January 2011

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As many of you know, I’m a big fan of David Bowie but, unusually, I generally like his studio work as well or better than the live recordings. I usually think that a good live performance has an immediacy that’s hard to replicate in the studio, but the same traits that make David Bowie exceptional also make his live records less revealing. I’m apparently not the only one who thinks this. By my count he’s released 25 studio albums and 4 live recordings, despite touring regularly.

He’s very actorly as a singer, and has a generally analytical approach; he isn’t spontaneous. The pleasure of an album like Ziggy Stardust is the close attention to detail and the sheer density of creative ideas. He’s adjusting his phrasing and emotional pitch on every line, and sometimes on individual words. It’s wonderfully crafted but in it’s very attention to craft it doesn’t leave much room for improvisation, so the live versions tend to be very close to the originals.

With that background I was impressed by this duet between David Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey on “Under Pressure”.

I hadn’t heard of Gail Ann Dorsey before but, according to wikipedia she’s been the base player for Bowie’s touring band since 1995. That would mean that they’d been working together for about a year at the point of that performance, which makes their evident comfort with each other even more impressive.

That comfort was the first thing that I noticed. They both seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves and appreciating the moment of singing the song together. The second thing that interested me was the way in which Gail Ann Dorsey, broadly speaking, is the yang to David Bowie’s yin. She is careful, and respectful of being a guest on the song, but also emotional, in-the-moment, and willing to push the song for the live performance. While David Bowie is controlled and disciplined. Considering Bowie’s greater stature, it’s impressive that the performance ends up feeling like a collaboration of equals.

It’s really a good performance.

I also think there’s an interesting contrast with several of the other videos of them performing the same song together which are just not quite as good.

Consider this from a year later — note that the sound quality is better, but much quieter, so you’ll have to turn up the volume quite a bit from the previous video to have a fair comparison.

That performance feels like much less of a collaboration, and I suspect that the fact that it’s in a much larger venue (Madison Square Garden) plays a role. Gail Ann Dorsey is more restrained, but I also think it’s interesting to watch the difference in Bowie’s performance. In the MSG video, Bowie looks much more conscious of continuing to be aware of and play to the crowd the entire time. In the moments on the two videos when you can watch Bowie while’s he’s off the mic, in the first one he appears to be listening to Gail Ann Dorsey, while in the second one he looks more like he’s still orchestrating the performance and the center of attention even while he isn’t singing, and it’s harder for Gail Ann Dorsey to create a space for herself in that circumstance. I think that’s a good example of what I was describing in the beginning of David Bowie’s sense of precision getting in the way of spontaneity. It isn’t a bad performance, but it’s not as good.

That said, if you want another example of them looking comfortable performing together I thought this video was very sweet.

Three pop songs about women named, “Annie” (the first two links are youtube links)

Annie Get Your Gun” (Squeeze)
Annie” (Pete Townshend / Ronnie Lane)
Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song” (Tom Paxton; from this post).

Plus, of course, the musical.

Is there something in the name that makes it particularly suited to fitting a lyric, or could you make a similar list for any common woman’s name with two syllables?

Earlier this year I picked up a Lefty Frizzell collection after ben introduced me to him via this video.

He’s amazing.

Part of what’s astonishing about listening to a collection like that one is just how consistently good he was in his peak. Of the 34 songs, 30 of them are from 1950-59, and it’s just one great song after another. I had head songs like, “If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time” and “It’s Saturday” before, and I expected them to be good, but I wasn’t expecting that it would be just one great song after another.

But let me look at one of the hits first.

The other day I was listening to Shine, Shave, Shower (It’s Saturday) and I was struck by a sense of awe. For a moment it just boggled my mind to think that somebody wrote that song (credited to Jim Beck and Lefty Frizzell). It just seems like one of those songs that should have always existed but, in fact, somebody had to write it. I feel like, had that been the only thing the wrote (and Jim Beck is credited on most of Lefty Frizell’s early hits) that should be enough to secure their place in cultural history.

The lyrics are good — they feel like throwaway lines, but they’re actually remarkably efficient, getting a lot of punch from a line like, “my sweet baby’s gonna show me around” but that tune is so catchy. And Lefty Frizzell sings it so well. Listen to how well he keeps the rhythm solid without ever overdoing it. He has the ability to put just a little extra stress on a breath to give a beat without either interrupting the flow of the line. Or listen to the difference in the final lines of the first verse and chorus (“‘Cause my sweet baby’s gonna show me around” and “Because tonight is Saturday night”) the first is all easy vowel sounds, the second emphasizes the repeated “t”‘s ( “Because tonight is Saturday night“) but he makes both of them flow easily. They have a different energy but if you aren’t listening closely it wouldn’t be obvious why. Lefty Frizell makes it sound like he just sings each line exactly as it has to be sung, and never seems flashy in his singing, but he’s also attentive to the way that each of the lines sounds different.

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