Monday, December 2, 2013

Reclaiming Songwriters from the Past

If you're an ardent follower of singer-songwriters like me, you probably are always on the lookout for neglected talent. I specialize in combing over decades of music and making up for lost time by visiting a local record shop and buying the work of someone who I missed when he or she first sprung out of the recording gate.

First of all, I'm glad to report that at least where I live there are record shops to visit. Recently I visited one with my 13 year old son. Since I'd recently read the biography of Harry Nilsson and learned of his close friendship with Ringo Starr, I was on the lookout for the one Nilsson LP that I don't have in my collection (still haven't found it) and Goodnight Vienna, a Starr album he'd been heavily involved in.

Anyway I found deep pleasure in letting serendipity hold sway that morning. I stumbled upon a 1977 album by Keith Sykes - one of those neglected songwriters who I first caught wind of due to his association with John Prine. (A little over twenty years ago he'd released a set on Prine's Oh Boy! label that I greatly admired. I then purchased Sykes's two releases in the early 1980s.)

This "new" record of mine was a lovely reminder of what an extraordinary songwriter Sykes is. At the time he was very much in the Paul Simon mode of delivery: it's all feather-soft and acoustic, and his lyrics pour easily into your ear and mind. The Way That I Feel had two songs that Jimmy Buffett quickly snagged for his Son of a Sailor album (the sequel to his monstrously successful Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude): "The Coast of Marseilles" and "The Last Line."

My enthusiasm for Sykes was renewed. He'd been rolling around in a back chamber of my mind as an act that I'd love to hear live someday. I revisited his website and was reminded how difficult that would be. Yes, he does do house concerts - but he's a Memphis native, so getting him to do a show that's more than driving distance away from there was problematic. I could go on an annual cruise to Jamaica that he organizes in early March, or make my way to Hot Springs, Arkansas for his annual Songwriter Festival. But it's highly unlikely that I'll do either.

So then I find myself imagining that I could organize a concert series in my town called something like "The Killer Songwriter Series" or "The Recognizing Genius Series." I'd somehow persuade a corporate sponsor to help me pay the artists' air fare and underwrite paying them for their performance. All that would be left for me to do is to sell the series to the public.

That's one tall order, let me tell you. What's your message? "Come hear Keith Sykes - so that you can join the same pedantic circle I'm in." That's not going to wash because most people don't care to be specialists like me. "Come hear the man whose work has been recorded by artists like Jimmy Buffett and Roseanne Cash. The man who gave Todd Snider his start in the music business. A good friend of Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine.." Hey, am I gaining any traction here?

There's a lengthy interview with Sykes on YouTube. It only made me long to hear the guy more. Give it a listen. With his Southern intonation, he "talks Memphis" (as Jesse Winchester put it) and it's delicious, as are his stories of his early days in the music business. Then go to Amazon and purchase The Way That I Feel. (Rip those digits!) Let me know what you think of this guy!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Harpers Bizarre

I've stumbled upon this fantastic website for reading about music. It's While half-watching a ballgame the other night, I navigated the site, typing in many of the performers that I've followed for years. It was deeply satisfying to see their work put into context, and most times I agreed with the critical opinion offered. (Lots of mental back-patting going on too, as I saw that many of my favorites are well regarded.)

There were moments when the reviewer stated opinions that clarified thoughts that I'd had. I love Loudon Wainwright III, so I'm unlikely to speak out if I sense that a song he's doing isn't working. But the All-Music critic did in his review of Loudon's latest, Older Than My Old Man Now. Of several of Loudon's comedic efforts, reviewer Thom Jerek writes "Not everything works here, however. "I Remember Sex" with Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage), and "My Meds" are just plain bad; "Double Lifetime" with Ramblin' Jack Elliot reveals Wainwright's humor stretched to the metaphorical breaking point." I felt it, but being such a fan, I couldn't say it. But now it's out there, and I appreciate the straightening of my vision regarding Loudo.

But I must defend this group from the late 1960s, Harpers Bizarre, from the slings and arrows of critics on the site.

This group's work has been described as "soft psychedelic or soft AM pop" (Amazon) and "Broadway/Sunshine pop" (Wikipedia). I find their music incredibly distinctive and a taste, once acquired, that you won't be able to lose because it's so infectious.
How to be twee: wear a collar and tie in 1967 when you're in your twenties!

Sure, you may need time for acclimation, but it's perfect background music as you go about your chores. Their repertoire is impeccable: for example, they perform songs by Cole Porter ("Anything Goes," "Two Little Babes in the Woods"), Randy Newman (too many to mention, but highlights include "The Biggest Night of Her Life" and "Snow"), and the Gershwins ("I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise").

The title track of their initial effort, Feelin' Groovy, yielded a Top Ten hit and it receives All-Music's highest rating in their discography. But then the slams follow. Of their next release Anything Goes (and this one was my first exposure to them) the All-Music critic sniffs that it's "rock for the kiddies" or perhaps "rock for the old folks" and "way too twee" to be meaningful. To make matters worse, the critic refers to Randy Newman's orchestrations as "LA pop-rock schmaltz."
The second album: let the savaging by All-Music begin!
I understand that this opinion represents the case against the group, and undoubtedly many people will agree with it. I guess I've spent my life being slightly off-center in my musical tastes, so allow me to fire back with a defense.

First of all, the talent associated with this group is stunning. You have producer Lenny Waronker at the helm. Described as Newman's "unofficial song-plugger" at the time, Waronker would later rise from producing to becoming the head of A&R (Artists & Repetoire) at Reprise Records in 1971. He would subsequently become head of Warner Brothers and executive at Dreamworks. Check out this fascinating interview with him. Lots of wisdom there!

Ted Templeman, the lead vocalist for Harpers Bizarre, was soon to produce all of the Doobie Brothers' work. All-Music describes him as having a "strong, clear production aesthetic."

Here are some other musicians whose names dot the releases of Harpers Bizarre: Leon Russell, Lee Herschberg, and, of course, Randy Newman. After reading their biographies you have to marvel at the workshop that was Harpers Bizarre.

But mostly it's the songs. In his interview, Lenny Waronker repeatedly says that as an artist you must have good material. Boy, could he and Harpers Bizarre choose it! Their list is so diverse: you've got Otis Redding songs ("Hard to Handle," "Knock on Wood") stirred in with composers from the prerock era (Frank Loesser, Burton Lane, even Rodgers and Hammerstein!) Plus I love the songs that the band members themselves write.

Now let's return to the disdain displayed of most of their work on All-Music. Their work is "mildly eccentric," writes one reviewer of the The Secret Life of Harpers Bizarre, as it "skirts adult contemporary Muzak almost as it does anything that could be considered rock music, and is rather a dark day in the annals of sunshine pop." The followup, 1969's Harpers Bizarre, is described as a "fussy sunshine pop production" and "a soft rock marshmallow that was easier to swallow than their gooiest previous concoctions."

Perhaps I should stop here or my high praise of the group will completely lose its power! All I can say is that although I love the language and I fully understand the dissension, I can't agree with it. I love the true eccentrics, and that's what these guys were when you consider the historical moment musically. The "counter counterculture" is how Van Dyke Parks recently put it. Indeed.

Give Harper's Bizarre a listen. I hope you'll be delighted. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Original One Man Guy

Loudon Wainwright III has been a good friend of mine through the years. You see, I speak as if I know him because he's been telling me about his life with every record. At first, he was an amazingly distinctive voice. I was introduced to him on his second release, Album II. How high-pitched his voice was, and how strange his storytelling. He sang about persuading a woman to come up to his hotel room, about contemplating suicide, and about himself and a cat. He was idiosyncratic like my hero Randy Newman- confessional and self-deprecating, but in a very neurotic way.

Loudon kept up the pace and established a market presence, but like many songwriters, he was upended by disco and punk. Seemingly shuttled into irrelevance after recording two albums for Arista, Loudon wasn't heard from for about five years. But then he re-emerged on the Rounder Records label, and spent the 1980s digging into the central themes of his work: exploring his need for solitude, his familial relationships, and his manhood.

Loudon uses simple language in his songs. He takes worn phrases and reverses them, creating new meaning by connecting them to his own conflicts. Over the years his voice has deepened, and his singing has become masterful. Never is this more evident than exploring the treasures in a boxed retrospective of his work, 40 Odd Years.

I strongly recommend that you sit and enjoy the DVD of performances and interviews that are included in this collection. I found myself mesmerized yet again by him. What an amazing body of work! I found myself remembering when I first heard many of the songs, and they stand the test of time nicely. He is an engaging presence - a funny guy who doesn't hesitate to show his sadness.

I've gone to hear Loudon many times, and I still follow him closely. This release gave me a chance to spend some "quality time" with him and it was extremely pleasurable. If he's a stranger to you, or if you've not listened much over the years, give it a listen. You won't be disappointed!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

You Can't Beat Bennett

If you could time travel, what time period would you choose? After enjoying Tony Bennett's new book, Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett, I can tell you without reservation that I'd have loved to have been shoulder-to-shoulder with Tony as he visited jazz clubs along 52nd Street in New York in the 1950s. Billie, Louie, Ella - you name the vocal great, and they were fully alive and practicing!

This book reminds me of two other recent memoirs I've enjoyed: Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace and Willie Nelson's The Facts of Life: and Other Dirty Jokes. The authorial voice is completely authentic. In Young's book, I was struck by how much he was in the present: at various turns he talked about trying to sell music executives on a new sound recording system. You can feel him jump off the page. Same thing with Nelson. For someone who has crafted such wonderful and wise lyrics, he's totally a "down home" person. He's got many groaners in his dirty joke bag, but his love for them gives you a true sense of his personality. 

Tony Bennett's written voice is the same way. You will not hear anything close to negative in his remarks. His relentless optimism might drive you batty until you realize that the fellow is just being himself: protecting the "brand" that he's worked so hard to establish. It's good business and in no small measure it's also what has kept him on this earth for 86 years. 

Here's what is clear from this memoir: Tony is a very proud man (there's not an album in his catalog that he's ashamed of, he says, on the occasion of the publication of all of them in a $400 boxed set). He's justifiably proud of how hard he's worked and persisted. He cares about quality - always has, from the start of his career when he had to wrestle with Mitch Miller (the deal: one jazz album for each gimmicky pop album suggested) to his refusal to kowtow to Clive Davis at Columbia in the late 1960s and record more contemporary material. 

There's a characteristic Tony Bennett mode of delivery that Alec Baldwin caught beautifully on a Saturday Night Live skit (with Tony in on the joke). But don't think his presentation is ever canned. He is a true jazz singer - always sensitive to the moment and deeply in touch with his audience. He varies his pitch and his tone. He is always true to the lyric. Like all great singers, he tells the story.

Working 3 shows a night at the Copacabana and 7 an evening at the Paramount when he was starting out, one truly appreciates how this singer gained his chops. He cranked out 2 to 3 albums a year into the late 1960s. He has rarely gotten off the performing wheel, save for a downturn in the late 1970s (one for which he'd be rescued by his son who became his business manager).

I love the man. I'll never forget him signing an album for me one morning when I attended a public signing at a local department store. I'll always cherish when my family took my father to see him at the Arie Crown Theater in northern Chicagoland. 

Give this book a chance. You'll embrace this great American and put his music on. What a relaxing and satisfying place to be!