Saturday, March 15, 2008

Rich-ley Talented

Kim Richey is among the best singer-songwriters working today. I pride myself on discovering new songwriting talent, and one lesson I’ve learned from the search is that talent must stand the test of time. My collection has many songwriters who caught my interest initially, but lost it after release upon release revealed the same stylistic tendencies over and over again.

I must admit, few make it to a magic level where I feel as if I’m 16 again, waiting for the newest Don McLean or Paul Simon record. Kim gets this response from my discriminating ear.

Richey broke onto the ever-crowded country stage in the mid ’90s. The problem was that she was only just “a little bit country.” Yes, her songs were about disappointment and loneliness, but she eschewed instrumentation like the fiddle and banjo in favor of a light, rhythmic acoustic-driven sound that swelled majestically by song’s end. Her early songs typically ended with an anthem-like hook that carried you blissfully away.

I’m sure Mercury Records was hoping she’d be the next Faith Hill or something, but Kim just didn’t fit the mold. She is tall and thin—a striking presence, but not glamorous. Her wispy blonde locks fall over her eyes but not in a coquetteish manner. She’s more like one of the guys. When you watch her play and interact with her band, you can see that she’s totally focused on the music. It’s cerebral, and often joyous.

Occasionally my wife and I list memorable concerts that we’ve attended over the years. Hearing Kim Richey at a supper club remains one of our favorites. What a night! This club had an open floor in front of the band, and Kim and her group rocked so terrifically and created such energy that we just stood and swayed and allowed the pulse to enter our bodies. I’ll never forget leaving the club and walking past a window where I spied the band decompressing after coming offstage. The excitement they felt—and my connection to her music—was very palpable.

Anyway, Kim has never scored a hit, but I know that she’s highly respected in Nashville—no small compliment when you consider the number of songwriters there per square yard. I imagine that some singers at the Faith Hill level have recorded her, and I know that she’s co-written many songs with other highly respected writers. You can get all this information at her website and MySpace page.

These sites are also where you can sample her most accomplished CD thus far—Chinese Boxes. This work marks a refinement in her style, a subtle pleasurable turn on an established winning approach. Perhaps it was writing and creating this work away from Nashville that inspired Richey. Maybe it was working with Giles Martin—the son of Sir George Martin, legendary Beatles producer. It could also be that it’s been almost five years since the last CD, so that she benefited from all that reflection. (See her interviewed about this time here.)

Whatever the case, I was taken immediately with her melodic skill in the title track. But, oh, the clever lyrics too! Let me share the opening chorus and first stanza.

You’re like Chinese boxes
One inside the other
Inside the other
One inside the other one

You’re smoke and mirrors—plastic flowers
Magic spells, misdirection
Smoke and mirrors—plastic flowers.

This tune feels like an incantation: she’s trying to summon her love, but can’t locate the essence.

The other song that especially knocks me out is “Something to Say.” It’s a meditation on the “cobwebs” that entrap us and prevent us from accessing our joy. She is speaking so directly here, and I’m mesmerized because this is exactly how I feel in my moments of reflection.

Some days I look outside my window
Wonder where the time goes
Why I throw it away

One day I’ll tie up all the loose ends
Ring up my best friends
And have something to say
When all the pieces fall into place . . .

Richey delivers these sentiments not in a stark, acoustic-guitar only, navel-gazing way, but in a lovely arrangement with a soft musical cushion provided by drums, percussion, electric guitar, flutes, and even a Rhodes!

It’s hard for me to contain my enthusiasm for Kim Richey, but since I don’t wish to dampen your interest by prattling on, I’ll end here. Download some of her songs, look for her on tour—we need to support artistry like this!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

As the Table Turns

I just got my turntable repaired. It wasn’t cheap. Why?

I am not an audiophile. My ear has never been finely tuned to sound quality—my basement full of audio cassettes is testimony to that fact. Years ago, I subscribed to a magazine called Stereo Review and, try as I might, I could never get engaged with the details of a new set of Danish speakers or some German receiver. (Loved the “record” reviews, however.)

Still, my turntable, receiver, and speakers are top-notch thanks to a friend who did appreciate those details. I must admit a frisson of pleasure when an Asian fellow, holding the door for me as I emerged from the shopping plaza with my turntable in hand, spied the name on the lid and remarked, “Ah, Audiophile! A classic.”

Yes, a wise investment when I purchased it used from my friend over twenty years ago. But wait, how can I say that? In this day when you can have your music collection in your hand and your stereo unit on your counter or shelf, how can I believe that I’m still receiving a return?

My storehouse of vinyl, audio cassettes, and CDs raises serious questions for me about my character. If you’re even a quarter of the pack rat that I am, I’m sure that you have some possession that you can gaze at and wonder (like I do), “What if I invested in Apple instead of buying the complete ouevre of Carmen McRae?”

But that raises additional questions—What would I be like if I hadn’t let Carmen into my heart? What riches has she afforded me? Is it worth more than money?

Strangely enough, money does enter into my decision to get my turntable repaired. I have over a thousand records that I’ve lovingly taken care of through the years. I steadfastly refuse to buy a CD or digital version of what I already have. There’s too much new music to reach out for. Anything I buy will be something new, and everything will be playable.

My records have trailed me through all the apartments where I’ve lived—some go back to my teenage years. You know how Method actors were trained to call up an emotion in a character by reaching into their past for a similar feeling? Well, sometimes records are the emotional trigger for me. Put James Taylor’s Walking Man in my hand and I’m back in Pittsburgh, scaling a hill, pondering the Energy Crisis as I trudge through the slush to my nearest record store. “Canada’s rooftops were lovely to see,” James croons and, as I listen, I think about how lovely it was to hear that same voice as I warmed myself after the walk.

Just sitting and listening to music—nothing else—is such a revolutionary act these days. We always have to be doing something, don’t we? You feel this imperative all the more the older that you get, but Lawdy, how it wears on you.

My records are a counterweight to this pressure. My “entertainment unit” (itself an antiquated piece of furniture) sits prominently in the family room, with a couch and a couple comfortable chairs in front of it. It’s the sunniest room in the house. Absolutely perfect for reclining and listening while you hold the jacket in your hand. My time-honored way of finding peace.

My records were collected during many hours spent alone, bopping from one used-music store to another. I was obsessive, and perhaps I only got into that state because I lacked focus in my career and I wasn’t committed to any woman at the time, but this realization doesn’t diminish their value to me. They fed my soul back then, they still do today, and they will in the future.

I am fortunate enough to have married someone who appreciates my passion for music. Lisa prodded me to start this blog. She set it up for me and patiently shows me again and again how to post on it. She allows me to have all that vinyl on the main floor of our home. Heck, she even got me a transmitter that allows my vinyl to be projected throughout the house. (Amazing—this gadget looks like a vacuum cleaner. It picks up the signal from the receiver and carries the sound through other rooms. Oh, how I smile to think of my uncle all those years ago, stringing speaker wire along ceilings, working to achieve the same effect.)

Willie Nelson once wrote a song called “Who’ll Buy My Memories?” Great line. I’ll tell you what, Willie—these vinyl memories are not for sale or for retirement!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Curtis

New World Order is a gorgeous testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Curtis Mayfield recorded it six years after being paralyzed when a lighting rig fell on him. He was 54 years old at the time (1996).

It features every attribute that made Mayfield sparkle. For starters, there’s that unforgettable falsetto. A lovely instrument in itself, his voice bounces over his text—and, as always, the lyrics are fantastic. He is one of my favorite songwriters.

Then there’s just the sheer musicality of this album. A part of Mayfield’s legacy is his originality in terms of presentation—he could play guitar, bass, piano, saxophone, and drums. He learned to play guitar by tuning it to the black keys of the piano, and his open F-Sharp tuning became a trademark.

There is such integrity to Mayfield’s work. His résumé as a producer is impressive, but I want to focus on his songwriting.

On New World Order he sings a love duet called “I Believe in You” that is simply delicious. It starts out bold and direct (“I believe in you/and I plan to love you longer”) and unwinds so silky soulfully that you’re drawn in immediately. You will then be spellbound by the exchanges between Curtis and his partner (Sandra St.Victor). Oh, that heartfelt growl as St. Victor prepares to reach her vocal heights. It’s bewitching!

Curtis’s versatility helps his music transcend any easy label. Sure, it’s R&B, but he’s infusing it with other rhythms. There’s a delightful Caribbean drive to “The Got Dang Song,” the sprightly harmonizing on the bridge to “It Was Love That We Needed,” and one of the few songs in my personal collection in which I find rap palatable (“Just a Little Bit of Love”).

Social consciousness is always flickering through his lyrics, and it puts them on such a higher ground. More than just pillow talk here. Witness the title track, of course (“A new world order/a brand new day/a change of mind/for the human race”) and the “message” songs about the dangers of life on the street.

New World Order also includes songs from Mayfield’s catalog—he performs “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue” (1970) and “The Girl I Find Stays On My Mind” (1969). It’s an amazing work—especially when you consider that Curtis was paralyzed and on his back throughout it!

This was Curtis’s last album. Three years later he died. (In the same year that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately he was too sick to attend the ceremonies.)

In the words of Aretha Franklin, “Curtis Mayfield is to soul music what Bach was to the classics and Gershwin and Irving Berlin were to pop music.”

Do yourself a favor and devote some time to learning and admiring his work.

Additional facts about Curtis:

1970: Curtis Mayfield leaves the Impressions to launch a solo career. His debut album, Curtis—released on his own Curtom label—enters the charts in October. It contains frank, topical songs like “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” and “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue.”

1972: Curtis Mayfield hits #4 with “Freddie’s Dead (Theme from Superfly).”
October 21, 1972: “Superfly” tops the Billboard’s album chart for the first of four weeks. This soundtrack to a film about a Harlem drug dealer’s attempt at a final “big score” delivers two major hits: “Freddie’s Dead” (#2 R&B, #4 pop) and “Superfly” (#5 R&B, #8 pop).

1972: Watch Curtis perform "We Gotta Have Peace."

August 1, 1974: Curtis Mayfield makes the pop Top Forty for the last time with “Kung Fu,” which precedes Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” by two months. However, he’ll crack the R&B Top Forty a dozen more times between 1974 and 1981.

July 1, 1975: One of Curtis Mayfield’s most unflinchingly realistic and downbeat message albums, There’s No Place Like America Today, is released.

October 1, 1982: Honesty, Curtis Mayfield’s strongest album in years, appears to positive reviews.

August 13, 1990: Curtis Mayfield is paralyzed from the neck down after high winds cause a lighting rig to fall on him at a concert in Brooklyn, New York.

1996: He was unable to play guitar, but he wrote, sang and directed the recording of his last album, New World Order. Mayfield's vocals were painstakingly recorded, usually line-by-line whilst lying on his back.

March 15, 1999: Curtis Mayfield is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the fourteenth annual induction dinner.

December 26, 1999: Curtis Mayfield dies in Roswell, Georgia.