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.

David Bowie “Blackstar” Review

With his new album Backstar, David Bowie turned his passing into a work of art.  Everyone must die, but very few people are able to turn that inevitable decline into something beautiful.  There is no doubt that fortune, if there can be anything fortunate about dying, was on his side, but it is still quite an accomplishment, to have that kind of fortitude in the face of death.

How is the album?  It’s easily his best since Heathen and quite possibly his best since the criminally underrated Outside.  For the first time since that album, an album about fictional art murders at the end of the century, he has made a completely cohesive record where every track not only works, but works together.

The last three album (Heathen, Reality, The Next Day), while all featuring great material, have been somewhat flawed.  The production by Tony Visconti was too clinical.  Heathen, the first of the last three records, was the best and worked way more often than it did not.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, as Visconti is usually top notch, but they sounded like someone trying to catch up to new technology, without mastering it.  The instruments felt too separate from each other.  The music often didn’t feel distinct, nor did the instruments sound like they were played with passion.  (Pete Townshend, playing guitar on the song Slow Burn, provided the kind of fire that was missing on some of the other tracks.)   In the past Bowie has had phases where he was consciously trying to play in a passionless way, taking inspiration from Kraftwerk, but this didn’t sound like that.  That’s not saying that these records were bad.  Each had things to recommend them, and all had a couple great songs, but they weren’t up to Bowie’s normal standard.

With his latest he sounds like he was truly pushing the envelope again.  By recruiting younger jazz musicians, he added a distinct element to the new music.  Also, Visconti regained his touch, providing the right amount of atmosphere, while still allowing unique musical personalities to come through the ambience.  There is a sense of danger and adventure to the record.  Bowie was again combining pop with the avant-garde.  The record sounds extremely modern, but not self-consciously so.  It doesn’t seem like an attempt to stay current, but that once again, like so many times, Bowie was ahead of the curve.

It’s a dark, often disturbing record, both sonically and lyrically.  Bowie’s lyrics are highly interpretive here, but full of striking imagery.  Anyone that starts an album with a 10 minute, two part, song filled with bleak imagery is not begging to be loved.  He is as much painting abstract art with words, as he is writing traditional song lyrics.  I kept thinking of the painting of David Lynch when hearing this song and several others.  (Bowie has worked with Lynch in his movie Fire Walk With Me.  Lynch also used Bowie’s I’m Deranged in his film Lost Highway.)

When an artist goes this far out on a limb they are in danger of creating something interesting, but possibly not inspiring.  It’s always noble when an artist tries to make something unflinchingly artistic, but one risks making something that is listenable for a spin or two and quickly gets filed away.  However, I kept finding myself going back to this record, listening the entire way through every time.  I think this is due to the quality of the material, the exciting musical soundscapes, and the fact that the album sounds like one complete whole.  There is no doubt that some who are only interested in his pop singles will not like this album, but that will be at their loss.

The record is also beautiful in places.  The final song, I Can’t Give Everything Away, up above, has a gorgeous melody.

There are so few artists that can walk the high wire between pop culture and upscale art.  Many modern artists can seemingly do one or the other.  Bowie could seem at home in either an art gallery or on a FM station.  There is no doubt that Bowie’s death probably gave this album a life that it wouldn’t have had, due to the challenging nature of some of the material.  But people’s lives will be richer for having this playing in their home.  So often these days #1 records seem the work of focus groups, instead of some kind of artistic endeavor.  But this record is art with a capital A.  If we were all talking about such a thing more often, modern life might feel so meaningless so often.

 

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.

Pamela Blue’s ‘My Friend Bobby’ – Return of the Teenage Death Disc

Anyone that has been reading along knows my obsession with the teenage death disc.  These are records, mostly of the early 60’s, that deal in tragedy and that were marketed to teens of the time.  Many times they are upbeat musically, despite the nature of the lyrics.

Here is one that is produced by legendary British producer Joe Meek.  I especially love the background vocal arrangement on this song.  It’s a thing of ecstatic beauty, adding a touch of the ethereal to this song.

If Leader of the Pack and Johnny Remember Me are numbers one and two, this might come in the number three spot for songs of this genre.

I haven’t quite solved the puzzle as to why I am so enraptured by these kinds of recordings.  I have always love the combination of a dark lyrics with a sunny melody, as there is something of life’s great comedy inherent in such a thing.  There is also something about taking on such a serious subject in a flippant manner that to me seems like a bulwark against fear.  I think also, compared to so many modern pop songs, there is at least an attempt to deal with something real.  They are like mini-movies, conveying an entire story in a very efficient time limit.  They are a memento mori, delivered with style. Maybe sometime I will be able to get to the heart of the matter, but in the meantime:  Enjoy!

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 Kid’s a Looker

He can’t dance or sing 
He can’t do anything 
But what the hell? 
The kid’s a looker 
Just add cash and stir 
And there you are, 
another nonsense non-star 

There’s no pretense 
This kid is dense 
But what the hell? 
The kid’s a looker 
Just add cash and stir 
And the crass consumers line up 
Shoulder to shoulder 

Sometime 
Through the night 
The kid took his life 
So very sad 
However do not call this number again 
We’re busy molding the face 
Of the kid’s replacement 

I’ve been reading Morrissey’s List of the Lost which has led me diving back into his catalog again.  I’ve been listening to this song, The Kid’s a Looker, a satirical take on the pop star, particularly on the TV variety.  Morrissey was once remarked as saying something about how all of the musical television game shows were training nothing but cruise ship singers.  The version of this song up above was recorded live in the studio.  Due to the fact that it was never released in any official capacity I slightly overlooked it when it came out, but it’s tremendous fun.