5/15/18: Seven Albums

I just did one of those Facebook things where you have to list seven albums that have been on your “active” playlist for years and years. You’re supposed to just post the cover of the album, and no need to explain why I like it. It’s probably some kind of marketing scheme that is actually collecting information about my shopping habits based on my listening habits. But what the heck, it’s fun. And it’s an interesting challenge – it’s not what I have officially designated as my Favorite Albums, but rather the ones I actually listen to.

Since I wasn’t supposed to talk about the albums on Facebook, I’ll do it here. Here’s my list:

Simon and Garfunkel: “Sounds of Silence”
Amy Rigby: “Diary of a Mod Housewife”
Rolling Stones: “Between the Buttons”
Leo Kottke: “Songs for 6 & 12 String Guitar”
Sam Prekop: self-titled
Love: “Forever Changes”
Joe Jackson: “Look Sharp”

There were a few albums that almost made the list, like the Beatles’ “Revolver,” James’ “Laid,” and Fugazi’s “End Hits” – they’re all great, and if I had been asked for 10 albums instead of seven, I would have listed them.

I think the qualities that draw me to these albums are strong songwriting and a pop music feel. They also all have a combination of great riffs, memorable melodies, and insightful lyrics. I would love to have written a lot of these songs. They’re all “hummers” – you can’t help humming them all day after you hear one. Even the Leo Kottke songs, with no vocals; you want to hum along to his guitar parts.

LookSharp

When I first started getting serious about playing the bass, I spent my practice time learning songs that I really liked. “Look Sharp” was at the top of my list, right after “Talking Heads ’77.” Both albums have great, melodic bass lines that hold the rest of the song together. At the time, I was unemployed, and set myself the goal of learning all of “Look Sharp” on bass. It was a challenging project, and I was having a great time. Unfortunately, somebody hired me and I had to put my “Look Sharp” plans on hold. But I’ve recently decided I’m going to take up the challenge again and finish learning the album.

AmyRigby

I discovered Amy Rigby’s “Diary of a Mod Housewife” at exactly the right time. Have you listened to an album and felt like it was addressed directly to you? That’s how I felt with this one – I was the right age, the right gender, and going through a lot of the same things the songs talk about. She writes fantastic pop songs, and she’s a great lyricist. Plus, Elliot Easton from the Cars produced it, just to put the cherry on top of this awesome-flavored musical sundae.

SoundsSilence

I’ve known about Simon and Garfunkel for most of my life – my parents had “Bookends” and I think one other album. I’ve always loved the way they use harmonies (Simon and Garfunkel, not my parents) – tastefully, not too much, and just in the right places. Their lyrics paint amazing pictures of the darker side of life and love. Two characters kill themselves over the course of the album, and at least one other dies for some undetermined reason. But the high body count is balanced out by the beautiful darkness of “Sounds of Silence” and “I Am a Rock,” as well as the wonderfully goofy “We’ve Got a Groovy Thing.”

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The Rolling Stones are another band I’ve known about forever. I can remember my uncle playing “Hot Rocks” on the 8-track back when I was a wee thing. “Between the Buttons” comes from a period in the Stones’ history that I particularly like – their songs were on the poppier side (see “Amanda Jones”) and they were experimenting with different sound sources, like the cello and recorder on “Ruby Tuesday.” And Charlie Watts drew a nifty little cartoon for the back of the record. “Connection” is probably my favorite song on the album, but there are a lot of great ones to check out.

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As for Leo Kottke, if I could play any one of the songs on this album, I would be very happy indeed. It’s definitely complex music, but also very accessible. I could listen to this album over and over again (and I have). There are no vocals on this, but I wouldn’t call it a lack of vocals so much as just the right amount of guitar. And it’s a very catchy group of songs; Leo writes good riffs.

SamPrekop

The Sam Prekop album is one of those records I had on continuous heavy rotation for weeks. It’s restrained, jazzy, spare, and compelling. But it’s still emotionally enthralling. You might know Prekop from the Sea and Cake, who are a little more rock & roll; this is a more minimal experience. Oddly enough, considering how mellow a lot of his music is, the only concert where I ever thought I might encounter violence was at a Sam Prekop show in the East Village. It was totally the venue’s fault; they packed in the fans until nobody could even move comfortably. A fight almost broke out right in front of me. Still, Sam played great and I enjoyed seeing him.

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And of course, there’s Love. Even if you don’t like music from the 60’s, even if you don’t like complex song structures and surreal lyrics, even if you don’t like total awesomeness, it’s worth giving “Forever Changes” a shot. It’s really different from a lot of music of the time; I think that it would do very well if released today. There are a couple different songwriters in the band, which helps keep things interesting, and the songs themselves are so compelling that I feel like I learn something new every time I listen to them.

In fact, that’s another quality all of these albums have in common. It’s not just that they’re easy to listen to multiple times, but every time I do listen, I get something out of it. That for me is a mark of a successful piece – it continually entertains and informs over time.

 

Header image by Nan Palmero. Creative Commons License 2.0.

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7/17/17: Monday Funday Dance Party

I love this song because it gets to the heart of what a pop song should be – music for dancing and having a good time. Shaking your booty is optional, but encouraged.

Yes, slow, romantic songs also make amazing pop, but this is Monday Funday Dance Party, after all. Besides, I have a thing for songs that are so insanely happy that it may actually annoy the more mellow listener.

And the video! Happy toast and drunken squirrels. Does it get better than that?

 

4/10/17: Monday Funday Dance Party

My favorite things about this song? Inez Foxx’s fabulous voice, first of all. It’s like honey, but is so powerful. And she’s got great vocal control.

 

The rhythm track is great, too. There’s so much going on, you just get pulled into the music. And the next thing you know, you’re dancing on top of your desk while you sing into a fake mic made out of a paper towel holder. Then you have to have a meeting with your boss, but it all turns out okay because he also loves the Foxx siblings, and he has his own fake mic/paper towel holder.

Sometimes, it all works out.

11/18/16: Leonard Cohen

Oh Leonard.

Eighty-two is a good long life, but for me he’s been taken away far too young, He’s one of my favorite songwriters. Every song is a novel, condensed into three or four minutes.

I’ve got to be honest – I prefer it when other people cover his music, for the most part. I’m not a fan of the production used on his stuff. There are a few exceptions, of course.

I was introduced to his music by the tribute album “I’m Your Fan.” It was a European release, and I only have it on cassette. You can find it out there on the internet.

Here are a couple tracks from there:

 

Johnny Cash was born to cover Leonard Cohen songs; here’s “Like a Bird on a Wire.” Supposedly, Kris Kristofferson told Cohen that he wants the lyrics from this on his tombstone. So do I.

 

Of course, everyone recognizes “Hallelujah;” here it is by Jeff Buckley, another good soul who left us too soon.

 

I’ll close with Cohen performing “Famous Blue Raincoat.”I’ve covered several of his songs, but I’ll never do this one; I’ll never be able to do it justice.

Thanks for the trouble you took from my eyes, L. Cohen. Requiem in pace.

 

 

 

Image by Shawn Carpenter CC 2.0 License.

5/23/16: Monday Funday Dance Party!

There. Now you’ll be singing this to yourself all day long. I know I will.

Back in the late 90’s, even jaded grunge enthusiasts had to begrudgingly (be-grungily?) admit how much fun this song is. And for the younger crowd, this was a perfect pop-crush band; three cute brothers, and one for every age range.

Twenty years on, the Hansens aren’t super-huge mega rockstars, but they’re out there playing music, hosting songwriting get-togethers, and starting up a brewery (yes, one beer is called “MmmmHop”). Here’s an article from Vulture on what they’re doing these days:

Hanson on the 20th Birthday of ‘MMMBop’

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to mmmbop my way to the kitchen for some more coffee.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

4/11/16: Monday Funday Dance Party!

Seems like it’s one of those Mondays when your eyes don’t want to open and all the coffee in the world won’t help.

But you know what does help? Ricky Martin …

…. And Lou Bega. Try to listen to just the bass line in this one, it really makes the song. Simple, and perfect.

… and Outkast.

You see that bass “Possum Jenkins” is playing? That’s the kind of bass I play. It’s either a Rickenbacker 4001 or 4003; I play a 4001.

One of the things that makes this song sound so cool is the phrasing. A phrase is a certain number of measures that repeat throughout the song. In pop music, a phrase is usually four measures long, and in 4/4 time.

In this song, the phrase is six bars long, and the fifth measure is only two beats. It’s just different enough to sound distinctive, but it’s still highly danceable.

So let’s dance!

March 9, 2016

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGeorge_Martin_-_backstage_at_LOVE.jpg

You can accomplish a lot in 90 years.

George Martin just passed away, and my thoughts are with his family and loved ones.

Some of you younger kids have probably never heard of George Martin. He’s a good name to look out for if you’re browsing through older music; he produced and arranged music for Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cheap Trick, America, Jeff Beck, Ultravox, and especially the Beatles.

I would argue that Martin did a lot to help shape the musical form we call rock. He brought orchestration into the Beatles’ recordings, and vastly increased rock’s musical vocabulary, adding nuance to a language then mainly spoken by teenagers.

If Martin had not been around in the 60’s, I wonder if we would have Jeff Lynne, King Crimson or Yes?

George Martin’s name is almost always linked with the Beatles. He worked on every album they recorded. I’m not putting down the Beatles at all, by the way – they came with their fantastic songwriting and their own ideas about arranging and producing. Martin helped them to realize their ideas, and added a few of his own.

And the next time you’re having an argument about whether the drums should have 12 dedicated tracks, keep in mind the Beatles’ albums were all done on either 2-track, 4-track or 8-track tape machines.

Here’s a wonderful tribute, courtesy of Paul McCartney.

http://www.paulmccartney.com/news-blogs/news/paul-mccartney-on-george-martin

And here’s one of my favorite Beatles tracks:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUMFp0F6mp0

2/29/16: Monday Funday Dance Party!

Once upon a time, there was a 21 and under club called “Phil’s Bongo Room.” It doesn’t matter where it was; it’s been gone for a long time anyway. It was lost to an unfortunate infestation of luxury condos.

Anyhoo, it was fun and they had live bands and a floor that lit up like the one in “Saturday Night Fever.” I went there one night with two girlfriends; we were all about 13 or 14. They had a cover band that played “Jungle Love.”

Of course it was nowhere near what Morris & Co could do, but the band played really well and were a lot of fun to dance to.

The next song that the cover band played was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps.” Also a lot of fun, but not necessarily how I would follow up Morris Day & the Time. How about a little Sheila E instead?

 

Photo Credit: “Dancing With the Storms” by JD Hancock, via Creative Commons

July 17, 2015

This just popped into my head, displacing “Thank You For Being a Friend,” the theme song to “The Golden Girls.” Thank you, Tony. Thank you, Dawn.

There was a point in the early to mid-seventies where pop songs became so hook-laden that they were almost annoyingly catchy. You hear it for the first time in 10 years and think “That’s a great song! I should listen to it more.” But then after two or three listens, you just can’t take it any more. It’s like skipping the cake and just eating the icing.

Three Dog Night can be like that. Some of their songs are great, and some are just not great songs. And no matter how amazing the hook is, it’s that musical skeleton underneath that makes it work.

Now this is a good song, with a great hook:

I just love that middle part, where they’re all singing in harmony.

I recently bought Three Dog Night’s greatest hits album. I’d had the chorus to “Shangri-La” going through my head for a couple of days before I figured out who the band was*, and they were all over my iPod for about two months. Then I just had to delete them. Too much icing.

But that’s the challenge of writing great pop songs – you have to take risks. And every once in a while you’ll fly too close to the sun, and your magic wings will dissolve into an icky pool of melted sugar.

On a totally different note**, here’s a great non-pop, non-sugary piece by Art Blakey & the Afro Drum Ensemble: