Tuesday, 24 January 2017

January #2 - He's Not Bob Dylan, But He Never Misses A Beat

2. Nils Lofgren - I Came To Dance
Well, my manager kept tellin' me
If I wanna be great
I'd better wise up
And sing my songs straight

I said, "Listen here, fool,
In order to survive
I've gotta be my dirty self
I won't play no jive!"
Another Springsteen-connected song today, from the man who replaced Steve Van Zandt in the E Street Band... and then stuck around when Little Stevie came back. This is the title track of an album from 1977 which the critics hated because it was seen at the time as Nils-Goes-Pop. Patti Austin's on backing vocals and the vocal arrangements for the whole album were done by Luther Vandross.

My first exposure to Nils as a solo artist was through his "greatest hits" collection Don't Walk, Rock. I was prbably drawn there by his one "big" hit, Shine Silently - and the fact that he was an E Streeter obviously helped. I loved every track on the collection, but found myself particularly drawn to the tracks from this album (the ones the critics loathed), so much so that it was my next purchase (download only because Nils CDs are hard to come by at a decent price in this country). It's polished guitar pop with a lot of soul and a great feel good record. Nils even seems to be spelling it out to the critics in this song...
I'm not Bob Dylan,
But I never miss a beat.
I ain't no philosopher.
I dance in the street!
As for Bruce... reading his autobiography, he cites Nils' early solo records as a big inspiration for the sound of Born To Run. You don't get bigger accolades than that.

Today's lesson? Never trust the reviewers...

Sunday, 22 January 2017

My Top Ten (Late) Albums of 2016: Number 9

9. Rumer - This Girl's In Love

I know a lot of people (even cool bloggers and muso critics) praise Adele for her undeniably excellent achievements in the field of current chart pop (i.e. not being unlistenable when so many of her peers are). However, whenever anyone starts banging on about what a great voice she has, I always want to shout back: what about Rumer? Truly the most beautiful voice of her generation; it's a voice which echoes back to the golden age of pop (hence the frequent Karen Carpenter comparisons) and is more at home singing classics from that era than on more modern compositions (although occasionally, as on her debut hit Aretha, she somehow manages to do both).

To date, Rumer's greatest achievement was her stunning 2012 collection Boys Don't Cry, featuring reinterpretations of lost classics by the cream of male singer songwriters from the 60s and 70s, including Jimmy Webb, Gilbert O'Sullivan, Clifford T. Ward, Stephen Bishop, Hall & Oates, even Neil Young. Most were as good, if not better than the original recordings. When I heard that her new record returned to that era, but focused on two composers only (the untouchable kings of easy listening: Bacharach & David), I wasn't sure what to think. It seemed almost too obvious: yes, Rumer's voice was made to sing these songs, and the fact that her producer-husband Rob Shirakbari had worked with Bacharach many times seemed like a match made in heaven. I knew the songs would sound great, but I worried I'd miss the variety that Boys Don't Cry offered... that it'd all end up sounding a bit samey.

After a few listens, those fears were put to rest. The selection is impeccable, as is the ordering of the tracks. Rumer switches effortlessly from the obvious classics like the title track, The Look of Love and You'll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart) to less well-known Bacharach & David compositions such as the 5th Dimension's One Less Bell To Answer and Luther Vandross's A House Is Not A Home. Along the way she takes on Dionne, Dusty, and, yes, Karen Carpenter, and gives as good as they deserve. Her cover of (They Long To Be) Close To You is equal to the Carpenters version yet not identical. Rumer's phrasing is different in places, turning the song from a bittersweet love song into something else. She made me hear the lyrics in a slightly different way. When I do my Top Ten Songs For Conceited Oafs, this will now be a strong contender.

If you've ever been a fan of the Bacharach & David songbook, I urge you to seek this one out. It's as sumptuous and perfect as these compositions deserve. It could have been released any time between 1965 and 1975... but it certainly doesn't sound like 2016. That's probably why it appealed to an old fart like me right now. I'm just so sick of the present. I wish I could go back and live in the past...

That said, there's one song in the collection which is as timely now as when Jackie DeShannon recorded it back in 1965. If not more so.

Friday, 20 January 2017

My Top Ten Songs Called America

I imagine quite a lot of people will be heading down into their cellars, bunkers or fall-out shelters today. I'm not sure how good your internet connection is down there, so if this is the last post you read of mine... let's remember, it's not America's fault. Well, not all of them. And we Brits can hardly criticise them, given the extreme idiocy we voted for last year too. Anyway, since I already did My Top Ten Trump Victory Songs, here's ten songs just called America. Sadly that meant that Kids In America, Living In America and Breakfast In America weren't allowed. We must follow the rules while we still can...

10. Killing Joke - America

Never really known for their subtlety, the Jokers...
West is best and might is right
And with our allies - fight the good fight
A first class, five star enterprise
Now everybody's got to compromise
My moral code's on overload
Liberty still takes its toll
Take a look at the losers wasting in the bars
Where they cut their losses!
9. Imagine Dragons - America

I've no idea how I ended up with an Imagine Dragons album in my record collection. I have more of an idea how I ended up with an Imagine Dragons record I've never listened to. (Sad fact: there are many, many songs in my digital record collection that I have never listened to. Many of them, I even paid money for!) I understand Imagine Dragons are quite popular with The Young People (or some of them: The Young People rarely agree on anything like we did when we were The Young People).
From farmers in the fields
To the tallest of the towers that fall and rise
The names upon the list
For all the ones that gave until they died
Don't you hold back
I can see in your mind, and your mind will set you free
8. The Vapors - America

The Vapors are torn between going to America and staying with you.

They could have taken you with them... cheapskates.

7. Razorlight - America

This is a great song. Like the best stuff Razorlight did, it sounds like the Boomtown Rats. If only it was the Boomtown Rats instead of Razorlight.

6. Waylon Jennings - America

Here's one that won't play well with the Trump voters...
And my brothers are all black and white, yellow too
And the red man is right, to expect a little from you
Promise and then follow through, America
Good on you, Waylon.

5. Prince - America
Aristocrats on a mountain climb
Making money, losing time
Communism is just a word
But if the government turn over
It'll be the only word that's heard
Hmm. Seems pretty apt this week...
Boom, boom, boom, boom
The bomb go
Boom, boom, boom, boom
The bomb go boom.
Teacher, why won't Jimmy pledge allegiance? 
4. James - America

The b-side to my second favourite James song (which I'll feature here soon), the lyrics to this are a bit... well, rude. Not rude in the sense of being insulting, but rude in the sense of being X-rated. Or maybe, 12A rated nowadays. They would have been X when I was a kid, but, y'know, kids these days...

I've no idea about what Tim Booth's on about here. Then again, I rarely do. 

3. Neil Diamond - America

OK, first things first: this song from The Jazz Singer soundtrack features one of the greatest intros in the history of recorded music. Put that in your mental microwave and wait for it to ping.

On the surface, this is the most patriotic song on the list... but with it's pro-immigration stance, I doubt it's one Donald will be retweeting any time soon.

2. The Indelicates - America

Ah, The Indelicates: still my favourite new band of the 21st Century, largely on the basis of their debut album from 2008 (though they've done some excellent things since). I've tried explaining their appeal before: in short, it's a combination of Simon's gruff and Julia's angelic vocals, the Steinman-esque bluster, and irony-laced lyrics such as these...
This little England, it's dingy and it's mean
I've flirted with her mewling gods and petty jealousies
These edited-reader rebels with their simulated causes
Their weak-chinned snarls and red guitars, I disregard them all

When they pin me to the wall I'll say:
I'm with America
With godless America, I'll stand and I'll fall
Though it cuts me to my soul that
It must be America
It must be America
Or nothing at all!
1. Simon & Garfunkel - America

I may do a Top Ten Greyhound Bus Songs one day, and this would probably come top in that too. If anyone ever challenges me on Paul Simon's genius as a lyricist, this would be exhibit #1 in the case for the defence. On the surface it's a road trip love song, but as is so often the case, the devil is in the little conversational details...
Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, "be careful - his bowtie is really a camera!"

"Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat"
"We smoked the last one an hour ago"
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

Oh, say, can you see anymore...?

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

January #3 - 2017 Claims Its First Casualty?

The other day I put the cloud on random and up came an old album track by Peter Sarstedt. I enjoyed it so much I thought I'd write a post about it. One quick google search later and I discovered something the news had failed to inform me (and by the news, I guess I mean facebook and the blogosphere, since that's where I get most of my news these days, distrusting many of the conventional media outlets): Peter Sarstedt passed away on January 8th 2017.

Sarstedt is most remembered for his classic 1969 Number One, Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? with its hilariously bohemian lyrics and faux-European accent.
Your name it is heard in high places
You know the Aga Khan
He sent you a racehorse for Chistmas
And you keep it just for fun, for a laugh haha

They say that when you get married
It'll be to a millionaire
But they don't realize where you came from
And I wonder if they really care, or give a damn
I always loved this song, despite or more likely because of it's rather pretentious lyrical wordplay, though it's been much parodied over the years, most notably by Flight of the Conchords on the hilarious Rambling Through The Avenues of Time. Although it was Sarstedt's biggest hit, the follow-up, Frozen Orange Juice also went Top Ten. He released 15 albums in total in a career spanning more than 50 years, and though I only own a couple of his records, I'd say there's much to appreciate beyond the two famous songs. The track that popped up on my cloud, for example, from his 1975 album Tall Tree is definitely worth 3 minutes of your time...
I belong to this society
I'm an employee
No one knows my name
I am called consumer and concern*
I am 23
And I'm an employee
No video on youtube, so here's the link: Peter Sarstedt - Employee.

(I transcribed the lyrics myself as they don't exist online. Not sure about the word "concern"... but I can't make out what else it might be.)

After writing this post, I made the mistake of google-searching PS obits. The first I came across described Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? as the worst pop song ever written. And this is why I write this blog, to fly in the face of fashion, as Julian Cope once sang. To irk the musos. Because musos and critics often refuse to allow humour any place in pop music. They think it should be deathly serious and that anything even remotely fun or funny destroys the art. Well, you know what? I think pop music should be fun. That's not to say it can't tackle serious issues too, but I often go to music as an escape from real world horrors. I go to pop when I want to smile. Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? always puts a smile on my face. Thanks for that, Mr. Sarstedt. Great 'tache too.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

January #4 - Kicking Up Gravel

4. Lucinda Williams - Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

When I do get around to do a Top Ten Songs Featuring Slamming Screen Doors, I'm going to have a hell of a time cutting it down to just ten. No prizes for guessing what the Number One will be, but Bruce gets more than his fair share of attention round these parts so here's Lucinda from the 1998 album which really put her on the map. Curiously, I was reminded of this song recently while reading Bruce's recent autobiography (my thoughts on that will follow at some point, I'm sure). There's something about the tone of Car Wheels that reminds me very much of the way Bruce describes his youth and the relationship with his father...
Can't find a damn thing in this place
Nothing's where I left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road
There goes the screen door slamming shut
You better do what you're told
When I get back this room better be picked-up
Car wheels on a gravel road
I bought this album when it came out in 1998 on the back of glowing reviews. Beyond the title track which hammers its way into your memory through its powerful imagery and the repetition of that one line chorus, it didn't make a whole lot of impact at the time. I sold my copy in one of my great "I'm really skint" music purges and was horrified to discover a few years later I hadn't even burned a copy to my pc. So I had to go out and buy it all over again... at which point, I think I was properly ready for the riches it holds. Story of my life though: many of my favourites songs / artists / records are ones that I was initially ambivalent to... some of them I even outright hated. Actually, I think that may well lead to another Top Ten. But doesn't everything?

Sunday, 15 January 2017

January #5 - Joy (x4) To The World

5. The Housemartins - Joy Joy Joy Joy

So, here comes the second in a new feature I'll call "Songs My 3 Year Old Son Can Sing". I've been listening to this old Housemartins b-side a couple of times in the car last week. Imagine my surprise when, after putting Sam to bed on Friday night, we heard him singing over the baby monitor...
I know the devil doesn't like it 
But it's down in my heart 
Down in my heart
Down in my heart!
Joy Joy Joy (Joy) - the fourth Joy was left off the track listing, poor thing - was one of a few a cappella gospel covers the Housemartins recorded back in the day. It was originally released on the Think For A Minute EP, but more recently reissued on the deluxe edition of their debut album London 0 Hull 4. There's another cracking (yet VERY different) track from that EP I may well feature here soon...

It's hard to think of any other "indie" band - then, or now - who would or could record such a thing, but that's what made the Housemartins so unique. And great singers all: listen to those harmonies!

Surely you can spare one minute and forty three seconds to let a little Joy into your heart?

Don't Paul, Stan, Norman and Dave look so young in that photo? Remember when we were all that young?

Oops, sorry. this post was supposed to bring you Joy...

Friday, 13 January 2017

My Top Ten Inspirational Songs (Volume 1)

In my continued effort to begin 2017 with a little positivity, here's ten of the most inspirational songs I could think of off the top of my head. The usual in-depth planning, research and deep thought (ha!) didn't go into this one. I just closed my eyes and used the Force...

It is, however, one of those lists where every track could have been a Number One. At times like these, ranking becomes arbitrarily impossible.

10. Billy Idol - Rebel Yell

A shot of pure 80s adrenaline to get us going. Billy may have been considered a cartoon punk by the purists... but I always loved cartoons.

9. Barry Manilow - I Made It Through The Rain

And if I didn't drive the musos screaming from town with Billy, I can only try a pitchfork of Barry.

This is a song which has followed me around all my life and often sprung, uninvited, into my head when times got tough. I don't know who programmes the radio station in my mind, but good on them.
When friends are hard to find
And life seems so unkind
Sometimes you feel so afraid

Just aim beyond the clouds
And rise above the crowds
And start your own parade

'Cause when I chased my fears away
That's when I knew that I could finally say

I made it through the rain...
If you don't feel the teeniest bit better after that: I can't help you.

8. Eminem - Lose Yourself

Interestingly, after compiling this list, I put "Inspirational Songs" into google and the first link was to another Top Ten which had this at Number One. The rest of the list was pretty dire though. R. Kelly was in there.

I don't automatically think of Eminem as an inspirational figure. He can take the piss pretty well and throw tantrums like a petulant 3 year old, but inspire? Yet this is the theme song to his oddly inspirational and amazingly un-egotistical fictionalised biopic, 8 Mile. It's kind of like Gonna Fly Now (the Rocky theme, but you knew that) for the hip hop generation.

7. Gene - We Could Be Kings

I'll save "We could be heroes" for another volume. It was too obvious. (Plus, I thought of this one first.) Come on, Martin, it's time for that second solo album, surely?
Believe me
It's time to tell my friends I love them
They deserve more
Than hasty delivered words of kindness
I'm sure you know that
We could be kings
This planet is ours
With luck on our side
The keys to my car
We'll storm through the city
Let's drive
Did I hear you cry?
6. Billy Bragg- Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards

My favourite T-shirt is a Billy Bragg T-shirt. I've had it years but I still wear it a lot because it's so comforting: physically and mentally. On the front, it reads simply:
The revolution is just a T-shirt away
You have to know this song well to understand that.

5. The Beautiful South - Good As Gold

On the surface, this starts out as quite a cynical, downbeat song about fighting against the tide and never getting anywhere. But its "don't give up" message soon sweeps in, making it a genuine underdog anthem. I'm not sure if Paul Heaton meant it that way; I'm never really sure how serious he is about such things. Live, this was always the highlight of a Beautiful South set which brought the band and the audience together in a big euphoric hug.

And who wouldn't want a sun-drenched, wind-swept Ingrid Bergman kiss?

4. Elbow - One Day Like This

Guy Garvey's lyrics nail it every time for me, finding beauty in the everyday and shunning cliché in favour of everyday expressions and finely tuned imagery. Random examples just from this song...
When my face is chamois-creased

Laugh politely at repeats

Cause holy cow, I love your eyes
One Day Like This is about waking up with a hangover and realising maybe you said too much to that certain person the night before... with a better result than you could ever have expected.
One day like this would see me right...
3. The Smiths - Ask

Whenever I see The Smiths dismissed as miserablists, I have to Ask the following...

What about all those generations of teenagers and 20-somethings who have been inspired and - let's face it - saved by their songs?

Can't you see that what they were really saying was: there's a hell of a lot of darkness in the world... sometimes, we have to embrace that to reach happiness?

What about the profound romanticism and HOPE conveyed by many of their most famous tunes?

Have you ever even heard Ask?
Shyness is nice
And shyness can stop you
From doing all the things in life you'd like to
I think the above three lines sum up many of my greatest regrets. (You could substitute "lack of confidence" for shyness or coyness, but it wouldn't scan as well.)

Remember: if it's not love, then it's the bomb that will bring us together.

2. James - Tomorrow

There were a number of James songs in contention for this post. There'll definitely be another one in Volume 2. James had some pretty big hits in their day. I can never understand why this wasn't their biggest. It certainly helped me through a few rough nights...
Now your grip's too strong
You can't catch love with a net or a gun
Gotta keep faith that your path will change
Gotta keep faith that your luck will change

1. Ian McNabb - You Must Be Prepared To Dream

Like I said, these songs were impossible to rank, but I put this one at Number One because it's by far the least well known... and yet it was the first I thought of. It's also the one with the most traditionally inspirational lyrics. In fact, many of the lines sound like they come from those naff posters they put up in offices and educational institutions which are supposed to drive you towards greatness (or greater productivity) but often just lead to derision and demotivation. In the hands of Ian McNabb (and Crazy Horse, on loan from Mr. Young), these trite platitudes become transcendent.

We must all be prepared to dream...

What's the most inspirational song you know? Suggestions for Volume 2 will be greatly appreciated...
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