Dion and Paul Simon

There’s nothing better than a great vocal melody, except maybe one with the perfect harmonies.  Here two legends, Dion DiMucci and Paul Simon, sing an ode to their city.  It’s a beautiful song that makes you remember that there is no instrument as moving as the human voice.  I am looking forward to Dion’s album, which comes out this month.  This song, New York is My Home, is also the title song for the album.

Add on:  Notice the phrasing of the singing, where it is slightly behind the beat.  The singing is also understated.  There is no showing off, though there are harmonies that are quite impressive in and of themselves.  The singers are not making a “meal” out of every note, which often happens in todays pop music.  The best singing almost always comes back to delivering the song.  It’s about letting go of the ego and giving over to the important thing at hand, which is the song.  

One of the Best Songs of the Year

I’m still gathering my thoughts on the whole album, but there is no doubt the last song, Hands Together,  on the I Don’t Cares (Paul Westerberg, Juliana Hatfield) new album, Wild Stab, will undoubtedly be one of the best of the year. I’ve read that Westerberg suffers from dyslexia, though who knows what is true these days, especially with someone like Westerberg, who is often far more direct in song than interview.  (His recent interview with Peter Wolf was a revelation, due to the length and directness of Westerberg’s answers.)  There are certain lyrics of his that have an almost dyslexic quality to them, and I’m not talking about his solo single Dyslexic Heart.  His words can have a jumbled feeling, although one that creates insight, rather than hinders it.  I thought about posting the lyrics to the song, but the way the words unravel in song on first listen, the sheer revelation of it, is one of the most powerful things about the song.  There is a beautiful rambling confusion to the words, which don’t seem correct at first, but upon repeated spins creates a deeply personal and poetic reflection of an internal emotional state.  The song is highly intelligent, but not because it creates clarity of the world at large.  In fact it is a complex, highly detailed painting of not what the world is, but how it can feel to face the world, a world such as our own, one that is often filled with confusion and meaninglessness.  It’s a beautiful, sad, yet occasionally hopeful song, of one seemingly trying to make sense of a world that often makes no sense at all.

That’s How the West Was Lost

Down off the interstate
In the middle of the fall
We killed off the Indians
And we put up a mall
And we claimed we did it
In the name of St. Paul

That’s how the west was lost

We paint the faces and names
Of those we kill
In theme restaurants
In bars and grills
And we get indignant
When it makes their ancestors ill

That’s how the West was lost

Manifest Destiny
Or “living space”
Is the same thing
By any other name

That’s how the West was lost

Lyrics from That’s How the West Was Lost.

These are the lyrics to a song on an album I recorded recently, that will be appearing later this year.  More on this to come.

Living space, or Lebensraum, is what Hitler wanted for his Third Reich.  You can read more about this topic and Manifest Destiny at this post I wrote last year:

Manifest Destiny and Lebensraum

 

Paul Westerberg Interviewed by Peter Wolf

Paul Westerberg Interviewed By Peter Wolf

Above is an hour long video interview of Paul Westerberg by fellow musician Peter Wolf.  Westerberg, along with Juliana Hatfield, released the new album Wild Stab under the band name The I Don’t Cares.  Anyone interested in music should check this interview out.  It’s not often that you see such a long interview in the music world that is also substantive.  Westerberg is one of our country’s greatest living songwriters and this interview takes him into his recording process, among other things.

Paul Westerberg is ‘Back’

Paul Westerberg has released a new album alongside Juliana Hatfield.  Their band, The I Don’t Cares, have put out Wild Stab.  I’m hitting the road today with Shinyribs, but more on this release soon.  It’s fantastic, with glorious melodies and hip shaking guitars.

One of the Greatest Record Producers of All Time

I have become fascinated with the work of  early record producer Joe Meek.  A true genius, Meek was ahead of his time sonically and helped to initiate a wide range of production techniques that would later go on to become widely used.  Due to the tragedy of his life, he never, unlike contemporaries Phil Spector and George Martin, never became a household name.  (Read his biography here.)  Meek produced an incredible amount of recordings in a very short time, the late 50’s through the 60’s.  Not only that, his recordings are extremely varied in style and emotion, yet always retaining an amazing amount of vitality in the emotional quality of the performances and sounds.  He made records when many people in studios were still wearing lab coats.  Yet, he built a home studio in a rented London flat and broke many rules, using compression, analog distortion, and reverb in new and unique ways.  He would also utilize every day objects and inventive performance techniques to give each record a unique sonic stamp.  Here are a couple highlights from his legendary career that will give you a sense of the great variety and vitality of his work:

Johnny Remember Me – This is the first number one record that Meek produced at his flat.  It’s a teenage death disc of the first order.  Remember that this was recorded at a home studio, in 1961!  The sound of the song is one of the reasons it is so effective, especially in the ghostly female backing vocals.  They give this pop song almost gothic qualities.

 

Telstar – Meek also produced a lot of instrumental music.  One of my favorites is Sunday Date.  But his most famous is Telstar, a space-age song that utilizes an extremely early version of a synthesizer called a clavoline.  This was the first number one song in America by an English band and was released in 1962.  Meek was great at creating sound effects and other sonic effects that made his productions sound like miniature movies.  Below Meek was trying to capture the space age, but he could just as easily create a pop song that created the vibe of a Western movie somewhere else.

Please Stay – The two songs above were two of Meek’s biggest hits.  But his catalog is vast and deep, with hundreds of songs released, and possibly hundreds more that have never been released.  Even on songs that weren’t big hits there was a level of craft that is unbelievable.  Listen to this later production of The Cryin’ Shames Please Stay.  (1966) There is no doubt that a great performance was captured.  However, listen to the great use of reverb on the vocals and the unique sound of the organ.  There are so many little details in a recording like this that add to the overall emotion that is translated to the listener.

There is so much more to say on the subject of Joe Meek, regarding his life and music.  There is a whole amazing compilation of just great early pop girl group kind of stuff that he did.  (Let’s Go! Joe Meeks Girls)  His personal life is also interesting to look at.  Meek was no doubt an eccentric, but his downfall can also be partially explained to the fact that he was gay at a time in England when it was illegal.   I am sure I will revisit other aspects of his career at some point, but this is enough to get your feet wet.

Ok, one more as his girl pop stuff, like so much of his work, is really fantastic.  Here is Glenda Collins singing Something I Got to Tell You:

Strangers When We Meet: David Bowie is Gone

By now many of you are as shocked as I am by the death of David Bowie.  (Strangely I saw a clip of Bowie in the Marlene Dietrich documentary Marlene last night, where he was sitting silently while she sang a melancholy version of Just a Gigolo.  The clip had a dreamlike finality to it.)  I’ve been a fan since junior high, when a friend lent me The Singles Collection and I listened to it at night in my bedroom at night, unsure how someone could write that many great melodies.  I remember being amazingly captivated by Ashes to Ashes, still on of my favorites.  I know I was aware of him before that, and even liked some of his songs such as Space Oddity and Suffragette City, but that was when his entire career as an artist really started to come alive in my imagination.

If this event prompts you to want to explore his work again, or for the first time, a good book to get is The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg.  It is a very detailed exploration of his career.

If I had to name just one Bowie song as my favorite I would have to give the honor to Strangers When We Meet, off of also quite possibly my favorite album by him, Outside.  (One of his most artistically rewarding albums, an album that still sounds like the future.  The song was originally released on The Buddha of Suburbia, but I prefer the version on Outside.)  The song features one of my favorite melodies of all time.  I’ve mentioned this song before here, and the lyrics are a thing of beautiful interpretive poetry:

All our friends
Now seem so thin and frail
Slinky secrets
Hotter than the sun

No preachy friars
No trendy rechauffe
I’m with you
So I can’t go wrong

All my violence
Raining tears upon the sheets
I’m bewildered
For we’re strangers when we meet

Blank screen TV
Preening ourselves in the snow
Forget my name
But I’m over you

Blended sunrise
And it’s a dying world
Humming Rhinegold
We scavenge up our clothes

All my violence
Raging tears upon the sheets
I’m resentful
For we’re strangers when we meet

Cold tired fingers
Tapping out your memories
Halfway sadness
Dazzled by the new

Your embrace
It was all that I feared
That whirling room
We trade by vendue

Steely resolve
Is falling from me
My poor soul
All bruised passivity

All your regrets
Ride roughshod over me
I’m so glad
That we’re strangers when we meet

I’m so thankful
That we’re strangers when we meet
I’m in clover
For we’re strangers when we meet
Heel head over
But we’re strangers when we meet

 

Here is a great piece on the song:

Strangers When We Meet

There is a resignation in this song that feels fitting for today.  An era is gone…

 

Here is a great live version of the same song from Jools Holland:

 

The Late Great Johnny Stew

Sometimes a song or a lyric just hits you and it’s only afterwards, sometimes a long time afterwards, that you can articulate why.  Lately I have been knocked out by the writing and playing of John Stewart.  (Yes, for those of you who have been reading along, I am going to keep blowing this trumpet for awhile.)  A true American original that for over 40 years stood at the crossroads of folk, Americana, pop, rock, and country.  His career began with the Kingston Trio before a long solo career.  Although he had songs that were well known (Daydream Believer), and periods of success (Albums California Bloodlines and Bombs Away Dream Babies were both hits of their time, and which are both strangely out of print.  If any of you have them and can send them to me, I would be extremely thankful.), he remained largely a cult artist.  Whether he was playing folk or country or rock, California remained a large part of his sound.  His country music, for instance, is way more melodic than the country music that was being made at the same time.  Brian Wilson and Lindsey Buckingham come to mind when listening to some of Stewart’s music, even if he is very different from each in many ways.  (Stewart influenced Buckingham, who in turn influenced Stewart’s electric guitar playing later in his career.  They both recorded together at various times as well.)  Stewart is more rootsy than both, yet more melodic than a lot of roots music.

No matter what kind of style Stewart was tackling, his concerns and personality tie everything together.  Along with his sense of melody, Stewart both sang of a mythic America while also remaining a critic of America’s shortcomings in living up to its promise.  Like Johnny Cash, Stewart seems to be a bridge between an older America and the 60’s counter-culture.  He was traveling in support of Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was assassinated.

As someone that almost always prefers studio albums to live albums, Stewart’s The Phoenix Concerts is a real find.  It sounds fantastic, as good as many studio albums from that period.  Every song is delivered with empathy and soul.  Stewart’s between song patter is also extremely charming.  That album features The Last Campaign Trilogy which Stewart wrote after Kennedy’s assassination.  If you want to get a feel for Stewart’s Country/Americana period, this album is an excellent place to start.

Given that the Buckingham produced Bombs Away Dream Baby (Please dear God let someone rerelease it!) is out of print, a great place to start for his rock and pop period is Blondes.  Stewart is a fabulous electric guitar player that really shines from his early 80’s output on.  Wires from the Bunker, a collection of unreleased songs from around this same period, is also extremely great and is actually lyrically better than Blondes.  Blondes lyrics are more pop oriented in nature than much of Stewart’s work, but it is so musically gorgeous that it really doesn’t matter.  On Punch the Big Guy, from 1987, Stewart’s lyrics tackle Reagan era America.  The songs are fantastic, but the album, unlike his earlier 80’s work, is slightly marred by 80’s production technique.

Stewart’s career is not only long, but he was a prolific writer.  A lot of his albums are also hard to find, which makes getting a true sense of his career difficult.  Another interesting thing to add, as part of his career overview, is that unlike a lot of musicians of his generation, Stewart was largely very sympathetic to women.  Listen to All Time Women below.  (The lines about the Miss America pageant make me laugh every time, especially knowing they were written in the early 70’s.  He was, as he often seemed to be, ahead of the game.  “A Christian burlesque show”!!!)

Stewart died in 2008.  His last album, The Day the River Sang, is excellent.  (It was released in 2006.)  It’s a beautiful, sad, and yet hopeful album.  It can break your heart and make you smile, often at the same time.  I started the article talking about how one can often feel something before they can articulate it.  I can’t quite articulate why this album means so much to me yet.  All I can say is that it just has a lot of heart and soul in it.  It feels like saying goodbye to a life well lived.  There is nothing particularly amazing about the lyrics to the song Jasmine, up above, but the melody and the way it is delivered knocks me out every single time I put it on.  It’s a small universe that I am always happy to get lost in.  There are many tracks on that record that I find myself reaching for repeat after they come on.

If you love American music, Stewart’s catalog is deep and rich and worth diving into.  No matter what period, there is a great deal to pay attention to.  He was more melodic than many of our country singers, he had more rock n roll in him than many of our folk artists, he was more subversive than many of our singer songwriters, and he had more heart and soul than many of our pop stars.  Like a lot of California music, his music could often be warm, inviting, and pleasurable to listen to.  However, he was also often extremely insightful, giving him an edge at times, percolating beneath the accessibility of his sound.  This man was a giant.  Hopefully at some point more Americans will be aware that he walked this land.

I really could have picked any number of songs to post here.  There are many that probably better demonstrate his intelligence, or the musicality of his guitar playing.  I chose ‘Jasmine’ because, again, the melody has been absolutely killing me lately.  It is truly a thing of beauty.  I think ‘All Time Woman’ demonstrates his wit and his ability to slip subversive lines into a simple yet accessible melody.  Quite frankly, it makes me smile.  It also showcases the period where he was playing early California influenced country rock, what would become Americana.  

John Stewart’s ‘American Way’

I’ve mentioned recently that I am really getting into the songs and recordings of musician John Stewart.   He found popularity as a member of the folk group the Kingston Trio.  As a solo artist he was more of a cult artist, although he did have brief periods of success with albums like California Bloodlines and Bombs Away Dream Babies.  The above song is from his collection of unreleased songs, at the time, Wires From the Bunker, of which every song is a gem.  Although I prefer the very early 80’s period of his career at the moment, I have yet to hear anything I don’t like.  The kind of artist that makes the sun shine a little brighter in the morning.  If there were any justice, his solo work would be playing on radios all over this nation…

What’s Shaking…

I’ve spent a good deal of my free time lately recording demos at my house.  Shinyribs was in Louisiana last week.  This week we’re in Texas for three shows.  I’m hoping to catch up on writing here soon.  One thing I’ve been working on is my list of favorite albums from the past year.  I will have that up next week.  Here is a cut from one that will make the list:

The song is the title song from Public Enemy’s newest album, Man Plans God Laughs.

I’m still debating whether I will include anything that is part of a reissue, even if it is a reissue that includes a lot of unreleased material.  Springsteen just put out a reissue of The River called The Ties That Bind: The River Collection.  The first single released from this collection is a song called Meet Me in the City, that was previously unreleased.  The fact that a track this strong could be buried in the vaults all this time is amazing.  This is about as great as a three minute rock n roll song can be.  That’s why he is the Boss.

On other fronts it seems mostly like a ticker tape of the insane and stupid.  Last week I was traveling and under the weather, so I didn’t get to pay as close attention to the Paris Climate talks as I would have liked, which was the one thing worth paying attention to that wasn’t also completely depressing.  My parents were there, so I’m curious to get their take on it.  But more on all of this later.  For now, I’ll leave you with another track from a great reissue this year, from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk: