The Weekly iPod Shuffle, Episode 2

20 11 2008

ipodclassicbuckleyTime once more for the iPod Shuffle, in which I hit the appropriate button on my l’il ol’ iPod Nano and write down the first twelve songs that come up, then post them here with pertinent commentary. Here’s what came up just now:

1. Our Song- Joe Henry from Civilians

Joe’s Trampoline album is one of my favorite releases from the last 20 years; I can’t recommend it highly enough. However, subsequent album have seen him slowly descend into a sort of turgid jazz-pop hell, full of songs just dripping with echo-laden atmosphere but missing important things like melody and beat and inspired lyrical content. But Civilians, his most recent to date, is a step back from the abyss; Henry writes actual, honest to goodness melodies, and even deigns to speed the tempo up a bit rather than plod, almost as if he’s suddenly interested in making accessible music again rather than experiments in tone and mood. “Our Song” is certainly one of the best track on the album- a heartfelt and resonant musing on days gone by, but there’s enough wit in the lyric to keep it from being a pandering exercise in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. True, it does have that plodding tempo that (I swear) Henry doesn’t use throughout the album, but the melody is strong enough to maintain the listener’s interest. Here’s Henry, in his own words, about this cut.

Civilians

2. Widow’s Walk- Van Dyke Parks from Song Cycle

Song Cycle is an album that took me years to finally listen to, although I do admire the loopy gifts of the Maestro Mr. Parks very much, especially his efforts as arranger and/or lyricist on other people’s work. His own albums, though, I’ve always found inconsistent, even though they all have their moments. Song Cycle was critically lauded, but a sales disaster so it didn’t stay in print very long, certainly not long enough for me to find without a great deal of trouble when I started collecting in the 70’s, and I never ran across a used copy, so it has gone unheard by me until just recently…and I find it as up-and-down as I do the others I’ve heard. “Widow’s” is a vaguely nostalgic, baroquely arranged, minstrel-sy kind of tuneless tune, if minstrel shows has synthesizers, accordions and mandolins instead of banjos; almost a recitation. It’s more interesting as an abstract thing, an idea, rather than as a song. It’s not one of my favorite cuts on this album. That’s the way it goes on shuffle setting sometimes!

Song Cycle

3. Dreams- Joe Walsh from The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get

When people think of Joe Walsh, if they think of him at all these days (in any context other than the guitar player in the Eagles), they think of “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Funk #49”-style funky hard rock guitar riffing, or to a lesser extent goofy, rubber-faced mugging- but one of the reasons he left the James Gang in the first place was to expand his musical horizons a bit; do quiet, jazzy tracks or big, orchestrated ballads if he chose to and not catch crap from his bandmates…and his first handful of solo albums are laced with examples of this. This cut is one of them- it starts out with a quiet, shuffling rhythm, punctuated by Steely Dan-style keyboard figures and vibes, but then launches into a rock-guitar accompanied chorus of sorts (“…she makes me feel fine, keeps me in line…”), before returning back to the jazz. It’s actually quite melodic, and a very enjoyable track, even though the lyrics ramble from one thing to another and don’t really make much sense- it seems to be alternately a love song, a call to help your fellow man, and an ode to the art of taking it easy. Oh well, nobody expects Dylan from Joe effin’ Walsh anyway. I’ve actually become quite the fan of Joe’s early-mid 70’s output since I’ve grown up and become a theoretical adult; didn’t have much use for it at the time. Then again, I didn’t hear tracks like this one or “Days Gone By” from this album, either- all I ever heard was “Rocky Mountain Way” (the live version) and “Life’s Been Good”.

The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get

4. For Emily (Wherever I May Find Her)- Simon and Garfunkel from Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits

A live version of the Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme track which takes full advantage of Art Garfunkel’s choirboy tenor in service of Simon’s somewhat pretentious lyrics. It’s a lovely tune, from an album (S&G’s Greatest Hits, that is) I used to listen to a LOT as a teen.

Simon & Garfunkel – Greatest Hits

5. Walkin’ With a Mountain- Mott The Hoople from Mad Shadows

From Mott’s second Atlantic album, a couple of years before they hooked up with Bowie and became rockstars for a too-short time. Basically a rock-out-with-your-cock-out Chuck Berry-style rocker, and a concert favorite which they performed live until they broke up in 1975. Those Atlantic Mott albums always suffered, in my opinion, from a murky, muffled, shabby sound, and perhaps the best thing Bowie did for them (besides give them “All the Young Dudes”, of course) was open up their sound so people could hear them play.

Mad Shadows

6. Silent Nocturne- the dB’s and Friends from Christmas Time Again

Apparently a couple of years ago the Chris Stamey Band recorded a Christmas album. Then, a year or two later, it was rereleased with extra tracks by Whiskeytown, Marshall Crenshaw, Pete Holsapple, and a bunch of others. Of course I didn’t know anything about it until someone mentioned it on Twitter the other day. This is a lovely solo acoustic rendition of “Silent Night”- I don’t know who’s playing, though. I will assume Holsapple unless otherwise corrected.

Christmas Time Again

7. Anonymous Proposition- Tim Buckley from Lorca

Lorca was Buckley’s first real attempt to escape from the narrow folkie-singer/songwriter bag, writing songs with standard verse/verse/chorus/verse structures, that he felt that he’d been trapped in; he’d been listening to a lot of Miles and other experimental musicians, and wanted to expand his musical horizons. This is a long track, almost eight minutes, and is mostly Buckley crooning come-hither lyrics and long, held-out notes to someone, as guitar and upright bass noodle along behind. Reminds me somewhat of Pentangle, perhaps, especially because of the Danny Thompson-style bass playing of John Balkin, or King Crimson circa Islands, no kiddin’. While this is not a song I’d want to listen to at a party or driving down the highway with the top down, it is a very effective quiet-time, early-morning reflective piece and as such is quite listenable.

Lorca

8. A Lucky Guy- Rickie Lee Jones from Pirates

One of many beautiful tracks from Jones’ underrated album, and one of the more straightforward, both in subject matter and arrangement; it has a laid back, basic sort of jazz shuffle rhythm, and instrumentation is simple brush drum, upright bass, felt-barely-heard guitar, and piano, along with some wonderful group chorus vocals. Wikipedia says that its snippy lyric is directed at then-boyfriend Tom Waits; I can hear that, sure.

Pirates

9. Ride ’em Cowboy- Sparks from L’il Beethoven

A musing on the need for persistence in order to achieve your goals in the face of the vagaries of public opinion as only the Mael Bros. can, with a typically heavy dose of the wry and a repetitive, classically-themed arrangement. I’m amazed the Bros. have hung in there as long as they have, making smart, sharp, excellent music in a world which you’d think would be totally indifferent to their charms.

Lil’ Beethoven

10. Which Will- Nick Drake from Pink Moon

I’m sure the majority of you reading this know the frustratingly sad story of the doomed bard of Tanworth-in-Arden, so I’ll spare you the details and merely direct you here and here. This track is from his third and final album, at least the final one to see release while he was still alive, and it’s as spare and bleak as the majority of the songs on that release tend to be, only Drake’s intimate, hushed voice and acoustic guitar, with a neat little hammer-note riff at the base of the song. At least I think that’s what you call it. Anyway, a look at the lyrics reveals, at least as I see it, that he was more than a little frustrated and hurt himself by the lack of acceptance of his art. Pink Moon isn’t always an easy listen; Drake sounds haunted and forlorn on much of it, but it does cast a beautiful, serene sort of spell, if you’re in the right frame of mind.

Nick Drake- Pink Moon

11. Smile- Laura Nyro from Smile

As with Buckley, I’m a fairly recent convert to the music of Ms. Nyro; for decades, I went along with knowing of her hit songs she wrote that were covered by the likes of Blood, Sweat and Tears, Three Dog Night and most famously the Fifth Dimension…but eventually I broke down and picked up the 2-CD collection that Epic put out a few years ago. The most immediate thing I noticed was how much of an influence she must have been on so many singers- Wendy Waldman comes to mind (It’s amazing how much WW sounds like Nyro sometimes, and bear in mind that heard Waldman WAY before I heard Nyro), also Rickie Lee Jones (see above). Unfortunately, I also noticed that I liked the earlier stuff better, the songs I was already familiar with through other artists such as “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues”…her later, more personal work, at least as represented on the twofer, sounded unfocused, self-indulgent, and tuneless, much to my dismay and consternation. However, I liked some of it enough to still be curious, and eventually I ran across a copy of Smile, a 1976 comeback album of sorts for her…and lo and behold, I liked it a lot- it was breezy, melodic and a bit jazzy, Joni-style; experimental in places, sometimes featuring Japanese instrumentation,  but not to the detriment of the song. Even the tracks which I had somehow overlooked on the collection sounded better in a different context. This, the title cut, features what sounds like a koto at various points throughout and sways along with a vaguely funky-jazzy rhythm until about halfway through, when the tempo stops and plucked upright bass and koto and flute play us out till the end. I’m not always fond of this schizo of an approach to song structure, but it works OK here.

Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro
Smile

12. Back to the Land- Black Oak Arkansas from High on the Hog

Oh, chillen, back in the day we had this thing called Southern Rock, a down-home countrified version of the recycled blues that the English fellers like Pete Green and Eric Clapton were playing. On the one end of the spectrum, we had the Allman Brothers, and on the other, a thousand nondescript practitioners, mostly on Capricorn Records, like Hydra. Somewhere in between was Black Oak, led by energetic and lecherous frontman Jim “Dandy” Mangrum and his braying Foghorn Leghorn-meets-Jani Lane schtick- they weren’t players on the same level as the Allmans or the Skynyrds, but they could provide an agreeable chugging boogie when necessary. Hog was by far their most successful record, the culmination of a good five or six years of touring and not-bad boogie releases with titles such as If An Angel Came to See You, Would You Make Her Feel At Home?. The reason for this success was the huge hit single “Jim Dandy”, a cover of an old blues tune most notably performed by LaVern Baker, and even though there were no other hits there were some decent cuts, such as this one, a change-of-pace bluegrass-style song about a good ol’ boy, nostalgic for the old homestead. While I like the other change-of-pace track from this one, “High ‘n Dry”, a lot more, this is still agreeable stuff.

High on the Hog

Thanks for making it this far, and just a reminder- click on the links after each review to go to Amazon.com, and if you’re moved to buy, then I get a little cut! Ain’t that cool? Anyway, I’ll be back with another episode next week.

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The Weekly iPod Shuffle, Episode 1

13 11 2008

ipodbeegeesIn an attempt to revive this dormant blog, lying fallow because I just can’t seem to get the time to really get deep into writing about this or that album or music in general these days, I thought I might try something different (for this blog, anyway): I thought each week I could set my Mother Box (my iPod, OK?) on “shuffle”, post the first 12 songs which come up, and comment on them. This might turn out to be as labor-intensive as the single-album posts, but nothing attempted, nothing gained, right? If nothing else, it might spur me to change the music on the ol’ iPod more often.

Are you ready, Steve? Aha.
Andy? Yeah! Mick? OK.
Alright, fellas, let’s go!

1. Every Time We Say Goodbye- John Coltrane from My Favorite Things

Reflective instrumental, from a song by Cole Porter. Coltrane plays his usual smooth, assured sax, and there’s a nice piano piece by McCoy Tyner. Not the most celebrated track on this very important Jazz album, but it sounds good to me, and conjures up Autumn in my mind, for some reason. I’m not what you can call a huge Jazz aficionado, and a lot of the more free-form and smooth versions just sound cacophonous and bland, respectively, to me- but Coltrane and Miles rarely let me down.

2. If You Love Someone Set Them Free- Sting from The Dream of the Blue Turtles

This is from Sting’s first solo album; got in the mood to hear it a while back- I had it on cassette in the late 80’s, and actually wound up liking it very much for a while there. It’s more jazzy and tuneful than much of his Police stuff, and it’s more diverse and interesting than many of his stuffy and self-important subsequent albums. Of course, this was a BIG hit single; as I recall, I liked the video that accompanied it, as directors Godley & Creme worked out their fascination with isolating each person in the shots and doing a different video editing trick with them. No, I don’t know what the process is called. The track itself is catchy in its vaguely funky way and makes it easy to ignore the easy greeting card platitudes of the lyric. I think Omar Hakim is the drummer on this; I always liked watching him play in his loose-limbed, energetic way.

3. Elenore- The Turtles from Happy Together: The Very Best of the Turtles

While I’ve been a fan of the work of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, aka Flo and Eddie, as I discovered them via a 1-2 punch of getting their self-titled second album and the Mothers of Invention’s Fillmore East June 1971, I didn’t really get interested in their previous group, the Turtles, until relatively recently. After acquiring a best-of, then watching the 1991 documentary DVD, I was amazed to discover how many songs they did that I remember hearing and liking as a kid growing up in the late 60’s, but didn’t know who did them, such as “You Showed Me” and “She’d Rather Be With Me”. Anyway, I did know that the Turtles did this track, and it’s a good one- even though it has a most crass backstory. Seems that White Whale records were consrtantly pressuring Kaylan to write another hit followup to “Happy Together”, and the increasingly-psychedelically progressive-minded band didn’t want to (the old familiar refrain)…but finally Howard relented and locked himself in a hotel room with a bottle of something (I forget what, he related this story on the DVD) until he finally worked this one out, and decided to be as snarky and sarcastic as he could be in doing so (and if you’re familiar with Flo & Eddie, you know that they could be very sarcastic when they chose to be), hence the lines such as “…and you really do me well” and the celebrated “pride and joy et cetera” in the chorus. White Whale didn’t notice any of it, released it, and were temporarily happy when it shot right up the charts. And rightfully so- it’s a great song.

4. Sparkle Up- The High Llamas from Hawaii

For those of you who wish that there were more albums like Pet Sounds available for purchase, then Hawaii is the album for you- it’s as if Sean O’ Hagen somehow reached into Brian Wilson’s head and siphoned off a generous portion of his mojo, it’s just that eerily similar. This particular track is an instrumental which glides gently along, working in strings and horns and a cascading guitar figure, even incorporating the James Bond theme at one point, and beginning and ending with space noises on a synthesizer. It’s lovely and pleasant, but after a while it gets a little monotonous, which perhaps signals a need to learn when to finish a cut, something I assume he’s worked on in the 12 years since this album was released. This is the only High Llamas album I have.

5. Sunshine- Sparklehorse from Good Morning Spider

It’s kinda hard to describe the music that Mark Linkous makes as Sparklehorse; at the root of it is folk-rock of a sort, but it’s enhanced with a lot of studio trickery. It’s tender and delicate when it needs to be, and sometimes harsh and dissonant…but for me it’s usually always very listenable and often moving and I have yet to hear a bad album from this guy. This is a loping, quiet sort of track with a beautful melody accented with acoustic guitar, piping synths and a frail, hoarse vocal from Linkous. Features the voice of Vic Chestnutt on an answering machine towards the end. Seems to be a rumination on mortality.

6. Small Blue Thing- Suzanne Vega from Retrospective: The Best of Suzanne Vega

An acoustic track from her self-titled debut album, in which she seems to be flashing on a childhood memory and relating it to how she is regarding something or someone in a self-absorbed fashion, as a “small blue thing” if you will. It’s pleasant but forgettable with some very 80’s keyboards present in the background for color. For some commentary on this track go here. It would be a few more years before I really got interested in her music.

7. Done Changed My Way of Living- Taj Mahal from The Natch’l Blues

This, boys and girls, is the blues. From Taj’s second album, released at the tail end of 1968. If you’ve never seen Taj on the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus from that year, then you’re missing out on something wonderful. I wonder if Bob Dylan had this track in mind when he wrote “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” for Slow Train Coming.

8. Lay Down and Die- The Bee Gees from Cucumber Castle

I really hadn’t heard very much by the Bee Gees prior to the 70’s R&B and Disco stuff that defined them for so many people; I probably heard 60’s popsongs like “I Started a Joke” and “Gotta Get a Message to You” on the radio, but as a kid growing up I didn’t listen to the radio all that much and they didn’t leave an impression if I did hear them. It wasn’t until Main Course and “Jive Talkin'” that I really was made aware of the Brothers Gibb, and honestly, I wasn’t a fan until many years after their mirror ball heyday, when I started appreciating quality stuff like “Nights on Broadway” and “Stayin’ Alive”…which is not to say that I was led to purchase. Hearing a cut on oldies radio stations every so often was fine with me. Eventually, though, I ran across a copy of their second album Idea, from 1968, in a box of yard sale stuff and since it had a Klaus Voormann cover, I figured that alone was worth the price of a dollar. When I played the album, I was surprised to be greeted with some very nice British (OK, Australian-ish) folk-pop-rock, closer to the Beatles and the Hollies than anything else. After that, I have kinda-sorta been picking up thier pre-funk albums when I get the chance, and this particular track is from their fifth official release, 1970’s Cucumber Castle, unusual in that it was tied in with a TV special that I’ve never seen. It was on YouTube briefly, but has apparently been removed. Anyway, if that wasn’t enough, warbly-voiced brother Robin Gibb had left the group shortly before they recorded the album for a solo career which lasted about one record. but did compete with Cucumber on the charts. This track is a Roy Orbison-style ballad with a Beatlesque piano (think “Hey Jude”) chugging away in the background and martial drum rhythms throughout. It’s quite good, actually, and I’m really surprised at how much I’m liking the early Bee Gees stuff that I’ve discovered so far.

9. Flying to Morning- Rosebud from Rosebud

Rosebud was a West Coast folk-rock group that was assembled by ex-Modern Folk Quartet member and Tim Buckley producer Jerry Yester, and his wife Judy Henske, who had released a well-received album in 1969 titled Farewell Aldebaran on Zappa’s Straight Records label. When keyboardist Craig Doerge came along, they decided to start a group, and Rosebud was the result. Their debut album, from whence this track came, was released on Warners in the early 1970’s. Of course, by the time I discovered this group in the mid-70’s via that company’s Loss Leaders compilations, specifically the lovely track “Lullabye II (Summer Carol”), they had broken up (Henske/Yester, and by extension the group as well) before they could even tour in support of it.  Here’s the whole story. Anyway, this is a decent track, the album closer actually, which features soaring strings and Henske’s powerful vocal, a little huskier than Grace Slick’s perhaps, and which she sometimes let get the best of her.

10. One of These Days- Paul McCartney from McCartney II

Recorded at home, a la McCartney (his solo debut) but with more overdubs and a few more synths, McCartney II was Paulie’s first release after his 1980 Japanese pot bust and the dissolution of Wings. The album’s closing track, it’s a winsome little acoustic guitar ballad, with BV’s by Linda (her only appearance on the record, believe it or not), expressing the wish to stop, one of these days, and smell the roses so to speak. It’s enjoyable enough, but not especially melodically memorable, and is easy to forget when the record’s over.

11. Iceberg- 10cc from How Dare You!

A 20’s-30’s jazz-style ditty from the last 10cc album to feature all four original members, and typically, it ‘s a skewed-perspective lyric, written from the point of view of a stalker to the distant object of his affection. Queen used to do this kind of song (stylistically, not subject-wise) on their early albums. It’s very catchy; those guys were pop geniuses in my book.

12. Ripples- Genesis from A Trick of the Tail

Trick was the first Genesis album after Peter Gabriel left the band; even though Gabriel was responsible for a lot of clever stuff, the other guys in the band were no slouches either, and the result took a lot of people by surprise at how wide-ranging, tuneful and well-played it was. “Ripples” is not about cheap wine, but is actually a rumination on aging, and has a beautiful melody even if the song itself is a little overlong.

And that’s it! I’ll try to do this again next week. Thanks to Michael for the inspiration (and the pic).