugly Head” was a steady throb. The lyrics are pretty entertaining (as you probably can tell from the song title).

Things sped up again with “New Jack Theme” the song that came next. It was another good rocker. Followed by another mid-tempo (determined but not angry) social observation with “Someone Like You.” The album was good and solid. I already knew that the cassette would live in my player for the next few weeks.

And then it got better…

The next song started with a muted bass guitar rhythm and an exchange between Reid and Glover
“Yo, Corey man.”
“Yeah man, whassup?”
“I saw Elvis the other day…”
“Get outta here, man!!!”
Hilarious and driving. It spoke wholly to my inner adolescent. The song stated the obvious: that Elvis was great, but he too had his influences (which happened to be a lot of black artists). The song even included a rap by Little Richard, followed by an incredible sax solo by Maceo Parker. It was awesome.

And the song immediately transitioned into “Type,” my favorite song of the recording. This song is set to the tempo of what seems like a steady but slightly accelerated heartbeat. Again, Glover’s vocals were soulful and deep, matching the appealing sturdy pace of the song. The band had worked all together on this co-op. At six and half minutes, it was the longest song on the cassette, but in my mind, it could have gone on for another five minutes.

And we’re just through the first side, folks…

I won’t do a play by play for the second side. If you are still with me, you’ve already read a lot.
(I will say that “Solace of You” is good for shuffling your honey around the house.)

The CD is out of print now, but you can find Time’s Up in used CD bins quite easily (and I found the album available for download). Vivid had established the group as the next big thing. So a lot of people purchased Time’s Up on the heels of Vivid, but the second CD did not perform as incredibly as their debut. And it’s a shame.
It could be that the social commentary on the second disc was more prominent than on their first offering. And since it was the “Me” 90s, nobody wanted to hear much of Living Colour’s take on current events.

I did go back and purchase Vivid. I listen to it often. It’s a great album.
The critics prefer it to Time's Up.
I’m no critic.