Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Covers of the Week – "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

Yes, I know I'm on a Beatles kick. But I can't help it.

For several reasons:
  1. The Fab Four are still the greatest group in the world

  2. This remains one of the best Beatles songs not written by John and Paul

  3. It's my blog and I can do what I want to … Oh wait. You've already heard that one before
There is one other reason. I want to stimulate a little discussion on this blog. And I thought a great way to do it is to present these controversial performances of one of George Harrison's songs.

Today, I present two videos: The first is the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies, where inductee Prince performs a guitar solo that people still talk about to this day. The second is from a 2007 show of "The Late Show With Conan O'Brien," where iconoclasts Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson combine with the string quartet Ethel to put their own spin on the Beatles classic.

First, a few thoughts from me. I have always been a big Prince fan. Sure, he does head down a few long tunnels. Sometimes, however, it's a lot of fun to come along with him for the ride. This is one of the occasions. Amid all the controversy about him as a person, we need to be reminded what an incredible guitarist he is. And this solo, which starts at the 3:30 mark, really is amazing.

I remember watching it on VH1 the night it was broadcast and my jaw dropped. Yes, he was showboating as only he can (Just where did that guitar go?). But he was also crafting a solo that was utterly original and unique, while remaining true to the song. He was also enjoying himself. As was George's son Dhani, who as you can see had a wide grin throughout the Purple One' performance. (Contrast that to the scowls worn by Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty) It seems a little obvious to say, but a great solo doesn't just showcase the guitarist's technical skills. It rises to a new level when it blazes new musical territory, not straying from the source material and even enhancing the song. That's what this solo did.

I'm also including a better quality version for you to put on your iPod. Enjoy.

Play "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by Jeff Lynne, Tomm Petty, Prince, Steve Winwood, et al.

In a sense, though, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is the perfect song for a great guitarist to showcase his talent. I mean, there's a reason that Eric Clapton (the first outsider to play a major instrument on a Beatles song) appeared on the original track. Which brings us to Joe and Todd, who undertook an acoustic tour with each other last year. I caught one of their shows. Ethel, the string quartet, opened. Then Jackson and Rundgren each performed solo sets. At the end of it all, everyone came out and the whole ensemble performed Rundgren's "Black Maria" and "While My Guitar…"

While the Conan version is pretty good, I have to admit that the version I heard live was even better. Looking back on it, maybe I'm not as impressed as I once was. Yet it's pretty solid. Here's what interests me in retrospect: As good as Todd and Joe are, it's really the string quartet that provides the backbone of the song.

Anyway, I've had my say. Now it's your turn. Which version do you like better? Or, in your eyes, are they both apostasies?

As always, thanks for reading, listening and watching. See you soon. Same bat blog. Same bat internet.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Say Hallelujah to the Choirs

I admit it. I'm a sucker for certain things when it comes to the songs I like.

Good pop songs become really good (or great songs) when they add certain elements. An unexpected, yet melodic, chord change. Some clever lyrics with linguistic tricks. A kick-a** brass section.

And oh yes. A gospel choir.

This is not a hard and fast rule. For example, Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is." I still think it's one of the worst songs of the 80s. And that's really saying something.

No. The song has to be good to start with. Something that's worth the extra surge that a gospel choir adds. For example, one of the most emotional scenes the movie Across The Universe (the subject of yesterday's post) is a gospel rendition of "Let It Be" as two funerals take place.

So what the heck is wrong with me? I mean, I'm not even the right religion to appreciate gospel choirs.

I blame it on the many spring weekends I spent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Those who have been to this amazingly diverse event know that there's one tent that doesn't have the big headline-grabbing pop or jazz stars, yet still manages to remain packed. That's the gospel tent, where you don't have to be religious to appreciate the real sense of spiritual energy that emanates from the performers.

Of course, so much of classic rock and soul directly stems from the gospel tradition. I mean, look at Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Can I get an "amen?"

But you don't have to look at 30-40 years ago to see great gospel-infused songs that really benefit from the full choir treatment. We can look as recently as 2004 for two very different songs that can really send chill down your spine, thanks to full-fledged choirs that close the song.

Play "Higher" by Do or Die featuring Kanye West

Yes, it's a rap song. And yes, one of the members of the Chicago-based trio , Belo Zero, is a true gangster, having just been sentenced to 10 years in prison for second-degree murder. But give it a listen. This song works in ways that few rap songs these days. Some of it has to do with Kanye (who trades verses, as he did in "Slow Jams," with the astonishingly vocally nimble Twista). Most of the props, however, go to how the song effectively samples Teddy Pendergrass' "You're My Latest, My Greatest Inspiration" (1981), right down to the choir which gives the song the final burst it needs. Hey, you can't go wrong by sampling the classics – especially one from Gamble and Huff.

Play "Security" by Joss Stone

For me, this was the strongest track on Stone's second album. She does tend to oversing, but at least she has the chops. And I love the way she is able to step back at the end of the song and let the choir take over. Not many divas would do that.

Call me crazy. But I've got a fever. And the only prescription … is more gospel!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday: "Across the Universe" (2007) and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978)

For this week's Soundtrack Sunday, we're going to shake it up a little bit.

Hey, it's my blog. I can do what I want. And if I want to focus on two films – and two soundtracks – that's what I will do.

So what if one was one of the most staggering failures of the 1970s? And so what if the other has been hailed by The New York Times, among other publications, as one of the best films of 2007?

Separated by 29 years in terms of time, and a few million more in terms of quality, we will talk today about two films built entirely around Beatles songs – with nary a John, George, Paul and Ringo in sight.

And yes, we will compare and contrast. Which means we will focus on why one film failed so abominably and the other stands as one of the most visually audacious films of recent years (Do I sound like a film critic yet?)

Yet they do share some things in common – beyond the nine songs that are featured in both films.

Each, in its own way, was a product of its time. As in the marketing forces in play.

For Sgt. Pepper…, this was Robert Stigwood's attempt to hit another one out of the ballpark, less than a year after Saturday Night Fever returned the movie musical to the forefront. In fact, less than a month earlier, Stigwood's Grease became a box-office bonanza.

But this movie was just all wrong. In a sense, Stigwood was trying to recreate the magic of his own Tommy (1975) with Lennon and McCartney subbing for Pete Townshend; and Peter Frampton stepping in for Roger Daltrey. Rock stars. Rock music. A story that didn't make too much sense. What could go wrong?

A lot. Because though it's camp value is treasured by some, this movie is mess. Frampton and the Bee Gees just can't act. Steve Martin may never live down the fact that he made his movie debut as "wacky" Dr. Maxwell Edison. George Burns, who plays the mayor of Peppertown, had to supply narration because everyone was afraid no one would understand either Frampton or the Gibbs brothers because of their non-American accents. You listen to almost every song and you want to turn on the mute button because it destroys how much you liked it. (Unfortunately as a middle schooler who had not yet experienced the wonders of the 1967-69 Beatles, it represented my first exposure to several of these classic songs. Damn you, Hollywood!)

Everything is completely laughable.

Except for the fact that there were two cool songs in the movie: "Come Together" by Aerosmith (which, during the band's drugged out phase, played the film's villains, the Future Villains Band) and "Got to Get You Into My Life" by Earth Wind & Fire.

I'm posting the YouTube clips so you can get a small sense of how bad the movie is. But also appreciate the rays of light these bands let in during this awful mess.

I'm also posting the mp3 of the "Got To Get You Into My Life" which McCartney wrote for the Revolver album as a semi-Motown song. It's nice to see Earth Wind & Fire's Maurice White (a professed Beatle fan) do a little role reversal and perhaps even improve upon a song written by a rock artist.

Play "Got to Get You Into My Life" by Earth Wind & Fire

Luckily, "Come Together" allows us to segue into Across The Universe because it appears in both movies. And, in my mind, it is the biggest highlight of a film filled by lots of highlights. Because out of nowhere, one of the greatest interpreters of Beatles songs, Joe Cocker, begins serenading one of the film's main characters. And not only that, he plays three roles in the course of the song, which develops slowly into a full-blown production number full of the "accidental" urban choreography that has become one of Taymor's trademarks.

Play "Come Together" by Joe Cocker

Like "Sgt Pepper," this is another project that is a product of its time. The critical and commercial success of film musicals such as Chicago, Dreamgirls and Moulin Rouge have prompted studios to OK audacious projects such as this one. It has also given semi-free reins to innovative spirits such as Taymor, who made her first big splash by directing The Lion King on Broadway and went on to helm Frida (2002).

Thanks to Taymor, this film is never boring. And she makes plenty of unexpected choices along the way that keeps the film hopping. For example, "I Want You So Bad" is sung by an animated Uncle Sam getting a new army recruit. Or "Strawberry Fields Forever" gets performed as the movie's protagonist, Jude, pins the fruit onto canvas as a kind of performance art. I also like how she successfully mixes early Beatles songs – "Hold Me Tight," "If I Fell," to name a couple – with later ones.

The script about a bunch of young adults experiencing all the highs and lows of America during the 60s also seems to work in ways that Sgt. Pepper … doesn't. But then again, that's not entirely unexpected given that Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais wrote another great rock film: The Commitments (1991)

I also thought the cameos were surprisingly effective – chief among them a semi-disguised Bono, as the Ken Kesey stand-in Dr. Robert, who sings a rather credible "I Am The Walrus" at an acid-tinged psychedelic party.

Here's the clip:

Not everything works in the movie. I am not convinced that the closeted lesbian, Prudence (yes, almost all the characters are named after Beatles songs), was necessary to the plot. And the water ballet scenes are a little too precious.

But I heartily recommend that you rent or buy it when it comes out on DVD next month. You won't be disappointed.

Or bored.

Since this was a post about two movies, I thought I'd end it with a fun little table I devised comparing both movies.

Movie Across The Universe SPLHCB
Number of songs 32 28
Number of albums represented 9 6
Most represented album White Album (7 songs) Sgt. Pepper's and Abbey Road (12 each)
Number of pre-1967 songs 7 2
Number of songs from Revolver 0 1
Most surprising musical cameos Bono as Dr. Robert, Joe Cocker as Bum/Pimp/Hippie Aerosmith as FVB, Alice Cooper as the Sun King
Cameos by comedians Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite George Burns as Mr. Kite
Well-known actors Dylan Baker, Salma Hayek
Donald Pleasance, Steve Martin
Best Performance "Come Together" by Joe Cocker "Got to Get You Into My Life" by Earth Wind and Fire
Director Julie Taymor Michael Schultz
Resumé "Frida," "Titus" and Broadway's "Lion King" "Car Wash," "Disorderlies" and "Krush Groove"
Credibility claims Both surviving Beatles reportedly liked the movie Billy Preston performed "Get Back"; George Martin produced the soundtrack

Friday, January 25, 2008

Back to the 80's: Jimmy The Hoover

Where else but in the 80s could Sex Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren and Culture Club producer Steve Levine hook up with a group that featured a Zambian bassist?

That's the story of Jimmy The Hoover, a group that had its one and only hit in June 1983 with the infectious "Tantalise (Wo Wo Ee Yeh Yeh)," which hit No. 18 on the charts. Released on the small Innervision label (Wham was once the label's other act), the single was produced by Levine and the band was managed by McLaren, who also thought up the band's name.

Download "Tantalise (Wo Wo Ee Yeh Yeh)" by Jimmy the Hoover

Among the band's members was Flinto Chandia, a Zambian studying in London who met vocalist Derek Dunbar. Dunbar had briefly lived in Zambia while his father worked there. And while he was passionate about punk rock, he apparently didn't bat an eye when Chandia introduced the African sounds such as the box guitar into their jam sessions. Their first record was "Tantalise" and as it was shooting up the charts, Chandia was contacted by British authorities. Because he was a college student from a foreign country, he was not permitted to work in England. So they told him he had to go back to Zambia and apply for a work visa. It was initially refused – and that apparently was the last straw for the band, already rife with internal tensions.

Back in his native land, Chandia turned to sculpture. And apparently he's quite successful.

So there you go. Another story of rock 'n' roll heartache. But this time, it resulted in one of the most unique singles of the 80s. As always, enjoy.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Unsung Hero – Blondie Chaplin

Here's a trivia question that may stump everyone but the Beach Boy diehards trolling this blog.

In 1973, the band released what still stands as their finest post-Smile single, "Sail On Sailor."

Who sang the lead vocal?

Was it Carl Wilson? Brian Wilson? Mike Love? Dennis Wilson?

None of the above, actually.

The honor went to Blondie Chaplin (above), who had officially joined the band along with drummer Ricky Fataar in 1972, just before the release of the Holland album. Chaplin and Fataar had been in a South African pop band called The Flames – the first non-white group to ever top the pop charts in that country. They were part of the Beach Boys' touring band (an ensemble that also then included Daryl Dragon, later the Captain in the Captain and Tenille) and were asked to officially join the group in an attempt to inject new blood into the slumping band.

On this song, at least, it worked. According to Keith Badman's The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America's Greatest Band, the song was initially recorded with Carl and Dennis Wilson each taking a turn at the lead vocals. "I think it sounds pretty good," Carl, shortly after recording his final take, told Blondie. "But why don't you give it a bash?"

Blondie recorded two takes, all the while still reading the song's many lyrics as he sung. He was "just getting warmed up," but Carl deemed his performance as more than acceptable. And the song was immediately mixed.

Indeed , Chaplin's soulful voice turned out to be everything the song needed to become one of the highlights of the Beach Boys' songbook. It rocks. It rolls. And the harmonies, which make the song cruise through the song's "wicked waters," contain every element that made the Beach Boys so unparalleled in the history of rock music.

Download "Sail On Sailor" by the Beach Boys.

I won't go too deep into the history of the song and controversy over who wrote it (Longtime Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks claims he did the lion share, but bent to pressure from the record company, which was marketing another "Brian is Back!" campaign). But it's worth taking a look at the version Brian did with Hootie and the Blowfish's Darius Rucker and Matthew Sweet on "Late Night With David Letterman" in 2001. It shows that, as beautiful as the song is on its own, it really needed Chaplin's voice to put it over the top.

Download "Sail On Sailor" (Live) by Brian Wilson, Matthew Sweet and Darius Rucker

Chaplin has continued to remain active, though mostly not front and center. He joined The Band in 1980s, replacing a lot of the late Richard Manuel's vocal parts. He played with the semi-reformed Byrds. He has also toured with the Rolling Stones, off and on, for the last ten years or so.

That's quite a resume. The Beach Boys. The Rolling Stones. The Band. The Byrds.

Sounds like people should start to get to know The Blondie Chaplin.

For a start, I would suggest giving a listen on iTunes or elsewhere to Between Us (2006), Chaplin's first solo record in about 30 years.

It features a stripped down sound of Chaplin backed by a two-piece rhythm section. More information about the album (and how to purchase it) can be found at Chaplin's web site, blondiechaplin.com

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Unlikely Cover of the Week – Nickel Creek "Toxic"

I must admit I get a particular kick out of cover songs that come out of unlikely places. I'm sure I'm not alone. Which is why I'm starting this weekly feature.

For those unfamiliar with Nickel Creek, they are an acoustic bluegrass trio that has enjoyed an unusual amount of mainstream success – thanks to their singles "When You Come Back Down," "The Smoothie Song" and "When In Rome," tunes you will hear played on both country and adult-alternative stations. The band owes a lot of its success to the success of the O Brother Where Are Thou soundtrack, which proved that traditional country music could sell records. Alison Krauss, one of the stars of that soundtrack, produced the band's first major album in 2000.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand … Though I never saw them live (the band went on indefinite hiatus at the end of last year), the three members of Nickel Creek – Chris Thile (mandolin), Sara Watkins (fiddle), and her brother Sean Watkins (guitar) – reportedly put on a memorable show. One way they did that is by putting their own spin on songs that you would never expect to emerge from a mandolin.

I've posted two versions of "Toxic" (yes, the Britney Spears song), which has become a popular Nickel Creek standby but never official recorded. One is lesser sound quality but recorded apparently right after they began playing it at their shows, which can be heard by the genuine delight and surprise expressed by audience members.

The other is better sound quantity, but seems to lack the energy of the lower-quality version. I'm still looking around for the perfect version. If you've found one, drop me a line. Or let me know with a comment.

Toxic (soundboard version)

Toxic (early version)

For good measure, I thought I'd throw up a homemade YouTube video of the band performing the song.

I'll bet you like the song now more than you originally did. It really illustrates the the depth of the band's talent and its versatility. This is a group, after all, that was just as comfortable playing a Bill Monroe tune as one by Radiohead, Pavement or even Jackson Five.

And it just goes to show you. Good music is good music. No matter what the genre. Or the pop song.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Songwriters Step Out

Anybody remember a movie called "The Idolmaker"?

The 1980 flick (directed by Ray's Taylor Hackford) featured Ray Sharkey as a rock impresario who helps two schlubs become big stars. At the end of the movie, when the two stars have long since abandoned him, he finally takes center stage as a performer.

What dos this have to do with today's post? Well, not much. Except for the fact that I'm reminded of that movie whenever I think of the following two artists: Martin Page and Holly Knight.

These were two professional songwriters who wrote some of the biggest hits of their era. They were mostly anonymous. And mostly remained so, even when they performed their own songs to varying degrees of success.

So let's run down some of the songs written by Knight, who seemed to be responsible for every hit churned out by a female singer for a while.

  • "Love is a Battlefield" and "Invincible" by Pat Benatar

  • "The Warrior" by Patty Smyth (Mrs. John McEnroe) and Scandal

  • "Never" by Heart

  • "Better Be Good To Me" by Tina Turner

  • "Rag Doll" by Aerosmith

As for Page, who initially made his mark as the leader of the synth-pop group Qfeel (Remember "Dancing in Heaven"? Yeah, that one), he wrote or co-wrote the following songs.

  • "We Built This City" by Starship

  • "King Of Wishful Thinking" by Go West

  • "These Dreams" by Heart

I'll try not to hold a few of those songs against them – particularly that excruciating Heart album and the lowest point in what was once San Francisco's greatest bands. Because I want to talk about songs they put out under their own names.

Well, not quite. Because in the case of Knight, her moment in the spotlight came as a member of the band Device, which put out an album called 22B3 on Chrysalis Records in 1986. It even featured a Top 40 single: "Hanging on a Heart Attack," which was more synth-oriented than most of Knight's other work of the decade. Knight does the backing vocals, but bandmate Paul Engemann handles the lead. It would be the only hit for the group, which disbanded soon afterwards. But Engemann would return to the top 40 several years later as a member of Animotion, which had a top 10 hit in 1989 with "Room to Move."

Download "Hanging on a Heart Attack" by Device

Page hit it even bigger with the title track to his 1994 album, In the House of Stone & Light. A huge smash on the A/C charts, this was definitely not your average Celine Dion tune. In interviews, Page has stated that everything from Gaelic chants to church choirs influenced him as he put the song together. You can hear it in some of the unusual chord changes, strong countermelody and the lead guitar part, contributed by Robbie Robertson, formerly of The Band and a frequent Page collaborator.

Download "In the House of Stone and Light" by Martin Page

Which all goes to prove: Songwriters are people too.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – "Streets of Fire"

Here's an ironic twist: One of the defining soundtracks of the 80s was, as a film, a miserable failure at the box office.

Walter Hill's Streets of Fire (1984) cost about $14 million to make and collected less than $10 million in ticket sales. Billed as "a Rock & Roll Fable," the film starred a pre-Eddie & The Cruisers Michael Pare, Willem Dafoe, Diane lane and Rick Moranis. Quite a combination. But even Hill, fresh off his success with 48 Hours, couldn't quite pull it off.

Anyway, the soundtrack has gained cult-like status – thanks to its top ten hit "I Can Dream About You" by the late Dan Hartman, which was performed in the film by a Temptations-like group that included Robert Townsend.

But you know what? I'm tired of that song. So I'm not going to feature it here.

And I'll also skip two other songs that made a popular dent: Fire Inc.'s "Nowhere Fast" and "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young." Composed by Jim Steinman, in between Bat Out of Hell and "Total Eclipse of the Heart," they feature his usual Wagnerian bombast about love and other rock 'n' roll cliches. Sometimes, I really dig Jim's stuff. Not this time. The two songs are simply over the top.

Which leads us to two songs that make the soundtrack essential: "Sorcerer" by Marilyn Martin and "Countdown to Love" by Greg Phillinganes.

Download "Sorcerer" by Marilyn Martin.

Penned by Stevie Nicks and performed by one of her back-up singers, this would be the greatest Stevie Nicks song that the Welsh Witch never performed – except she did eventually record her own more acoustically-oriented version on Trouble in Shangri-La (2001) nearly two decades later.

While I normally prefer a more stripped down sound, I love the production on this song. Someone might want to correct me, but I believe a few Heartbreakers, Ry Cooder and Roy Bittan of the E Street Band are providing some of the instrumental backing. Which really gives it the necessary heft to compete with Martin's strong vocal performance.

So many things to adore on this song: The opening piano chords. The pedal steel. The vocal acrobatics from Martin, who would go to greater soundtrack success a year later with Steven Bishop-penned "Separate Lives" for White Nights, a duet with Phil Collins.

The other song I really enjoy is from Phillinganes, a studio musician who (among other albums) can be heard playing keyboards on Michael Jackson's Thriller. In the mid-80s, Phillinganes launched a bit of a solo career, even having a modest hit with the solid song "Behind the Mask." As you can hear, he doesn't have the greatest voice. But it works on this fun little number, which I think stands out as one of the more unique contributions to 80s soundtracks.

Download "Countdown to Love" by Greg Phillinganes

Thanks for reading and listening. And Stay tuned for next week's Soundtrack Sunday. I might even be tempted to enter the 21st Century (gasp!).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Record Review – Joe Jackson "Rain" (2008)

Four years after his last album, one of pop music’s most eclectic and often frustrating performers returns to the scene with an album due out on Rykodisc next week.

And as this album shows, despite being 52 and nearly 30 years removed from his angry debut in 1979, he hasn’t lost either his cynicism or his musicality.

Recorded in his new home of Berlin, Germany last year with his longtime musical sidekicks, bassist Graham Maby and drummer David Houghton, the 10-song set gets back to the classic Jackson pop of 2003’s “Volume Four.” It’s almost the same classic lineup that Jackson assembled for “Volume 4” in 2003 – with one crucial difference.

And that may be the difference that prevents this latest effort from being a truly great Joe Jackson album.

Guitarist Gary Sanford is MIA and, indeed, there is not a single guitar on the entire album. Which is both a blessing and a curse. Because while no one can string together a series of tuneful piano fills quite like Jackson, the listener can’t help wish for a more filled out sound that might give his latest songs some necessary heft. Truly, Jackson, who has said in interviews that one of his greatest frustrations is that he never learned to play guitar, needs a little variation now and then.

It’s not as if these are lightweight numbers. Jackson’s weary worldview never seemed fresher than on numbers such as “Invisible Man” and “Citizen Sain.” But few would dispute that part of what made Jackson such an interesting performer in the 80s was all the musical interaction he had on classic albums such as “Night and Day” and “Body and Soul.” Where would "You Can't Get What You Want" be without the really amazing pseudo-George Benson solo in the middle of it?

That said, “Rain” has several songs that are among the strongest Jackson has ever written. Lyrically,“Wasted Time” doesn’t stake any new territory in terms of its story about a love affair going bad, but Jackson’s falsetto vocal helps the song soar to new places musically.

“The Uptown Train” takes a “Song for My Father” groove and meshes it with more than a few flourishes that hearken back to “Night and Day.” And the lovely “A Place in the Rain,” with its dissipating piano, ends the album on a perfect note.

Say it is so. Joe Jackson is back.

Download "King Pleasure Time" by Joe Jackson

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Stories From the War – Thinkman

Yes, I was once a victim of one of the 80's great musical hoaxes.

My first job out of college in the summer of 1986 was as a production assistant at U-68 in Newark, New Jersey. Those who lived around the New York City area at the time might remember the channel. For a brief amount of time, it was an over-the-air equivalent of what was then MTV: Wall-to-Wall music videos, flanked every once in a while by newscasts that were light on the news and heavy on the entertainment. (Steve Leeds, my boss, would in fact go on to become a bigtime executive at MTV)

To bolster our news content, we took over a conference room at that summer's New Music Seminar and started filming interviews with whatever artists happened to stop by. I'll share some of the stories about those visits in later posts, but today I wanted to talk about Thinkman.

Thinkman was the creation of Rupert Hine, who had recently hit it big as the producer of the Fixx, Tina Turner, Howard Jones and Chris DeBurgh. He had also just scored the Savage Steve Holland/John Cusack film Better Off Dead, with one track on the soundtrack credited to Hine's new band called Thinkman.

At NMS, Hine was with his bandmates promoting their first album called The Formula. The first single, a catchy bit of synth-pop called "Best Adventures," was accompanied by a lavish, futuristic video. I sat down with Hine and the band's drummer Joe McArthur.

Download Best Adventures by Thinkman

It wasn't a terribly memorable interview, I have to say. I talked to both of them about making the album, Hine about his recent success as a producer and why he now wanted to make his own music. I think I even posed a few questions to McArthur about his drumming. In the above picture, he's the babyfaced kid standing in the center back behind Hine.

The one thing that stood out for me was Hine's comments about how he wanted the band to be as proficient at making videos as it was with making music. Thus, he planned to have a video filmed for every song on the album.

I remembered those comments when I learned something several years later after the interview: Thinkman never really existed. The Formula was actually a Hine solo album with him playing all the instruments with the exception of Stewart Copeland contributing some drum tracks and Fixx guitarist Jamie West-Oram playing some riffs. The other "members" of the band – McArthur, Andy Paris, Leo Hurll – were actors hired by Hine, who wanted to try something different after his first two critically acclaimed solo albums had flopped.

The actors weren't even using their real names: McArthur was actually Greg Crutwell, Paris was played by Andy Baker and Hurll was portrayed by Julian Clary. If you've ever watched the 1997 movie George of the Jungle, you've seen Crutwell. He played the sidekick of Lyle van de Groot (Thomas Haden Church).

Hine would go on to record three albums under the Thinkman moniker, none of them terribly successful commercially. Eventually, he admitted the whole truth about Thinkman.

But not before pulling the wool over the eyes of some kid who had just graduated from college.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Two-fer-Tuesday: "California Soul"

Many years before they hit it big with "Solid," the duo of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were actually better known as songwriters who helped crank out some of Motown's biggest hits in the late 60s. They were especially prolific on behalf of two artists who acted as their proxies: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, penning "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," among other classics.

But one of their best songs from their Motown period never it it big with the label.

Sure, Marvin and Tammi recorded "California Soul" But it was the smooth and slick Fifth Dimension who reached No. 25 on the Billboard charts in 1969 with a rendition produced by Ashford & Simpson. (The pair also produced the Marvin and Tammi version, with backing from the Funk Brothers)

Download "California Soul" by the Fifth Dimension

Ah, but that wasn't the end of the road for this song. No way. No how.

Later in the year, on the tiny Cadet label, Marlena Shaw would cut her own version on her album, The Spice of Life. Mostly known as a jazz singer (in fact, she was in the middle of a four-year gig with Count Basie), Shaw put together an solid collection of songs that navigated through jazz, the blues and soul – all with her own distinctive style.

Ah, but "California Soul." The quick staccato of the opening violins. The steady handclaps. Then Shaw's brassy voice, which almost outdoes the surging horns. The song propels itself to greater heights as it goes through it's all too brief three minutes in the spotlight.

Download "California Soul" by Marlena Shaw

By comparison, the Fifth Dimension version sounds almost flat. Which is surprising, considering the way their harmonies usually ramp up ordinary songs that need a little extra oomph. The harmonies are indeed one of the song's highlights, but the song never slowly builds to a funky crescendo the way Shaw's does.

Part of it, I think, is that as producers, Ashford & Simpson were still grounded in the conventions of Motown. But those conventions were about to give way to the more progressive sound of Philly Soul, thanks to innovators such as Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Whereas The Fifth Dimension goes somewhat timidly into that territory with the horns and strings that would become hallmarks of that genre, Shaw doesn't hold back – and then, thanks to her background as a jazz vocalist, holds her own in ways that the Fifth Dimension could never pull off.

Indeed, to many people, the Shaw version has become the definitive version. Witness the 2003 remake of the Italian Job, which uses it to illustrate the protagonists' trip to the Golden State.

See? Sometimes, Hollywood does have taste.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday - "Hiding Out" (1987)

Somewhere in between playing Duckie in Pretty in Pink and reappearing on CBS as Charlie Sheen's foil in Two and a Half Men, Jon Cryer actually had a few starring vehicles that were supposed to turn him into a big star.

Well, it didn't work.

But we did get 1987's Hiding Out, the big-screen directing debut of MTV pioneer Bob Giraldi. The story was that Cryer was a stockbroker who decides to hide out from the mob by pretending to be a high school student.

But never mind all that.

Today's subject is the soundtrack, one of the early releases on Virgin's just-launched U.S. division. Given the label's deep pockets (and Giraldi's many connections after directing some of the decade's defining music videos, including "Beat It," "Love is A Battlefield" and "Running With the Night"), it's not surprising that it had many notable performances – including "Seattle by P.I.L., Boy George singing "Live My Life" and the top 40 hit "Catch Me I'm Falling" by Pretty Poison.

Here's the Giraldi-directed video for the last song, which also shows scenes from the (mostly forgettable) movie.

There was also the 80s new wave dance number "You Don't Know" by Scarlet & Black (download), which also got some airplay.

But none of those were the soundtrack's real highlight.

For me (and many others), the only reason to pay attention to this collection was a duet between Roy Orbison (a newly signed Virgin artist) and k.d. lang on "Crying"

Download "Crying" by Roy Orbison and k.d. lang

Now, like you, I'm not normally a fan of forced duets. Especially ones that have the potential to ruin songs that should be respected as American cultural classics.

This is not one of them, I think you'd agree. (And so did Grammy Award voters, who named it Best Country Collaboration with Vocals in 1988)

This not only holds a candle to the 1961 original, but adds an extra dimension to it. Amid all the discussion of lang's appearance and her sexuality, few people recognize that she is an amazing singer. That her voice not only has spectacular range (something she needed to keep up with the inimitable Orbison) but has the emotional depth that so many of her peers lack.

This is a woman also blessed with the ability to sing just about anything. Don't believe me? Fifteen years later, she went on to record an album of Louis Armstrong tunes with Tony Bennett. Yeah, that's right.

Anyway, enjoy the song. And I'll be back with more soundtrack goodies from the vaults next Sunday.

Back to the 80's: The Unforgiven

In the wake of the early 80s success of both Big Country and U2, labels were on the lookout for another guitar-heavy alternative band that would be the next big thing.

For a while at least, the Unforgiven were thought to be one of those up and comers. Landed by Elektra after a fierce bidding war, the band had already composed what would become its only semi-hit, "I Hear the Call," an anthem that stakes the group's territory as the United States' answer to The Alarm. It appears on their self-titled debut album, which was released in 1986.

Download "I Hear The Call"

The band, which took its name from a John Huston western, had the obvious western motif going for them. Which led their agency to allegedly send a copy of their album to Clint Eastwood, hoping he would direct their first music video. No reply.

Fast forward to a few years later. The band had all but broken up. All of a sudden, Eastwood releases a movie in 1992 called "Unforgiven" and, according to at least some band members, the font on the promotional poster is almost identical to what was used on the band's only album.

Let's take a look:

Here's the album

and here is the movie poster.

Pretty similar if you ask me though my wife (who is a former magazine editor) says the fonts are completely different. So I'll trust her.

You can learn more about the band at this web site, which has music downloads, streaming videos and interviews with former members of the band. Guitarist John Hickman went on to become one of the founding members of Cracker.

Unfortunately, that's the way things happen in the music business: Sometimes, you win an Oscar. And sometimes you get sent to the cutout bin.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Unsung Hero of the Week – Peter Wood


I'm not surprised if that name doesn't ring a bell.

For every big-time solo musician out there with a recognizable name and face, there are hundreds of studio musicians who labor in obscurity. Yet they are just as essential to the artist's oeuvre as the guy on the record cover himself.

A perfect example: Peter Wood.

If you've got an old vinyl version of the 1976 Al Stewart album Year of the Cat, you'll find a picture of him on the inner cover. More importantly, you'll hear his beautifully understated piano solo at the beginning of the title track and throughout the song. He is, in fact, credited as the song's co-writer with Stewart. So there's a bit of trivia for you.

Download "Year of the Cat"

Yes, Stewart's poetic lyrics have a lot to do with why this hit song was so good and kickstarted the mainstream career of this formerly obscure British folkie. So does Phil Kenzie's epic saxophone solo at the 4:12 mark. But Wood's underlying keyboards are what make it for me.

You can get an even better sense of Wood's contributions by watching this old video clip of Wood performing "Year of the Cat" with Stewart. Taking a cue from the opening lyrics, he starts out playing "As Time Goes By" before launching into the classic opening stanzas.

My favorite music is music that I just wallow in. It describes the state I feel when I hear music by people such as Vienna Teng, Sarah McLachlan and Bill Evans. I lose track of my surroundings and just become engulfed by the song - particularly if it is in my headphones. For me, "Year of the Cat" is definitely a wallowing song.

Wood would go on to work with extensively with Roger Waters, backing the Pink Floyd lead singer during "The Wall" tour and continuing to work with him when Waters went solo. You'll also find him on albums by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Cyndi Lauper (Believe it or not, you may have heard him play synthesizers on "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun").

One of the only times Wood put himself front and center was on the soundtrack of the obscure 1982 French farce Ils Apellent Ça Un Accident (They Call It An Accident). Collaborating with British vocalist Jess Roden, the duo contributed two tracks. The best is the spooky-sounding "Future Soon."

Download "Future Soon"

No keyboard wonderfulness here, just a really nice song with a message. How it fit into the film, I don't know. I've never seen it. But I do have a cassette of the soundtrack, an Island Records release that also features contributions from the likes of Steve Winwood, Marianne Faithfull and U2.

About the same time I started listening to the soundtrack (I even reviewed it in the pages of my college newspaper at Georgetown University), I was heading backstage for a concert. My dad and I entered the elevator with a ordinary looking man in his 40s. He introduced himself to us as Peter Wood. I instantly asked him whether he was the same Peter Wood who co-wrote "Year of The Cat." A short pause. Yes, he was. I told him how much I liked the songs on "They Call It an Accident." He thanked me.

Throughout the brief conversation, there was kind of a stunned look on Wood's face. What a crazy coincidence. Here was a rock 'n' roll sessionman who had gotten used to a life of obscurity. And he happened to have stepped onto the elevator with someone who not only knew who he was, but could list some of his major accomplishments.

Not much else to the story. I didn't see him again at the concert. But I'm glad I was able to do a little fawning. Everybody deserves a moment of glory in some way.

According to Wikipedia, Wood died in late 1993. The Google research I've done indicates that the death of the 53-year-old Wood was ruled a suicide. Here's a link to a page that attempts to list all the albums and tours that featured Wood. (Who is also, for some reason, sometimes billed as "Peter Woods.")

Here's to you, Peter. Hope all is well in rock 'n' roll heaven.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Love Songs for Low-Level Bureaucrats

Remember those essay questions you used to get on high school and college tests?

You know the ones: Compare and contrast the Ottoman Empire to the German Empire under Kaiser Wilmelm. Compare and contrast the Levelers of 17th century Britain to the Leninists of post-revolution Russia.

Yup, today – and hopefully every week – we're going to do a little comparing and contrasting.

Only it's going to be a lot more fun. And you won't wind up with a C-plus.

The subject is music, folks. And the musicians in today's two-fer are Donald Fagen and Fountains of Wayne, who both released songs within the last two years on similarly unusual themes.

Yep, they wrote odes to low-level bureaucrats.

Take Fagen's "Security Joan,"off his excellent 2006 release Morph the Cat, the conclusion of an album trilogy that began with The Nightfly in 1982. The post-9/11 paranoia explored in this album includes this neat ditty about falling in love with an airport screener who keeps the protagonist from making his flight on time.

And then there's "Yolanda Hayes," from the Fountains post-"Stacy's Mom" 2007 CD Traffic and Weather.

Musically, I have to say, these songs rock.

On "Security Joan," Fagen's got all of his fail-safe elements going into overdrive: The slinky groove, the jazzy riff, the unexpected melodic changes and the infectious chorus.

Download "Security Joan"

On "Yolanda Hayes," the Fountains once again go to the Kitchen sink with an opening that recalls the Beatles "Getting Better," the catchy "Who Do You Love" refrain and a late appearance from a Chicago-style horn section. (What can I tell you? I'm a sucker for blaring trumpets)

Download "Yolanda Hayes"

But here's where the songs diverge for me: In the lyrics.

"Security Joan" is a gentle ride through the hapless life of its protagonist, one that flows seamlessly with the album's themes of alienation, paranoia and helplessness in the face of the new world order. Fagen is not be entirely straight-faced, to be sure, but there's no sense of cruelty to his lyrics.

Not so with the boys from Fountains of Wayne. In fact, on this song, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger come off as a couple of frat boys laughing behind Ms. Hayes' back. Lyrics like "The hours pass, the days go by/But has anybody/Really tried/To cross that line/ To get inside?" make these boys from New Jersey seem like teenagers snickering in the corner.

Which is, I think, the problem with FOW's latest CD. By now, their shtick is well known. But in this set of songs, all the satirization of middle-class culture is getting a little old. Collingwood and Schlshinger come off as misogynistic and snarky, rather than astute and satirical. It's a fine line to be sure – one that an artist like Randy Newman almost always manages to traverse – but one which the Fountains need to pay close attention to in the future.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Seven things to know about Caetano Veloso

Despite his ongoing popularity in his native Brazil, Caetano Veloso remains relatively unknown in many musical circles – particularly in The united States. Here's a broad sampling of the output from this musical pioneer, who has been putting out records since 1967.

1 – "(Nothing But) Flowers"
Returning the favor of David Byrne, who wrote the liner notes for his "Best of" compilation , Veloso recorded this Talking Heads standby as part of 2004's " A Foreign Sound." The diverse collection of favorite American songs includes Tin Pan Alley favorites ("The Man I Love") as well as more recent additions to the nation's musical pantheon (Nirvana's "Come As You Are").

2 – "Irene"
This song – about a machine gun "laughing," not a girl – is a reflection of Veloso's mindset and his own political situation when this song was released on his so-called White Album in 1969. Punished for his outspoken opposition to the military dictatorship that took over Brazil in 1964, Veloso was restricted to the city of Salvador (He would eventually be exiled along with Gilberto Gil and live in London until 1972). He recorded the basic tracks to his second solo LP in a small studio. The results were shipped to producer Rogério Duprat, who added extra layers in his more complete São Paulo studio.

3 – "Burn It Blue"
Though Veloso has enjoyed more crossover appeal in the United States than most other Brazilian artists, this 2002 collaboration with Lila Downs on the Frida soundtrack placed him in front of his largest American audience ever when he and Downs performed the Oscar-nominated song at the 75th Academy Awards.

4 – "Tropicalia" ("Tropicalism")
The song that gave the musical movement its name, this opening cut from Veloso's 1968 self-titled release was untitled until Veloso adapted the name of a piece of Brazilian performance art by Hélio Oiticica. Proudly trumpeting its eclecticism under the rubrick of "Antropofagia" (artistic cannibalism), tropicalia (also known as "Tropicalismo") was exciting, irreverent – and unlike anything that had preceded it in Brazilian music.

5 – "É Preciso Perdoar (You Must Forgive)"
This haunting song, most closely associated with guitarist João Gilberto, appears on the 1996 benefit CD, Red Hot + Rio. It features Veloso trading verses with Cesária Évora behind a simple yet effective synth-laden instrumental background from Ryuichi Sakamoto.

6 – "Samba de Verão" ("Summer Samba")
Though his Tropicalia movement shifted Brazilian music away from its previous traditions, Veloso has returned to pure Bossa Nova from time to time– often to great results, such as this recording of what may rank behind "The Girl from Ipanema" as the most popular Bossa Nova of all time. His high and delicate tenor is just right for this piece, which is also known as "So Nice" to American audiences.

7 –"Nåo me Arrependo" ("I Don't Regret")
Described by Veloso as the "most emotional" song on his 2006 album , the song is about a great romance that has ended and is tinged with a sense of melancholy about what could have been. Veloso isn't the only member of his family on this record – his son Moreno co-produced it with Brazilian guitar whiz Pedro Sa.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – Absolutely Wonderful

It almost singlehandedly sunk the British film industry in the mid 80s. It featured an uncomfortable mix of big musical production members and heavy social commentary. And at the time of its release, 15 years before a similarly unorthodox "Moulin Rouge" received Oscar acclaim, critics didn't know what to make of it.

I'm talking about Absolute Beginners, a 1986 film starring David Bowie and Patsy Kensit.
I first became aware of the film when I read a January 1986 cover story in Vanity Fair, written by renowned Beatles biographer Phillip Norman.

Accompanying the story, which delved into how director Julien Temple planned to put the British equivalent of "Catcher in the Rye" on the big screen, was an extraordinary collection of photographs of the film's characters. One way or another, I told myself, I am going to see that movie once it hit theaters.

In fact I watched it the very first week it came out during the summer of 1986. And it's fortunate that I did because it sank without a trace – both in the United States and in Britain, where its financial failure led to the collapse of Goldcrest, the studio behind Chariots of Fire and Gandhi.

No, it's not the greatest movie in the world. But its unique visual style hasn't really ever been matched. There's the one-shot opening sequence that Temple would later mimic in his "When I Think of You" video for Janet Jackson. Bowie's song-and-dance number for "That's Motivation." And the fight sequences that could have come out of West Side Story II: Tony's Revenge

A little bit later, I read the original book – by an author named Colin MacInnes – and loved it even more.

But I won't bore you any more about the movie (or the book). Every once in a while, it pops up on cable. And it's definitely worth catching.

What really made the movie cook was its music, which was given the jazzed-up treatment by Miles Davis collaborator Gil Evans. He composed some of the score and arranged many of the songs. Besides Bowie's contribution of the title track (the closest thing the soundtrack had to a hit single), there's Sade never sounding jazzier than on "Killer Blow;" "Flat Foot Floogie" man Slim Gaillard singing the rollicking "Selling Out"; a Bubble Gum pop song, "Little Cat," composed by none other than Nick Lowe; and the Style Council's "Have You Ever Had it Blue," a rearranged version of "With Everything to Lose" from My Favorite Shop (1985). (Paul Weller, as you may remember, wrote "Absolute Beginners" for The Jam's Snap (1983) album as a tribute to his favorite book).

Download "Have You Ever Had It Blue" by the Style Council

But for me, the soundtrack's absolute highlight is "Quiet Life" by Ray Davies. The longtime Kinks leader wrote and performed this whimsical look at the life of a hen-pecked husband in the film's most memorable scene. It's like an old dance hall tune, only with added bonus of Davies' characteristic wit about the human condition. In the film, Davies performs the song on a cutaway set of a house with different slapstick scenes in each room – including a few featuring his on-screen "wife" Mandy Rice-Davies, one of the central figures in the mid-60s Profumo scandal.

Download "Quiet Life" by Ray Davies

Even though many different composers worked on the soundtrack (another track that highlights its diversity: A reggae version of Miles Davis' "So What" by Smiley Culture) it still manages to flow together as an album. I bought the English import CD twenty years ago, which is the equivalent of a double-album. I'm happy to see that it has totally supplanted the shorter American version in the EMI catalog. Music this good should be enjoyed to its fullest.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Making the Transition

Steve Miller's career can be divided into two phases.

There is, of course, the multi-platinum superstar from the late 70s and early 80s. The guy who showered the airwaves with mega-hits such as "Fly Like An Eagle," "Jet Airliner," "Take the Money and Run" and "Abracadabra."

Wait, where are you going?

Then there is the more obscure Steve Miller from the late 60s sand early 70s. The guy who learned his first guitar chords from Les Paul and went on to jam with the likes of Paul McCartney, Boz Scaggs, Chuck Berry, Paul Butterfield and Nicky Hopkins. The guy whose blues-based songs were mostly relegated to the FM radio ghetto until he hit it big in 1973.

And oh yes. The guy who many music lovers (myself included) infinitely prefer.

Which gets around to the point of today's post.

Which is to spotlight the transition between the old Steve Miller and the more successful Steve Miller, as demonstrated by the Steve Miller Band's 1972 album Recall the Beginning … A Journey from Eden.

Never released on CD and supposedly dismissed by Miller, who has sparingly included tracks from the album on his compilations, the band's seventh album is nonetheless an solid collection of songs that offers all kinds of clues as to where Miller was going.

Most obviously, the evidence comes in the albums second track: "Enter Maurice." Yes, that Maurice. Who does indeed speak of "the pompatous of love," one year before "The Joker" became Miller's first big hit. The made-up word was not Miller's. It actually came from a 1954 doo-wop tune by the Medallions, according to Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope.

Download "Enter Maurice."

This song is a lot of fun. As far as doo-wop parodies go, in my view, it is on par with Frank Zappa’s Cruising With Ruben & the Jets (1968). It features orgasmic screams from the female chorus, a basso narrator and the final lyrics delivered in deadpan style by Miller. “Just remember sweetheart/I bought myself a gun/And I will be the only one.”

There’s nothing quite as hilarious on the rest of album, which definitely has its moments. Lyrically, Miller has never been the best wordsmith. He stumbles between earnest (if clichéd) social criticism of his earlier days (i.e. 1968's "Living in the USA" and 1970's "Jackson-Kent Blues") and the dreamy idealism that would mark his later work.

But musically, Miller keeps "Journey…" on a steady groove.

The moody title track features a haunting melody punctuated by a well-placed string section. "Somebody Somewhere Help Me" has a killer bass line that, along with a Chicago-style brass section, helps the song lift off. On the album, you hear all kinds of musical snippets that Miller would employ to greater success on his biggest albums, 1976's Fly Like An Eagle and 1977's Book of Dreams. Produced by former bandmate Ben Sidran (a jazz aficionado and future NPR host), the album features the debut of drumer Gary Mallaber who would play an essential role in the recording of Miller's Fly Like An Eagle and Abracadabra (1982).

But let's talk a little bit more about the transition between the two Steve Millers.

A few months after this album was released, Miller suffered a serious car accident that had him out of commission for months. It apparently left him with a lot of time to think. His next album would be the last under the groundbreaking deal that he signed with Capitol Records in 1967 – one that gave him unprecedented artistic control over what he recorded.

Obviously, he wanted that deal to continue. As he recounted in the excellent DVD documentary that accompanies the 2006 30th anniversary re-release of Fly Like An Eagle, he decided at that point to drop all political commentary and record songs that adopted a more optimistic outlook on life.

A perfect example: A funked-up 1972 demo that began its life as a song called "In The Ghetto," in which Miller (among other things) criticizes the American government for its treatment of Native Americans.

Download "In The Ghetto"

By the time the song was released four years later, that line was gone. And "In The Ghetto" had morphed into "Fly Like An Eagle."

And the rest is history.

At least for the Postal Service.

Watch this blog for more discussions about the evolution of Steve Miller…

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Oh Danny Boy

No, Dan Wilson hasn't exactly been sitting on his hands since Semisonic's last (and possibly final) album went bust in 2001.

Remember that big Dixie Chicks record last year? The one that swept all the Grammy's and exacted a little vengeance on all those country fans who turned their back on the group after lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out against President Bush?

Well, Wilson co-wrote six of the 14 tracks on Taking the Long Way – including "Not Ready to Make Nice," which won last year's Grammy for Record of the Year.

Unfortunately, despite that Grammy, Wilson (and Semisonic) have already been relegated to the "one hit wonder" ghetto, thanks to "Closing Time." But it's not a worthy label. Because Semisonic's three-album output (four, if you count the independently released Pleasure EP) contains some of the most well-crafted pop you are likely to find this side of Brian Wilson.

Continuing that trend, the former Trip Shakespeare frontman released his first solo album this past October with. And if you liked Semisonic, you're really going to love this record.

Released on Rick Rubin’s American label in October, Free Life showcases what have always been Wilson’s most appealing qualities: His delicate voice and his sense of Brill Building pop. “Free Life” is filled with slowly building songs that worm their way into listeners’ hearts.

Rubin, the former Beastie Boy producer who earned his musical credibility by producing the remarkable series of late Johnny Cash albums, is the perfect man behind the boards for Wilson. He knows when to put in the musical flourishes – and when to hold back, allowing songs to bloom on their own.

Wilson's brand of pop is a sophisticated one. His melodies don't always go off in predictable directions. And the bridges in his songs seem to be crafted with such a high attention to detail that they work perfectly with the rest of the song – something many modern composers forget to do.

For me, his songwriting style harkens back to Carole King – who collaborated with Wilson on one of Semisonic's shining moments, "One True Love," from All About Chemistry (2001). More about that song later in this post.

Not all of the tracks on Free Live are standout. “Sugar,” with backing vocal from Sheryl Crow (who once toured with Semisonic), meanders too much. But many of them deserve the same kind of respect that “Not Ready to Make Nice” received.

The shimmering “Breathless” is a pop gem, for example. As is “She Can’t Help Me Now.”

Two other tracks are worthy of extra attention: Wilson’s version of “Easy Silence,” in which he manage to put his own spin on a song he originally gave away to the Dixie Chicks. And “Hand on My Heart,” in which he writes from the perspective of a soldier injured in Iraq.

Download "Breathless"

Back to "One True Love." For what was (so far) Semisonic's final album, MCA put Wilson together with King, a professed fan of the band's work. The two apparently composed together via phone and email before coming together in the studio. According to the band's drummer Jacob Schlicter in his excellent behind-the-scenes book, So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star, he was so excited to see King that, when she walked in the studio, he immediately hugged her.

Pretty appropriate. Because I consider this pop gem the equivalent of warm hug.

Download "One True Love"