Friday, November 30, 2007

It's gonna be a little something different, but we gonna give it to 'em anyway. Are you ready? Come on! Ha!

Well it's the last day of November, and it's time to start getting serious about the holiday season.

Last year, avid readers will recall I did a Christmas Mix - "He Don't Come But Once a Year," and a friend asked me casually in October if I planned on doing another one this year. I'll be honest. I wasn't.

Christmas Mixes -- good ones, that is -- are a complete pain in the ass. One, we all have our favorites, and they're hardly worth sharing because by this point, everyone's got them if they haven't heard them a million times over (Sinatra's "Mistletoe and Holly," Band Aid's "Do They Know it's Christmas?," Lennon and McCartney's respective holiday tunes, etc.). So the goal, then, is to find songs that are great but are a bit more obscure.

It proved difficult enough last year -- notice how I copped out on more than one song and went for "winter" themes instead of all Christmas themes. Now I thought about doing it again. TWENTY MORE relatively obscure recordings (there will always be the one or two popular ones just to tie things together). Being that I'm exceedingly difficult on myself, I decided not to repeat any artists I used last year. Now there were some technicalities -- I used Brian Wilson last year and the Beach Boys this year. I used Louis Armstrong last year and an Armstrong/Velma Middleton duet that's been remixed this year.

I then made it more difficult by deciding not to repeat any songs that were used last year, even if it was by a different artist. What did this mean? Two weeks of scouring Christmas albums for gems and thinking way too much about things.

For one: Christmas song lyrics are generally pretty terrible. You never think about 'em cos you only listen to them for one month a year. But think about "Do You Hear What I Hear?" "A child, a child shivers in the cold, we must bring him silver and gold." Now, honestly. How the f*ck is that gonna help? Bring blankets.

For two: Everybody has a Christmas album. Even people who didn't deserve one when they were popular. Since the turn of the century, both Joan Osbourne and Crash Test Dummies have released Christmas albums. I'm not joking. Look it up.

Anyway, there's no way I'm doing another one next year. I probably couldn't be bothered again, BUT the other thing is that the fruits of my labor this year have produced quite simply (and with no false modesty) the greatest Christmas mix ever. There's no topping this.

I hope you find it supremely enjoyable and a great soundtrack to your holiday season.

Merry Christmas!

Shake Hands With Santa Claus! The 2007 "Ain't Superstitious, But These Things I've Seen..." Christmas mix.
DOWNLOAD PART 1 (tracks 1-10 at SaveFile)
DOWNLOAD PART 2 (tracks 11-20 at SaveFile)
(left click on links to take you to respective dowloading pages)

01. Natalie Merchant - Children Go Where I Send Thee
I believe this is an old African spiritual, although three close acquaintances of mine claim never to have heard this song before, so it did make me briefly pause and wonder if Natalie was the first to do this song or something. She wasn’t. And Hall and Oates do a way worse version of it on their latest Christmas album (which includes a retread of “Jingle Bell Rock”… they had the audacity to think we needed another one). Anyway, Natalie’s version here is fantastic, the organ wails and it’s one of the VERY few things from that whole Very Special Christmas series I can actually enjoy. Seriously. Apart from this and Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again” it’s pretty much all crap. Humbug!

02. Louis Prima - Shake Hands With Santa Claus
This is from 1951’s Breaking it Up, which he did with Keely Smith. It’s really not a Christmas song aside from the repetition of the title, but it’s still ridiculously fun and you just can’t just beat it when Prima sounds like he’s having fun too (pretty much all the time). Listen to him almost break character singing the last verse. It’s great. Also imagine King Louie singing this. I find it even that much more fun.

03. Allen Toussaint - The Day it Snows on Christmas
This is from a 2004 collection of New Orleans artists doing Christmas-themed songs called Christmas Gumbo. Fats Domino had a Christmas album of the same name, but he seems too good natured to start any fights about that. Anyway, the High Priest of New Orleans Music waxes theoretical here on what would happen if snow actually did ever fall on the Crescent City, stopping just short of suggesting hell, too, would freeze over. When I saw Allen in Milwaukee this past February, he marveled at the snow on the ground (while we all bitched about it), but hey, if a lack of snow down south keeps him writing these types (or any types) of songs, then… don’t let it snow, don’t let it snow, don’t let it snow.

04. Peggy Lee - Happy Holiday
Peggy recorded a few Christmas collections throughout her career, and this cut was culled from her 1965 album of the same name. I think I’ve only ever heard Andy Williams’ version otherwise, or maybe that choral version that seems to be on every fourth Christmas commercial you see, and I always thought it was kind of a clumsy song. Lee’s band at least finds the groove, and when it comes to Lee’s voice well… it could warm up the coldest heart, couldn’t it? Gives me fever, even…

05. Louis Armstrong & Velma Middleton - Baby It's Cold Outside [Mulato Beat Remix]
I pretty much hate remixes. As Melvin Udall would say, “I’m using the word *hate* here.” They’ve taken up perfectly good B-side space for far too long and I don’t consider the fact that you can play with and rearrange little colored blocks on ProTools any sort of musical proclivity. I also don’t think that looping a bassline for 8 minutes with one line of lyrics repeated in different effects is worth listening to, inside or outside of a club. That said, I LOVE this. Taking a 1950s live performance from Louis and Velma, the remixer here (from 2003’s Six Degrees collection Christmas Remixed) added a beat, some bass and a little bell effect to help the melody. Louis and Velma’s vocals get a little bit of treatment, but they remain the stars of the affair. As it should be, ‘cos this is a great performance. For the first and only time in history, though, I found a remix that betters the original. What’s more, this is not only the best remix I’ve ever heard, it’s the best version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” I’ve ever heard.

06. The Beach Boys - Christmas Day
Too many people focus on “Little Saint Nick.” Fair enough, it’s a nice song, but this one is nice too. The lyrics are daft (“It’s worth the wait the whole year through, just to make happy someone like you”), but that problem wasn’t limited to Beach Boys Christmas songs. Whatever its faults though, it’s under two minutes and features a great little organ solo. And when Brian’s vocals go echo-y on the fadeout, that’s cool too.

07. Carla Thomas - Gee Whiz, It's Christmas
Kind of a tossed off song, obviously built in 1963 to cash in on the novelty of Thomas’ first hit, “Gee Whiz, Look at His Eyes.” That said, this has some indescribable bit of charm to it that kept me from 86ing it from the collection even in my most Grinchy of tracklist-refining moments. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s Carla friggin’ Thomas. Stax’s queen of soul. I mean, if you can hold your own with Otis Redding, who the hell am I to say you’re not good enough for my mix?

08. Dianne Reeves - The Christmas Waltz
Sinatra’s timeless take on this song has always been one of my favorite Christmas numbers, because it reminds me of childhood Christmases with my older relatives who would play his Christmas albums non-stop at their parties. I only discovered this version this year, which isn’t too terribly late, considering Reeves put it out in 2004 on her Christmas Time is Here album. Reeves is probably one of the best female jazz vocalists out there right now, and while I don’t have a huge affinity for jazz (I always think of Morrissey’s quote on Kilborn a few years ago – “It’s going nowhere”), that doesn’t mean it’s worth dismissing as a whole. Sometimes you can get good stuff. Sometimes you can get great new versions of songs you thought the last word had already been spoken for.

09. The Bird And The Bee - Carol of the Bells
I don’t know much about these two. Someone needs to explain The Bird And The Bee to me (hahaha!). They just put this Christmas single out this year. And f*cking iTunes made it a free download the week after I bought it. But whatever. It’s worth 99 cents. This is probably my all time favorite traditional Christmas song, and it’s nice to hear it done in a modern way that doesn’t inadvertently (or advertently) defile the charm of the song itself. It’s a harder feat than you would think. I listened to a lot of Christmas music making this thing. I can tell you… there’s some rotten stuff out there. But this? This is good.

10. Chuck Berry - Run Rudolph Run
The one popular I decided to include because after listening to versions by a lot of others (including, of course, Keef), I decided that no one’s been able to improve this song. And that kind of astounds me. Berry’s great, but if you think that more than a few quick takes were spent on this song, you’re a damn fool. Listen to the drums. First half of the song, it’s a driving beat on the hi-hat. Second half, it’s a swing beat on the hi-hat. I don’t know if the drummer was trying to be clever or just got tired, but maybe one more pass would’ve been alright. Either way, in spite of this deficiency, I repeat – no one’s been able to better this.

11. Ray Charles - Santa Claus is Comin' To Town
Does anyone else find it amazing that Ray Charles didn’t do a Christmas album until friggin’ 1985? How the hell did ABC not milk that cash cow in the “Unchain My Heart” “Georgia On My Mind” “Hit the Road Jack” heyday? As it stands, whenever Ray attacked something, it was good, and while he finesses the electric piano here, I can’t help but wonder what his early 1960s band and backing singers could’ve done with this song…

12. Blondfire - Underneath the Mistletoe
My new obsession, Erica Driscoll, suggests we go back to her house and underneath the mistletoe. Unsurprisingly, I’m all ears. From an iTunes exclusive Christmas EP the band did last year, this thing is a very nice little holiday tune and is it just me or does this thing really show a Smiths influence? Obviously it’s a bit more of a happy lyric than Moz would ever write, but musically it’s just a simplified “This Charming Man” with the same walking bass line, isn’t it? Whatever. You know I’m listening more to Erica sing “And then we’ll go back to my hou-ouse…” Sounds fantastic to me.

13. Marvin Gaye - Purple Snowflakes
Marvin recorded this back in the 1960s, but to my knowledge it remained (as a lot of good stuff did) in Motown’s vaults until a 1993 collection was put out called Christmas in the City. Despite its long time undercover, it sounds glorious – thick Motown bass and drums, and Marvin’s in, of course, fine voice. I do find myself wondering how an accumulation of purple snowflakes accounts for a “blanket of white,” but… I would. Great tune, nonetheless.

14. Ben Folds - Lonely Christmas Eve
This track brought out the Grinch in me. Coincidentally, it’s from the 2000 soundtrack of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the Jim Carrey one). Mr. Folds and I just don’t gel. I think he’s a smarmy bastard and too many college folk give him a lot more credit than he deserves, but now and again he comes up with a song that really makes me go “Damn, this is good.” This is one of them. The dilemma, then, became whether or not to put Ben f*cking Folds on my Christmas mix to end all Christmas mixes. My friend Umaar scoffed and suggested it was very “Madison” of me to put him on, but then he heard the song too. “Damn, this is good,” said he. So there you go. The only song that ever really has gotten in the Grinch’s head. Figuratively and literally.

15. Dean Martin - The Christmas Blues
This was recorded in 1953, but I don’t believe it surfaced until 1959’s A Winter Romance. Hmmm. Anyway, Dean, like Frank, always seemed to have a Christmas album ready to go for the season and while his takes on “Let it Snow,” “Winter Wonderland” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” have become the arguably definitive versions, they’re also to a point of oversaturation. So it’s nice to find this little oddity that speaks to the growing pains (emotionally) we all experience at one point or another with regard to the Christmas season.

16. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles - It's Christmas Time
Here’s the thing. Have you ever heard Stevie Wonder’s Christmas album on Motown from the 1960s? He got into a big kick about writing about Jesus and Mary instead of presents and Santa and reindeer, which, that’s fine – you make people like my mother and all those other “reason for the season” people happy. But “What Christmas Means To Me” was the only secular song on there. Okay. Fast forward 40 years. What’s the only Stevie Wonder Christmas song everybody knows? “What Christmas Means To Me.” Right. Singing about Jesus… it’s all good if that’s what you’re into, you know, but… that’s why they have their own infomercials with crowds singing along with their eyes closed and hands up. Anyway, this is one of those non-secular holiday tunes he wrote. Smokey at least found a delivery for it that made it easy to digest.

17. Solomon Burke - Presents for Christmas
Whether it’s called “Presents For Christmas” or “Christmas Presents” and whether or not it was released in 1961 or 1966… that’s all up for debate elsewhere. It showed up on the Soul Christmas collection in 1968 and is probably the best thing on there, and one of the best Christmas originals ever. “Brother Solomon Burke” (“Y’all know who I’m talkin’ about, don’tcha?” as Wilson Pickett would say) waxes on getting all the poorly their fair share at Christmas. James Brown would do the same thing with “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” but it wasn’t half as catchy as this, and even the Godfather would’ve never been able to deliver a line like “You know I’m even fat enough to be the world’s biggest Santa Claus” and make the listener go, “That’s awesome.”

18. The Minus 5 - Your Christmas Whiskey
This is from a 2007 Yep Roc compilation called Oh Santa! The Minus 5 is a band I’ve never really bothered with. I know Wilco like ‘em. I know R.E.M. digs ‘em. I love “Retrieval of You,” but beyond that… I just haven’t cared enough. This song kind of shows why. It’s really good – it’s easy to listen to, but it’s not wholly convincing is it? Makes you think they could blow you away if they really tried, but considering this sounds tossed off, that’s still saying a lot for them. Plus, everyone’s got a drunk relative they can find this song relatable to.

19. Ella Fitzgerald - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
You can’t have a good Christmas mix without Ella can you? It’d be easy to go for “Santa Claus Got Stuck in my Chimney” or “Sleigh Ride,” but I think this song really captures how great her voice was. It’s not the most difficult thing she ever sang, but she really makes you want to say, “Damn, Ella. I’ll hang out with you on New Year’s Eve.” It’s like my favorite quote from the 1996 movie “My Fellow Americans” goes – when the two former presidents are reminiscing…
Russell Kramer: When you were in the White House, who was the person you were most excited to meet?
Matt Douglas: Nelson Mandela.
Russell Kramer: I'm not a reporter.
Matt Douglas: Ella Fitzgerald.
Russell Kramer: Ah.
Matt Douglas: Mandela was a great man, but he couldn't sing worth a sh*t.

20. Bobby Darin - Christmas Auld Lang Syne
Bobby, like Stevie Wonder, went the super religious route with his 1960 album The 25th Day of December. It’s always kind of astounded me, really, considering Bobby’s persona. Sure, songs like “Child of God” got a good Darin-fuelled “oomph” treatment, but you wonder what he could’ve done with something like “Sleigh Ride” or “Winter Wonderland.” This song was originally released as a standalone single, but subsequently tacked onto the album, and features new lyrics to the old New Year’s hymn, and yes… features a bit of Jesus talk, but it’s alright. It’s actually the most secular holiday thing he offered up. It’s also the third song on this mix where the performer wishes listeners a Merry Christmas as an aside. It’s a proper song to end with, wouldn’t you say?


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Just like before, we'll meet again.

So I got to talking with my old friend Kiki last night, who had contacted me a couple days prior with an assignment.

"I'm really into keys right now, so send me the 10-15 best Ian McLagan-on-keys track you can think of."

Well, I'd already sent her "Cindy Incidentally," she downloaded the Autumn Mix (only up for one more day, folks, speak now or forever hold your peace), so she had "Glad and Sorry," I'd already sent her "St. Monday" by Billy Bragg & the Blokes. So she's expecting new stuff and I'm going "You have it," and she's already pissed at me 'cos I haven't done a proper Roy Orbison post... caramba... and just as I realized she'd already had most of the stuff I'd send her anyway, I realized I'd never shared his solo stuff with her.

Mac's got a new solo album coming out at year's end and while I sent her a track off last year's tribute to Ronnie Lane album, Spiritual Boy, I also sent her a few tracks off his 2003 unbelievably fantastic album, Rise & Shine!

"I can't get over how good his voice is," she said.

Mac really does have a great voice, and what really amazed me when I saw him live last year was his ability as a frontman and songwriter. Any fan of the Small Faces and Faces knows he's great on keys, obviously, but being the fact that he played behind the likes of Steve Marriott and Rod Stewart, no one ever gave his voice much of a chance.

It's nowhere near as powerful as his former frontmen, of course, but it's got it's own weathered soul to it. And to their credit, the Small Faces let him showcase it (and his songwriting ability) during their brief time together.

One of my favorite Small Faces tracks has always been Mac's "Long Agos and Worlds Apart." It's from the landmark Ogden's Nut Gone Flake album, and inspite of being in company like "Afterglow," "Song of a Baker" and the entire Side 2 mini opera, it really holds its own as a phenomenol little song.

Kenny and Plonk were none too pleased to learn the tribute album would be named after Mac's song.

Small Faces - Long Agos and Worlds Apart
Just a great, simplistic track. And you can tell Marriott's having fun doing the backing vocals for the last half of the song. The longstanding mystery is what the lyric is at the 52-second mark. Not even Mac remembers what he sang. He actually asked fans for help a few years back on his website, cos he wanted to play it live without fluffing the line, but I don't think it's ever been settled. When Mac and I hung out in Chicago last year after his first show at Fitzgerald's I asked him to play this on the second night. I said "I have a request," and he goes "Anything, anything." I say "Long Agos and Worlds Apart" and he says, "Not gonna happen, mate." Anyway... can you decipher it? The best guess I can muster is something about "suitors everywhere"... but I don't know.



Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What's it all about?

Hooray, it's time for November's issue of the Fantastic 45's (and not a minute too late)!

Today (incredibly unsurprisingly) we go back to my longtime favorite (and ever present ASBTTIS standby) Paul McCartney.

Thankfully enough Beatles-Beatles-Beatles material has emerged over the past 10 years (Anthology, 1, LOVE, et. al) to kind of somewhat saturate the market -- people never get entirely sick of the Beatles, do they? -- and increasing interest is developing in Wings.

Now, say what you like, but I thought Wingspan was a f*cking joke. One, you don't do a documentary on Wings without Denny Laine. He's the only non-McCartney that survived all 10 years in the band. Two, you don't MARKET the documentary/CDs/book as "What Paul Did After the Beatles." Wings was formed in direct opposition to that sentiment. He could've gone anywhere and played stadiums in 1971. He chose college unions with an unrehearsed band.

At least Uncut did a cover story on the Wings years this year (funnily enough, choosing that over an indepth examination of Memory Almost Full), but Paul told the same couple of stories about the band he always does -- i.e., "How do you follow the Beatles?," the African robbery and the punks that loved "Mull of Kintyre."

Camaaaan, man. Talk about recording with Allen Toussaint. Talk about recording a mostly crap album on a damn yacht. Talk about why an album that has as many good songs as Back to the Egg does just does not work as an album.

Sure, Wings probably wouldn't have been half what it was without the Beatle pedigree, but while the slim majority of songs in their back catalogue were ones Lennon would've thumbed his nose at (for better or worse), McCartney did make the concerted effort to attain stardom in his own right. With albums like Band on the Run and Venus and Mars, it's hard to say he failed.

Today we look at one of the finest standalones the band produced, and why "polygon" can get you a BBC ban!

The Fantastic 45's

Paul McCartney & Wings
"Hi Hi Hi" b/w "C Moon"
Apple, 1972

Paul McCartney & Wings - Hi Hi Hi
Does anyone else find it remotely interesting that whenever the likes of Q or some other snooty British music mag I love starts to take pot shots at Macca they always go for Rupert & the Frog Chorus, and always overlook songs like "Hi Hi Hi"? They like to make out that he's this saccharine old sentimental softy pounding out a zillion "English Tea"s and then going "Wa-hey!" and giving a thumbs-up upon its conclusion. They never mention how great of a rock and roll song "Let Me Roll It" is. They never mention how disturbingly perverse he is here. Seriously. "Like a rabbit, gonna grab it, gonna do it 'til the night is done." Er... whatever could you be talking about Paul? Now granted, lines like that or the chorus of getting "hi hi hi" alone was enough to get a few chins stroked over at the Beeb, but it's that "I want you to lie on the bed, get you ready for my polygon" that sent them over the edge. They thought he said "Body gun," which... no secret there, but I don't think anyone should ever be made to get ready for Paul McCartney's polygon. Geometry is scary enough. When a Beatle's involved, you're throwing all of mathematics up for grabs... Daft lyrics aside, this is just a great slice of rock and roll.

Paul McCartney & Wings - C Moon
And this is a great slice of faux-reggae. One can only assume that McCartney's overwhelming preference for the herb in the 1970s got him in a rastafarian mindset, but even if this is a bit of a red-eyed hack at that kinda music, mon, it's still catchy. Sure the fact that he likes to point out "C Moon" is the opposite of "L7" nowadays is about as cool as referring to anyone as "L7" is, but for some reason, you can't argue with a lyric like "Bobby lived with Patty, but they never told her daddy what there love was all about // He could tell a number that she thought up, but he never was the type to let it out." I don't know why it's great. It just is.

Both tracks can now be found on Wingspan, which despite it's many shortcomings (including passing off solo McCartney songs as Wings numbers and not including "Girls School"), actually does have a fair amount of good stuff that might not otherwise be heard.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

I'm like some lame lead singer in a tribute band.

Seems as though I've been on a B-side kick as of late. Ah well. Why stop now?

With the news that Billy Bragg will have a new record out in the first part of next year, I thought it'd be somewhat nice to take a look at his career (which has been longer and more varied than you might first think) in a view from (quite literally) the other side.

"Look ma, no red eye."

Billy Bragg - The Tatler
Bragg's cover of Ry Cooder and Susan Titleman's song first appeared on the B-side to 1986's "Greetings to the New Brunette" single and as did many of his early songs, featured little other accompaniment for his voice besides a ringing electric guitar. Bragg attacks the song with good gusto and proves that despite his own admitted vocal shortcomings, he doesn't posess the absolute worst voice you'll ever hear in music. It's just (still, it seems) a matter of finding the balance between that megaphone hoister of "There is Power in a Union" and the timid falsetto musing of "Ontario, Quebec and Me." This might be the key. Also, I loved that this single sleeve had printed on it, "Pay no more than £1.25." Nice fella.

Billy Bragg & Wilco - Bugeye Jim
From the original Mermaid Avenue sessions, Billy provided a solitary, downtrodden backing to this Woody Guthrie lyric, with an uneven bit of pounding (and sliding) on an acoustic guitar. This ended up as a B-side to the "Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key" single and despite its lack of polish, it seems to suit the spirit of the exercise just as well as the best material that he and Tweedy & Co. dusted off for the two albums. Who knows how the songs might've gone if Woody himself had completed 'em, but my guess that this one may not have been too far detatched from what Bragg figured. It's really affecting as hell.

Billy Bragg & the Blokes - You Pulled the Carpet Out
A lot of Bragg fans like to bash on the Blokes and the "direction" they took Billy in the first part of the century and the England, Half-English album, which has always kind of left me bemused. Billy's always kind of had a knack for "pub"-type songs, and while the Blokes may have just been the best pub band money could buy, I don't think their backing did anything to hinder what words and music Billy was putting forth. I just think Billy wasn't quite up to game himself (no matter which way you slice it, "Baby Faroukh" is kinda fun, but it's no "Waiting For the Great Leap Forwards" is it?). This track was stuck onto the third of a 3 CD single push for "Take Down the Union Jack" and appears good enough by my ear to have ousted some of its peers that actually made the album. It's not the most astounding lyric, he ever wrote -- in fact, it sounds like a middle aged man's music -- but there's something very endearing about it. Plus Ian McLagan plays a mean organ on it.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

But where are you?

Today is a few things.

For one, it's the last day of the working week for business people stateside (sorry retailers, I know what kind of pain you'll feel Friday).

For two, it's the day I found out a NEW Billy Bragg album is on the way. Hooray!

And for three, it would've been my great friend Brian's 25th birthday, and as such, a chance for us to again see each other as we both (probably) would've been homeward bound to suburban Chicago for the holiday weekend.

I talked about Brian a lot at this time last year, and pointed out that while we never got into ugly arguments that most friends do, we could call each other every name under the sun when it came to seriously discussing music.

One of our longest standing arguments was just what was the defining (and better) album of 1997? Radiohead's OK Computer or the Verve's Urban Hymns?

Brian was a Radiohead guy that appreciated the Verve. I was (and still am) a Verve guy that appreciated Radiohead. In general, I think more people would side with Brian and take OK Computer just for the seismic shift it preempted for the band, and subsequently, for the music industry at large. Urban Hymns was like Britpop's truly last great hurrah. Blur had gone from care-free, smarmy Cockneys to (purported) Heroin washouts with their self-titled hangover of an album in '97, while Be Here Now -- as much as I do love it -- basically exposed the whole movement for how ridiculous it all was. OK Computer was revolutionary, but it was also typical Radiohead pessimism. There wasn't a lot to pump your fist about in 1997, really. "Bitter Sweet Symphony," was though. And so was "Lucky Man." And so, in its own roundabout way, was "The Drugs Don't Work."

The funny thing is that when you put both albums up against each other just for songs, it's really a yin yang effect. Thom Yorke's ceaseless pessimism vs. Richard Ashcroft's ceaseless optimism. They also both have that little speck of inconsequence halfway through ("Fitter Happier" and "Neon Wilderness").

In hindsight (and much to my dismay), Urban Hymns hasn't stood up as well as OK Computer. A lot of this, I think, is more due to the Verve's immediate fallout thereafter and Richard Ashcroft solo career, which did have its moments... but not much else.

Even with the Verve newly reformed and performing the "true" classic material like "Man Called Sun," a lot of revisionism is taking place. Did Ashcroft's mid-tempo, acoustic predilection on Urban Hymns really ruin the Verve's magic? Some seem to think so now. I despise that, of course, because their sets still contain a plethora of Urban Hymns material -- and with good reason. Bands don't write songs like "Weeping Willow" everyday.

And even a decade on now, I still think Urban Hymns is a better album.

Brian and I were both completists, though, and felt that an album didn't have to be judged by its contents alone. Its singles and B-sides were equally important to cementing its status. Today we honor my longest standing argument with the Bri-guy with some OK Computer and Urban Hymns B-sides.

We also move the Friday Five up to Wednesday just this week because, for me, at least, it is Friday.

And yes, because it's MY blog, the Verve get the tiebreaking B-side.

The Friday Five
In Memory of Brian: Urban Hymns vs. OK Computer (the B-sides)

Paul and Brian in 2000. One OK Computer comment too far, apparently.

Radiohead - Palo Alto
This song builds right into OK Computer's unifying theme of technology-based globalization so well that its hard for me to fathom why it wasn't on the album. Not that the album needed any help, of course... (well, "Fitter Happier" could've gone), but it also served as a nice unifying B-side for the whole set. Appeared on the "No Surprises" single, and stateside on the "Airbag: How Am I Driving?" EP. That EP went out of print right around the time Brian got into fever pitch obsession with Radiohead. "Figures," he told me in 2000. "Two years ago, you could find the damn thing in every music shop there was. Now you can't find it anywhere. God dammit."

Radiohead - Polyethylene [parts 1 & 2]
My favorite OK Computer-era B-side and reason why I seem to detest Radiohead a little more everyday now. You can argue all you want about Thom's lyrics, whether they're genius or just bullsh*t lists of fancy words, but you put the right music behind it and it sounds considerably life-changing. The acoustic opening I don't know so much about. If only because opening the song with "So sell your suit and tie and come and live with me" might've otherwise been one of the greatest opening lines ever. C'est la vie. From the "Paranoid Android" single. And also that pesky "How Am I Driving?" EP...

The Verve - So Sister
When I was a teenager, my main reason for scouting down imported Oasis singles was for Noel's acoustic B-sides. That's not, mind you, acoustic versions of Oasis songs, just songs that were left to him and an acoustic (and maybe a little other accentuation). "Talk Tonight," "Angel Child," "D'yer Wanna Be a Spaceman" etc. That's how I came to realize the importance of a song itself and that if it's strong enough in its own nature, you don't need Marshalls, and great drum fills and a blinding solo to wow someone. You just have to be direct and sincere. As much as I love those Oasis B-sides, "So Sister" trumps 'em. This is my all time favorite "acoustic" song. Of course, Nick McCabe works his magic with a bit of electric ornamentation, but it never gets in the way. It just adds to the atmosphere and depth. Mind blowing. Appeared on both the "Bitter Sweet Symphony" and "Sonnet" singles.

The Verve - Three Steps
Just flat out Verve greatness. Monster bass from Simon, great guitar work, and a FANTASTIC call to arms from Mr. Ashcroft. Never mind the genius of the line, "Three steps to heaven, man, I took two and sat back down again." Listen to when he sings "It feels good, so good to be alive." Not the kind of thing you'll hear pour from Mr. Yorke's mouth, but Ashcroft always sings that kind of line with enough conviction for the listener to transpose the sentiment upon yourself. "F*ck yeah," you might find yourself say. "It does feel good!" From "The Drugs Don't Work" single.

The Verve - Echo Bass
This is for everyone now who's saying that all the Urban Hymns era consisted of was Ashcroft acoustic driven numbers. Come on... They've obviously forgotten what album included "The Rolling People" and "Catching the Butterfly," and they also seemed to overlook the era's B-sides which included the likes of this, "Three Steps" and "Stamped" -- all of which proved the Verve could still do the longer, funkier, exploratory stuff just as well as they could when their hair was too long and they were probably doing too much acid. Also from the "Bitter Sweet Symphony" and "So Sister" singles.

So there you go, Brian... ha!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I'll be back Monday -- some big treats are on the way next week.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I just wanna stay in your sky.

I'm pleased to report I fell in love last night.

I'm three years late, mind you, but as I always used to say to my college professors "Better late than never."

I stumbled across this band called Blondfire, which is weird, because I don't normally happen to stumble into music I love at first listen. Usually there's a lot of calculation on my part before I listen to something, which I know takes some of the fun out of it, but you know it goes with everyone always saying, "Hey, you'll like this." Artists that have followed that prelude for me have included James Blunt and well... need I say more. There have been others too, of course, but that about sums it up. I'll like James Blunt? Really?

Anyway, Blondfire are on the brink (I think) of releasing a proper debut album, but all they've go their name right now is an iTunes exclusive EP, and iTunes Christmas exclusive EP and an EP from 2004, when they were still called Astaire. Believe it or not, Fred's estate didn't take kindly to that, and I don't know how they figured a Brazilian-American brother/sister duo out of New York that dabbles in pop, rock and bossa nova would be confused with twinkle toes, but so it goes. I hope my estate is that touchy after I die. "YOU CAN'T CALL YOUR BAND SNYDER!!!!"

Blondfire (Astaire)
"Don't Whisper Lies" EP
Wax Divine, 2004

01. L-L-Love
02. Weightless
03. Any Other Day
04. Don't Whisper Lies
05. Right Where I Want You

My knocked-outness with this EP is threefold.

One: Erica Driscoll. Good lord. Look at her. Listen to her. And on her MySpace page, she cites the Smiths as her second biggest influence. Which almost makes me forgive putting Pet Shop Boys first. But Johnny Marr dabbled with the Pet Shop Boys. So I guess they're alright. There are a select few women in rock and roll that manage to get through to me. Those that do I end up falling irrevocably in love with. Even though Liz Phair and Natalie Merchant are past their respective primes, a flame still burns. Up until now there had been a borderline-unhealthy festering over Bebel Gilberto. Now, I think it's gonna be Erica. God damn you half-Brazilian girls do it to me every time...

Two: The immediacy of the songs. There aren't many 30-second clips on iTunes that can convince me on their own merits alone to buy a song. There also aren't many songs that smack me over the head the first time I listen to them. This EP succeeded where few others have on both fronts. I like the Raveonettes. I haven't heard their new album. I have their other two. I like this EP better than those two albums. For as calculated as some of this sounds, there's an ambition and genuine pop ear here too. If this blog has a creed, it's that its author is a sucker for a good pop hook. This EP turned me into one of those carnival oversized lollipops. Listen to "Any Other Day" and just try to tell me it's not one of the most relaxing, sexy and beautiful things you've heard in years. Just try.

Three: They single-handedly (well, I guess technically it would be quadruple-handedly) defined the importance and grace of an EP, which is increasingly becoming a lost art. It's like my friend Umaar said just earlier today -- "I'd rather take a quality EP over a decent album." There's no space for error here. They could've easily rattled off another five or six songs in the studio, and maybe they would've been just as great, but maybe they wouldn't have been up to this par, either. EP's nowadays are too often restricted by acoustic versions, remixes and songs that obviously didn't deserve to be on albums. Bands need to wake up and realize that EPs shouldn't be viewed as samplers brushed off without much thought. They're treasures for fans and when you can put wall-to-wall good songs on them, they usually end up outranking albums that have three great songs, five okay ones and two duffers for people.

The physical EP, it seems, is already out of print. But you can round this out at iTunes or eMusic. I suggest you do it. NOW.


Monday, November 19, 2007

My eyes dilate, my lips go green, my hands are shaky -- she's a mean, mean machine!

Anyone else have a case of the Mondays?

I find it's always good to counter it with a laugh.

While there are still some (Liam Gallagher) that don't know the connection between the Folksmen and Spinal Tap, the genius of both is their material and the breadth of difference between them.

The Folksmen, of course, found fame after 2003's A Mighty Wind and even got an appearance on Letterman:

But the real gold of the band's "back catalogue" lay buried on the A Mighty Wind - The Album soundtrack with probably the most phenomenal cover of a Rolling Stones song ever.

The Folksmen - Start Me Up
Seriously, now, if you don't laugh out loud during the last 30 seconds of the song, then I'm very worried about you.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Where have I been all these years?

Under the Covers, Day 5/5
Up for Review: The Glory of Gershwin, 1994

While the rest of this week's features looked at albums done in this decade, today we go back to 1994, which I still consider "modern" because for the life of me, I just cannot believe that it was already 13 years ago.

Anyway, The Glory of Gershwin works as a two-fold tribute album. One, of course, as a means of paying tribute to ol' George and Ira with a bevvy of (1994) certifiable stars and Beatles producer George Martin overseeing the whole affair. The other way is as a tribute/showcase of Larry Adler, a harmonica virtuoso who actually used to play with George way back when. As it goes, Adler features on every track on the album and while sometimes the harmonica breaks just go on a tad too long, it's also hard not to appreciate the fact that, well, here's this 80-odd year old dude blowing away while having to share space with the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and Cher, and at least equalling, if not overshining, some of that "respectable" talent he was made to play alongside.

While Gershwin tributes and covers are not at all a rare breed (I ask you, who HASN'T covered "Summertime" yet?), this whole affair served as a nice meshing of modern talent with a first hand connection to the man whom they were all paying tribute too. Martin's production ear still worked nicely (which makes me wonder why he used it as a cop out on producing "Free As a Bird" and "Real Love" over the next year), and suffice to say, I found things on this album by artists that I never dreamed I'd enjoy otherwise.

As for Grandma Cyd? Well, here what was said about today's three selections...

Sting - Nice Work if You Can Get It
Grandma Cyd: (checks to see who’s singing) Really?
Paul: Yeah. I’ll tell you, I’m not a big Sting fan, but this one I kind of like. It works nicely.
Grandma Cyd: It kind of sounds like Rod Stewart, that certain timbre. Why didn’t you pick any of the Rod Stewart stuff for this week?
Paul: (rolls eyes) Because…
Grandma Cyd: Oh yeah, you said he became useless after 1977.
Paul: Right. Maybe a bit before that even.
Grandma Cyd: Well, he slurred the first part of the song. You couldn’t really tell what he was singing. But it’s nice, it’s kind of got that Fats Waller, toe-tapping feel to it.
Paul: Yeah, I think the banjo helps that. The bass is nice too. It sounds like a stand-up. Could be a little busier, but…
Grandma Cyd: This reminds me of Cybil Shepherd.
Paul: Oh?
Grandma Cyd: She sang this.
Paul: On her show?
Grandma Cyd: Yeah.
Paul: Never saw it.

Cher - It Ain't Necessarily So
Grandma Cyd: Oh. My. God.
Paul: Yeah…
Grandma Cyd: I wonder if she was wearing her butt-less leotard when she did this?
Paul: Oh right, from the “Turn Back Time” video?
Grandma Cyd: I don’t know. She wore it on her last tour.
Paul: I think it’s from the video. Showed off the flower tattoo on her ass.
Grandma Cyd: Eh?
Paul: Yeah, well… I remember "Pop Up Video."
Grandma Cyd: Oh, I miss that show.
Paul: I do too. I really do. Anyway, the director thought she was wearing floral underwear.
Grandma Cyd: I don’t remember the tattoo being in the show I saw of the tour.
Paul: Maybe she had the tattoo removed when Sonny died.
Grandma Cyd: I don’t think I’ve ever heard this song.
Paul: I’ve heard one other version, I can’t remember who did it though. I don’t know, her voice annoys me. But the one thing I will give this credit for – and maybe it’s George Martin’s doing in that he didn’t know how to do it – but there’s not that infuriating warble that was in those songs like “Believe” in that.
Grandma Cyd: Oh yeah, a lot of Bing Crosby’s songs end with warbles.
Paul: Well, he was doing it vocally though, hers are all these horrible digital effects.
Grandma Cyd: Ah. (song ends) Yeah, I don’t know about that one.

Jon Bon Jovi & Richie Sambora - How Long Has This Been Going On
Paul: I’ll tell you what, I hate Jon Bon Jovi. There isn’t one song he’s done that I’ve been able to go “I like that,” but this I actually do kind of like.
Grandma Cyd: Who’s Richie Sambora? Why does that sound familiar?
Paul: His guitarist.
Grandma Cyd: Oh right, I just saw them on “Saturday Night Live.” I’m trying to determine who he sounds like here. Is his voice always that scratchy? There’s a song on the “Sleepless in Seattle” soundtrack, “Makin’ Whoopee” that’s a duet… the voice kind of reminds me of that. [Ed. Note – that’s Dr. John]
Paul: Don’t know. His voice gets like that on slower songs. He did one for one of the Very Special Christmas albums, “Please Come Home For Christmas” which is about this tempo. His voice got scratchy there too.
Grandma Cyd: I don’t know. I don’t really care for this song in general. It’s a bit too whiny.
Paul: This version? Or just the song?
Grandma Cyd: The song. Ella Fitzgerald does a version that’s a bit more upbeat, but it’s still kind of like… this.
Paul: Well it’s whiny subject matter, isn’t it? You can’t do an upbeat “Hey! How long has this been going on! Hey! How long you been screwing around on me?”
Grandma Cyd: Right. Well it’s not “Heavy Petting Zoo” material.
Paul: Well… someone’s getting lucky, though. Just not the singer.
Grandma Cyd: Well it should be about me. Me being the listener.
Paul: Gotcha. I’ll tell you what nearly ruins this for me though is Sambora’s guitar at the beginning and end. I don’t think electric guitar fits in this kind of music. If it’s done in a jazzy way, but not this masturbatory rock star posing.
Grandma Cyd: (laughs) Are you going to use that word on your blog?
Paul: Sure. (mimics Sambora playing)
Grandma Cyd: Well it brings up an interesting debate. If you’re doing this kind of music, do you just try to emulate the originals or do you put your own stamp on it.
Paul: Yeah, but I mean, if Sambora wasn’t on it, this would be great. I don’t know. I understand taking your own touch to it, but I think if you’re doing it for the right reasons – that is, paying homage to the music you love – you should try to stay pretty faithful.
Grandma Cyd: But see, then the thing is, you’re going up against Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra, you know? How can you top that?
Paul: Right. I mean this is all nice, but at the end of the day, I’d rather put on Dean or Frank or Bobby.

And personally, I think that's a great sentiment to end this week on. But what do you think?

Don't forget to listen to "The Heavy Petting Zoo" tomorrow night from 8-10 p.m. CST as the good grandma plays some of the regular repertoire in addition to doing a week-end review to this series. You know how these songs sound on your iTunes now, but ah... how do they sound on the radio when played alongside the real stuff from that bygone era? You can listen online at and you can listen to the show every Saturday night, so I suggest you make that a habit.

And of course, read this blog every day. It's like a daily apple. Only without the necessary vitamins and nutrients. But great music. You can't deny the music.

Have a splendid weekend.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hey baby, how ya been?

Under the Covers, Day 4/5
Up for Review: Paul Anka's Rock Swings, 2005

Today we switch things up a little bit -- instead of taking a look at newer takes on older songs, we look at an older take on newer songs... albeit done recently.

If, in 2004, you asked pretty much anyone if the world needed Paul Anka (that, is Mr. "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" and jingle king extraordinaire) doing big band versions of songs by Bon Jovi, Nirvana, Van Halen, R.E.M., Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton, the communal response probably would've been no. If not "I think you've been spending a little too much time on the music blogging circuit."

The good people at Verve Forecast, however, thought it was money. As a business move, it was a bit of genius, really. Even the most flannel-coated, son of '91, Seattle hipster was going to have some perverse interest in seeing how "Smells Like Teen Spirit" sounded with a big band, and while that guy likely was going to be satiated (and probably repelled) by the 30-second preview on iTunes, enough people were going to find the novelty of it somewhat appealing and justify the record's release.

Where this experiment exceeds is in it's careful handling of the songs. Does the world need a big band version of "Black Hole Sun"? No. Does that mean it's not worth doing? Not necessarily. The production on this album is fantastic and (I can't believe I'm saying this, but) Anka lends a sense of authority to the proceedings in that if anyone was going to be at the front of some odd crossover B.S. like this, it should be him, dammit, 'cos he knows what he's doing. Tony Bennett's too old and would make the whole thing piano jazz, no one would by it if Frank Sinatra Jr. did it and Michael Buble's already doing it... just worse. If there's one survivor to pick to head this up, well, son of a bitch, it's Paul Anka. Of course, that's in listening alone. When you actually SEE him do the songs, it's cringe-worthy.

Now unlike the Northam/Novello case in which Grandma Cyd pleaded general ignorance, she did indeed know Mr. Anka. But her attachment to the music of the days before yesterday meant that (surprisingly or unsurprisingly) she wasn't as familiar with some of the material he was tackling.

Here's what was said about today's three selections...

Paul Anka - Wonderwall
Paul: So now we have Paul Anka doing Oasis.
Grandma Cyd: (looks at stereo quizzically)
Paul: Do you like Paul Anka?
Grandma Cyd: I’ve only ever played one of his songs on the show. He’s more ‘60s, so…
Paul: Ah.
Grandma Cyd: I do like this better than the original, though.
Paul: (tries not to take too much offense as a rabid Oasis fan) Oh? Well, yeah, you know what I will say about this album is that they try doing this kind of thing every now and again and when I first heard about this, I thought of Pat Boone trying to do that heavy metal album. This turned out alright, though. This is nice to listen to.
Grandma Cyd: This also really sounds like Sinatra’s Reprise stuff. The horns and drums are really up front.
Paul: Yeah. They got a stand-up bass going too, which I appreciate.
The original as comparison... Note: As a hardcore Oasis fan, I tend to shy away from this song because of its hugeness (even though it's really the song that got me to buy an Oasis album in the first place), but every time I do hear it, I'm still really moved.

Paul Anka - Jump
Grandma Cyd: (as music starts, she laughs hysterically) I've heard this! Steven Tyler and Joe Perry did this with the Boston Pops last summer.
Paul: Oh yeah?
Grandma Cyd: Yeah. It started like that.
Paul: (as chorus approaches) This is the only part I find a little annoying. “Jump!”
Grandma Cyd: (laughs) Yeah… that’s like, find something for the saxophone players to do.
Paul: I imagine Paul Anka standing there trying to imagine he’s David Lee Roth.
Grandma Cyd: Oh is that who does this. It’s not Aerosmith?
Paul: No, it’s Van Halen.
Grandma Cyd: Ah. Yeah okay, then it was David Lee Roth that did this with the Boston Pops. He did it a couple years ago. I saw it on TV.
Paul: Gotcha.
Grandma Cyd: I don’t know about those little “ha!”s he does. They sound too calculated. But Bobby Darin did that kind of thing too.
Paul: Yeah, but that was Bobby’s persona.
Grandma Cyd: Right, you could tell he was just that into the song. Is it “Mack the Knife” or “Beyond the Sea”?
Paul: Well, both. There was something in most of his songs. That “EEP!” in “Mack the Knife.”
Grandma Cyd: Right. Yeah, he just sounded like he meant it. This sounds like he’s going “Okay, here’s where I go ‘Ha!’” It’s like a few years ago my mom took us to see Neil Sedaka and he was kind of acting it up and he did this one song that he dedicated to his father and he started crying on stage, but you could tell it was just kind of an act. You can’t force that kind of stuff. It has to come naturally.
Paul: Absolutely.
Grandma Cyd: (as song’s ending) I like this song more now than I did at the beginning. Why is that?
Paul: You’re used to it now.
Grandma Cyd: I guess.
The original as comparison... Note: There's a fine line between looking like you're having fun and looking like complete knobs. David and Co. do not walk that line finely.

Paul Anka - Smells Like Teen Spirit
Grandma Cyd
: I don’t know if I know this song?
Paul: Come on. Yeah you do. You know “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Grandma Cyd: I can’t think of it.
Paul: (miming guitar opening) Dun-duh-na, duh-duh-dun-da-na-na…
Grandma Cyd: (shaking her head) Is that the one that like all guitar players or people learning guitar, that’s the first song they try?
Paul: I think you’re thinking of “Come As You Are.” In my experience, at least, that’s the one everyone figures out first.
Grandma Cyd: I don’t know.
Paul: Well that’s going to be the headline. Grandma Cyd, college radio DJ, doesn’t know Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The original as comparison... Note: Come on, Grandma Cyd. Really?!

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Will I ever be your king or you, at last, my queen?

Under the Covers, Day 3/5
Up for Review: Gosford Park - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 2002

Like many British artists I feature on this blog, Ivor Novello himself isn't that well-known stateside. In England, he's a national institution -- the residency he was born in is part of the National Trust, and every year, the best English songwriters of the year are honored with an Ivor Novello award.

Novello was a popular stage and screen star (the star of Alfred Hitchcock's first film, the silent "The Lodger" in 1926), and also displayed a serious knack for writing romantic gems that would literally set the stage for popular music (at least in England) from there on out with their formulaic and rather simple chord structures.

Novello was disgraced in his homeland in 1944 for misusing petroleum coupons during wartime, and some speculate it was something that he never quite recovered from before his death just a few years later. Of course, now, his legacy rests in his songs, and while they are of national treasure type status in England, some have made their way to varying degrees of popularity over here, even if the author hasn't.

American film director/legend tried to rectify that in 2001 with his movie "Gosford Park," a fictional murder mystery and examination of upstairs/downstairs life (a la Agatha Christie) in England in the 1920s. While all the characters were fictional, Altman did cast British actor Jeremy Northam as Novello -- the only one "real" character in the film.

Why did he do this? Oh, perhaps to add a touch of British celebrity/upper class to the "upstairs" regime of the film, but my suspicion is that the music lover in him took to the songs and cast Northam -- a trained singer and piano player, who could actually do the songs himself -- as a personal treat for his film and also to get American audiences to familarize themselves with some of Novello's songs.

As it stands, Northam (who, mind you, played one of the two escaped convicts in the ridiculous film "Happy, Texas") contributed six Novello songs to the soundtrack, all of which I found quite gorgeous from the start.

Grandma Cyd never saw the film, never heard of Novello, nor did she think she ever heard any of his songs...

In lieu of this, dialogue was a little shorter on today's three selections.

Jeremy Northam - I Can Give You the Starlight
(See Northam play this song in the movie)
Paul: I come in a little prejudiced, because I've seen the film, have had the soundtrack since its release and have loved it since then. I love Northam's voice and the fact that he played the piano, sung the song -- did it all himself. Blew me away. In college, this was the music I'd use to go to sleep some nights if I couldn't get to sleep otherwise. And I mean that in a good way.
Grandma Cyd: My initial impressions as I listen to the first few bars is that I don't feel like I'm listening to a classic tune. His singing style is so polished -- his diction is almost too perfect. The combination of his voice plus one of the early chord changes makes me think I'm listening to a Broadway singer performing a church hymn. Not that that's a bad thing. But again, it doesn't make me think of the good ol' days.
Paul: That's interesting, because the way I see it, you know, a lot of these songs were written in the 1920s, '30s, '40s, and I think in England at least, these songs kind of set the stage for popular music. I mean it's romantic balladry, but they all follow very simple chord structures and changes.
Grandma Cyd: Right, but remember, for me it's all about the arrangements. I like the song, mind you, it just doesn't remind me of the old styles because Frank Loesser didn't arrange it.

Jeremy Northam - The Land of Might-Have-Been
(See Northam play this song in the movie)
Grandma Cyd: He just has a very Broadway-ish quality to his voice. It almost sounds like he’s singing something for an Andrew Lloyd Webber show. Which one?
Paul: “Cats”?
Grandma Cyd: Maybe…
Paul: “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”?
Grandma Cyd: No, not “Joseph.” “Phantom of the Opera.”
Paul: Ah, yeah, okay. I can see that. It’s pretty cool really, I mean it’s a fantastic song, and I think it was kind of an indulgence on Robert Altman’s part to cast Jeremy Northam as Novello. There was an interview where he explained why he had Lyle Lovett in his movies and he said it was just great ‘cos he’d have a guitar and serenade the cast and crew all day. I mean Novello really plays no big part in the movie. It’s a murder mystery, it’s nothing to do with his life or anything.
Grandma Cyd: So this is him playing Ivor Novello?
Paul: Yeah, Jeremy Northam. He’s playing piano and singing. I don’t know. I think it’s neat. On the proper soundtrack, there’s like six songs of his, but this alone makes me kind of think, “Jeez, he should just do a tribute album himself.” You can hear some old Novello tracks on iTunes and things, but as things from the first half of the 20th century would, they sound thin and kind of tinny. It’s nice to hear them like this.

Jeremy Northam - And Her Mother Came Too
(See Northam play this song in the movie)

Paul: Now the campy one.
Grandma Cyd: Oh, I know this song! It’s on one of my great band era type box sets. I forget which one. I forget who does it, too, but this is actually one of my favorite types of these songs. I’ve played it on the show.
Paul: Oh yeah? Well there you go, you do know an Ivor Novello song.

Your thoughts?

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sauced again, eh?

Under the Covers, Day 2/5
Up for Review: Robbie Williams' Swing When You're Winning, 2001

This one, I fear, dips a bit into that Michael Buble/Rod Stewart territory of capitalizing on the likes of all this new era reverence for the Rat Pack and so on and so forth. When Williams was about to release it, he said he’d grown up loving this style music and wanted to do a proper album of these tunes.

Well… I’m sure Buble “grew up loving” this stuff too. The problem is that now it’s an easy market to tap because only a few people are dipping into it, and those who are probably are old enough to be your grandfather, if not your father. You put a young guy in a nice suit and have him start singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and there’s whole range of susceptible women 35 and under that rush to Starbucks and shell out for the CD. That’s the problem. There’s nothing genuine about Michael Buble. When he does it, it feels like it’s being done as a cheap way to get cute girls into bed.

And with Robbie? Well, that feeling also pervades Swing When You’re Winning too. To his credit though, Williams actually employed some of the era’s original musicians for his album (big kudos to snatching Sinatra’s pianist Bill Miller), and as odd a match as it seems on paper, the idea of sticking Hollywood stars into the album works nicely in a (very) roundabout way to put some of that classic west coast glitz into the proceedings.

Robbie Williams is probably my biggest guilty pleasure, but that said, I only own The Ego Has Landed and Sing When You’re Winning. From Swing When You’re Winning on out, I just continually lost interest. I still get looks from fellow snobs that see his name in my CD tower though.

Grandma Cyd didn’t peruse my CD tower, but even if she had, she’s completely unfamiliar with Mr. Williams. So she was able to listen to it without any Robbie-related pretense. Here’s what we had to say about the three tracks on offer today…

Robbie Williams – Have You Met Miss Jones?
Grandma Cyd: I don’t know if I know this song.
Paul: Sinatra did it. It’s on Swing Along With Me.
Grandma Cyd: That’s one I don’t have.
Paul: Ah… gotta get that one. I think I have it in my car. Have you seen the first “Bridget Jones” movie? This is in it.
Grandma Cyd: Yeah.
Paul: That’s actually what inspired him to do the album. He said he’d always wanted to do a proper swing album and I guess that lit the fire in him.
Grandma Cyd: Ah. Now who is this guy?
Paul: He was in Take That, which was a boy band in the mid 90s.
Grandma Cyd: I don’t know…
Paul: (singing) Whatever I said, Whatever I did, I didn’t mean it. I just want you back for good.
Grandma Cyd: Oh! Okay! Well he doesn’t sound anything like that here.
Paul: No, he wasn’t singing lead on that. Anyway he went solo and he’s really big in England and other parts of the world now. He just hasn’t translated here. Part of me really hates him. Another part of me really likes him. I have two of his other albums. It’s a guilty pleasure thing.
Grandma Cyd: This sounds like Sinatra’s Reprise-era stuff. The horns and drums are really up front in the mix.
Paul: Yeah, exactly. They kind of were on Frank’s later Capitol albums, but when he made that switch to Reprise, the production was just mindblowing.
Grandma Cyd: The drum fill at the end there doesn't sound quite authentic.
Paul: I'm pretty sure it is. Although, I bet that Robbie overdubbed vocals after the bands recorded their takes. See, Sinatra used to do it live with the band. He'd be in a vocal booth, probably, but he'd be there.
Grandma Cyd: Well, yeah. More fun that way.

Robbie Williams – Beyond the Sea
Paul: This was used in a movie too. Closing credits for “Finding Nemo.” You haven’t seen that though, have you?
Grandma Cyd: No. I really want to.
Paul: Well, I have the DVD if you want to borrow it.
Grandma Cyd: I think this is the exact same arrangment as the Bobby Darin version. I’m trying to figure out who he sounds like. His voice isn’t bad for doing covers like this.
Paul: No, I think this one is alright. He does a couple other Darin songs on the album, and when you do that, I don’t know. Bobby’s hard to compete with. I mean if you think about it, this, “Mack the Knife,” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” were all standards that, like, Sinatra and everyone else was doing too. But Bobby’s versions are considered the ultimate.
Grandma Cyd: There’s not quite as much oomph as Bobby Darin’s.
Paul: Well, no, you can’t compete.
Grandma Cyd: Right, that’s what makes it hard, when you do songs that already have those “legendary” versions.
Paul: The only thing that bothers me here is the fade out. He hangs around too long saying “Goodbye.”
Grandma Cyd: (after 10 seconds) Oh my god. Yeah. You’re kind of checking your watch. (Another 20 seconds pass) Jeez.
Paul: I think he says “Auf wiedersen” in a second here.
Grandma Cyd: Well he’s just doing “Sound of Music” now.
Paul: It’s the credit sequence in the film. Maybe they needed time to run a few more computer editors names. Part of it is that piano, I guess. Maybe he wanted to let the piano player go a bit, but if that’s the case it should be further up in the mix. It’s not showcased enough.
Grandma Cyd: He stretched a 2-minute song into four minutes. That outro alone was more than a minute long.

Robbie Williams & Jon Lovitz – Well, Did You Evah!
Grandma Cyd: Jon Lovitz? Like Jon Lovitz Jon Lovitz?
Paul: Yeah.
Grandma Cyd: Which one is he?
Paul: Right there. He’s doing Bing’s part. Robbie’s doing Frank’s.
Grandma Cyd: Huh. He can actually sing.
Paul: I just imagine Jay Sherman doing it more than Jon Lovitz. Robbie Williams and the Critic! But he did a lot of duets on this album with Hollywood people. Rupert Everett and Nicole Kidman too. He did “Something Stupid” with Nicole.
Grandma Cyd: What makes those people do that? What kind of shape is their career in that they go, “Okay, yes, I’m going to have to do this song with the GREAT Robbie Williams?” How do they even know who he is?
Paul: Well he is kind of famous. Maybe you just need to get to Hollywood more. They obviously all know him there. The Nicole Kidman track was actually a single. There was a video and everything.
Grandma Cyd: Really?
Paul: Yep. [ed. note – see for yourself]
Grandma Cyd: This version sounds kind of Disney-ish.
Paul: I was thinking that the first time I heard it, but then I went back and listened to the Frank and Bing’s and it’s really almost exactly identical. This just sounds a bit clearer. You’ve heard Frank and Bing’s, right?
Grandma Cyd: Yeah, I played it on my show once.
Paul: This is really kind of a pitch-perfect copy.

Here's the inspiration for Robbie and Jon -- Frank and Bing from 1954's "High Society"...

So what do you think of Mr. Williams' attempts? Genuine or cheap?

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Why don't you get a past?

Welcome back to the working week and the beginning of what should be a rather engaging and fun series (that I hope all you readers feel privy to take part in yourselves) that will cover this whole week.

I have this friend in town, Cind-- er, Grandma Cyd, that is, and every Saturday night on WSUM she does a show from 8-10 CST called "The Heavy Petting Zoo" which is categorically defined as makeout music for those wishing for a nice Saturday night in, but is more coolly defined (by me) as two hours of some of the best music of all time (all 1930s-1950s stuff really) that hardly ever gets the attention it deserves anyway, let alone college radio.

Due to her exceedingly good taste in music (even if she isn't really up to speed on probably eight ninths of the music I put on this blog regularly), we developed a fast friendship and a few months ago we went to get a dinner at this new restaurant in town called Azzellino's, which bills itself as this authentic 1930s eating experience.

Intriguing, right?

Well, it had its charms, even if it wasn't largely attended, but the real death blow for the place came when, instead of playing standards of the era, who should pop on the restaurant's sound system but Michael Buble?

We both kind of looked at each other with horror and derision and then started lampooning Buble, but it raised an interesting question for me? What of these young whippersnappers or modern popular artists that try taking on the old American standards? Is it worth doing? Is it a genre that should be left as is and not trifled with? Who does it for the right reasons? If not Michael Buble and Rod Stewart trying to cash in on easy money, what about the tribute albums or soundtracks that feature modern takes on old classics?

Heavy questions indeed, but who better to ask than the host of the Heavy Petting Zoo?

This week, Grandma Cyd and I look at three selections apiece from five albums where modern artists ventured into that hallowed ground (well, one of them didn't go too far back with song selections, but did with style selections... but more on that later in the week).

She opted we call it "Under the Covers." I liked how suggestive that sounded.

Away we go.

Under the Covers, Day 1/5

I kind of like how these old "biopics" are being done now -- in terms of "De-Lovely" and "Beyond the Sea" telling the stories of Cole Porter and Bobby Darin, respectively, in kind of a musical style. Not that either movie was completely mind-blowing for me, but they both at least were interesting, and I'm also a big Kevin Kline fan, and I think he did a great job as Porter.

The film's real quirk was its employment of modern stars for the soundtrack (and appearances in the movie) doing a number of Cole Porter classics. Robbie Williams, Diana Krall, Alanis Morissette, Elvis Costello and Natalie Cole were all among the ranks to show up for a Porter tune and it made for an interesting soundtrack/Porter tribute album.

Well I thought it did, at least...

Here's how the dialogue went for the three selections we offer you today...

Alanis Morissette - Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)
(SEE Alanis' part in the movie)
Grandma Cyd: Is it edited or does it start with the ‘Chinks and Japs’ line?
Paul: I don’t think that’s on this one, no.
Grandma Cyd: You hesitated!
Paul: No, it’s not on this one.
Grandma Cyd: That’s the thing about this song – I have a few versions, Billie Holiday’s and Leslie Hutchinson’s, but if I play it on the show I always have to edit that opening out.
Paul: Well, here you go. You can play this on the air, completely unadulterated.
Grandma Cyd: It doesn’t really sound like her.
Paul: No? Were you one of the zillions of girls that had Jagged Little Pill when it came out?
Grandma Cyd: No, I wasn’t.
Paul: Pretty much every girl in my high school had that. I don’t know, she’s got that tremble in her voice, that’s on display here.
Grandma Cyd: Yeah, the shivering bravado. I don’t really like that. It sounds like she was in a meat freezer. Although my whole mindset on this from the beginning is that I don’t really think modern artists should be doing these songs.
Paul: Oh, ha. Well this should make for a fun week’s worth of reading.
Grandma Cyd: Well, this does have nice parts. I like the orchestration here.
Paul: Alright then. I’ve heard other versions – I have Ella’s, but I only started really listening to the lyrics with this version. It really is pretty clever. I love the “Lithuanians and lets” line, and the bit about the beans in Boston doing it. I'll tell you what -- I only have two Alanis songs on my computer and this is one of them.
Grandma Cyd: What's the other one?
Paul: "Uninvted," the song she did for the "City of Angels" soundtrack. Sentimental reasons.
Grandma Cyd: Ohhh!
Paul: No, not like that.

Elvis Costello - Let's Misbehave
(SEE Elvis' part in the movie)
Paul: Ah, Elvis Costello. This is becoming his schtick now. Showing up on these albums or doing ones of his own that are just totally left field musically. It’s kind of cool, but I wonder when it will be a bit too much. You’re a college radio DJ – you must be an Elvis fan. I think that’s a job requirement.
Grandma Cyd: I’ve only heard like one of his songs.
Paul: Oh.
Grandma Cyd: This is a nice arrangement though, it’s got kind of a Benny Goodman feel to it. (Instrumental break comes on) You could tap dance to this part.
Paul: If nothing else, you can tap dance to this.
Grandma Cyd: Well it sounds like it would fit nicely into a movie, you know?
Paul: Yes. Now if only there were a movie this could be in. Say a biopic of Cole Porter. That would be ideal! It’s funny though, Porter’s a pretty inviting songwriter. All these “Let’s” songs. He’s one for the suggestions.
Grandma Cyd: (checks CD titles) I think these are the only two “Let’s” songs he ever wrote, actually.
Paul: Well… “Let’s” make up more titles then.
Grandma Cyd: You know, I could see Squirrel Nut Zippers doing this song.
Paul: And on that note…

Sheryl Crow - Begin the Beguine
(SEE Sheryl's part in the movie)
Grandma Cyd: This doesn’t sound like her.
Paul: No, it sounds like a Bebel Gilberto song to me.
Grandma Cyd: Yes. It’s interesting, because I kind of like her, but this really sounds like nothing else she’s done.
Paul: I liked her. I kind of stopped caring around “Soak Up the Sun.” But I’d liked “If It Makes You Happy” and “Leaving Las Vegas” was a phenomenal song.
Grandma Cyd: Yeah, she really has kind of a classic sound. This sounds more like a torch song.
Paul: This is like, full on romance music right here. This is sexy time music.
Grandma Cyd: Perfect for my show.
Paul: There you go. We’ve found one you can definitely play.
Grandma Cyd: It’s interesting though, the tempo is really slower. I have versions of Perry Como and Artie Shaw doing this and it’s a bit more upbeat. This is… what’s the word? Not allegro. Moderato?
Paul: I call it latin jazz. Gilberto-esque.
Grandma Cyd: It really sounds like nothing else she’s ever done. A friend of mine made me a Sheryl Crow mix a couple years ago. Nothing like this was on it.
Paul: She’s actually really good with covers. She did “D’yer Maker” for a Led Zeppelin tribute back in the 1990s that I thought was pretty good. She should do a covers album, it kind of suits her. Better than “Soak Up the Sun” at least.
Grandma Cyd: She did "Mother Nature's Son" for the "I Am Sam" soundtrack. I've never heard the Beatles' version, and I never heard of that song before she sang it and I really liked it. My friend Liz's dad heard it and said she did it better than the Beatles. So... an example, perhaps, of how doing lesser known songs will make a more successful cover because you're no longer trying to live up to a legend of sorts.
Paul: Well... no one does the Beatles better than the Beatles. But it was a good cover. She definitely should do a covers album.

Overall? The sentiment seemed to be favorable, if not outright applaudable. But hey, that's just two people's opinions. What say you?

Oh and Happy Birthday to Grandma Cyd, who turns 93* today. Leave her some good birthday wishes if nothing else.

*= age is subject to speculation with the whole "grandma" title.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

I am not going back.

So... Radiohead.

If it seems like I've been avoiding the inevitable lately, I have.

I didn't want to make a big deal about the "revolutionary" new way Radiohead was marketing In Rainbows because truth be told, I paid (a little) for it, put it on in my car, withstood two days of driving back and forth to work and appreciating it and then... found out that there wasn't a single track I could skip to and enjoy it's own merits on.

Now, debate could rise up right there. As a unified piece, it's a very, very nice little slice, but you know what? F*ck that. An album needs to have that one track that makes you go, "YEAH!" To their credit, there were three that did that to me on Hail to the Thief, but the thing is that with a band like Radiohead, it feels like a slight.

I KNOW that they don't have to listen to the public.

I KNOW that as artists they should feel free to express themselves in whatever means they feel appropriate/necessary.

I KNOW that fans (or people that really just salivate over their 1995-97 output) shouldn't dictate what direction(s) the band take.

But you know what? I also know the value of a great pop song. I know the value of great hook. And I know that when a band has the talent and ability to write great songs -- even if it be in the pop formula -- it's a tragedy that they let that go to waste.

Everyone, nay, a lot of people seem to be waiting for the return to The Bends or OK Computer, but it seems silly to ask for that, doesn't it? Asking a band to go back in time?

But at the same time, Radiohead have made a conscious effort to avoid the pitfalls of the pop music cycle since Kid A, and while Kid A itself was pretty damn fine in its own right, continually challenging record labels and the popular music market itself can quickly manifest itself into contempt for the audience. Maybe I'm alone in my beliefs, but it seems to me that the band that can write songs like "Bones," "My Iron Lung" and "Electioneering" is doing itself (if not its listeners) a disservice by filling five-minute holes with computer bleeps and processed drum tracks.

It's not that In Rainbows is a bad record, it's just that it's another challenge. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but music is the kind of thing that should fill you up with joy and make you want to sing out loud yourself. If you make it a challenge, you suck that primal joy out of it.

While Radiohead has never been a conventional band, I found myself telling a friend recently that I enjoyed the four B-sides from The Bends era "Street Spirit" single more than I did anything on In Rainbows.


Radiohead - Talk Show Host
This song found a wider audience when it was included on Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" soundtrack, but I think the fact that Baz Luhrmann would include a friggin B-side from a band on a compilation that made a hit out of the Cardigans' "Lovefool" says a lot in itself about the band's songwriting capabilities at the time. It's not as dramatic as "Paranoid Android" nor is it as accessible as "Fake Plastic Trees," but its baiting tone just draws you in and makes you believe. Gotta love it.

Radiohead - Bishop's Robes
My first introduction to this song was when a high school friend of mine found Amnesiac online in 2001 and burned it to a CD with a few Radiohead "rarities." Now, I did end up buying Amnesiac and liking a few songs on there -- "You and Whose Army" is still thrillingly chilling -- but I guess it says something that on first listen, I liked this song more than anything on the proper album itself. Listen to it. It's so simple. But so beautiful. Is that so hard to recreate? I can accept not wanting to make this kind of thing habitual, but avoiding it completely? Who are you really doing a disservice to?

Radiohead - Banana Co.
This is probably one of my top 5, all time favorite Radiohead songs. I don't have a clue what it means, but it's pretty and engaging and does more for me than almost anything in their last 12 years of output has. I can't really explain it. It's just something innate that goes right into you. This is the kind of song that they seemed able to write on a whim. Then they decided to be difficult. Again... why?

Radiohead - Molasses
This song is ridiculous. But I'll say this, if it was on In Rainbows it would probably one song that I could find myself skipping to just for the sake of having some sort of traditional form.

As it turns out, I actually like the B-sides more than the A-side, but as is tradition here, here is the A-side's nice video:

Have a good weekend, everyone.

And tomorrow night, be sure to go to from 8-10 p.m. CST to listen to "The Heavy Petting Zoo" to listen to some of the best music of all time from one of the coolest radio hosts in all of Madison. It's all 1930s-1950s era stuff (maybe some 1960s stuff will slide in on technicalities), and it's from someone who really appreciates the era.

All week next week, the show's host, Grandma Cyd, and I will be reviewing "modern" takes on some of those old nuggets, so be sure to check in all next week and read an ongoing dialogue of whether or not revisiting the past is worth the effort that some artists (or tribute albums) put into it. Not to be missed!

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Some things were meant to be.

Time to defend another product of overpopularity and subsequent backlash with yet another installment of "Defending the Defenseless."

Defending the Defenseless

UB40 - Can't Help Falling in Love
From: Promises and Lies

I've never met anyone that owns a proper UB40 studio album. I know plenty of people with a "Best of" collection or two, but even they seem to have those on grounds of "Oh... I kind of liked that one song, I suppose I should have this?"

For most people, that "one song" is "Red, Red Wine," and while that's a nice enough cover of Neil Diamond (Diamond, in fact, found it a little too nice and openly complained that the band had misinterpreted the lyrics due to their happy musical backing), it's also one of those songs you can only really stand to hear at some summer barbecue every three years. Seriously. If you heard it in July 2006 and then listened to it this past July, you probably would've said "Didn't I just hear this last year?" It's one of those.

While there's probably something to be said about a group of Brummies that specialize solely in reggae, UB40's largest selling point -- they're ability to virtually turn any song into a Birmingham reggae -- also works most strongly against them. Some songs were never meant to be reggaes (hello, "I Think It's Going to Rain Today"), and their schtick can spread itself a little thin every now and again. And again. And again.

Other songs, though, seem to benefit from their reggae touch, and mind you -- it's not so much authentic reggae as it is reggae, mixed with mid-1980s UK dub music. For whatever reason, "Can't Help Falling in Love With You," which was of course originally made famous by Elvis. Presley, that is. Not the guy that just said he may never play in England again.

The song was buried on their 1993 album Promises and Lies and may have resigned itself to obscurity had it not been for the movie "Sliver" -- one of those prestigious roles Sharon Stone surely locked up by having shown her "baby place" (as Hank Hill would say) the year before in "Basic Instinct." Apparently "Sliver" was popular, I obviously wasn't allowed to see it at the age of 11, and have yet to see it, but I guess it had some pretty racy stuff (by early 1990s standards) and was originally dealt an NC-17 rating. God knows Billy Baldwin and Tom Berenger weren't going to be half the box office draw that Stone's naked body was, so while it didn't have a lot going for it, at least someone decided to slide the UB40 song in as a good marketing move.

What I do remember is the UB40 video for "Can't Help Falling in Love" being all over VH1 that year and I think it even got them a spot on "Saturday Night Live" during what I now in all seriousness refer to as the show's golden years.

Listening to the song now, I question the validity of the beats being acoustic as opposed to processed, and while I know real horns were used in the video, I don't know about things when I listen to them here. It might not be TRUE reggae, then, in the spirit of things and it might work to annoy you about UB40 just a little further still, but stop and listen for a moment.

The ridiculously lush balladry is gone, there is actually a good beat there (even if it's not acoustic), and damned if this isn't the best the song's ever sounded.

I'm still not buying a UB40 album, though.