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The Originals Vol. 43

August 11th, 2011 3 comments

In this instalment we look at the lesser known originals for five hits from the 1970s. Regular readers with exceptionally good memories might have a déjà vu movement: two of the songs I”ve done before. But I was not satisfied with one, and recently was sent by a kind soul a crucial sound file for the other.

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Johnny Bristol ““ Love Me For A Reason (1974).mp3
The Osmonds ““ Love Me For A Reason (1974).mp3

Johnny Bristol is probably best-remembered for his excellent mid-“70s soul hit Hang On In There Baby. We have encountered him previously in this series, in The Originals Vol. 37, as one of Johnny & Jackie who co-wrote and recorded the first version of Diana Ross and The Supremes” Someday We”ll Be Together.

A producer of many Motown records and after 1973 for CBS (where he produced such acts as Randy Crawford, Boz Scaggs and Marlena Shaw), he resumed his recording career in 1974. Among the tracks on his rather good Hang On In There, Baby album was Love Me For A Reason, a song Bristol co-wrote with David Jones and Wade Bowen.

Bristol recorded on MGM records where the prolific producer and arranger Mike Curb ran he show. Curb was, it is fair to say, a man of uncompromising conservative opinion. He later became a Republican politician, but while at MGM, he fired a reported 18 acts from the label for using or supposedly promoting drugs. Among them were Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground.

One act in no danger of Curb”s axe was The Osmonds, the squeaky clean and impossibly toothy Mormon brothers who had produced a string of hits for MGM. Their version of Johnny Bristol”s hit became a US #10 pop hit in 1974 ““ their last. In Britain it topped the charts (and they”d have another top 5 hit there in 1975), inspiring a hugely successful cover version 20 years later by Boyzone, the Ronan Keating-led band that traded in unwelcome remakes of old hits.

Also recorded by: The Hiltonaires (1974), Boyzone (1994), Studio 99 (1999), As We Speak (1994), State Of The Heart (1996), Bruno Bertone (2000), Fabulous 5 (2003)

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Gene Cotton – Let Your Flow (1975)
Bellamy Brothers – Let Your Flow (1976)

It might have been a hit for Neil Diamond. Written by one of the lamé-jacketed star”s roadies, Larry E Williams, it was offered first to Diamond. He declined to record it (as did Johnny Rivers), which perhaps was just as well. Instead the song came to country/folk singer-songwriter Gene Cotton, who recorded it for his 1975 album For All The Young Writers.

While Cotton”s version went nowhere, Neil Diamond”s drummer suggested it to his friends David and Howard Bellamy, the country duo The Bellamy Brothers. Their recording became one of the biggest hits of the decade and gave the brothers” their international breakthrough hit. In West Germany Let Your Love Flow topped the charts in summer 1976 for six weeks until it was knocked off by its German version by Jürgen Drews, formerly of the Les Humphries Singers, which went by the peculiar title Ein Bett im Kornfeld (A bed in the wheat field).

Also recorded by: Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn (1976), Jürgen Drews (as Ein Bett im Kornfeld, 1976), Roy Etzel (1976), Les Humphries Singers And Orchestra (1976), Lynn Anderson (1977), Del Reeves & Billie Jo Spears (1977), Karel Gott (as Běž za svou láskou, 1978),Joan Baez (1979), John Holt (1982), Ray Charles (1983), Audrey Landers (1986), Solomon Burke (1993), Tom Jones (1998), John Davidson (1999), Dana Winner (2001), Jan Keizer (2001), Tamra Rosanes (2002), Dream Dance, Inc. (2005), Collin Raye (2005), Fenders (2006) a.o.

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Art Reynolds Singers – Jesus Is Just Alright (1966)
The Byrds ““ Jesus Is Just All Right (1969)
The Doobie Brothers – Jesus Is Just All Right (1972)

In the 1970s there was a fashion of rock groups singing songs about Jesus. Perhaps it was a fashion inspired by the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. Or maybe some really were just into Jesus. So the Doobie Brothers, a band named after a synonym for a joint, had a hit with Jesus Is Just All Right in 1972.

The original of the song was recorded by the Art Reynolds Singers in 1966. It was written by the band”s leader, Arthur Reid Reynolds, apparently as a riposte to John Lennon”s “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus” comment. Present at that recording session was Gene Parsons, the drummer of The Byrds, who introduced the song to his bandmates who in turn recorded it for their 1969 LP Ballad Of Easy Rider.

The Byrds” version provided the template for the Doobie Brothers 1972 cover. The Doobies added a middle section to the original, with new, even more emphatically Christ-supporting lyric, sung by guitarist Pat Simmons: “Jesus, He”s my friend; Jesus, He”s my friend; He took me by the hand, far from this land; Jesus, He”s my friend.” Oddly enough, none of the Doobies were known to be Christians, but the Christians loved it, throwing Bibles on to the stage at Doobie Brothers gigs and making the One Way (up) handsigns.

Also recorded by: The Underground Sunshine (1970), 1776 (1970), Sister Kate Taylor (1971), Ronnie Dyson (1972), Exile (1973), DC Talk (1992), Shelagh McDonald (2005), Robert Randolph & The Family Band feat Eric Clapton (2006), Eric McFadden (2010)

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Jim Weatherly ““ Midnight Plain To Houston (1972)
Cissy Houston  ““ Midnight Train To Georgia (1973)
Gladys Knight & the Pips ““ Midnight Train To Georgia (1973)
Neil Diamond – Midnight Train To Georgia (2010)

In 1972 former All-American quarterback Jim Weatherly released a country song that told of a girl whose fading dream of stardom in Los Angeles led not to a life of waitressing or pornography, but ended on a plane back to her home in Texas. In fact, Weatherley initially wanted his protagonist”s dreams shattered in Nashville, for his genre was country music.

The choice of Houston as the failed star”s home was inspired, according to Weatherley, by the actress Farrah Fawcett, who at the time was more famous for dating Lee Majors than her thespian accomplishments. “One day I called Lee and Farrah answered the phone,” Weatherly later told songfacts.com. “We were just talking and she said she was packing. She was gonna take the midnight plane to Houston to visit her folks. So, it just stayed with me. After I got off the phone, I sat down and wrote the song probably in about 30 to 45 minutes.”

Some months later, the Janus label sought permission to record the song with Cissy Houston, but asked whether they could adapt the lyrics to make the destination Georgia (seeing as Ms Houston going to Houston might seem a bit awkward). Weatherly accepted that, as well as a change in the mode of transport.

Whitney”s mom’s lovely performance became a minor hit in 1973. Gladys Knight heard it and decided to record it with her Pips. Houston”s endearing version might have been the template, but Knights” cover demonstrates the genius of the sometimes unjustly ridiculed Pips. What would Gladys Knight”s interpretation be without the interplay with and interjections by her backing singers: “A superstar, well he didn”t get far”, “I know you will”, “Gotta go, gonna board the midnight train”¦” and, of course, the choo-choo “Hoo hoo”s?

It was fortuitous that Georgia was also Knight”s homestate. The song also sparked a collaboration with Weatherley with whose songs Knight populated the Imagination album on which Midnight Train appears.

Also recorded by: Ferrante & Teicher (1974), Connie Eaton (1974), Lynn Anderson (1982), Indigo Girls (1995), Sandra Bernhard (1998), Renee Geyer (2003), Jasmine Trias (2004), Paris Bennett (2006), Human Nature (2006), Joan Osborne (2007), Emma Wood (2009), Neil Diamond (2010), Sandrine (2010) a.o.

Larry Weiss ““ Rhinestone Cowboy (1974)
Glen Campbell ““ Rhinestone Cowboy (1975)

Larry Weiss was, and still is, a prolific songwriter (we read about him recently as one of the singers of the theme of Who’s The Boss). In the 1960s, he co-wrote hits such as Bend Me Shape Me, Hi Ho Silver Lining and Spooky Tooth”s Evil Woman. Sporadically he also recorded his own songs. One of these was Rhinestone Cowboy, inspired by a phrase he had overheard in a conversation. The song appeared on Weiss” Black And Blue Suite album, and it was released as a single (at least in West Germany).

The story goes that Glen Campbell heard the song on the car radio as he was on his way to a meeting with his record company, and thought about suggesting to record it. But before he had the opportunity to do so, the record company presented their own bright idea: how about this Rhinestone Cowboy song by Larry Weiss.

In the original version, Weiss sounds much like his old Brill Building chum Neil Diamond. Campbell made the song his own, with that soaring voice which expresses such a forfeit of hope. Released in May 1975, it went on to top the pop and country charts simultaneously, the first time that had been done since 1961.

In 1984, Weiss finally got a project he had been working on realised ““ a movie starring Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone. Its title: Rhinestone.

Also recorded by: Slim Whitman (1976), Bert Kaempfert (1976), Charley Pride (1977), Tony Christie (1978), White Town (1997), David Hasselhoff (2004), Jan Keizer (2004) a.o.

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More Originals

Albums of the Year: 2005

November 23rd, 2009 6 comments

It was a great year for fine albums, though only one merits to be remembered as a stone cold classic. I”m sorry to omit a number of very good efforts released in 2005, such as those by Brandi Carlile, Iron & Wine, Damien Jurado, Death Cab for Cutie, Maria Taylor, Andrew Bird, Emilíana Torrini, John Frusciante, Colin Hay, Kathleen Edwards, Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators, Kevin Devine, Eels, The Cardigans, John Prine, Kate Earl, Richard Thompson, Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Blue Eyed Son, Sarah Bettens, Antony & the Johnsons, Beck, Tristan Prettyman, The Magic Numbers, Hot Hot Heat, Charlie Sexton “¦

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Bright Eyes – I”m Wide Awake, It”s Morning

On the same day as Conor Oberst and chums released their best album “” and one of the decades finest “” they also released what I think is their worst, Digital Ash In A Digital Turn. It was wise that they did not take the option of releasing these two entirely distinct albums “” one alt.country, the other electronica “” as a double album. I”m Wide Awake, which features Emmylou Harris on a couple of tracks, has Oberst in a restrained, though not necessarily tamed, form. The indisciplined excesses from previous albums have been ironed out, but not at the expense of that most essential Oberst quality: the feverish intensity. It certainly is the most consistent Bright Eyes album. Every song here is beautiful, especially First Day Of My Life and We Are Nowhere And It”s Now, on the latter of which Emmylou harmonises.

Lyrically, Oberst is in fine form: tender, resigned, confused, hopeful, angry. When he sings on At The Bottom Of Everything about capital punishment, he rightly hectors: “Into the face of every criminal strapped firmly to a chair, we must stare, we must stare, we must stare.” And on Old Soul Song, about an anti-war protest in New York, has some beautifully poetic lines: “We left before the dust had time to settle, and all the broken glass swept off the avenue. And on the way home held your camera like a bible, just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth.”
Bright Eyes – Old Soul Song (For The New World Order).mp3
Bright Eyes – We Are Nowhere And It”s Now.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Coles Corner

From the moment the melancholy strings strike up on the album”s opener, the gorgeous title track (featured HERE), this album captivates the listener. A more even effort than 2003″s Lowedges, Hawley tries to capture a mood of 1950s balladeering, drawing from country, pop and rockabilly with a healthy dose of torchsong crooning. One can almost imagine Hotel Room being reworked as a doo wop song. The orchestration is lush, scoring Hawley”s warm baritone beautifully. Besides the title track and the countryish Just Like The Rain, the standout track here is The Ocean (not the most encouraging title, it must be said) which starts off quietly and slowly builds up to a dramatic crescendo. I”d gladly call Coles Corner Hawley”s masterpiece, but he has topped it with this year”s Truelove”s Gutter.
Richard Hawley – The Ocean.mp3

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Jens Lekman – Oh You”re So Silent, Jens

Jens Lekman featured with his debut album in the 2004 list; here he returns with a compilation of single and EP tracks “” and Lekman has an extravagant catalogue of EPs, some of which he made available on his site for free downloading a while back. So it is suitable, and doubtless intentional, that the opening track would be called At the Dept. of Forgotten Songs. Lyrically and musically it”s all very quirky, but nowhere as much so as A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill, a song that is at once funny and wistful (and which gets the release date of Warren G”s Regulate wrong and fails to credit Nate Dogg), recorded with probably not entirely sober pals who improvise the backing vocals and at the end shout out requests (the woman who requests Black Cab gets her wish on the album). Lekman channels Morrissey and The Byrds on I Saw Her At The Anti-War Demonstration, muses on the use of the F-Word, and forges the punchline to childhood jokes. In a sequence of three songs, Lekman assumes the alter ego Rocky Dennis (the name of the facially deformed character played by Eric Stoltz in the “80s film Mask), whom he finally bids farewell at the end of the trilogy. It”s a thoroughly likeable collection of songs.
Jens Lekman – I Saw Her At The Anti-War Demonstration.mp3

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Wilco – Kicking Television – Live in Chicago

I”m ambivalent about live albums. Much of the time they are a letdown: the songs don”t sound as good as they did on the studio album, the live atmosphere is not captured and so on. Some live albums work because the artist”s stage presence or audience vibe translates to record. And some live albums work because the performer adds something new to the songs. Kicking Television satisfies at least the latter requirement (I”d argue that the vibe is there, too). Take Misunderstood. A weedy, proto-emo number on 1996″s Being There, here it”s a dramatic monster “” I”m among those who love the repeated “Nothing”s. There”s humour as well. Following the mid-tempo Wishful Thinking, Tweedy announces, laughingly: “Let”s get this party started…with some mid-tempo rock”. True to his word, the band eases into the mid-tempo Jesus etc. With the great Nels Cline in the line-up and Tweedy having polished his guitar work, there”s much to be had by way of axemanship, most notably on At Least That”s What You Said.
Wilco ““ Misunderstood.mp3

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Hello Saferide – Introducing…Hello Saferide

Like fellow Swede Jens Lekman, who gets a namecheck in the wonderful The Quiz on Hello Saferide”s 2006 EP, Annika Norlin (for she is Hello Saferide) benefits from a quirky sense of humour, an attractive Swedish accent and the fact that English is not her first language. The latter is not a handicap as she manoeuvres her way around conventions to create novel lyrical ideas that are often cute but never twee. Norlin”s mind is fascinating: expressing her affection for a friend, she wishes they were lesbians; she wishes her boyfriend illness so that she can take care of her “teddy bear on heroin”; getting in touch again with an old pen pal, she admits to having told lies; as a high school stalker in the very funny song of the same name she breaks into the dentist”s office so that the object of her desire won”t need braces and then has coffee with his mother. The upbeat tunes are catchy, and the slow numbers are saved by almost invariably great lyrics and Norlin”s lovely, vulnerable voice.
Hello Saferide – Highschool Stalker.mp3
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Neil Diamond – 12 Songs

God bless Rick Rubin. Having re-established Johnny Cash as relevant artist, he resurrected Neil Diamond, redeeming him from the lame-jacketed crooner reputation. The title 12 Songs became a misnomer with the belated introduction of two bonus tracks (a rip-off, surely it”s the initial purchasers of an album who deserve a bonus), one an alternative, upbeat version of Delirious Love, a song featuring Brian Wilson that appears in more muted form among the original dozen tracks.. That song is the closest Diamond comes to his late “60s pomp, the bonus track”s arrangement in particular. Most of the album is reflective, pensive and acoustic. It is beautiful. And it”s tempting to give Rubin all the credit. That would be unfair to Diamond, who wrote the songs and for whom the acoustic arrangement is not foreign, as fans of his “60s albums will know. More than equipping Diamond with a new sound, Rubin harnessed the man”s strength and, perhaps more importantly, by association made him, like Cash, relevant again.
Neil Diamond – Save Me A Saturday Night.mp3

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Common – Be

I can think of very few albums on which the three closing tracks may be the set”s best. Ziggy Stardust comes to mind as a contender (though its best song, Starman, is on Side 1). This is certainly the case here. Modern hip hop, especially the leering misogyny and swaggering materialism expressed by dentally adventurous people in whose company I would not want to spend a minute, leaves me largely cold. Kanye West”s album of the same year had its moments, but I never feel prompted to play it. West did, however, produce most of Common”s album, which is good, and appears on many of the tracks, which is not so good when he makes those idiotic high-pitched noises. This certainly is not a hip hop album that”s representative of the contemporary genre. As much of Common”s work, it is thoughtful and socially conscious. It draws as much from Public Enemy as it does from the great era of politically aware black music, the early to mid-1970s. There is more than a hint of Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron on Be, and the Last Poets even appear on the album, as does John Legend, one of the few current non-nasal R&B crooners whose music is rooted in the “70s soul scene (slightly unexpectedly, John Mayer also pops up). Common, in short, is the Marvin Gaye of hip hop.
Common – It”s Your World (Part 1 & 2).mp3

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Josh Rouse ““ Nashville

On his fifth album, the Nebraskan Rouse said goodbye to his temporary domicile of Nashville before moving to Spain. Where his previous album, 1972, sought to capture the vibe of the year of the title, on Nashville Rouse revisits 1980s indie pop through a country lense. It”s cheerful, catchy stuff for a warm summer”s evening (even if one track is called Winter In The Hamptons), admirably coming in at under 40 minutes, like LPs used to. The lyrics aren”t very memorable here; some are decidedly pedestrian. The album”s most powerful song, Sad Eyes, is also its least jovial. It starts slowly as Rouse observes a woman”s melancholy and builds up to a, erm, rousing climax as he offers encouragement. Alas, it”s followed by the set”s one clunker, the rocker Why Won’t You Tell Me What.
Josh Rouse ““ Sad Eyes.mp3

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Ben Folds – Songs For Silverman

Ah, the album the hardcore Foldsians love to hate. Granted, there”s some forgettable guff on here. Much as I love Ben Folds, I would not be able to tell you a thing about Time or Sentimental Guy. And, as I”m getting all my irritations with Silverman off the chest, the tribute to Elliott Smith, Late, has some really poor lyrics. But then there is the vintage Folds stuff. Bastard, ostensibly about young Republicans in old clothes, packs a decent groove. Give Judy My Notice has a great West Coast rock vibe. You To Thank has a superb piano break, and the break-up songs, Trusted (“She”s gonna be pissed when she wakes up for terrible things I did to her in her dreams”) and Landed (“Down comes the reign of the telephone czar”), are among the best work Folds has done, musically and lyrically. And having just listened to Time and Sentimental Guy for the purpose of this project, well, they are not bad songs.
Ben Folds ““ You To Thank.mp3

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Rosie Thomas ““ If These Songs Could Be Held

The title If These Songs Could Be Held seems apt; there is fragility in Rosie Thomas” songs, emphasised by her beautiful, sad voice. You want to hold her and the songs. Her family and friends help out again, with Ed Harcourt duetting on the unpretentious cover of Let It Be Me (featured in The Originals Vol. 24). The arrangements are more complex than a casual listen would suggest. Hear the almost martial bass drum in the opener Since You”ve Been Gone. The lyrics range from perceptive introspection to sophomore poetry, but expressed through the medium of Rosie”s gorgeous voice, even the more inopportune words are entirely forgivable.
Rosie Thomas ““ If These Songs Could Be Held.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Top 20 albums of 2008

December 12th, 2008 8 comments

Everybody’s doing it, so I might as well dabble in the conceit that anybody is really interested to know which releases of the year I liked best. I don’t think it has been a vintage year for music, or perhaps I have not paid much attention. I’ve also found myself falling off Planet Indie, so the “singer-songwriters” boss the list. I’ve put sample tracks into one file, in case somebody is interested. The featured titles appear below my brief comments. Full tracklisting in the Comments section. Read more…

On current rotation – June

June 24th, 2008 1 comment

I’m not sure if 2008 is turning out to be a good year for music or not. A year ago, new releases by Wilco, Rosie Thomas, Bright Eyes and Brandi Carlile had me very excited. Sky Blue Sky turned out to be my album of the year, and I will be listening to it for many years to come. I’m not sure I’ve yet discovered my album of 2008, even though there are some albums I really like. But, none as much as Wilco’s last year. Here are tracks from some of 2008’s albums I’m enjoying very much, to go with the previous rotation, which featured Tift Merrit, whose effort may well be my album of the year so far, with Kathleen Edwards and the Weepies in the mix.

Jay Brennan – At First Sight.mp3
Jay Brennan – Half-Boyfriend.mp3
Jay Brennan – Housewife.mp3 (all three direct download links)
To start off, three tracks from an exciting new artist in the genre of “guys with guitars named like schoolteachers”. The alternative title for the genre would be singer-songwriter, but that has become a bit of a dirty word (unjustly so). I am sharing the above tracks at the invitation of Jay Brannan’s record company, where he is stablemates with the absolutely wonderful Rosie Thomas. And Brannan does channel the Thomas/Damien Jurado/Sufjan Stevens vibe, right down to the engaging lyrics which ask you to pay attention (just listen to Housewife ““ video here). His debut album, goddamned, will be released on July 1. I’m looking forward to hear more of Brannan’s songs; on evidence of these three songs, it could well be contender for my year-end list.

The Weepies – All Good Things.mp3
The Weepies – Can’t Go Back Now.mp3
I have bigged up the Weepies since I started this blog. The new album, Hideaway, came out in April, and has been on regular rotation ever since I got hold of it. It’s one of those albums I play when I survey my music, and have no idea what I fancy; the default go-to album de jour. The Weepies ““ Deb Talan and Steve Tannen ““ have produced a richer sound than previously without straying too far from their acoustic roots. This is a very warm album; I sort of imagine it like having good coffee and freshly baked waffles on a sunny Saturday morning.

Kathleen Edwards – I Make The Dough, You Get The Glory.mp3
I featured Kathleen Edwards (and Deb Talan) in the Songbirds series. So I was really looking forward to her new album, Asking For Flowers. At the first listen, I was a little disappointed. Second, third listen…same. I was about to write off the album when Indie Pop Ian virtually instructed me to give it a few more chances. Seeing as he is a man of refined taste who shares my love for the Songbirds, I did. And, boy, was he right, and I wrong. This is a mesmerising album with fantastic lyrics and a great alt.country bent. Forgive me, Kathleen, for doubting you. Come December, this may well be in the top 3 of my albums of the year.

Weezer – Heart Songs.mp3
Some say Weezer are living off the greatness of two albums they made in the ’90s. I think that’s a little harsh. The last set was, in my view, pretty good (Perfect Situation is a top notch song). So I approached the new album with hope, and some trepidation. Because Weezer albums can be quite poor, too. The new album, nicknamed the Red Album, falls in between the two extremes. There are a few tracks that beg to be skipped, and others that are a joy. I particularly like Heart Songs, in which Rivers Cuomo tabulates all the artists who influenced him, from childhood to stardom: Gordon Lightfoot, Eddie Rabbitt, Springsteen, Grover Washington, Abba, Devo, Quiet Riot, Judas Priest and so on ““ though I think he might be confusing Debbie Gibson with Tiffany…

Death Cab For Cutie – Talking Bird.mp3
And yet another album I had been looking forward to. I was gratified to read The Quietus giving it a positive review (more surprisingly, The Quietus didn’t rip the new Coldplay album to shreds, as I had expected and, indeed, hoped). Death Cabs’ Narrow Stairs is a fine, richly textured album which rewards repeated listens. It satisfies my occasional desire for a Death Cab fix ““ for now. The rub is this: Narrow Stairs does not have the stand-out tracks of 2005’s Plans (I’ll Follow You Into The Dark, Soul Meets Body), and as an Indie symphony does not quite reach 2002’s Transatlanticism‘s lofty level. So I wonder if in, say, three years time, I will listen to Narrow Stairs instead of these two albums (or, indeed, some of the earlier ones, such as We Have the Facts And We’re Voting Yes from 2000). Maybe it’s too early to say: I will continue to play Narrow Stairs in the hope that it will lodge itself permanently in my head. It just might.

Neil Diamond – Act Like A Man.mp3
Micah P. Hinson – Throw The Stone.mp3
I played this album with Any Minor Dude sitting next to me (playing a football manager game). He looked up from guiding Manchester United to greater glories and pointed out that he liked what he was hearing: Micah P. Hinson and the Red Empire Orchestra (Any Minor Dude also endorsed Jay Brannan, by the way). Sounds like Johnny Cash, he said. And he is quite right, of course. In fact, throw in Nick Cave and Steve Earle, and you have Hinson’s sound. The album is coming out in mid-July, so I trust that the buzz is going to build. This album deserves it.

Perfect Pop – Vol. 6 ('60s special)

April 28th, 2008 6 comments

Looking over my shortlist for the Perfect Pop series, I realised that the ’60s column was much longer than that of other decades. I guess that pop might have been more perfect in the 1960s than in other decades because it had developed from the raw sounds of early rock & roll, but had not yet acquired that body of experience with which to complicate pop through technical innovation. That’s why Sgt Pepper’s, with all its inventive experimentations, was seen as such a revolutionary milestone in 1967: nobody had heard anything like it before. Today it sounds rather ordinary. Of course, it’s all good to have complex pop, but for the purpose of this series, complexity tends to be an obstacle to pop perfection (though not all songs featured are lacking in innovation or technical complexity). So to even out the shortlist, here is the first of two special 1960s editions of Perfect Pop.

The Animals – The House Of The Rising Sun.mp3
This song has one of the must recognisable intros in pop history, and from there on barely lets up on its brilliance. Apart from Hilton Valentine’s iconic guitar, Alan Price drives his organ like a Ferrari through the desert, and Eric Burdon moans and groans in best white blues-singer fashion, thereby helping to set a trend which would bring mixed blessings to popular music. Amazingly, the whole thing took just 15 minutes to record. The House Of The Rising Sun (which was a new Orleans brothel) was an old song going back at least to the 1920s, possibly much earlier. Based on an English folk-song, it had become an African-American folk song and was later recorded by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Nina Simone and Bob Dylan (on his debut) before the Animals virtually appropriated it in 1964, changing the lyrics slightly.
Best bit: Price’s organ solo really kicks in (1:54)

Johnny Kidd & the Pirates – Shakin’ All Over.mp3
Listen to this as part of a non-chronological ’60s compilations, and you might not realise that this song was released in 1960. In sound and look, Johnny Kidd and his timber-shivering pals were prophetic, helping to provide the template for “60s pop at the birth of the decade in which rock & roll and pop, all still very young, defined themselves. This is the sound on which the Searchers, the Dave Clark Five, even the Beatles, would build. It is quite likely that Johnny Kidd would have faded into obscurity. In the event, we do not know, because Johnny died in a 1966 car crash, two years after the Swinging Blue Jeans scored a hit with it in Britain, and a year after the Guess Who did likewise in the US — and two years after his last Top 40 hit in Britain. Shakin’ All Over later became something of a signature rune for the Who.
Best bit: The drum flourish preceding the guitar solo (1:21)

Amen Corner – (If Paradise Was) Half As Nice.mp3
If in paradise they play music only half as nice as this, I’d be more or less okay, I think. I first heard this song covered by a ’70s group called the Rosetta Stone, led by former Bay City Rollers member Ian Mitchell (whose stint was turbulent and brief) and an enthusiastic exponents of ’60s covers. I loved their version, but have no idea whether it was any good when held up against the Amen Corner’s version, which itself was a cover of an Italian song written by Lucio Battisti for popstress Patty Pravo. The arrangement of the Welsh group’s rendition is just lovely though (if you can handle your music with more than one spoonful of sugar, I suppose). Especially the horn (French? Flugel?).
Best bit: “Oh yes I’d rather have you” (1:26)

Robert Knight – Love On A Mountain Top.mp3
Some readers might raise two pertinent questions about the inclusion of Love On A Mountain in a ’60s special of Perfect Pop; neither should relate to the indisputable perfection of this fine tune. Firstly, why didn’t I choose Knight’s original of Everlasting Love? Secondly, what is a hit from 1973/74 doing here? I would have chosen Knight’s Everlasting Love (and I won’t feature the unsatisfactory cover by the Love Affair), but my MP3 of the song is damaged. Yes, my selections hang on such arbitrary threads. In fact, I like Love On A Mountain Top better; it is such a happy, sunshiney song. The song was a hit in Britain and Europe in the mid-’70s, but its first single release was in 1968.
Best bit: The instrumental break (1:29)

Neil Diamond – Sweet Caroline.mp3*
Another ’60s release which found UK chart success in the ’70s. Sweet Caroline was released in the US in September 1969. According to Neil Diamond, it was inspired by a photo of Caroline Kennedy, who was 11 at the time. Which strikes me as slightly creepy. Nonetheless, it is a great ytackby a great songwriter. The distinctive intro and verse are pretty good, but it is the build-up to the roaring, rousing chorus which really elevates this song. One cannot help but sing along to it, which is a sign of its pop perfection.
Best bit: Neil’s hard Ts when he sings:” “Warm touching warm, reaching out, touching me, touching you” (1:56)

Betty Everett – The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss).mp3
Everything that was sweet and engaging in Everett’s version became horrible and cynical in Cher’s awful and tragically now better known cover from that abominable Mermaids movie. Cher’s cover (and Cher in general) pissed me off so much, I cannot even bring myself to include Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe in this series, even though it probably is a perfect pop record. Betty’s 1963 version, in the vein of the girl groups so popular at the time (Chiffons, Shirelles, Ronettes et al), became a hit in the US in 1964. It flopped in Britain, where Cher’s cover topped the charts almost three decades later. Conversely, in the US, Cher’s version was only a minor hit.
Best bit: The instrumental bridge (1:17)

The Kinks – You Really Got Me.mp3
Those who think that punk in the late ’70s offered anything original musically, or indeed culturally, might like to revisit some of the sneering, middle-finger raising acts of the ’60s. As Paul Weller, who hooked his mod ways on the punk star, surely knew, the Kinks were a lot more punk than the Sex Pistols. Don’t misunderstand, I love Never Mind The Bollocks as much as any amateur anarchist, but the Sex Pistols really were just as manufactured an act as were the Spice Girls. On You Really Got Me, Ray Davies sneers as much as Johnny Rotten ever did. The distorted rhythm guitar (an effect produced by slicing the amp) is pure punk. Contrary to persistent rumour, Jimmy Page definitely did not play on Your Really Got Me, but a random session musician by the name of Jon Lord, later of Deep Purple, tinkled the ivories.
Best bit: Ray shouts in Dave’s guitar solo (1:17)

Tom Jones – It’s Not Unusual.mp3
I don’t like Tom Jones much, and that Sex Bomb song was a disgrace to all that is good about music. But, my goodness, It’s Not Unusual is just perfect. Even Jones’ vocals. Especially Jones’ vocals. I submit that the ad libbing in the fade out represents one of the great yodels in pop music. Ever. I have heard that on this song, Jimmy Page does play the guitar, coming in at 1:19. Regular viewers of The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air (well, somebody must have watched it!) will recall that It’s Not Unusual was Carlton’s favourite dance number.
Best bit: “…to find that I’m in love with you, wow-oh-wow etc” (1:44)

Beach Boys – Wouldn’t It Be Nice.mp3
Selecting a Beach Boys song for this series was problematic. While I see why, say, Surfin’ USA or Help Me Rhonda might be more qualified choices, I don’t like them much. It’s the Mike Love factor. Wouldn’t It Be Nice, like Good Vibration and God Only Knows (both considered), has those innovative Brian Wilson touches which ought to have elevated Pet Sounds in reputation above Revolver or Sgt Pepper’s. Wouldn’t It Be Nice is sung by Brian Wilson, with the hateful Love performing vocal duties only on the bridge. Mike Love apparently sought to take legal action against Brian Wilson over the latter’s wonderful Smile album for bringing the Beach Boys’ legacy into disrepute. The last song performed by the Love-led Beach Boys? Santa Goes To Kokomo (thanks to Mr Parkes for that bit of info).
Best bit: I might have picked the bridge, but, you know, fuck Mike Love. The intro (0:01)

Dionne Warwick РDo You Know The Way To San Jos̩.mp3
The body of Dionne Warwick’s interpretations of Burt Bacharach’s music is rich in absolute delights. Among so many highpoints, two songs stand out: Walk On By and San José. The latter makes you feel good, from the brief bass notes that introduce the song to bosa nova sound to the wow-wo-wo-wo-wo-wo-wo-wowowos that accompany Dionne’s insistence that she does have a large circle of sidekicks in San José. It’s a song for driving along a deserted coastal road with the roof down. As so often, the singer didn’t like the song when asked to record it. Frankie Goes To Hollywood covered it 16 years later, at a time when Bacharach was widely dismissed as a passé easy listening merchant. Whether or not that cover was supposed to be “ironic”, it introduced a whole new generation to the genius of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
Best bit: The way Dionne accentuates the word back (2:33)


Manfred Mann – Ha! Ha! Said The Clown.mp3
*
Yes, I know. Doo Wah Diddy Diddy. Or even Pretty Flamingo. Contenders they were, but this lesser remembered song is absolutely flawless. And it has flutes in it, which the really attentive and loyal reader of this blog will know seals a deal for me automatically. This track has a even greater energythan Doo Wah Diddy Diddy. The drumming is quite outstanding, and the punchline at the end of the song is just great. On top of that, my mother had the single of this, and as a small boy I played it very often. So Ha! Ha! Said The Clown is one of the songs responsible for turning me on to pop music. Hell, without it, you might not be reading this post right now.
Best bit: The whistling bit (1:17)

Drafi Deutscher – Marmor Stein und Eisen.mp3
Much as I enjoy submerging myself in the nostalgia for my childhood, I must insist that the German Schlager was a horrible musical genre; deeply conservative music for deeply conservative people dressed up in just so much supposed cool as to make it acceptable to the youth. Part of that faux-cool was a tendency of Schlager singers to assume an Anglo-sounding name. So Gerd Höllerich became Roy Black, Christian Klusacek (perhaps understandably) became Chris Roberts, Jutta and Norbert became Cindy & Bert (who came last in the Eurovision Song Contest which Abba won), Franz Eugen Helmuth Manfred Nidl-Petz became Freddy Quinn, and so on. Drafi Deutscher admirably didn’t anglicise his name, but went by his real surname, which means German. Oddly then, he sang with a heavy foreign accent, perhaps owing to his Hungarian background. His big hit, in 1965, was Marmor, Stein und Eisen (marble, rock and iron), which can all break, but not the love he and the addressee of the song shared, as the catchy chorus informs us. The song is more beat than Schlager.
Best bit: Drafi goes heavy metal rockabilly (1:15)

Elvis Presley – (You’re The) Devil In Disguise.mp3
Last time I posted Perfect Pop, I had a brief lapse in judgment when I forgot that there are four Elvises: pre-GI Elvis, movie-Elvis, post-comeback Elvis, and the drug-addled bloaterino we need not concern ourselves with much. From Elvis middle-period, Devil In Disguise seems to me an obvious choice for inclusion. This 1963 track saw the first two Elvis phases coalesce. On the verses, we have Elvis in beach trunks contemplating the script for his 17th movie in which he’ll be a racing driver/cowboy/trapeze artist/big-hearted hooker. He’s in well-behavedly in crooner mode, and very good at it. But when the chorus comes in, our boy remembers his pink shirted, pelvis-swivelling ways, and lets go a bit. Add to that the sharp guitar solo with those rapid quick handclaps, and you have true pop perfection.
Best Bit: The devil speaks! (2:07)

Simon & Garfunkel – A Hazy Shade of Winter.mp3
I considered I Am A Rock. Mrs Robinson (a song I don’t like much) and The Boxer (if only to mention that the banging sound was created by recording a filing cabinet thrown down an elevator shaft). What clinches it for A Hazy Shade Of Winter as a perfect pop song is its sense of urgency. Mostly the erstwhile Tom & Jerry did the languid folk-pop thing, but this song drives quite hard. The Bangles covered it in 1989 and scored a hit with it. I cannot say that I particularly liked that cover, but it shows that the song has a certain timelessness. The 1966 single release was backed with For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her, one of S&G’s most beautiful songs. Strangely, A Hazy Shade Of Winter appeared on an LP only a year and a half later, on Bookends.
Best bit: The song ends abruptly with an exhalation of breath (2:16)

Righteous Brothers – You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.mp3
Few people are going to feature twice in this series, but Bill Medley does. Thanks to Ghost, Unchained Melody has become the Righteous Brothers signature song, but You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ (itself revived in a movie of that era, Top Gun) has all the drama and soulfulness which Unchained Melody lacks. Intitially singing so low as to raise questions about whether the single was being played at 33rpm, at some points Medley almost sounds like Levi Stubbs (indeed, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ was supposedly inspired by the Four Tops’ Baby I Need Your Lovin’), while Bobby Hatfield has little to do. The story goes that Hatfield was rather annoyed about that, asking producer Phil Spector what he was supposed to do until he came into the song. Spector reportedly replied: “You can take the money to the bank:”
Best bit: Medley and Hatfield’s interplay: “Baby!” “Baby!” (2:34)

More Perfect Pop

iPod Random 5-track Experiment Vol. 6

March 31st, 2008 3 comments

To end off the month, here the five random tracks my iPod threw out for your pleasure. Actually, I’m cheating, because it listed a couple of tracks I recently posted…

The Band with Neil Diamond – Dry Your Eyes.mp3
From The Last Waltz. Neil Diamond must have retained some of the cool he had rightfully acquired before going all lamé on us (cf. Pissing off the Thought Police with Neil Diamond), else surely Messrs Danko, Robertson, Manuel et al would not have invited the man to jam with them. And the crowd seems happy enough to welcome him on stage. It’s all good. I like pre-lamé Neil, I like The Band, and I like this song. Thank you, iPod Shuffle Function.

Moldy Peaches – Anyone Else But You.mp3
Originally from the Moldy Peaches eponymous 2001 debut — and so far only — album, this is everybody’s favourite song from the quite wonderful Juno soundtrack (lovely film too). The one Ellen Page and Michael Cera sing at the end. Kimya Dawson, the female component of the Moldy Peaches, features very prominently on the soundtrack. Her solo albums are well worth seeking out as well.

John Barrowman & Kevin Kline – Night And Day.mp3
iPod loves soundtracks. First The Last Waltz, then Juno, now DeLovely. I was hoping it would give me chance to post something from Cabaret, actually. I may be committing some sort of credibility suicide here, but this is my favourite version (of those I know, which must be a dozen at least) of Night And Day, in terms of tempo, arrangement and vocals. A great though pretty difficult song to croon along to.

4 Non Blondes – What’s Up (Piano Version).mp3
Sometimes iPod surprises me. I didn’t know that this slowed-down acoustic version of the 1993 hit by Linda Perry and chums was residing on it, and I certainly can’t see why I might have thought it necessary to copy it over. Still, having listened to it again for purposes of this post, I think it’s quite a nice version, and a pretty good song, too.

Lloyd Cole & the Commotions – Rattlesnakes.mp3
To me, this is the sound of 1984. The lines “She looks live Eve Marie Saint in On The Waterfront; she reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance” (hey presto, and another movie reference) are among my favourites from the ’80s.

And for our listening pleasure, a song which iPod didn’t random shuffle: the original version of the Sesame Street/Muppets classic Mah-na Mah-na, by Italian film score composer Piero Umiliani, from 1969. Of the two muppetised versions, I prefer that of Sesame Street, also made in 1969, with the two female backing singers who communicate bemusement better than many a movie actress, and the singer who looks like heroin addict (video). The Muppets’ version (video) has a stoned hippie and some pink animals. Good, but not as good. By the way, links open in the same window, so click new tab/window, or you’ll lose this page.
Piero Umiliani – Mah-ná-mah-ná.mp3

And an added bonus for my fellow Weepies fans: the title track from their new album, due for release on April 22:
The Weepies – Hideaway.mp3

Pissing off the Taste Police with Neil Diamond

August 13th, 2007 15 comments

Forget the smoothie housewives’ favourite with the lamé jacket, blow-dry and black-dye coiffure, hairy chest, cowboy boots and glittering name prone to singing lame songs about forever living in blue jeans and nauseating duets with Barbra Streisand. The pre-crooner Neil Diamond should be ranked as a pop legend. Alas, the Lamé & Steisand cheesiness robbed this great songwriter of credibility and respect.

It’s an injustice. Divorce Lamé Neil from his earlier incarnation as the writer and performer of songs that should be regarded as classics, and revisit his back catalogue. You will find works of near-genius there. Then, if you will, listen to his 2005 album 12 Songs, produced by Rick Rubin, to discover that the man has lost nothing, even in his 60s.

The fact that Diamond ranks third in the all-time bestselling Billboard Charts list “” after Elton John and Babs “” should neither impress (I mean, look who’s second) nor repel. With Neil Diamond there is no need to analyse socio-musical effect. With Neil Diamond, there is only the music. And among the seaweed, there are many oysters, most bearing pearls.

How many people thought that the most popular song from the very good Pulp Fiction soundtrack was an Urge Overkill original? I bear no ill will towards the cover version of Neil Diamond’s superior 1967 original; in fact, I rather like it. But the success of “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” did not help rehabilitate Diamond reputation. It should have had people scurrying towards the far superior original.
Neil Diamond – Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon.mp3

Perhaps the best-known Neil Diamond songs is “Sweet Caroline” (1969). Even the branches of the Taste Police which despised the man would acknowledge that it is a cracking song, while possibly playing it for “ironic” effect. No need for irony, this is one of the great pop songs, with its memorable keyboard intro, the restrained verse, the soaring chorus, and especially the phrasing of the line that ends with the climactic “…touching me, touching you”, drenched with sexual desire.
Neil Diamond – Sweet Caroline.mp3

Imagine Leonard Cohen and Burt Bacharach — two of the finest songwriters in a decade chockful with genius songwriters — writing a song together: the result might be something as excellent like the autobiographical “Brooklyn Roads” (1968). And that places Neil Diamond right up there with the great songwriters of the 1960s.
Neil Diamond – Brooklyn Roads.mp3

Neil Diamond’s “I’m A Believer” is generally regarded as a Monkees song, and his country song “Red, Red Wine” (1967) is usually associated with reggae-karaoke combo UB40 (whose cover version was based on that by Tony Tribe released in 1969). It’s time to reclaim these songs for our man.
Neil Diamond – Red Red Wine (live).mp3

The great songwriter was keen to record cover versions himself. His 1971 album Stones, with its great title song, includes covers of songs by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Roger Miller, Jacques Brel and Randy Newman. A couple of years earlier, while still in his Tin Pan Alley phase, Diamond recorded the standard “Mr Bojangles”, doing a very good job of it, though not eclipsing Sammy Davis Jr’s definitive interpretation.
Neil Diamond – Mr Bojangles.mp3

At what point did Neil Diamond jump the shark? It was more case of gently climbing on top of the shark, and sliding down on the other side. In his pomp, Diamond released semi-schlock like “Song Sung Blue”, which set the scene for the lamé period. The pretentious, but actually not altogether bad, Jonathan Seagull Livingstone came out at around the same time as the outstanding live set Hot August Night, in which Diamond rocked and sang songs blue in equal measures (the air-wanking-lion cover itself was remarkable). The difficulty with Lamé Neil is that even during that period, he wrote some very good songs. There is nothing wrong with a song such as “America” from the awful 1980 film version of The Jazz Singer, other than its revolting arrangement (and its association with Michael Dukakis’ disastrous 1988 presidential campaign). Even “Beautiful Noise”, a lamé song drenched liberally in lamé oil, is at its base a pretty good song. It just needs to be re-recorded (without some clown going crazy on his newfangled synthethizer).
Neil Diamond – Beautiful Noise.mp3

By 2005, few people really expected to hear from Neil Diamond again (nostalgia appearances and his obituary aside). Then Rick Rubin did for ND what he had previously done for Johnny Cash: give a supposedly superannuated singer another shot at delivering a credible work of art. Unlike Cash, Diamond came up with a set of original tracks to make up the stunning 12 Songs, an album of immediate intimacy and depth in beauty. I hope that ND will leave it at that, concluding his long career with a set of restrained songs that don’t hit you in the face, as the Sweet Carolines, but creep under your skin and touch your soul.
Neil Diamond – Save Me A Saturday Night.mp3