Monday, July 23, 2012

Carly Simon

After reading the recent unauthorized biography on Carly Simon, I've been thinking a lot about her. I find her such an interesting artist, and a fascinating person.

Like most people, she's a tangle of contradictions. When you're a public figure, your foibles are thrown in high relief. So you have Carly Simon the exhibitionist who hardly ever posed for her albums without wearing something provocative. She's a beautiful woman, so why not? Square this with the fact that she has suffered from severe stage fright throughout her career, often to her own detriment.

You have Carly the singer-songwriter. She's the model for the confessional mode of songwriting: her life is in her song, almost as much as Loudon Wainwright's life is in his work. So she writes about broken marriages, past relationships, and her own fears. Yet she is an intensely private person. (Well, come to think of it, so is Paul Simon - no relationship, beyond the NYC connection!)

Reading the book turned me back to listening to her music. I've been enjoying her 1990 release Have You Seen Me Lately? My favorite from this one is "Life Is Eternal".

Life is eternal
Love is immortal
Death is only a horizon
Life is eternal
As we move into the light and horizon
With nothing save the limit of our sight

What a great lyric! Her voice is so distinctive: no lyric sheet is necessary because you hear the words the first time that she sings them.

I have always enjoyed her music because it hits my sweet spot. I appreciate music that is classified as "pop". I love songs that are constructed around hooks. Songs that make an unabashed effort to crawl into your brain and stay there. This is what Carly is adept at doing. It explains why she's in the Songwriters Hall of Fame along with some many of my favorites: Don McLean, Carole King, Peggy Lee, Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, et al.

When you read about Carly you quickly appreciate what a neurotic person she is. I mean, she has been holding a torch for James Taylor for so long, it seems like such a public embarrassment. But then, your heart goes out to her. She is incredibly true and faithful. Who hasn't been guilty of not moving on? Who isn't guilty?

I wound up admiring her, and hoping that in the next year or two, when she's published her autobiography with a new album (I hope), she will sit triumphant once more. She has suffered tremendously over the past decade or so: breast cancer in the late 1990s, an ill-fated move to Beacon Hill a few years later, and - worst of all - the loss of millions of dollars to a Wall Street shyster. Then  her last album of original material (2008's That Kind of Love) that HearMusic failed to promote properly. (She lost her lawsuit over that debacle.)

After watching a Lifetime show about her in 1995 (back when she was promoting her wonderful Letters Never Sent), I've decided that Carly is someone whose spirit I'd like to celebrate. She is open-hearted and warm. She is authentic in a way that so many artists aren't.

I'll be adding to my vinyl the next time I head to the record shop, filling in the gaps in my Carly Simon collection. I am a fan. I'll never forget when she first hit in the early 1970s. And I agree with her friend Jonathan Schwartz (who's featured in the Lifetime special): her track record over the decades has been superlative. She's one of a kind.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cuttin' Capers by Doris Day

I'd like to devote this post to one song that's been rattling around my head lately: "Cuttin' Capers" by Doris Day. It's the title track from a 1959 album by her, and I think it's worthy of study in terms of what made Doris Day such a great singer.

First of all, to cut a caper means to "leap or frisk about" or to frolic. (I'm sure most people could figure this out by looking at the image on the album's cover and thinking about the lyrics, but I like to confirm.)

Now this notion of cutting capers seems peculiar to Doris. A decade earlier she recorded "Canadian Capers (Cuttin' Capers)", a nifty number in which she name-checks different band leaders as she skates through the lyrics, with a vocal group called The Sportsmen backing her up. A very playful number that encapsulates the optimism that is so central to her persona.

In 1959 Doris Day was at the height of her fame as a film actress. Her album sales were flagging, however. Her last best-seller was 1956's Day by Day. Apparently she and her managers had miscalculated on the follow-up Day by Night: according to the all music site the "chaste approach (on this album) may have been out of step with for the album market of the late '50s." So Doris decided to steer clear of the dreamy ballads and go up-tempo with Cuttin'Capers.

Apparently this album didn't hit the mark commercially- perhaps a continuing signal that Doris Day's brand of wholesomeness was out of step with the zeitgeist - but I find it tremendously appealing and filled with confident and creative singing.

Before I deconstruct the performance, let me give you some background on the song "Cuttin' Capers". The lyrics were composed by Joe Lubin, who had a year earlier written "Teacher's Pet" for the Doris Day/Clark Gable movie film of the same name. Lubin also worked with Little Richard on "Tutti Frutti". The music was by a man named Adam Ross (also known as Irving Roth). He had just written "That Jane from Maine" for a movie by the same name starring Doris, Jack Lemon, and Ernie Kovacs .

So we're not talking Rodgers & Hart here. These two men were basically given the charge: "We need a theme song for this album. Make it light and uptempo. Be sure it says 'You are in for some fun!'"

I think they succeeded brilliantly. Before we head to the recording, though, let's consider the conductor, Frank De Vol. His style is unmistakable if you have recordings with classic pop singers from the 1950s. De Vol's signature was to throw in an instrument that pops out from the strings and adds a touch of whimsy to the mood of the song. This style definitely feels dated and gimmicky- much more than Billy May's, another busy uptempo conductor from the time. (His horns were grounded in Dixieland.)

So on November 29, 1958 Doris Day records "Cuttin' Capers" with De Vol, one of four numbers she put in the can with him that day. It will be the track that establishes the theme, and she starts robustly.
(Click here to listen to the song as you follow my discussion.)

Hey, look at me! (high horn trill)
Can't you see? (lower trill)
I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love! (Declarations are run together)

(This is shouted out, separated from the next phrase; a variation of what just preceded it and a clever way of vocally saying "Wake up! Listen! I'm daft!")
Look at me!
I'm cuttin' capers
I'm on a spree, see (I suspect she added the "see". She slides into it like a horn. Sweet!)
I'm cuttin' capers

I'll do that town
the way that a clown does
gonna laugh, gonna sing, gonna have a wonderful fling (slight pause after each phrase)

So here I go
I'm cuttin' capers
On with that show, oh
I'm cuttin' capers

I felt this way 
the moment you kissed me
I'm in love
 (repeated 5 times!--slows down slightly with last one, making a lilting and playful sound for the initial consonant in "love")

Doris then returns to the top. When she arrives at the "I'm in love" again, it's time to put a bow on it and bring the proceedings to a snappy ending. Here's how she does it.

I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love (These are delivered rapidly. Then she vamps.)
I'm in love (Emphasis on first word.)
So in love
(Pause. De Vol comes in with a filigree.)
I'm in love! 

It's an infectious 2 minutes and 41 minutes, well-plotted by the singer and the conductor. Sometimes I just listen and surrender to the song's happiness. Other times I get analytical and listen for patterns and repetitions, or think about how much of it was improvised that day in the studio and how much was planned in advance.

Whatever the case may be, it just illustrates why Doris Day is such a classic stylist. Recently Terry Gross scored an interview with Doris on the occasion of her 88th birthday. How wonderful to hear her voice again! Terry Gross opens by complimenting her singing, and her response is delightful. Check it out - you'll learn a lot about her!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Willie Nelson's Sharing of the Wealth

It's strange, but the introduction to the Wikipedia entry for Willie Nelson doesn't mention his enormously popular 1978 album Stardust. This record was my introduction to his world. It catapulted Willie to a completely new level. Instead of simply being the guy who wrote Patsy Cline's "Crazy" or a member of the Outlaw Country gang (of which I was completely unaware), Nelson became not only a master songwriter, but a singer. Why, let's revise that: the guy was a crooner in his own way!

I started learning the classic country songs thanks to Willie's subsequent releases,  just as listening to Pete Seeger taught me the traditional folk songs. There are so many things that I love about Willie, but the best might be what he did after he hit the pop jackpot. He turned around and recorded many duet albums with other great country songwriters. The albums showcased his partner's hits. Before long, I got to know the names Merle Haggard, Faron Young, Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizell, and Ray Price.

I've been listening lately to San Antonio Rose, a 1980 release with Willie and Ray Price. Impossible for me to tire of this collection. Favorite cuts include Willie's classic "Funny How Time Slips Away" with its stop and start shuffling rhythm and "Night Life", a song Willie co-wrote. Why does this stanza from that song always creep into my mind?

Many people just like me
Dreamin' of old used-to-be's
And the night life ain't no good life
But it's my life

It's the song's attitude that sticks - the mixture of regret and defensiveness. I also love the guitar licks that surround the bridge.

Listen to the blues they're playin'
Listen to what the blues are sayin'

What a fabulous song! Ray Price shows his vocal chops with Floyd Tillman's "This Cold War with You" and "Crazy Arms" (the latter an enormous 1956 hit for him). Price is credited with introducing something called the 4/4 shuffle. I read it was inspired by Bob Wills, whose work is also featured here in the title track and the lovely "Faded Love" that brings the proceedings to a close.

Willie Nelson chose to honor his friends when he inherited a mass audience, and I'm so grateful that he did because I have learned so many great songs. He is a singer and songwriter and artist who has moved me deeply for years. Give this duet album a listen. I know you'll get the bug and search out other collaborations from this period. It's a real treasure trove!

Click here to enjoy 82 year-old Ray Price performing in 2009. Man, everything is completely intact. What a singer!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Paul Simon's "American Tune"

Paul Simon has long been a favorite songwriter of mine. On this Independence Day, I'd like to consider one of his greatest but lesser-known songs: "American Tune".

Featured on his second solo album, 1973's There Goes Rhymin' Simon, "American Tune" stands in stark contrast to the generally upbeat mood created by the other songs on the album. It is a dark and exhausted look at what it meant to be an American at a time when the Dream appeared to be in tatters: long gas lines due to our first national fuel crisis, a disquieting end to the Vietnam conflict, and Watergate undoubtedly weighed heavily on Simon's mind during the composition of it.

Of course, this song has staying power because the Dream always does seem tattered, especially these days, right? Let's go through the lyric and contemplate what Simon is saying. He opens by stating baldly that America has disappointed him many times, not just at the moment he's singing.

Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I've often felt forsaken
And certainly misused

But then a stoic note is injected in the song, one that forms the heart of its message.

But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to the bone
Still you don't expect to be bright and bon vivant
So far away from home
So far away from home

Mention of home resonates, because you immediately think of America's place in the world, and how far we had fallen at that time as democracy's saviors in the Second World War. (I'll leave it to you to decide how steep the descent has been since then!)

But home also works as simply a metaphor: it's a place where you feel comfortable and secure. With the economy in the tank in 1973 and with little faith in our leaders, as a country we were truly adrift.

Simon continues:

I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
And driven to its knees

Now back to the resignation:

But it's all right, it's all right
'Cause we've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we've travelled on
I wonder what went wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what went wrong

Simon then transitions to the bridge. In his dreams he takes flight from his troubled mind.

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuredly

And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

This notion of sailing away was first encroached a couple of years earlier in Randy Newman's masterful album Sail Away. To quote from that song:

Here in America we get food to eat
Don't have to run in the jungle and scuff up our feet
We just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It's great to be an American

Later the song's narrator invites his listener to climb aboard, to sail away and "cross the might ocean to the Charleston Bay." But now it's the Statue of Liberty that's sailing - away from America!

I know that Paul Simon was a great admirer of Randy Newman. To me, it's clear that his ambition is to write a song as great in his eyes as Newman's. From what I know of Simon, he's a competitive guy and, according to Marc Eliot in his biography Paul Simon: A Life, the fact that "American Tune" did not become a hit was a "major" source of disappointment to him.

Let's get back to the song itself. After the bridge, we enter the song's conclusion.

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune

Feeling hopeful? Time to wake up from this dream you've been having!

But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed

Now for the killer couplet at the end:

Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all, I'm trying to get some rest

This is such a moving song, and so durable: I wish that it could enter the canon, and be there for all Americans to consider on holidays like the Fourth of July.

In any case, it's a song that is firmly lodged in the memories of anyone alive at the time. Another brilliant turn from one of our country's finest lyricists!

Click here for Paul Simon singing "American Tune" solo and here for a duet on the song with Willie Nelson.

Click here for Randy Newman's "Sail Away".

Finally, here is a link to a discussion of this great song.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Standards-Based Songwriter Succeeds!

Jill Barber is a Canadian singer-songwriter like no other. If you're a fan of the American Songbook, you must get completely behind this gal!

Her ambition is to craft songs reminiscent of the standards, and I think she completely succeeds. I urge you to give her CD Mischievous Moon a good listen.  My wife and I did during a long car trip, and it's fair to say that we were entranced.

In an interview with NPR, Jill explained how she wears her influences proudly on her sleeve. I really respect her for doing so. She has to endure the slings of critics who belittle her music as being "retro" and artificial. I understand their point of view, but I can't deny how much her music seized my attention. This is not a CD that I will retire to my shelf anytime soon.

Her album borrows sounds from different decades. They're some doo-wop to take us back to the 1950s, a little bossa nova to recall Jobim, and there's a boatload of strings. The latter really shows off the Nat King Cole influence that Jill cited in her interview. Her voice is warm and exceptionally adept at delivering a lyric. Very intimate, and strikingly different.

OK, so she has a "baby voice" like Blossom Dearie or Kat Edmonson. But that's not the only reason I like her. Jill Barber has some terrific songwriting chops! I look forward to her becoming more of a presence here in the States.

She's lovely to look at too. Check out this You Tube performance of "Chances" (the opening track from her CD, and by far the catchiest number of all).