Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hall & Oates Revisited

I'm not one to complete my music collection with "Greatest Hits" packages. There was such a flurry of them at the turn of the century. I've never been much of a Hall & Oates fan either. So then, what explains my purchase of The Bird and the Bee Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates?

First of all, I'm a sucker for tribute albums, especially if it's for an artist or group that's not a part of my music collection. Although if I never heard a Hall & Oates song again I'd be fine, I was still interested in how they'd be interpreted by a modern sensibility. Plus there's the fact that it promised to be good ol' pop music fun. I know that's something I can always use on my CD platter, since I list towards the serious.

The Bird and the Bee are Greg Kurstin and Inara George. She is the daughter of Lowell George, the late great lead songwriter and player in Little Feat. Inara's sensibility is a little off-center: her first release was a collaboration with the go-to eccentric Van Dyke Parks and her subsequent release to the Hall & Oates tribute was a Lennon-Sisters style collection called The Living Sisters. So I bought the CD figuring I was in store for something completely different.

Except that it's not, save for the electronica/synth-flavored overlay on the songs. I must admit that I'm grateful that the Bird and the Bee don't go far afield. I don't mind hearing these songs again as long as they're done by someone else. So instead I hear Inara's pleasant voice (it will put you in mind of Jonatha Brooke) delivering those paper-thin lyrics. My wife and I sing along when it's playing in our car.

The funny thing is, Lisa would prefer to hear Hall & Oates singing. Anyway, I'd recommend this CD to you if you're in the mood for light-hearted fun.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cut Down in His Prime

Billy Eckstine is one of my favorite singers. I fell in love with him listening to the release Everything I Have Is Yours: The Best of the MGM Years. His voice and delivery is distinct and different from anyone else. He draws out a phrase and injects it with such lush romanticism that you can easily understand why women in the late 1940s were crazy for him.

His compelling story is told in David Hajdu's essay "Billy Eckstine: The Man Who Was Too Hot", the opening entry in the wonderful collection of pop music history Heroes and Villians. Hajdu has a knack for finding highly influential but largely forgotten figures in jazz and pop: his most famous book was a biography of Billy Strayhorn, a collaborator on most of Duke Ellington's most widely known music.

I'm originally from Pittsburgh, and so was Eckstine and Strayhorn. This fact drew me to these subjects, and I'm greatly enriched by spending time listening and thinking about them.

Hajdu explains how Eckstine was famous both as a bandleader and as a singer. As the former, he is credited with introducing the sound that became bebop in the 1950s. As the latter, his incredible sense of style and his handsome appearance made him highly desirable to MGM, who signed him to a million-dollar deal in 1947. (It was the first studio to launch its own record company.)

The story about how the photograph from Life in 1950 effectively destroyed Eckstine's career is told movingly by Hajdu. I will not recount it here in hopes that you'll purchase the book. It is a story of how swiftly the hand of racism can snuff out promise--and, believe me, it is a complete and utter tragedy when you consider Billy Eckstine's talent.

I'll leave you with some audio and video clips of this great man. Give him a serious listen. You won't regret it!

Click hear to see Billy Eckstine leading his band and singing "Prisoner of Love".

Here's Billy with good friend Sarah Vaughan singing "Passing Strangers" from the late 1950s.

You'll get a chuckle out of this music video promoting "The Prime of My Life", a number Billy cut when he was recording for Motown.

Finally, give a listen to "Everything I Have Is Yours", one of my favorite numbers by Mr. B.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lyric Lover

As a younger listener, when asked whom I liked, I always named Paul Simon, Don McLean, Loudon Wainwright III, and Randy Newman. These were the artists whose new releases I eagerly snapped up. I was invested in their music, and still am today.

I will never forget once having a new Paul Simon record and sitting my father down for a listen. Here, I thought, was surely music that would cause him to admit that my heroes were every bit the artist that his were. (You know, Frank Sinatra and his lot.)

Dad hung in there as I bubbled forth. Then, after sitting respectfully through one last song, he fielded my big question, "So, Dad, what do you think?"

"I think he sounds like Paul Simon," was the response.

I walked away shaking my head at his riddle but over time I finally figured it out. I needed to understand where Dad was coming from. Ella Fitzgerald and her songbooks was my first gateway artist to his music. My journey began in my junior year of college, and it has never stopped.

If asked now to name whom I like, I sometimes sidestep the question by saying, "I like anyone who can communicate a lyric. I admire singers who get you involved immediately in the message when they deliver a lyric. There are very few who have had this impact on me: when they sing, I remember the words afterwards. They move me on the spot."

The singer-songwriters that I mentioned at the outset did that for me. I will always treasure sitting down with their new releases, and listening over and over again, letting the lyrics sink in, feeling the rhythm and considering the production. (Yep, I studied those liner notes!) I still approach their music the same way today.

My father was saying, though, that they're limited because no one else can perform their songs. They have a distinct sensibility that begins and ends with them. Was my Dad right? It's a provocative point of view that I continually ponder as my boomer artists enter senior citizenhood. Will the songs begin and end with them?

Anyway, my stable of favorite musical artists expanded greatly once I started listening to Ella Fitzgerald. I immediately jumped to Frank Sinatra and completely understood what my Dad saw in him. Then I just continued onward, dedicating myself to finding these great singers.

Early on I fell in love with Bobby Short. Like Ella, he did a series of songbooks (some 20 years after the First Lady of Song). I loved how he did not only familiar songs associated with the great songwriters, but lesser known numbers. I drilled these songs into my head. It was so pleasurable singing along to them because the lyrics were so clever. I mean, someone like Ira Gershwin--you'll always find him reaching for the humor and clever rhyme.

This morning I slapped on some vinyl: an album called Bobby Short is K-R-A-Z-Y for Gershwin. I just had to hear "Come the Revolution" and sing along. (Was it due to the political talk show I had just been listening to?) Here's a patch of lyric from it.

Comes the revolution
Everything is jake
Comes the revolution
We'll be eating cake
When the streets and rivers run with red
I'll be underneath the bed
Butcher and the baker, undertaker too
Thank their Lord and maker
under skies of blue
Come the revolution
All is jake
And soon we'll be eating cake?

Anyhow, Bobby Short is one singer who gets the lyric across immediately. I can't tell exactly why. I know that a part of it is his arrangement. He always has a clever way to breathe life into a song.

If you haven't given Bobby a serious listen, try him out. Maybe soon you'll have your own personal listening revolution, as I had mine!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hearing Mose Allison

A few months ago in The Boston Globe I enjoyed this interview with Mose Allison. He's always been an artist in the back of mind: what little I knew of him didn't make much of an impression. I knew he was a hep cat from "back in the day" and that Van Morrison dug him. I enjoyed Van's tribute to him, although I must confess it is lost in the clutter of my cassette collection, and there is no one song from it that sticks in my consciousness.

Anyway, I brought Mose up in conversation with a friend and turned out her father was a monstrous fan and she had grown up with his music, So a date to hear him at a local jazz club was set, and I purchased his new CD, The Way of the World. (His first work in roughly a decade.) It's produced by Joe Henry. He's a name almost as revered in the music business as T.Bone Burnett. I like him principally because of his collaboration with my hero, Loudon Wainwright III. So I was curious about what he'd do for Mose.

I enjoyed the album well enough. Its opening number-- "My Brain"--is a familiar folk melody with Mose's wry observations about his "cool little cluster" providing the humor for which he's known. (I'll never forget this line from one of his famous numbers: "Your mind is on vacation/but your mouth is workin' overtime".) The rest of the program is enhanced by Henry's gentle introduction of some extra instrumentation that livens up the presentation. But really, it's all pure Mose--songs that amuse, but that don't really stick in the noggin.

In tandem with the new album I took a 2002 double-CD set of Mose live in London out of the library. Good listening, I must admit: love his piano riffs and getting a sense of much of his catalog. But I was troubled by the fact that I heard hardly any patter between the songs. Nope--just a simple "Thank you" and then on to the next one.

So the day of the show arrives, and my wife and I and our friends are planted off in the corner of the jazz room. Lovely view of the Charles River out the window. Mose Allison hit the stage immediately with his trio and launched into his first number. Oh no! Turns out we're in the equivalent of a right-field box at Fenway! The angle is all wrong--we can't really see Mose (obscured by the bass player) and the drums (the closest instrument) is drowning out the vocals.

Still, looking around the room, I was impressed with how full it was, and what devotion Mose inspired. So I tried to catch that current. But as the set continued, it got more difficult.

Take away those funny lyrics that we couldn't hear, and Mose lay revealed to our eyes as nothing remarkable. It was amazing how much each song sounded the same. (This was later pointed out in a review of the show in The Globe.) Plus, as my wife Lisa noted, Mose failed to do the one thing that might have salvaged the experience for us: talk to the audience! We did not get any sense of his personality, just a "Thank You" after each 2 and a half minute number and a swift movement to the next song. (We were amused to observe how they were all neatly numbered in Mose's supporting players' binder of lead sheets.)

He completed a tidy 70-minute set, and shuffled off the raised stage/platform rather nimbly when you consider that he's 82. The man is spry and has obviously stuck to his agenda throughout his career. He looks great. But there was no spotaneity, and the trio didn't get to stretch once.

On one hand, I can completely understand why his albums have never sold well. I know this will seem unkind, but it some ways he is a terrible bore. Why does he attract such devotion?

But then, I thought about his lyrics. He's really funny, and he is excellent at creating an Everyman from song to song, and giving his sarcastic viewpoint. In a way, Mose was a "singer-songwriter" long before it was fashionable. He makes a connection with his fans the same way that Loudon Wainwright and Randy Newman and so many others have touched me.

I'm still listening to him in my car. My opinion is somewhere between adulation and the harsh assessment of the Steve Greenlee, the reviewer in The Globe.

One thing you can say for sure, though: there can only be one Mose Allison! His voice is awful, but it's his, flavored with a good Southern accent. It does stick in your mind--the tone of it. Plus there's that tart wit, which is always worth checking out.

Of his contemporaries, though, I still prefer Bob Dorough. (He's the fellow who wrote much of the music for Schoolhouse Rock.) He's a bit more puckish, and his subject matter cuts a wider swath.