Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Magic Merle

I love programming my music when I travel South, as I did recently. I always make sure that I have one of my favorite compilations, Saturday Night Shuffle: A Celebration of Merle Travis, at the ready. I was drawn to this 1993 collection by the players on it: John Hartford, Vassar Clements, and Buddy Emmons were the names that popped for me. I also knew that Merle Travis was famous, but I wasn't certain why. Scanning the song list, I recognized "Sixteen Tons" and "Dark as a Dungeon". Certainly that was enough background to dive in.

I was immediately impressed not only by the songs, but by the level of musicianship on display. As I later learned, Travis was an innovator on the guitar, and it's quickly evident on this CD: there is some sweet picking here, unlike anything I had in my music collection. Travis was noted for his syncopated style of playing, and you can hear it right away.

Regarding the picking, among the masters regaling your ears here are Thom Bresh, a son of Merle Travis, and Marcel Dadi, who is credited with introducing the French to Merle Travis. Just listen to how smoothly Dadi renders the title track. I never tire of listening to this cut! And let's not forget that this collection also features the great Chet Atkins as a guest artist. He is credited with championing and propagating Travis's unique style.

But it's the singers and the songs that close the deal for me. I did not know that legendary fiddler Vassar Clements had such a fine voice. He kicks off the program with the swinging "There Ain't No Cow in Texas". It's a fun number that has this set structure where you keep throwing in the names of different states and what they're famous for. For example:

There ain't a cotton patch in Mississippi
There ain't a commercial on TV
There's not an orange tree in Florida
Or a guitar in Nashville Tennessee
Now Boston ain't got no more baked beans
And Michigan ain't got no Kalamazoo
There ain't a cow in Texas
Baby if I don't love you

Buddy Emmons takes the lead on this one on his steel guitar, and a delicious sax solo gets the program jumping. This song always gets me in a good mood.

The next song is one that is burned in my memory. I sing it to myself whenever I have the blues. "Me and the Doggone Blues" is just plain comforting. It's not a hoot and holler or a moanin' kind of blues, it's just softly melancholy. Nice to sing as you're just walking along somewhere by yourself.

Me and the doggone blues
We're together all the time
The blues is blue
And I am too
So we get along just fine
Ain't never been apart
So don't never expect to lose
So pal of mine
You'll always find
Me and the doggone blues

I just ride along on this collection. One tune leads naturally to another, and your journey is on clouds of beautifully picked guitars and sweet fiddle playing. The songs themselves are so beautifully written too. Ever hear the song "Nine Pound Hammer"? It's by Merle Travis. So is the wonderful "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)".

Travis was born in coal country (Muhlenberg County, Kentucky) in 1917. After playing on the radio in Cincinnati in the late '30s and early '40s and serving briefly in the Marines, he moved to Los Angeles and signed with Capitol Records. Two of his hits from this time are on the CD in a medley: "Divorce Me C.O.D." and "So Round So Firm". In the 1950s Tennesse Ernie Ford made "Sixteen Tons" a million-seller, and Travis has a TV show, along with appearing in several movies. (He's in From Here to Eternity!)

It's upsetting to learn that Travis had some deep personal problems. He drank too much during this time, and was involved in several violent incidents. He also suffered from crippling stage fright. What a shame! I mean, this guy had such talent: in addition to being a genius as a musician, he was a taxidermist, a photographer, a cartoonist, a prose writer, and an expert at watch repair.

Thanks to Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 collection of roots music, Merle Travis was able to revive his career. His last decade or so was spent recording heavily. He died in 1983 at the age of 66.

By all means take a chance on Merle like I did. I just know that you'll get hooked!

Click here to see and hear Merle Travis perform "Cannonball Rag"

Here's where you'll find Merle performing in a 1951 "soundie". He's doing a duet called "Too Much Sugar for a Dime". (It's also on the CD.)

Finally, here's Travis in a cameo from 1953's From Here to Eternity.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Master of Melancholy

I fell in love with Jimmy Webb after listening to his 1977 album El Mirage. I knew of him earlier before, of course, due to the fame he had achieved writing hits for the Fifth Dimension ("Up, Up, and Away"), Glen Campbell ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix", "Galveston" and "The Wichita Lineman"), Art Garfunkel ("All I Know") and—how could you forget?—Richard Harris ("MacArthur Park" and "Didn't We").

El Mirage was my first exposure to him as a singer of his own material. I later learned that he'd been trying to make it as an act since at least 1970. (That year, as "Jimmy L. Webb", he'd released Words and Music on Reprise. Four years later Asylum—the label associated with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles— released his Land's End.)

Webb's voice is gravelly at some turns and thin and reedy at others. It's a taste I quickly adapted my ear to because the songs on El Mirage were so magnificent. There's the deep regret (a thematic hallmark) expressed in "If You See Me Getting Smaller I'm Leaving" and "Mixed-Up Guy". There's the utter poetry of "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" (a hit three years earlier for Judy Collins) and the elegiac "P.F.Sloan"(a redo from the Words and Music album).

Webb's melancholy songs were beautifully arranged, produced, and conducted by none other than George Martin. El Mirage is gorgeous, but it was released at least five years late. It slammed into the disco wave and fell on deaf ears—save for my grateful ones, of course.

Around this time I also enjoyed Watermark, Art Garfunkel's masterful collection of Jimmy Webb songs. (Give "All My Love's Laughter" and "Marionette" a listen.)

I didn't hear much from Jimmy Webb again until I enjoyed Glen Campbell's 1988 release Light Years. What a fabulous album! I was entranced by it during a train ride from Chicago to Boston. (Yes, I was listening on my Walkman!) If you haven't thought of Glen Campbell for a long while and are looking to pick up something by him, grab this album. It features magnificent orchestrations, crystalline vocals, and unforgettable songs like "If These Walls Could Speak", "Lightning in a Bottle", and "Our Movie".

Searching for more Webb in record shops, I found 1982's Angel Heart. It's wonderful (of course) with many songs sweetened by background vocals provided by such luminaries as Daryl Hall, Kenny Loggins, and Michael McDonald. Some of these songs would appear on other releases by Art Garfunkel. None of them brought him the acclaim that he'd earned in the 1960s.

Singers with good taste couldn't forget Webb, though. Linda Ronstadt was also an admirer of Jimmy Webb, and she featured several of his songs on 1989's Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, her last big album. Take a moment to sample her sweet interpretation of "Adios".

Four years later Jimmy Webb tested the waters again as a singer with Suspending Disbelief. (The early 1990s brought a renewed interest in the singer/songwriter.) After a decade or more away from the studio, Webb came back stronger than ever on this CD. It's chock full of his sweet melancholia ("I Don't Know How to Love You Anymore"), but it's also laced with humor ("Elvis and Me") and a song called "What Does a Woman See in a Man" that simply knocked me out. Check out these lyrics.

He stinks to high heaven—half-covered with hair
And grunts just like some old orangutan
While she smells of clean skin and a trace of jasmine
And speaks like a first rate librarian..

Doesn't she know that she's unique
Doesn't she know that he's just a freak of nature
Overbearing, insecure, wanting love but so unsure
Loving her because she's pure

And yet, dreaming of orgies in Vegas or Cannes
He preens and strikes poses Olympian...
He brags about knocking the world on its ass
But oh, when the shit hits the fan
She'll bail him out, she's the one with the clout
Only she knows how humankind ever began
What does a woman see in a man?

This release really sealed Webb's fate. He was destined never to have a hit album of his own. It's a shame that a wider audience has never become aware of his vocal talents. To this day, he's still insecure about his singing, but I think it's just fine. There are many who are much worse (hello, Tom Waits!) but have been overcome that obstacle.

Anyway, Jimmy Webb seemed to have thrown in the towel with 1996's Ten Easy Pieces. It's a lovely collection of his work from decades past done just with Jimmy singing and playing a piano. Very tasteful: it struck me as a CD you'd hear as you're going down for a meal at a bed and breakfast. I didn't expect to hear from him again. Still, I was glad to see that he began to make club appearances after this release. I recall a hushed and terrific evening hearing Webb solo in a jazz club during this time.

A year later Jimmy Webb produced Film Noir, a collection of saloon standards sung by Carly Simon. (She co-wrote the title track with him.) It's a gauzy and dreamy release that went nowhere.

In 2003 Michael Feinstein sang a program of Jimmy Webb songs called Only One Life. What a lush tribute! Jimmy Webb arranged the piano for all the songs and produced this masterwork. The crisp vocal renditions turned me into a Feinstein fan immediately. On the album he sings "Time Flies", a song that Rosemary Clooney had been including in her repertoire and that continues to be performed by cabaret artists.

The album was a complete triumph. Perhaps encouraged by its success, Webb returned with another collection of originals a couple of years later. 2005's Twilight of the Renegades is superb. Many of the songs on this collection were written over the past 15 years, and they're all winners. I especially recommend a song about Paul Gauguin that opens the set, and "Class Clown" about a boy from Webb's youth. But sweetest of all is "No Signs of Age".

But you show no Sings of Age, no sign
Still clear like a glass of good wine
The secret of youth
Surely is yours
Your beauty endures
And love never dies
It will not disengage
In my memory tonight
You show no Signs of Age

I hope this isn't the last collection of new songs from Jimmy Webb. Recently he's been doing publicty for Just Across the River, his latest release. I'll probably buy it, but not with great enthusiasm because it features all his old familiar work. It's like Ten Easy Pieces over again, but this time the trick is that Webb is joined by a cast of admirers: Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Mark Knopfler, etc. Not a strong drink for a huge fan like me.

But Jimmy Webb is 63, and I'm hoping that there's much more music to come from him. I encourage you to take the time to enter his musical world. It is rich music made for grown-ups. You'll fall in love with it.

Click here for a recent NPR interview with Jimmy Webb.

Click here for an interview with him in The New York Times.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Boy Wonder

If you're a guy who plays the piano in pop music, your predecessors loom large, because they are so few. Who comes to mind for you? Elton John in his high platform shoes? Billy Joel? Of course, I love Randy Newman (but don't expect his image to pop into many minds). If you're younger than me, perhaps you think of Ben Folds or Jamie Cullum.

I have been listening to a singer/songwriter piano player that may hit it very big one day. He's still in his twenties, and he has loads of talent. He recorded his first jazz album while still in his teens. A second one, filled mostly with standards like the first, was released soon thereafter. These releases brought Peter Cincotti acclaim in jazz circles but with his third release, 2007's East of Angel Town, it's obvious that he seeks wider attention.

His producer, David Foster, thinks he will earn it, and so do I, although this release didn't break him out anywhere near to the extent they'd hoped. But that's more due to a fractured musical marketplace than the music itself. Raw talent like Cincotti's will eventually have its day.

Cincotti wrote all the music on East of Angel Town, and song after song displays a strong, swinging sound that grabs you after its initial jolt. The music feels so operatic and over-the-top at times that my wife sung a great rejoinder after first hearing a couple Cincotti story-songs about women. "Her name was Lola, she was a show girl," she sang and, since I was early into trying to like this music, I must admit I understood completely where she was coming from! But still I pressed on.

I did because I've heard his first two releases, and I knew he was an excellent singer. Just check out how he handles standards like "I Love Paris" and "St. Louis Blues". What a nice, nuanced approach. It's easy to see why the guy must definitely get a woman's heart aflutter.

On this album his singing has changed. It's less subtle, and he's given to a vocal mannerism in which he kicks into a falsetto practically every song (often in the chorus, or in the transition to the chorus). Still, he has a powerful voice and I forgive him for his excesses because he is trying to part with the jazz world.

I think the guy may hit it big on Broadway someday. (Peter is VERY much in love with New York, his home.) He tells a good story with his music. He creates strong muscular pop music--catchy melodies with driving rhythms that create a lot of excitement. (Examples include "Lay Your Body Down (Goodbye Philadelphia)"and "Cinderella Beautiful").

My favorite on this release is a slower-paced song called "The Country Life". Amazing that this was written by such a young guy! Catch these lyrics.

Let's go back and find
the simple world we knew
I still want to live again
the country life with you

Don't let it be another thing
We always meant to do
Just let me live again
the country life with you

Such a sweet melody--it comes as no surprise to me to find a young fan performing a version of it on You Tube.

But I'd like to close by giving another reason why Peter Cincotti's going to hit it big: the guy has impeccable taste! I mean, when he chose to do a song from my youth, he hit it big with me by choosing one of favorite Carole King numbers: "Some Kind of Wonderful".

Long may you run, Peter!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Saving Grace

Bassist Catherine Popper

Summer is a funny season for me. Sure, I'm glad for the respite from teaching, but I find it difficult to settle into a comfortable routine. Then there's the heat. It exacts a toll on me as the day proceeds. All the air is pulled out of my spiritual balloon. One solution is to take a swim. Another is to retreat to an air-conditioned environment. (How delicious those movie matinees are!) Another key strategy for me is to have a record that I can put on that is so energetic that my spirits are lifted instantly. Each summer almost miraculously I stumble across such a work.

Now I know that I could make a science of it. I could click on all the links that NPR Music gives me and find a rockin' new artist. But I bristle against having someone do the work for me. I take pride in serendipidity, and the sense that what I'm listening to is really a discovery for me. I took the chance, flying blind on some recommendation buried in my mind that flipped forward in my head as I held the CD in my hand at FYE.

Yep, holding a CD at a music store. Not even walking it to a listening station but instead thinking, "Hmm. I recall hearing something good about this group. I have no idea what they're about, but I'll pick this one to freshen up the other CDs of familiar artists that I'm going to get."

Oh, this is shopping the old school way. As I recall one analyst saying of older music consumers like me, "This is the way (I've) learned commerce."

I've now found my summer fun. Ladies and gents, allow me to introduce to you Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Grace is the principle songwriter and singer for this group. She's a belter who'll remind you of Bonnie Raitt at some turns and Janis Joplin at others. This album can and should be played loudly, and its hooks are so good that you'll be reaching for it as instinctively as you go for your cold drink.

I love the appearance of this group. Grace is a real looker: long-legged, blonde, and her female companion in the group, bass player Catherine Popper, also seizes a male's attention immediately.

Both gals love their high heels. There's no surprise then to learn that she revels in sexed-up lyrics and a bluesy sensibility. Take the album's opening track, Paris (Oh La La).

You got me down on the floor
So what'd you bring me down here for?...
If I was a man I'd make my move
If I was a blade I'd shave you smooth
If I was a judge I'd break the law
And if I was from Paris..
I would say
Oooh la la la la la la la

Potter delivers her lyrics in a bluesy style that grips your attention immediately. The harmonizing on the chorus is infectious. The lyrics are brief but clever and the power-rock template is set. You want to hear more.

See? Old-school, again! I'm proceeding from cut to cut!

Before I continue, let me dwell briefly on Grace's other Nocturnals. There are three guys in the band and I love their look: they look as if they're freshly thawed from the cryogenic chamber they walked into in the 1970s. I look at them and think, "Ah, isn't this funny? I ignored guys who looked like this in the 1970s. But now I get it. I have a taste--no, a need--for loud, long guitar solos. I'm too proud to go back and listen to the Allman Brothers. I don't want to feel that old. But here they are, these guys who will give me that rockin' flava, and they're teamed up with these total babes. I am lovin' the jarring juxtaposition: '70s hippies with these obvious Reagan/Bush-era type gals. Bring it on!"

The second number, "Oasis", features Grace doing her best Bonnie Raitt. I don't mean to diminish her singing. It is flexible enough that you can't call her a shameless imitator. It's just inevitable when you have ears like mine that have heard so many singers that such comparisons are made. I will say that Grace Potter's songwriting is terrific. Besides the wonderful hooks and the obedience to classic pop song structure, she tells a good story. She adheres to a single idea but there's a little mystery in the songs too for all the lyric watchers like me. (You know, the old-schoolers who sit back with the CD booklet like they used to with the album covers!)

Anyway, "Oasis" is acoustically-based, a welcome break after the jolt of the opening track.

The third track gets you rockin' again. "Medicine" tells about a bewitching "policy woman" (see, a little mystery?) who, with her rattling bones, magic stones, love potion, magnetic sand, and mojo hand is a-stealin' Grace's man.

Policy woman took the love from my lover
He's been in a haze since the day he saw her
She shook her hips and her long black hair
Now all my baby does is stare at that gypsy woman

You like the way she makes you feel
She got you spinning on her medicine wheel
She's crossing me with magnetic sand
She hypnotizes with her mojo hand

She got the medicine that everybody wants..

Terrific song that'll grip you from your first listen. Is this the track where Grace pants and screams? Or is it the one where the guitars are doing the screaming? Whatever! I just know that this is a great summertime CD.

I'm afraid Grace is totally successful working her mojo hand on me. I'm hypnotized, and thankful for it. Not that I had any misgivings about my own mojo, mind you, but just that I needed to have my spirits lifted.

Place a bet on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. You won't be disappointed!