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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 mentioned in a teaser at the end of the last post a significant musical discovery. I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while because each time I start to write it ending up listening to something new by the artist in question and falling in love and wanting to include that. So, instead I will try to make this simple.

Starting where I did: looking for a copy of the Nick Lowe version of “Indoor Fireworks” I got a collection of Elvis Costello covers. One of the immediate standouts was Christy Moore’s version of “The Deportees Club.” The song has been a favorite Elvis Costello track of mine since hearing the acoustic version included as a bonus track on the Goodbye Cruel World re-issue. It’s clever and tart without the level of vitriol which can sometimes be off-putting in Elvis Costello, and the line, “all my troubles I confess to another faceless backless dress” is great.

As Elvis Costello says in the liner notes Christy Moore brings a nice sweetness and humanity to the song. The self-destructiveness in the original is pushed towards weariness instead. The feeling of missed opportunities in the song is sung as more a reflection on the human condition rather than a grievance.

I happily included the song on a mix CD that I was working on at the time. Then I started to look up Christy Moore and figure out who he was and the more I found out the more surprised I was that I hadn’t heard of him before. He’s a legend of Irish music who’s been recording regularly since the 70s and does almost exactly the sort of music that I like, Listening to a handful of his albums he’s even better than I would have expected (with the caveat that, as far as I can tell from reviews, it looks like the tried to go in more of a pop direction in the nineties which doesn’t sound like a good choice). On any given album there are at least a couple of songs which are as good as you could possibly ask for. He’s a fantastic singer and really consistently attentive to the meaning of songs. The thing that is remarkable is, often, how much weight and thought he will give to every line in a song. He’s unusually good at being able to locate the emotional core of a song and then communicate that and embody that in his delivery.

I have several songs of his that I hope to write about at some point but I will close by just pointing to a version of the most recent song of his that I’ve heard and fallen in love with. This one was recommended by RS and comes from his time with Planxty, a group that did traditional Irish music, has a great reputation but didn’t last that long before splitting up to work on individual projects. Looking at AMG I see they released three albums in 73-74, then a pause and two more albums in 79-80. I admit, hearing all of that I was a little bit suspicious. I’ve been dissapointed before by some of the pioneering British folk crossover groups like Steeley Span or Sandy Denny. They’re good, but listening to them I feel like the battles they were fighting are not the ones that I’m interested in. I feel like Steeley Span was trying to do folk music with the energy of pop music, which is a good thing, but, at the same time, it was a new enough idea that they didn’t completely trust that there was an audience for it, and it ends up sounds very stiff to my ears — like they’re being very cautious and overemphasizing that they are being respectful of the material.

None of this describes Planxty who appear to be legitimately great performers of traditional Irish music (I say, “appears to” only because there albums are somewhat expensive so I haven’t gotten to them yet, but after RS’s encouragement I look forward to doing so) and I want to urge you as strongly as possible to listen to the following song even though it’s nine minutes long.

You get another example of Christy Moore’s ability as a singer in “Little Musgrave” (youtube). It’s a familiar story, but he avoids having it feel formulaic. He’s invested in the story and in the motivations of the various characters. It seems like a simple thing to do, but it’s very difficult and most people don’t pull it off nearly as well as he does. It’s so common to hear ballads sung as if the story has always already happened, as if the song isn’t telling a story, it just exists as a version of a story, as if the interest is in the way in which it relates to all of the versions that are out there. He tells the story and tells it very well.

Youtube also has a more recent live version if you prefer. It’s similar to the version above, and you can see his face.

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.

I was talking to somebody today who happened to mention a person they new named, “Lonnie” and I immediately thought of the Steel Dan song, “The Boston Rag” which has the lyric, “Lonnie swept the playroom / And he swallowed up all he found / It was forty-eight hours til / Lonnie came around.”

It’s far from the best or my favorite of their songs, but it’s still memorable. It occurred to me that one of the criticisms of Steely Dan is that the musical genre they’re working in (sometimes described as “lite jazz-funk”) isn’t very interesting. Which may or may not be true but it’s an important point in favor of Steely Dan that their songs are far from generic. The songs are quirky and vivid and their songwriting is very rarely lazy — there may be recognizable Steely Dan themes, but their songs don’t descend to cliche and that’s a big part of what makes them a classic and important band.

I can’t exactly recommend the movie, but it’s basically well done, and reminded me of a number of interesting things about the Runaways.

  1. They were genuinely good. Limited, in various ways, but good.
  2. They were young. There area number of musicians who became famous relatively young who did so in their early 20s. Paul Westerberg was 21 when the Replacements released their first album. Joan Jett was 17 (or 18 if the album was released in Nov or Dec)!
  3. To give another sense of how young they were, the movie starts in 1975, not that far removed from when I was born, and feels very much like a period piece. Joan Jett is 51 years old at the moment.
  4. Joan Jett really is one of the coolest people around. I would recommend just watching the movie with the commentary track, so that you can hear Joan Jett talk, but I can’t say that for sure since I ended up deciding to watch the whole movie again.
  5. Dakota Fanning was good. Kristen Stewart honestly wasn’t bad.
  6. I had forgotten that there were actually two members of the band who have had music careers that continue to the present. You wouldn’t learn that from the movie, however, since it focuses on Jett and Currie (in part, I think, because Lita Ford didn’t agree to sell the rights to her story)

Writing the previous post I was thinking that “nonsense” might be a better word than “silly” to describe “Bahamut” and that got me thinking about It’s Saturday, my favorite King Missile song.

I first heard the song on a mix from a friend and it immediately stood out as one of the more fun tracks on there. It’s clever, surprising, and just barely manages to not be too precious. Compared to other good King Missile tracks like, “(I’m a) Sensitive Artist“, “Take Stuff From Work“, or “Cheesecake Truck” all of which are funny and memorable, “It’s Saturday” has more than one idea that nicely catches one’s attention.

It’s a sign of how well constructed it is that it can move from the familiar joke, “I want to be different, like everybody else I want to be like” to the entertainingly over-educated elaboration, “I want to call into question the very idea that identity can be attached” to the final lines, “Whatever happened to protesting nothing in particular, / just protesting cause it’s Saturday and there’s nothing else to do?” and feel like a natural progression. The individual lines may be too-clever-by-half (which is no criticism, in this case) but the song as a whole feel reflective and sincere in some way.

At the recommendation of ben I’ve been listening to Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, and it has really been growing on me. (And, should you ask, no, ben doesn’t only recommend older songs that are, once popular, now generally considered to be un-hip, and which end up being quite good. But you can tease him about it anyway.)

A quick background on the album, since I hadn’t known anything about it prior to listening to it. From AMG:

More than any other Fleetwood Mac album, Tusk is born of a particular time and place — it could only have been created in the aftermath of Rumours, which shattered sales records, which in turn gave the group a blank check for its next album. But if they were falling apart during the making of Rumours, they were officially broken and shattered during the making of Tusk, and that disconnect between bandmembers resulted in a sprawling, incoherent, and utterly brilliant 20-track double album. … Coming after the monumental Rumours, this was a huge disappointment, but the truth of the matter is that Fleetwood Mac couldn’t top that success no matter how hard they tried, so it was better for them to indulge themselves and come up with something as unique as Tusk. Lindsey Buckingham directed both Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, but he dominates here, composing nearly half the album, and giving Christine McVie’s and Stevie Nicks’ songs an ethereal, floating quality that turns them into welcome respites from the seriously twisted immersions into Buckingham’s id…. While McVie and Nicks contribute some excellent songs, Buckingham owns this record with his nervous energy and obsessive production, winding up with a fussily detailed yet wildly messy record unlike any other. This is mainstream madness, crazier than Buckingham’s idol Brian Wilson and weirder than any number of cult classics.

What’s surprising, listening to the album, is how accurate that description is. You have a variety of elements that sit somewhat uneasily beside each other, but which are both quite accomplished and compelling as the output of a band that is at the peak of its musical powers, able to do anything it wants, and completely miserable and who are able to use that to go in a genuinely experimental direction.

Think about it this way, it’s not unusual for successful bands to go into the album following a big hit by saying, “we don’t want to just repeat ourselves.” Particularly after they’ve been touring for a year playing the hit songs until they’re tired of them. At the same time, for this hypothetical band, the hit album was an expression of their musical tastes and interests and skills when they made. So if their only inspiration for the follow-up is the desire to not draw from that same well again it puts them in the spot of having to treat part of their own tastes as something to be avoided.

In this case I suspect, the emotional turmoil of the band made it easier to be in a genuinely different emotional and creative space than the previous album. This is largely hypthetical, I don’t really know Rumors or much about Fleetwood Mac in general, but it’s the narrative that Tusk conjures even if you haven’t heard the previous album.

So, start with of Lindsey Buckingham’s songs the pointed, What Makes You Think You’re The One“, all clipped lines and sharp percussion. It’s a cliche to describe angry songs as “self-lacerating” but there’s an odd effect from a song in which the emotions are so sharp, and the production is so careful. What would inspire somebody to spend that much time polishing something that’s so unhappy?

I’ve also been reading the 33 1/3 book on Tusk, which I would quote from but I don’t have it in front of me. But he makes the argument that Tusk really is “art for arts sake,” and “What Makes You Think You’re The One” is a good example of why you would say that. The lyrics are clever, the song is smart and well constructed, but compared to somebody like Elvis Costello, who’s debut album was released the same year as Tusk, what makes it really stand out is the feeling that Buckingham has spent so much time working on the precise sound for the song, and that it’s believable that he’s found something that he could love, not only as a vehicle for the emotion, but just as a musical experiment (reportedly he was a fan of The Gang Of Four, and they were an inspiration). It’s so carefully produced, and most of that production is done by Buckingham.

No contrast that with one of the Stevie Nicks songs, “Beautiful Child“. What grabs me about that song is also the sound but, in this case, the sound of her voice. Not many people can sing like that. As somebody said about the Marianne Faithful album Broken English, “you don’t need to have heard the ‘before’ to know that this is an ‘after.'” It’s a song about heartache, and she sounds like she’s managed to go through a wide enough range of heartache that it’s become a deeply complex and textured emotion. It’s remarkable the way in which her voice can simultaneously combine hurt, fatigue, defiance, anger, and tenderness. I tend to like singers who have a light touch and who can precisely express small shifts of emotion from phrase to phrase. This is different, it doesn’t feel like she creates an emotional narrative to the song, exactly, but that all of the emotions are always there at the same time. There is, of course, craft and skill to her singing, and something more than that as well.

I was recently listening to a mix CD that I worked on a while ago, and which I remembered being unhappy with but, on re-listening, reminded me of a number of good songs that I’d forgotten.

One of those, hardly unknown, is “Better Be Good To Me” by Tina Turner. It suffers a bit from the very 80s production (though other songs have suffered more), but I think her vocals are spectacular.

She is able to move nicely from being brash on a line like, “I don’t have the time / for your overloaded lies” to seeming genuinely pained in the verse:

I think it’s also right that we don’t need to fight
We stand face to face and you present your case
Yes, I know, you keep telling me that you love me
And I really do wanna believe
But did you think I’d just accept you in blind faith
Oh, sure baby, anything to please you

It really is a pop gem — great performance with more emotion and smarter lyrics than you would expect from a typical pop song. Again it has a little too much sheen in the production, but it holds up well.

RS passed along to me a web page that is fascinating, occasionally astonishing, and capable of sucking up huge amounts of time.

Billboard magazine has put up a chronological list of the 1000 songs that have hit #1 on the hot 100 chart at some point since it began in 1958, including a link to a video of each song (usually but not always the version that charted).

It’s an astonishing compilation of pop music history.

It’s interesting to see some trends, like the fact that in the 80s there was a lot more turnover at the top of the charts than there has been since. There were 231 distinct #1 singles in the 80s for an average of just over 2 weeks at #1!, compared to 140 in the 80s and 150 since 2000.

Want to see the Supremes on Television in awesome reflective blue gowns, it’s there. Want to be reminded of how young Rod Stewart was in 1971?

Or you can just be amused at juxtapositions like the fact that “Come On Eileen” was the song that knocked “Billie Jean” out of the #1 position (and was, itself, replaced by “Beat It” which then gave way to “Let’s Dance”)

(cross-posted at unfogged)

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.

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