Thursday, January 31, 2008

Golly gee, fellas...

Alright then, apologies for lack of a post yesterday, I could blame it on being busy with other things, but the truth of the matter was it was too cold to do anything. Even in a heated office. Yeah...

ANYWAY, it's the last day of January, but man oh man do I got a hell of a treat planned for all you dear readers and music aficionados starting Monday. It will be the coolest series this blog has ever run, not entirely comprehensive, but damn near close... and it might very well go two weeks.

As I don't blog on weekends, I thought that I should probably do a big preface post tomorrow that will leave you all tantalized and tortured, waiting desperately for Monday to come around. Mean? Well, it's a matter of perspective. We need something to look forward to on Mondays, don't we?

So with Feb. 1 being the preface, and the two weeks thereafter being devoted to the series, it's going to throw off the schedule of some of my monthly series, and I decided to jump the gun a bit today and put February's edition of "Vs." out on Jan. 31. Something about it being a leap year makes it make all the more sense to me (even if that logic is questionable at best -- don't question it).

Today we pit two of New Orleans' favorite sons - both named Louis and both bona fide horn blowers - against each other. It's Prima vs. Armstrong in a battle over show tune supremacy.

"Hello, Dolly!" was written by Jerry Herman for a 1964 musical, but I can't remember what it was called... (har har). The first popular recording of it was made by Carol Channing, but when Louis Armstrong took it up himself and added a bit of his Dixie flavor to it, the song really took off. The single, in fact, broke the Beatles' then streak of three consecutive #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. An album of the same name quickly followed.

A lot of artists sunk their own teeth into the tune quickly and it gained American standard status shortly after it's birth -- Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Benny Goodman and the mother-daughter duo of Judy Garland and Liza Minelli all recorded their own versions of the song in 1964 alone.

Tahoe (by way of New Orleans) swingin' cat Louis Prima idolized Armstrong and fashioned his own career on Satchmo's, albeit adding a zanier and decidedly more pronounced Italian slant to his own repertoire. Prima's fame was on its last legs come 1967, but he wasn't quite out yet -- Disney had enlisted him to voice King Louie in their adaptation of The Jungle Book which resulted in the greatest Disney song of all time (you wanna fight about it?!), "I Wanna Be Like You."

United Artists took enough interest in the aging swinga to sign him to brief deal which yielded the 1967 album Louis Prima on Broadway. It's not his finest hour, the production is a bit hollow and while the good-natured, devil may care, free for all attitude that made him the success he was is still somewhat evident on the record, it's also decidedly more reserved. That said, however, he still pulls off "Hello, Dolly!" with his own unique brand of charm. The Broadway album has long since gone out of print, but Prima's version can now be found on the excellent Jump, Jive an' Wail compilation.

Does it top Pops? Well, one would do well to remember Armstrong's version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001. Do the Grammys mean anything? No, of course not. But it's hard to argue with Louis Armstrong's version of this one...

What say you?


Louis Armstrong vs. Louis Prima
"Hello, Dolly!"


Louis Armstrong - Hello, Dolly!

Louis Prima - Hello, Dolly!

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Get together, get together now.

I am one happy dude.

Yes, even in spite of the fact that yesterday was an unreasonable (but wonderful) 50 degrees, and right now it's sleeting in order for the expected snowfall from tonight through Thursday to have a nice coat of ice to rest upon and make drivers crazy. And yes, even in spite of the fact that it will be a high of 8 degrees tomorrow.

Why?

'Cos Allen Toussaint is going to be back in Milwaukee next week and I am going to be there.

You'll remember this time last year I devoted a lot of blog space to Allen (and even got to interview him), but actually seeing him live was just jaw dropping. The guy's 70 years old now and still is a fantastic showman and getting to see him plow through all the hits that he penned for other people (and the stories he tells with them) is just not to be missed. Short of me moving to New York or New Orleans, I'm just not going to get THIS kind of entertainment regularly in Wisconsin. Which is fine... it makes it that much sweeter when it does come around.

Here's a bit of Allen doing his storytelling and performing a beautiful version of a song he wrote that Glen Campbell had a monster hit with (even though Allen's original is far superior)...




Here are two more Allen classics that other artists bolstered their bank accounts with.

Ernie K-Doe - Mother-in-Law
This 1961 hit brought all sorts of national attention to New Orleans and the little Minit label which Allen was working hard to supply a chain of hits for. When it went big time, everyone involved wanted a piece of the spotlight and Benny Spellman (who sings the baritone "Mother-in-Law!" line) demanded Toussaint write another song that he could have his own success with. Toussaint's answer? "Lipstick Traces," which Spellman did have a huge hit with. I need friends that can do things like that for me...

Lee Dorsey - Yes We Can Can
This 1970 hit for frequent Toussaint benefactor Lee Dorsey not only became a signature tune for him, but for the entire New Orleans region - especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Toussaint recorded his own version for the Our New Orleans benefit album the next year and Harry Connick Jr. even took his own stab at it on the Oh, My Nola album. Something about Lee's weathered voice over the prototypical 1970s funk just makes this version the ultimate though and next to impossible not to dance (even if just a little bit) to.


It'll also be perfect me to avoid the personal stress of Super Tuesday by spending 2 hours in this guy's audience. Six more days, six more days...

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Society is crumbling, but the media's obsessed with boobs, bums, dot com millionaires...

You know, America's made a good job for itself in taking British ideas for the last 40 years and turning them into its own form of hit television and economic stimuli (The Beatles = the Monkees, Pop Idol = American Idol, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, The Weakest Link, The Office, etc.).

Why is it, then, that we haven't been able to come up with a good response to Later With Jools Holland?

Granted, part of the reason that show is so great is Jools' own musical credo and proclivity -- I shudder at the thought of NBC going "Why don't we get John Tesh to host this...," but the basic format -- take three or four bands, and do a round robin for an hour of them playing their new stuff with an interview here and there, would make great television. Certainly not for MTV or VH1 -- god knows THOSE music channels have got their plates full with unending reality crap not at all related to music, but I think a good Friday or Saturday night showcase on CBS or NBC would be great. Plus, it's another show that wouldn't end up threatened by a writer's strike.

Maybe it can't work over here and Yanks are better off scouring YouTube for clips if not waiting for the DVD collections to make their way across the Atlantic. But I tell you, to see some of your favorite bands performing live and having a 88-key master like Jools Holland sitting in for a song or two always produces good stuff. Here are three of my favorite examples:

w/the Finn Brothers:




w/Billy Preston:



w/Paul Weller and Amy Winehouse (on a good day)




The other benefit to Jools show and his constant pairing with the artists that come on his show is that since the beginning of the decade, it's turned into a great outlet for celebrities to lend their voices to Jools' Rhythm & Blues big band albums. Since 2002, George Harrison, Paul Weller, Sting, Bono, Ray Davies, John Cale, Chrissie Hynde, Solomon Burke, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison and Taj Mahal are just some of the names to show up on Holland's albums.

As a tribute to Jools' good service to the music world, here are three of my favorite pulls from those albums.

Eric Bibb - All That You Are
From Jools' first celebrity collaboration compilation (say that three times fast), 2002's Small World Big Band. Sometimes the artists come in and do covers of classic rock, country or blues songs, and sometimes they collaborate with Holland and his big band to make a dynamite tune. This is an example of the latter, with Bibb, the fantastic blues guitarist getting the big band treatment on a heartfelt, lovely (yet not cheesy) number he co-penned with Jools. One of the real highlights from an album that included names far more famous than his own...

Ray Davies - Yours Truly, Confused N10
Small World Big Band was such a success that Holland followed it up quickly with a new collection at the end of 2002 called More Friends that enlisted yet another roll call of some of rock and roll's heaviest hitters. Mr. Davies showed up and offered this song -- which he actually wrote for his daughter's band, but his daughter (can you believe it) rejected it -- and got a proper bombastic treatment. This predated Davies' solo debut by three years and marked the first time since the early 1990s that anything new by Ray had falled out of Konk's doors. Showed he hadn't lost his touch and moreover, it's still helping music at large today. Britt Daniel said this was the song he had in mind when he composed Spoon's most recent moment of amazingness, "The Underdog."

Richard Hawley - I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
Jools' got the big band to dust off their saddles and spurs for the 2006 collection Moving Out to the Country and got most of his guests to agree to take up old country songs. Hawley shows the same gentle touch he's made a name for himself with on this cover of Hank Williams' arguably finest moment. For as simple as this song sounds, you'd be amazed at how hard it is to do a passable cover version of -- many others have failed, and while Hawley and Holland get nowhere near Williams bedraggled original, they do manage to infuse a bit of wistful charm into the proceedings.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Do things, do things, do things, good things with it.

So as I understand it, we're all probably getting $600 then?

That's fabulous. Maybe I can finally get that West Wing box set.

I'll be honest, though, I haven't really been able to fully comprehend how this is going to work because whenever it comes to technical economic/legislative stories my brain always seems to go "Oh the hell with this" after a few paragraphs. Probably doesn't help that I actually write them sometimes...

Anyway, I'm not about to debate the logistics of it, but now that pretty much every front page of a newspaper in America today has promised me $600, they better not f*cking welch on this deal, man.

I was talking to my friend Umaar today about it and he came up with the best possible idea for what I could do with (some) of the money...


Me: So how is this $600 thing working?

Umaar: Not exactly sure. I'm not going to sweat too much about it. If I get it, score. If not, fine.

Me: No no, I want $600, dammit. You can't go front page of every newspaper of the country saying I'm getting $600 and then not give me $600. I want to know how and where to get it.

Umaar: Jeez Paul, all you care about is money, you f*cking sell out.

Me: Do you know how many Hot and Readies that would be from Little Caesars?!

Umaar: I could just see you walking in puffing on a cigar, 4 other people about to order. "This is on me guys." Throw 40 bucks on the counter. "Keep the change."



And I would, too.

Inspired by this exchange, I want to know one partially good deed YOU would do with $600. Food for thought over the weekend...




The O'Jays - For the Love of Money
Great slice of 70s funk meets Philly soul from the O'Jays fantastic Ship Ahoy album (second only to Back Stabbers). You know this song. It's about three minutes longer than it has to be, but who could stop that beat? Certainly not I if I was at the mixing desk...

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

And I would not lie to you.

I just finished reading Ronnie Wood's recently released autobiography, Ronnie.

Disappointed.

Not that it didn't have some interesting bits, but the whole fact that the book seems to be "The Story of me and the Stones" (and kind of lacking in a strong narrative style to boot... sorry, typical writer's criticism, eh?) should work well for the legions of Stones fans that want to know about him, but me, I wanna hear his Faces stories, dammit. He really kind of quickly breezes over that era.

The fact that I'm reading Tom Wright's Roadwork, which pisses all over most rock and roll books and tells some fantastic Faces stories (illustrated, no less, by his wonderful shots) may help decide my preference, but it's no knock against Woody personally. I'm still going to hold him accountable for a good Faces book, though. Or at least some good Faces stories if/when I talk to him for my own Ronnie Lane book...

But the thing that remains most endearing about the great Ronnie Wood is his body of solo work. I don't know why, but from I've Got My Own Album to Do to Now Look to 1234 to Gimme Some Neck and Not For Beginners, Woody's always brewed up some fantastic little songs for a guy with sh*tloads of talent on the six string but not much of a voice at all.

Despite not having the strongest pipes ol' Blighty ever produced, Wood does sing with an awful lot of soul and also can write some of the best rock/pop/soul you may never hear. While his albums are sometimes frustratingly inconsistent (read: absolutely stellar tracks allowed to be surrounded by hard-to-swallow crap), he also seems the most genuine of the Stones when he decides to go it alone. Mick still ridiculously tries to establish a name for himself as a commercially viable solo threat while Keef, bless 'im, usually goes in with good intentions and four really great songs, but then seems to nod off and write off eight sleepers just to round things out.

The Ronnie Wood Anthology: The Essential Crossexion was released in 2006 to give credence to his work outside of Stonesdom, but if you ever happen to stumble across one of his albums at your local music outfitter, don't be afraid to pick it up. He's actually quite pleasantly surprising.




Ronnie Wood - Mystifies Me
Easily the most soulful and tender cut from his debut solo outing, 1974's I've Got My Own Album to Do, this track is one of the finest love songs ever concocted, has jumped genres and been covered by Sun Volt and also remains a staple of ex-Faces mate Ian McLagan's (who lays down keys on this version) live sets to this day. Also shows, like the Faces' "Debris," that Rod Stewart can be quite effective when used as a backing vocalist. Someone should remind Rod of that...

Ronnie Wood - Fountain of Love
A blissed out groover from 1981's 1234 (featuring some of the most random artwork to adorn any album), everything about this song -- from meshing Woody's strained vocals with female backing singers mixed a little too high, a blaze of saxophones and the constant, teetering threat of falling into that 1980s pastel-cum-faux-Carribbean groove -- SHOULD work against it, but somehow, it's one of the most wonderfully harmonious and infectious things Woody's ever done. It's so good in fact, that the five minutes plus of your time it takes up is completely forgiveable. Great, great tune.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Believe me, I just had no choice.

Being in the middle of another January in Madison has got me reminiscing.

I believe it was my first winter in this city when I spent a Friday night in because it was positively too cold to think about doing anything else. I got home, made myself a big bowl of baked potato soup and turned on the TV for a night of total zombieness.

Whatever channel I landed on about two hours in to my self-inflicted marathon was running an advert for Capitol's new Greatest Hits collection for Ricky Nelson.

"Ricky Nelson," I thought. "He's got some good songs."

Granted, all I really knew were "Travelin' Man," "I'm Walkin'," "Garden Party" and "Hello Mary Lou" and as it turned out, those were the only four songs played on the commercial, even though a hell of a lot of other titles went scrolling by.

And despite the fact that he was the late 1950s and early 1960s equivalent of an Aaron Carter type figure, the fact that he played that role at the birth of rock and roll gave him an incredible coolness cred that no teen idol could possibly hope to conquer today. Not even Justin Timberlake. Who I don't like. I don't care what you think of his last album.

Plus he had James Burton as his guitarist. How cool is that? You look up any of your guitar heroes' heroes and Burton will be listed, I guarantee. It's almost enough to totally forgive the fact that Ricky fathered one the worst hair bands ever (who subsequently became whores for whatever "I Love the Day/Week/Month/Year/Decade/Generation" series VH1 wants to run tonight).

So anyway, my computer at the time sucked and not being able to find any good collection of Ricky Nelson songs online, I forbade my self-imposed imprisonment, bundled up and ventured out to the Exclusive Co. record store on State Street. They had the Greatest Hits record. I was stoked. I don't get that feeling nearly enough anymore. Goddamn MacBook with high speed internet and unbelievable downloading capabilities... oh who am I kidding, I'd never "damn" it.

Anyway, I still keep that CD in my car -- it's burrowed a permanent place in my car case and there are still few songs that are as fun to sing along to at the top of your lungs doing 80 mph down 151 en route to Iowa as "Fools Rush In" is.

With Ricky in mind, I thought we'd highlight his greatest ever 7" as January's installment of the Fantastic 45's series.


The Fantastic 45's



Ricky Nelson
"Travelin' Man" b/w "Hello Mary Lou"
Imperial, 1961


Ricky Nelson - Travelin' Man
The liner notes for the Greatest Hits call this single as potent a one-two punch as Elvis' "Hound Dog"/"Don't Be Cruel" offering and the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" 45. It's not really an overstatement. The fact of the matter that Ricky managed to time the release of his arguably two most longstandingly popular songs on each side of a 7" record is fascinating. What's more fascinating is EVERYBODY's love for the A-side, which is an unbelievably easy-to-love number and will continue to be for generations, but is also a real celebration of promiscuity and big pimpin 40 years before it became irrevocably fashionable. Seriously -- this is 1961's "I Got Hos in Different Area Codes," except Ricky outdid Ludacris by not confining himself to one continent, let alone one country. Ricky's the international player, bouncing from Berlin to Hong Kong to Mexico to Alaska and Hawaii multiple times over in under three minutes. You go, Ricky.

Ricky Nelson - Hello Mary Lou
Ricky gave Gene Pitney his first major success as a songwriter by taking this song on as his own (and Ricky had a habit of making other musicians rich -- Fats Domino has always maintained he lived the good life thanks to Ricky's cover of "I'm Walkin'"), but Pitney actually just ripped off Father Cayet Mangiaracina's old tune "Merry Merry Lou." Burton's guitaring on this song doesn't sound like much nowadays, but you'd do well to remember that over in England, little boys like Keith Richards and Dave Davies were listening to it and were absolutely blown away. And actually, old men like Keith Richards and Dave Davies still do. And still are.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

When you're coming down, think of me.

I probably shouldn't take so much sick delight in the Packers OT loss last night, but YOU try living in Wisconsin as a Bears fan.

And really, it's too funny not to laugh.

Here's a fanbase so hopelessly devoted to one guy that despite the fact he threw two interceptions and effectively cost the Packers their shot in overtime, they still want him back for an 18th season because the thought of life without him behind center is really too scary to even begin to contemplate.

This isn't just beer-swilling armchair quarterbacks, either -- this goes to the highest of state levels. Mind you, Gov. Doyle put that out after Favre simply said he "would like to" return. Favre didn't say he would.

And this unquestioning love is such that grown, straight males I sat with at Pizzeria Uno off State Street in Madison last night said -- without hesitation -- that they would graciously partake in any variety of sexual activities with the 38-year old Mississippi native.

"Such devotion," I thought to myself as I struggled to remember a time (if ever) that a Bears quarterback commanded such male lust. Even Jim McMahon eventually pissed off a lot of SuperFans.

Yet, the thing about Favre last night was that aside from the 90-yard touchdown to Driver, he looked positively Bear-iffic with two interceptions, and that one of which proved NFC Championship hope ending.

Do you forget that for all the records this guy owns, he also owns the most interceptions? Do you forget that he lost you guys another championship shot just a few years ago when he threw up a stupid pass (which he EASILY could've tossed out of bounds) that got picked off by Philly? Is the thought of younger blood that positively horrific that this is ultimately preferable?

Despite the fact that he's been the bane of my existence for 16 years, I can understand people's deep seated devotion to him. We had the same thing in Chicago for Michael Jordan. You want to see your kings go out on top, and a fitting ending to his career WOULD'VE been that last second shot against Utah in the 1998 Finals. But he came back and toiled to no great avail with the Wizards, and I grant you that even the deep seated love Chicago had for him, if he'd tried that sh*t with the Bulls and not been able to pass muster anymore, the hometown media's excuses would've run out quickly.

Then again, you guys don't really have a Jay Mariotti up here. Probably for the better. That niceness is what keeps in me Wisconsin in spite of the Packers. And this f*cking weather.

But so what? It was this close this year that if he comes back for just ONE MORE YEAR it's a guarantee in 2009? What if the guy breaks one of these aging bones in a sack during Week 2?

Or better yet, what if he tosses another championship shot into the arms of a defending safety? You gotta admit, he's arguably more prone to do it than most other quarterbacks in the league...

Ah, "That's the price I pay for loving you the way that I do," eh Wisconsin?






Hahahahahahahahahaha...


Blur - No Distance Left to Run
Buy 13. (Actually buy The Best Of instead. It's better.)

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Friday, January 18, 2008

You were locked in time...

I'm very conflicted when it comes to tribute albums.

On one hand, they kind of seem like needless exercises. If the artist or album in question is good enough to pay tribute to, why try to recreate the magic? Because we get the flavor of the month reworking some song off Tapestry (I'm looking at you, Blessed Union of Souls), this is going to rekindle our affection for one of the greatest singer/songwriter albums of all time? Usually, it works, but for the wrong reasons (i.e. "God! I can't take it! Put on the original!")

On the other hand, they do offer some windows of coolness for music fans. Sometimes a favorite artist will show up on a tribute album, and while what they do doesn't necessarily blow your mind (Hello, Ocean Colour Scene's "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" on the Who tribute, Substitute), the completist in you still wants the track.

Sometimes they're also good showcases for smaller labels -- Bloodshot Records has put out a number of decent tribute albums, and while most Smiths fans probably won't pick up a Smiths tribute with not one band they've heard of covering one of their favorite songs, sometimes its the band in question's only chance to get on a CD that actually would be sold in a Best Buy.

Majority of the time, yes, they're wastes of time and an unnecessary pinch on the wallet. The advent of online music however, has made getting the one or two tracks you'd like to hear that much easier, though, and for this month's Friday Five, we take a look at five tracks from tribute albums that don't totally suck.




The Friday Five
Rare Tribute Treasures


Alejandro Escovedo - Lock, Stock and Teardrops
Dualtone Records 2003 tribute to Waylon Jennings, Lonesome, On'ry and Mean certainly was never constructed with the intent to burn up the charts and solidify Waylon's place among the canon of great American songwriters, but since that wasn't the obvious intent, the album was a little easier to digest in that you were getting some tender care from the artists involved. Alejandro Escovedo took a sparse stab at one of Jennings' more revered numbers, dwindling its structure to just an electric guitar and organ, but as always, Escovedo sings it like he means it and this comes off terribly nicely. "Shooter liked it!" Alejandro beamed when I asked him about it last year. Well, yeah. It's hard not to...

Brian Wilson - This Could Be the Night
It's hard to criticize the 1995 tribute For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson, because of its heavy hitting roster (Ringo Starr, Joe Ely, Randy Newman and Al Kooper all chimed in), plus the fact that proceeds from it went to one of Harry's favorite charities, the Coalition to Stop Handgun Violence. Harry fans might be better suited to pass judgement on this, but as I'm not one of them, I actually liked the album 'cos I was able to view it more as a mix tape with some of my favorite artists than an actual tribute. Brian's reading of "This Could Be the Night" -- which Harry originally wrote and handed off to the '60s understated supergroup, the Modern Folk Quartet -- matched the Phil Spector-ish sound of the original (which Spector produced), but you also have to remember that this was 1995, when aside from a few random appearances at Beach Boys shows, Brian wasn't doing a whole hell of a lot. So it was nice to have something new from him.

Centro-Matic - Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)
Everything about the 2006 Pet Sounds tribute, Do it Again: A Tribute to Pet Sounds works against it. From titling the album with a song that's not even on the damn album it's paying tribute to to reworking arguably the most perfect album ever with lo-fi indie bands, the majority of which you've never heard of and probably never will hear of anyway. I do have a passing interest in Denton-based Centro-Matic though, so it was with a somewhat perverse interest that I checked into their reading of one of the album's most delicate moments. Lo and behold, they reworked it and turned it into a Centro-Matic song. What's downright baffling is how well it works. Easily one of the best Beach Boys covers ever and certainly better than having Hootie & the f*cking Blowfish paying tribute to Brian at the Kennedy Center Honors. Lyle was good, though.

Ian McLagan & the Bump Band - Wedding Day
And speaking of Alejandro... Escovedo collapsed after a 2003 performance in Tuscon, Arizona due to complicaitions from Hepatitis C (which had claimed his brother Coke years earlier), and found himself in the hospital and at death's door with no medical insurance and his only means of making money (playing live) no longer an option. That's when pretty much everyone in Austin decided to help out and put together a string of live shows as well as a 2-disc tribute, Por Vida - A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo to help raise some necessary money. Thankfully, everything worked out fine for Al (he'll have a new Tony Visconti-produced LP out soon) and he was able to see how big of an effect his music had not only on audiences but also his contemporaries and heroes. One of his first favorite bands was the Faces, so for Mac to come in and give this lovely ballad (off Al's finest moment, A Man Under the Influence) a reading that wouldn't have sounded at all out of place on Ooh La La was more than fitting. This kind of care should go into ALL tribute albums.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - I'm Walkin'
The reason so many people have had a hit with Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'" is because it's a song that's so simple and basic, it's near impossible to f*ck up, even if you only have the least bit of musical proclivity. An all-star turnout showed up for the lush 2007 tribute album Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino and while the heavy-handed roster ultimately proved a bit more hit and miss than one would hope, when they did deliver, they delivered strong. Tom and the boys had a bit of brass and give a good N'awlins feel to the song, and it sounds (at least to me) more fresh and vital than anything Petty's done in too long of a time.


Have a great weekend!

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It's too late to care, 'cos I've done that, been there.

Okay I have a question.

When, exactly, did it become fashionable to relegate ELO to the "guilty pleasure" bin? Sure, their biggest hits are bloated 1970s behemoths (and I'm sorry, there's no way that anyone's take on "Roll Over Beethoven" needs to run more than 8 minutes long), but since when does a heap of good tunes (however over produced) demand "guilty pleasure" status?

Knocking Jeff Lynne for running a unit that owed a painfully obvious debt to the Beatles is like criticizing Noel Gallagher for the same thing. One, it's not gonna hurt 'em as they freely admit their love for the fabs. And two, the Beatles (for better or worse) never did write "Livin' Thing." Or "Go Let it Out."

Anyway, as far as I can tell if you have "Livin' Thing," "Sweet Talkin' Woman," "Turn to Stone," "Rockaria!," "Showdown," "Evil Woman" and "Don't Bring Me Down" in your repertoire, you're doing alright. So what if it sounds at home on the Boogie Nights soundtrack. There were a few good cuts on that, dammit.

Anyway, despite his chain of hits for popular music's halls, people never really seemed to get a proper respect of Jeff Lynne until he stayed behind the producer's desk. Maybe it was the fact that he actually got George Harrison recording again or the fact that he could make Roy Orbison terribly relevant or Randy Newman sound fun without the smarminess, Jeff Lynne was the producer's producer after 1985.

And for whatever reason, that's where people wanted him to stay. But he got back into the studio a few times thereafter, and one of those goes is what we look at today... the long awaited and quickly forgotten return of that mighty ELO.



Electric Light Orchestra
Zoom
Sony, 2001

01. Alright
02. Moment in Paradise
03. State of Mind
04. Just for Love
05. Stranger on a Quiet Street
06. In My Own Time
07. Easy Money
08. It Doesn't Really Matter
09. Ordinary Dream
10. A Long Time Gone
11. Melting in the Sun
12. All She Wanted
13. Lonesome Lullaby


Okay, first things first, calling this album an ELO one was a cheap move, in that only one other original member showed up, Richard Tandy, and he only showed up to play keys on one song. Ringo got to play drums on two. George Harrison played slide on two others. Ergo, George and Ringo are *now* more ELO than anyone in the original band. Can't argue that. I got an "A" in logic at Marquette. That's a basic line of reason right there.

But while it's maybe not a proper ELO album, it is a damn good Jeff Lynne album. Just as good, in fact, (if not a little better) than his belated and horribly unappreciated 1990 solo debut, Armchair Theatre.

The reason this thing came together? Who knows. You can believe what Jeff says in the press friendly EPK, but something about calling it "ELO" seems to suggest a bit of clamoring for a bit of cash. A solo Jeff album would've been fine, but maybe record company execs thought they could squeeze a few pennies if he called attention to his past.

And considering Bev Bevan had already tried his hand with the name (adding a lovely "...Part 2" just for clarity's sake) and had failed (and actually sold his share of the name to Lynne in 2000), Jeff seemed to have just as much right to go with it himself.

But timing never seemed to work in Lynne's favor after about 1980 -- Xanadu to Balance of Power included -- nothing of ELO's later years was matching the same popularity (or quality) of their 1970s output, and even though Armchair Theatre was great, the fact that he waited until two years after the Wilburys' initial iron had been hot to put it out worked sorely against him.

Indeed, NO ONE seemed to notice when ELO "reunited" in 2001, and the subsequent triumphant return to touring also proved shortlived with promoters cancelling dates like crazy due to overwhelming lack of interest.

Maybe other people had my mindset about the album. I didn't listen to it when it came out because I didn't like where "ELO" had left off, and guest spots from Ringo and George aside (by the way, doesn't that make this the ELO album Jeff always wanted to make anyway?), I was too skeptical to even consider it.

My introdution came via a night of channel surfing and the horrible movie The Sweetest Thing playing on Comedy Central. I heard a catchy song in the background while trying to ignore Cameron Diaz and Christina Applegate and Lynne's voice was unmistakable. Given that there was a catchy Jeff Lynne song I was unaware of, I ran to IMDB to see what exactly it was. Hmm. One of the cuts off that reunion album. Maybe it is worth checking out?

"State of Mind" was the cut in question and remains probably my favorite track off the album, although there are few that I skip over on this puppy. The bombastic overload of strings are gone and more often than not it recalls Armchair Theatre than anything in the ELO canon, but Lynne's ears for easy pop hooks are back in pristine condition.

"In My Own Time" is pure 1950s blues through Lynne's trademark shades while opener "Alright" is a jugular grabber that few (least of all I) would have figured he'd still have the gumption to compose. "Just for Love" and "Ordinary Dream" recall the likeable schmaltz of "Telephone Line" and "Strange Magic" while "Stranger on a Quiet Street" and "Lonesome Lullaby" are also worth a second listen.

Clunkers? Sure, the Ringo-drummed "Easy Money" is pretty useless and "Moment in Paradise" isn't bad, but it kills momentum with its early placement.

Given that those are the only two particularly offensive moments, though, you have to like this album. Reunion albums aren't supposed to work this well. Granted, it's not really a reunion album, so maybe that's why it does, but... you still probably haven't heard Zoom. It's about time you did.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

You ain't got me yet, no, no.

Apologies for a lack of post yesterday and I will say right now that this week might be a bit scattershot as I am exceedingly and ridiculously busy oddly enough. Now having said that, I'll probably feel so bad that I'll post for the rest of the week anyway, but if I don't, well, now you know why.

ANYWAY...

Let's groove, eh?

In 1974, soul songstress Betty Wright became the latest in a line of many to benefit from the songwriting talents of the High Priest of New Orleans, Mr. Allen Toussaint.

Although Toussaint had started finally focusing on his own work -- releasing his first solo album From a Whisper to a Scream in 1970 after a few haphazard singles in the 1960s, he kept his writing, arranging and producing talents fresh for the new crop of artists that at least found their way through New Orleans if they didn't already hail from there.

As Toussiant told me last year, he's never completely comfortable being the star -- he prefers to be in the back making sure everything's right. Well he wrote a song in about 1974 that seemingly no one could do anything wrong with -- "Shoorah, Shoorah," which went on to be recorded in just one year by Frankie Miller, Sam and Dave and the aforementioned Ms. Wright.

Wright's version found the most popularity and generates a tight little groove, but anyone who's ever seen or heard Toussaint do it himself knows what the best version sounds like.

Toussaint told this story prior to performing it in Milwaukee last year...

"This song became a hit for Ms. Betty Wright, and I was working in my studio in New Orleans when someone in the office came over to me and said that Betty was on the phone. She was having a hit with 'Shoorah,' but wanted to know what it meant, because that's all that reporters were asking her. 'What does Shoorah, Shoorah mean?' So I just stayed at the piano working and I said, 'Is Betty still on the phone?' The woman said yes.

"I said, 'Then let her just keep waiting.'"

Betty Wright - Shoorah! Shoorah!
From her album Danger High Voltage


And here's another song Toussaint wrote in the 1970s that found success for other bands (including Three Dog Night), but still isn't handled as well as it is in the hands of it's author:



Amen.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Where there's nothing to do.

I met Johnny Marr in November.

All my friends know that 'cos I wouldn't shut up about it for about three weeks after. Oh all right. I still haven't shut up about it. But I realize I forgot to tell you readers, because December rolled around so quickly and between Christmas mixing and 2007 countdowns and all else, my little moment of glory got pushed out of the picture.

He played here in Madison with Modest Mouse, and while I couldn't go to the show, I realized during the middle of a Saturday that one of my all time heroes was walking around downtown, so why the hell was I just sitting at home. Went down to State Street, saw where the band's bus was parked, grabbed a cup of hot chocolate and read a paper for ten minutes.

Stepped out and turned the corner and lo and behold, Johnny f*cking Marr is walking right toward me.

I picked my jaw off the cement and stuck out my hand and somehow managed to stammer "J-Johnny?"

He was really cool - stood and talked with me for about five minutes. I asked him about the possibility of another Healers record (he'll finish it when he gets a break from Modest Mouse) and his work with Billy Bragg - particularly "Cindy of 1000 Lives." He seemed genuinely excited that someone was asking him about that as opposed to something else -- like a true nerd, I was screaming "Don't ask him about the Smiths! Don't ask him about the Smiths!" to myself the whole time.

I told him I'd like to do an interview with him sometime, and he seemed open to that, so perhaps that shall come along sometime later this year.

At the end, he was cool enough to let me get a picture, which I finally got around to framing and putting on my wall last weekend.

Guess what I call it?




Johnny Marr + the Healers - Down on the Corner
Buy Boomslang

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Pop the thermal mumbo jumbo.

I've been on a bit of a cartoon kick lately, no doubt inspired by Borders decent 3-for-2 DVD sale that saw me (finally) purchase copies of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Beavis and Butt-Head Do America... sick of only catching them on Comedy Central and E! with commercial interruptions, you know?

Anyway, it also made me check out the South Park album put out in 1998 called Chef Aid which is kind of nonsensical and unimportant, but it does have a couple really good tunes.

One of which is Elton John's "Wake Up Wendy" -- a song that Stan supposedly supplied the lyrics for:




It was Elton's first appearance on South Park, although Trey Parker made an unbelievably good stab at imitating him in an earlier episode when the boys were trying to find ways to create a pig-sized elephant. Seriously, this makes me laugh out loud every time I see it:




Anyway, I was listening to "Wake Up Wendy" last weekend and realized it's probably the best damn thing Elton's done in the last 20 years. I don't know if that's funny or sad.

Oh well.

Elton John - Wake Up Wendy

And damn, Stan is a good lyricist, eh?

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Well my room is so cold, you know you don't have to go.

Greetings again -- sorry about the lack of a post yesterday. Never got a good window to talk about music.

But I have a window today, and I'm going to use it to talk about the Doors (ba-dum-ching!).


Obviously loved each other's company. Always.


I've vented about my love/hate relationship with the Doors -- the fact that I love the band and really like the majority of their output, but despise the demigod status bestowed on Jim Morrison, who wasn't a bad singer and could turn a decent lyric now and again, but also was pretty much a drunk that wasted a lot of talent and spent too much time trying to wind people up when he could've been better directing his energies.

I'm not one to tell people how they should (or should have) live(d), but I will gladly take part in pointing out idiocy in the face blind reverence. And when people try to turn it on me and my love of Kula Shaker, I'll start throwing punches.

...

Anyway, given the fact that the classic Doors only had four to five solid years of output, it's interesting to see how much good music they packed into their career. They never made a bad album -- they made albums that were a lot better than other ones, but there was never a bad album.

For as much good stuff that went on those albums, though, and as much stuff that was apparently tried but never released (I'm looking at you, "Celebration of the Lizard" from the Waiting For the Sun sessions), only three non-album songs ever made it out into the main market during their entire career.

I can only assume that the American singles market in the late 1960s was different than that of the British market earlier in the decade, as the Doors never once did a standalone single and only thrice stuck a song on a B-side that wasn't ALSO on the same album the A-side had been pulled from. Even more bizarrely, Jim only ever sang one of them.

Today we take a look at all three...

The Doors - Who Scared You
B-side to "Wishful Sinful," 1969

Recorded during The Soft Parade sessions and featuring that era's blanket of brass, this song has recently become a highly celebrated part of the band's catalogue again after years of doing time on rarities collections. Part of its resurgence was thanks to Gnarls Barkley (what's happened to THEM by the way?), who started covering in their live sets at the height of their "Crazy" popularity. I'm partial, in that The Soft Parade is my favorite Doors album, so I think this would've made a fantastic addition to the album, whether it was punched in somewhere or exchanged for a song like... hell, it's A-side, "Wishful Sinful." The weird thing about the song's structure is that it BUILDS on a descending pattern. The song gets stronger as it unfolds, and Morrison lets himself go a little more with each verse. I'd probably put it in my top 5 Doors songs of all time... and only now are people starting to find out about it.

The Doors - (You Need Meat) Don't Go No Further
B-side to "Love Her Madly," 1971

I don't know exactly when this was recorded, but you read any Doors book (I find Densmore's Riders on the Storm to be the best of the lot, Manzarek's Light My Fire has a little too much "Jim was great in hindsight" to it), and you know that Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore had learned to record without Jim since the Strange Days sessions. Whether Jim had already taken off for Paris, wasn't in good voice, or wasn't in a condition to record that day, I don't know. I figure this was just the three of them loosening up and playing the old Willie Dixon number. Ray had a more-than-serviceable voice and with his own Chicago-roots, he was more than suited to have a go at this old blues number. Nothing amazing, but it's certainly alright.

The Doors - Treetrunk
B-side to "Get Up and Dance," 1972

Following Morrison's death in 1971, the three surviving doors did decide to carry on and recorded two more albums, Other Voices and Full Circle. Neither album got much notice, although that was more to do with the absence of Jim more than the quality of songs. Obviously, the other three were more than capable of carrying on -- Krieger had written some of the band's best stuff ("Light My Fire," "Love Me Two Times," "Touch Me," "Love Her Madly") and as already mentioned, Manzarek's not the worst you could do for a lead singer. I suppose it goes into a bit of the Jim-myth revisionism that (despite the fact that they were both released on Elektra like every other Doors record) neither of these two albums has seen a proper rerelease or inclusion in any of the multiple Doors box set collections. Some of the post-Jim songs more than deserve to be heard in a proper fashion again, and not least of all this, which is a terrific B-side that I don't think has even ever been remixed for a CD compilation. Obviously this MP3 was ripped from recording a tattered old 45, but at least it gives you a good idea of the song and more than enough reason for Elektra, if not Ray, Robbie and John, to go "Hey, you know... let's put that out again."

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Monday, January 07, 2008

I do not walk the floor bowed down and bent, but yet...



Bob Dylan UnderCover

Case 3, Jeff Buckley




Jeff Buckley - Mama, You Been On My Mind

The late, great Jeff Buckley was a huge fan of Mr. Zimmerman and would often pepper his early live shows at Sin-e in New York with Dylan songs. When he set out to record his debut and lone album Grace in upstate New York in 1993, the sessions started with just Buckley and his electric, a la Sin-e, before he outfitted himself with a band and made arguably the most unique record on the 1990s.

Sometime during those sessions, he made a pass at this Dylan classic, albeit in the way that Dylan had tackled it alone on his acoustic (which I believe can now be heard on the Bootleg Series 1-3). Jeff's voice was one of the finest ever to fall on music, so it sounds absolutely stunning in this version, even though he's not doing anything too incredibly acrobatic with it. It's just a stirring sweet singular pass at the song, much like how he made with "Hallelujah."

Would've made decent B-side material, but for some reason (maybe publishing?) the song never found its way out of Columbia's vaults until seven years after his death on the 2004 release of the Grace: Legacy Edition. Better late than never, eh?

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Let the moon glow on the fallen snow.

As has been the trend here, since summer, it's time for yet another seasonal mix.

It's kind of odd putting "Long, Cold, Lonely Winter" up as Madison heads into a weekend that promises 40+ degree temperatures, rain and possible flooding, but I've lived here long enough to know that we're nowhere near the end of winter yet.

The rule with winter mixes (this isn't a Christmas/holiday mix, mind you) is to keep the tempo and overdrive down. Ideally this should soundtrack snowy drives -- and as snow driving is kind of intimidating in the first place, you don't want music that's going to make your heart beat faster than necessary or persuade you to step on the gas when you probably shouldn't be. I learn that every year. This year it was listening to The The's "Armageddon Days (Are Here Again)" during a pretty bad snowstorm. Just... the wrong choice entirely I realized as I sat halfway off the road entrenched in a snowdrift.

That said, winter mixes shouldn't be havens for simple acoustic emo crap either. There has to be a certain coldness, and oddly enough a bit of stuff of slight techno or electronic persuasion works well because it carries a lot of bite in its sound. It's just important to remember this isn't for a rave...

As it goes, here's a wonderful soundtrack for a snowy drive, a walk through a bit of snowfall (you might actually marvel at it instead of curse it if this is on your iPod) or a grey Saturday spent in with a cup of tea or hot chocolate watching the snow come down outside. Enjoy!





"Long, Cold, Lonely Winter"
The "Ain't Superstitious, But These Things I've Seen..." 2008 Winter Mix

Download Part 1 (tracks 1-10) Here (click to go to SaveFile download page)
Download Part 2 (tracks 11-20) Here (click to go to SaveFile download page)


01. Belle & Sebastian - Winter Wooskie
This song still amazes me in the sense that it could come off as a bit creepy and stalkerish, but only achieves a level of sweetness. Not your typical choice for an opening track, but the way I see it, opening tracks should have you amazed by the song's halfway mark, and this song does. Proves Stevie Jackson has just as much heart as Stuart Murdoch and puts you right there looking out the window with him. Gorgeous little tune.

02. Peggy Lee - Gee Baby (Ain't I Good To You)
A typically sultry turn from 1952's Black Coffee album. The production sounds cold and airy and the piano drives that mindset further, but Lee's voice could probably set the Arctic circle ablaze, so a nice juxtaposition is created. Although I still wonder why guys need diamond rings. Wrist watches, cadillac cars, everything, sure, but diamond rings? Really?

03. George Harrison - I'd Have You Anytime
The lead track to Hari's landmark All Things Must Pass has always sounded like a roaring fire on a cold evening to me. I don't know why. It might not make sense to you, but whatever. Phil Spector's rich production and George's careful acoustic and electric fretwork over a song he cowrote with Bob Dylan just makes for a perfect, romantic evening tune.

04. Primal Scream - Keep Your Dreams
The lone minute of calm in Primal Scream's near-apocalyptic XTRMNTR, this track provided that one heartbreaking moment that Bobby Gillespie seems to turn in on every Scream album, whatever style they're taking by the nuts be damned. Since this was from the psuedo-digital era, the song has a bit of electronic augmentation, but as previously mentioned - it gives the song a bit of a cold bite without assaulting your blood pressure or head the way every other track on that album did.

05. Jon Brion - Strings That Tie To You
Brion's lone "pop song" turn from the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack, this track has that "comfort in defeat" tone that a lot of his songs (and this movie, in fact) have, but something about that mellotron makes it all the more wintery. Maybe it's the fact that that old Beatles "Strawberry Fields" promo where they're dicking around in that cold field forever associated the mellotron with a cold feel for me, but there you go.

06. Richard Hawley - Born Under a Bad Sign
Hawley's latest album is finding a lot of underground success on these shores on the strength of its two upbeat singles, but this is really the tempo within Hawley's wheelhouse. This cut from 2005's Coles Corner is one of my favorites, but the whole damn album is pretty majestic. This track just fits here better than any of the others would have.

07. Michael Penn - Perfect Candidate
Sean and Chris' big brother has a penchant for writing colder songs, all the moreso after the success of his debut album and the subsequent disinterest that followed when he wasn't willing to write "No Myth" over and over. Still, despite the bit of bitterness he wears on his sleeve, this is a guy that's still audibly Beatle-influenced and that's fine with me.

08. Allen Toussaint - Poor Boy, Got To Move
A rare vocal showing from the High Priest of New Orleans at a time when he was busy writing, arranging and producing hits for pretty much everyone else in the city, this song was released as an A-side in 1965 and sounds about as far away from spicy creole as one can get. That said, it's still Allen Toussaint. Ergo, it's still genius.

09. The Stone Roses - Your Star Will Shine
While the Roses debut sounded of nothing but sunshine (if in part chemically fuelled), their much belated follow up The Second Coming lacked that carefree charm. While it's been horribly slighted ever since, it's still a good album and this little track written about John Squire's fears of fatherhood might be it's prettiest moment. Depending on what day you ask me. Come summer, I'll probably go for "Ten Storey Love Song."

10. The Style Council - The Paris Match
I don't know why Paul Weller decided this version shouldn't be the ultimate and rerecorded it as a jazzier number with Everything But the Girl's Tracy Thorn singing lead, but I guess that's part of Paul Weller's charm too. Whatever the case, this Paul-led original version from Introducing the Style Council remains the ultimate in my book, a straightforward venting about love lost and with the Modfather singing a bit of French too. Suits you splendid, sir.

11. Procol Harum - A Whiter Shade of Pale
Anyone know how that whole court case from last year ended up? Did people just stop caring? Whatever the case and whoever the author, this is still a brilliant song and if the title doesn't put you in a wintery mood, that organ will. You're still under no obligation whatsoever to make sense of the lyrics, though.

12. Metric - Calculation Theme
I was hanging out with my great friend Mike in December of 2005 and it was about 3 a.m. and we were about 11 beers apiece in when he said "You gotta hear this one." I'll admit it, I wasn't hooked right away or even after the first couple of minutes. But this song's ending blew me away. "Play it again," I said, and so it goes with this song. Stark, cold, but also utterly beautiful.

13. Santo & Johnny - Sleepwalk
Probably the greatest instrumental in rock history and as important a lick for young guitarists to learn as the opening to "Stairway to Heaven" is. This song has a habit of popping up almost everywhere and sounding pretty damn fantastic soundtracking anything, but to me it's always sounded like a winter night.

14. Ocean Colour Scene - St. Cecelia
Probably the best thing Ocean Colour Scene have done since the turn of the century and they left it to a B-side on CD2 of a dismal single off a (pretty much) dismal album. Thank God they've got fans like me or else this thing would've been lost to the ages. A lot of us may lament Simon's retreat of the band from "Riverboat" guitars to acoustic, folkiness, but when things like this bubble up, we see it's not so bad after all. Oh who am I kidding, it's the organ that makes it.

15. Brian Wilson - Let the Wind Blow
In 1995, the Disney Channel (before it turned into this horrible MTV for bands of 13 year olds) did a special on Brian Wilson called I Just Wasn't Made For These Times which spawned a soundtrack of him doing old Beach Boys songs, but what made it great was that they included a lot of the Boys' deeper cuts. Brian's not in his best voice, but to hear him doing things like "Wonderful" 9 years before SMiLE was realized and "Let the Wind Blow," which was an obscure track off the Wild Honey album was pretty cool. As it goes, I actually prefer this version.

16. Spoon - It Took a Rumor To Make Me Wonder, Now I'm Convinced I'm Going Under
A B-side to the UK version of the "Sister Jack" single, this track has also found new life as a bonus track on some editions of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Good thing too, cos as weird as this is, it's also pretty astounding. It sounds cold and almost sterile, and it sounds like Britt's singing to you from behind a window. I can't decipher all the lyrics either, but that's not the point. The point is, goddammit, that it's yet another great Spoon song.

17. Rhett Miller - Terrible Vision
My introduction to Stuart Ransom Miller came when he opened for Neil Finn in Chicago in February 2003. It was just him on acoustic and given that I don't like opening acts much, let alone lone acoustic troubadors, the fact that he blew me away like he did speaks volumes. I went back to Milwaukee, bought this album and listened to it on my CD walkman (remember those?) on walks back and forth to class everyday. One night as I walked back from a late class to my dorm, it was snowing and this track played. It seemed to be exactly what the song was written for.

18. Crowded House - Not the Girl You Think You Are
And speaking of Neil... this is one of the Crowdies final cuts (that is 1996... pre-obligatory reunion) and this song feels a lot like Harrison's "I'd Have You Anytime" does for me at least. It just sounds like a fire in the cold. Gorgeous song too, though I don't know how a sales pitch of "He won't deceive you or tell you the truth" works. What will he do then?

19. Dean Martin - Someday (You'll Want Me To Want You)
Killer little cut from 1960's This Time I'm Swingin'! that has a good amount of bite to it, but Deano carries it off with his trademark coolness. You can't have a winter mix without Dean. It's like doing a summer mix without Darin's "Beyond the Sea." It's just not done. You need a bit of figurative coolness to go with the literal coolness.

20. The The - August & September
While "Armageddon Days" isn't a good winter song, this one (titled after late summer months strangely enough) is. An airy, jazzy go by Matt Johnson from 1988's Mind Bomb, this song fleshes itself out on a lot of regret and self deprication, and while it's certainly not the coldest thing Johnson's ever written, it's something that balances itself with a light enough musical background to sound pretty as opposed to stark. Then again, maybe some credit for that is due to Johnny Marr?


Have a great weekend and enjoy this mix.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

'Til the wind doesn't wanna blow.

New month, new year, new Vs.!

My friend Umaar asked me last night whether or not I had noticed the fact that Michael Jackson had cut Paul McCartney out of the 25th anniversary edition of Thriller (which I maintain is a good, but heinously overrated album), replacing Macca with the Black Eyed Peas will.i.am.

My first thought that this was a pretty dumb thing to do, but then again, I can't remember the last time I thought, "Oh, that's smart" when anything Michael Jackson had done was being discussed. Then I momentarily felt sorry for will.i.am that the guy who's kind of raised himself to big name status as far as hip hop production goes got the short end of the Thriller stick and had to be stuck doing that godawful song.

It never was a good song - let's be clear about that first of all. The idea of Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson fighting over a girl in any day and age is just ludicrous (now McCartney and Elvis Costello fighting over a girl, a la "You Want Her Too" for whatever reason, works). "Say Say Say" was better, though even that was kind of awkward (made all the moreso by a video where Paul and Michael continually mug it up for Linda and Michael pursues, of all people, his sister LaToya). And the fact that nobody knows the 3rd Macca/Jacko duet "The Man" speaks volumes about its potency.

The funny thing is that for a set of duets that produced such tepid results, the lasting effect of the pairing has been a seismic control battle over the Beatles publishing rights that has seen Nike get a hold of both "Revolution" and "Instant Karma," and seen Paul McCartney publicly say he hopes Michael gets the nick on the child molestation charges so that he'd be forced to give up the rights to pay for attorney fees.

But what few people remember is that the pairing actually started back when Paul was still fronting Wings and Michael was set to make his "proper" debut solo album, Off the Wall. Michael had contacted Paul asking if he'd be interested in writing a song that he could record on his upcoming album. McCartney, who always envisions his songs as done by other performers anyway (read Many Years From Now for a thorough who's who) couldn't resist the challenge and set out writing "Girlfriend" after Wings had returned from its yacht-born recording sessions for London Town.

Many songs recorded on the yacht were unsuitable for release, so about six more songs were recorded on dry land, and "Girlfriend" was one of them. With Off the Wall originally set to go in 1978, the thought was that both songs would hit the market at the same time, but a delay on the American side pushed Michael's album back a year and McCartney fans were left wondering what this odd little high-pitched schmaltz was buried on their hero's new album.

Apparently assuming Michael was still 11 years-old, McCartney decided to record the song in a ridiculous falsetto that almost completely sinks the song from the get go. Its only saving grace is a trademark McCartney meaningless-but-catchy-as-f*ck middle bit where he drops back into his normal range and lists off a few "'til" clauses. The "serious" guitar solo, seemingly intended to add a bit of balls to the 4-minute plus proceeding, sadly is also pretty ludicrous.

As it goes, Off the Wall comes out a year later carrying Michael's take on the song, and while it's done in Michael's trademark breathy voice, it's also considerably lower than the range McCartney had taken it. Case in point, Michael comes off sounding manlier than Paul, and the tight disco-cum-funk production of Quincy Jones also gives the track a bit of bite, even if it does sound like the kind of stuff that could've qualified for Lite FM even then. Stunningly, Michael's version drops the best bit of the song, instead focusing more on that "do-do-do-do-do-do-do" crap. So just when you think you might have a version of "Girlfriend" you can actually say "This is a good song" about, you're left absolutely frustrated and unable to decide what's better: a piece of fluffy crap with one really great bit or a decent piece of light disco without any real selling point.

Your call, dear listener, 'cos I haven't been able to figure this one out for years.






Paul McCartney & Wings Vs. Michael Jackson
"Girlfriend"



Paul McCartney & Wings - Girlfriend

Michael Jackson - Girlfriend

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Here in the suburbs where it's hard to tell if I got the bear or if the bear got me.

It is friggin' freezing here today. So I'm listening to an album that sounds like it comes from a warmer place.

It's also an album that really came and went without a lot of fuss, which was odd considering its author, producer and the fact that it's an a lot of people seemed to have been waiting a long time for.

Let's have a look, see...




Walter Becker
11 Tracks of Whack
Giant, 1994


01. Down in the Bottom
02. Junkie Girl
03. Surf and/or Die
04. Book of Liars
05. Lucky Henry
06. Hard Up Case
07. Cringemaker
08. Girlfriend
09. My Waterloo
10. This Moody Bastard
11. Hat Too Flat
12. Little Kawai


It had been 14 years since Steely Dan's last album Gaucho, and while Becker's other half Donald Fagen had put out two albums in that gap (and thus not made aching Dan fans expect too much too often from either guy), Becker had stayed pretty much out of the limelight. He'd show up for a bit of production work here, maybe a little guest guitar or bass on a song there and maybe a spot in someone's live show there or there, he never seemed that interested in becoming "Walter Becker the solo artist."

And why should he have? Sure he was instrumental in Steely Dan (and it really took the production of Fagen's 1993 solo album Kamakiriad to highlight just how much so), but he'd never taken a vocal for himself in their history, and while his guitar and bass work was always good, so was that of every other session musician on a Steely Dan song. Face it, Steely Dan doesn't exist without Walter Becker, but he'd worked himself deeply into the band's threadwork without ever really taking a big step to distinguish himself. Once Steely Dan called it a day in 1980, Becker headed for Hawaii and it was surmised that little else might be heard from him (apart from the requisite ukulele doodles) ever again.

So when he emerged in 1993 to take the production reins on Fagen's nice sounding (but overambitious) Kamakiriad, it was exciting for all Dan fans to have the two working together again. Sure it wasn't a Steely Dan album, by name, but roses by any other name and so forth...
Fagen returned the favor a year later by getting out of his New York home and producing a stack of songs Becker had been stockpiling for who knows how long. The fact that they were working together yet again got Dan fans even more excited, but the real draw here was the fact that despite 14 years of formidible absence and an entire career in a band where he'd hardly uttered a note, Walter Becker was going to be at the forefront.

The result?

Well it wasn't Aja, but hey, what is?

The real problem on the album is (sorry, Don) it's production. For a band that worked obsessively with acoustic instruments and would do songs time and again with entirely different bands to find the right combinations of players, tone, feeling and sound, 11 Tracks of Whack just sounds a bit too easy. I blame this primarily on the synthetic sounding drums. There's some great guitar and bass work, but nothing matching the thickness of anything Steely Dan had produced or even Becker had produced a year earlier for Fagen. Now, maybe it's not so much in the producer's hands as it is the songwriter -- after all, Becker and Fagen never produced Dan albums themselves, and all three of Fagen's solo albums have a rich texture that could be more in the mind of the songwriter.

The good news about the 12 tracks on 11 Tracks of Whack (anyone figured that one out yet?) is that Becker proves himself not only to be a competant vocalist, but also a damn good songwriter with an eye for just as biting a lyric as Donald himself could wind. While Walter's lyrics tend to be a bit less enigmatic, there no less annoyingly (and brilliantly) as smart ass as his partner's.
The album's opener "Down in the Bottom" is one of the catchiest thing either of the two has written inside or outside the confines of the Steely Dan name, and the closing "Little Kawai" is an absurdly great song about fatherhood. That's no small feat considering how many fathers have tried their hand at it and come out looking saccharine enough to make you worry about cancerous effects. In this one, though, every verse is sheer genius and the music carries enough heart to make you think he'd probably be a pretty cool father.

If anything else pointed out the album's shortcomings however, it was "Book of Liars" -- arguably the most well written song of the dozen, but not even a speck in comparison to the treatment it would get a year later when Steely Dan did appease their fans, toured and released the Alive in America album as its retrospective. Outside the confines of a studio and augmented by real drums, singers and a beautiful bit of piano by Fagen, the song sounds almost regal. Here it's good, but it just seems somewhat compromised.

As it went, the official Steely Dan reunion a year later did little to help 11 Tracks of Whack stand on its own two feet and actually did a lot more to help bury it in obscurity. Thankfully, Steely Dan have returned to touring and making albums that are far better than guys their age should be making. And Walter's even singing on them now, so... this album wasn't a complete loss.

And it shouldn't be completely forgotten about, either.

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