Bruce Springsteen and Allen Toussaint

Kevin Russell recently bought me Allen Toussaint’s album Southern Nights.  Although I was aware of Toussaint, I’d be lying if I said I was much more than that.  A lot of Southern soul, blues, country, and rock made its way into my formative years in the North East, but for whatever reason not a lot of stuff out of New Orleans did.  It took moving to Texas, and especially Russell himself, to make me understand what I was missing.

Southern Nights is an absolutely stunning soul album with great songs and arrangements to die for.  It’s lush and ornamental and almost seems like a grand street in New Orleans turned into sound.

For a bass player who spends a lot of time listening to bass lines, the record a treasure trove of riches.  Every bass line is simple enough where it is memorable, but at the same time played with a impeccable feel.

While I was playing the record, my brother walked in while the song Back in Baby’s Arms was playing.  He said right away, “that’s exactly like Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge of Town.”  Now Toussaint’s album came out three years prior to Darkness.  Both songs start with an intro that is eerily similar.  They both start the same, and just deviate in the second half of the figure.  It’s not just a melodic thing, they both feature a bass and piano playing roughly the same line.  I don’t know how this came about.  Either Springsteen stole it, or they both arrived at a similar place independently.  They are both possible.  Given that Springsteen is a huge soul music fan, it is entirely possible that he heard it and coopted it for his purposes.  (I’ve never read specifically of the connection between these two pieces.)  However, the line is also simple enough that two people could think it up in two different places in time.

It doesn’t really matter.  Musicians have been stealing all throughout musical history.  Also, there are only so many notes that one is bound to stumble upon the same idea independently at times.

I think what is interesting is how really similar pieces chave totally different emotional landscapes created through lyrics and singing.  Toussaint’s song has a warm feeling to it mirrored by his voice.  Springsteen is singing in his dramatic Roy Orbison inspired voice.  Along with the rest of the album there is a certain bleakness to the song, where people are coming to terms with adulthood.

I think even if Springsteen flat out stole the idea, it is still artistically valid.  Creating something new is nothing more than assembling old pieces in a new combination.  Springsteen has always been someone that took different elements of rock n roll history, soul music, and folk music, and used it to create his own language.  Here he is combining soul music, the drama of Roy Orbison, with a cinematic and literate sense of language.  Although I’m not as educated on Toussaint’s history, there is no doubt one could trace his music backwards to different building blocks.  Although the two pieces start similarly, they end up in dramatically different emotional universes.


Rats in Battalion are Ruling the Street Scene

“Rats in battalion are ruling the street scene”

Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies album still translates anarchic fun years on.  Hello Hooray is still one of the greatest opening tacks ever and it just goes on from there.  That band was at the pinnacle of their powers then and Alice himself is as always a greatly expressive singer. Listen to his vocal on Generation Landslide or anything really.

Maybe this album shouldn’t appeal to me at this point in my life, but it does.  Life often seems like a dinner party that you are invited to, with formal agreed upon rules, not only absurd, but that you had no part in conjuring up.  As an adult you know the way to change things is to engage with dialog, to participate in the long game.  But some part of the soul wants to flip the table and run out screaming into the night, as much werewolf as man…


Paul Westerberg and Juliana Hatfield Release New Song

I Don't Cares

Paul Westerberg and Juliana Hatfield Release New Song

Paul Westerberg, one of our country’s best rock n roll songwriters, has returned with a new single created with songwriter Juliana Hatfield.  Their band is called The I Don’t Cares and the single is 1/2 2 P.  The song is a charming pop song, nothing more and nothing less, and it appears there is an album on the way.  As someone that has long enjoyed Westerberg’s work, especially his way with melodies, I am looking forward to this.

There is a clip of the song over at Amazon here: 1/2 2P

Alex Chilton’s ‘Like Flies On Sherbert’

I’m in love with the sound of the electric guitar.  When played right, through the right equipment, and recorded the right way, there is nothing better sonically.  An electric guitar, with just the right amount of distortion and effects can conjure up its own universe.

Alex Chilton, former member of Big Star and The Box Tops, has an album called Like Flies On Sherbet, that I am in love with right now due to the guitar playing, especially the sound of it.  This record, although regarded by some as a masterpiece, has just as often been misunderstood.  Allmusic’s David Cleary said that, “Regrettably, this album can not be recommended under any circumstances.

Many comments have seemed to center on the albums seemingly thrown together nature.  Especially compared to the immaculate arrangements of the early Big Star albums, it can seem like little care was put into the playing and recording of this album.  But I call bullshit on all of that.  I don’t even find this album that weird, by modern standards, and even fans of this record often think of it as bizarre.  To me it sounds like a Pavement record, or so many other indie bands that Chilton influenced, with deeper roots in early rock and rhythm and blues music.  It might have been strange at the time it was made, but that was because it was ahead of its time.  It’s one of those albums that looks forward and backwards at the same time.  It is rooted in the rock of the late 50’s and early 60’s, but it also conjures up early 90’s indie rock.  (The album was released in 1979.)

But really, when I listen to this on headphones, the guitar sounds are terrific.  You could almost pluck them out of the air and chew on them.  There is no doubt that someone knew what they were doing when they were being played and recorded.  Sometimes they are a little out of tune or off rhythmically, but if you understand guitar playing even a little, it takes a while to get that perfect blend of chaos and beauty together.  No kid picking up his first guitar is going to make noise like that.

Listen to the guitar break up above.  It, like so many on the album, sounds on the verge of falling apart, but never does.  It’s a high wire act.  It sounds like two players face to face in the studio, close enough to sweat on each other, pushing and pulling and driving each other to a new level.  There’s nothing complicated about it, but this is not the work of amateurs.

Keith Richards once compared a song to a knife fight in a phone booth.  This whole album is like that.  This album has just enough hooks to allow the listener a way in, but also enough scrappy rule breaking so that it is full of the mystery of life.  Forget what any reviews say about this record.  If you love the sound of guitars, it’s for you.

Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, and Songs of Stoic Regret

I’ve always liked a quality in songwriting that I call “stoic regret”.  Sometime, long ago, I read an article talking about a song as being filled with “manly regret”, but really it is a quality that can be sung by someone of either sex. These are songs of heartbreak and devastation, but also the will to go on, even if one realizes life will never quite be the same.  It is an adult emotion, that ability to shrug off life’s suffering, even if that suffering leaves a mark that will never quite go away.  Often these songs are romantic in nature, but they don’t have to be.  This is also more of a lyrical quality than a sound.  Singers in all genres have these kinds of songs and sometimes, in the case of Johnny Cash’s I Guess Things Happen That Way or Willie Nelson’s Nothing I Can Do About it Now, the music can be quite upbeat.

Sinatra had a lot of songs like these.  His albums like No One Cares and Only the Lonely have songs in this world.  It’s a place where tragedy and comedy meet up, albeit a dark, close to the breast, gallows humor kind of comedy.  The heart breaks, but the will to live goes on.  It’s the sound of total defeat, but once you’ve gone as low as you can, what is there to do but immortalize it and song, where it becomes some kind of maudlin tragicomedy?  I’m not saying that all of these songs were written with a slight nod to comedy in mind, but they are so tragic and dramatic sometimes that the mask of comedy can’t help but be there at the fringes.  I’m also not saying that I am laughing at these songs.  I don’t mean it as any kind of irony filled appreciation.  The emotions to these songs are always complex, like real life, and therefore often leave you feeling different things at the same time.  The mood that the listener is in can often make one lean to one side of the other in the comedy and tragedy spectrum.  These kinds of songs can have different meanings in different mental states.

A really great album is Sinatra’s Watertown.  It’s the only album that’s arrangements reflect the 60’s pop market.  It’s also the only album that he overdubbed his vocals on.  It’s a masterpiece, like a novella in song.  It’s a concept record about a man whose wife has left him, leaving him to raise his kids in small town America.  Since he still has the kids, he must go on.  He can’t simply give up.  The album is full of reflection.  How did this happen?  There are also reflections on the everyday life of the album’s narrator.  He notices who the kids look like and how they’ve grown.  There are lots of little details and the album is definitely more towards the tragic side of stoic regret.

When we’re young we often think that a relationship ending, or some other thing that seems tragic, is going to destroy us.  But really these kinds of things are just mere bumps on the road of life.  These kinds of songs come from the adult perspective, because however low the narrator is, they realize this.  The gift of life keeps giving, better get ready for it!

i don’t know why I am often drawn to these kinds of songs.  I think it is the fact that there is truth in them, and the truth is often complicated.  This complexity is great for drama, which any good song needs to have a dose of.  I think also, because one can view these songs from different ends of the tragedy/comedy spectrum, the material never ceases to be relevant.



Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

The other night I watched the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.  It is a documentary about the band Big Star , it’s initial failure and long slow road to cult status.  Despite having long known who Big Star were through The Replacements song Alex Chilton, I was never one of those people pining over Big Star records in my bedroom.  Once, at a used record shop, I bought a Big Star compilation.  I have no idea if it was a bootleg, etc.  I have never seen it before or since.  Although there were several songs I loved on it, I realize now that it’s track listing was a bit bizarre.  While it contained many of the band’s most popular songs, they were in an order that didn’t provide the best context for them.  (Context in the world of music is really important.  Often when I put my iPod on shuffle, my favorite songs often aren’t as enjoyable as they are in their natural habitat.  Also think about how the way in which a great live band puts together a set, and how when done right the show builds in energy at just the right moments.)  Also, since hearing the remastered versions of the Big Star catalog, I realized how sonically muted the versions I had were by comparison.

I thought the movie was fascinating. Not only because it tells the tail of Big Star, which is interesting in its own right, a story full of tragedy and redemption, but it gives you a sense of Memphis regional music at the time.  In the pre-internet age, music was much more regional, allowing for strange mutations to arise.  Communication wasn’t as easy, so strange little scenes developed in different locations.  (Although Big Star were even strange for Memphis at that time and place.)  I do feel that with the current economic model of the music industry, especially in regards to touring, that music is becoming more regional again.

The movie does what any good music documentary should do: It communicates what is special about the music and makes the music sound great.  It not only tells Big Star’s story in a compelling way, but when you actually hear the music, the music sounds extraordinary.  As I commented before, I think hearing the details of Big Star recordings, in the right context, really makes their music come alive.  The movie also has alternative takes of these songs, allowing one to see how they were built into their final and superior versions.  Their music is full of ecstatic joy and harrowing sadness, sometimes threading the needle between the two.

Although I new the rough outline of the Big Star story going in, I found that the film gave me a new appreciation for their recordings.  I think there is enough new elements, with great footage and interviews with those still alive, to recommend it to those that are already fans.


“Waiting for World War III While Jesus Slaves”

Last night with Shinyribs I played a in-store for the new Ted Hawkins tribute record, Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins.  It was a wonderful thing, with performances by James McMurtry, Ramsay Midwood, and Randy Weeks, some of my favorite songwriters in Austin.

Tonight I am lucky enough to be going to see Jackson Browne in San Antonio.  Browne has long been one of my favorite songwriters, who often gets overlooked I feel.  Many lump him in with all of the other singer/songwriters of the 70’s.  But Browne was always more intelligent and fearless than most of his contemporaries.  Don’t let the beauty of his melodies lead you astray.  (And he is an absolutely brilliant melody writer.)  He has a laser sharp wit and a moral courage that allow him to write songs that are often poetic and political at the same time, which is a hard trick to master.

I have always wished that I wrote the song Lawyers in Love.  It’s a great pop song and also a hilarious critique of our culture of mindless consumerism, among other things.  Written in and about 1980’s Reagan era American, it still says so much about what is going on now, as many of our current problems began then.  As I was a child in the 80’s, I have never minded 80’s era production techniques as much as some do.  (Nostalgia often plays a major role in our musical tastes, no matter how we try to deny it.)  However, even if the keyboard and drums sounds of that time period bug you, listen to the melody and lyrics, which are tremendous.

Reimagining the New World

We were going to see the world
In this land
We placed Baptismal fonts
And an infinite number were baptized
And they called us “Carabi”
Which means “Men of Great Wisdom”

Where are you going,
And are you going anywhere?
Where are you going
Send me a letter, if you go at all

Ahh, the salvation of souls,
But wisdom we had not
For these people had neither King nor Lord
And bowed to no one
And they had lived in their own liberty

Where are you going,
And are you going anywhere?
Going in circles
Going in circles, anywhere

I saw the new
The inconstant shifting of fortune
And now I write to you
Words that have not been written
Words from the New World

Tracing the circles
Moving across my eyes
Lying on a ship
And gazing at the western skies
Tracing lazy circles in the sky


Wake Up!
Wake Up!

Where are you going,
And are you going anywhere?
Where are you going
Send me a letter, if you go at all

It’s such a delight
To watch them dance
Be it sacrifice or romance
Free of all the things that we hold dear
Is that clear, Your Excellency?

And I guess it’s time to go but
I gotta send you just a few more lines
From the New World

Tracing the circles
Moving across my eyes
Lying on a ship
And gazing at the western skies
Tracing lazy circles in the sky

Tracing lazy circles in the sky
Tracing lazy circles

And the sky opened
And we laid down our armor
And we danced
Naked as they
Baptized in the rain
Of the New World

Amerigo by Patti Smith.  I’ve posted the lyrics to this song before, but recent events have led me back to it.  (I’m reading her book Just Kids and I have also been thinking about great American musical artists.)  This song is the true sound of freedom.  It has an almost shamanistic quality to it.  Why is Patti Smith considered great?  Because of pieces like this.  Smith is going back to the beginning of America and imagining if things had been different.  What if we had lived up to the true promise of, “The New World?” Geographical discovery as metaphor for the discovery of the spirit, of the imagination.  Her last album, Banga, of which this is on, is as good as anything she has ever put out.  And that is saying a lot.   Happy Friday!  Forget about going down to the local pub and leering at members of the opposite sex.  Go somewhere new this weekend, inside or out…

It’s Hard, The Who, and the Underrated Drumming of Kenny Jones

I didn’t see the Democratic debate yet, as I don’t have cable.  I will get around to it at some point, but not today, as Shinyribs is playing a show in Houston tonight.  I’ve been burning through Pete Townshend’s extremely readable autobiography Who I Am.  Townshend is one of the few musicians that can actually write well.  It’s no surprise really as he has written things before.  He also has always been a musician that was often after the big idea.

Anyway, this is not a review, as I’m not done.  I am only at the stage where he is beginning writing Quadrophenia.  But one thing I have been talking about with Keith Langford, drummer for Shinyribs, and have talked about with other drummers in the past, is how The Who’s albums with Kenny Jones are underrated, especially from a groove standpoint.  Jones did not have the unique explosive energy of Keith Moon, but Jones is a great drummer in his own right.  Jones was originally in The Faces.  I’ve worked with many competent drummers who can not play Jones four on the floor groove from The Faces and early Rod Stewart stuff with the same loose swagger.  The stuff Jones did with The Who is really great too, if you consider it for what it is, a different chapter in that band.  Something like You Better You Bet has a simply outstanding groove.  (Confirmed to me by Mr. Langford.)  And although Jones was not as manic as Moon, he is expressive in his own way as well.  Listen to the drum fills from Athena from the album It’s Hard.

Different musicians bring different qualities out in other players.  During Moon’s tenure, Townshend was what often held The Who together from a rhythmic standpoint.  With the deep pocket grooves that Jones brought to The Who, listen to Eminence Front, Townshend was given more freedom as a guitarist.

When one listens to a band it is easy to judge a certain player, especially in a band that previously had a truly unique player like Moon.   But listen to a players roll within a band.  One of my favorite bass players is U2’s Adam Clayton.  Many bass players dismiss him as not being a great musician.  However, if you exam the functionality of what a musician brings to a band, you start to realize that what a musician does allows the rest of the members of a band to play in the way they do.  I think Clayton is far better than what many think of him, but if you listen to his role in U2 you realize that he, along with Larry Mullen’s polyrhythmic drumming, allows the edge to float on top of the band, crafting his unique soundscapes.  Ringo Starr is another musician that is often overlooked.  (Though in recent years he seems to have gotten a lot more credit.)  Not only is he a great musician, but the sound of his drums and the unique style of his playing is essential to the sound of the Beatles.  Players like these are just not as showy as some of those that are often ranked near the top of musician polls.

Much like in football, someone in a band must often stay home and block.  The Who live are a different breed than in the studio.  They are one of the few bands that, on an album like Live at Leeds, seems to have each member express themselves without falling apart.  But if you listen to most bands, someone is staying home and holding it together, so that the rest of the band can be more expressive.

So while there is no doubt that Keith Moon was a truly talented one-of-a-kind drummer, and the quintessential Who drummer, I think their time with Kenny Jones is often overlooked.  Out of the two albums, Face Dances and It’s Hard, I personally prefer It’s Hard, though I admit I have spent more time with it.  Townshend’s writing is really witty and clever throughout, even if it lacks the epic scope of something like Tommy or Quadrophenia, or even the completely gigantic sound of something like Who’s Next.  It might not be The Who’s best, but it’s a lot better than what many bands are capable of.  From I’ve Never Known No War:

Galbraith took his pen
To break down the men
On the day Germany was deleted
On the 19th day

Of a spring day in May
Alber Speer was deleted

The title track from that album always has my brother and I in stitches.  It’s witty, intelligent, dramatic, and absurd, in a way that only The Who are capable of.  Listen to Roger Daltrey turn the word “hard” into a five syllable word in the bridge.  It’s a great rock song by a band that wrote and performed so many.


“Which pushes me to their place in the queue”

“And he spoke with his voice
 As he was talking with his mouth”

Oboe concerto
All the best ones are dead 
And there’s a song I can’t stand 
And it’s stuck in my head

There’s a song I can’t stand 
And it’s stuck in my head

Oboe concerto 
All I do is drink to absent friends 
And there’s a song I can’t stand 
And it’s stuck in my head

There’s a song I can’t stand 
And it’s stuck in my head

The older generation have tried, sighed and died 
Which pushes me to their place queue

Round, rhythm goes round 
Round, round rhythm of life goes round 

– Morrissey

My birthday was today.  Today is also John Lennon’s birthday.  I played a tribute to him this afternoon.  It made me realize that his music is more complicated than it sounds, as I felt like I was playing with mittens on my hands.  Part of it had to do with extreme exhaustion, but there is no doubt that one stroke of his genius is the fact that he could make bizarre and unruly chord progressions sound like perfect pop moments.  Things that are sophisticated became emotionally raw in his hands, all while somehow seeming universal.  He was a rare bird indeed.

I couldn’t help but compare his music to a great deal of the popular music of today’s radio.  Along with reflecting on the passing of time, as one is apt to do on their birthday, I was reminded of the Morrissey lyrics to Oboe Concerto.  But in case anyone thinks I am being maudlin, I think there is a great deal of mischievous fun to be had in the above verses by old Mozzer.  Looking at the inevitable, shrugging, with an ever so slight grin…