Saturday, August 21, 2010

Marvin Gaye: Heavy Love Affair

Admittedly, I didn't pay much attention to Marvin Gaye's 80s output. The dilating chasm between Let's Get It On and the likes of Sexual Healing dimmed my expectations for what was possible beyond. This, unfortunately, would delay my discovery of this funky jewel buried on one the least successful albums his career, In Our Lifetime? This song also represents Gaye's atonement for much of his previous late 70s early 80s disco output. (For those not remembering, disco was an epidemic trend that few artists of the era could escape.) Heavy Love Affair is a much welcome return to funkier material. The promise indicated by the song's title is nobly fulfilled indeed. This piece nails it out of the gate: Between the suggestive muted trumpet and whistling in the opening bars, the hypnotic b.g.vocals, a bass line raised onto a funky pedestal a mile high, and Gaye's zipper-dropping falsettos, if the song doesn't pull the chastity belt from every abstinence vow within broadcast reach, well then, those belts don't deserve to come off.

As for the video, while he may only be lip-synching this point hardly seems to matter. Gaye's intensity couldn't have been more acute than if he were singing live.
(The recording was for some version of French language television. Belgium was somebody's guess.) To say the man oozes smooth class doesn't begin to do him justice: It practically squirts out of him. And to think his original hire at Motown was as a drummer.

A oner, he was.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Elvis Costello with Fiona Apple: I Want You

This performance represents, I suspect, one of those rare magical and wholly unrepeatable musical moments. If you've heard Fiona Apple before I guarantee you it was nothing like this. (If you've heard the Costello I Want You original, this one is better by miles.) Apple loads her napalm-on-dry-ice stare with all the appropriate subtext of the insufficiently medicated. (Warning: May cause sphincter-flexing flashbacks for survivors of psycho-relationships.) For much of the song's seven minutes Apple sounds as if the restraint holding her voice can't possibly last. There's a bit of rage loosed here and there, teeth are bared and arms swing almost autistically for a moment, but the fragile composure returns. It's a brilliantly measured performance.

The song also offers further proof of just how good Costello's band is.
(What better way to convey fidgety insecurity than vintage sci-fi electric organ and whammy-barred guitar?) Probably one of the greatest backing bands that ever was.
I wish I'd been there.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Elizabeth Cotten: Freight Train

North Carolina born Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten (1895 - 1987) saved her wages as a child house-maid to buy her first guitar. Already self-taught on the banjo, the left-hander learned the guitar upside down (without restringing in the manner of Dick Dale) and in the process developed a characteristic picking style (later known as Cotten-picking). She would marry and raise a family and in the process stopped playing and writing songs. It'd be another 30 + years before she'd pick up the guitar again, to be discovered by Pete Seeger's parents
(the Seegers' were "a voraciously musical family") while working for them as a domestic. With their encouragement her musical career began. It'd be Pete's brother Mike who first recorded her.

Some sources claim Cotten wrote Freight Train at 11 years old in response to the train sound she heard from her bed at night. Eventually, the song would go on to become one of the best known and oft recorded songs in the American folk canon. This 1965 clip is from the television program Rainbow Quest, hosted by a recently un-blacklisted Pete Seeger (one of the heros of the House of Un-American Activities period). Cotten would've been 70 years old at the time. (She would continue to perform and record into her 80s.) Even though the show aired at the peak of the folk music revival, it ran on only seven stations and quickly ran out of money. Other guests included Johnny Cash and June Carter, Doc Watson, Odetta, Judy Collins, and Buffy Saint-Marie among others. Quite literally, in this case, the show was history in the making.

As for the song itself, it needs no other explanation. For it to be any more authentic or aching would not be humanly possible: Awe-inspiring.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Roxy Music: A Song for Europe

From 1979: Blue suits of all around, except one: The maestro himself redolent in strawberry-red leather.

Bryan Ferry may very well be the model of metrosexuality. He could be the only non-pimp on the planet capable of squiring Playmates and super models with such fruit-colored attire. The secret could only be the voice: An instrument that's somewhere between a Victrola-age crooner, soul shouter, and Theramin, as much Tiny Tim as Jackie Wilson and cabaret. (His vibrato may be one of the natural wonders of the world.) Roxy Music being the other integral part of the equation: A band that provides a jungle that might otherwise not be of the crooner's natural habitat.

Bryan Ferry's stage presence, as you'll see here, is charmingly awkward. His facial contortions are unselfconsciously and unashamedly nerd-like. You could say he owns his ungainliness, makes it sexy even. (There's a lesson in there for all of us.) Forging it all together — band, voice, and songs — the end result is a weapons grade alloy that's mysteriously cool.

Below, a version from 2001:

This version, with subtitled lyrics including the Latin (!) and French bits at the end, is from their tour following a break of 18 years. The stage band here is expanded (as are the individual members, cough cough): Now, long coats all around. Ferry's voice is changed but no less an instrument. Whatever he's lost in range he's made up with depth and percision. Roxy Music, and even Ferry on his own, are one of the few acts of the rock music age who made the transition from young quirky innovators to wizened Lite FM mainstream without any apparent loss of dignity. I mention dignity often here (see Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey below) because I think it's important. Dignity for the artist is simply an outcome of remaining true to your vision and keeping it constantly directed forward. Neither of the bands in the videos above have much in common with the band it was in 1971, the long coats tell us that. But even as change is inevitable, it's also an opportunity. For this band, clearly, it was an opportunity fully capitalized.

For any artist who might harbor ambitions of keeping their dignity intact over the long haul: You could a learn a lot from these guys.