New to me

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I started this post yesterday and got stuck, so I’m going to try to keep it simple and unfinished, and figure that it’s still worth sharing.

In the latest post in the “52 Girls” series at The Song In My Head Today, Holly posted “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home?” by the Kinks. A song Ray Davies wrote for his sister who had moved to Australia. It made me think about another song with a girl’s name in the title written to an absent sister, Caetano Veloso’s “Maria Bethania.” It’s a favorite of mine, and the comparison seemed like an interesting way to think about both songs — Ray Davies wistful, restrained, English song and Caetano Veloso’s more emotional, troubled, experimental song.

The more I listened to them, the more I realized how complicated both songs are, and the harder it seemed to encapsulate their differences in any simple scheme. “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home” started to seem more forceful, and more of a rock song as I listened to it, and “Maria Bethania” is experimental but also the structure is very important since the clear contrast in emotion between the verses and the chorus is part of what creates the emotional dynamic of the song (until the final line of the last verse, “but I love her face because it has nothing to do with all that I’ve said” brings those two together. I hear that as the first mention of Maria Bethania in the verses, and the the “she” and “you” before that refer to somebody else who may be a specific figure, or just a general expression of his alienation from Brazil),

But in respect there is a simple and crucial difference between the two songs. Ray Davies is still at home, singing to his sister who has left. Caetano Veloso is the one in a foreign county, having been forcibly exiled from Brazil, moved to London, and is singing to his sister who is still in Brazil. Because I don’t speak Portuguese my knowledge of Caetano Veloso’s career is limited and mostly confined to his songs in English, but some things are very clear about that album. He looks harried on the album cover, wearing a heavy coat, and looking intently into the camera. The first two songs he wrote for the album were “London, London” and “A Little More Blue” (which deserves it’s own post at some point), both songs of homesickness. “A Little More Blue” presents an intense loneliness and “London, London” is more open to the experience — he sings about walking down the streets and not knowing anybody and not making eye contact, but feeling safe and almost whimsical. In the final verse he sings, “I choose no face to look at / Choose no way / I just happen to be here / And it’s okay / Green grass, blue eyes, gray sky, God bless / Silent pain and happiness.” He doesn’t feel at home, but he does feel at peace.

“Maria Bethania” alternates between verses that a deep sense of trouble and of things falling apart (the opening line is, “Everybody knows that our cities were built to be destroyed”) But then, the chorus begins with his sister’s name and instantly the mood becomes tender and one of comfort. Just thinking about her is allows him to relax for a moment. Where Ray Davies asks his sister to move back, Caetano Veloso just asks her to, “send me a letter. / I with to know things are getting better.” And then the song end with two minutes of him vocalizing over very dramatic music before, as I hear it, exhausting some of the tension and reaching a provisional but real resolution and calm.

It’s interesting to have two songs, with a similar inspiration, written five years apart by two of the greatest songwriters of their generation both living in England under very different circumstances.

Experimenting

As you may have noticed, the site has been awfully slow for the last couple of months. It has something to do with the WordPress settings, because static files load quickly. I’ve been ignoring it for a while, because I didn’t want to bother. But I’ve been meaning to get back to beforeyoulisten at some point, and fixing that seems like a good place to start.

So I’m going to try changing things and see if I can make it run faster. I will probably change the theme, and possible the spam controls, so let me know if you like or don’t like anything, but hopefully I won’t make anything worse.

I’m starting to see end of the year “best of lists.” I’m not generally inclined towards that sorts of thing since I don’t listen to much music at the time it comes out. For me listening to an album two or three years after its release counts as an unusually active interest. But I do think it’s worthwhile to recognize the pleasure of new music and the surprise of something unexpected. In that vein I can recommend a re-release of a somewhat-obscure 1971 album which I happened to get last week, Gonna Take a Miracle.

I’d had some sense of Laura Nyro as a songwriter who was both playful and intense — she’s probably best known for writing “Eli’s Coming” but my favorite, of the songs I’ve heard is “Sweet Blindness.” Gonna Take a Miracle is an albums of covers recorded with Labelle (Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash) and is definitely a surprise. It’s playful, certainly, but it dives into a variety of pop standards with urgency and intensity. Some of the characteristics of the album can be explained by how it was recorded:

The studio was booked for a week, yet by the sixth day nothing had been recorded because everyone was having too good a time vibing. The schedule grew so tight that Patti [LaBelle] actually bet Huff a sizable chunk of cash that the songs could be knocked out in a few hours. According to Vicki, Gonna Take A Miracle is first takes, partially because everyone knew the songs by heart, but mainly because there was simply no time.

Listen to one of my favorite tracks, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” The original is a legitimate Motown classic and there cover is, to my tastes better. Nervy yet friendly, sexy without being a come-on, and bringing real emotional bite to its sense of infatuation without being breathless. When they sing, “I don’t want to kiss you, but I need to.” it’s makes immediately clear what the song is about.

Consider what it means to call a recording, “intimate.” The word suggests privacy, some shared confidence between musician and listener. This music is intimate in that nothing is hidden but it is profoundly social music — both in the making of it, and the way in which Laura Nyro and Patti Labelle must have pushed each other, and in the implied connection to the audience, well described by Amy Linden in her liner notes:

Nyro’s fifth album, it pays homage to Motown, doo-wop, and the power of the girl-group. It was city music, street corner music. It was “black” music but like hip-hop, accessible to anyone with passion. Alternately gritty and giddy, it was the sound that hung in the New York City air like humidity on an August afternoon.

The message of the recording isn’t “let me tell you something that I know and you don’t.” It is, “let me remind you how rich and vibrant our collective culture is, that these songs, which we’ve all heard on the radio, are full of pleasure and emotion.” It is a bit of a miracle that the record exists as it is, rich, but immediate and unburdened by grand ambitions, it captures what must have been a very fun day in the studio.

I’m hoping to do some blogging this weekend but, in the meantime, three items for the fourth of July.

First, Gretchen Peters at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser performing her song, “Independence Day” and talking about what it means to her. The person Gretchen Peters is both a little odd, it’s clearly a slightly awkward setting, but I think her introduction to the song is nice.

Second two songs about, uh, explosions, if you will forgive the entendre.

Eilen Jewell singing “Bang Bang Bang.” It’s a short song, just under two minutes long, but clearly a great performance piece. I discovered her when I was looking for female performers for my Country mix. I ended up using one of her Loretta Lynn covers, but this was also one of my favorite songs that I found during that process.

Finally, Nick Lowe’s sensitive cover of Elvis Costello’s, “Indoor Fireworks.” This is also a relatively new find; last fall I was listening to more Nick Lowe and it got me to look at his catalog again. The Allmusic review of The Rose Of England mentioned that track as a standout and I went looking for it. As it turned out that ended up leading me to make one of my favorite musical discoveries of 2011 but that’s a story for another time . . . hopefully this weekend.

Apologies again for the lack of posting. I got really busy starting last July, and it’s only now starting to slow down (and I’m just starting to catch up). But, for my loyal readers, I do have something new to share. A new mix of county singer/songwriters, that I’m quite excited about. Extended thoughts below the fold but I’m definitely curious to know what people make of it. A lot of this music is new to me, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks listening to a bunch new music to work on this, and I’m happy with how it turned out:

Unconventional Country:
1: Walkin’ — Willie Nelson
2: Honkey Tonk Girl — Eilen Jewell (by Loretta Lynn)
3: Saint Anthony With The Broken Hands — Katy Moffatt
4: Hard On Equipment (tool for the job) — Corb Lund
5: West Texas Waltz — Butch Hancock
6: Burning The Toast For You — Suzy Bogguss (by April Barrows)
7: Wander — Paul Burch
8: Listen To The Radio — Kathy Mattea (by Nanci Griffith)
9: Anyhow, I Love You — Lyle Lovett (by Guy Clark)
10: Please — Mary Gauthier
11: Glasgow Girl — Rodney Crowell
12: Six Nights A Week — Peter Case (by Chris Gaffney)
13: Gimme A Ride To Heaven, Boy — Terry Allen
14: Mystery Train Part II — Steve Earle
15: Out In The Parking Lot — Guy Clark
16: Sittin’ Still — Andrew Jacob Holm
17: Boxcars — Joe Ely (by Butch Hancock)

Read the rest of this entry »

I don’t normally like to post songs that aren’t in my collection. But here’s one that I just heard, liked, and am not likely to get a recording of soon.

Every Man I Fall For” by the Cold War Kids

I hadn’t heard of them before. I heard the song in a movie was really struck by it. I’m not generally a fan of indie-rock blues melodrama, but I think it’s great. The performance is fantastic; it’s a very charismatic song and performance.

I also appreciate the cleverness in fact that the song is titled, “Every Man I Fall For” and the description is so specific that it can really only apply to one person.

The sound quality on the video is fine, but not great. Here‘s a live performance which, unfortunately, also doesn’t have great sound, but it’s impressive that they can pull it off, and particularly pull off that vocal performance live.

Maybe I should get one of their albums.

In appreciation to the Modesto Kid, here’s a song that I think he’ll like . . .

I have recently had the experience with a couple of songs of watching a video for the song on youtube, and having it crystallize for me some quality about the song that I liked. In both cases I am not sure that I would have appreciated the youtube video as much without having first heard the song on CD, but this definitely goes in the file tracking my coming to appreciate youtube as a resource for music.

First off is Bahamut by Hazmat Modine and the video is of them performing live on Russian TV.

I’d been directed to Hazmat Modine by RS, and have found that it’s been a nice CD to listen to at work. It strikes a nice balance between being energetic without being too pushy or fatiguing. I think part of what makes it less fatiguing is the fact that it’s all acoustic, and that it has a more natural dynamic range (though it manages to not have a dynamic range so big that the loud parts are distractingly loud). It’s surprisingly nice to have the option of something that’s very easy to listen to that doesn’t have synthesized sounds or an everpresent electic guitar.

So I’ve listened to it several times without making any effort to follow the songs or the lyrics, but just enjoying the mood. The video makes it easier to both hear the meaning of the words and to appreciate the silliness of the song. The top comment on the video is somebody saying, “My son is three and ‘Bahamut’ is his favorite song in the whole world.” You can understand why a three year old would love the song. In the live version the chorus

And Bohemoth sings us his song
While Bahamut wanders along
But in the glory of this spring
You can hear Bahamut sing

Whoa-ho-ho
Are you as big as me?
Whoa-ho-ho-ho
Way too big to see
Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho
Bahamut he goes so slow
Whoa-ho-ho-ho
Too big a place to go

Is delightfully fun. It isn’t just silly it’s exultantly silly. It’s exactly what three year olds should be falling in love with; something which isn’t dumbed down, but also doesn’t require any analysis or thought.

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.

Having just encouraged everybody to buy an album in my last post, I have another one to recommend.

I have mentioned before that, when I get a new album, my general approach is to listen the first couple of times in very general way. I try to get a sense of the mood, themes, and high points of the album so that gradually I learn what I should be paying attention to, and figuring out both the best mood and perspective to appreciate the album, and also how it works.

I just got “Blood and Candle Smoke” by Tom Russell (not to be confused with Tom Rush). It’s the first album of his that I’ve heard, and it’s great and one of the things that most impresses me about the album is how brilliantly sequenced it is, and how the album progresses. Listening to it felt like one of the most surprising, involving, and emotional first listening that I’ve had in a long time, because the album took me through the process that I described as it progressed. Listening to it I felt like, without me working at all, it was teaching me as the album progressed how to listen to it.

Putting it on for the first time, the first couple of songs were good, but felt just a little bit obvious. The told stories — interesting ones, and well crafted, but they didn’t surprise much. I found myself feeling a little bit disappointing, at that point, that it seemed well crafted but not as smart as it could be, it seemed like it just lacked the extra effort that takes a song from competent workmanship to a performance. Little did I realize that that they were just setting me up.

The most important way in which the album progresses is the relationship between Tom Russell and the band. AMG describes the production on this album as being different from anything he had done before and so it’s particularly impressive that it succeeds so completely:

Co-produced with Craig Schumacher, and cut at Wave Lab Studios in Tucson with members of Calexico and others, it sounds like nothing else in his catalog. Russell played his guitar and sang live with the band, providing little direction and allowing the musicians to open up a natural space around him. Instrumentally, this collaboration employs everything from mariachi and jazz horn sections, reverbed electric guitars, organic acoustics, and miniscule drum kits to hand percussion, marimbas, accordions, talking drums, Vox organs, and Rhodes pianos. The backing and duet vocals by songwriter Gretchen Peters add warmth, depth, dimension, and presence to Russell’s songs.

However it was that Russell invited the band to be willing to take creative authority on some songs they more than rise to the occasion. In the first half of the album they provide excellent backing for Tom Russell with plenty of power on “Santa Ana Wind” and drive on “Criminology” but as you go deeper into the album they feel more and more like full creative partners, and the songs become less story-like, less linear, and more directly emotional.

Take, as an example, “Mississippi River Runnin’ Backwards” the song almost exactly at the mid-point of the album. You can hear some of the progression that I’m talking about within the course of the song. The song is about New Orleans after Katrina. It starts with a quotation from “Old Man River” and a scene-setting opening verse which work but, again, feel constructed (and make me think back to Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927″) but the song really lands (like a punch) when it gets to the chorus for the second time, when the backup-vocals answer his call of “everybody sing” and the band plays with so much energy and so much ache at the same time, it pays off the emotional promise of the verses. At that moment the song is great, with no qualifications necessary.

I will warn you that, for some reason, the .mp3 conversion isn’t kind to the song. The texture and depth of the music are lacking and, in particular, the piano is rich sounding in the original recording and thin and slightly tiny in the .mp3. But, really, buy the album — it’s worth it. It’s good and it’s surprising. What more can you ask for?

As one last note, I was realizing that it would be convenient for me to try to finish up the Living Room Songs post by Thanksgiving. So I will pick up the pace on that, so I encourage everybody to keep checking in.

Update: Link to song added.

Living Room Songs — Track 6 “BoozeFighters” by Gandydancer from The Appalachians.

I don’t have a lot to say about this one. At some point, working on the mix, I started pulling CDs off the shelf that I didn’t know well, but that looked promising. I’d picked up this collection a year or two earlier but hadn’t been in the right mood and didn’t listen to it much, but this mix was the perfect occasion to go through it. I thought this was an awfully charming song.

It was an interesting challenge to put in the sequence, however, because it (a) has a lot of energy (b) is short and (c) doesn’t have an into our outro to speak of. So there isn’t any way to easy into or out of it, you have to be able to transition into its mood immediately. So it works well following “Bash Bish Falls” which also has a lot of energy, but doesn’t have great emotional force.

Incidentally, I apologize for the break in posting, but I was sick last week. I’m feeling better now and looking forward to getting back into the mix.

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