Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Song Reassignment Surgery 5; Bold Covers

People Are Strange (The Doors), 1967: Stina Nordenstam (1998)

Fun fact about atoms
Everyone in the world is made up of nothingness. While that may sound grim, it's the truth.

In fact, everyone currently on earth, all 7.6 billion of us, we could all fit into the room you're in right now. The entire human race, every single person, could all be compressed into a solid cube with the equivalent size of a sugar cube – all because we are made up of nothingness.

So, to extend the metaphor, space can be as significant—or more, even—as the material, in both matter and art. It’s often the very place where the most interesting things happen.

To wit: Swedish singer Stina Nordenstam has reworked an album’s worth of severely reductive and nearly unrecognizable covers, including this arduous filleting of People are Strange (from her 1998 album of the same name). On Nordenstam’s Strange, the formula works an uneasy yet highly effective balance of bringing another dimension to the lyrics while adding even ethereal layers of dread and intrigue.

On The Doors’ original, the vibe was that of a kind of Weimar Republic cabaret, much of that launched on it’s mid-century striding rhythm and what one contemporary critic called “whorehouse piano” (actually a tack piano), the sci-fi tremolo on the Vox “Connie,” and the guitar’s unrelieved tension fade-out on the finale. Nordenstam takes the whorehouse and adds surrealist David Lynchian elements, and adds a few more layers of dream space and whatnot. It’s an utterly barren landscape to be planted by the listener, making whatever archetypal jungle out of it that they may.

And while she may be adding to the nothingness, her harsh nothingness seems only to make the whole even greater.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

A Sick Beat and Killer Rhymes for the Nappy Demo

You think genius has to be big? Like, a singular theory of everything or totally disruptive art? Sometimes, genius is just a matter of seeing that thing that was right in front of you all along and seeing it suddenly anew. 

And for that, this completely qualifies: this is genius of the everyday. To Valentin Coronado: Props, sir.

Once, I did a lot of time with this book. A lot of kids’ books parents will come to dread, but this one was a classic. I’d take my daughter’s toddler hand and drum on the book for the dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum bit. She loved that. (*Sniff, sniff*)

Friday, August 21, 2020

A Wandering Grayhead in the Millennial Jungle, Vol 4:

The eyesome Sofi Tukker

The Premise: Boomer dude—he/his/him—attempts to move away from the music that made his high school and college years more bearable and sexier. Instead, he spins joints created in the last 10 years (or so) to see what he can find. When he finds stuff he likes, he yuks it up like a used car salesman. His great hope is to bring new stuff to old ears, and maybe – in his wildest dreams – hookup some of the kiddos. In the process, he hopes to bridge the yawning divide with Zoomers and Millennials for the damages his decrepit generation wrought on the world—and bring world peace.

Another 10 to add to the list:

31) Brittany Howard, History Repeats (2019): Howard led the Alabama Shakes, of which I know little—the name puts me right off—is a former postal carrier, and has created music worthy of striking gold from the Grammy establishment. And this from her solo record of last year—classic level stuff:

32) Sofi Tukker, Drinkee (2016): Of this new phase of musical minimalism, I’m a fan. (I’m not ashamed to admit an affection for some Billie Eilish also.) This duo may be too pretty by half but the groove is sickly sticky, from the Portuguese signature to the vapor-light guitar filagrees.

33) Graham Coxon, Bus Stop (2018): Coxon, a founder of Blur, offers nothing new here. In fact, the song sounds as if it were built on the platform of Devo’s Gut Feeling. But no matter – what’s good is good. If you saw the series, the song fit perfectly.

34) The Plastics, Stereo Kids (Reprise) (2012): Influential Japanese “technopop,” name-dropped by Polysics, Pizzicato 5, and Stereo Total for their short stint in the late 70s and early 80s. They also made fans of Talking Heads, Devo, and The B-52s. Disappeared shortly thereafter but must’ve decided in the early 10s that working day jobs was no way to live, and have recorded 4 albums since 2011.

Unlike what usually happens—and if this song is any indication—they got far better with age.

35) Everything Everything, The Night of the Long Knives (2017): This Mancunian outfit birthed in 2007. Described by Wiki as art-rock but I don’t hear it. A lot of time was invested in cool synth sounds and the intricate vocal harmonies—those are the elements that lead the circus here, but it’s the production that takes the most turns in the spotlight. Someone really labored over twirling the knobs here—and the result is a sound they’ll never recreate live. But the song’s ultimate booby trap is that sweeping wall of electronic clangor that erupts for the choruses. That orgasmic sound is the one that’ll make you hit Repeat again and again.

36) Kiev, Rational Animal/Layered Line (2010): The band’s been banging around Orange County (i.e. the one in CA) since 2007 and by The OC  standards, they’re practically legend now. (They’re Orange County Music Award winners.) (I, for one, couldn’t wait to leave OC. But good for them.) Their sound schtick was described by tour mates Bad Suns as “metropolitan techie hi-fi nerd guys.” It sweeps dreamy with funky touches and academic flourish (a couple of members have music degrees). Their sound is expansive with a fastidious technicality – note how it comes off as both tight and airy. 

A live in-studio performance:

37) Caleb Landry Jones, Flag Day/Motherstone (2020): Texan Jones is better known for acting (he was in an X-Men, Get Out, and episodes of Twin Peaks) than for his time as a musical mastermind. His affection for Tin Pan Alley song smithery, via George Martin’s Beatles’ orchestrations, and his cop of Lennon’s psychedelic era voice are both obvious. Flag Day/Motherstone spared no expense on arranging, charts, and orchestral puffery and the results are impressive. His toe dips between the pools of music hall and prog. I also hear early Split Enz, The Divine Comedy, Monkees ca. Head, the histrionic scale of Queen, bits of Esquivel, and a number of contemporary bands namechecked on my Beatle Juice post. If his work meanders it’s only part of the fun.

He’s getting his due: this is some sh*t.

38) Anderson.Paak, Come Down (2016): From Oxnard, CA—where agriculture meets the sea (and all that it entails)—a place where no one has ever come from, least of all sounding like this. Paak is a hyphenate musician so sure his of the walk his music talks, his website doesn’t even offer copy. (Besides, judging from his website photo gallery and collaborations, he’s well hooked up.) His 70s record collection, particularly the funk, is all over this and his ’20s update is deft—like a household where multiple generations live. Can’t we all just get along? Paak’s loaded grooves say we can.

39) SokoJust Want to Make It New with You (2013): On her debut album, I Thought I Was an Alien, French singer and actress Stéphanie Sokolinski made music raw, unschooled, and understated to a level of near pathology – her arrangements and production sound like a homeopathic version of The Velvet Underground. The songs are butterflied versions of scars – laid on a table, lit, and ready to be mapped. She’s needy and exposed and sings of depression, mental health, and self-mutilation. She was willing to shovel up the kind of sludge that’d surely scare off the swipes-right on Tinder. Though she was 28 at the time, it has a refreshing teenaged awkwardness about it. Altogether, it’s the kind of shambolic sound and stories of someone still new at love—a seedling preparing to reach for the sun but soon to be crushed underfoot.

Her more recent material has taken on a more produced and polished sound. The Alien record offered a diary level of intimacy and a sound that could’ve been recorded in a bedroom. Soko shares a rare and startling nakedness that reveals a profound vulnerability, even for a confessional of one’s own self-abuse.

40) A.A. WilliamsLove and Pain (2020): The song begins in a whisper. Give it two and a half minutes and, as her Bandcamp page explains, it’ll go from serenity to explosive drama. Those Smells Like Teen Spirit operatic sweeps can be cloying in lesser hands but they’re done with proper finesse here. Dig into her; she’s onto something.

Bonus! Supergrass, Road to Rouen (2005), Mary (1999): When the band debuted in the mid-90s, they were met with a lot of unctuous clamor. Their first album was at least as worthy of anything Blur or Oasis were doing. Since, they’ve plugged along, wrote strong material with consistency, throwing up the masterful gem here and there. It seems they stopped in 2008, but their legacy, IMO, has been tragically overlooked.

See also Vol 3, Vol 2, and Vol 1.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Song Reassignment Surgery 4; Bold Covers: "Changes" Changed

Changes (Black Sabbath), 1972: Charles Bradley (2012)

Charles Bradley (1948-2017) hadn’t heard of Black Sabbath. But once he heard the song—Changes, originally recorded by Sabbath in 1972—he heard it. The song bit into his own grief and complicated relationship with his mother as he explains below.

The lyrics aren’t profound but they’re felt, in this case, through both performances. Ozzy’s face seems to be haunted by something in his rendition; for Charles, it’s clear his mother was still very much rattling chains in his head. 

You could say his she sang it for him.

As to his mother: After abandoning Charles at eight months old, she reclaimed him from his grandmother at eight years and took him to live in Brooklyn, NY. By 14, Bradley would escape his poor living conditions—his basement bedroom had a sand floor—and sleep in subway cars for 2 years. He wouldn’t live with his mother again until the 1990s. 

Bradley would work as a chef, part-time singer and James Brown impersonator. He signed with Daptone records at age 55 but didn’t take to music full-time until his debut solo album in 2011. It’d be a brief career but an impactful one.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

How "House of the Rising Sun" Rose

A “poor girl”
In 1937, music archivist Alan Lomax recorded 16-year-old miner’s daughter, Georgia Turner, as she sung an early a cappella iteration of what we’d come to know as House of the Rising Sun. The version she offered was known as Rising Sun BluesAs was common of the era and her locale, Georgia likely had learned the tune from her parents or grandparents. (Two years later, Lomax would record another take by Tennessean Clarence Ashley. Ashley would also learn the song from his grandparents.)  

Most of the early generations of Rising Sun recordings were first heard from Lomax. (An earlier version of the song was often misattributed to African American bluesman Texas Alexander for his recording of The Rising Sun from 1928. As it turns out, the two songs have nothing in common.) The version Georgia sang had origins going back possibly hundreds of years, making it older than the New Orleans itself. Musicologists say that it was based on an epic of the broadside ballad tradition, a form popular from the 16th to 19th centuries. (It most resembles The Unfortunate Rake—which musicologists date to around 1740—a lament on a dead man that’d succumb to syphilis.) Songs with similarly difficult-to-trace origins are called floating songs—songs with a long history of being passed around and transforming in the process. Much has been speculated about the significance of the name “Rising Sun”—suggestions include a prison, a brothel, and a gambling house. 

The melody was likely from a traditional well-known English ballad, but the song would gain popularity in the US as an African-American folk song.

To the brothel theory: The local bordello said to have been namechecked would’ve been run by a madame known as Marianne LeSoleil Levant (LeSoleil=Rising Sun in French). Her establishment would’ve opened for business in 1862. It closed in 1874 due to neighbors’ complaints. 

The Vox “Connie”

Lomax also claimed that “Rising Sun” was the name used for a bawdy house in two traditional English songs. As the eminent American collector of folk songs during the 20th-century, Lomax claimed “Rising Sun” was also a common English pub name. Also, it was suggested that the location was likely changed from England to New Orleans by American white southern performers. 

As for the age of House of the Rising Sun lyric, by using the song’s internal clues, such as “blue jeans,” a railroad that would’ve served travelers arriving into New Orleans at the time, and the gambling houses of New Orleans, musicologists date the lyric from around 1895—the earliest printed version being 1925. 

As to how it came to the ears of our contemporary pop culture, it could’ve been among a number of likely sources, sung with musical or lyrical variations: Woody Guthrie, 1941; Josh White, 1942; Leadbelly, 1944 and 1948; Glen Yarborough (a popular folk singer of the 1950s), 1957; Joan Baez, at age 18 in 1960; Bob Dylan (stealing an arrangement from Dave Von Ronk), 1961; Nina Simone, 1962.

And this: Clearly, Griffith had a cool record collection—a version from 1959:

This is most likely the version most of us heard first, from 1964. It would become a number one in France, the UK, and the US:

The indelible Vox Continental (“Connie”) hook heard on The Animals’ version had its vibe pinched from, according to organist Alan Price, Jimmy Smith’s Walk on the Wild Side from 1962:

Saturday, August 8, 2020

A Rake's Snake on the Make; George Harrison: 'Ho

Oh, to be a George.

As I was discussing the legend of Harrison’s carnal guzzling, my partner said, “I’d’ve done him. I don’t care if he was a ‘ho. He was George Harrison.” 

Even for the Beatle described as the "melancholic” and “quiet” one, he still managed to get himself, well, up in more p*ssy than a bidet. Beatles expert Bill Harry claimed Harrison had “hundreds and hundreds of affairs.” (According to Harry, even at that George still came in second to Lennon.) And like any (quiet) champion, the playa didn’t have to boast about life behind the zipper—certainly not in song.

(Some of the history of Harrison’s amatory exploits were covered in Scorsese’s documentary—co-produced by Harrison’s wife—Living in the Material World in 2011.)

Oh Boy George

In George’s two marriages, both wives claimed he was an inveterate philanderer: the first, Patti Boyd (1966-1977), would get some side action herself—she being the actual Layla of Eric Clapton’s imagination, as well as being the muse of George’s Something and a few others; the second, Olivia née Arias (1978 until his death in 2001), knew from the beginning what she was getting into. She’d refer to his assorted peccadillos as “hiccups.” She told The Guardian: He liked women and women liked him. If he just said a couple of words to you, it would have a profound effect. It was hard to deal with someone who was so well-loved. 

Olivia sitting through a hiccup
For most of us, faithfulness in relationships is relatively unchallenging, if for no other reason than our general limitation of opportunities. Reasonably attractive celebrities—and some not so, including renowned braggart Dustin Hoffman—have no trouble spinning the WAP counter. While no doubt his Rolodex was loaded with many anxious possibilities, the obstacle of Harrison’s marriage was a slight one, made easier through the many chemical-fueled parties at his Friar Park estate. (A glimpse of its Downton Abbey scaled gardens were featured in the cover shot of All Things Must Past.)

Even so, given Harrison’s history, it seems likely that a simple hookup wouldn’t be nearly enough. This may explain his pouncing on both Ringo’s and Ron Wood’s wives.

Here’s what the Wiki page for his Dark Horse album had to say:

Patti Boyd in her Layla garb
Wounded by Harrison's frequent infidelities, Boyd left him for Eric Clapton in July 1974, having previously had an affair with another of her husband's guitar-playing friends, Ron Wood of the Faces. Both of these dalliances would also receive attention on the Dark Horse album, which Harrison's musical biographer, Simon Leng, has described as "a musical soap opera, cataloging rock-life antics, marital strife, lost friendships, and self-doubt". In his rewrite of the Everly Brothers' “Bye Bye, Love”, Harrison declared: “There goes our lady, with a-you-know-who / I hope she's happy, old Clapper too”; while his handwritten liner notes listed one of the guest musicians on “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” as “Ron Would If You Let Him”. For his part, Harrison had taken up with Starr's wife, Maureen Starkey, and the UK tabloids soon reported him as being romantically involved with model Kathy Simmons (ex-girlfriend of Rod Stewart) as well as Krissy Wood (wife of the Faces guitar player). Shortly before Dark Horse's release, Harrison would dodge reporters' questions regarding his private life with a suggestion that people wait for the new album, saying, “It's like Peyton Place.”

That scamp Harrison also reportedly did some serious cupcaking and maybe more with Madonna on the set of Shanghai Surprise (his Handmade Films produced—a film that did so badly at the box office it was dubbed Flop Suey). She was still married to Sean Penn at the time. George was also known to pick through the stable of secretaries and office personnel at his film company over its 15 years. (He met Olivia working for his record company.) 

George and Paul are also known to have shared at least one girlfriend in the early days and George and John both picked a Ronette on an early tour.

Patti trying to hold on

Monday, July 13, 2020

Song Reassignment Surgery: Bold Covers 3

Diamond Dogs (David Bowie), 1974: Beck (2001)

Vivienne Westwood does “diamond” dogs

Enter the name of any song on YouTube and you’ll likely find covers aplenty. Most will be pale recreations of the original source material. Even fewer will add anything new or insightful along the way. Instead, what you’ll find are fans playing songs they love: affectionate but, as an artistic endeavor, pointless.

The best covers will offer something new. They’ll add something to the song’s language, changing it’s tone and personality, even it’s face and body—hence the “reassignment surgery.” Doing it well is a tall order and that’s why the good ones are such a rarity. As I said here, a good cover will even make you hear the lyrics in a new way—adding more subtext to the original.

Some Cover Champions of Note
  • Jeff Buckley, Hallelujah
  • Janis Joplin, Me and Bobby Magee
  • David Bowie, Wild Is the Wind
  • Johnny Cash, Hurt
  • Earth, Wind, and Fire, Got to Get You Into My Life
  • Talking Heads, Take Me to the River
  • Bryan Ferry, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall
  • Jimi Hendrix, All Along the Watchtower
  • Nina Simone, I Put a Spell on You, especially this, and just about anything else she’s done
  • And this: two Dutch teens wring depths of emotion from Creep you never knew was there, while betraying the emotion with grinning faces
And Cover Losers: Mostly everyone and everything else.

Another add for the Champion List: This diamond from the Moulin Rouge! movie soundtrack.