Sunday, October 11, 2015

Not The Price But The Cost

Lloyd Price, the untold story.
In 1969, 17 years after his first million seller, Lloyd Price nearly cracked the R&B Top 20 with the funky social criticism of Bad Conditions. "Psychedelic age on campus grounds/Tear gas, billy clubs and vicious hounds/People making promises that they can't keep/System's turning over for its final sleep/We're living in bad conditions!" That's a long way from Lawdy Miss Clawdy. It's also quite an accomplishment for a founding father of rock and roll to so successfully insert himself into late 60's culture. 

Lloyd Price NOW!, the album that contains Bad Conditions, also delivers credible takes on Light My Fire, Hey Jude, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, For Once In My Life, and other songs. It's a solid album, with Price in fine, soulful voice, but you won't hear a word about it in sumdumhonky, Price's new memoir. Except for a picture caption, you also won't hear a thing about how he ended up working with Don King to produce the notorious Rumble In The Jungle, or about how one of his labels released early sides by Wilson Pickett.

What you will hear a lot - and I mean A LOT - about is Price's disturbing and disgusting experiences with racism in the Jim Crow south. Growing up in Kenner, LA in the 1930's was a profoundly demoralizing experience for anyone of a darker tone, ruled as they were by all the iterations of "sumdumhonky" you can imagine, and some you likely can't. Casting a long shadow over Price's childhood was Ol' Jake, the barely literate local lawman. His idea of a good time was to hang around the railroad tracks with his friends, lying in wait for Price and other kids. "They'd stand to block our path and laugh their asses off. We were scared half to death because we didn't know what they might do next," Price writes in Who Feared Whom, the first chapter. "Sometimes they'd grab one of our hands and hold it to their ass and laugh while they farted on it and scream, "Boy, spot that!" This is what they called having fun: scaring little boys who were just eight and nine years old."

This is obviously horrendous and, along with cross-burning and lynching, forms a background which would be a challenge for the strongest among men to overcome. As Price puts it: "As we grow older we tend to let our minds review our souls and sometimes we are amazed at ourselves - and the things our hearts have withstood. As I see it now, the white man of my younger days was a master sociologist - and a brutal one at that - because he knew how to downplay a black man's pride, not taking account of the fact that we had limited opportunities." 

But overcome it Price did, following his desire to make music and also help support his family in the wake of his father's workplace injury. Of course, becoming a national celebrity with Lawdy Miss Clawdy at the age of 17 came with its own challenges, some of them the usual music biz tales of woe, some of them due to becoming a prominent black man in an America that rejected the very notion. Also, there's the fact that his music had a way of bringing black and white kids together on the dance floor in a society where race-mixing just wasn't done. Understand, Lawdy hit in 1952, which puts Price on the leading edge of both the rock and roll and civil rights revolutions.

But what of the music? Where did it come from and what were the roots of Price's creativity? Besides a few paragraphs here and there, we get precious little about it. We also don't hear much about trying to stay relevant in the rapidly changing world of pop culture - no thoughts on the British Invasion, the rise of James Brown and funk, not to mention disco and hip hop. While he does have some interesting things to say about being placed in the "oldie but goodie" ghetto, he spends more time asking questions with no answers like "Can you imagine an entire race of people who are afraid that God didn't like black people?"

Don't get me wrong - the tales of late-night drives through Mississippi in a brand new Cadillac or of bribing his way into Nigeria only to find "people, black people, peeing and pooping on the road" - range from harrowing to hilarious and are written vividly. But I ultimately found sumdumhonky to be an unsatisfying read. I couldn't help but feel that Ol' Jake might have won the day after all. To my mind, this makes Price's experience of racism even more tragic. It also makes sumdumhonky an important but deeply flawed book.

When I got sumdumhonky, I turned first to the pictures. Great shots abound - the trip to Hollywood for the 1953 Cash Box awards, getting down in a huge-collared jumpsuit in 1968, receiving an honorary doctorate in 2001. When I looked back at the photos after finishing the book, I was struck by the chasm between the story they told and the one the words depicted. Perhaps a good, tough editor or co-writer could have helped bring the two closer together.

One gift the book gave me was the discovery of Price's later music. Perhaps you'll enjoy it, too - here's a quick mix.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

New Americana Pt. 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon

Hamilton and I In "Deluxe Shipping" Moment

Robert Johnson, they say, met the devil at a crossroads and bargained his soul for a dramatic improvement in his guitar playing. While I doubt souls were exchanged, something certainly happened when Hamilton Leithauser spent time with Robin Pecknold during a joint tour by The Walkmen and Fleet Foxes. Since then, Leithauser has sung like a goddamned angel, with an ease and confidence that I would not have predicted while playing the early Walkmen records again and again. And on last year's debut solo album, Black Hours, he wrote a set of songs that fit his new Great American Songbook vocal swagger to a T. 

As I noted in my review of Black Hours, even though The Walkmen were on hiatus their guitarist, Paul Maroon, had not left Leithauser's side, appearing on nearly every song on the album. So I was unsurprised when I got word that Hamilton's latest record, Dear God, would be co-credited to Maroon. I was surprised, however, at the opportunity to meet Hamilton as part of a very limited "deluxe shipping" offer through his Etsy store

It took a little time but it eventually happened, which is how I ended up talking to Hamilton on the sidewalk while his two kids waited patiently in their carseats. I didn't bring up Pecknold or demonic bargains, but I did note that he and Maroon seemed to have a fruitful musical bromance ("Like Bowie & Ronson," I said - he got a kick out of that!). I wondered why only the new album had both their names, even though Maroon was such an elemental part of Black Hours. It seemed to have a lot to do with the origin of the songs on that album, and also the fact that two of them were collaborations with Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij.

Dear God, Leithauser told me, came out of the idea that it would just be him singing and Maroon on one instrument for each song. "Paul cheated a little and used a sampler on a couple of songs, but that was the basic idea." He also confirmed that this was a vinyl only release and that they would be playing these songs in concert - check your local listings

Naturally, due to the original conceit, Dear God is a much more intimate album than the big and bold Black Hours, a Cassavetes character study instead of a big Hollywood production. But it is an equally masterful example of singing and songwriting in the American vein. It is also partly Leithauser's meditation on where sees his place in that tradition, sprinkling four covers among its 13 tracks. Tom Paxton's Annie's Going To Sing Her Song is a hushed waltz in the original but Leithauser takes off on the version Bob Dylan recorded during the Self Portrait sessions, which was released on Another Self Portrait last year. Dylan put some new angles into the chorus, making it more of a hook. It's even more angular in Leithauser's version, which I believe to be definitive. 

While I'm not a fan of Will Oldham (or Palace Music, or Bonnie Prince Billy, or whatever he's calling himself these days), Leithauser pulls something out of his Trudy Dies that makes it more memorable than the original, playing his vocal dynamics off of Maroon's steady acoustic picking to give the song more shape. 

The Everly Brothers are one of those weird bands that are indubitably part of the bedrock of modern music but that I don't always like. Some of their songs are devastatingly good while others are grating and formulaic. The song Hamilton chose, Just One Time, is one of the latter but he and Maroon take all the obnoxious right out of it, playing it like a distant memory, with double-tracked vocals, harmonica, and a hypnotic, droning acoustic strum. It's still a slight song, without the simple profundity of, say, Buddy Holly, but it works well in Dear God's context - more on that later.

The album takes its name not from the XTC song - THAT would have been interesting - but rather from an early Patsy Cline song written by V.F. Stewart, known for the oft-covered Just Out Of Reach. Leithauser gives Cline's country waltz a bit of a barroom flavor, with Maroon's upright piano soldiering on bravely. It's a Sunday morning song transformed into a drinking song and it ends the album on a witty and rueful note.

The four songs covered could be seen as a short survey of some of what Leithauser and Maroon are attracted to in American song - waltz rhythms, melancholy lyrics, sing-along choruses - and their own tunes follow these threads to some interesting places. Proud Irene opens side one with piano filigrees setting the stage for a classic-sounding chord sequence. Hamilton enters with a hushed tone, singing close to the mike. The chorus is just the one word: "Irene," but you still want to join in. It's a clever bit of misdirection and a sign of their deep understanding of song form. 

Utica Avenue features Maroon on organ and a chorus of Leithausers singing funereally. In fact, my wife just requested it for her services when the unimaginable comes to pass - that's a tough playlist to write for, but these guys nailed it. Trudy Dies is next, followed by Light Sleeper, a melodic piano study by Maroon, and then Dad Is Drunk, with Maroon picking a circular riff on electric guitar. "There's wine on my breath, and wine in my pocket, and wine waiting for me, where I dropped it," Hamilton sings without a note of regret. Later, the singer claims to be "hopelessly optimistic," wishing to turn "black eyes white." There's a story here, but it's given to us in fragments. Paxton's song closes out the side, the perfect follow up to Dad Is Drunk: "Annie's gonna sing her song called take me back again." Maybe mom is drunk, too. 

Side two fades in on Two Dark Summers On Long Island, which would almost fit on The Velvet Underground's third album. Maroon's folky picking has a bleak tinge and he uses those cheating samplers to create a spooky atmosphere. Hamilton sings along with himself, some half-remembered tale hinted at by the title. Just One Time becomes just another memory, now, with How And Why? completing the thought: "You were always on my side," Hamilton sings over and over again, hinting at betrayal and loss. 

Your Swingin' Doors is even more mournful at first, but Hamilton raises the temperature to rage against the dying of the light. I Never Should Have Left Washington, DC is a reworking of Utrecht, a bonus track from Black Hours. It's just as brilliant a song in this stripped down version and sets the stage for Loyalty Road, a haunting guitar instrumental with a strong narrative drive. Then comes the redemptive request of Dear God to send us home. 

Dear God is a bravely bare setting for Leithauser to display his vocal talents and he is more than up to the task. With The Walkmen and now beyond he is carving unique place in the American musical firmament and observing the process has been an involving and emotional experience. And like the best stories, I can't wait to see what happens next. 

In fact, he and Maroon have hinted at the next chapter with I Could Have Sworn, a five-song EP that includes Utica Avenue and four new songs, the latter with drummer Hugh McIntosh. Opener My Reward is an uptempo number with slashing chords and Leithauser pushing his voice ragged. New England Crows has Maroon giving us a hint of Johnny Marr but Leithauser is at his most intense, especially in a thrilling wordless section. Cry Out For Me is a pop explosion with a Chuck Berry song buried deep within. Immediately Alone is all shimmer and sigh with a gorgeous piano backdrop from Maroon bringing us full circle to where Dear God started.
You may also like:
New Americana Pt. 1: Phil Cook
Make Time For Black Hours
Best Of 12: Part Two
2011: The Year In Live (Part Two)

Sunday, October 04, 2015

New Americana, Pt. 1: Phil Cook

Phil Cook, kicking things off with the Guitarheels at Rough Trade last month.

Even if you haven't heard of Phil Cook, chances are you've heard him. If you were seeking more Justin Vernon after having your mind blown by Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago you would have come across DeYarmond Edison, the somewhat somber folk-rock band that included both Vernon and Cook. Then there was Megafaun, the band Phil formed with his brother Brad and drummer Joe Westerlund after DeYarmond broke up. Their sound was on the haunting end of "freak folk," but while accomplished and interesting it could sometimes grow aimless. Google would also give you Gayngs, an indie supergroup with Vernon, Cook, and members of Polica, Doomtree, etc., that produced a sort of slippery art-yacht rock.

I was tracking all of this without totally falling down the rabbit hole, finding more satisfaction in Volcano Choir, another Justin Vernon side project. Then came a moment when Phil Cook became a real person to me, rather than just a hyperlinked name on a wide variety of Wikipedia posts. I was in the first flush of infatuation (now a deep and abiding love) with Hiss Golden Messenger's brilliant Lateness Of Dancers, to which Cook contributed mightily. They were performing on WFUV so I dialed up the video and was stunned. There was M.C. Taylor, the principle of HGM surrounded by musicians who were just so into it that I had to know more. I especially wanted to know who it was helping Taylor produce the hypnotic guitar weave of Southern Grammar and playing the sweet slide on Lucia. That was Phil Cook, as it happened, and his commitment was magnetic.

So when his new album, Southland Mission, was announced, I was primed. It was being promoted as his first, although he had released some beautiful if studied work a few years ago under the name Phil Cook & His Feat. This felt different from the get-go. For one thing, there was Phil, big as life on the cover, Buddy Holly glasses and all. Here was a guy coming out of the shadows, no longer hiding as either a session musician or band member, or behind his roots-music scholarship.
The first song, Ain't It Sweet, bears this impression out immediately. After some bluesy strumming and a bit of barrel-house piano it busts out into an all-American gospel-inflected boogie, with fiddle, massed vocals, and a delirious slide guitar solo. Yes, it is sweet - very. And when I saw Phil launch his tour at Rough Trade last month he leapt into that solo like a man let out of a cage. I think he literally kicked his heels. It was beautiful to watch and the members of his seven-piece band were having as much fun as he was.

There was actually an eighth member of the band, though it went un-introduced. This was the tube amp Cook uses to get his signature over-driven, fiery guitar sound. He didn't need to wear a Staples Singers t-shirt (though he was) to reveal his debt to Pops Staples, whose trademark shimmer gives deep roots to everyone from John Fogerty, Tony Joe White and Robbie Robertson. But as his high-kicking performance showed time and again, Cook owns his material, bringing his deep knowledge of the American musical tapestry forward though commitment (that word again) and love.

Phil Cook gets into it at Rough Trade.
The second cut on Southland Mission is a faithful but richly elaborated version of Charlie Parr's 1922 Blues, a great song in the traditional vein that benefits from Cook's studio skills, ably helped by his brother Brad and a big group of like-minded souls. Great Tide draws on some of Sister Rosetta Tharp's big-chord power, with more slide from Cook. Belong blends fiddle, banjo and mandolin, creating a nice bed for Cook's warm tenor voice. It flirts with a hoe-down but never feels clich├ęd.
Sitting On A Fence Too Long cleverly forms the spine of the nine song album: "Don't want to die here in the middle, sitting on a fence too long." It's a sly stomp that becomes a sing-along (in concert, literally) that makes me want to hear Cook and company cover Black Water by The Doobie Brothers. Lowly Road is pure blues-gospel hypnotism with a neat little screamer of a riff. Addictive stuff. Pops Staples would approve and he would probably also dig the chorus of "If you want to get to Jesus, you gotta walk that lowly road." If this is Christian rock, gimme more.

At Rough Trade we learned that Time To Wake Up is a reverse lullaby for Cook's son Ellis, who apparently has trouble getting up from his nap. Cook had us all singing it, bringing us into the family. Anybody Else is pure warmth, an extremely well-written song that could hold its own with nearly any American 70's classic. Call it Southland Mission's secret weapon if you want - whatever you call it, you will hit repeat. The album ends with Gone, a tight southern rocker that features a star turn from genius bass player Cameron Ralston, known for his work with Matthew E. White and Natalie Prass.
In concert, the bass duties were handled by the incredible Michael Libramento, who I last saw holding down the low end for Natalie Prass. The band, known as the Guitarheels, also included Ryan Gustafson on guitars, who had opened the show as The Dead Tongues. Gustafson can play anything with strings apparently, and has a way with an Appalachian melody, but I liked him best when he let it rip a bit on Cook's songs. Libramento and Gustafson put the level of musicianship at a high level that night and every song achieved liftoff. Surprisingly, the fiddle player was a pick-up, an NYU student who joined the band at sound check and fit right in by the time we got there.

The Dead Tongues (Ryan Gustafson) with strings at Rough Trade.

It was a joyful show, a coming out party for a real-deal musician and songwriter. He also proved to be as nice a guy as you can imagine, hanging out after lights-up until Rough Trade staff asked us to move along. I did have one purely selfish question for him. "Does all this mean you won't be with Hiss Golden Messenger when they play Baby's All Right in November?" After a minute of calculating his schedule, which fills October with 20 dates in 20 cities in Europe and the UK, he assured me that he would be there. That's going to be quite a night for me and, as of now, will be your next opportunity to get a taste of the Phil Cook magic in New York. Until then, get Southland Mission and have your own private revival meeting.

You might also like:
The Surprising Natalie Prass
Matthew E. White: Seeking Transcendence
No Longer A Big Inner
Repaving The Way To A Fantastic Fall
The Best of 14

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Till Dawn: Top 10 Album Kutz

In the 38 years since Marc Bolan was killed in a car accident his influence has only grown wider. The glam rock stomp and style he perfected is everywhere. Whether it's via his own songs, which are used in movies and commercials several times a year, or in the sounds of new bands. There was even a pronounced T.Rex influence on the new Wilco album, Star Wars. In Rolling Stone, Jeff Tweedy owned it: "Some of those sounds reminded me of glam rock and T. Rex and things like that, which I love. I really adore that stuff, but I've never been androgynous enough to pull it off, you know, stylistically."

Even with all the exposure, Marc Bolan and T.Rex are known mainly as singles artists, especially in this country where you could easier get bipartisan collaboration in Washington than get classic rock radio to play anything other than Jeepster and Get It On. But over the course of the T.Rex phase of his career, the quality stuff was not confined to the jukebox. 

Here then is a list of some of my favorite album cuts from 1970-77. Hopefully you will be intrigued enough to further investigate the entire oeuvre of the man David Bowie called The Prettiest Star.

1. Diamond Meadows (T.Rex, 1970) - Starting with a little guitar noodle, this quickly evolves into a blissful miniature, with Tony Visconti's delightful strings supporting guitar, bass, and Bolan's sweet vocals. Let's do it like we're friends...

2. Rip Off (Electric Warrior, 1970) - Even elves get angry. The last track on Bolan's mega-breakthrough takes potshots at the 60's in surprisingly trenchant fashion: "Dancin' in the nude, feelin' such a dude, it's a rip off." But this is no chaotic catharsis - while the band works up a real head of steam, there's also sax, strings, suspended chords, and an elegiac ending. He knew it was over.

3. Rock On (The Slider, 1972) - This tight-as-hell little wonder could easily have been a single. Visconti's production couldn't be more perfect, with layers of keyboards underpinning Bolan's nasty riff, and signature Kaylan-Vollman backing vocals behind Marc's tough vocal. Bolan's bite-size guitar solo is a marvel. Rock on!

4. Left Hand Luke (Tanx, 1973) - A soul and gospel-drenched mini-epic to end what many think is the last classic T.Rex album. The way Bolan interacts with the backing singers is gorgeous and prefigures some of the things Bowie did on Young Americans. Also, he used the word "myxomatosis" (it's an "animal disease," apparently) 30 years before the Radiohead song.

5. Change (Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, 1974) - In Dandy In The Underworld, Bolan sang "change is a monster and changing is hard," but the mood is even darker on this brooding song: "Change is coming, you better run." Through the cocaine and brandy haze, a moment of quiet clarity.

6. The Avengers (Superbad) (Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, 1974) Bolan fell even further in love with funk in 74, and with soul singer Gloria Jones, whose outrageous vocals outdo Kaylan and Vollman. The album, Bolan's last with Visconti, is a bit cluttered, but it all comes together on this sly number.

7. Till Dawn (Bolan's Zip Gun, 1975) - This is really the one that got away. Marc updates 1950's milkshake romance to extravagant lengths. A swoon in song form that should have been a single. There are many alternate takes and they're all fantastic. 

8. Theme For A Dragon (Futuristic Dragon, 1976) - Marc should have been doing soundtracks but his devotion to pop-song form kept things concise. Shredding guitars, sweeping strings, audience noise, and a touch of disco make this a blast from start to finish in just over two minutes.

9. Casual Agent (Futuristic Dragon, 1976) - Frothy, fun, and still funky. It's addictive.

10. Hang-Ups (Dandy In The Underworld, 1977) Bolan gets earthy on this nifty shuffle from his last album. "Get off my back and leave me/Aw, shit, let's get it on," goes one self-reflexive lyric, while the chorus "I'm such a contradiction, I'm just hung-up," makes me think Bolan was becoming more self-aware and understanding his place in what came to be known as the "Me Decade." Somehow, I think he would have sorted out the 80's too.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Fall Preview 2015

When the sunlight decreases and the temperatures begin to drop, a new layer of cells forms that cuts off leaves from the branches that supply their nutrients. The leaves are eventually released from their trees and drift to the ground. The fall album release schedule will see many musical leaves drift toward us, but instead of being dead they will come to glorious life in that infinite space of the universe between our ears. Here are a few things that should make this a very colorful autumn.

Guilty Simpson - Detroit's Son This gritty rapper has been at it for a while, honing his flow and never settling for less when it comes to the beats he rhymes over. This new album, produced by Quakers member Katalyst, is his strongest album yet. Out September 11th on Stones Throw. 

Phil Cook - Southland Mission Cook's pedigree as a member of Megafaun, a former associate of Justin Vernon's in DeYarmond Edison, and a member of Hiss Golden Messenger's touring band, among other things, guaranteed his new album would be worth a listen. And it is - repeatedly, in fact. Rootsy and meticulously produced, Southland Mission is the real "new Americana" - accept no substitutes. Cook is also heading out on an international tour but you can catch him at Rough Trade in NYC on September 23rd. Out September 11th.

Dr. John - The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974 Looking at the peak of Mac Rebennack's legendary career through the prism of his singles should be a recipe for pure pleasure. Make sure you're in the right place at the right time. Out September 18th on Omnivore.

Lloyd Price - sumdumhonky Not a record but an autobiography that promises to be a "no holds barred" look at 80 years in the life of a founding father of rock'n'roll (Lawdy Miss Clawdy, Stagger Lee, etc., etc.). Price has survived in every aspect of the music business while also surviving as a black man in America during tumultuous times past and present. Out October 13th from Cool Titles.

Killing Joke - Pylon The 16th album (and first since 2012) from the post-punk legends will feature their original lineup again. Beyond that not much is known,but judging by the pummeling Autonomous Zone, which they have played in concert, James Murphy needn't worry: they haven't lost their edge. Out October 23rd on Spinefarm.

Van Morrison - His Band and the Street Choir Moondance was a delight but this was the album that sealed the deal for me with Van Morrison. This expanded version will likely earn its keep with the alternate take of I've Been Working, which is supposed to be even funkier than the released version. Van's masterpiece Astral Weeks is also getting the deluxe treatment. Out October 30th on Warner Bros./Rhino. 

Boots - Aquaria Everything I've heard from this makes me think it's going to be more interesting than anything a Beyonce collaborator should be capable of doing. The sounds are lapidary but Boots doesn't seem as sure of himself as a singer and it remains to be seen if that will be a deal-breaker. Out November 13th on Columbia.

Kanye West - Swish Okay, now that we know you don't understand awards shows, can you stay away from them until you finish the follow-up to the mighty Yeezus? Out TBD.

Concert Forecast

The magic doesn't only happen in the studio. Here are some highly recommended live experiences in NYC. Many of these people are performing elsewhere as well - check your local listings, as they say. 

Holly Miranda will be playing at the Mercury Lounge on Thursday, September 17th and Friday September 18th. Those will be full-band concerts but the creator of my number one album of the year so far will also be playing a special solo concert at The Studio in Freehold, NJ on September 11th. That's the one I'm going to and I'm bringing cookies for the potluck.

Ibeyi will be gracing the stage of Webster Hall with their intoxicating blend of world sounds and hip hop production on Friday October 2nd.

Nicole Atkins, whose Slow Phaser was a big favorite from 2014, will be playing Webster Hall with J.D. McPherson on Friday October 9th. 

Michael Chapman and Ryley Walker will both be at Rough Trade NYC, also on Friday, October 9th. This lineup may just win the "embarrassment of riches" award for 2015.

Chance The Rapper and several friends will be at Terminal 5 on Sunday, October 25th. As much as I want to see him, I'll have to see if I'm in the mood for a posse concert.

Wand will be bringing their unique brand of buzzing-amplifier mayhem to Mercury Lounge and Rough Trade NYC on Friday November 13th and Saturday November 14th, respectively.

Winter Bonus

Baroness - Purple Some fans were underwhelmed by their last album, Yellow & Gold, but I thought it was beautiful. The heavy stuff had a lighter touch and the lighter songs were only deceptively so. Baroness's rise was slowed by a devastating bus accident that led to the departure of two members. They regrouped and worked their way back to full strength on the road. Purple will be the first album with their new rhythm section of bassist Nick Jost and drummer Sebastian Thomson (known for his work in Trans Am), and based on Chlorine & Wine it's going to be a doozy. Out December 18.

If you want an easy way to listen to what I'm fussing about, here's a handy Spotify playlist:

What are you looking forward to?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Ten Lost MJ Gems

Ten Lost MJ Gems

In the wake of Michael Jackson's death I spent weeks listening to every song I could find in an attempt to make the ultimate mix. I knew I wanted it to be no longer than two CD's. I also worked to listen to everything with an open mind and not dismiss anything out of hand. He deserved that much for all the joy he had brought into my life.

In the end I ended up with a fantastic collection that we listened to addictively for months. I burned a copy for one friend who listened to it so much in her car I had to burn it again about a year later.

But I still had that playlist of "MJ Rejects" on my iPod. Some songs had been left off to avoid redundancy, like demos of hits or too many songs from one album. Others just seemed bad, too sappy or half-baked. But time can change how we feel about things so revisited the rejects today, on his 57th birthday to see if any of these songs struck me differently.

All Night Dancing - Destiny is actually a very consistent album and it was hard to leave any songs out of the playlist. This track is pure energy and the album seemed to hint at a bright future for The Jacksons as a group.

Scared Of The Moon - This demo could be a ballad from a high-budget Disney film. He sings with such purity - and none of the tics associated with his later work - that it's impossible not to sit in awe.

Monkey Business - Sly and sexy, this shouldn't have been left off Dangerous. I think the horn players (or it might be a synth) are having as much fun as MJ - - too much monkey business, indeed.

Stranger In Moscow - MJ's intimate delivery on this sleek bit of R&B balladry could warm up winter in Russia - or anywhere.

Burn This Disco Out - There's not really a bad track on Off The Wall and this jam features pretty much everything that makes MJ great. He constructed his songs like a choreographer which makes them so much fun to dance to.

Unbreakable - MJ seemed to have an uncomfortable relationship with hip-hop and I'm not sure he entirely understood it. This track featured the Notorious B.I.G., who is more up to the challenge than some of the rappers MJ worked with, and an aggressive groove that sounds better than I remembered. It's from his last album, Invincible - don't sneer, it sold 13 million copies.

Things I Do For You - This funked up song from Destiny is nearly an Off The Wall contender.

You Can't Win - The other MJ song from The Wiz is absurdly danceable and super-smooth. You can hear a mature artist being born and full of joy.

In The Closet - This still sounds futurist, not only because of the tricky production but also due to the left-field harmonies. The lyrics refer to "The truth of lust woman to man" - interesting noun placement - but sometimes I think MJ was looking toward a post-racial, post-gender utopia. His tragic attempt to reach it was written on his body.

Butterflies - Invincible had a somewhat tortured genesis but you'd never know it from this stripped down, cozy ballad. Break Of Dawn from the same album is nearly as good. Any R&B singer today would give their eye teeth for a songs this good.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Beam & Bridwell's AOR Utopia

Cover albums are rarely universally praised, except perhaps by music publishers looking to squeeze some new life from an old copyright. I remember having this argument with my father when David Bowie's Bertolt Brecht's Baal came out. Dad was an old-school Brechtian and thought Bowie put a little too much of himself into his interpretation of the German master's songs. I was (and still am) a dyed in the wool Bowie fanatic - although one raised on the Marc Blitzstein Threepenny Opera - and thought the Thin White Duke could have pushed his own personality further in his versions. 

Therein lie some of the pitfalls of covering songs. If they're familiar chestnuts, do we just want to be reminded of something we have loved? Or do we want to hear a radical new take that opens up new possibilities in old structures? Do we want to hear a classic retooled to fit a newer artist's style? Or do we want that new artist to demonstrate hitherto unknown aspects of their talent? And what about the idea of a current favorite bringing an old song to light, something that influenced them and deserves wider exposure?

This brings me to Sing Into My Mouth by Iron And Wine & Ben Bridwell, a covers album that manages in its 12 songs to touch on almost every issue mentioned above, triumphing in every situation. And for their troubles, Sam Beam (who is Iron And Wine) and Bridwell have received mostly terrible and even dismissive reviews. Some of that could be due to the casual flavor lent by the cover painting, which shows a bearded dude "speaking" a toast to be drunk with two beer bottles. Some of the reviewers seem to think that's how Beam & Bridwell made the album: cracked a couple of cold ones, tuned a couple of guitars, hit "record" and just sang whatever came to mind. 

I'm calling foul on that construct. This is an extremely well-conceived survey of songs from the last 50 or so years, demonstrating a wide array of interests on both Beam & Bridwell's parts. It's also gorgeously produced by Beam, with an overall acoustic-based warmth that allows for many individual touches to fulfill their vision of each song. My only issue with the album is that Beam is one of the most gifted singers of his generation, near the pinnacle of Robin Pecknold, Justin Vernon, and Hamilton Leithauser, while Bridwell, leader of Band Of Horses, is merely good. So while I prefer the the songs where Beam takes the lead, the dichotomy in no way interrupts the flow of the listening experience. 

In a certain way, they have pulled this mosaic of songs from various places and times and placed them all in an imagined utopia - that of 1970's Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio. Keep in mind that this is done without a shred of irony. And why not? Staples of AOR were known for their solid song structures, masterful studio productions and universal lyrical themes. Beam & Bridwell succeed so completely at this at my wife is convinced she heard nearly all of these songs on the radio. In the case of the songs by John Cale, Marshall Tucker Band, Sade, J.J. Cale and Bonnie Raitt, this is certainly possible. Spiritualized? Not so much. I don't remember listening to the radio much in 2001 and I'm not even sure The Straight and the Narrow was released as a single in this country. 

Either way, that song is a great example of the pleasure and depth of Sing Into My Mouth. I've always felt that Jason Pierce of Spiritualized had some good instincts and ideas but nothing I've ever heard from them felt fully realized, partly due to his voice, a fairly thin instrument that rarely reaches the level of his ambitions for the grandiose songs he writes. Despite this, there is a huge well of affection for his band, making for dangerous waters into which the cover artist must wade. Beam and Bridwell brush all that aside, stripping away Pierce's grandeur to find this lovely song, which they rebuild with pedal steel, organ, a Nashville backbeat, and - crucially - Beam's background vocals, a rich arrangement that envelops Bridwell's everyman delivery without ever overwhelming him. While I might like their version better, I now have new appreciation for Jason Pierce's skills as a song classicist.

Talking Heads are even more of a sacred cow than Spiritualized (mostly for good reason) but what a relief to hear This Must Be The Place rescued from its slightly too chirpy 80's production! Beam & Bridwell have received much love for their take on that song, however even more of a revelation is the version they do of Bulletproof Heart by Sade. For all her success, she is slightly underrated as an artist - it all sounds so smooth - but she is the real deal as a songwriter. And Sam Beam is the real deal as a quiet storm soul singer. He could do a whole album of soul and R&B and I would wake up early to get on line to buy it. Unsurprisingly for the man who wrote Woman King, Beam has a special sensitivity to the female perspective, which he shows again on the intimate performance of Raitt's Anyday Woman included here. Bridwell also gets his chance to put some soul-power into his voice when they do Am I A Good Man, a much-sampled slice of sixties soul by Them Two that can stand a new airing.

God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get), originally by El Perro Del Mar, is another salvage operation. Erasing the memory of that band's irritating and mannered vocals, Beam & Bridwell sing this charming song without affectation while applying a brooding restraint with lots of original bits and pieces to the arrangement. In the case of David Gilmour's No Way Out Of Here they combine the best aspects of his recording and the one made by Unicorn to come up with maybe the definitive version, full of dynamics and banked fire. And if their version of Ronnie Lane's Done This One Before is a virtual xerox of the original, let it serve as a reminder of the continuing relevance of a neglected rock & roll savant. If a few people go and buy some Ronnie Lane albums after hearing it I'm sure no one will be happier than Sam Beam and Ben Bridwell. 

The album ends with a haunted re-imagining of Pete Seeger's Coyote, big as the desert sky, which wouldn't sound out of place on a Bon Iver album. Seeger was a towering figure for sure, and someone who imbued my childhood with song - but he never let you forget that he was teaching you how to sing the song while he sang it. The dangers of populism, I suppose. Beam & Bridwell sing it as if it arose from their blood and demanded release. Along with the rest of Sing Into My Mouth it's a stunning reminder of the elasticity of great songs, which sometimes have to hibernate for decades before reaching their true fulfillment, or at least to show off the further facets contained within them. Blow out the cobwebs of what you think this album, or these songs, should sound like and just listen - then drink a toast of your own to these brave young masters of song. 

Sing Into My Mouth is available on all streaming services and in all stores. To hear nearly all of the original songs, visit my playlist here: