Friday, February 29, 2008

Cover of the Week – "The Weight" by Aretha Franklin with Duane Allman

Here's a little mathematical equation for all of you loyal blog readers.

What do you get when you combine the second-best guitarist of all time according to Rolling Stone, the No. 1 Queen of Soul (sorry, Tina, but Beyonce had it wrong) and the musical composition ranked No. 41 on Rolling Stone's list of the best rock and roll songs of all time?

One heck of a cover, that's what.

Put out shortly after The Band released what became its signature song in 1968, Aretha Franklin's version of "The Weight" appeared on her This Girl's in Love With You (1970) LP – an album that mostly included Franklin's take on pop songs of the period, including the title track, "Son of a Preacher Man," "Let It Be" and "Eleanor Rigby."

Recorded during the heyday of the Muscle Shoals sound in the Alabama studio where Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs and Wilson Pickett all but pitched a tent in the main room, the song features a slide guitar performance from a full-time studio employee at the time: Duane Allman.

Play "The Weight" by Aretha Franklin (featuring Duane Allman)

While Jimi Hendrix (No. 1 on the Rolling Stone list, by the way) is generally credited with being a black musician who built a bridge to white audiences, few seem to realize that Allman started out doing the same thing in reverse.

To be sure, the FAME recording studio was a multi-racial oasis in the 60s. Booker T and the MGs were one of the first bands to include black and white musicians. Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler was behind the boards on many of the Franklin and Pickett sessions. But in the days before his band defined the genre known as Southern Rock, Allman's awesome talent seemed uniquely suited for this kind of work.

Hired in 1968 by studio owner Rick Hall, who was blown away by the young guitarist's talent, Allman played with almost every soul legend who walked through those doors. His solo on Wilson Pickett's "Hey Jude" apparently first brought him to the attention of Eric Clapton. Allman not only knew how to play the guitar, but how to redefine its sound while also working seamlessly with the great tracks being recorded in the studio.

As for "The Weight," which The Band had recorded and released in 1968 before they even called themselves "The Band," this version hit No. 3 on the R&B charts in 1969 and No. 19 on the pop charts. Wexler, in retrospect, dismissed the song as a mistake.

"I was trying to make a bridge over to the 'flower children'; I bitterly regret having done 'The Weight' with her. The song is totally incomprehensible to her basic rhythm & blues constituency. Aretha cannot have a big hit unless it is also a hit with her black audience. It's got to be both, so this is where commercial stupidity and greed got the upper hand with me."

– From the liner notes to the CD's rerelease (thanks to the excellent Band fan site for unearthing this quote)

I beg to differ because, musically at least, I've always viewed this song as being a comfortable fit with classic R&B/gospel. So did director Martin Scorsese, whose relationship with Band guitarist and composer Robbie Robertson was documented in Sunday's post. After filming the final concert documented in The Last Waltz (1978), Scorsese decided that one genre of American music was missing from the film: Gospel. So he put together The Band in a film studio with The Staple Singers and they performed "The Weight" for what was one of this great film's true highlights.

What you might not realize is that, years before the movie, The Staples had recorded their own version of the song with Booker T and the MGs for the rare 1968 album, Soul Folk in Action. Once again, though the lyrics are a little on the hippie side, the music itself sure isn't.

Play "The Weight" by The Staple Singers

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Steve Lillywhite bonus

DougMash at New Wave Outpost unearthed on YouTube a 10-part documentary of XTC recording with a then 25-year-old Lillywhite in 1980. It is fascinating to watch if you're want to get a sense of what kind a hands-on producer Lillywhite was (and perhaps still is). Looks like a lot of fun.

This is Part 1.

The remaining parts can be found on this page.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wednesday's Radio Show – Steve Lillywhite

Because it's winter break week, I got a little extra time this week to spin a few tunes. Thus, the one-hour "Play It And Be Darned" radio show on music produced by Steve Lillywhite was more like 90 minutes this morning.

Which is a good thing. Because as I said yesterday, the 50-something producer has certainly been responsible for a lot of great work.

U2 –A Day Without Me (1980)
Simple Minds – Up on the Catwalk (1984)
Marshall Crenshaw – Hold It (1983)
Rolling Stones – One Hit (To The Body) (1986)
Thompson Twins – In the Name of Love (1981)
The La's–There She Goes (1991)
Talking Heads–(Nothing But) Flowers (1988)
The Pogues–If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1987)
Kirsty MacColl–They Don't Know(1995)
Peter Gabriel–No Self Control (1980)
Big Country–Wonderland (1984)
Phish–Free (1996)
Guster– All the Way Up To Heaven(1999)
Psychedelic Furs–Pretty in Pink (1981)
Joan Armatrading–The Weakness in Me (1981)
Jason Mraz –Wordplay (2005)
Counting Crows –Big Yellow Taxi (2002)
Chris Cornell–You Know My Name (2006)
U2–Beautiful Day (2000)
Big Country –The Storm (1983)

Edited on Thursday (so that the wrong information doesn't spread around the Internet): See Mr. Lillywhite's comments on this post. Though he produced releases from both Kirsty MacColl and Chris Cornell, the particular tracks listed above were not in fact produced by him. The Bond theme was done by Cornell and the movie's composer, David Arnold, while the original version of "They Don't Know" was released in 1979 – five years before the couple even met. Sorry about the confusion.

A few things of note:

•I find it interesting that other than a handful of bands (U2, Big Country, his ex-wife Kirsty MacColl, Dave Matthews Band) that he has become closely identified with, Lillywhite hasn't produced more than 1-2 albums with most artists. Most of the time, it's only a single album. Is it because his price is too high? Are his techniques too unsuited for anything more than a trial period with most artists? Is he too heavyhanded as a producer?

•Examples of the latter are both The La's (who disagreed vocally with what he did to their first and only album) and the Dave Matthews Band, whose members fired him before finishing their fourth album with him. I'd be interested in knowing how much of it is personality clashes and how much of it is their disagreement with his techniques.

•Or it could be simply a lack of time, particularly in the early days. Take a look at Lillywhite's dancecard in 1981. Among the albums to come out that year bearing his imprint: Joan Armatrading's Walk Under Ladders, The Brains' Electronic Eden, the Psychedelic Furs' Talk Talk Talk, and U2's October. In a hectic 1983 that already had included Lillywhite working with U2, Big Country and Marshall Crenshaw, Rush badly wanted him to helm Grace Under Pressure (1984), but he chose to work with Simple Minds instead.

•Lillywhite's best known for his heavy sonic layering, which is really the 80s equivalent of the Phil Spector Wall of Sound. Just listen to all those clamoring guitars on "Up on the Catwalk." On the other hand, there's the Guster tune, on the band's major label debut nine years ago. It's as gentle and simple as anything the band has done subsequently. So he's definitely not a one-trick pony in the way that Spector was.

•Though people most closely associate early U2 with "I Will Follow," the fact remains that "A Day Without Me" was the band's very first single off Boy. It was also the first song Lillywhite recorded with U2. I listen to it and I think A Flock of Seagulls, but it is actually a song Bono wrote about the suicide of former Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis.

•A few weeks ago, I dissed the Rolling Stones as I talked about how Mick Jagger's voice grates on my nerves at times. But then I listen to something like "One Hit (To the Body)" and I do a little reconsidering. This is definitely Mick at his best. I love the stripped-down raw power and energy of this song, which Lillywhite is able to bring to the forefront.

•According to what I've read, Lillywhite met MacColl during Simple Minds' Sparkle in the Rain recording sessions. They married later that year and divorced in 1994. Still, Lillywhite produced her career-spanning compilation Galore the next year, which included her version of "They Don't Know" – a song of hers that Tracey Ullman had turned into a big hit. MacColl, who never was as popular as she should have been, was killed in a bizarre boating accident off Cozumel in 2000.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Steve Lillywhite

My apologies for the delay in posting this, but there was a last-minute change in plans – a happy change in plans, as it turns out, because it directly relates to my radio show tomorrow (Wednesday at 10 a.m. Eastern Time) on Orchard Radio.

I've decided to devote a full hour to music produced by Steve Lillywhite – one of the most influential music producers of the last 30 years, but also one of the most controversial in several cases.

The songs showcased in today's post are Lillywhite at his best – and perhaps his worst. And they both came out in the same year: 1983.

We start off with The Crossing (1983), Big Country's first and still most successful LP. To be sure, former Skids guitarist Stuart Adamson had a lot to do with developing the Scottish band's unique bagpipe-style guitar playing. But you have to give a lot of credit to Lillywhite, particularly on the last song of the first side "The Storm."

Play "The Storm" by Big Country

While "In a Big Country" gets most of the attention, this is the song where Big Country should have earned most of its plaudits. Moody and atmospheric like the Scottish moors it is supposed to evoke, the song is an epic composition that receives just the right touch from Lillywhite. He knows when to go all out and when to simply pull back to let the song speak for itself.

Later in that same year, Lillywhite crossed the Atlantic to work with singer/songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, whose debut 1982 album had garnered critical raves and surprising amount of popularity on the burgeoning college radio scene. (He even managed to hit the Billboard Top 40 with "Someday Someway"). Many were anticipating great things from Crenshaw.

Instead of sticking with 60s traditionalist Richard Gottehrer, whose cleaner sound had been featured on Crenshaw debut and had also helped The Go-Go's reach the top, Crenshaw tapped Lillywhite and his denser sound. To many, it was a huge mistake. Crenshaw's hooks and lyrics got lost in the murkiness of the production of Lillywhite, who the following year would almost bury Jim Kerr's vocals in the many layers of Simple Minds' Sparkle in the Rain (1984). The album's lead-off track "Whenever You're On Mind" should and could have been a bigger hit than it was. It is one of the most beautiful pop songs ever, but a crisper sound probably would have made it more palatable on the airwaves

Here's one of the songs from Field Day I'll be featuring on Wednesday's show:

Play "Hold It" by Marshall Crenshaw

Time has been kinder to this record as it has passed. Robert Christgau gives Field Day a rare "A+" based not only Crenshaw's superior songwriting, but his quick maturity as an artist. The fact is, Crenshaw never was interested in letting his first LP turn him into someone whose records would be blaring out of every dorm room. As subsequent releases have shown, Crenshaw is still a pop musician – but he's a serious one interested in setting his own path. And that path doesn't include selling out concert halls and landing all of his CDs on the Billboard charts. I still wish that Lillywhite hadn't produced this record, but I now understand why Crenshaw made the choice that he did.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday: The King of Comedy (1983)

Robbie Robertson loved Mean Streets (1973) so much that he asked the movie's director to film what would be The Band's final concert.

Thus was the beginning of The Last Waltz (1978), possible the greatest rock concert movie ever made. And thus was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between The Band's guitarist and chief songwriter and the film's director, Martin Scorsese.

The two were such good buddies that they actually lived together for a time. And indulged in the same – ahem – recreational substances.

With his career as a member of The Band now over, Robertson was ready to try new things. And thankfully, his friend was there to supply him with new challenges.

First, Scorsese asked Robertson to score Raging Bull (1980). Then came the next project, King of Comedy (1983), a film about an obsessed fan's scheme to become as famous as the TV star he idolized. And it would be a little bit different than the straightforward release of incidental music as the soundtrack.

Compilation soundtracks were just starting to get into vogue. And besides composing instrumental music for the movie, Robertson had to stuff the film's accompanying album with tracks from established artists.

For a strange movie with a cast that included Robert DeNiro, Jerry Lewis and Tony Randall (!), – not to mention Sandra Bernhard in her first and possibly most bizarre role – the soundtrack is almost equally strange.

Check out this cast of contributors: Ric Ocasek. Rickie Lee Jones. Bob James. The Pretenders. The Talking Heads. Ray Charles. David Sanborn.

OK, so a lot of these songs were not especially made for the movie but were castoffs, previously unreleased or just not released yet. (An example of the last category: "Back on the Chain Gang" gave the Pretenders their highest charting U.S. single to date by reaching No. 5, nearly six months before it would be released on the Learning to Crawl (1984) LP).

Several of the best tracks, however, were the result of Robertson's hard work.

Robertson produced B.B. King's take on the standard "T'aint Nobody's Bizness (If I Do)," which remains my personal favorite song from the venerable blues guitarist. King was never a classic blues man like Muddy Waters. He has always been at his best when he's belting out songs in a big band setting, which is what we have here.

Play "T'aint Nobody's Bizness (If I Do)" by B.B. King

As I always seem to do on these Sundays, I'm saving the best for last.

You can have your "Moondance," your "Domino," your "Jackie Wilson Said," your "Tupelo Honey." In my book at least, Van Morrison may not have recorded a better song than "Wonderful Remark," which closes both the album and the film.

Robertson not only produced the song, but provides some amazing lead guitar. And then as an added bonus, there's some outstanding organ playing from the incomparable Nicky Hopkins. Morrison's voice goes with the flow of the slowly-building song. He whispers, he croons, he even yelps. Even filmgoers who hated the movie (which was somewhat of a bomb, but it has gained in stature over the years) were probably leaving the theater humming.

Play "Wonderful Remark" by Van Morrison

One more note about the soundtrack: The song "Between Trains" marks Robertson's debut as a solo artist. Written as a tribute to a Scorsese assistant who had died suddenly during filming, the song featured ex-Band mates Garth Hudson on synthesizer and Richard Manuel on backing vocals.

Play "Between Trains" by Robbie Robertson (vinyl rip)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Unsung Hero – Kevin Gilbert

Sheryl Crow released a new album earlier this month called Detours (2008)

Every few years, when Crow puts out a new smash CD, I stop and think of Kevin Gilbert.

What does Kevin Gilbert have to do with Sheryl Crow?

Perhaps quite unfortunately for him, all too much.

A multi-talented musician who could basically pick up anything and play it instantly, Gilbert performed with Eddie Money and his own band Giraffe, where he gained the attention of longtime Madonna producer Patrick Leonard. Gilbert was asked by Leonard to put together a band with him and thus Toy Matinee was born.

The band's one and only album, recorded in 1990 and shelved by its company until 1991, was a mild success. "Last Plane Out," a parable about the Gulf War, got a good deal of airplay on alternative stations. And the video of the gorgeous song, "The Ballad of Jenny Ledge," got heavy exposure on MTV, thanks to the starring role of Gilbert's ex-girlfriend, Rosanna Arquette.

Here's the video:

And here are the album's most famous songs.

Play "Ballad of Jenny Ledge"

Play "Last Plane Out" by Toy Matinee

Although I bought it it a Silver Spring, Maryland, dollar store on a lark about 15 years ago, this nine-song collection has become one of my favorite CD's. Everything about it appeals to me: The sophisticated and frequently obtuse subjects of its songs (Who writes about Salvador Dali, anyway?); its keen sense of melody paired with unpredictable musical detours; and even Gilbert's vocal resemblance to Steely Dan's Donald Fagen. In the days before mix CDs and iPods dominated my life, I never went on a road trip without taking this CD.

It was, unfortunately, to be the group's only album. Although Warner managed to sell about 200,000 copies of the CD, Leonard quickly lost interest in the project and Gilbert had to replace him for the tour. Among the musicians to join the touring version of Toy Matinee: A backing vocalist named Sheryl Crow, who according to Gilbert was hired because she was the only one who could play "King of Misery" (one of the band's songs) on the keyboards.

The album's producer, Bill Bottrell, swung Gilbert towards some session work on high profile gigs, including Michael Jackson's Dangerous (1991). And he began working with Gilbert on a solo album. But Gilbert, a tortured perfectionist, was struggling. So Bottrell invited a few friends over for some weekly jam sessions that were dubbed the "Tuesday Night Music Club."

Into this loose collective landed Crow, who had just finished a debut album that A&M record had deemed to be unreleasable. They asked Gilbert and Bottrell to help rescue it. And they did it as part of these musical jam sessions, taking a song called "Leaving Las Vegas" that session regulars David Baerwald and David Ricketts (David + David of "Welcome to the Boomtown" fame) had contributed and another one called "All I Wanna Do" that was a instrumental until lyrics were cribbed from an obscure book of poetry. During the sessions, Gilbert and Crow became furtive lovers.

But by the time Crow was well on her to becoming a multi-platinum artist, it was all over. Not just the affair. But also the involvement of Gilbert and all the other musicians who jammed on the record. Sure, the album was called Tuesday Night Music Club (1993) in tribute to those sessions, but Crow seemed to be eager to show that she was a worthy musician in her own right. Even though Gilbert was on hand to accept his share of the Record of the Year Grammy for "All I Wanna Do" (one of the seven songs on the 11-song CD in which he shares a songwriting credit), Crow's eagerness to distance herself from how the album was produced upset the often moody Gilbert to say the least.

"I don't know if I can ever forgive her,'' he once wrote in his journal, according to the Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle. ``I don't hate her -- I'm just soooo disappointed.''

Gilbert tried to carry on, releasing a solo CD called Thud (1995) that did just that when it was released. In 1996, he was among several singers being considered to replace Phil Collins in Genesis when his manager found him dead at the age of 29 – a victim of "autoerotic asphyxiation", according to the Los Angeles coroner. Close friends considered it more of a suicide than anything else. Many of them were quite upset when, in his Entertainment Weekly obituary, he was described as "the piano player on Sheryl Crow's debut album."

He hated that Sheryl Crow record and that's all he's going to be known for," Baerwald told Slevin. "The piano player? Roll over, Kevin Gilbert.''

Indeed, Kevin Gilbert deserved to be known for so much more than that.

And in my heart, he always will be.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cover of the Week – Yael Naim "Toxic"

Weren't we at this point a few weeks ago?

Yes, as a matter of fact, we started this "Cover of the Week" feature with the traditional bluegrass trio Nickel Creek doing a live version of the Britney Spears "classic."

But I had to post this song again. Because I was so impressed with this version of "Toxic" as performed by Yael Naim, a new artist that you may not familiar with but have definitely heard.

Naim is the one singing "New Soul" on all those ubiquitous MacBook Air ads. From that fragment, you might characterize her as new breed of "fragile" singers a la Sia. But what you don't hear is how the song eventually kicks in with hand-clapping, a rollicking marching band and full-throttle backing vocals that culminates with an acapella choir. (OK, many of you have heard the full version: I just learned that it actually entered the Billboard Top 10 earier this month)

To my ears at least, Naim is an artist in the Fiona Apple mold, albeit a little more on the melodic and mainstream side. The child of Sephardic Jewish parents, the French-born Naim now lives in Israel. You see a lot of her multi-cultural influences in "Toxic," which is softer than "New Soul" and proudly states its uniqueness with Middle Eastern flutes performing the closing coda. She also performs it as a slow ballad (no surprise) dripping with sexual yearning and sensuality.

Play "Toxic" by Yael Naim.

And here's the YouTube Video of her performing it live as a solo piano piece. The sexual tension within the song, completely missing from Ms. Britney's version, just drips off the keys, I have to say.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Playlist (and a few samples) from Wednesday's Radio Show

In honor of tonight's lunar eclipse, the last to occur until 2010, I decided to devote my very first "Play It and Be Darned" radio show to songs about Earth's closest neighbor.

In case you forgot: The hour-long show is available worldwide over the Internet through the web site of Orchard Radio. (The Quicktime plug-in is required). It airs every Wednesday at 10 a.m. Eastern/New York time. If you are unsure about what time that would be in your neck of the woods, try this "Time Zone Converter" link.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun. And while there were plenty of first-time jitters and problems (where is that turntable anyway?), I managed to put together a decent broadcast. I've decided that, much like a musical version of NPR's This American Life, each show will focus on a theme. You'll have to tune in next week to find out what will be my next theme.

Anyway, here's the playlist. Of course, you can play (and download) the songs with the blue links.

"Valentine Moon" featuring Sam Brown Jools Holland & His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra
Virginia Moon Foo Fighters
The Whole Of The Moon The Waterboys
Pink Moon Nick Drake
Children of the Moon Alan Parsons Project
Goodnight Moon Shivaree
Walking On The Moon Sting and The Police
Feather Moon Vienna Teng
Under The Cherry Moon Prince
Bad Moon Rising Creedence Clearwater Revival
I Wish I Was The Moon Neko Case
Moon River Audrey Hepburn
Harvest Moon Neil Young

A few notes: Of course, there were other songs I could have selected (and had indeed brought with me), but there were time limitations. I am happy, however, I played most of my personal favorite moon songs – some mainstream, some not so mainstream.

Miscellaneous facts:
•Did you know that David Paton ("Children of the Moon") is one of six lead vocalists credited on the Eye in the Sky (1982) album?

•According to Sting, "Walking on the Moon" is a song about the feeling of being in love. It hit No. 1 in the U.K. in 1979, but never made the charts in the states

•Teng's sister once criticized her about "Feather Moon," saying it droned on and on about breathing in and breathing out. Vienna reportedly responded indignantly: "That's the WHOLE POINT."

Harvest Moon (1992) was intended as a semi-sequel to Young's classic Harvest. In fact, many of the musicians played on both albums.

•The co-composer of "Under the Cherry Moon" is listed as John L. Nelson, the purple one's father.

•You will not find Hepburn's version of "Moon River" on the soundtrack album to Breakfast at Tiffanys (1961). In fact, it was almost cut from the film until Hepburn supposedly launched a few well-placed expletives at studio execs. The song was composed to fit the limited vocal range of Hepburn, who famously had her vocals dubbed in My Fair Lady (1964) by Marni Nixon.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Stan Getz, Boss of Bossa Nova

I feel bad about last week's Two-Fer-Tuesday: All those folks googling "Stan Getz" and instead of getting a few of his classic songs, they heard his renderings (admittedly noteworthy) of Billy Joel and Huey Lewis tunes.

So I'm trying to make amends by returning to "The Sound" and spotlighting his Bossa Nova output. The twist is that I'm not going to be focusing on all his 60's Verve albums that brought him widespread acclaim and popularity.

Instead, I want to concentrate on one of his sadly overlooked contributions to his Brazilian music catalogue.

There are several reasons why The Best of Two Worlds (1975) never took off or was accepted as part of an amazing body of work that included Getz/Gilberto (1964), Jazz Samba (1962) and Stan Getz With Guest Artist Laurindo Almeida (1963). One was that though extraordinarily productive in terms of churning out albums during that era, Getz was involved in a nasty divorce. And he and João Gilberto weren't exactly the greatest of friends. Producer Joe Boyd, in his recent autobiography White Bicycles (2006) talks about Getz having an affair with Astrud Gilberto during the success of "The Girl from Ipanema," something that apparently was a factor in the pair's eventual divorce.

By the way, that's not Astrud leaning on Getz' shoulder on the album cover. That's Heloísa Maria Buarque de Hollanda, Gilberto's second wife. A Brazilian pop star in her own right known as Miucha, she is also the sister of the legendary Chico Buarque – and the mother of the bliss pop singer who would become Bebel Gilberto.

Back to the album, however. Though some feel that with all the turmoil in his life, Getz' playing is just not up to par compared to the Verve Bossa Nova albums, I beg to disagree. To my ears, "The Sound" has not deteriorated at all. His sax playing, sensuous and full-bodied, is just right for the material.

And what material it is. Which is the second and most important to love this album. Because it is the only place to hear Getz and Gilberto combine on two of my favorite Antonio Carlos Jobim songs: "Aguas de Março (Waters of March)" and "Double Rainbow."

In a 2001 poll of 200 Brazilian music journalists, "Aguas de Março" was voted the most beautiful Brazilian song of all time – perhaps not just for the 1972 composition's melodic twists and turns, but for the exquisite poetry of its lyrics. In a change for him, Jobim wrote both the English and Portuguese lyrics which focus on presenting images rather than telling a story.

Play "Aguas de Março" by Stan Getz and João Gilberto

"Double Rainbow" (Known in Portuguese as "Chovendo Na Roseira," which translates to "Raining in the Garden") was originally titled "Children's Games" when Jobim recorded it himself as an instrumental in 1971. Jobim renamed it when Jobim added lyrics (Gene Lees was the English lyricist this time). This is another gorgeous song that shows why Jobim rightfully can be called the Gershwin of Brazil.

Play "Double Rainbow" by Stan Getz and João Gilberto

There are a few other reasons to love this collection: A jaunty version of "Just One of These Things;" Gilberto's solo take on the heartbreaking "É Preciso Perdoar;" and the point-counterpoint of "Izaura," which showcases Miucha and Gilberto harmonizing.

To be sure, Miucha is not as sensual singer as Astrud. And she has gotten criticized for sounding too American on this album. But really, her performances suit the top-notch material contained on this CD. Do yourself a favor and add it to your CD collection or iPod. You won't be sorry.

As a bonus (and because I just adore this song), I've placed a YouTube video of Jobim's 1974 performance with Brazil's equivalent of Billie Holiday, the tragic Elis Regina. Despite Regina's laughing at the end, it is considered by many to be the definitive version of the song.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – Idlewild (2006)

For rising bands that can do no wrong, nothing can quite stop momentum in its tracks like a vanity project.

Witness the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour (1967), the first "film" that the Fab Four wrote and directed themselves. It was pretty bad (though amazingly prescient compared to the music videos that would emerge 15 years later). Somewhat unfairly, critics took its shortcomings as a cue to unleash all their pent-up hostility about the band that previously could do no wrong. It was condemned and mocked in the press, and certainly did nothing to prevent the band from eventually drifting into their eventual breakup.

I have no idea what Idlewild will do to OutKast's career (word is the duo will release at least one more album), but there's no doubt that the film was perhaps the first misstep in what had been a pretty charmed career.

Only the second rap/hip hop artists to win the Grammy for album of the year in 2005, Andre 3000 and Big Boi were definitely riding high when they started filming Idlewild with their longtime video director Bryan Barber at the helm and an impressive cast that included Terrence Howard, Cicely Tyson, Ben Vereen and Ving Rhames – not to mention fellow musicians Macy Gray and Patti LaBelle. The New York Times Magazine even did a lengthy piece on Andre and Big Boi to promote the project, an almost unheard of sign of respect from the old gray lady.

Released in August 2006, however, the film disappeared in a matter of weeks. Most of the critics savaged the film, with it getting a rating of 47 percent rotten from Produced on a $15 million budget, it only managed to earn $12 million at the box office. On top of that, there was controversy about the location of Idlewild in the film – Georgia according to Outkast, Michigan according to the real Idlewild where well-to-do blacks spent their leisure time at the turn of the century.

Did the film deserve such a beating? Probably not. Forget about the plot for a moment, with its cliches of a doomed romance, double-dealers and an underdog's rise to the top of the local bootlegging operation. This was an extremely stylish piece of work with the kinds of visual inventiveness not seen in a musical movie since Purple Rain (1984) – a vanity project that fared much better. The early 20th century feel of the movie felt just right and the dance sequences – choreographed by three-time Tony winner Hinton Battle – are pretty amazing.

Then there's the music. Sure, there are standard Outkast songs on the soundtracks. But to my ears, they were greatly outnumbered by valiant attempts by the duo to fit in with the period. Andre 3000, as eclectic as ever, even manages a credible simulation of an early 20s Broadway musical number with "When I Look In Your Eyes," which closes the movie. And then there's his dirtwater stomp, "Idlewild Blue (Don'tchu Worry About Me)," which places a Delta blues guitar in the middle of the proceedings.

Play "Idlewild Blue (Don'tchu Worry About Me)"

I also love the creativity of the first single "Morris Brown," in which Big Boi uses the marching band from the historically black Atlanta college of the same name to provide the backing for his rap.

But Big Boi's best work comes on "The Train," where you truly see how this impressive artist absorbs everything he listens to and uses it in is work. You have sitars, Philly Soul brass, audio clips from the movie, a loping hip-hop track and some killer hooks combining into one great song. Why this wasn't a crossover hit in the way that "Hey Ya" and "The Way You Move" were eludes me to this day.

Play "The Train (featuring Sleepy Brown & Scar)"

In any case, this film is a solid rental that I highly recommend. And it has a soundtrack that I probably will be listening to for several years to come. Which is a high achievement for any soundtrack, let alone one from OutKast.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Big Announcement (Or Maybe Not)

Ever wish there was an audio version of the "Play It And Be Damned" blog?


Well, it will debut next week when I mark my return to the semi-airwaves after more than 20 years of life outside the studio.

The hour-long "Play It and Be Darned" radio show makes its debut Wednesday at 10 a.m. Eastern time on Washtenaw Community College's Orchard Radio internet radio station. As long as you have the Quicktime software, you can listen live on the home page. You might even catch a glimpse of me on the live cam.

(Yes, that's right. The name of the show had to be changed to satisfy WCC's broadcast requirements. You'll notice I've just created a parallel blog called Play It And Be Darned that essentially sends users to this site)

Tentatively, I'm planning to feature some of my favorite cover songs on this week's show. Future shows (again, I'm a little tentative on what I'm going to do, so bear with me) may be hour-long tributes to the glory days of IRS records, the bands that followed in the footsteps of U2 and the great saxophone solos of rock and roll. I may also do entire shows devoted to some of my regular features on the blog, such as "Unsung Heroes" and "Soundtrack Sunday." Anybody up for a tribute to the music featured in John Hughes movies?

Um, okay. I'll take that under advisement.

Needless to say, I'm a little nervous reentering what is essentially an entirely new world entirely different from the one I knew when I hosted and served as music director at WGTB, a carrier current AM station at Georgetown University. The turntables of my era have given way to dual CD players. And how about a little version of "Taps" for the fondly remembered cart machines?

And what is this thing called the In-Ter-Net anyway?

As always, feel free to drop me an email at or leave a comment here with any suggestions you might have.

Wish me luck! I may need it…

Friday, February 15, 2008

Cover Song of the Week – Jonatha Brooke "Eye in the Sky"

A lot of people can't stand the Alan Parsons Project. Too overproduced, too pretentious, too much of everything, they say.

But there's no denying that the group has written some beautiful songs.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in this wonderful rendition by Jonatha Brooke of one of the group's best known songs, "Eye in the Sky."

Released on her 2004 album Back in the Circus, Brooke strips away all of the song's accoutrements and turns it into a stark lovesong. Perhaps if it were performed by a man (Hello, Sting?) , it would sound creepy. But Brooke's fragile yet emotion-filled voice manages to convey a different kind of desperation. Perhaps a spurned lover? Perhaps a shy girl who loves from afar?

And it really is even more beautiful than the original.

Brooke, who became best known in the 80s as a member of the duo The Story, included two other covers on the album: "God Only Knows" and "Fire and Rain." She also co-wrote "Less Than Love is Nothing" with Eric Bazilian.

Hands up if you know who Bazilian is.

That's right: he's a founding member of the Hooters, played many of the instruments on Cyndi Lauper's first album (his Hooters bandmate Rob Hyman co-wrote "Time After Time") and wrote Joan Osborne's smash "One of Us."

OK, enough trivia for today.

On to the song.

Play "Eye in the Sky" by Jonatha Brooke

Here's a nice video of Brooke performing "Eye in the Sky" last summer.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Stan Getz, pop star?

As you probably know by now, Herbie Hancock's latest album River: The Joni Letters (the subject of last week's Two-Fer-Tuesday) broke a way-too-long losing streak at the Grammy's by winning Album of the Year Sunday night.

The last time a jazz album captured the biggest award in the music industry? In 1964, when Getz/Gilberto managed not only to win the Grammy but actually displaced the Beatles from the top of the Billboard charts.

It might be stating the obvious, but this is a wonderful album, full of classic tunes such as "Corcovado," "Desafinado" and (of course) "The Girl from Ipanema." I'm not embarrassed to say that my whole obsession with Brazilian culture started with this album. It's why I took Intensive Portuguese during my senior year at Georgetown and later developed a fascination for some of the most important figures in Bossa Nova and MPB: Tom Jobim, Caetano Veloso, Elis Regina and Chico Buarque.

At some point, I might devote a post to why this album is so essential and why Stan the Man was the perfect person to bring Brazilian music to the masses. But not today.

Today, I'm going to talk about Stan Getz, the 80s pop star.

Thankfully, we're not talking about heavy eye makeup, mullets and fingerless gloves. But towards the end of his life, Getz and his exquisite tenor saxophone playing found themselves in a few unlikely places.

The first was the debut album of blind vocalist Diane Schuur, whom Getz was instrumental in discovering and bringing to the attention of GRP Records after watching her sing "Amazing Grace" at the 1979 Monterrey Jazz Festival. Though Schuur would later become more of a classic jazz singer, recording with the likes of the Count Basie Orchestra, her 1985 debut Deedles attempted to cast her as a multi-genre vocalist – sometimes to embarrassing levels, as with “Can’t Stop a Woman in Love,” which sounds like a Flashdance outtake with all its synthesizers and programmed drums. As a whole, the release also suffers from the era's sterile production values, which were developed to showcase the cleanness of the still-new CD format.

Then there is "New York State of Mind," which showcases Schuur's ability to make pop standards her own. But that's not all. At the 2:45 mark, Getz kicks in with a majestic solo. Even people who are bigger fans of the Billy Joel original might wonder: How much more spectacular would it have been if Getz was the one playing the solo on Joel's Turnstiles (1976) album instead of Richie Cannata? Oh well.

Play "New York State of Mind" by Diane Schuur (featuring Stan Getz)

A few years later, Getz had reestablished himself in the San Francisco area as a result of a teaching position at Stanford University. And he was asked by Huey Lewis to play on his 1988 record Small World. To Lewis' credit, Getz didn't just get a perfunctory few notes to blow on his horn. Instead, the almost entirely instrumental "Small World (Part Two)" was built around Getz, who rises to the occasion and overcomes the fair to middling material.

Play "Small World (Part Two)" by Huey Lewis and the News (featuring Stan Getz)

There was almost something even bigger. One of the biggest pop stars in the world at the time, George Michael, reportedly got in touch with Getz because he wanted him to play on his next record. To bring this post around full circle, Michael was a professed big fan of Getz/Gilberto – so much so that he insisted on playing the entire album for Rolling Stone journalist Steve Pond during a 1988 interview. The pairing never came off, either because of poor timing, Getz's reluctance or his health problems. (Getz would die of liver cancer in 1991). Later, Michael would partially get his wish – duetting with Astrud Gilberto on a surprisingly credible "Desafinado" for the Red Hot + Rio (1996) benefit album

Just for this week, I will make this a three-fer. That's because I feel bad about giving Getz the short shrift in terms of his massive contributions to jazz. Here's a version of "The Peacocks" featuring Getz playing with Bill Evans. Getz played on the original version of this lovely jazz classic with composer Jimmy Rowles, but this 1974 cut from the live album But Beautiful certainly does the trick as well.

Play "The Peacocks" by Stan Getz and Bill Evans

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Valentine Mix – A Gift For My Readers (And Their Loved Ones)

I'm not just Rob the DJ. I'm Rob Gordon at heart.

Gordon, if you might recall, was the central character in the 2000 film High Fidelity, a record store owner with a thing for stringing together music – especially when it came to making mix tapes.

I've been doing mix tapes since way back when – first for myself, then for others as I realized their power. Like a handmade basket or a homemade batch of brownies, they touch the recipient in ways that a more expensive gift can't. My efforts culminated a few years ago with the ultimate mix: As a 75th birthday present for my father, I loaded a 4 Gb IPod with his favorite music.

Since I began living with my wonderful wife, I have put together mix CDs for certain special occasions. Such as last year when, along with a dozen of her favorite roses, I presented her with a mix CD of about 20 songs – half of which had "valentine" in their title, half of which were some of her favorite love songs. She loved it because it was so personal and it required much more effort than simply going down to the drug store and buying a box of chocolates.

I don't know if it's too late for you guys and girls, but here are a few songs to give you a head start for your own Valentine's mix.

"Valentine" by Nils Lofgren
Bruce's longtime sideman puts together this lovely tune, with background vocals from Mr. Springsteen himself.

"Valentine" by Bobby Bare Jr.
The son of Nashville great Bobby Bare, the younger Bare has carved himself a niche as a practitioner of alt-country-rock. A word of warning, in a song featuring the protagonist bemoaning how he mistakenly killed his Valentine: Don't make this your romantic centerpiece unless you are more than a little bit on the deviated side. Still a great song, though. And it doesn't hurt to throw in some humor amid the sentiment.

"My Funny Valentine" by Chet Baker
The definitive Valentine's Day song, made all the more heartbreaking by Baker's world-weary voice and his ultimately tragic life.

"Valentine Moon" by Sam Brown and Jools Holland
Probably the best track on a sorely overlooked "Big Band" album from 2005 that also featured the likes of George Harrison, Joe Strummer, Eric Clapton, Sting and Van Morrison.

"Valentine" by the Old 97s
Singer Rhett Miller has become somewhat of an alternative idol, but his band isn't too shabby either, as can be heard from this 1999 release.

Other Valentine songs I highly recommend: "Lonely Valentine" by Push Stars vocalist Chris Trapper (here's an excerpt), "Valentine's Day" from ABC and "Valentine" by The Replacements.

Have fun. And I wish all of you fellow wannabe Rob Gordons out there good luck.

Soundtrack Sunday - "Fletch" (1985)

A few weeks ago, I did a post about Rupert Hine.

Today, I'll focus on a soundtrack that features one of the best songs from one of the most well-known acts he produced.

Believe it or not, it's from a Chevy Chase film.

That film would be Fletch (1985), either one of the decade's comedic masterpieces or a cosmic affront to the literary detective created by Gregory McDonald – depending on which person you talk to on any given day.

Released on MCA records, the album was an attempt to repeat the label's multi-million dollar
success with Beverly Hills Cop the previous year. And in several blatant ways too.

For example, most brazenly, you have Mr. "Axel F." Harold Faltermeyer producing the score. If he didn't compose it himself, Faltermeyer could have sued himself for plagiarism for both "Exotic Skates" and the "Fletch Theme." Bum-bum-be-bum, indeed.

Other repeats: Dan Hartman attempt a Glenn Frey impression with "Fletch, Get Outta Town." And Stephanie Mills – trying to keep up with the other 80s divas with crossover hits – channels Patti LaBelle (or the Pointer Sisters, take your pick) with the Faltermeyer co-composition "Bit by Bit (Theme from Fletch)" I've developed a certain fondness for this song because it has some nice hooks, so I'll put it here.

Play "Bit by Bit" by Stephanie Mills

The rest of the soundtrack is made up of leftovers from MCA artists such as Kim Wilde ("Is It Over"), John Farnham ("Running for Love") and The Fixx.

Their song "Letter to Both Sides" pretty much redeems the band in my eyes. It's got great swirling guitars, a killer chorus and a propulsive beat. And vocalist Cy Curnin, who annoyed me throughout the 80s to no end, does some of his best work. I have since grown to appreciate The Fixx more – they were, for example, more lyrically sophisticated than their techno-pop contemporaries – and perhaps this song has helped out in that respect.

Play "Letter To Both Sides" by The Fixx

There was a sequel called Fletch Lives (1989). And In the last 20 years or so, there have been plans to produce a third film based on McDonald's prequel book Fletch Won. But right now, it appears to be in development hell. Kevin Smith wanted to do it with Jason Lee in the title role. Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence wanted to pair up with Zach Braff. No go on all counts. Last I heard, Joshua Jackson (Dawson's Creek) and director Steve Pink (Accepted) were the major names affiliated with the project.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Cover of the Week – "Wild Horses" by Alicia Keys and Adam Levine

This song, from Keys Unplugged (2005) album, represented an important epiphany for me.

Yes, the Rolling Stones are an incredible band. And yes, they wrote some beautiful songs. But for some reason, I never got into them – the way I did the Beatles, the Who, Jimi Hendrix and Cream.

But while listening to this song, and wrapping my ears around its beauty, I was startled by this realization: The whole reason I never became a Stones fan was because of Mick Jagger's voice.

Now, I realize this is heresy in some circles. And I do respect everyone who can't get enough of Mick singing. But for me, it's a matter of personal preference. Everybody has those two or three singers that, despite their abilities, just hit them wrong. (Yes, I'm looking at you Michael Bolton) For me, Mick is one of them.

I'm wondering if anyone feels the same way. Because listening to Alicia and Adam croon this Richards/Jagger masterpiece has made me fall in love with this song in a new way. I'll admit I'm a big fan of Keys. And Levine (who some have said looks like my little brother) has some nice pipes for a pop singer. But for me, the biggest reason that this works is that it's a great song – and Mick's not singing it.

Play Wild Horses by Alicia Keys and Adam Levine

Here's the video

So... I throw it open to you guys. Any singers that you should like but just can't because of a personal quirk? Dylan? Janis Joplin? Bruce?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Hooray, Joni Mitchell is Back!

One of the nicest things to happen in the last year was the reemergence of Joni Mitchell on the music scene.

For some time now, Mitchell had been focusing all of her energies on her thriving painting career. But last year, she put out an album called "Shine" consisting of songs that were rattling around in her brain and she felt compelled to record. It's a rather impressive collection for one of music's true originals. It's no Court and Spark (1974), but what possibly can be?

Rather than focus on that album, I thought I'd take a look at two other new releases featuring Mitchell's work.

The first is from Herbie Hancock's 2007 album, River: The Joni Letters, which is attempting to become the first jazz record since Getz/Gilberto (1964) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year.

The 67-year-old Hancock's 47th album features the legendary pianist collaborating with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones, Tina Turner and Corinne Bailey Rae. And Mitchell herself, who rerecords one of her anti-war songs "Tea Leaf Prophecy" from 1988's Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm. In a way, it's a full circle for Mitchell, who collaborated with Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter on the experimental Mingus (1979)

Play "Tea Leaf Prophecy" by Herbie Hancock featuring Joni Mitchell

Hancock's, always so sensitive, seems especially captivating on this track. And, for that matter, on the rest of the album as well. Having sold a scant 40,000 copies, this outstanding release has been sadly overlooked by many. Hopefully, the publicity boost from the Grammys will bring it into more people's homes.

Many people – myself included, I have to admit – believe that Mitchell does herself a great disservice by continuing to smoke. It's a vice that she'll never give up, she told "CBS Sunday Morning" late last year. It's too bad. Because it not only cuts down on Mitchell's life expectancy, but also means that the quality of her voice will continue to go downhill.

Fortunately, we still have the old Joni around – specifically in another new release, The Best of The Johnny Cash Show, a compilation of some of the best cuts from the 1969-71 variety show hosted by Cash. It's actually a second attempt on the song by Cash, who collaborated with composer Bob Dylan in one of the show's early episodes. This duet, however, is something else. You have the sweet and pure voice of the early Mitchell with the rough and ready vocals of Cash in what was probably his prime. The original Cash/Dylan duet was a personal favorite of mine for many years, but I have to say this version surpasses it.

Play "Girl from North Country" by Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell

And here's the video, courtesy of YouTube.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday: "Local Hero" (1983)

In between releasing Love Over Gold (1982) and the best-selling Brothers in Arms (1985), Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler found ways to keep himself busy without his band.

Sort of.

Because Knopfler's first soundtrack – and still the most beloved in many circles – is essentially a Dire Straits album. One track, "Freeway Flyer," includes the entire band except for drummer Pick Withers. And keyboardist Alan Clark actually plays on more tracks than Knopfler.

I love the movie (I'll get into that later). And I love the soundtrack. It was an essential study aid during my college years. It's a relaxing mix. But not so relaxing that it makes you stupid, like so much of what was being defined as New Age music back then.

For today's post, I want to focus on two tracks from the soundtrack. Which is, by the way, not billed as a soundtrack. It's called "Local Hero: Music by Mark Knopfler" But that's a misnomer. This is no "Music Inspired by…" (Yes, I'm looking at you, Jay Z) album. All the songs are featured in the movie and are essential in terms of establishing the film's overall mood.

The first track is the only one on the album to feature vocals: "The Way It Always Starts." And it's not Knopfler who sings, but Gerry Rafferty. Yes, the same guy from "Baker Street" and "Stuck in the Middle." It's a beautiful song that benefits from Rafferty's mellifluous voice perfectly blending with Knopfler's crisp guitar playing and Clark's airy keyboards. If this was released in the mellow 70s, this would have been a No. 1 hit. for sure.

Play "The Way It Always Starts"

But that was not Warner Brothers choice as the album's (only) single. The peculiar selection instead was the movie's theme song, "Going Home: Theme of the Local Hero", which is also a very solid tune and one that Knopfler still plays at concerts. But the song lasts nearly five minutes – and the first half of it consists of Knopfler and Clark aimlessly trading riffs. I mean, did Warner Brothers think this was when the DJ was supposed to give the weather and traffic reports? When the song finally kicks in, it's the late Michael Brecker who puts the song into high gear with a killer sax solo. Oh, and by the way the great Tony Levin (ex of King Crimson) plays bass.

Play "Going Home: Theme of the Local Hero"

Back to the movie: If you haven't ever seen it, I highly recommend it. It still remains one of my top five favorite movies. I mean, what other movie has guys from Animal House and Star Wars cavorting with Burt Lancaster on the Scottish moors? The story is about the owner of a Texas oil company (Lancaster) who sends one of his executives (Peter Riegert, Boon from Animal House) to Scotland to buy up a town where he wants to build an oil platform. The tiny town's defacto leader, a local innkeeper named Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson, Wedge Antilles from Star Wars) is only too eager to comply. Then the movie really takes off in unpredictable ways until the unforgettable ending.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Back to the 80's: Elbow Bones and the Racketeers "A Night in New York"

Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band.

And Elbow Bones and the Racketeers.

Whatever his moniker, there was no doubt that August Darnell was one of the most colorful characters of the 70s and 80s.

Trying to meld the stylishness of zoot suits and the swing era with the glamorousness and outlandishness of the disco era (and later the garish new wave era), Darnell succeeded in creating a sound that remained unique – at least until David Johansen left his punk roots behind and became Buster Poindexter.

Elbow Bones and the Racketeers were an invention – a side project, if you will, that allowed Darnell to get deeper into the swing era than the goofy tropicalia of Kid Creole allowed. Among others, the group consisted of Darnell, his half-brother Stony Browder Jr. (the original Dr. Savannah), frequent cohort Gichy Dan and singer Stephanie Fuller.

They put out one album in 1983 on EMI and it yielded a sizable dance club hit that lots of people still remember fondly today, "A Night in New York."

Here's the retro-style video, which obviously tries to evoke the old Cotton Club:

And here's the mp3

Play "A Night in New York" by Elbow Bones and the Racketeers.

As a native of the Big Apple, I must admit that this song always gets onto my New York mix tapes more often than the done-to-death "New York New York." Give me this song, "New York State of Mind,""Rockin' Around in N.Y.C." and "New York City (You're a Woman)"and I'm happy. Every time I hear its brass section lift off, I just want to sweep up my wife and dance around the living room.

One complaint: It may be too much to ask for, given Darnell's disco past and the music of the time, but I sure wish the drum machine could have been dumped in the Hudson and the entire rhythm section could have been more organic. Otherwise, it's a little 80s slice of heaven I'll always treasure.