Saturday, February 28, 2009

Confronting Mark Erelli

When I attend a concert, I like to be prepared. Often it's not necessary: I'm attending because I'm already a fan. If the singer has a new CD he or she's touring to promote, I try hard to acquire it in advance and familiarize myself with what will be sung. That makes the experience much more enjoyable for me.

Tonight, however, I'm attending a concert blind—and it's to hear a singer who has FOUR CDs in my collection. How does this happen?

First of all, the singer is Mark Erelli. He records for a Massachusetts-based label (Signature Sounds) and, since I read reviews pretty religiously, I've known his name for awhile. He's a folk singer whose most notable achievements up till now it seems are: 1) over the course of the past eight years this songwriter in his early 30s has released six albums' worth of work and 2) he toured with Lori McKenna who opened for Faith Hill (since the latter had recorded many of the former's songs on her last work.)

Erelli obviously has the folksinging chops, so he was on my radar as I cruised my used music stores and, as luck would have it, his CDs were priced just right enough for me to take the chance. But I didn't listen to them after taking them home. This happens occasionally with me—thankfully, it's not a chronic problem, but some CDs wind up like those stacks of books you might have at your bedside.

But then opportunity knocked—my wife and I have been trying to establish a concert date with a friend and I floated Erelli's appearance before this person and got a "yes." So it's off to the historic folk club Passim I go this eve.

I think I'll be nerdy and bring my CDs along. As Erelli plays a song that makes an impression, I'll look to see if I own it. Odds are that I will although—doggone it—I don't have his latest from which he'll probably glean much of his material.

Anyway, I'm excited to be going out to one of my favorite clubs in Boston. Stay tuned for full report.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Crowell and the Male Confessional

What distinction is there anymore in being termed a "singer/songwriter"? It had cache in the 1970s, but its meaning then was pretty specific—if you earned the moniker it meant you played an acoustic instrument and wrote songs about your feelings. This definition separated the James Taylors and Carole Kings from rock and roll writer/performers like Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

It was very profitable to be a singer-songwriter in the pre-disco days, as I've heard Don McLean mention to a British interviewer. But it was a flash in time, and now there are so many singer/songwriters that the term no longer seems useful. A performer stands out more if he or she doesn't write, and instead interprets.

Writing your own songs still puts you in a box, though, and it reminds me of the traditional song-plugger's fate: you write, and then hope that someone will record one of your songs because then you can continue doing what you love. Continue writing, that is—and, unlike the songwriters of yore, performing.

This brings me to today's subject, Rodney Crowell. As I conducted research on him, I learned on his website of all his "chart-toppers" and I'm glad for his success but—and I have no way of measuring this suspicion—I'm guessing that many people still don't know about him. Like many songwriters, he's under the radar and greatly underappreciated.

Crowell may never have achieved true notoriety because he can't be pigeonholed. Like many songwriters I love, the closest category he brushes against is country. Maybe when he had his chance he declined donning a Stetson and becoming a personality.

I sense his style was Americana years before that label had been invented. Crowell had his apprenticeship in Emmylou Harris's band (another musician who resides on the categorical borders!) and then broke out in the early 1980s. His style was brash and rocking and overtly commercial. No denying that the man knew how to put a song together, and to write some very seductive hooks.

I first came to listen to him in the early 1990s with Life Is Messy, a work he released shortly after his divorce from Roseanne Cash. I immediately loved his voice and songwriting, and continued to follow his work for the remainder of the decade although it seemed to me that his creativity was declining.

Then the twenty-first century dawned, and Rodney Crowell kicked off a series of releases that contain songs that are part memoir, part political rant, and part what I can only call "men's confessional" writing. I was captivated anew. Here was Crowell continuing with his refined and polished songcraft, but telling stories in a vein that was part Phil Ochs, and part Randy Newman/Loudon Wainwright III. Oh, all my musical buttons were being pushed!

2001's The Houston Kid marked the beginning of the cycle. Crowell shares painful memories of his childhood here. Growing up in Texas, his father was a man of low degree who beat his wife as Crowell describes in "The Rock of My Soul".

The rock of my soul didn't have much charm
With the lack of education on a red dirt farm
He was fond of disappearing on an eight day drunk
Coming home smelling like a lowdown skunk
And he said...Do like I say, not like I do and you might make me proud

Another Houston kid on a downhill skid for crying out loud
I'm a first hand witness to an age-old crime
A man who hits a woman isn't worth a dime

Our Houston Kid had a tumultuous youth. Just reading the lyrics as I'm doing, a listener learns that the protagonist leaves Texas and goes out to California and "turns tricks on Sunset/twenty bucks a pop." He inherits his father's anger, as revealed in "Wandering Boy":

I used to cast my judgments like a net
All those California gay boys deserve just what they get
Little did I know there would come a day
When my words would come back screaming like a debt I have to pay
Lean on me I'll be strong
you're almost free it won't be long
wandering boy

The CD also features Crowell's tender reminiscence of hearing Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" while sitting on his father's lap as daddy drove (hey, it was 1956!).

I'm back on board that '49 Ford in 1956
Long before the sun came up way out in the sticks
The headlights showed a two-rut road way back up in the pines
First time I heard Johnny Cash sing, I Walk the Line
I got my thrill behind the wheel upon my daddy's lap
Grandpa rode co-pilot with a flashlight and a map...

I've seen the Mona Lisa I've heard Shakespeare read real fine
It's just like hearing Johnny Cash sing, I Walk the Line

Crowell's specificity gives his words power. I am, of course, delighted at the concept too of writing a song about a song. Yes, all these years later, that moment of inspiration is still crystal clear in your memory!

After The Houston Kid came 2003's Fate's Right Hand. On this release, Crowell continues to display his musical and lyrical virtuosity. His rockers seize your pulse, and your slapping your hand and tapping away while catching snatches of his always clever lyrics. On the title track he sings:

Cool as a rule you don't learn in no school
You don't brown nose the teacher from a dunce hate stool
It's the turn and the rhythm of the birds and the bees
The mommas and the poppas and the monkeys in the trees
It's the brothers and the sisters living life on the street
Play a hunch pull the punch and you'll likely get beat
By the junk food tattooed white dude true blued
Honky with an attitude coming unglued

Fate's right hand...I don't understand at all

In another great rocker on the CD ("Preachin' To The Choir") Crowell pokes fun at his need to write songs in the first place.

My self importance is a god forsaken bore
I aim for heaven but I wake up on the floor...

Baytown, Texas there's a fisherman I knew
He read the Bible and he spit tobacco too
He said that crap about the rod you spare to spoil the child
Is only propaganda meant to keep you in denial
Go and follow your desire but he was preachin' to the choir...

When I'm standing at the St. Peter's gate trying to slip on in
I might as well plead guilty fo the worst of who I've been
I used to like to think I had a special way with words
But right now I'm convinced I've more in common with the birds
I'm not ready to retire I'll keep on preachin' to the choir

So when the situation's dire I keep on preachin' to the choir

In other cuts he unpacks his inner anger in "The Man in Me" and his fear of mortality in the gently acoustic "Time to Go Inward." Also pure sexual desire/lust is laced throughout his music—Rodney is going to tell you the WHOLE story!

The Outsider, his 2005 release, is notable for its political songs. "Don't Get Me Started" pops immediately to mind.

Who shoulders the blows it comes and it goes
It's a six-trillion dollar debt you pay through the nose
I said don't get me started I'm a drag when I've had a few drinks
And don't get me started I don't care what anyone thinks

Additionally there's his signature compelling and fun opening track ("Say You Love Me") and a sweet duet with Emmylou Harris on Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm".

I had the pleasure of hearing Rodney Crowell live promoting The Outsider. It was at Johnny D's, an intimate supper club where my wife and I have attended many a memorable show. Crowell's performance was certainly one of them. He is such a wonderful singer, and his music has such power, not only because of the words, but because he can rock in some numbers, go acoustic/gentle in others, or slide into a country if that's the feeling.

Last year Rodney Crowell released Sex & Gasoline. This album was produced by Joe Henry—a stellar songwriter in his own right who has also worked with Loudon Wainwright III. Here's what some critics said.

Crowell continues to hit the right notes and nerves on tunes with earthy roots charms bubbling over with smartly phrased discontent.

"...Crowell's natural Texas twang propels his lacerating insights, making barbed deliveries of a brew of politics and passion on "The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design." His language is plain-spoken but evocative, detailing beauty in delicate fashion as he marries it to a supple acoustic pulse on "Forty Winters," and allowing desire and heartsickness to coalesce into a wistful reminiscence on "Moving Work of Art"...

The sarcasm that drips from the rumbling title track bites without becoming overbearing, anchored just as firmly by its perceptiveness as the subtle, starkly attractive recollection "I've Done Everything I Can." Even when he conjures up primal desire in jagged fashion on the rattling "I Want You #35," Crowell forges a lucid treat, and capitalizes on the lessons of experience even as he maintains a youthful vitality."

Thomas Kintner—The Hartford Courant

"Ever since 2001's The Houston Kid, country singer Rodney Crowell has been coming to terms with his private life in his music. The largely acoustic Sex & Gasoline is his meditation on femininity — not just a celebration of women, but a real attempt at empathy...

...producer Joe Henry extracts most of the "country" from these songs, revealing Crowell to be simply a master songwriter, no matter what the genre."

Mark Kemp—Rolling Stone

"Sex & Gasoline is a really a continuation of what Rodney Crowell has been doing since his return to recording in 2001 with the brilliant, semi-autobiography of The Houston Kid: trying to make sense of who he is and what he's become, of his world and the world around him. When he does so via sketches where the particulars imply some universal, such as the father-daugher rumination "I've Done Everything I Can" and the retrospective "The Night's Just Right," he's at his best."

Stuart Munro—The Boston Globe

If I have managed to capture your interest, I also recommend that you check out Maryanne Vollers's biography of Crowell on his website in which she describes his present move to Montana. The man inspires good writing!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Wanted to Flea the Market

There I was on Friday, my spirits soaring because Winter Break for we schoolteachers had begun. After dropping off at the MIT Museum the sterling entries that my students had done for an art/essay contest, I noted with glee that I had a free hour before I needed to leave Cambridge. So I rode down Massachusetts Avenue for a spell and came upon a record store that is an institution in the area. It had moved from its decades-long location but--and this can only be termed miraculous nowadays—instead of closing it had relocated down the street. Not having visited the store for a long time, and with a free parking space right in front, I decided to stop in.

First of all, I knew the store didn't have a pricing structure I liked. It completely lacks variety. The standard price for a used CD ($7.99) makes no concessions to age or popularity. So it's not the cheapest establishment in Boston.

Still, I thought that I might bump into something magical. I went straight for their jazz vocals and discovered an early 1970s release by Jackie & Roy, a husband/wife team whom I love. Plus it was priced at $3.99! (Oh, there were suspicious scratches on it, but it was a contender—I WAS walking around the store with it along with another Jackie & Roy release in mint condition for their standard price.)

My shopping experience went south, though, when I overheard the proprietor of this establishment emerge from some storage area in the back of the store. I didn't look at the guy, but I heard him—he belched his way repeatedly straight to the register. He then engaged in idle conversation with a customer that made me regret all the time I used to find such chatter amusing in my youth. ("Oh, well," I thought, "that is one benefit of working in a place where the pay is so low and the customers few.")

Still not checking him out, I heard a young European woman come into the store looking for something by Jackson Browne. My proprietor, enchanted by her seemingly, led the lass to something that she wanted. As she checked out, he treated her to some of his opinions about the dismal state of the English language these days. (I believe he said that nowadays everything can be reduced to "Ah, hell" or something like that.)

Continue with his belching after she'd gone, I decided to check him out. Flannel shirt, long gray hair and an unkempt beard with thick glasses, Mr. Burp didn't appear to be independently wealthy, which is what one has to figure you are if you can keep an enterprise like a used music store going these days. I had overheard him talking about a property that he had in another state in addition to where he lived locally, so I thought he was doing all right. So avoiding the hairdresser was apparently his choice.

Anyway, this guy sapped my spirits. As I flipped through the vinyl and CDs, I was overwhelmed by the shabbiness of my environment. "This place is so sad," I thought, "Look at all these records that no one cares about. They'll never move out of here given the way they've been priced. And to think that once, decades ago, these releases were an exciting, shining moment for these performers. And now—geez, how many of them are still alive?"

It didn't help that the aisles in the store were narrow and the place was a tad dirty. I turned my attention to the records in my hand. I decided to put them back, even though not buying them would secretly depress the guys working in the store who'd undoubtedly noted that I'd been poking around for 45 minutes. I mean, really--just down the street I knew was another used music store whose inventory was 50% off in February. I didn't want to run into my Jackie & Roy releases there and kick myself for buying something for the wrong reason.

This morning as I lounged on the main floor of our house, I observed all the vinyl I had around me. I'm glad to report that none of the feelings I had in Cheapo returned. It made me think that used music stores might benefit by having far less merchandise, and instead tastefully display what they deem of value. Have the salespeople bubbling with enthusiasm over music that they love--I mean, really sell it, as I try to do on this blog.

And yes, I would have a dress code, and if you belched (repeatedly) I'd consign you to the storage area!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Letting Serendipity Rule

How wonderful to see Rounder Records emerge triumphant on Grammy night with the multiple awards conferred on Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

It's a wonderful collection of songs. Appeals to the demographic who still buys CDs and reads newspapers that stain your fingers. Yeah, that's me.

This comes on the heels of the announcement that Borders is dramatically cutting back the presence of music in their stores. These days you can't find a chain of "music stores" anymore. The rug is slipping out from under me more swiftly now.

How much longer will I have the pleasure of letting serendipity determine what music I might purchase on a given day? I go to used record stores with my "wish list," but inevitably I bump into "finds" as I browse through the CDs and vinyl. If the price is low or right enough, I'm willing to move outside my comfort zone musically. Or perhaps dive deeper into a given interest.

I like going to the "box store." Invigorating myself with a coffee and the alternative newspaper afterwards. I am going to miss these days once all the trolling I do will be from my computer.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Remembering Blossom Dearie

Many Ben Bagley album covers feature images of chorus girls or women bound or unbound.

Blossom Dearie--1956

I'm sure that you love musicians who for others are an "acquired taste." Blossom Dearie, a singer who died last Saturday at 82, was one of mine.

Perusing her obituaries on-line, I saw her referred to as "one of the last remaining supper-club performers." That's an apt description, as well as "sophisticated" in reference to her catalog. Blossom Dearie was a tremendous singer and songwriter whose material ranges from the light and winsome to the sweetly sad and melancholy.

Among the cabaret cognoscenti, she was a towering figure. Her work did not sell well, and it was hard to find. One site mentioned that, in 2005 when Dearie permitted the releases on her Daffodil Records to be put on CD, the vinyl versions of these works were going for around $250 in used record stores.

Baby boomers may be unaware that they know her voice from her work on Schoolhouse Rock! with Bob Dorough. Blossom sang "Mother Necessity," "Figure Eight," and "Unpack Your Adjectives."

Her voice was an utterly unique instrument: extremely high-pitched, Blossom sounded like a coquette in her twenties throughout her career. Her name too connoted something strange and trippy to those who didn't like her, I suppose. (She got it from a neighbor who delivered peach blossoms to her house the day she was born.)

I always enjoyed Blossom's playfulness. I first heard her on May I Come In?, a Capitol Release from the 1960s She swung extremely well in her vocals, and I liked her material, but she didn't seize my attention until I caught her on some of Ben Bagley's Revisited albums.

These albums salute the lesser-known works by legendary songwriters and feature a cavalcade of off-Broadway stars and nightclub artists from the 1960s (Dorothy Loudon and Arthur Siegel being my favorites here)—plus prominent jazz figures like Cab Calloway and Margaret Whiting and TV and movie celebrities like Gloria Swanson and Richard Chamberlain. The enterprise is presided over by Ben Bagley, who writes the most hilarious liner notes. Here's what he wrote about Blossom.

Flayed alive 'neath her pearly mask, Blossom murmurs her songs through unmoving lips, as if trying to contact someone who is in another world...someone probably encased in a satiny grave. She has visited hell in her many attempts to communicate with us. Beneath the scarred tissue, her face is the most beautiful face in the world. She has killed, but in innocence. She has sacrificed her physical face. She frees the cats and birds, she is the Goddess of Mercy. She is mad, but her madness has the serenity of Cordelia's dying.

OK, so I'm not sure exactly what he's talking about, but I'm glad to have the record and be able to read these words and imagine these two people traipsing around Greenwich Village in the grooviest decade of the twentieth century.

After confessing to a lesbian colleague at work that I'd purchased a slew of Ben Bagley records from Tower Records before it closed, she lent me all of her Blossom Dearie records on Daffodil Records. What a treasure trouve! It was here that I cemented my deep respect for her songwriting skill.

She'd usually collaborate with someone—most famously Johnny Mercer on "My New Celebrity Is You" and "I'm Shadowing You." She wrote the memorable "Hey John" about John Lennon. Carmen McRae delivers an unforgettable interpretation of Dearie's "Inside a Silent Tear" on It Takes a Whole Lot of Human Feeling, and Susannah McCorkle sings a heart-rending version of "Bye Bye Country Boy" on the fabulous album The People That You Never Get to Love. Signature work from a great artist!

My favorite albums are Blossom Dearie from 1956 (featuring a swinging, infectious version of "'Deed I Do") and Blossoms on Broadway. I don't own much of her work, but I am enticed, especially by the bossa nova albums she released late in her life. Let's hope I can find a reasonable price for these releases!

I never got to hear Blossom live. In the last decade when my wife and I visited New York I would threaten her with a visit to hear Dearie at a local club, but I never followed through because I'm ultimately compassionate. (Blossom is a taste that, to put it lightly, Lisa is yet to acquire!)

I have her tapes out now, and I'm revisiting why I love her. Another jazz great has departed, and we marvel at her achievements. Let's end by visiting a lovely performance by her of "Don't Wait Too Long" in a tribute on YouTube.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Holly Cole's Got Soul

I have an odd way of discovering music. I don't listen to music on the radio, and I can't afford to hang at my computer long enough to taste the offerings that NPR sends me. (I'm lucky if I can dip into my Paste magazine monthly CD these days.) I read reviews in magazines and newspapers, try to keep an up-to-date wish list when I hit the used music stores, and subscribe to the BMG Music Service (ah, a RECORD CLUB--how retro!), but sometimes I really bump into something through blind luck.

Take Holly Cole. She's a young singer who has been releasing jazz CDs for years. I've been intrigued by her material because in addition to the standards, she attempts to interpret modern works by "contemporary" songwriters like Tom Waits.

I bought Holly Cole CDs because, quite frankly, the price was right at my used music stores. It seemed like I never paid over six bucks, and I was always glad I didn't because as much as I liked the idea of an attractive woman tackling the catalog, she always bored me. Too "let's slow down the rhythm, in fact, let's lack rhythm and then we'll be hip" for me. Her voice lacked character to my ear--way too much bluesy-floosy with no variation.

I must have four CDs by Holly Cole. I only pulled the trigger on her latest release because it was one of those "Buy 2 and get 6 free" deals that BMG trumpets occasionally. Man, am I glad I followed that impulse!

2007's eponymous Holly Cole is a stunner. This Canadian chanteuse bites into the standards with a growl here, a long vocal line there, a pulsing throb as an accent--this gal can sing! Her song selection is impeccable--Jobin's "Waters of March"; Mercer and Mancini's "Charade"; Berlin's "Be Careful, It's My Heart" and "Reaching for the Moon"; and, as lagniappe, "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" and "Alley Cat Song." (The latter of which an instrumental version was an indelible childhood memory for me.)

Oh, I've done the hard work for you. Proceed directly to this gem. Dip into my links, and then reward Holly. Ask a local promoter to get her to appear in your town. She's exciting, and deserves your support!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Great Music Magazines

Have you checked out Rolling Stone magazine's new trim size yet? It's a glossy now, and I must admit that I like it much better. The writing remains solid. I just love their political coverage. I'm not as enamored with their celebrity features or their music reviews.

Still, it gets me starting thinking about how to expand what I'm listening to. Another weekly source for me is Entertainment Weekly. I'm often surprised by how diverse their reviews are. In terms of age, especially. (Old-timers like me do appreciate that they still recognize releases from those popular in the long ago.)

But the best resource for staying musically hip is Paste magazine. With every issue you receive a CD with around 16 new tracks that their editors have vetted. They have interesting taste. Great writing here, and more expansive than Rolling Stone. Always a monthly highlight when this mag drops in my mailbox.

I love when I have time to browse the magazines at the bookstore. There are some great mags that I haven't mentioned. But I'd like to end with a plug for an annual music issue put out by a literary magazine, The Oxford American. Every year they showcase Southern music. I bought this music issue once and it was memorable. I am grateful that they exposed me to Todd Snider, and I anticipate some new "finds" in this year's issue.

Check out the interview with the editor. Hope that it gives you exposure to some great new artists!