Monday, March 23, 2009

She's Got Rhythm

Erin McKeown is a spitfire. Born in Boston, the 31 year-old dimunitive singer does not wear the appellation "folksinger" comfortably because, in reality, like many of my favorite singers, she hops around different genres. Whether she's rocking or swinging, her singing remains the same—bright and clear, and immediately appealing your ear.

2006's Sing You Sinners is a terrific place to start, especially if you're a jazz enthusiast approaching her. This collection of standards is unconventional in terms of choice of material. At first it begins predictably with "Get Happy" followed swiftly with a tom-tom beating version of "Paper Moon". Fresh arrangements that get the project off to a blazing start. But then, an odd choice: Django Reinhardt's "Cou Cou"--again, light and lilting, but firmly establishing the singer's signature idiosyncrasy. Other songs in this vein that reveal this graduate of Brown University has a dynamite music collection--there's Nat King Cole's "I Was a Little Too Lonely (You Were a Little Too Late)"—don't feel dumb if you don't know it, I had to look it up and learned that the sheet music for it is out-of-print—and Anita O'Day's "Thanks for the Boogie Ride." I was especially pleased to find a novelty number whose wordplay has always delighted me, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's "Rhode Island Is Famous for You."

McKeown's voice is especially engaging on the two sad and wistful numbers in the set—"They Say It's Spring" and "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" (a lovely number I know by Sinatra. Superb choice!). They're a welcome relief from her aggressive vocal attack on most of the album.

She takes a chance by laying a mysterious and haunted interpretation Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things". It is successful in terms of being true to the spirit of the lyric but, after hearing it performed brightly for so long, I can't say I'm giving up the author's trademark insouciance. Her one clear misstep is Fats Waller's "If You a Viper"—sorry, Erin, but that brand of hip-slapping jazz wasn't designed for such a cheerful songstress as you.

Originally Erin McKeown went to Brown to be a biologist. She started playing the guitar in college and got lost in music. She already has four studio albums under her belt. I've seen her in concert, and she's electrifying. Long may she run!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pass It On

Pete Seeger was carrying on his father Charles' work as a musicologist when he released in the late 1950s a series of Folkways recordings that introduced the "tradition" to listeners enraptured by the "Folk Revival".

Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary—undoubtedly one of those listeners—takes the baton and, with his daughter Bethany, introduces these traditional songs once again to a new generation in a series of lovely children's books with enclosed CDs.

Peter, Paul and Mary have always been impressive—both collectively and individually. I have been a devoted fan since my junior high days. I pined for the day that I could grow a Van Dyke like Peter and Paul. I longed to sing songs that MATTER. I trusted their judgement in whatever they chose to sing, and I was never disappointed.

For much of their early work in the 1960s, they drew from the folk music canon. I know these songs by heart but, as the decades have passed, I would wonder about the canon's future. Sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s the definition of what it meant to be a folksinger shifted. You no longer had to pay homage to the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. The political instead became the personal as singers like Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter and countless others gained popularity. An alarming development I suppose, but in those apolitical times the fact that anyone who was simply strapping on an acoustic guitar to entertain people could make money at it was heartening.

I was pleasantly surprised to run across The Peter Yarrow Songbooks pictured above (copyright 2008) in my local library. It took me immediately back to Pete Seeger's America's Favorite Ballads albums that I own. My, how I loved to listen and read those liner notes and imagine what Greenwich Village must have been like in the '60s. And now, just as I started believing that the fire had died, here comes 70-year-old Peter Yarrow singing timeless classics like "The Erie Canal", "Beautiful City", "All the Pretty Horses", and "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot.".

What lovely books they are! Packaged like 78 lps from a bygone era, these books feature gorgeous illustrations by Terry Widener and both the songs--presented first as readaloud poetry, and secondly as music, complete with chord changes and music shown. All this for a mere $16.95 in the U.S. A steal, I say!

Peter—if I could speak to you I would give you a big hug and say "thanks" for all the listening pleasure you've provided me and for keeping the tradition alive. It's heroic, and a beautiful circle!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Making a Name for Herself

She's hip, let's face it--and doggone it, she delivers on the goods! Love the Elvis Jailhouse Rock look!

2007's release was poetic. A quiet acoustic effort that yielded center stage to the lyrics. I love the opening cut "Moonglow, Lamp Low". Not sure why, but Johnny Mercer comes to mind as I listen.

Moonglow, lamp low
All I need is a rainbow
And true love just like sugar in my coffee

Many cuts from this CD are viewable on Youtube. There's "Girls" , a lyrical template that Eleni mines regularly (thematic concept: I'm just one of many. You like me, but I can't hold your attention for long.) Also "My Twin", a fascinating song in which Eleni connects with a victim of a train derailment.

Eleni Mandell rocks on her newest, most accessible album of all. It stands out in striking contrast to the two earlier releases that I own. Gripping and muscular melodies are on full display, and seductive guitar riffs abound.

Last week I saw Eleni Mandell in concert at a tiny club in Cambridge. She was there promoting her dynamic new release, Artificial Fire. My wife Lisa and I had gone primed on this CD as well as a previous release, Afternoon (2004).

What must Mandell have been thinking as she took the stage at 10:15 on a Sunday night to entertain maybe 50 people? I know that I was thinking about how tough the music business is today. I mean, she'd travelled all the way from her home in Los Angeles with her three bandmates to perform. She had worked hard to promote Artificial Fire: she'd been interviewed on NPR's "Morning Edition" and featured on its daily "Song of the Day", which is transmitted via email. I'd also heard her on "Studio 360", a music/cultural program. I noticed that Paste Magazine had given her new CD a full page smash review.

If you're hitting NPR you're taking care of the aging straining-to-remain hipster like me. Get plaudits in Paste Magazine and the true musical cognescenti are covered. Did I see them in attendance? Well, standing behind me (no seats in this club!) was a gray-haired ponytailed guy in a flannel shirt who I'd noticed at other concerts I've attended. So that makes two! A foot in front of the slightly upraised stage was another bespectacled guy who never left that location the entire show. Beer in hand, he swayed ever so slightly to the pulsing rhythms washing over him. "What is it with all these guys?" Lisa asked. (Take a look at Eleni. She's attractive. Now listen to her lyrics. She's brainy. Consider us gone.) Also a foot in front of Eleni was a woman who, in contrast to the guys, gyrated wildly and whooped the entire show. (Eleni gazed over her head the entire show.) The audience was rounded out by collegiates and postgraduates.

Eleni announced that she'd be playing most of Artificial Fire, and she launched into the title track early in the set. If your ears are as trained as mine are from years of listening, you start making associations to other artists immediately upon reception. "Kinda like Chrissy Hynde," I thought, "and the energy created here reminds me of early Elvis Costello." When later Eleni thank Rhode Island's Erin McKeown for lending her an amplifier I thought, "Oh goodness. Those two sound strikingly alike. It's no wonder!"

Lisa and I enjoyed the show immensely thanks to doing our homework. Eleni had a pleasing stage presence. She referred to her disastrous last appearance in Cambridge on a night where apparently the Red Sox had clinched a pennant. (She performed in front of the window of the Middle East, a restaurant around the corner. I can imagine the disruptions!) Although I could see that she was slightly unsettled by the modest turnout, she was genuinely warm, telling the crowd that she was enjoying herself and feeling their love. Eleni had a commanding and confident air that greatly enhanced her performance.

After the show I asked the couple who came with us—a musician friend and his girlfriend—what they thought of Eleni and he shrugged. "Yeah, it was OK," he said, "Lots of Surfer Rock guitar with some folkie-flavored stuff mixed in. Her guitar players seemed to like to play loud for the sake of playing loud." (I agreed with the former point but, since I don't play, didn't really appreciate the latter.) "And what was it with that encore?" he asked. (Eleni had ended with an acoustic number called "Salt Truck" from Miracle of Five. Being a devoted folkie and lyrical afficiando, I had no problem with it.)

I asked them to indulge me as I awaited my turn to get Eleni's autograph. "Sure," my friend said, "do your thing." Yes, my fan thing. My "Oh my gawd you're wonderful Eleni thing." I composed my remark before asking Eleni for the autograph. "If I could have made two requests," I told her, "I would have asked for two songs: 'God Is Love' (from Artificial Fire--she was pleased) and 'Afternoon' (from her 2004 release, which prompted her to say, "Yeah, you write so many songs that you start forgetting some of them.") I backed away—it is decidedly uncool to fawn—and we made our way back to our cars.

I hope you'll support Eleni Mandell. Get seduced by Artifical Fire. Ask your local rock club to book her. I hope that word-of-mouth builds for her and that she'll be at a larger venue the next time that she's in Boston.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Songwriting Back in the Day

Once upon a time there was what was called a "stable" of professional songwriters. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was known as Tin Pan Alley. On West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in New York, writers cranked out what is known today as the Great American Songbook. Of more recent vintage are the professional songwriters who worked at the Brill Building (1619 Broadway, just north of Times Square) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I speak of talents like Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and—as related in a terrific radio diary from NPR—the great Rose Marie McCoy.

This interview is priceless for many reasons. Rose Marie is 86 years old now, living in the same house in Teaneck, New Jersey where she commuted to go to the Brill Building over 50 years ago. Her home is overflowing with demos and tapes, and she shares her treasure trouve with the interviewer. "Here's one called 'I'll Wait 'Till Love Comes Back in Style'," she says. "I like that title." So do I.

During the 1950s, Rose Marie would meet fellow writer Charlie Singleton in a booth at a place called Beefsteak Charlie's. "We'd meet there every morning, 6 o'clock, and buy a little glass of wine for 30 cents, and we'd sip on that," she says. Now that's what I call conjuring up ol'Herpsichore!

She and Charlie wrote songs that were recorded by Elvis Presley ("Trying to Get to You") and Ike and Tina Turner ("I Think It's Gonna Work Out Fine"). I confess that I didn't know either track, but it was fun listening and comparing their version to originals by black artists.

With the Beatles's arrival in 1963, the sands shifted. No—I guess it should rightfully be called a tsunami. They owned five of the ten best-selling singles on the charts that year, and they only "covered" one of them. ("Twist and Shout") The rest were all by Lennon-McCartney.

Aforementioned singers like Neil Diamond, Carole King, and Neil Sedaka shifted to recording their own songs then, and went on to build stellar solo careers. Rose, who began as a professional singer, chose to remain a songwriter, and she fell into obscurity. The radio diary plays some work she did for Pepsi in the 1970s that stirred a memory in my subconscious, and I'm very eager to locate the album she wrote for Sarah Vaughan.

Rose explains to the interviewer that she doesn't see the distinction between rock and roll and the blues to this day. It takes a musician to appreciate that, but all do.

One wonders, though, if the professional songwriter is truly extinct. In the 1960s you had the incomparable Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Since the 1970s, singer/songwriters like Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb have built enviable track records having other people record their material. (They undoubtedly wish that THEY had been the popularizer, but at some point a songwriter comes to peace with the fact that their sound isn't commercial.) Check out the archives of Performing Songwriter for more professionals.

So, I don't know if this radio diary's thesis is completely solid, but I appreciated hearing Rose Marie's voice, and recalling a more simpler time. Carve out an additional twelve minutes right now to give it a listen. You won't be sorry.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Erelli Passim Review

Mark Erelli is all that he's cracked up to be. Supremely confident on stage, and possessed of an infectious sense of humor, he took control immediately and set out his rich tapestry of song at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA last night.

Listening enroute to the concert, Lisa said that he reminded her of Nick Lowe. Listening to the tenor and tone of his voice—what came through most saliently for more in my sleep-deprived state—I declared after the show that he reminded me of Paul Simon. But in a more folks-rootsy kinda way.

Either way, those are some major compliments! We both agreed that he must be heavily influenced by Jimmie Rodgers. It's good to see that Woody Guthrie's shadow is still extending into Erelli's generation too.

Erelli played liberally from his six-CD catalog. He was accompanied by his producer on Delivered, Zach Hickman. Thin as a reed alongside his bass, this Dali-moustachioed accompanist added much flavoring to the songs, and prevented the show from being that animal that my wife cringes at: an acoustic-only affair.

Erelli could have held all of our attention alone, though. As I said, he writes music in a variety of modes--sometimes the numbers recall Western swing, at other times a bluesy, train-song vibe, and, yes, some straightforward singer/songwriter confessional material. (His opener about having the blues in Columbus, OH was especially memorable in this vein.)

I'm blessed to have Erelli living in the Boston area, so opportunities abound to relive the experience. He does tour extensively, though. Head to his website and mark your calendars!