Saturday, July 30, 2016

"This Is Hell" / Elvis Costello

From 1994's Brutal Youth -- one of the many albums I missed in my apostate years when I wasn't paying attention to Elvis Costello.

Mea culpa, mea culpa.

Somewhere in Elvis's  UNINDEXED autobiography/memoir/apologia Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (yes, I am that geek who's read all 672 pages) I seem to recall that he explains that this song was inspired by a visit to a ritzy resort with his then-wife Cait O'Riordan.  I could spend an hour or so looking it up, but why? The song stands as it is -- and as it is, it's a Dante-esque vision of our modern inferno.

Despite the crunchy dissonance at the beginning, this is a seductively sprightly track, with twinkly splashes of piano and perky tom-toms. "This is hell, this is hell I am sorry to tell you / Never gets better or worse / But you'll get used to it after a spell / For heaven is hell in reverse." But whoever said the devil wasn't an upbeat con man?

We start out in a nightclub, with pouting barmen and a flickering neon sign. At one end of the bar, there's a "failed Don Juan in the big bow-tie" making leering advances; at the other end, our protagonist is making an equal fool of himself: "The shirt you wore with courage and the violet nylon suit / Reappear upon your back and undermine the polished line you try to shoot."  

Well, I'm that EngLit bore who has read Milton and Dante and C.S, Lewis -- and I have to say, EC's vision of Hell is totally in line with the EngLit view of things. Wherein Hell is not just Technicolor flames and physical torments, but also the crippling moments of self doubt--or, as Elvis puts it, "It's the small humiliations that your memory piles up."

And it can happen even in what seems like paradise: "Endless balmy breezes, perfect sunsets framed / Vintage wine for breakfast and naked starlets floating in Champagne,"  (Yes, now I see the resort in this song.) But if something's missing inside you -- in this case, if "the passions of your youth are tranquilized and tamed" -- then even paradise can feel like Hell.

The line that's lodged in my brain on an endless loop? This brilliant couplet: "My Favorite Things is playing again and again / But it's by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane." I'm flashing to the great 1967 Stanley Donen film Bedazzled (please, forget the 2000 remake), where the darkly brilliant Peter Cook plays the Devil, and whenever things go rogue, what's his safe word? Julie Andrews!

You can't tell me that my man Elvis hasn't seen that film. I know he has. Just as I know he is intimately familiar with Coltrane's track

So what are your favorite things? Elvis is asking you to choose. What's heaven for you, and what is hell?

And knowing that you may have to live with your choice for at least four years.....

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" /
Simon and Garfunkel

It's my brother Holt's birthday -- as Facebook so helpfully reminded me, first thing this morning. (As if I needed reminding.)

What Facebook doesn't seem to know is that my brother Holt passed away over two years ago. "Wish him a happy birthday," the auto-generated message chirpily instructs me. Which, alas, I can't do anymore.  But I can think good thoughts about him. I think good thoughts about this guy most every day, but today, I'll indulge in a few extra.

Like wondering what his take might be on this year's campaign madness.  (I'm guessing, "Trump bad, Bernie good, Hillary really pretty good when all is considered.") I know Holt would've loved seeing Al Franken and Sarah Silverman take the podium last night. And I'm guessing he, like me, might've winced at seeing our mutual musical hero Paul Simon embarrass himself by trying to sing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on the convention hall stage. Personally, I think the guy did a creditable job; this is one damn hard song to sing. But set that aside: It's a song whose message needs to be heard, over and over, so kudos to Mr. Simon for sucking it up and laying the thing out there.

And in tribute to my brother, and to Mr. Paul Simon, a few thoughts about another track on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album.

Bridge Over Troubled Water was their last album, and just about every song on it alluded to their impending break-up . . . or so I now realize. Then, not so much. I thought this was a song about an architect. And yeah, if I thought about it that was kinda odd, but what did I know?

But as a farewell song, it's a beauty. It's so tender, so wistful, and just uptempo enough that you know not to despair; they're gonna be okay. That samba beat -- god, how I love a good samba -- soothes and smooths everything out.

Art (of course) is singing, at his most angelic. That lagging syncopation -- "So / long / Frank Lloyd Wright / I can't believe your song is gone so soon." He's still a little dazed by the news, isn't he? (Me too.) "I barely learned the tune / So soon / So soon..."  What I love about this song is how it sets up Wright as a visionary, WAY ahead of his time (as he was), with the rest of us just scrambling to follow. And now WE ARE LOST, with our beacon snuffed out.

Now, Simon wrote this song but Garfunkel sang it, and I'm not about to get lost in the maze of who was the visionary and who was the acolyte. I prefer to think of it as an Escher print with endless echoes and doubling-backs and leave it at that.

The verse that really comes home for me is the next one: "So long / Frank Lloyd Wright / All of the nights we'd harmonize till dawn / I never laughed so long / So long / So long." (That "so long / so long" never fails to delight.) Then I think of all the late nights my brother and I spent talking, laughing, jumping from subject to subject with lightning flashes of irrelevant relevance ... forty, fifty, sixty years of that?  Where am I ever going to find that again?

"Architects may come and / Architects may go and / Never change your point of view," Art gently remarks in the bridge. The implied message? People who change your point of view are the only people worth messing with. Amen.

Is this song about Frank Lloyd Wright?  Not necessarily. It's about another short genius ( Paul Simon) but also about his soon-to-be-ex partner Garfunkel, a math genius in a potentially architectural way. And if you're a fan of mirrors within mirrors -- Simon wrote this song for Garfunkel to sing, knowing that those soaring high notes could only really and truly be sung by that God-given voice. As the DNC performance Monday night wincingly brought home.

And "when I run dry / I stop awhile and think of you"?  That's a prescription for getting through this season of love and loss. Because the thought of my brother still refuels my tanks, and will for a long time. Forever, most likely.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

"Master Blaster (Jammin')" /

Stevie Wonder

Man, is it steamin' hot out there. And when the temperature goes up the charts, here's my go-to track. A little funk, a little reggae, and you've got this jubilant #1 reggae/soul hit, from Stevie's Hotter Than July LP from 1980. First track, side two, of Stevie's best-selling LP in the UK.

"Everyone's feeling pretty / It's hotter than July / Though the world's full of problems / They couldn't touch us even if they tried." This is what I need to take the stink off of this sweltering heat.

Stevie wrote this ecstatic anthem to celebrate the peace agreement signed in April 1980 to end 15 years of civil war in Zimbabwe. True, this pact put the controversial Robert Mugabe into office, where he's still entrenched, despite economic failures and a shaky human rights record. But the effervescent mood of this song endures.

And what's wrong with believing the best of people? In this rancorous election season, it wouldn't hurt any of us to operate with a spirit of forgiveness and some faith in human nature. "When you're moving toward the positive / Your destination is the brightest star."

No, it's not an escape. The production goes full-on into the heat of the summer -- that languid bass line, the fly-swatting drums, the exhaling background singers. Let a little sweat roll down your brow; don't stay indoors and shiver in refrigerated air. Embrace existence.

Jammin' until the break of dawn. Of course, we have to pick up the reference to Bob Marley's masterful "Jamming," from his 1977 LP Exodus. ("Marley's hot on the box"...Joined as children in Jah.") Stevie's generosity toward other artists has always been a model for the rest of us.

And yes, this was released over a quarter of a century ago. But you tell me: Does it sound dated? Does it not lift your spirits? IS IT NOT A SONG FOR THE AGES?

Bless you, Stevie.

Friday, June 24, 2016

"Shangri-La" / The Kinks

In the wake of the Brexit vote...

I'm a Kinks fan, and will be until the day I die. So when the Davies brothers' country does something so weird, so inexplicable, I can't help but turn to their vast catalog of songs to figure it all out. 

And this gem, from September 1969, leapt into my mind this morning, as soon as I learned of the Brexit result. Because how else can we understand the middle-class-(or-aspiring) Englishman whose home is his castle? 

These late 1960s Kinks satires of English life -- these were the songs, much more than the power chord hits ("You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night") that made a Kinks fan of me. From the barbed comedy of "Well-Respected Man" (1965) to the ambivalently sympathetic "Autumn Almanac" (1967), singer/songwriter Ray Davies saw all too well how England's class system was playing out in real time. 

And if you look at the map of who voted to stay in the European Union, and who voted to leave -- well, it pretty much plays along class lines.

Granted, I'm not sure that "Shangri-La" -- from the enormously underrated concept album Arthur -- even qualifies as satire. The melancholy minor-key melody sets us up for something entirely different. That first verse is unbearably poignant: "Now that you've found your paradise / This is your kingdom to command / You can go outside and polish your car / Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-La." This isn't just some snide put-down of middle-class complacency -- though there's surely a strain of that in there -- it's also an epiphany about the moment when one's dreams ring hollow. "Here's your reward for working so hard / Gone are the lavatories in the back yard / Gone are the days when you dreamed of that car / You just want to sit in your Shangri-La." I love that detail about the lavatories -- talk about fixing a cultural reference in one sharp stroke.

And I think of young pop star Ray Davies, living with his wife and kids in a mansionette in North London, inextricably severed from his working-class roots and still not feeling ready to join the upper class that he'd been taught since childhood to abhor. (Never mind that his posho managers hadn't managed to get him his fair share of songwriting royalties -- forcing him to file a lawsuit that's apparently still a landmark case in British law.)

Oh, the satire comes stealing in in the later verses, as Ray describes the "little man" catching his commuter train and fretting over his mortgage; it's a pathetic trade-off, on a time-installment plan: "Got a TV set and a radio / For seven shillings a week." Then Ray pans out, almost cinematically, for the wide-angle view:  "And all the houses in the street have got a name / 'Cos all the houses in the street they look the same ' Same chimney pots, same little cars, same window panes" -- that's such a resonant observation, about the English penchant for giving their houses cutesy names, even in a cookie-cutter development. It's details like that that make Ray Davies one of our greatest living songwriters.

Eventually Ray does dismiss the character as "Too scared to think about how insecure you are / Life ain't so happy in your little Shangri-La." But I don't know -- I still think he's identifying with him, and more than a little bit. Because it's the poignancy of the first verses that stays with me, in the end.

And here's the Brexit paradox: People who aren't happy with their tiny slice of the pie honestly do think that by building a wall they can make their pie bigger. 

Which, alas -- those of us who have studied economics know -- is just not the case. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Summer Shuffle June 2016

First of all, I'm freaked out that it's 2016. But I'm moving past that, truly. And offering a panoply of tunes to make your June celebratory to the nth degree. 

1. I'm On an Island / The Kinks
From Kink Kontroversy (1965)
Oh, my man Ray Davies, the presiding genius behind the Kinks. And here, even as early as 1965, he was sectioning off the experiences.  I've heard that he will only ever sing this song on Iceland, the island for which he wrote this tune. Damn, I have a whole cabinet of Icelandic experiences, but Lord if I don't want to go to Iceland ONLY to hear Ray sing it.

2. Wake Up / Alan Price
From Rising Sun (1980)
Alan, you'll never know how much of my life was devoted to chasing you down, But here's a taste -- and a pretty good tune to connect to your iPhone alarm.

3. Man in the Bottom of the Well / Bill Kirchen with Elvis Costello
From Word to the Wise (2010)
Elvis, Nick, Bill. Need I say more? I cannot help but dig those majestic riffs, climbing out of the depths of whatevs..

4. Mondays / Killer Tuesday / Black Uhuru
From Liberation: The Island Anthology (1993)
I do love the random logic of the shuffle. Because how else would we get this exTREMEly copasetic track, which does go on and on, but hey, what else did you have to do with your time?

5. I Swear I Saw Christopher Reeve / Jill Sobule   
From Dottie's Charms (2014)
A Midwestern interlude, courtesy of my girl Jill. Who seriously I just. I've never been there but I know the place like the back of my hand. Check it out.

6. Staten Island Baby / Black 47
How much do we love Larry Kirwan's celebration of the Irish-American  experience?

7. Islands in the Stream /Bonnie Raitt and Nick Lowe
Oh, Bonnie my girl. I so love you. And yet -- you sang this with Nick? I can't even.

8. Birds in Perspex Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
Quirky -- yeah, that's the RH thing.

9. Fire Island / Fountains of Wayne
How much do I love this deeply resonant, yet laidback track? This sums up summer to me.

10. House of the Rising Sun / The Animals
Lord. So much began here. Honor paid to Eric Burdon's iconic voice, but also to the rest of the Animals (including oh yes my hero Alan Price.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

RIP Guy Clark 1941-2016

"Mud" / Guy Clark

Honestly, I'm so distressed by the number of obituary posts I've have to put up this year, I couldn't make myself do another one, not even for Guy Clark. But I do/did love Guy Clark. In the end, I just had write something.

When I drove out to the depths of Long Island that winter night in 2006, I had no idea who Guy Clark was.  I was there to see John Hiatt; the other guys in the Songwriter's Circle were unknown quantities to me. (Well, I knew who Lyle Lovett was, but only because of his oddball acting role in The Player.)  A massive snowstorm had all but shut down the Long Island Expressway. I'm still not sure why I persevered and drove out there.

But man, am I glad I did.

Hiatt was fabulous, of course, as always.  Lyle Lovett was a downright revelation (more on that another time.)  Joe Ely was a find indeed.  But mostly, as I left, I was simply astonished that I'd never known Guy Clark's music -- and I needed to hear more of it.

And of all the songs he sang that night, this one transfixed me most.

Yeah, it seems simple. But it's deceptively so, like most of Guy Clark's songs. For in fact these are songs that traffic in the profound; these are songs about Life with a capital L. (It's no surprise that so many of his country/folk/Texas peers felt moved to contribute to the tribute album This One's for Him.)

Like the best magicians, he's all about misdirection. Oh, yes, he oh-so-casually gives us the river mud, waylaying us with specific details: green-backed herons, water moccasins, the way water dapples between reeds. He focuses us on the here and now, the way mud squishes up between your toes. (Can't you just feel that?)

And in the chorus, he hauls up a host of simplistic mud-based cliches -- "mud pie, mud in your eye." Oh, sure, it's all just about getting a little dirty. "Take a little rain, take a little dirt / Make a little mud, get it on your shirt."

But in the third verse, he deftly cuts a chink into metaphor territory: "Now when I die please bury me down by the this old muddy creek / Let the crawfish have their way / It's mud to mud and that's okay." Technically, the liturgical language isn't "mud to mud" but "ashes to ashes" -- but it's close enoughAnd for good measure--just in case theology isn't your thing--he throws all of us good Darwinians a bone: "We all just crawled out of the mud." 

The key to this song isn't the lines Guy sings, it's the lines he song-speaks. At the end of verse one, "Life and death just dancin' around in the mud." Verse two: "You got to get it between your toes, the mud." And at the end of the song: "We're all just sloggin' through the mud."

Because here's the Gospel According to Guy Clark: Life is about engaging with people, engaging with sorrow, engaging with failure, engaging with reality. Taking a hit, taking a loss. It ain't pretty, but it's real. And if you're not wading into it, you're not fully alive.

Amen, Guy. And godspeed.

Friday, March 18, 2016

A St. Patrick's Shuffle

A day late. Ah, well, the Irish will forgive me. Click on the links to go to videos.

1. "Be Good Or Be Gone" / Fionn Regan
From End of History (2006)
Cool indie-folk acoustic. This young guy from Bray is quite a poet, with an especially winsome, tentative tenor. This debut album is still one of my faves. "I have become an aerial view / Of a coastal town / That you once knew."  Well, now that you put it that way...

2. "Ireland" / Greg Trooper
From Everywhere (1992)
It's not about the country, it's about a woman, a woman he loves. And yeah, so what, Greg Trooper isn't Irish (he's from New Jersey, via Nashville) and this song has his usual folk-country twang--but it's extra jiggy, with a delicious fiddle. "When I'm with you it feels so right, / My wallet's full on Friday night / My ship has docked, my kingdom's come / And my heart's on fire and over-run...."  Love this song.

3.  "Better Not Wake the Baby" / The Decemberists 
From What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World (2015)
Another of my "honorary" Irish tunes. Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy must have suckled on some Celtic teat in his Montana childhood, because most everything his band does has a half-demented tragi-folk quality, like as not loaded up with fiddle and squeezebox. This song is a tasty brew, half Brecht and half The Honeymooners, as a warring couple square off at each other. Another of the great Irish themes. 

4. "The Lowlands of Holland" / Natalie Merchant and the Chieftains
From Tears of Stone (1999)
Yes, that Natalie Merchant, from 10,000 Maniacs, but she sure sounds Irish, right down to the yelpy flutter in her voice, when backed by the Chieftains, the most Irishest band of all. It's one of those traditional songs that everyone's given a spin, but a poignant one, as a young solider's widow grieves his death fighting another country's war far away.  (Love, loss, and homesickness -- they say this song was originally British, but how could the Irish not have appropriated it?). Penny whistle and concertina and all,

5. "Mo Ghile Mear" / Sting and the Chieftains
From The Wide World Over (2002)
Sting sure does get all emotional about Celtic folk stuff -- he's even singing Gaelic in the chorus. ("My Gallant Darling" -- it's meant to be the goddess Eire grieving for Bonnie Prince Charlie.) It's easy to make fun of Sting, he takes himself so seriously, but I have to admit this is a pretty fine vocal. And of course the bodhrans help.

6. "Star of the County Down" / Van Morrison 
From Irish Heartbeat (1988)
Well, here's the real deal -- Sir Van Morrison of Belfast. It's another of those songs that everyone sings, but really, who ever could sing it better than Van the Man? The chorus to this runs through my head whenever I look at a map of Ireland: "From Bantry Bay up to Derry quay / And from Galway to Dublin town, /  Not a lass I've seen like a brown colleen that I met in the County Down."

7. "Living in America" / Black 47
From Fire of Freedom (1992)
Ah, Larry Kirwan -- the great transplanted Celtic rocker and bard of the pre-Celtic Tiger Irish immigrant experience.  The life he describes in this thrashing anthem (still with fiddles and penny whistles!) is just what I've heard from all the nannies and construction guys I know here in New York. "In the cold daylight, I feel like shite / And I can't remember last night's fun / Then the foreman says, "Come on now boys, / Stick your fingers down your throats and get to work" . . .  Oh mammy dear, we're all mad over here / Living in America."

8. "Erin Gra Mo Chroi" / Cherish the Ladies
From The Girls Won't Leave Boys Behind (2001)
That yelpy flutter Natalie Merchant had? This is what she was aiming for. Deidre Connally is the lead singer here, but all the women of Cherish the Ladies go for the most authentic Irish sound they can get (even though they're mostly Irish-Americans). And this is one of the homesickest songs you'll ever hear. "When St. Patrick's Day has come / My thoughts will carry me home / To that dear little isle so far away" -- well, it may sound mawkish, but that fiddle is irresistible. Go see the movie Brooklyn already.

9. "We Are Everywhere" / Pugwash
From Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends) (2015)
One of my great discoveries of this past year, this lovely power-pop band from Dublin. Here they get their psychedelic "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" thing on, all woozily melodic with shape-shifting chords. FYI: Recorded at the Kinks' Konk.

10. "Sayonara" / The Pogues
From Hell's Ditch (1990)
Dig Shane MacGowan's slurred vocals, perfect for this Celtic punk drunkard's lament, whether faked or real. (This was his last album with the band.) I think it's set in Asia, but those pennywhistles give it away -- that and the mournful sitting in a bar, looking across the sea, feeling sorry for himself.  One more Irish rover....