Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Wisdom and Wit of Cheryl Wheeler

If you have musical talent and fortune draws you to the life of a folksinger, you are destined to live quietly. Outside of the early 1960s when Greenwich Village spawned the "folk boom", this style of music has never sold well. The general listener finds it too mellow and uninspiring, and the need to focus on the lyric too burdensome.

I have always loved folk music. Long ago I identified with Woody Guthrie: the image of someone riding the rails and traveling the country with a guitar slung across his back was so romantic to me. Add to that the social consciousness of a Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs, and this nephew of mill-working uncles is totally in.

Folk is played in coffeehouses and churches. Its practitioners are schooled in stagecraft because of the demands of this intimacy. Many folk singers are warm and funny. They're good storytellers. Which leads me to this entry's subject: Cheryl Wheeler.

Cheryl Wheeler has achieved success in the hermetic world of folk music, yet few people know of her. Its partly due to the fact that her music is better known in recordings by luminaries like Garth Brooks, Bette Midler, Kathy Mattea, and Peter, Paul and Mary. It's also due to her undoubtedly meticulous standard of songwriting and the attendant long gap between releases: like Paul Simon or Randy Newman in their heyday, Cheryl Wheeler seems to be on a four-year cycle between albums.

Some of her music demands careful listening but, once you're engaged, you are awestruck at both her poetry and creative musical design. Cheryl Wheeler writes songs that bring succor when you're down. If you're inclined to be morally outraged, she'll produce a politically charged number that will appeal to you. If you just want to laugh, you'll have ample opportunity.

Wheeler's sheer talent makes her stand out from the crowd and her latest release, Pointing at the Sun, provides a glittering example of it.

It begins with the quiet, contemplative "Holding On". Over a rhythmic bass line whose regularity reminds you of a clock or a heartbeat, Cheryl asks her listener to keep the faith.

I won't let you fall. Hear me loud and clear.
I will not let go. I will be right here, holding on.

Later she weaves in some nature imagery.

And when some lonesome wind has hemmed you in
Don't you believe that sound
You will surely rise above these tides
To higher ground

It's a hypnotic number. Her voice is warm and embracing.

Wheeler then switches gears and delivers an orchestrated update of "Summer Fly", a song she first recorded in 1987. Looking back at that record, I noticed that her musical collaborator throughout her career has been keyboardist Kenny White. I also became aware that Jonathan Edwards (remember the song "Sunshine"?) gave Wheeler her start in the music business. On her first album he offered these words about her. Speaking of having her on his tour Edwards said:

..(it) was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding coast-to-coast tours I've ever done featuring, yes, Cheryl playing the bass and singing those high, rich, clear vocals....then came (her) songs. Songs of the here and now: intense, precise, skillfully drawn pictures of the life we all know but rarely appreciate until an artist like Cheryl wakes us up. A fascinating blend of melody and chords and rhythms and phrasing that actually compel the listener to get inside and become part of the stories and vignettes she sings about. Honest, sincere songs written from the heart and sung straight from the soul.

High praise, and richly deserved. My attention to liner notes have also yielded this additional fact: from the start, Cheryl has been hooked into Mary Chapin Carpenter and her players, namely John Jennings and Duke Levine. I love everything they do too!

Anyway, to return to 2009's Pointing at the Sun: this CD doesn't feature any overtly political songs (such as 1993's "Don't Forget the Guns" or 1999's "If It Were Up to Me") and its humor is not in the same vein as her immortal ode to a spud "Potato". Instead, Cheryl ends the CD with a suite of songs dedicated to a passionate interest of hers; the cat.

These songs really end the CD on a high note. It begins with a Calypso-flavored number called "White Cat". Shortly after the start of this piece, Cheryl drops into a rap. Here's a taste of it.

I was in the garden, taking the sun
Checking out the bugs, musta rolled on one
So I got this slug bug stuck to my fur real good
But I didn't really mind, just a little bit o'slime
I'll find it later, you know, scratching my back
Be glad I saved it, make a nice little snack

I simply adore Billy Novick's clarinet playing on this one, as well as Sonny Barbato's accordion.

Next follows a number with a Django Reinhardt flavor to it, "Cat Accountant" and finally we conga out to "My Cat's Birthday". What fun! Here's to Cheryl Wheeler, and to top-quality songwriters everywhere!

Click here for Cheryl's TV appearance with fiddler Mark O'Connor and fellow songwriter Michael Johnson:

"Is It Peace or Is It Prozac" provides an example of Cheryl's wit, stage presence, and rapid wordplay.

"Estate Sale" from 1990's Circles & Arrows (on Capitol Records!) is a favorite Wheeler tune of mine.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Nellie McKay: The Complete Musical Package

Nellie McKay (pronounced Ma-kye) has all the trapping of what's regularly called "a gay icon". She has a high-pitched voice that on certain notes is eerily reminiscent of Blossom Dearie and immediately puts you in mind of Betty Boop. Her appearance is often decidedly retro.

She writes eccentric lyrics, as in a song about answering the door when you're sloshed because your cat died ("Ding Dong") or the following about performing at a gay club.


Saturday night in the men's ensemble dressing room
Watchin' the fight in the men's ensemble lair
You may escape the cage
But then you have to share a stage, and tell 'em I'll be there
(It's Saturday night)

And now back to our new high school
And they got me wrong
Yeah, they got me wrong again

And although you're all talentless fools
Can't we get along
Can't we get along, my friends

I got to be free
I got to for me
And if you can't see, well, that's enough
That's all that I need to see you're all insecure, pedicured f**cks
(It's Saturday night)

(It's Saturday night)
And now's the time to vindicate
Tomorrow's just a matinee
And then we settle scores
(It's Saturday night)

She has dueted with Cyndi Lauper.

I suppose if you're cynical, you'd say that she's courted her demographic.

But there's another demographic she appeals to: anyone who loves jazz singing and smart lyrics. Witness a late night TV appearance on YouTube, and you instantly understand why fans of Dave Frishberg or Bob Dorough would take to her immediately.

NPR, on its "Project Song" series, explores the creative process for songwriters, and Nellie McKay's session with host Bob Boilen is a wonder to behold. Try carving out the time to enjoy it.

Anyway, it's clear that she is a phenomenon, like Melody Gardot. Blonde and lovely like her and a jazz singing/songwriting prodigy. Any song she writes is sure to include clever language play, often choosng just the write word for its meaning and musicality.


Just pour me a drink
Cuz I need a lie
I don't wanna think
I just wanna die

David don't you hear me at all
David don't you hear through the wall
Waitin' here not makin' a sound
David come around

Chaos pervades the world outside
Days offer spades of hurled outcries
Gone is the fair and five and dime
But he is there
He's so fine

Listen to her play
Has somethin' to say
Even has a rap
Clap clap clap
But click there goes the lid
Sorry 'bout the fib
I ain't got a grip on nothin'

Nellie McKay is a very funny person, but in her music she explores her darker moods. It ain't easy loving musical styles from yesteryear, wearing antique fashions, and playing multiple instruments (piano, ukuele, cello) at a young age. It's a recipe for an outsider.

"Real Life"

Cause if I had a real life
I could break the rules
And maybe feel life
Instead of foolish
As if I had a real life
Not a cruel and choking false reality

Nellie is a vegan and a political activist. This gal will not be pigeon-holed! Take this song about war.

"Toto Dies"

Yeah I'll have my coffee black
Hey look we're bombing Iraq
I guess that's the only way
Oh did I tell you we got Fifi spayed?
And when they get to work they hear drums
The boom fills all the empty space
They file papers lada-dee-dum
Trimming their shoebox with lace

Oh-ee-oh but there's somethin' a growin'
Oh-ee-oh through the bustle and hiss
Oh-ee-oh fuck the lawns that need mowin'
Oh-ee-oh there is somethin' amiss
Oh-ee-oh oh-ee-oh oh-ee-oh

Like most vegans, in addition to becoming one for environmental reasons, she chose to be one because she loves animals. Consider the following song.

"The Dog Song"

My life was tragic and sad
Yeah I was the archetypal loser
I was a pageant gone bad
Then there was you on time
And wagging your tail
In the cutest mime
And you was in jail
I said woof, be mine
And you gave a wail
And then I was no longer alone
And I was no more a boozer
We'll make the happiest home
And I said lord I'm happy
'cause I'm just a walkin' my dog
Singin' my song
Strollin' along
It's just me and my dog
Catchin' some sun
We can't go wrong
'cause I don't care 'bout your hatin' and your doubt
And I don't care what the politicians spout
If you need a companion
Well just go right to the pound
And find yourself a hound
And make that doggie proud
'cause that's what it's all about
That's what it's all about
That's what it's all abow-wow-wow-wout
That's what it's all about

Given this background, it's not surprising that Nellie's road led to Doris Day. Her latest release (Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day) is the reason that I've fallen in love with her music.

First of all, this CD does not dip into the familiar suspects for a Doris Day tribute. No "Que Sera Sera" or "It's Magic" here. Instead Nellie chooses Doris Day vocal renderings that speak to her and inspire her. So, once again, a listener is treated to the well-worn standards like "Sentimental Journey", "The Very Thought of You", and "Mean to Me". Her take on these songs is refreshing: sprinkling organ, synthesizer, and tympani certainly helps. Witness the use of her ukulele on Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Meditation".

What's terrific is that she broadens the tribute to take in great songs I've never heard before. There's Bacharach and David's "Send Me No Flowers"; Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Wonderful Guy"; Johnny Mercer's "Dig It"; and "Black Hills of Dakota" (hauntingly delivered with just a drums).

Then there's Nellie's take on some lesser-known Gershwin ("Do, Do, Do") and "Crazy Rhythm" (which sounds like Gershwin, but isn't). I've been playing this CD repeatedly in the car, and I can testify that my 7-year old has taken to these songs!

You really should buy this CD rather than download it. The booklet's design is such fun to look at. It harkens to the 1950s, and features Nellie in a variety of couture from the period. Get this gal a guest appearance on Mad Men! Also included are quotes from prominent writers and thinkers on animals and vegetarianism. Plus there's the most delightful dog.

You'll also be reaching for the booklet regularly to figure out what instruments you're hearing in a song. Her musical skill and creativity is truly breathtaking.

I hope you'll take the time to navigate my links and fall in love with Nellie--and with the great Doris Day.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kate & Anna: A Dynamic Duo

I check music out of the library a lot. Recently I had a chance to visit the best library in my system for music. I had no "wish list" (I have failed to maintain that indispensable guide in my wallet), so instead I just meandered in Hingham's incredible collection. It was like I was in a used record shop--except the consequences of picking up all those CDs wouldn't be expensive!

How thrilled I was to discover two old favorites of mine by Kate and Anna McGarrigle! I'd like to focus in this blog on Dancer with Bruised Knees, a 1977 release that I know by heart and love dearly.

Dancer was the duo's second album after their critically acclaimed debut. They were signed to Warner Brothers at the time. Linda Ronstadt had brought popular attention to them with her recording of Anna's "Heart Like a Wheel". This sophomore effort is lighter in spirit than their debut. I recommend it as an introduction to them.

The title track is a lovely harmonious ride with a distinctive chorus.

For years we had been one with the stars
A pas de deux of renown
I'd leap and he'd catch me on the fly
And gently he'd put me down

This song opens with a spoken passage, and ends with vocal "whoops". It's very catchy.

Kate McGarrigle was married to Loudon Wainwright--she is the mother of Rufus and Martha. I've always found it remarkable how similar her comic sensibility is to her ex-husband's. Take the ballad "Southern Boys".

Buttered grits is fare for breakfast
And if you like and your aim is good
Maybe a squirrel
Ten around nine we tap that moonshine
And it's on out to the porch for a moonlight swing
With me, your Northern girl

In this song the humor is tinged with melancholy (a hallmark of Loudon's writing). "I don't mind the hurt/cause the feeling's worth the fall" Kate later sings. Her contributions to this album are stunning. I love the gentle rocking pace of "Walking Song":

Wouldn't it be nice to walk together
Baring our souls while wearing out the leather
We could talk shop, harmonize a song
Wouldn't it be nice to walk along

As I type those lyrics I can feel the rhythm of Kate's piano playing. It goes on about all the subjects that Kate and her walking partner could discuss, and ends cleverly.

This song like this walk I find hard to end
Be my lover be my friend
In sneakers or boots or regulation shoes
Walking beside you
I'll never get the walking blues

Kate & Anna are Canadians, and their early years are satirized by Rufus and Martha on a You Tube birthday greeting. Setting is a strong presence throughout their music. Their sound is clear and clean, and their emotions baldly honest, as in Kate's song "Come a Long Way", the album's last track. It begins:

We've come a long way since we last shook hands
Still got a long way to go
Couldn't see the flowers when we last shook hands

At this point the listener might be thinking, "Oh, this is a relationship that's just starting out. Couldn't see the flowers? Well, that's because they're in the other hand and hidden behind the giver's back. Flower-giving. Another step on the road." But then the zinger quickly follows.

Couldn't see the flowers on account of the snow

Perhaps this song is describing a meeting with Loudon. Especially when talk of bearing a cross comes up.

What did you do with your burden and your cross
Did you carry yourself or did you crack?
We both know that a burden and a cross
Can only be carried on one man's back

This song was actually first recorded by Loudon on 1973's Attempted Mustache. Kate, in speaking about this marriage, talked about how their artistic competitiveness fed into the breakup. It must have rankled Loudon at the time because he was known as the singer of the novelty song "Dead Skunk" while his wife and sister-in-law were acclaimed as such terrific writers.

But talk about melancholy! Here's a passage later in the song.

Give me your hand for the parting touch
Fare thee well and thanks a lot
I know we promised to keep in touch
But you and I know that we both forgot

The music counteracts these dour sentiments. It's sweet and moves at a rapid clip. (Anna harmonizes and plays the button accordion while Kate plays the banjo.) As a listener, you sing along and it's enjoyable just on that level. It is only now as I analyze the lyric that I realize what an artistic triumph it is.

If you're a Rufus fan, you must get this CD for "First Born", a darling dedication to him written by his mother. It will also appeal to you if you know French, because any Kate & Anna album features songs in their native language. (This album features four!) If you're a lover of stellar songwriting they must be appreciated!

The album was produced by the infamous Joe Boyd. I love his work on Warners with Geoff and Maria Muldaur. Boyd has also worked extensively with Richard Thompson, a good friend of Loudon's and the McGarrigles.

Dancer with Bruised Knees probably marked the commercial apex for the McGarrigles. They released two more works on the Warner Brothers label, The French Record and Pronto Monto (featuring the terrific science song "NaCl") and then moved to Polydor for Love Over and Over. Linda Ronstadt continued to record their work, and Emmylou Harris has long been an admirer.

Their recording pace has slowed considerably, but whenever they do release something new, it's an event worth celebrating. Their music is fresh and timeless, and a deep listening pleasure.

Click here for a clip of Kate & Anna with a very young
Rufus and Martha.
Click here for a lovely song, "Better Times Are Coming", from the soundtrack to Ken Burns's Civil War series

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Basia Is Back!

What musical artist always gets you feeling good? For me, it would have to be Basia. She is a pop-jazz singer who hit it big in this country in the early 1990s. Her sound was distinctive--as I researched what to say in this blog about her, I culled some critics. Here are their adjectives to describe Basia's music:

an absorbing blend of R&B, jazz, classic American soul, and Latin flavours

global pop/jazz sound

Latin-tinged, effortlessly funky jazz-pop

Yes, all that, and simply put--it's music that you can't help dance or strum your fingers to. I'm not usually inclined to like material that might be classified as "smooth jazz", but Basia is much more than that. Kinda Gloria Estefan-like, but more expansive.

I've heard that her lyrics are good, but I can't get off the music long enough to focus upon them. Maybe it's her singing. It doesn't matter, though--there's that beat, and those chord progressions that are so memorable.

Take a look at some of her hits: "Cruising for a Bruising", Baby You're Mine", "Until You Come Back to Me", and "Time and Tide".

Reviewing these videos on YouTube, I couldn't help thinking how much she resembled a dancer in a Robert Palmer video with that exaggerated lipstick and porcelain skin. And yet, unlike the Palmer video dancers whose hair is slicked back, Basia's is flowing, and her face has a strong Eastern European physiognomy. Listening to the music, I recall another singer who broke about the same time Basia did, a Brit named Lisa Stansfield. Both singers have R & B underpinnings that undoubtedly appealed to an old Motown lover like me.

Basia has a new release out (It's That Girl Again), and it's only her second in the last 15 years, so it's time to celebrate. I had forgotten where I left my happy pills! She has the same hair and lipstick that she had all those years ago, but the face is more weathered (as all ours are, I suppose). The sound is miraculously the same.

Printed on the CD itself are these words: "Basia: It's That Girl Again. Saying All Is Good and Well. But Why Is She Looking So Pleased After All That Has Happened." I searched for the trauma on-line, but couldn't find anything but a nice nine-minutes of promotion. Ah, what's it matter! Welcome back, Basia!

The promo will give you a taste of her latest release, as well as a 2-part interview that she have to a "Smooth Jazz" station somewhere. If you are unfamiliar with Basia, I highly recommend this release. It is irresistible!