Saturday, January 31, 2009

LaMontagne Is No Flash-in-the-Pan

Ray LaMontagne is a throwback. He writes songs that are not immediately accessible. His style is so soft-spoken that you swear that when you listen to his CD for the first time that it will also be the last. But then, like the vinyl days of yore, you leave the disc in your tray just long enough to allow its subtle magic to work on you.

The lyrics of the songs on 2006's Till the Sun Turns Black (the CD that's made me a fan) are the first element that grabbed my ear. Then you start thinking about the structure of the songs—for example, the repeated question on "Can I Stay" or the clever refrain of "You Can Bring Me Flowers".

You can bring me flowers
when I'm dead and gone

The sinuous musicianship impresses you next. Trumpets, flutes, euphonium, and violins are just a few of the instruments that provide the context. Oh, I suppose some people might call it "chamber folk", but after this initial listen, you realize the label doesn't fit. Ray can throw one hell of a curve!

He was originally named Raycharles Montagne, and I'm here to say this boy has a good dose of blue-eyed soul. Impressive coming from a bearded, flannel-shirt wearin' recluse who lives in a former cabin of Norman Mailer's in the woods of Maine. Check out the track "Three More Days." I was amazed at the slick channeling of the Muscle Shoals sound on this one!

La Montagne has a soft voice, but it really works on you. It's really idiosyncratic—very high-pitched, kinda Jeff Buckley-like. Once again, when you first listen you'll think this is good music for polishing your furniture by, but upon repeated exposure you start appreciating the suppleness of this instrument.

I've just got to love a guy who found a good record store and used it as his university. Ray took his courses in Dylan, Mitchell, et al at this place. Here's what he says about that six-year intense listening period. Here's Ray recounting that time in a 2006 interview in The Washington Post.

"I lived for the chance to get back there and dig through the stacks, find something new, something that I hadn't heard -- whether it was another Stephen Stills record or Bob Dylan, Neil Young or the Band, Sonny Boy Williamson, Nina Simone, just a gazillion people, Etta James, Joni Mitchell, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Leadbelly. I loved everything, and I lived for that time after work, putting on a record and having a sandwich or macaroni and cheese, whatever I could pull together at that time, and just listening to those records."

So, after that, Ray thought he might have something to say. He was working long hours in a shoe factory, but he strapped on his guitar and went to work. His dad was a musician, although he wasn't a major part of Ray's life. (Ray's mother had six children by different men, and he led an itinerant existence growing up.)

He has been nothing short of a sensation since then. The title track of his initial release on RCA, 2004's Trouble, was performed by Taylor Hicks on "American Idol". Kelly Clarkson performed another track from this work, and the CD was also used in "ER" and "Rescue Me" .

I'd read the plaudits, but I'm late to his music. Last fall he released his third album, and he's now touring Europe to wide acclaim. If you start with Till the Sun Turns Black, you won't turn back. You'll be spellbound and grateful that a new and entirely original voice has emerged on the music scene.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Love Letter from a NRBQ Cult Member

1994's Message for the Mess Age—a recommended starting point for any listener.

Matt Groening salutes NRBQ. That's fame, isn't it?

Master songwriter Al Anderson

The inspiration for this entry—Joey Spampinato

It was Joey Spampinato's birthday yesterday. Every morning before the first period bell rings I regale my homeroom with selected facts from a feature called "This Date in History" in The Boston Globe. I noted Joey's birthday while my favorite rock band NRBQ played a song written in his honor ("Spampinato") behind me.

Hey, if it leads to one download, the smallest "ka-ching", for the boys, then I've done my job. Throughout the day I listened to the Q and was reminded once more why I love them so dearly. Yes, like the San Francisco Chronicle, I mourn too for the passing of this "sadly defunct cult band."

Why they never gained more than a cult following says much about how rock music was packaged and sold in the previous decades. NRBQ (short for New Rhthym and Blues Quartet) was never able to be pigeon-holed. They were rock, pop, jazz, country, blues. Their inspirations ran from Harry Nilsson to Carl Perkins to Johnny Cash. They were simply an infectious bar band that never got beyond the tavern because they didn't translate to the masses. Yes, I'm being a bit snooty here!

For most of their history Al Anderson, a top-notch songwriter, penned many of what I find their most memorable and durable tunes. May I submit for your consideration the 1994 release Message for the Mess Age? This release was actually Al's swan song, but he went out blazing with the tracks "A Little Bit of Bad" (dig the bass hook!) and "Nothin' Wrong with Me". In the latter, the rhythm rolls and Al, whose voice is very pleasing to the ear, drives home the clever lyric.

Just because I sleep the whole day through
Don't think that I'm dreaming about you
When I awake I see what's on TV
Life is great, there's nothin' wrong with me

Just because I like to drink alone
And I don't bother answering the phone
I feel no pain, I'm happy as can be
And baby, there ain't nothin' wrong with me

I'll bet you're sorry you walked out the door
Hey, look at me, who could ask for more
I know by now that you have changed your mind
And I bet you're wishing you had back
The guy you left behind

Al tired of the road and the obscurity shortly after this release and high-tailed it to Nashville, where for 14 years he's been writing for a variety of popular country singers. Throughout his career he has also issued solo work. Give 2006's After Hours a listen—any song from it could be plucked and turned into a hit by the right talent. (Also highly recommended for a hard-rockin', roadhouse blues havin' good time is 1996's Pay Before You Pump.)

The heart of NRBQ throughout it history was Terry Adams. Terry played the piano and electric keyboards and provide lead vocals on much of his material. When you'd see NRBQ in concert, Terry always made a splash when he shook his long blonde tresses and displayed his sublime skill playing boogie-woogie on the keys. He'd play standing up mostly, and his banter with bandmates between songs was often funny.

Terry and Joey Spampinato often teamed up to write and sing. Their music could be incredibly sweet. Take "Ramona" from Mess Age

Ramona, ohh, I just lose it when you smile at me
It's such a feeling I can't hide
It comes from way down deep inside, oh, Ramona
Just like a roller coaster ride, ahh
Ramona, Ramona
You're just so very, very
So extraordinary
Be my Ramona now

Joey has a terrific voice—so melodious and captivating. You'll be smitten on first listen.

These two penned many rockers too. Bonnie Raitt, an admirer of the Q, chose their composition "Green Lights" as a title track on one of her releases.

I was a late admirer of NRBQ. In college, I listened to Scraps, and enjoyed their take on "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Postive", but I never saw them in concert or bought another recording. Then, through most of the 1980s, I engaged in my autodidactic pursuit of jazz standards and anything Sinatra. It was only in the early '90s when I re-engaged with rock that I awoke to their massive talent.

I then picked up much of their vinyl released on Rounder Records, a Cambridge, MA based folk and roots label. NRBQ did some time on the late '60s on Columbia, but their eclecticism soon drove them to smaller labels. In 1989 their biggest salvo for commercial success, Wild Weekend, was released on Virgin Records.

I saw them probably almost a dozen times in concert, and was never disappointed. They generated a great buzz and excitement in a bar, and it was a treasure to witness their playing so up close.

So here's to the Q and to the spirit of pop music. Lift a glass to the honorable pursuit of the hook and to their two to three minute confections that stream seamlessly off any release.

If you love the Beatles (now there's an appeal to the masses!) you will love NRBQ and utterly respect their longevity and tireless devotion to their art.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Loving Leonard

I fired up my DVR today to the Sundance Channel to record a concert film called I'm Your Man. This 2005 concert is tribute to the music of Leonard Cohen and features both the musically familiar (Bono, Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, Linda and Teddy Thompson, Kate and Anna McGarrigle) and some new vocal talents to my ear (Jarvis Cocker, Antony, Beth Orton).

It's fabulous. I was familiar with the CD of the concert before I'd seen the documentary, and it definitely enhanced the experience.

Songs that stick in my memory include "If It Be Your Will" by the high-pitched singer Antony and Martha Wainwright's version of "Tower of Song." But wait—there's more!

Rufus Wainwright tells a funny story about when as a teenager he met Cohen. He also memorably renders two songs: "Hallelujah," "Chelsea Hotel #2" and "Everybody Knows." (The latter done with an infectious Caribbean beat which thankfully provides some rhythm to a slate of songs that tilt strongly toward the ballad or anthem.)

Nick Cave delivers "Suzanne" and "I'm Your Man" with his trademark deep growl, which I find arresting. Always catch the words when Nick is singing! He also tells about how owning the early Leonard Cohen records was definitely a mark of sophistication.

Leonard Cohen is interviewed through the course of the documentary, and he is as funny as you might expect. At the end of the concert, Bono joins him for "Tower of Song."

If you haven't given time to Cohen's music, this documentary might prove a terrific entry point for you. Most people need to appreciate Leonard through someone else—my entree was provided by Jennifer Warnes in her classic collection of Cohen songs from the late '80s. (Famous Blue Raincoat)

After that, my ear was open, and when I tried listening to the man himself, it all went smoothly. (Had he grown as a musician? Perhaps. The voice was richer, and the musical settings were more interesting.) If you want exposure to Cohen, I'd recommend The Future. That title track is a knockout!

I've never heard Cohen in concert, but I hope to have a chance. After a lengthy absence, he returned this past year for some shows. Unfortunately, Boston wasn't on the itinerary.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Neil Diamond: Far from Rough

Top: Cover from Neil Diamond's work
Bottom: Neil Diamond today. You look MAHVELOUS!

Neil Diamond is 68 today. I'd like to salute one of our nation's finest songwriters on this occasion.

We're talking songwriter in the classic sense. Neil earned his chops with other fabulous songwriters like Carole King by working at the fabled Brill Building in the early 1960s. (Akin to working Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s and 30s—aargh! Even the monikers were better in the LONG ago!)

Like many baby boomers, I first got to know him through the Monkees. (I was probably reading songwriter credits even at that tender age.) "Daydream Believer", "I'm a Believer", "A Little Bit of Me, A Little Bit of You"—these songs feature sturdy choruses and an utterly comforting, predictable structure. They are meant to appeal to the masses unabashedly.

I recall purchasing a cassette of Tap Root Manuscript. This late 60s effort features the immortal "I Am, I Said", a song that makes clear that in terms of bombast, Neil is no piker next to Neil Sedaka ("My Way") or Barry Manilow ("I Write the Songs"). But you must admit, songs with weird lyrics do stick in your mind and you keep singing them mockingly ('I am, I said/to no one there/and no one heard at all/not even the chair") .

That in itself is its own kind of skill, don't you think? To become derisible, and therefore unmovable in a listener's mind (because we all can't stop making fun now, can we?)

Diamond had many other songs, though, that were just plain strong, sensitive songwriting before James Taylor, Carole King, et. al came along and made this style a brand. So I started to follow his career. Straight through "Gitchy Goomy" and "Song Sung Blue" (from Moods). But the brakes hit with his soundtrack to Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I couldn't bear the lyrics. It felt to me like he thought he was our nation's unofficial poet laureate.

I was gladly on the sidelines for his subsequent hits like "You Don't Send Me Flowers" and "America". I observed with amusement how really conservative, square people thought he was awesome and flocked to his shows.

Then Neil became quiet. Getting well past middle-age, he couldn't don the silk shirt or the sequins anymore. In need of a career overhaul, he went to visit Dr. Rubin. That's Rick Rubin—the ubiquitous producer who gave Johnny Cash a new audience in his twilight years.

I'm here to say that Neil's songwriting is as strong as ever. I'm sure that his audiences are disappointed as he tromps onstage with his acoustic guitar and quietly serves his art.

But he's speaking to me more. I may actually hear him in concert in the years ahead. It may not be an arena with a triple-figure priced ticket. Instead it may be in a nice jazz club—where people really listen, song after song, and appreciate craft.

Give his work with Rubin a try. You'll be pleasantly surprised!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Mulling Over the Grammy Nominations

While scrolling through the list of Grammy nominations for 2009, I was saddened to find that Melody Gardot hadn't received a nomination.

Her debut effort received boatloads of publicity when it was released last spring. Understandably so—she has a compelling back story involving how music played a central role in her recovery from a near-fatal biking accident. She is young and mysteriously beguiling. She sings like a cross between Blossom Dearie and Julie London. Or do I hear June Christie sometimes in her voice? What's it matter—this artist's voice is chameleon-like, and that's part of the joy of listening to it.

Plus there's the fact that she can flat out write a solid song. Gardot plays the guitar, so strings form the primary layer on her sound, but many numbers are enhanced by horn instruments. Rhythmically, her approach is diverse—sometimes a slow bluesy-walk ("Worrisome Heart"), and other times an almost bouncy, girlish skip ("All That I Need Is Love"). You're never bored, and the CD stands up to as many listenings as you're willing to give it.

I noticed that Universal had made her CD available at stores like Barnes & Noble for only $7.99. I'm sure that the company was hoping for a slowly building enthusiasm capped by a Grammy. (This is just how Norah Jones emerged.)

I'm sure Melody Gardot has found a passionate audience. I hope you'll lend her an ear and become a part of it.

By the way, I was pleased to see that Karrin Allyson, one of my favorite jazz singers, received a Best Jazz Vocal nomination for "Imagina: Songs of Brasil". Gorgeous work!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Elvis Does Rufus on "Spectacle"

I really want to love Rufus Wainwright. I mean, many years ago I celebrated his arrival in this world by singing along to compositions that his father Loudon had written marking the event: "Rufus Is a ##**!!# Man" and "Dilated to Meet You."

After watching Rufus's interview with Elvis Costello on the Sundance Channel, I am fairly certainly that, as a middle-schooler might say, I am stuck in "like" and will never get to "love."

My main reservation about Rufus is his voice. To my ears, it's just an outright whine. Oh, it's a highly individualized cry because he certainly can sustain it--a trait that I suspect causes many people to say, "Wow, what a VOICE!" When Rufus launches into his pain-stricken wail, I completely lose the lyric that I've been tracking.

Which is too bad, because I like what I manage to take in lyrically quite a bit. The melodies that he writes are appealing too. Perhaps Rufus is a songwriter who will only flourish when others cover his songs. Please make way for him in line Jimmy Webb!

In the interview, Rufus and Costello joke about the allure of the demimonde--our subject admits that he has delved whole-heartedly in drugs and alcohol and, because of his willingness to take risks that we common people are unwilling to do, has emerged with "art" that sheds light on an inner darkness that we have been unable to articulate. (Yes, I was probably rolling my eyes at this juncture!)

Rufus was smarter when he spoke of the arc of his career, and in particular, the sophmore jinx that curses so many musicians. He said that second album has to be strong, and stand as its own statement.

I couldn't help but think of his father at this point. Costello, being a contemporary of Loudon's and a fan, had presented a shot of the cover of Loudon Wainwright's maiden effort and had, in fact, opened the show with a LOUDON song from his sophomore effort called "New Paint."

Yikes! Just like Loudon had Daddy issues with his father, an well-regarded editor at Life Magazine, so Rufus is reminded of his father's notoriety and feels its weight. More famous Rufus might be at this moment, but as highly regarded as Dad? He handled discussion of his father gracefully, though, acknowledging his unique talent and the personal sacrifice that had to be made to realize it.

I wonder if Loudon could speak as generously about his son. Dad didn't appear on the show, but later in the hour mother Kate McGarrigle appeared. At first, Kate appeared to be the living embodiment of what had been said earlier of folk music--that it was dour and terribly serious. I mean, Kate looked haggard as she trudged on stage with her banjo and joined Rufus and Elvis for the traditional song "Willie Moore."

I objected to this characterization of folk music, and can only think that it was done to set up this song. My goodness, folk has many sweet, joyous songs in addition to these numbers in which a young maiden is done wrong by her fella and gets offed! After watching the show, I slid open the doors leading to our backyard, and in the morning stillness I heard a bird calling and thought, "Yeah, haven't they heard of a song like 'The Cuckoo': Oh the cuckoo/she's a pretty bird/she sings as she flies..." Now that's a downright pretty song—sweetly sad, I grant you, but no one drowns in a river!"

Anyway, after "Willie Moore" concluded, Kate lit up with a full smile and the hour concluded. I found myself thinking that perhaps I'd give Rufus another try. Many of the artists that I love best were the most difficult to love initially. I mean, I'm sure this is the way many people dealt with Loudon—his first albums were sung in a shrilly high voice too, but eventually his vocal register dropped and listening to his recorded work became more palatable.

If you haven't tuned into "Spectacle" yet, I highly recommend it. The show airs initially on Wednesday on the Sundance Channel.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The BBC and Me

When Lisa was setting up this blog for me, she made reference to my "early morning musings on music." As the Brits would say, this remark is spot on. Every work day (and often daily) I'm wide awake by 4:30 am. I'm a schoolteacher and a morning person, so my anxieties/anticipation/excitement kick into gear as I shower and shave and listen to the BBC.

Oh, how I used to mock this feed from PRI ("Public Radio International") which streams throughout the night on a local public radio station here in Boston. I'd launch into my British accent as I listened to their correspondent. Then I'd reach for my tuner or simply shut the radio off.

But several years ago I turned the corner, and now this station is like oxygen to me. When I wake up very early--or when insomnia has me up at odd hours--I often think, "Oh good, I can listen to some of the BBC." Yes, you'll still hear me crow gleefully "Good show!" in my mock accent after a segment, but I haven't turned my dial!

One of my favorites is a show called "The Strand." This half-hour segment whistles through 4-5 arts and entertainment with such depth that, as you listen, you're inwardly weeping over the vacuousness of American popular media coverage.

I share with you today a link to some top ten music lists for 2008-2009 that the BBC has put together. Enjoy listening!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Singular Sara

I love folk music. It has such a noble and elemental history. It is so intimate.

I turned to folk as an adolescent. It's the perfect music for turning inward. Peter, Paul and Mary lit the spark for me. They were quickly followed by John Denver, Don McLean, and James Taylor. Pop singers all, I admit.

Like the best big band and jazz singers, the appeal of these singers is driven not only by their skill, but by the force of their personalities. It takes courage to be a performer of any kind, but to stand in front of people with only a guitar and your voice and entertain their minds and hearts--well, that's the most vulnerable of situations.

When I sit in a folk or jazz club, I love to witness how this challenge is met. If it's well met, I am transported. Sara Hickman is a singer who always takes Lisa and me on a journey.

When I think of Sara, I'm first drawn to her optimism. Her energy is simply electrifying, but it's never manic. Instead it is concentrated and emanates from her heart. Sara Hickman is deeply loving and empathetic. She has a razor wit, yet cynicism is never evident. This gal loves to laugh, too.

What a smile when she does! Her appearance is compelling: penetrating green eyes, a wide mouth, and prominent teeth. She's a striking blonde who hits the stage with a rock-and-roll spark. Sara moves about and establishes eye contact with her audience immediately, displaying complete command of her stagecraft. (She offers classes in this skill in Austin, TX, where she lives and plays much of the time.)

Sara Hickman unites the best of several worlds for me. Like folksingers in the Woody Guthrie tradition, she is a stalwart defender of the forgotten, the downtrodden, or the misunderstood. Like contemporary folksingers, she explores the map of her heart. Sara is also a fine singer with an obvious jazzy consciousness. The way she lilts and soars, and then sometimes simply bops and pops! Then there's her material. Sara is a savvy selector/interpreter of song, plus a fine songwriter in her own right.

How pleased I was to discover her singing Amy Rigby's "Are We Ever Going to Have Sex Again?" on her ambitious 2-CD project Motherlode. I am drawn to singers who pull material from different traditions. Rigby's composition has a country flavor, but Sara also dips into the jazz("Baby, It's Cold Outside"; "Wave"; "When I Fall in Love") and rock (Jagger/Richards'"Mother's Little Helper") catalogs.

In terms of her own songwriting, I'd especially recommend Two Kinds of Laughter, a 1998 release produced by Adrian Belew. This work kicks off with such brio. Witness the opening number and title track.

There's a wave
washing over me
there's a wave
breaking my heart free
and there's a light
that we call the sun...

A chugging bass line gets this aural train in gear, and the chorus features an onslaught of words and a catchy shifting of the rhythm.

funny, when you're drowning
how you just don't care
you hardly even notice when you're running outta air
floating with the sand and the seaweed in your hair

Striking imagery, eh? Anyway, this CD presents a world--wholly unsuitable for the tickle-my-ear, random-search iPod listening style of today, but if you're working and let Sara steep into your consciousness, you'll soon become a fan like me.

I admire Sara's business acumen. If you go to her website, you'll appreciate it. Making a living playing music is such a tough row to hoe, but she's maximizing every opportunity, and it's all executed in such a classy, professional manner.

I find myself going to her blog frequently. This past August Sara ventured north to appear at Passim, a premier Boston-area folk club. Lisa and I were there, of course, completely motivated by our memory of her last appearance at Passim on a snowswept evening. The timing wasn't quite right then in terms of turnout, and August isn't prime club-going time, either. Sara shared with us her anxiety about the gig early on–she'd blogged about it–and I appreciated her candor. She then proceeded to thoroughly entertain us with a show that bore little resemblance to her prior appearance.

Like many guys I'm not overly demonstrative, but after the performance I had to give Sara a big hug and declare to her that "I will always be there for you." (I believe Lisa was okay processing this scene!) I was so moved by how much she had just given us as a performer, and how difficult and sometimes discouraging her career is.

Folksingers rely upon the energy and enthusiasm of their followers. First, let Sara cast her spell on you. Then, like I've just done, spread the word, and get her booked in your area. I simply can't wait to see and hear her again, and I know you'll feel the same if you give her a chance.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Remembering Kirsty MacColl

I was cleaning the table upon which our computer stands--or was it I was searching for a phone book?--but anyway, imbedded in all this clutter I pulled out the CD "Tropical Brainstorm" by Kirsty MacColl. This 2001 release was then transferred to our car which has only one tray to hold a CD.

That's an important detail. Once I pop a CD into play in this car, it often stays there for a while. And that's when, thankfully, I get the same listening experience I had back when I was a teenager wearing the grooves out of a record.

I would like to nominate "Tropical Brainstorm" as (appropriately) one of my "desert island" CDs. It's that fabulous. My two young boys will second me on this sentiment. (Oh, to hear them sing "Treachery/made a monster out of me" is precious!) So, here I am at my blog, wishing to dash off an entry on Kirsty.

Of course, with me, nothing that I care about is "dashed off." So, although I broke my New Year's promise of not deliberating excessively over my posts, I now give you reasons why you should consider the inimitable Kirsty MacColl.

I begin by trolling for some background on-line. Nothing can give you writer's block faster! Oh, I am DEFINITELY not alone out there. It's just like discovering that Peter Yarrow's solo albums have a fan base. What is there left to say? Well, say it I will, irregardless--let the other voices trail on my coattails via links!

Kirsty MacColl, who died tragically at 41 the year "Tropical Brainstorm" was released, was an absolutely brilliant singing and songwriting talent. (Shane MacGowan of the Pogues once said, "Why isn't she massively successful?") I came to know her on this last CD. I'd certainly heard of her--and I did have an under- or unlistened tape of one of her works--but I buckled in once my sister sent me MacColl's last CD.

"Tropical Brainstorm" tells the story of a woman free and loose in South America. It leaves you with an indelible impression of the hilarious, self-deprecating person Kirsty MacColl must have been.

I submit to you the song "Treachery." Over a Caribbean rhythm, our narrator tell us:

I'm stalking a fan
He lives in a high rise block
And here I am
He shouldn't have turned my rock
He's brushing his teeth
He doesn't look bad from this far
I'm hailing a cab
And I'm gonna follow his car
Wherever he goes
I won't be too far behind
Just hanging around
Driving him out of his mind

Treachery made a monster out of me
Treachery made a monster out of me

As the song progresses, we learn that this fan is being unfaithful to Kirsty (a recurring theme throughout).

I'm stalking a fan
He's gone to the record store
To buy a CD
By some other girl not me
He's taking her home
Getting her out of her box
And putting her on
And dancing around in his socks

What an arresting comedic image! Dancing around in his socks! It's funny, but simultaneously your heart goes out to Kirsty for her desperation. You so admire her utter honesty. It calls to mind the work of Loudon Wainwright III.

In "Here Comes That Man Again", Kirsty describes a sexually heated cyberspace relationship.

Here comes that man again
He knows that I'm online
"Knock knock, who's there?"
It's just a matter of time
Here comes millenium man
Rum and coke in one hand
And in the other...
Is that a mouse a see?
Although when I tell him he's corny
It seems to make him quite horny
And through the cyberspace
I watch the rapture on his face
Yes while his girlfriend is sleeping
His sexuality's peeking
Here comes that man again
After a long hard day
He likes to come home and talk to me
He says it's something he needs
He can't stop spilling the seeds
God bless European unity
And all those who never sleep

OK, this delicious wit makes me nod in agreement when I read U2's Bono called her "the Noel Coward of her generation." (I'm glad that my sons are only taking to the chorus of this song!)

Again and again you follow Kirsty along her South American misadventures. In "England 2 Columbia 0" she runs into a "serial liar":

Oh you shouldn't have kissed me and got me so excited
And when you asked me out I really was delighted
So we went to a pub in Belsize Park
And we cheered on England as the sky grew dark

Oh you shouldn't have kissed me cause you started a fire
But then I found out that you're a serial liar

You lied about your status
You lied about your life
You never mentioned your three children
And the fact you have a wife
Now it's England 2 Colombia 0
And I know just how those Colombians feel

If you hadn't passed out while I was talking to your friend
It could have really ended badly cause you very nearly had me
If he hadn't taken pity on my heart full of desire
I might never have found out you're a serial liar

Thanks to this number, which is my 8 year-old Grady's favorite ("Track 7, Dad") my boys have now wrestled with and mastered the meaning of the word "status". Ah, good songwriting, good vocabulary--it all follows.

"Tropical Brainstorm" is an organic whole divided into what seems to my ears two distinct parts. The first half dozen or so tracks feature driving Cuban rhythms and horns. But the second half has more of a samba feel to it. Kirsty, now more reflective, reveals that she still awaits her Prince Charming in "Golden Heart."

Music's playing
I'm still praying
Venus made me
Eros betrayed me
Instead of love's arrow
He used a poison dart
So if you could love me
Take good care of me
You'd take this spell off my golden heart

Her singing is so lovely. MacColl is such a confident vocalist, so strong and supple. In her career she sang backup for the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and the Pogues, to name a few.

Critically lauded, her life ended at the age of 41 on December 18, 2000 when she was struck by a boat while scuba diving with her sons in Mexico. I recommend traveling to her website as well as reading an especially a touching fan tribute here.

By the way, Kirsty's father was Ewan MacColl, a fine songwriter in his own right. Remember the song "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"? It's mentioned in a superb 2-part fifteen-minute interview with Kirsty. Check it out: Part 1; Part 2.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

You're Not Alone

I get such a kick out of the reviews that you can read about an album or artist on Amazon's site.

One day I idly searched for Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary)--I was curious as to whether his first solo effort--or any of his solo releases--were available on CD. I cherish his albums, but I've never run into anyone else who shares this enthusiasm.

But my goodness, there was a person out in cyberspace whose parents made "Peter" the soundtrack of his childhood apparently. (He wasn't alleging child abuse, by the way.) Reading his comments, along with other enthusiasts, made me feel validated. Ah, the power of the online community!

I would think that any artist who is down in the dumps can instantly get an adrenaline rush by reading these comments. (Of course, if you're really down, perhaps you'd hold nothing but contempt for the people making them.)

By the way, the first solo albums of Peter, Paul, and Mary have been packaged into a 3-CD set available from Rhino. I can sing every word of each of these works--they were my first musical heroes. So quite naturally, I'd tell you to give them a try.

Friday, January 2, 2009

What's New?

Recently my wife and I lost all the information on our hard drive. Away went hours of music on my iTunes. You'd think that losing hours of music would devastate a music aficionado such as myself. And yet, I was strangely relieved.

After scanning the "Top Ten CD" lists for 2008, I am ready to retire any pretense that I'm in touch with the best new music out there. I am not willfully ignorant—just short on time and old enough to know that even if I had the time, there are better things to do with it.

The digital revolution has really transformed how I connect to music. I'm ambivalent about the change. Whereas before I had a "stable" of artists to whom I'd devote my attention, now I have a warehouse. Too many artists, and so much music that I often listen to something only once or twice.

My living room is lined with shelves of vinyl and CDs. (Love you, Lisa, for not consigning them to the basement!) I'm proud that these records have survived all my moves. I cherish their presence and their ability to provide some continuity in my mind between past and present.

It's been a long time since I last posted on my blog. Perhaps I misunderstand the purpose of this form of communication—instead of offering daily ruminations, I'm always planning a definitive "piece." When I look at my posts, there's a sense of permanence there, so I want to make what I write worthwhile.

But then, that kind of writing would be work—pleasurable, but time-intensive. Plus the pay is lousy. So to keep this blog alive I have to change my way of thinking.

In future entries (which I promise will be much more frequent), I'll give you my rough drafts. Every day I am thinking about music and listening to it—I have to capture my thought or feeling immediately and relay it to you, patient readers!

Here are some topics that have been brewing and will be discussed in future posts.

1. Michael Franks—his peculiar genius, and why my wife abhors his music

2. Gilbert O'Sullivan—why I love this import

3. Elvis Costello's "Spectacle" show on the Sundance Channel

4. The joys of hearing music in an intimate setting

5. Sara Hickman—master businesswoman, what she represents to me, and why I draw inspiration from her vivacity

6. Michael Johnson—beautiful singer, terrific guitar player, severely underappreciated

Happy 2009 to everyone!