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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3/23/18: Springtime and snowstorms and saxophones

I wrote this two days ago during the snowstorm, and didn’t have a chance to post it until now.


It’s snowing out, which turns out to have been the phrase of the month up here in the Northeast. We’re on our fourth nor’easter of March, a time when crocuses and daffodils and little baby ducks usually show up and dot the landscape with color and love.

And that is happening, between snowstorms. I saw some crocuses the other day, as well as some petunias and daffodil shoots. The little baby ducks probably won’t show for a few weeks anyway, and all of this will probably be gone in a couple of days.

And until then, the snow really is lovely.

So in honor of things that are not what they were designed to be, but that are beautiful anyway, here are a couple of Vivaldi tunes performed on other instruments. First up, it’s L’ ensemble de saxophones de Strasbourg with the first movement of “Winter.”

Hearing a piece of music performed on an instrument it was not written for can be really enlightening. It often brings the piece to a whole new place that not even the composer dreamed of.

To me, this version does that. The performances are wonderful, and hearing this familiar music played by wind instruments brought out counter-melodies and rhythms I hadn’t paid attention to before.

 

And here’s the first movement of “Spring,” performed on 4 pianos by Yuja Wang, Emanuel Ax, Nelson Goerner and Julien Quentin.

Likewise, this cover version brings out aspects of the piece that I really hadn’t thought about previously. Again, a lot of that involves rhythms. Harmonies and counter-melodies really pop out in this version. It’s an enjoyable listen, but I think there’s a warmth to the original string version that is missing when the piece is performed on keyboards.

 

 

Image by Elizabeth Walsh

1/29/18: I made you a mixtape…

Do you remember cassette tapes?

They’re not making the kind of comeback that vinyl did, for a lot of reasons. Cassettes can get mangled pretty easily; the tape can get stuck in your tape player and then you have to get a pencil and wind it back up and hope the tape doesn’t get even more tangled. I was actually pretty good at reeling in unraveled tape (one of many skills I have that are no longer relevant).

But they were fun. They gave you the kind of control over the music that you don’t get on a CD or LP. You could tape stuff off the radio, or make mixtapes for your friends or latest crush. I don’t know what folks do now to impress potential dates – a Spotify playlist?

Bow Wow Wow put out a single about cassettes back when they were first introduced, about beating out big corporate record companies by recording music off the radio. They neglected to mention that artists don’t get any royalties when you do that, but it is a great song.

I was more a fan of buying the music and then making a cassette of it for my Walkman. And then I’d walk, man, all over town listening to the little audio universe I had created for myself.

I usually bought 90 minute tapes; you could fit an album on each side. You’d punch out the little plastic tabs at the top of the tape so you couldn’t record over it (when you did want to re-record, you put scotch tape over where the tabs used to be).

Generally there’s a little time left over at the end of the album so you can add two or three more songs. I remember on one tape, I put three different versions of “Around and Around” – here’s the Animals’ version, which has a really fun bass line.

 

Another tape had one of my favorite Madness tracks at the end:

 

And of course I made mixtapes. Generally I’d listen to the mix for a couple of months and then tape over it, but there was one I made in college that I loved. I think I still have it. I remember that it opened with Talking Heads:

 

Personally, I’m not done with cassettes. As part of my large unwieldy music collection, I have a milk crate filled with them, whittled down from at least 4 times that number of tapes. I still have a dual-cassette deck, and I have no plans to get rid of it. I even have my old Tascam 4-track recorder – I did a full album and many demos on that machine.

They may be out of date, but cassettes did contribute to a lot of happy hours of listening for me.

 

 

 

Image by stuart.childs
Creative Commons License 2.0

10/9/17: Monday Funday Dance Party

Ugh. It’s not just Monday, but a rainy, gloomy Monday. So I turned to one of my favorite feel better albums, Orchestre Baobab’s “Pirate’s Choice.” A fantastic album, it’s dignified and danceable at the same time.

But wait! There’s a new album! It came out at the beginning of the year, and I couldn’t be happier. Here’s a track from “Tribute To Ndiouga Dieng.”

 

My Monday just got infinitely better. Here’s hoping yours does, too.

 

 

Image by Jimmy Huang. Creative Commons license 2.0.

10/4/17: A bit of wicked wacky-wicky

Have you seen the Carioca? It’s not a foxtrot or a polka.

It’s a song, it’s a dance, it will be stuck in your head all day. I was listening to the Fireballs’ version this morning:

What do I love about it? The riff, of course. And the fact that it’s in a minor key, which adds a little mystery to it. Plus the song’s rhythm is unusual and fun to dance to. Play it when you’re alone in the house – I dare you not to dance along.

“Carioca” is a word used to describes things having to do with Rio de Janiero. The song first appeared in the 1933 movie “Flying Down to Rio,” and was sung by Etta Moten Barnett:

The thirties were a very difficult time economically. People were unemployed and hungry, and their only recourse was to perform highly choreographed dance numbers on top of airplanes.

Besides the irresistably catchy “Carioca,” the movie features Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing together on film for the first time. I am a huge fan of Fred and Ginger, and heard the song for the first time while watching this movie.

The song has been covered frequently over the years – here are the Andrews Sisters doing it:

And here’s my personal favorite version, by Caetano Veloso. It’s haunting, like someone reminiscing about a very good time long ago.

9/22/17: Sunshine and rainbows and hysterical mutism

I’ve been thinking about CBGB’s lately. Back in the 90’s during my Doc Martin years, we played there a bunch of times.

I always liked playing at CB’s – they were really well-organized about the musical acts. You had your own dressing room (or shared one), so there was a place to keep your cases. And they had the onloading/offloading process between acts down to a science. We usually made a little money, too, and met some terrific musicians.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows; the ladies’ room was among the scariest I have ever dealt with. It’s hard to capture in words exactly what it was like, but let’s just say it really encouraged me to rethink this whole going to the bathroom thing. Thanks in part to that place, one of the skills I’ve picked up during my musical career is how to use the facilities without touching anything.

One night at CB’s, for some unknown reason (probably a little stage fright), I experienced what can only be described as temporary hysterical mutism. Nothing was coming out of my mouth. It happened mid-song, and I had to think fast.

What do you do when you’re in the middle of a gig and your voice gives out? You think fast. I made a split second decision to continue mouthing the lyrics, even though no sound was coming out. I did this for about a song and a half, when my voice came back online.

The poor soundman was going nuts. Every time I looked over at him, he was frantically working the knobs and faders, trying to turn up my nonexistant voice. I always felt bad about that, but in retrospect I think it was the right thing to do. If we’d stopped for a few minutes, I probably would have freaked out and stayed mute for longer.

Later on, reflecting my advancing years, I began to do gigs at CB’s Gallery, which was also a fun place to play. Much cleaner bathrooms, too. And I never went mute during a gig there – actually, the CBGB gig was the only time that happened.

Here’s a song by Syd Straw about CB’s. Her memories are different than mine, but it was the kind of place where memorable things happened. RIP CBGB OMFUG.

 

 

Image by Jeremy Keith. 

Creative Commons License 2.0. 

Golden Oldies

Have you read the book “Jane Eyre?” It’s one of my all-time favorites. I think I read it for the first time in junior high school, and even now I go back to it every few years. I do it because it’s a great story, and because I get something new out of it every time. As I grow older and change, I notice different things about the story and view the characters and events in a different light.

Music is like that, too. We all know about those musical numbers that have been played so often, you can’t stand them any more. Like “Stairway to Heaven.” Or “Born in the U.S.A.” Or “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

As I may have mentioned one or two or a hundred times on this blog, I’m a big Rolling Stones fan. I can listen to songs like “Honky Tonk Woman” or “Shattered” over and over again, but I realize that for a lot of people that would be torture. The Stones’ hits have been played so often, in so many environments from radio to stadium events, that we all know them backwards and forwards.

But I argue that it’s worth revisiting these old chestnuts from time to time. I think that if you can get beyond having heard them so often, you’ll always discover something new.

I have a Bach channel on Pandora, and it frequently plays something from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” Now music from this piece has appeared in movies and TV ads and it’s on classical radio all the time; it’s kind of the “Stairway to Heaven” of classical music. But still.

Yesterday I was listening to “Fall,” and the Adagio movement came on. I literally stopped in my tracks to listen. It’s just so beautiful. It feeds your soul.

 

 

It’s always great to discover new music; that’s one of the reasons I started this blog. But the old classics can continue to give joy, whether it’s the first or fiftieth time you hear them.

Working it

The past few weeks have been pretty busy, thanks to some wonderful wonderful work. I know everyone hates waking up in the morning to get ready for their jobs, but it’s so great to have a reason to hate waking up.

It seems like the best working songs have to do with not liking your job, just like the best love songs are usually about affairs that either haven’t begun yet or have ended badly. I was really psyched to have this project, but I suspect that if I wrote a song about it, it wouldn’t be very good.

So just in time for Labor Day, here are a few songs about not liking your job. Even if you do.

 

 

Photo by Matt MacGillivray. Creative Commons License 2.0.

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?

 

7/10/17: US3 & Herbie Hancock

I was always a big fan of this song. I knew they were using samples from Blue Note recordings, but never bothered to track down the original source material.

 

But then it came and found me. I was listening to the radio, and some Herbie Hancock came on:

 

It’s great to listen to the original and compare it to US3’s interpretation. Both tracks are great, by the way, but right now I’m all about Herbie and his Cantaloupe Island.

 

 

 

Image by Larry Johnson, CC License 2.0