Sunday, March 30, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – All You Need Is Cash (1978)

Earlier this month, the previously inconceivable happened.

The Fab Four got back together.

Er, actually, the Pre-Fab Four, that is.

The best band to every parody the Beatles (and the only one to receive the participatory help of one its members), the Rutles made a splash back in 1976-1978 with their take on John, Paul, George and Ringo.

First, it was as an Eric Idle skit prepared for "Saturday Night Live" in October, 1976. Then, buoyed by the audience response to the film, SNL producer Lorne Michaels got behind a full-length mockumentary of the band, which made its NBC debut in 1978. Never mind that it finished at the bottom of the ratings. The film is a comedic masterpiece. And it is the only film you'll ever find that has members of Monty Python (Idle, Michael Palin) sharing screen time with SNL's Not Ready for Prime Time Players (Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and even John Belushi).

Oh and, in the clip below, see if you recognize the guy with the gray hair interviewing Palin and Rolling Stone Ron Wood (playing a motorcycle gang member).

That's right. That is indeed George, a longtime friend of Idle and the rest of the Pythons who helped produce many of their films. According to scuttlebutt on the web, Harrison wasn't the only former Beatle to appreciate the movie. Though the Yoko Ono stand-in is portrayed as a Nazi in the movie, John is said to have loved the film so much that he refused to send back the advance copy he was sent. Ringo is also said to have been pleased, though some of the sadder parts about the "break up" were said to have hit too close to home. And Paul, initially unhappy about the whole thing, is said to have come around after he met Idle and learned they both grew up around the same area.

But that's not the point of the post. Earlier this week, the great Popdose blog talked about the Rutles "reunion" album Archaelogy (1996), the group's response to the Beatles' Anthology (1995) documentary. Today, I want to focus on the music recorded for the original film, which is still in print, thankfully.

The actual musical group the Rutles consisted of three of the four band's members from the film: Neil Innes, Ricky Fataar and John Halsey. All of Idle's singing parts (and additional instrumentation) were provided by Ollie Halsall, who died in 1991 but appears briefly in the film as "Leppo," the fifth Beatle.

If you are a Python fan, you might remember Innes as the minstrel who sung "Brave Sir Robin" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). A former member of the Bonzo Dog Band, which appeared in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour (1967), Innes was the musical maestro of the project and wrote most of the spot-on songs – too spot on , in some cases. Lennon reportedly warned Innes that "Get up And Go" was so similar to "Get Back" that he might get sued.

Play "Get Up and Go" by the Rutles

As for Fataar, who doesn't speak a word in the film, he was briefly a member of the Beach Boys as you might remember from this post.

Directed by Gary Weis, who was the auteur behind many of SNL's short films in the early days, All You Need Is Cash is a really funny film that pre-dates This is Spinal Tap (1984) in making fun of the conventions of musical documentaries. As with most Python skits, it gets pretty silly at times, but there is also a good deal of sophisticated wit. The best SNL cameo comes from Belushi, who – flanked by his bodyguards Al Franken and Tom Davis – plays the Beatles manager Ron Decline (a play on Allen Klein)

My favorite part of the movie, though, is a scene where none of the Rutles appear on screen – at least not in human form. It's an animated spoof of Yellow Submarine (1968), which includes Innes' best song for the film, "Cheese and Onions." Reportedly, the song was once mistaken for a Beatles outtake.

Play "Cheese and Onions" by the Rutles

Back to that Rutles reunion. I won't go into too many details because there is an excellent recounting of the events that I suggest you read at the blog both here and here. Innes and Idle, reportedly at odds for years, resolved their differences and reunited for a 30th anniversary screening of the film in Hollywood on St. Patrick's Day.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Album Review – R.E.M. "Accelerate" (2008)

Many years ago, my friends and I were listening to this new album by a band from Athens, Ga., and debating the lyrics. "Did he just sing 'inside a moral kiosk?' What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

More than 20 year later, no debating is necessary. We can hear the words Michael Stipe is singing these days – and, for the most part, we know what they mean.

At least we do with Accelerate (2008), R.E.M.'s 14th album and its first release in four years, which is due in stores this Tuesday.

Do I like this album? Yes, I do. Very much.

A few months from now, will I reach for it rather than my personal favorite releases from the band, Murmur (1983) or Life's Rich Pageant (1986)? I'm not sure.

For one thing, as you might have heard, this is an out-and-out rock album. The trademark jangling guitars have mostly disappeared, replaced by crunching power chords, fuzzbox effects and other forms of musical rawness. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. But, again, this somewhat personal: I've always preferred when R.E.M. goes folkier with songs like "Perfect Circle," "Fall On Me" or "Near Wild Heaven" rather than the harder-driving "What's the Frequency Kenneth," "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" and "Finest Worksong." In my perfect world, Peter Buck would always channel Roger McGuinn, rather than Jim Hendrix. And Stipe's voice would softly drip with aching passion, rather than sound like it's coming out of a megaphone.

That being said, Accelerate works in ways that the band's more recent efforts have fallen short.

There is a lot of raw power in these songs, thanks to the band working through them in concert before heading to the studio. But the emphasis on power hasn't really affected the band's sense of melody and musical creativity. I'd argue that standout track a like "Man-Sized Wreath" and "Hollow Man," with all of their shifts, are some of the most interesting pieces of music that the band has recorded in years. I'll be humming them for months, which is always a good sign.

Play "Man-Sized Wreath" by R.E.M.

Now about those lyrics. Stipe recently told Spin magazine: "When the empire is going down the toilet, it's easy to write great, angry songs." Indeed, Stipe's seething fury with the Bush administration infects the entire album. And that's not a bad thing. Stipe's lyrics have never been one of his strengths – in fact, it has been one of his weaknesses, I'd argue – but it's easy to see that the newfound passion of the formerly apolitical lead singer has helped him write lyrics of unsurpassed (for him) cogency and poignancy. The paean to Hurricane Katrina survivors, "Houston," includes the opening line "If the storm doesn't kill me/The government will." But then Stipe goes on to capture the mixture of hopelessness and necessary optimism felt by many so hurricane survivors: "I was taught to hold my head high/Collect what is mine/Make the best of what today has"

Play "Houston" by R.E.M.

Almost every song from the album is haunting in its own way. But despite all the seriousness, band can still have fun with "I'm Gonna DJ" – kind of a weird combination of the "It's the End of the World…"and "Radio Song" from 1991's Out of Time.

I'm sure I'll be listening to Accelerate for weeks and even months to come. But I'll keep my copy of Murmur close at hand.

Besides, one of these days, I got to figure what the !@#$% Stipe is singing…

Friday, March 28, 2008

More Big News – Podcasting is Go

Yes, it's true, I continue to enter the 21st Century.

Slowly, but step by step.

I'm proud to announce that, thanks to the handy GarageBand software on my MacBook, I've mastered (well, not quite mastered) the art of making a podcast. I'm not sure it will be every week, but I plan to use it to talk about content on this blog . This week, I'm focusing on the Bull Durham (1988) soundtrack from Sunday's post. It's a little over three minutes long, so it won't take up too much of your time (or hard drive space)

I've still got a lot of work to do in terms of improving my performance and getting all the sound levels right, but I'm pretty proud of the fact that I taught myself to do something that seemed so impossible just a few months ago.

Anyway, click on the link down below or on the right side of the page and tell me what you think. I'm also open to any suggestions about improvements and future topics.

Click here to get your own player.

And yes, I've got an RSS feed for it now. Now, if I can only do the same for this blog …

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wednesday's Radio Show: Slumming Saxophonists

Here's the playlist from this morning's radio show. As always, the underlined links represent songs you can download and/or play.

Jazzman Carole King TOM SCOTT (1974)
Small World (Pt. 2) Huey Lewis & the News STAN GETZ (1988)

Waiting on a Friend Rolling Stones SONNY ROLLINS (1981)

Dat Dere Rickie Lee Jones JOE HENDERSON (1991)

Just The Way You Are Billy Joel PHIL WOODS (1977)
Aja Steely Dan WAYNE SHORTER (1977)

I love your smile Shanice BRANFORD MARSALIS (1991)

I'm So Blue Melanie ART PEPPER (1976)

Take a Walk on the Wild Side Lou Reed RONNIE ROSS (1972)

Who Will Save Your Soul Jewel JOSHUA REDMAN (1997)

Pick Up The Pieces The Phil Collins Big Band JAMES CARTER (1999)

Your Latest Trick Dire Straits MICHAEL BRECKER (1985)

Lady Madonna The Beatles RONNIE SCOTT et al (1968)

Young Americans David Bowie DAVID SANBORN (1975)

Almost made it: How Can I Stop (The Rolling Stones with Wayne Shorter) Lazarus Heart (Sting with Branford Marsalis), Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell with Wayne Shorter),
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (Joni Mitchell with Wayne Shorter) , The Way (Me'Shell Ndegéocello with Joshua Redman) I Be Blowin' (De La Soul with Maceo Parker) Red Top (Steve Miller with Phil Woods), Love Ain't No Triple Play (Dr. John, Bennie Wallace and Bonnie Raitt), My Life is Good (Randy Newman with Ernie Watts), Muddy Water (Madeleine Peyroux with James Carter)

No way: Ernie Watts on the Ethel Merman disco album (no kidding), I Want To Make The World Turn Around (Steve Miller Band with Kenny G.); for that matter, anything featuring Kenny G., Najee, Kirk Whalum, Gerald Albright and other "smooth jazz" artists.

I've been brewing about this show for a while, but I had no idea how successful my quest would become. Originally, I thought I would have to double up on artists, but that was definitely not the case. To qualify, the saxophonist had to play on the original version or collaborate with the well-known rock/pop artist. And they had to be traditional jazz saxophonists, best known for hard bop or some other format rooted in the great jazz traditions.

I realized I cheated a little bit by including fusion/smooth jazz players Tom Scott and David Sanborn, but the former provided a great introduction to the program while the solo performance by the latter performer is nearly iconic. I would have loved to have included musicians like Dexter Gordon, Jackie McClean and Cannonball Adderly, but as far as I know, they never strayed outside the jazz idiom during their lifetimes.

In putting together this show, I wondered why a traditional jazz instrument like the saxophone
has fit in so comfortably into rock, pop and r&b. Part of it is due to the way jazz eventually morphed into those newer kinds of music. But some credit has to be given to saxophonist Louis Jordan, whose highly popular "jump blues" records during the 40s were considered in many circles as the original rock records – and were huge influences on Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bill Halley. Halley, in fact, did covers of Jordan's songs, "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" and "Caldonia."

I owe a big thank you to the folks at the All About Jazz bulletin board, who helped me expand my original list by refreshing my memory or otherwise pointing out solos that I was unaware of.

On to the notes…
  • On every show, I try to throw a curveball. And the Shanice hit probably ran contrary to all the listeners who expected Branford to be blowing on a Sting tune during my show. The fact is, if you listen to Sting's first two solo albums, he doesn't give Marsalis a lot of space – the notable exceptions being "Lazarus Heart," "We Work The Black Seam" and the remake of "Shadows in the Rain." Plus, I have a soft spot for the song, which has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. As Shanice herself says during the song: "Blow, Branford, Blow!"
  • Until the good folks at "All About Jazz" reminded me, I totally forgot the story about "Just The Way You Are." Producer Phil Ramone was unsatisfied with the performance of Richie Cannata, Joel's longtime sax player and the guy who had the big solo on "New York State of Mind." So, Ramone – who had one of his first gigs as an engineer on the classic Getz/Gilberto (1964) album, which won him his first Grammy– brought in Phil Woods to fit in more comfortably with the song's Bossa Nova beat.
  • Even non-fans of Phil Collins (including myself) owe it to themselves to check out his 1999 live album, A Hot Night In Paris, which sees Collins back behind the drum kit in a jazz/big band setting. Sure, he does instrumental versions of his old Genesis and solo hits, but the smoking 12:39 version of the Average White Band's "Picking Up The Pieces" (with an electric solo from Carter) is worth the price of admission.
  • The Art Pepper/Melanie collaboration was a pleasant last-minute surprise. Pepper, one of the premier alto sax players of all time, rarely went outside the jazz world. But somehow, he collaborated with the singer of "Brand New Key" on this song, which is definitely more jazz than pop.
  • It's no surprise that the Rolling Stones have frequently collaborated with jazz musicians. Not only is their music respected across genres, but drummer Charlie Watts' background is in jazz – and he frequently plays traditional jazz when he's not with the Stones.
  • You may not be familiar with Ronnie Scott, but he was actually one of the premier figures on the British jazz scene during the 60s, receiving plaudits from Charlie Mingus, among others, for his playing style. Scott, a last-minute addition to "Lady Madonna" and one of four saxophonists on the track along with Harry Klein, Bill Povey and Bill Jackson, returned to pop about 20 years later. He was the one who performed the sax solo on "I Missed Again" by Phil Collins.
  • The collaboration between Jewel and Joshua Redman comes from her live performance on "Saturday Night Live" back in 1997. A significant improvement over the original song, no?
  • Ronnie Ross, the other relatively unknown Brit Ronnie on the show, performed with MJQ, Woody Herman and Clark Terry during his lifetime. He also taught the sax to Transformer (1972) producer David Bowie, who has played the instrument on several of his records.
  • In interviews, Mark Knopfler admits to the minor thrill that "Your Latest Trick" has provided him. You know the way people will pick up a guitar and play the "Smoke on the Water" riff or try "Heart and Soul" on a new piano? Well, music store owners have told the former Dire Straits frontman that the distinct solo from that song is generally the preferred tune of choice for musicians auditioning a new saxophone.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Jazz Trumpeters Do a Little Pop Slumming

The theme of tomorrow's radio show will be a little bit unusual. I've decided to play pop songs that feature saxophone solos by jazz saxophone greats.

For Today's Two-fer-Tuesday, I've decided to do something similar – but with a change of instrument.

Although the saxophone is a pretty standard feature of modern pop, rock and r&b, the trumpet is a different story. Which is why it's so great when a musician – a well-respected one, no less – decides to feature it in one of his songs. It's even better when that musician decides to bring in the big guns – or more appropriately, the big horns.

Such is the case with John Mayer and Billy Joel.

"Clarity," from Mayer's second album Heavier Things (2004), is one of my favorite songs from an artist I've really come to admire. People too focused on Mayer's pretty boy looks and sensitive singing are missing the bigger part of the picture. Not only is he one helluva guitar player (just listen to his trio live album or "Axis: Bold as Love" from Continuum (2006) to confirm that fact), but he really has a keen sense of melody that few of his contemporaries possess.

Even if the legendary Roy Hargrove weren't on this track, it would still be great. As it is, Hargrove really adds to the proceedings with his swirling trumpet lines that culminate with a tight musical break late in the song. Give Mayer a lot of credit: This isn't just one of those name-dropping cameos. He makes Hargrove an essential part of the song.

Play Clarity by John Mayer (featuring Roy Hargrove)

I wish I could say the same of "Zanzibar" by Billy Joel. Off his 1978 album 52nd Street (which takes it name from the street in New York City that once housed its greatest jazz clubs, including the legendary Birdland), Joel concocts one of his usual elaborate compositions that includes musical shifts, tempo changes and – best of all – a trumpet solo from one of the masters of the instrument, Freddie Hubbard.

Hubbard actually plays two solos on the song and they're really vintage – but each lasts about 30 seconds. You're left wanting so much more. A year earlier, Steely Dan had allowed jazz musicians like Wayne Shorter to really cut loose on Aja (1977), even if it meant songs that lasted eight minutes long. Joel (who was obviously emulating Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in some way with this album) could have followed suit by turning the 5:21 "Zanzibar" into a more epic piece. It certainly was strong enough. Besides, Columbia was never going to pick it as a single when they had the 1-2-3 punch of "Big Shot," "Honesty" and "My Life" to promote.

Play Zanzibar by Billy Joel (featuring Freddie Hubbard)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – "Bull Durham" (1988)

When it comes to soundtracks, I'm constantly surprised about what is still in print and easily available.

As long as the film remains popular, the music from it will be perennially available, no matter how dated it might be. After all, what would all those aerobics classes do without being able to buy a new copy of the Flashdance (1983) soundtrack?

There are exceptions, of course.

You'd be hard pressed to find a more popular baseball movie than Bull Durham (1988). So many of its best lines continue to be part of the American cultural vernacular. And it's one of the few baseball films that appeals almost equally to men and women

The soundtrack from it is pretty damn good as well, mixing previously released classics from John Fogerty ("Centerfield"), The Blasters ("So Long Baby Goodbye"), George Thorogood ("Bad to the Bone") and Los Lobos ("I Got Loaded") with some original Bennie Wallace/Dr. John collaborations.

Play "I Got Loaded" by Los Lobos

And yet …

The damn CD is out of print. Look it up on Amazon and you'll find used copies selling for no less than $60.


Fortunately, I have the vinyl version of the soundtrack. And today I'll include some of my first vinyl rips. Just be forewarned: Until I get the hang of this thing, their quality could be a little dicey.

Earlier this week, I dissed Belinda Carlisle while also highlighting the work of Jane Weidlin. Just to continue to show that I have nothing against the Go-Go's (just their Reagan-loving lead singer), I'll go with "Middle of Nowhere" by House of Schock, a great pop song sung by Go-Go's drummer Gina Schock for the band's first and only album that somehow wound up on this soundtrack.

Play "Middle of Nowhere" by House of Schock

Next, we'll go with one of the three Bennie Wallace/Dr. John collaborations on the album. Wallace, for those who don't know, is an accomplished hard-bop saxophonist then signed with Blue Note Records, but doing film music during that period for extra money. It's always fun to hear jazz saxophonists jam with rock and pop musicians. This outing is no exception with three solid songs that close the album: "Try a Little Tenderness," "All Night Dance" (with Stevie Ray Vaughan doing the guitar solo) and "Love Ain't No Triple Play." We'll go with the latter, as it is baseball-themed and features the good doctor duetting with Ms. Raitt. (It also is the one song that is difficult to find anywhere else: The Vaughn collaboration is featured on the 1985 Blue Note album, Twilight Time.)

By the way, there's an extra bonus for Southern rock fans: The heart of Little Feat's rhythm section, Kenny Gradney and Ritchie Hayward, provide the backing for this track.

Play "Love Ain't No Triple Play" by Bennie Wallace/Dr. John with Bonnie Raitt

There's probably a back story about why this soundtrack is out of print – one that has little to do with the quality of the music or the dmand for the music. Maybe someone out there can enlighten us.

In the mean time, I think I'll continue to scratch my head …

Friday, March 21, 2008

Cover of the Week – "You Ain't Going Nowhere," The Rave-Ups

Yeah, I know you hear "The Rave-Ups" and you immediately think: Molly Ringwald.

True, Miss Molly was a friend of the band (thanks to her sister Beth, who was involved with the group's leader Jimmer Podrasky) and you can see them perform two songs in Pretty in Pink (1986) as a result of that friendship.

But that in no way should diminish this band's musical contributions.

The Rave-Ups' debut full-length album, Town & Country (1985), placed the band firmly in the forefront of the country-rock movement that also included Rank & File and the Long Ryders.

And though "Positively Lost Me" was the big "hit" off this independently released album, I much prefer this cover version of the Bob Dylan song – even over the version that the Byrds recorded for their classic Sweethearts of the Rodeo (1968). The Rave-Ups version uses the Dylan version of the song, recorded a few years after the Byrds. It includes a jab at Byrds leader Roger McGuinn, who screwed up one of the lines on the original recording.

What can I say? I'm a child of the 80s. In any case, I love the propulsiveness of this version. It really captures Dylan's wit and humor. I hope Mr. Zimmerman approved.

Play "You Ain't Going Nowhere" by The Rave-Ups

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wedenesday's Radio Show – All Hail the IRS! (The record label, that is)

Here is the playlist from this morning's show. As always, the underlined (or highlighted) links are playable downloads of the entire song.

Pale Blue Eyes R.E.M. (1984)
American Beat 84 The Fleshtones (1984)

Best Friend The English Beat (1980)

Goo Goo Muck The Cramps (1981)

Mary Street The Bangles (1982)

Perfect Circle R.E.M. (1983)

The Stand The Alarm (1983)

Rainy Season Howard Devoto (1983)

Dance with Me Lords of the New Church (1983)

Room with a View Lets Active (1983)

Head Over Heels The Go-Go's (1984)

Blue Kiss Jane Wiedlin (1985)
Throw Your Arms Around Me Hunters and Collectors (1986)

The Big Heat Stan Ridgway (1986)

Welcome To The Human Race Timbuk 3 (1986)

Joey Concrete Blonde (1990)

Away From Home Klark Kent (1980)

Almost made it: "If We Never Meet Again" Reckless Sleepers; "Can You Get To That? Balancing Act; Stranglers "Duchess "; Animals "It's My Life"; "Everybody's Happy Nowadays," Buzzcocks; General Public "So Hot You're Cool"; Oingo Boingo "Only a Lad"; Jools Holland; Two Men, a Drum Machine and a Trumpet "Tired of Getting Pushed Around," Hindu Love Gods, "Gonna Have a Good Time Tonight"

Unfortunate exclusions: (Not in print or containing objectionable words – two Orchard Radio no-nos): Concrete Blonde; "Still in Hollywood"; Dead Kennedys "Holiday in Cambodia"; Intimate Strangers/Raise The Dragon "Blue Hour"

No way (on principle): Anything by Belinda Carlisle, Torch Song or Fine Young Cannibals; "Spirit in the Sky," Doctor and the Medics; "Mexican Radio", Wall of Voodoo.

I have to admit that what you see to the right was the impetus behind the show. I was recently going through my old cassette cases and I came across these gems: Compilation tapes that IRS distributed in 1984-85 during CMJ and NMS, two industry conventions I attended. I have also included a link to the PDFs of these cassette covers. They are really amazing collections that amount to IRS greatest hits collections. R.E.M., Let's Active, General Public, The Fleshtones, Hunters & Collectors, The Animals and Concrete Blonde (then known as Dream 6 until Michael Stipe renamed them). And these cassettes just scratch the surface of what this incredible label put out.

Those of us who worked in college radio during the 80s knew this: When anything arrived in the mail from IRS Records, you listened to it. It was the label you trusted most implicitly to put out good music. Sure, Sire, Geffen and Elektra had it going for a few years, but overall nearly everything IRS put out was worth serious attention – even the duds (like the label's attempt at techno-pop, Torch Song).

One interesting thing arose out of today's show. My wife, though she is two weeks younger than me, has an intense aversion to anything 80s. She's a Radiohead and Nick Cave fan, so anything that stinks of hair mousse really riles her. When I got home after doing a show that almost entirely consisted of 1980-86 music – the label's glory years – she told me that she was amazed at the high quality of music. How it still sounded totally fresh and not 80s at all. I consider that a high compliment.

Yes, my choices were on the mainstream side, although I scrupulously avoided some of the label's biggest hits such as "Mad About You," "She Drives Me Crazy" and "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades." But that's where IRS had its biggest impact: Widening mainstream America's taste so that it would listen to what was coming out of college radio, whether it was R.E.M., the Go Gos or the English Beat/General Public. Sure, they had the Buzzcocks, Stranglers and the Dead Kennedys (through Faulty Products, their short-lived subsidiary). But this was never a punk rock label. Nor was it ever completely out there, though Klaus Nomi, Suburban Lawns and Skafish were in its stable at one time. Today's Adult Alternative radio format probably owes its very existence to IRS Records and what they popularized.

I know I've already written too much, but I wanted to share a few more more thoughts for posterity's sake. If you want more information about IRS, I highly suggest the excellent fan site IRS Corner.

  • Sure, Miles Copeland (brother of Stewart) founded the label in 1979 but Jay Boberg deserves a lot of credit for making IRS what it became. After all, Copeland's credentials before his venture were as manager of the rock dinosaurs Wishbone Ash and Renaissance. Boberg, age 21 and an A&M promo rep when Copeland hired him and soon named him president, broadened the IRS' original concept as a distribution label and pounced on the right bands in the beginning – including the Buzzcocks, Oingo Boingo and The Go-Go's.

  • The album cover for Jane Wiedlin's first solo LP is still an all-time favorite. So cool.

  • You know how they talk about 1939 as the watershed year for great movies? Well, 1983 was the watershed year for IRS. Consider the classic albums that the label released that year: R.E.M.'s Murmur, English Beat's What is Beat?, The Fleshtones' Hexbreaker, Lords of the New Church's Is Nothing Sacred?, Let's Active's Afoot and Howard Devoto's sorely underrated Jerky Versions of a Dream.

  • I still own a signed vinyl LP of Cypress (1984) from Let's Active. That is all.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: "A Room With a View"

I guess the subtitle of today's post should be "same, but not the same."

Once again, I'm using Two-Fer-Tuesday to promote Wednesday's radio show. It won't always be this way, I promise. After all, I plan out these Two-Fer-Tuesdays months in advance (OK, weeks) and recently, they've dovetailed with the themes I've selected for my "Play It and Be Darned" radio show.

Such as this week, where I will be focusing on the glory years of IRS Records, which I define roughly as 1981-1988 (or around the time college radio came into its own).

One of my favorite acts on the IRS roster was Let's Active, a North Carolina group fronted by R.E.M producer Mitch Easter. A jangle pop outfit that debuted in 1983 with the EP Afoot, , actually a demo that IRS turned into a full-fledged release. It features the delightfully irresistible single "Every Word Means No," but also one of my favorite songs from that era: "Room With A View." Listen to the fuzzbox guitars, unusual rhythms and bassist Faye Weber trading lines with Easter. And, of course, the culminating line "I wish I was invisible!"

Play "Room With A View" by Let's Active

Fast forward to 23 years later. Frequent Mitch Easter collaborator Don Dixon decides to include a cover of "A Room With A View" as the final cut on his release The Entire Combustible World in One Small Room (2006). And as a bonus, the true singer on this cut is not Dixon himself, but his wife Marti Jones, an unfairly neglected artist in her own right. Jones, who has recently turned more of her attention to painting, reinterprets this song as an almost threatening piece of music – as if the protagonist is some peeping-tom voyeur, not some college kids exulting over their new space. (Jones actually originally recorded this song for the 2003 Let's Active tribute LP, Every Word: A Tribute To Let's Active)

Play "Room With a View" by Don Dixon (featuring Marti Jones)

At some point, I'll devote some time in this blog to the wonderful Ms. Jones. But today, I want to address how Jones manages almost the impossible. She redoes a song that originally was nearly perfect in every way, yet manages to cast it in a different light without destroying the original song. Too often, drastic reinterpretations either don't work or work so well that they make the original song irrelevant. Witness "Mad World" by Gary Jules.

By the way, so that I can fit as many songs as I can into one show, I've decided to start my show 15 minutes earlier: At 9:45 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Wednesday morning. So tune into the
radio show then to make sure you capture 75 minutes of all the IRS goodness you can stand. I promise: You will not hear "Mad About You," "Spirit in the Sky" or "She Drives Me Crazy." Because – well – those songs drive me crazy.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – "White Nights" (1985)

A few weeks ago, I bemoaned soundtracks that didn't include songs that were prominently featured in the movie.

In the case of White Nights (1985), thank goodness for that shortcoming.

The big hit from the movie (and winner of the Academy Award for Best Song) was "Say You Say Me." It's not only a Lionel Richie track, but it's a really awful Lionel Richie track with some of the worst lyrics to hit the airwaves since my "My Ding a Ling."

All together now: "Say you, say me/Say it together/Naturally/I had a dream/I had an awesome dream"

According to Wikipedia, Motown didn't want Richie's first recorded output since Can't Slow Down (1983) to appear on another label. So Atlantic Records lost out.

Like I said: Thank goodness.

The soundtrack to the Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines vehicle did enter the top 20, thanks to an almost equally big hit: The Phil Collins/Marilyn Martin duet of "Separate Lives," a song that Stephen Bishop ("On and On," "It Might Be You") wrote about his break-up with actress Karen Allen.

One of my early Soundtrack Sunday posts focused on an infinitely superior Martin song. So I'll leave this one alone. Instead, I'll focus on all the goodies that were included on this typically eclectic collection.

Director Taylor Hackford (The Idolmaker, Ray, La Bamba and An Officer and a Gentlemen) sure knows how to pick songs that introduce mainstream audiences to unfairly neglected artists. Such is the case here, where we have the likes of David Pack (Ambrosia), Robert Plant, Nile Rodgers and David Foster mixing with Lou Reed and John Hiatt.

The big twist is that Hiatt and Reed somehow put together danceable songs that don't stray too far from their strengths as artists.

Hiatt's "Snakecharmer" is all snarly in a a way that only America's answer to Elvis Costello can pull off. Amid all the programmed beats on many of the other songs included on this collection, it's great to hear Hiatt staying with his organic sound while adding a few power chords that punctuate the proceedings.

Play "Snakecharmer" by John Hiatt

"My Love is Chemical" by Lou Reed is a different animal altogether. Musically, it's a product of its time with the floating synths, programmed rhythms, vocoders (!) and slick 80s feel. But Lou Reed is Lou Reed. And this ain't no "Flashdance." I loved this slinky song about 20 years ago. Although time has eroded my fondness for it, I still get a kick out of listening to this tune and thinking it was part of the American mainstream at one time.

Play "My Love is Chemical" by Lou Reed

As for the movie itself, it also was a product of its time. Just in the same way Hollywood is feeding the American people's own paranoia with post-9/11 New York destruction movies like Cloverfield (2008), I Am Legend (2007) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), the Reagan-era 80s saw filmmaker come out with movies like Red Dawn (1984), The Day After (1983) and White Knights (1985) pontificating about how the evil Soviet Empire wanted to be in our living rooms one day. The movie, about a Soviet defector suddenly once again trapped behind the Iron Curtain, certainly had its share of exciting moments. But the unreal political message undermines its effectiveness – at least today. The fearsome Soviet bear, as we all know by now, was nothing more than a paper tiger.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Covers of the Week – Tally Hall "Smile Like You Mean It"; The Stooges, "Burning Up/Ray of Light"

This post is a bit of a shout out to a few hometown boys who are about to hit the big time.

And one who should be allowed to take another leap forward in his amazing career.

Plus, in the case of Tally Hall, it's an excuse to jump on the bandwagon before everyone else does.

Formed by five University of Michigan students in 2002, the band has built a small but devoted following in Ann Arbor and elsewhere – thanks in part to their songs being featured in MTV's "Real World" and Fox's "The O.C."

This week's cover song, as a matter of fact, comes from the album Music from the OC: Mix 6 - Covering Our Tracks (2007). Basically, a bunch of bands were asked to cover songs that were an integral part of the once-popular show.

And make no mistake. This is not just a simple redo of The Killers' "Smile Like You Mean It." It turns the song on its ear a bit, with a capella harmonies and an arrangement reminiscent of early Beach Boys. That's not to say that I like this version better than the original, but certainly they are suitable companion pieces.

Play "Smile Like You Mean It" by Tally Hall

Though many people have been quick to lump them in with the Barenaked Ladies, I believe that their approach to music and writing songs sets them apart. Andrew Horowitz (keyboards) is a former Hopwood Award winner, a prestigious literary prize given to the University of Michigan's best creative writers. You can see that creativity in the lyrical wordplay of the band's songs, including "Haiku" and "The Whole World and You" from their first full-fledged album Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum(2005), which is due to be released again in enhanced form on April 1. In conjunction with the CD, the group is criss-crossing the country on tour.

In the meantime, here's their new video for "Good Day" – a song they played on the "Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson" last summer.

Speaking of Michigan and rockers with ties to my adoptive state, wasn't it great what transpired at the recent Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies? Going into the event, many felt the least-worthy honoree was Madonna. But the Material Girl outdid them all when she requested that fellow Michigander Iggy Pop (an Ann Arbor native) and the Stooges perform two of her hits: "Burning Up" and "Ray of Light," with Iggy throwing in a few references to "Like A Virgin" at the end.

It's a crime that Iggy and the Stooges haven't been honored by the hall yet, but Madonna certainly made a case for them with her gesture.

Here's the video:

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wednesday's Radio Show – A Bite From the Big Apple

Here's the playlist from this morning's show on Orchard Radio. Missed it? Well, you can always catch me again next Wednesday at 10 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time at

As always, the underlined links represent songs you can download and/or play.

Talkin' New York Bob Dylan (1962)
Native New Yorker Odyssey (1977)
New York City (You're a Woman) Al Kooper (1971)
New York Is A Woman Suzanne Vega (2007)
New York City Norah Jones/Peter Malick Group (2003)
Englishman In New York Sting (1987)
The Only Living Boy In New York Simon and Garfunkel (1970)
New York USA Serge Gainsbourg (1964)
A Night In New York Elbow Bones And The Racketeers (1984)
Rockin' Around in N.Y.C. Marshall Crenshaw (1982)
Autumn In New York Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong (1957)
Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights…) Billy Joel (1981)
New York New York Ryan Adams (2001)
On Broadway George Benson (1978)
New York Cat Power (2008)

Among the songs not eligible for airing (because of the inclusion of certain four-letter words): "New York City Cops" by The Strokes, "Safe in New York City" by AC/DC, "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues and "All The Critics Love U in New York" by Prince.

Among ths songs that almost made it: "New York Groove" by Ace Frehley, "New York State of Mind" by Diane Schuur, "Empire State" by Fleetwood Mac.

Some notes of note:
  • I grouped most of the three-song sets on the show around certain themes. Kooper, Vega and Jones voiced the love-hate relationship that natives like me have with the city; Sting, S&G and Gainbourg sung about the sense of isolation and foreignness that such a huge city can create; and Elbow Bones, Crenshaw and Ella and Louis performed songs that captured the magic of the city. Did it work? I'm not sure. But I liked doing it that way.
  • I remember when I first heard "New York City (You're a Woman)." Al Kooper was opening for a band I can't even remember at Pier 84 on 46th Street in – that's right – New York City. Kooper just blew me away with this epic song that should be required listening for anyone who wants to learn how to write songs: Great build-up that, for once, delivers big-time in the end. Plus it really encapsulates all the feelings New Yorkers have about the city that they both hate and love. Kooper – who came up with the organ riff for "Like a Rolling Stone," founded Blood Sweat & Tears and discovered Lynrd Skynrd – is now teaching at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
  • Let's put all this aimless Internet speculation to rest. "Miami 2017" was written before the 1977 blackout in New York City. The song was inspired by the famous New York Daily News headline in 1975 after the President said no to a financial bailout of a Big Apple on the verge of bankruptcy: "Ford to NY: Drop Dead." As Joel wrote in his liner notes to Songs in the Attic (1981), "More science fiction then than it is now." But hey, we're only nine years away from that date with destiny.
  • Though associated with the waning days of the disco era, "Native New Yorker" was actually penned by the songwriting team of Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, who also wrote "Working My Way Back to You" and "Let's Hang On" for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Valli, in fact, has his own version of the song.
  • "Talkin' New York" was one of only two Dylan originals on his debut album. Needless to say, it was autobiographical.
  • "The Only Living Boy in New York" (part of this post a few weeks ago about the Garden State (2004) soundtrack) was Paul Simon voicing his frustration about the movie star ambitions of his erstwhile partner. During a good bunch of the recording for what was Simon and Garfunkel's last album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Art Garfunkel was in Mexico filming Catch 22 (1970) with Mike Nichols. Hence, the opening lines:
    Tom, get your plane right on time.
    I know your part'll go fine.
    Fly down to Mexico.
    Da-n-da-da-n-da-n-da-da and here I am,
    The only living boy in New York.

    (Tom was a reference to the earliest incarnation of the two performers, who billed themselves originally as "Tom & Jerry")
  • Time to get a little sappy on all of you guys and girls. I take you back to November 2006. My then-girlfriend Veronica and I were flying to New York City from Detroit to spend Thanksgiving with my parents. Through some freakish bit of luck, we were given the chance to upgrade to first class, where we sipped wine and listened to a mix of New York songs I had imported onto my iPod. As we descended into LaGuardia Airport and the lights of New York took over the previously darkened sky, almost on cue, "Autumn in New York" began playing. It was the magical beginning to a magical weekend, which was highlighted by Veronica accepting my wedding proposal. This past fall, we gave our wedding guests a mix CD that included this song. (By the way, the late Oscar Peterson is providing the piano on this song)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Vive La France (à New York, bien sur)

You still there?

OK, so you weren't scared away by Sunday's exploration of Disney magic.

Now, here's something that will really scare you off. It's a trifecta of sorts. I'm combining Mondo Monday with Two-Fer-Tuesday while tying into the theme of Wednesday's radio show.

The theme will be songs about New York, my hometown.

So yes, here we have a couple of songs about New York.

Only they're not sung by New Yorkers. Or even Americans.

Mais les musiciens français.

Nothing like a foreigner's perspective on the Big Apple, eh?

Especially Serge Gainsbourg, the famous singer of the 50s and 60s who hit it big worldwide with "Je t'aime moi non plus," his breathy duet with Jane Birkin that drew condemnation from the Vatican thanks to its simulated orgasm sounds.

In 1964, he came out with an album called Gainsbourg Percussions that basically consisted of Gainsbourg singing in front of a backdrop that included African-Caribbean percussion and female backing singers.

And that's about it.

It included this song. The less said about it, the better.

Play "New York USA" by Serge Gainsbourg

Yes, when I go back to New York, I can't wait to see "International Building," "Bank of Manhattan" and "American Hotel."

OK, I'll pull back the sarcasm a little bit and be kinder to our second guests, Téléphone.

I really like their fourth album Dure Limite (1982), which had a fairly stripped down punk rock sound, thanks to legendary producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed). One of the songs from that album, "Ça (c'est vraiment toi)," actually got some airplay in America on MTV.

The band's follow-up effort (and final studio release), Un Autre Monde (1984), sounded a lot slicker and didn't have songs that were as strong as its predecessor. Plus, it included this attempt to cross the Atlantic by dreaming about a future trip to New York City with a loved one.

Play "New York Avec Toi" by Telephone

Basically, there ain't much to the song except for a few throwaway lines about rats and lyrics like this: "Dans les clubs il fait noir/ mais il ne fait pas froid" (In the clubs, it is dark/But it is not cold")

Didn't you guys ever play at CBGBs?

Non? Bien fait.

Next week: Some Texans sing about Rome.

We'll see if I'm kidding.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – "Hercules" (1997)

Like a lot of you, I was pretty disappointed by last month's Academy Awards.

The biggest thing that bothered me? Not the gowns. Nor the idiotic patter on stage. No, it was the nominated songs from Disney's Enchanted (2007) that could only be described as craptacular.

What a letdown.

In the 90s, while the rest of you were probably reveling in Radiohead and Wilco, I was being subjected to the musical tastes of my sons, who have just turned 11 and 15. So during long road trips, that meant a lot of Barney, "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" and the soundtrack to whatever Disney movie had caught their fancy at the moment.

Fortunately, this was during the heyday of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and several other top composers employed by Disney. Of all this prodigious output, my favorite had to be Hercules (1997), which combined the talents of Menken and David Zippel (Broadway's City of Angels).

Certainly, the movie was not to everyone's taste. Because the original Greek myth contained sex, gore and all kinds of anti-Disney things, the filmmakers turned the story on its head. Basically, it was a series of running jokes strung together with piles of anachronisms. Everything else was also different from the Disney animated blockbusters of the previous few years: From the design of the characters (by Pink Floyd favorite Gerald Scarfe) to the songs themselves, which eschewed Broadway conventions for numbers infused with a melange of Motown, gospel and old-time R&B.

The one exception was the worst song – and, of course, the film's big hit: "Go the Distance" sung by future Producers (2001) star Roger Bart in the film and Michael Bolton (groan) during the credits.

I'm staying away from that one.

Instead, I want to focus on this little gem, sung by the actress who voiced Hercules' love interest, Megara. Relatively unknown at the time, Susan Egan would go on to originate Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. For me, she will always be known for this song, which has become one of the guilty pleasures on my iPod. I love the call and response with the Greek chorus, but I also think Egan really knows how to belt this song.

"I Won't Say" by Susan Egan

Here's a video of Egan performing the song live (or maybe "plausibly live") a few years ago in New York City.

Interestingly enough, in some non-U.S. versions of the film's soundtrack, there was a second rendition of the song by Belinda Carlisle. It ain't bad, but I think it just further demonstrates how Egan was able to make the song her own.

By the way, the 15-year-old is now mastering Killers songs on his electric guitar. And the 11-year-old requested the latest My Chemical Romance album for Christmas.

Funny how time flies, ain't it?

Friday, March 7, 2008

R.I.P., Jeff Healey

As everyone probably heard this week, Patrick Swayze has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, usually a fairly serious form of the disease. His doctor said he is responding well to treatment, but you can bet in the coming months (or years) if this becomes more serious and possibly fatal, there will be lots of talk about why this multi-talented actor shouldn't simply be known as the guy from Dirty Dancing (1987) or Ghost (1990).

The same could be said of one of his co-stars in the 1989 camp masterpiece Road House, who succumbed Sunday after a nearly lifelong battle with cancer.

Jeff Healey died at the age of 41, right before he was to release his ninth album and his first rock album in eight years.

Healey became widely known for playing Cody, the blind guitarist who plays in the club where Swayze works as a bouncer. The part was true to life in some respects: Healey was in fact an accomplished guitarist and had been blind since the age of one thanks to a rare disease called Retinoblastoma that claimed his eyesight and (ultimately) his life. Getting his first guitar at the age of three, Healey learned to play by laying the guitar flat on his lap.

His exceptional skills were on full display on his Arista debut See the Light (1988), which spawned the hit single "Angel Eyes." But though he grabbed a grammy nomination, Healey quickly faded from the public view and started devoting more of his time to his true love: Classic jazz of the 20s and 30s. In Toronto, where he would make his home, he would spend half his time playing rock and blues guitar with the Jeff Healey Band and the other half with Jeff Healey's Jazz Wizards, in which he often played trumpet and clarinet.

I thought it would be appropriate to pay tribute to Healey this week by featuring one of his best known covers – and a song we have previously featured on this site – "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." It really gives you a good idea of how musical and incredibly talented this man was, despite the deck of card dealt to him by life.

R.I.P., Jeff Healey

Play "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by the Jeff Healey Band

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Wednesday's Radio Show – "Under The Influence of the Brazilian Beat"

Here's the playlist for the "Play It And Be Darned" show "aired" on Orchard Radio earlier today. As always, the underlined songs are clickable downloads.

Brazil – Kate Bush (1985)
Bird of Beauty – Stevie Wonder (1974)
One Note Samba – Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim (1969)
Desafinado – Astrud Gilberto + George Michael (1996)
Waters of March – Basia (1998)
Tropicalia – Beck (1998)
Marco De Canaveses – Caetano Veloso (with David Byrne) (1999)
Sexy – Black Eyed Peas (2003)
Please Baby Don't – John Legend (2006)
Daquilo Que Eu Sei – Ivan Lins & Patti Austin (1984)
She Walks This Earth (Soberana Rosa) – Sting (2000)
Capim – The Manhattan Transfer (1987)
The Obvious Child – Paul Simon (1990)
Agua De Beber – Al Jarreau (1994)

Basically, the theme of this show was to turn around a basic conception that people have about American music. We look around the world and see other cultures being heavily influenced by what are some of our biggest inventions: Blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll and even musical theater.

In the case of Brazil, you could make the argument that the influence goes in the opposite direction. Or at the very least, Brazilian music has had as much of an impact on the American music scene as what we produce in the states has had on Brazil.

That concept became crystal clear as I started assembling the hour-long show – and several heart-breaking decisions were made. James Taylor's duet with Milton Nascimento on "Only a Dream in Rio?" Queen Latifah (of all people) crooning "Corcovado"? Arcade Fire performing "Brazil" live on its B-side to "Rebellion (Lies)"? Dionne Warwick singing almost any song off her 1994 Arista swansong Aquarela do Brasil? Sorry. No time for you.

Jobim, Sergio Mendes, Djavan, Caetano Veloso and Ivan Lins certainly got their share of exposure, but Nascimento, Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben were unfairly neglected. I probably needed at least two hours to give the subject its proper due.

That said, here are a few notes about what was played:
  • Bush's rendition of "Brazil" was never heard during the Terry Gilliam movie of the same name, but can be found on its soundtrack. The version heard in the film is by Geoff Muldaur, ex-husband of Maria. The song is an English rewrite of the 1939 song "Aquarela do Brasil" ("Watercolors of Brazil") composed by Ary Barroso and first heard by most American audiences in Walt Disney's Saludos Amigos (1942).
  • "One Note Samba" is the second prominent Jobim song that I know of in which Jobim also supplied the English lyrics. The arrangements on this song were done by fellow Brazilian Eumir Deodato, who would hit it big in the states a few years later with his funked-up rendition of the "Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey."
  • The Black Eyed Peas' has stated that the first record he ever purchased was by Sergio Mendes, who plays piano on "Sexy," a song that uses the riff from Jobim's "How Insensitive." I eschewed the's version of "Mas Que Nada" (ugh) off of the Mendes' all-star CD he produced two years ago, going with the infinitely superior song from Legend, who also wrote it himself. I'm constantly impressed by Legend, I've got to say.
  • Mendes also provided Wonder with the Portuguese lyrics to "Bird of Beauty," a song Wonder dedicated to Brazil and "my people" of Mozambique, who would gain independence from Portugal the next year.
  • Beck's surprising foray into the Brazilian sound has its roots in the singer's long-held admiration of Os Mutantes, an influential psychedelic band that helped lead the post Bossa Nova Tropicalia movement in the late 60s and 70s. He is thought to have even titled the album Mutations as a tribute to them. He wasn't the only admirer. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain tried unsuccessfully to get the band back together in 1993. And Devendra Banhart jammed with the band when the members (most of them, anyway) finally reunited in 2006.
  • Congratulate me. For the fourth straight week, I've managed a Stan Getz reference. The man responsible for popularizing Bossa Nova in America plays saxophone on the Djavan composition "Capim."
  • The inclusion of "Agua de Beber" is not only in recognition of an excellent Jarreau album called Tenderness (1994) that sees him return to his jazz roots. But it also in celebration of "Al Jarreau Week" at the most excellent web blog, If you haven't already bookmarked it, you really should.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Two-fer-Tuesday: E-Streeters on their own

Unlike a lot of people who grew up in the New York City area during the 70s, I never really got into the Boss.

Sure, I attended one of Bruce Springsteen's concerts at Madison Square Garden during his tour promoting The River (1980), but I never was ga-ga over him like so many of my east coast peers.

As I grew older, I came to appreciate him more – and maybe even more significantly, his sidemen.

When Little Steven and Clarence Clemons each came out with their first solo records, I grabbed them and put them on my turntable immediately.

One was totally stellar and an indispensable addition to my collection. The other – well, let's just say there was a lot of throwaway music issued during the 80s. And this collection was definitely one of them.

Let's start out with Little Steven, who was the subject of my first post on this blog back in December. Men Without Women (1982) was issued under the Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul moniker while Bruce was still struggling with Born in the USA (1984). It was also while the longtime E Street guitarist, who would quit the band after Springsteen finally released the album, was making his first tentative steps towards breaking out on his own.

Joining him for the EMI release was quite a stellar cast: Much of the past and present Asbury Jukes brass section, the Rascals' Dino Danelli and Felix Cavaliere and former Plasmatic Jean Beauvoir, who would go on to produce albums by the Ramones and Kiss.

I don't think the decade contained a more sonically full album than this one. It truly was blue-eyed soul at its finest. You couldn't get songs like the opener "Lyin' in the Bed of Fire" and "Save Me" out of your head. And my personal favorite, the sonic masterpiece "Forever," still kills me to this day. It was also the record's first single and video:

Play "Forever" by Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul (Much better sound quality, thank you very much)

Hero (1985) was actually the third solo album from saxophonist Clarence Clemons and was his biggest commercial success, spawning the hit duet with jackson Browne, "You're A Friend of Mine." I received the album just a year after watching the Big Man and his band, the Red Bank Rockers, perform an incendiary concert in the parking lot outside Georgetown University's McDonough Arena.

Perhaps I was still remembering the concert when I wrote a positive review of the album in the newspaper. But time has not been kind to it. The main producer was Narada Michael Walden (with Arthur Baker behind the board on some additional tracks) and perhaps that was the main problem. All the grittiness that made the Little Steven record so appealing (and made Clemons such a great live performer) was stripped away by the guy responsible for turning Whitney Houston and Mariah Caey into big stars. The whole album suffers from the 80s slickness disease.

And oh yeah, that single. Ugh. Hold your ears: I'm going to subject you to it because it really gives you an idea of how Clemons went wrong (and Little Steven went right).

Here the video (That's Walden on the drums by the way and then-Browne girlfriend Daryl Hannah is lip-syncing her actual backing vocals)

And the song:

"You're a Friend of Mine" by Clarence Clemons with Jackson Browne

A reminder: Tune into tomorrow's radio show at 10 a.m. EST. I'll be focusing on how Brazilian music has influenced American artists. Among the artists to be featured will be Beck, Stevie Wonder, Sting and John Legend. Should be a great one (I hope).

Monday, March 3, 2008

Mondo Monday – "Tam Tam Pour L'Ethiopie"

Among the rash of charity singles released in the 80s to raise awareness and money for the people of Africa, only one actually featuring African artists made an impact internationlly.

"Tam Tam Pour L'Ethiopie" was the B-side of the charity single "Starvation," releasd on Zarjazz records in 1985. The A-side is a remake of a song by The Pioneers, a reggae group particularly popular among the English 2Tone artists. Indeed, musicians from the Specials, English Beat, Madness and UB-40 were the primary participants in the remake. It's an OK song, but I prefer the original.

The B-side, however, is pretty spectacular. Produced by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango and recorded in Paris, the song features the participation of continental superstars such as King Sunny Adé, Hugh Masakela and Youssou N'Dour. It also includes lyrics in French and four different African languages.

I dare you to listen to it and not get chills down your spine as you listen to the complex musical interplay, intricate rhythms and rich harmonies. This is everything that defines African music in less than seven minutes.

Though not a hit in the United States,"Starvation"/"Tam Tam Pour L'Ethiopie" reached the UK top 40.

Play "Tam Tam Pour L'Ethiopie"

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – "Garden State" (2004)

Usually, this is the day when I pull some long-forgotten soundtrack out of obscurity.

Or offer a new look at some film music that might have gone unappreciated at the time of its release.

Neither is the case here, of course.

Any hipster probably already has a copy of this excellent collection, which won a Grammy in 2005 for Best Compilation Soundtrack, landed on several critics' "best of" lists that year and was certified gold by the RIAA. Aping the work habits of Cameron Crowe and John Hughes, writer, star and director Zach Braff used music that he was listening to while writing the movie. He considered it as a kind of mix tape for the movie, rather than a soundtrack.

Here's why I want to talk about this album today: Because it is a perfect antidote to one of my pet peeves about movies and the soundtracks that come out of them.

How often do you come out of the movie, obsessing about all the cool songs in the film and vowing to go out and buy the soundtrack? Then when you go to the store, half of them aren't on the CD. I remember loving the main theme to one of my favorite films of all time, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and then not finding it on the soundtrack. For some strange reason, director Peter Weir hired Maurice Jarre to do the score – and then used Vangelis' "L'Enfant" as the main theme, which was only available on his Opera Sauvage (1979) album.

Or maybe it's just the opposite. The songs on the soundtrack almost have no relation to the movie. Maybe they were heard for a few seconds on the radio during a scene or they were (shudder) "inspired by" the movie. This seem to be a particular problem during the 80s where selling a hit-filled soundtrack seemed to be as important as getting people into the movie theater. Even Crowe and Hughes have been guilty of this at times. Admit it: Do you listen to the Pretty in Pink (1986) soundtrack and think about Molly Ringwald getting ready for her big date with Andrew McCarthy?

Probably not.

Which, happily, brings me back to Garden State. Reportedly, the movie's release was delayed so that Braff could get approval for all the songs he wanted in both the film and on the soundtrack. It was well worth the wait. Not only is the music excellent, but it just about defines the movie. Each song I hear evokes specific scenes because none of them are ever used perfunctorily. According to IMDB, an extraordinary 13 of 18 songs played in the movie are on the soundtrack CD. (One of those excluded was "Three Times a Lady," thank you very much). Truthfully, other than Alexi Murdoch's "Orange Sky" (which the producers couldn't secure for the album), I can't think of one song I remember from the movie missing from the soundtrack.

Braff's song selection is also quite excellent, making all kinds of cross-generational connections that even the best soundtracks fail to do. For the younger 20-somethings, this was probably the first time they heard a song from Simon and Garfunkel (The underrated "The Only Living Boy in New York") that wasn't on their parents' greatest hits collection, which they probably got sick of by the time they turned 12. You can also never go wrong with teaching unwashed hipsters about Nick Drake ("One Of These Things First") And it's great that Mr. "Down Under" Colin Hay was able to regain some well-deserved respect with the entirely acoustic "I Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You."

Play "I Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You" by Colin Hay

As for the older folks who had never heard of bands such as The Shins, the Cary Brothers or Remy Zero, this was a great way for them to start opening their ears to the 21st century. I know that I didn't start taking trip-hop seriously until I got totally entranced by the cuts from Frou Frou ("Let Go"), Thievery Corporation ("Lebanese Blonde") and Zero 7 ("In the Waiting Line").

Play "Lebanese Blonde" by Thievery Corporation

So there you have it. Yes, I didn't throw the spotlight on anything you hadn't heard before. But hopefully I've given you something to think about – and maybe even the powers-that-be in Hollywood who need to learn a little bit more about how soundtracks should be.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Stories From the War – Ten Ten

Yeah, I know. Sometimes I get in a groove as far as blogging goes and try to relate a new post to what I said a few days ago.

Such is the case today, where I'm going to talk about a Richmond, Virginia band called Ten Ten, whom I first encountered back in the summer of 1986 while I was working at U-68, the TV station airing music videos all over the New York City area.

Back then, there was talk of Richmond becoming the next Athens, Ga., or Austin. Besides this group of guys, who had just been signed to the more than respectable Chrysalis Records, there was the "can't miss" band Suzy Saxon & the Anglos.

Well, they did indeed miss. And so did Ten Ten. And I think I know why in the latter case.

Ten Ten was one of the many bands promoting itself during New Music Seminar week that July. The members stopped into the convention room we had rented to conduct interviews and talked about themselves. They considered themselves part of the whole "big music" movement led by bands such as U2, Big Country and the Waterboys.

Being a huge fan of this kind of music, as you might know from my previous posts, I couldn't wait to catch them live that night at the Ritz. I wasn't disappointed. Just a few years removed from seeing U2 and Big Country perform live at fairly intimate venues like the Ritz. I saw a band that had the makings of that kind of power. They played big sweeping songs that connected with the audience (or at least me) in ways that most groups couldn't. I was particularly impressed by their song "When It Rains."

I couldn't wait to hear their album.

A few weeks later, it arrived at the TV station. And I pounced on it.

Listening to it, though, I was profoundly disappointed. The production was way too clean and crisp. The drums sounded programmed, rather than organic. As a result, all the energy that I had witnessed at the live show almost disappeared. It was a profoundly discouraging experience. I thought I had seen the makings of the next big thing. And, of course, I hadn't.

Ten Ten never did hit it big. Their album Walk On (1986) got a few spins because of their cover of the Plimsouls' "Million Miles Away" (a little too straightforward for my taste). But it wasn't too long before it started showing up in cutout bins.

A sidenote: Now that I've seen the South Park episode where Cartman forms a Christian rock band and snaps that ridiculous cover photograph, I am profoundly amused by Ten Ten's cover, which resembles it way too much.

Having just listened to the album again after 20-plus years, I'll admit my judgment was a little harsh. "When It Rains" is really quite a nice song. However, here's where I circle back to what I was talking about earlier this week: How much better would this record have been if Steve Lillywhite had been brought in to produce it? This was a band that definitely could have benefited from the sonic clamor of his technique. This is a band that needed to sound big. And Lillywhite definitely would have been the man for the job.

Oh, well.

Anyway, here's the song. Enjoy it. And imagine what could have been.

Play "When It Rains" by Ten Ten