Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Maker — Willie Nelson (1998)

Willie Nelson is clearly still capable of greatness but, over the past decade, his records have travelled the not-so-long highway that runs between workmanlike and reasonably inspired, making room for the odd detour (and with 2005's reggae album, Countryman, I mean odd).

He has yet to scale his late-career twin peaks of Spirit (1996) and Teatro (1998), of which the latter could be reasonably called the last essential Nelson album. Named after the Mexican movie theatre where it was recorded, Teatro was helmed by Daniel Lanois, who slathers the songs with his characteristic thick, swampy ambience while keeping his eye firmly fixed on the quality control monitor. Lanois did the same thing to revitalize the careers of Robbie Robertson on his 1987 solo debut, Bob Dylan on 1989's Oh Mercy and Emmylou Harris on 1995's Wrecking Ball — and Teatro fits comfortably in this illustrious company. The album doesn't contain a duff moment but Nelson's cover of his producer's composition The Maker stands out from a collection of standouts.

The song originally appeared on Lanois's 1989 solo debut, Acadie, and if Nelson's version sounds similar to the source material, it should. Many of the same players perform on both (guitarist Lanois, organist Malcolm Burn, percussionist Cyril Neville, bassist Tony Hall, drummer Willie Green), and both versions are carried by a distinctive, burbling bassline and layers of melodic, distorted electric guitar.

That said, the original had neither Nelson, the master interpreter of song, nor the spectral background harmonies of Harris (who'd release her own version on 1998 live set Spyboy). Those two new elements make this version of The Maker something special. Certainly, Nelson's leathery, well-weathered vocals are perfectly suited for lyrics that embrace nothing less than the mystery of Almighty and the afterlife. When he sings "my body is bent and broken/by long and danger sleep," that voice has all the necessary gravitas and life experience needed to convey the acceptance of mortality and to dive into the song's deep well of spirituality. Nelson inhabits The Maker in the same way Johnny Cash inhabited Hurt.

Lanois and Harris recorded superb renditions of The Maker but, by abetting Nelson here, the definitive version is on Teatro.

The Maker (link expired)

And here is footage from the recording session:



Buy it here

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Soul Sunday: Across 110th Street — Bobby Womack and Peace (1972)

Let's go back 35 years to Academy Awards night, 1973. And the winner for best original song is ... envelope please ... Maureen McGovern's The Morning After, the treacly love theme from The Poseidon Adventure. (The category is for best original song, right? The Morning After is so clearly awful, a character in Poseidon Adventure actually pokes fun at it during the movie.) Also among that year's nominees was Ben, another unctuous love ballad on which a young Michael Jackson pines for a rat. (Who could have guessed he'd grow up to be chimp-befriending oddball? Go figure.)

Here's what wasn't nominated that year: Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man. Anything from Curtis Mayfield's Superfly. And, today's post, Bobby Womack's title song for crime drama Across 110th Street — a track so good, Quentin Tarantino adopted it as a surrogate theme for his Pulp Fiction followup, 1997's Jackie Brown. It reappeared on celluloid last year in Ridley Scott's American Gangster.

No wonder filmmakers love this tune. It's a movie in itself: It has a vivid setting (110th Street is the boundary line where Central Harlem begins) and a gritty, compelling narrative, all underscored a cinematic, wall-of-sound production featuring intricate, sophisticated arrangements for string, brass and woodwinds.

The dreamy, wafting intro — reminiscent of the instrumental passages on Gaye's What's Goin' On LP — lures you in. Then with the first verse, the music turns tougher and propulsive as Womack introduces his narrator, the sort of morally ambiguous anti-hero common in 1970s cinema:
I was the third brother of five,
Doing whatever I had to do to survive.
I'm not saying what I did was alright,
Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight.
Been down so long, getting up didn't cross my mind,
I knew there was a better way of life that I was just trying to find.
You don't know what you'll do until you're put under pressure,
Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester.
The song's chorus, with its grainy snapshots of early-70s Harlem street decay — "pimps trying to catch a woman that's weak ... pushers won't let the junkie go free" — is like a mini-Scorsese film, only hummable.

The second verse ends with the narrator pointing out his is not a strictly New York story: "In every city you find the same thing going down/ Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town."

How was this song (and Trouble Man and Superfly) ignored by Oscar voters?

The year before, Isaac Hayes received the best original song statette for Shaft, becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar in a non-acting category. One can only assume Oscar voters didn't want this Academy Awards category to turn into Soul Train so, after going black, they stupidly went back.

To be fair, The Morning After did have a second life, too. In a third-season South Park episode, a succubus uses the song to control Chef and force him into marriage. Is it just coincidence the character of Chef is voiced by Isaac Hayes? Just wondering.

Here is the song that should have won that 1973 best original song Oscar:

Across 110th Street (link expired)

And here's how Tarantino used the song — incredibly effectively, methinks — over Jackie Brown's opening credits:


Buy it here

Friday, February 22, 2008

Split Lips — Sons and Daughters (2008)

On a recent record-buying binge, I snagged a copy of Sons & Daughters' second full-length album, This Gift. Admittedly, it was an impulse purchase. I did enjoy a couple of songs (Dance Me In, Taste The Last Girl) off their 2005 full-length debut, The Repulsion Box, and I did like the fact the Glasgow quartet often sounded like X's distant Scottish cousins, right down to the girl-boy tag-team vocals. On the whole, though, The Repulsion Box was merely OK and I wasn't exactly pining for a followup.

Stupid me. This Gift is a massive improvement over the debut, so much so, in fact, I checked the credits to see if Sons & Daughters had retooled their lineup since Repulsion. (They did not.) Over the ensuing three years, they've simply matured as songwriters and performers, and the decision to hire former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler to produce turns out to be a masterstroke.

Whereas the roughly hewn Repulsion Box sounded like four people banging out their songs in the same room as the tapes rolled, Butler helps the band capture myriad guitar sounds, add punch to the rhythm section and, most importantly, put the spotlight on group's top asset, Adele Bethel's lead vocals, which are big yet nuanced, supple in tone yet snarly in attitude.

This Gift is proof that high production values is not always synonymous with 'corporate sellout.' Yes, the new album is far more polished than The Repulsion Box but it's also far more powerful.

But the mystery of a vastly improved sophomore album shouldn't be explained by suggesting 'the Butler did it.' This Gift is crammed with memorable guitar riffs and stick-in-your-head choruses; in fact, there isn't a duff moment in these 12 tracks (all credited to the band) as the 40-minute album moves from strength to strength, each song getting under your skin after just a few spins.

Split Lips is deadlocked in a 12-way tie for my favourite track off This Gift but I'll choose to post this one for a couple reasons: (1) the intro and Bethel's vocal are reminiscent of Patti Smith Group's magnificent Dancing Barefoot, and (2) the biting lyric: "You never asked for an audience/So why'd you care about the reviews you're gonna get?"

On This Gift, Split Lips follows the opening track and first single Gilt Complex, the video for which is posted below.



Split Lips (link expired)

Buy it here

Monday, February 18, 2008

We Love You, Carol and Alison — Game Theory (1987)


Absence must make the heart grow fonder ... and the wallet thinner. How else does one explain the wads of cash needed to purchase used Game Theory CDs? One seller on Amazon put a $235 pricetag on a CD version of the Sacramento group's 1987 album, Lolita Nation, and from what I've seen in recent years, that's pretty much the going rate.

So how did it come to this?

During their 1982-90 lifespan, Game Theory were a second-division college band whose jangly, psych-tinged pop albums were ignored by the mainstream and inexplicably under-appreciated by the campus-radio crowd. The chances of Game Theory pulling an R.E.M., or a Husker Du, or a Replacements were slim and none. Even fellow Paisley Underground acts The Dream Syndicate and Green on Red had a higher profile. Game Theory should be all but forgotten today except for one thing: Their four Mitch Easter-produced albums were really, really good.

Enigma subsiduary Restless Records originally released the albums on vinyl and CD. But when Enigma was absorbed into Capitol around 1990, the same year Game Theory disbanded, the titles were deleted. The first two albums, Real Nighttime and Big Shot Chronicles, were briefly reissued in the mid-'90s but the last two, Lolita Nation and 2 Steps From The Middle Ages, haven't been available for almost two decades. Considering these four titles weren't big sellers to begin with, used copies are incredibly hard to find and, as such, incredibly expensive.

I keep my eyes peeled on upcoming reissue news in hopes someone, anyone, re-releases the Game Theory catalogue — especially Lolita Nation, a sprawling, two-album set of sublime pop and fractured experimentalism. (Interestingly, that record kicks off with Kenneth, What's The Frequency, a title that might ring a bell with R.E.M. fans.)

From Lolita Nation, I offer the album's poppiest moment, We Love You, Carol and Alison, which sounds like Easter's band Let's Active with a few added drugs. It's one of my favourite songs from the second half of that decade although I still have no idea what it's about.

Also below is a video of Erica's Word, another poptastic moment, this one from Lolita's predecessor, 1985's Big Shot Chronicles.

Epilogue: After Game Theory's split, singer-guitarist-songwriter Scott Miller founded The Loud Family, which remains active to this day. On the Loud Family website, under the FAQ section, there's a question about future Game Theory reissues. The answer: "It's unlikely there will be a full-scale reissue program in the future but one never knows. By the way, Scott Miller does not own the rights to Game Theory's recordings, so it's not up to him."

We Love You, Carol and Alison (link expired)

And Erica's Word from Big Shot Chronicles:



Buy it, um, nevermind

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sunday Soul: Work to Do — The Isley Brothers (1972)


Driving home after clocking several overtime hours today — on a long weekend, no less — I mulled my options for this week's Sunday Soul feature. Work To Do seemed like a natural.

The Isley Brothers were smack-dab in the middle of their 1969-75 purple patch when they recorded this smokin' track for their Brother, Brother, Brother album. The 1972 long-player officially debuted the definitive Isleys lineup that saw Ronald, O'Kelly and Rudolph Isley joined by younger siblings Ernie (guitar) and Marvin (bass), as well as brother-in-law Chris Jasper (keyboards). Bigger was better in the Isleys' case and, on Work To Do, the group seamlessly blends Latin and funk influences with its trademark three-part harmonies. Nice work on the woodblock, too.

But it's Ronald's lead vocals that make Work To Do an unofficial anthem for everyone who believes work-life balance is for wusses. The song's narrator has been working a lot of long nights to bring home some dough and, even though he acknowledges his woman wants to spend more time with him, he tells her straight-up that it just ain't gonna happen. Then Ronald offers his little lady this helpful advice:
"So keep your love light burning and a little food hot in my plate/You might as well get used to me coming home a little late."
In other words: I'll be home when I get home but, when I do walk through that door, I expect a hot meal and hot loving, maybe not in that order. The feminist movement must have loved this song back in the day.

Work to Do was released as a single and peaked at a modest No. 51 on the pop charts, although it is now rightfully considered one of the Isleys' greatest moments. (The song later charted for Average White Band and Vanessa Williams.) And yet, in 1972, the Isleys were just getting warmed up for the following year's classic 3+3 album and That Lady single.

Work To Do (link expired)

For your viewing pleasure, here are the Isleys performing their first hit, Shout, in 1959. Ronald is a ball of energy but, um, who's in charge of choreography?



Buy it here

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Little Thing — BB Gabor (1981)

Nowadays, BB Gabor is remembered, if he's remembered at all, for his 1980 single Nyet Nyet Soviet (Soviet Jewelry), a minor Canadian hit that tapped into the rising Evil Empire sentiment of the Cold War era. (It wasn't just trendy, anti-Soviet propaganda either. Gabor and his family fled their native Hungary in 1956; the year the USSR invaded the country to crush a nationwide revolt against its Stalinist government. Gabor's dislike for the Soviets was, by all accounts, very real and very personal.)

Nyet Nyet Soviet's buzzing, distorted guitar and a pogoing rhythm meant the man born Gabor Hugedus would be initially marketed as an edgy, Queen St. new waver even though he was 32 at the time, only five years younger than officially sanctioned 'boring old fart' Mick Jagger.

The modest success of Nyet Nyet Soviet and its self-titled parent album allowed Gabor to release an unloved followup, Girls of the Future, in the fall of 1981. Co-produced by Eugene Martynec (Bruce Cockburn, Rough Trade), Girls of the Future's sound was slicker and more middle-of-the-road than his fizzy debut yet, on the lyrical front, Gabor's humour-leavened cynicism had hardened into unremitting bitterness. The venom he saved for the Soviets a year prior was now being shared with the rest of the world.

Little Thing, one of the sophomore album's many flop singles, represents this shift. No one would use the words 'new wave' to describe the sound of this mellow, mid-tempo pop ballad, which begins with a nagging synthesizer riff and closes with an equally catchy, sing-along coda. The song would be pleasantly benign if not for Gabor's vicious haranging of the titular subject, a spoilt rich girl trying to ingratiate herself with the underground crowd. Listening to Little Thing, I imagine Gabor writing the song and thinking to himself: "Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone is pretty good, you know, but it's just not nasty enough."

And Little Thing is nasty. You could made an argument for "misogynist" too. Still, give him credit for trying to slip this bile onto top-40 radio:
"I don't think you've made it yet/You're mommy and daddy's blameless litle pet/You could use a few home truths/And a little less smack and a little less booze/I can't see where you fit in/Can you, little thing?/...I'm scratching and I'm biting and you're just giving in/Your street credibility has worn a little thin/Isn't it true, little thing?"
Despite its heroin reference, I remember Little Thing receiving modest radio play in the winter of 1981-82 but, after that, Gabor fell off the radar. His label, Anthem, dropped him after Girls of the Future. He moved to Vancouver for a time before returning to Toronto. In the late-'80s, Gabor supposedly recorded some tracks with Todd Rundgren but, to my knowledge, they have never surfaced. There was never a third BB Gabor album and, in 1990, the diagnosed manic depressive took his own life.

Gabor's two albums are worthy, early-'80s curios and are available on a single CD through Pacemaker Entertainment Ltd.

Little Thing (link expired)

Buy it here

Friday, February 15, 2008

Of Moons, Birds & Monsters — MGMT (2008)


I hate doing this so soon after Valentine's Day but there's never a good time to say stuff like this. I like MGMT. I enjoy the time we spend together. It's just ... (deep breath) ... I don't love them and, to be perfectly honest, I don't know if I ever will. I hope MGMT and I can still hang out once in a while, have some fun, be friends. But do we have a long-term future? I don't think so.

What's been going on between us isn't some tawdry fling. I've been spending a lot of quality time with Oracular Spectacular, the debut album from the Connecticut duo of Ben Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden. And, sure, I've been charmed. The former art students fill their songs with memorable hooks, musical twists and clever, smart-ass lyrics. Add typically trippy, OTT production from Dave Fridmann and MGMT comes across as Flaming Lips Jr., with echoes of Ween, Suicide and Bowie/Bolan, an admirably diverse collection of influences.

So what's not to love?

It's the niggly stuff.

I'm not sure where Fridmann's contributions end and MGMT's begin. Fridmann's fingerprints are all over Oracular Spectacular and, in the end, the record is more of a showcase for the Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer's aural tricks than for the duo's talents. Put it this way: I cannot imagine what MGMT would sound like without Fridmann. This is not a good thing.

Also, the songs that suck you in upon first listen — first single Time To Pretend, Electric Feel and Kids — seem a little too eager to please, a little too cognizant of their hipster aspirations, on repeated plays.

Of Moons, Birds & Monsters is one track that actually grows in stature over time because it is neither hyper-hooky nor overproduced; it's space-rock that simply exists in its own universe and requires the listener to search it out.

MGMT should play hard-to-get more often.

Of Moons, Birds & Monsters (link expired)

Buy it here

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I Hate Music — The Replacements (1981)


Bongo Jazz is thrilled to learn Rhino's long-awaited Replacements reissue campaign will commence this spring.

First phase of the campaign will cover the Minneapolis band's TwinTone output: The albums Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash (1981), Hootenanny (1983) and the classic Let It Be (1984), as well as the Stink! EP (1982).

Every title comes with a generous selection of bonus tracks (see below) and one should expect Rhino to do its usual top-notch remastering job on these titles, which have always been poorly served on CD. (Which is a nice way of saying they sound like crap and the liner notes are virtually non-existent.) The TwinTone remasters are due in record shops April 22.

The bonus material:
Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash

Raised in the City, live, 1980 - demo

Shutup, live, 1980 - demo

Don't Turn Me Down, live, 1980 - demo

Shape Up, live, 1980 - demo

You Ain't Gotta Dance, studio demo

Get on the Stick, studio demo

Oh Baby, studio demo

Like You, outtake

Get Lost, outtake

A Toe Needs a Shoe, outtake

Customer, alternate take

Basement Jam, rehearsal

If Only You Were Lonely


Stink

Staples in Her Stomach, outtake

Hey, Good Lookin', outtake

(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock, outtake

You're Getting Married, solo home demo


Hootenanny

Lookin' for Ya

Junior's Got a Gun, outtake - rough mix

Ain't No Crime, outtake

Johnny Fast, outtake - rough mix

Treatment Bound, alternate version

Lovelines, alternate vocal

Bad Worker, solo home demo


Let It Be

20th Century Boy (T-Rex cover)

Perfectly Lethal, outtake

Temptation Eyes (Grass Roots cover), outtake

Answering Machine, solo home demo

Heartbeat -- It's a Lovebeat (DeFranco Family cover), outtake - rough mix

Sixteen Blue, outtake - alternate vocal
Expanded versions of the band's four Sire records — Tim (1985), Pleased To Meet Me (1987), Don't Tell a Soul (1989) and All Shook Down (1990) — are expected to follow later this year.

Let It Be and Pleased to Meet Me likely will be the most coveted reissue titles but here's hoping record buyers will (re)discover Sorry Ma, the ragged, punkish debut that contains several hidden gems in the Mats catalogue: Takin' A Ride, Johnny's Gonna Die (a Johnny Thunders tribute — a live clip of the song, circa 1981, is below) and I Hate Music, which I love for the so-dumb-it's-brilliant lyric: "I hate music/Sometimes I don't/I hate music/Got too many notes!"

Oh, and one final thing: Now that the Replacements are taken care of, let's hope the reissue gods bless us soon with expanded and remastered albums by those other significant '80s Minneapolis acts, Husker Du and Prince. A boy can dream, can't he?



I Hate Music (link expired)

Buy it, starting April 22, here

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sunday Soul: Rudy, A Message to You — Dandy Livingstone (1967)

I discovered Rudy, A Message to You like most people my age — through Two-Tone band The Specials, who covered the song (renamed A Message to You Rudy) on their self-titled, 1979 debut.

In those pre-Google days (hard to believe they ever existed), it took more than a couple seconds to find out not-quite- household-name Dandy Livingstone originally recorded this rock steady classic 12 years prior. Rudy, as it turns out, is only a small part of a fascinating career.

Robert Livingstone Thompson was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in December 1943 or 1944 (accounts vary) and moved to the UK in his teenage years. He made his recording debut in 1964 as the sole member of singing 'duo' Sugar and Dandy. Apparently, London's Carnival Records was on the lookout for a Jamaican vocal duo and the resourceful Livingstone got the gig by double-tracking his vocals on sides such as What a Life, his first hit. (The duo's name represents Livingstone's dual strengths: his sweet singing voice and impeccable fashion sense.) A partner was later found to portray 'Sugar' in live performances and, when the new twosome fell apart, a second 'Sugar' was hired. And, no, their names were neither Rob nor Fab, so let's move on.

This unusual start to a recording career would, nevertheless, set the stage for what followed. Livingstone's recorded output would often come out billed to various pseudo-groups, (Dandy & His Group, Dandy & The Musical Doctors, Boy Friday & The Groovers), while the production skills that allowed him to be a one-man duo would be used to craft hits for The Marvels, Nicky Thomas and Tony Tribe, whose Livingstone-guided cover of Neil Diamond's Red Red Wine would become the blueprint for UB40's ubiquitous 1983 hit.

So Rudy is only one of Livingstone's accomplishments — but what an accomplishment. Rudy, of course, is just a variant of 'rude boy,' the nattily-dressed young delinquents/aspiring gangsters mostly from the poorer parts of Kingston who roamed the city in the 1960s. Rudy, A Message to You is a word of caution for them, set to the sort of shuffling rock steady beat they preferred. 'Rude boy' culture was the result of vibrant youth culture running up against extreme poverty, so no wonder its music and message struck a note with disaffected youth in Britain during the late-'70s, as unemployment widened and economic recession deepened. The Specials' version of Rudy sounded as contemporary in 1979 as Livingstone's did in 1967.

Differences between the two versions? Actually, there aren't many. The title and lyrics are slightly altered, while Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding's three-part harmonies are rougher around the edges than Livingstone's vocal performance. Otherwise, The Specials' version remains remarkably faithful to the original, right down to guest musician Rico Rodriguez, whose trombone also graced Livingstone's original.

Here is the original recording:

Rudy, A Message to You (link expired)

And here are The Specials, with Rodriguez on trombone, playing A Message to You Rudy on The Old Grey Whistle Test from 1979:



Buy it here

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

New York — Cat Power (2008)

I adore most of Frank Sinatra's body of work but New York, New York has always left me cold, despite being one of his best-known songs.

The 1980 recording is just too showtuney and self-aggrandizing for my tastes, whereas I always preferred Frankie in either an intimate, heart-rending setting (such as on the In The Wee Small Hours or Sings For Only the Lonely albums) or when he's having some fun without being full of himself (Songs for Swingin' Lovers!).

So, I never imagined I could like New York, New York — after all, if the Chairman of the Freakin' Board couldn't do it for me, who could?

Apparently, Cat Power, that's who. I was initially disappointed to learn Chan Marshall had chosen the composition the kick off her new covers collection, Jukebox. Then I put the record on and, uh, I didn't even recognize the song at first.

Everything is stripped back: The brass fanfare is gone and so is the swagger. The tempo is dialled down. Half of the original title is missing. And, at the two-minute mark, the song just stops dead in its tracks. But, wow, those preceding 120 seconds are something else.

In Marshall's hands, the song is Memphis soul after one too many drinks over one too many nights.

Carried on a loping drum beat and electric piano, the song moves slowly, staggering in a surprisingly sensual way, which only complements Marshall's approach to the words.

Sinatra belted out the song with big, declarative statements, as if he was going to put his name on every marquee in the greatest city in the world through sheer force of will.

Marshall, on the other hand, is a little sultry, a little slurry, sounding like she just wants to have the sort of good time only the Big Apple can provide, then find a nice gutter from where she can admire the stars.

Who would you rather spend time with?

Cat Power, naturally.

She's A-number one. Top of the list. Queen of the hill.

New York (link expired)

Buy it here

Monday, February 4, 2008

Swallow Song — Vashti Bunyan (1970)

Pity the poor music fan who fell in love with Vashti Bunyan's debut album, Just Another Diamond Day, upon its release in December of 1970. Surely they were left pining for a followup that wouldn't arrive for more than three decades.

Bunyan's re-emergence in the first half of this decade provided one of the most surprising music-biz developments in recent memory.

Hers is a heartwarming tale, too, because who doesn't want to believe that great music is always destined to be discovered, if not today then sometime in the years ahead?

The London-born Bunyan was discovered in 1965 by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and made her recording debut later that year as simply Vashti with the Jagger-Richards composition Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind (see video below), followed by a second single, Train Song, in May 1966.




This period was something of a false start for Bunyan, who only began assembling the nature-centric material for Diamond Day after travelling by horse and carriage to join a commune on the Isle of Skye. A chance meeting with producer Joe Boyd in late 1968 gave Bunyan a strong ally and a sympathetic ear and, a year later, they recorded Just Another Diamond Day with Nick Drake's string arranger Robert Kirby and members of The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention.

Like many tracks on Diamond Day, Swallow Song is a gentle wisp of a song; Bunyan, a big-city girl now nuzzled in the arms of nature, describing the seasonal scenes unfolding before her:
And there's a sunset brimming over the sky;
And there's a swallow teaching its young how to fly;
Up on high, see how fast the summer passes by.

And there's an oak leaf turning green into brown;
And there's a pine so proud of her evergreen gown;
Looking down, see how fast the winter comes around.
This would be all-too-twee if not for Bunyan's utter lack of guile and the song's blend of beauty and melancholia, both enhanced by Kirby's stately string arrangement. Swallow Song isn't so much a song about birds, trees and sunsets; it's really about the passing of time, growing older, the inevitability of death. Pretty impressive for a 25-year-old.

Swallow Song is just one of many gems on Just Another Diamond Day; alas, the album's poor commercial showing prompted a disappointed Bunyan to retire from music and she spent the ensuing 30 years raising three children and tending to her animals.

Fast forward three decades when endorsements from contemporary folk artists such as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom led to a re-release of Diamond Day in 2000. Five years later, Bunyan released her second album, Lookaftering, while a compilation of her mid-60s recordings, titled after her debut single, came out last year.

Yet it's Just Another Diamond Day, highlighted by the affecting Swallow Song, that will secure Bunyan's legacy. She won't be forgotten again.

Swallow Song (link expired)

Buy it here

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sunday Soul: There Will Never Be Any Peace — The Chi-Lites (1974)

By 1974, The Chi-Lites (pronounced Shy-Lights) were two years removed from their No. 1 single, Oh Girl, and starting to splinter. The Chicago-based harmony group had peaked commercially but they were still producing some magnificent records, like this one.

There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God is Seated at the Conference Table) was written by Chi-Lites main man Eugene Record and his semi-regular collaborator (and first wife) Barbara Acklin, a partnership previously responsible for the group's Have You Seen Her (top-5 in 1971) and Stoned Out Of My Mind (top-30 in 1973), as well as Acklin's 1969 single, Am I Still Your Girl.

Rest assured, the only thing unwieldy about There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God is Seated at the Conference Table) is its mouthful of a title, as its melody is mellifluous and its arrangement effortlessly sumptuous. The song could easily be mistaken for Philly soul, opening with a sweeping, inspirational string arrangement before those silky smooth Chi-Lites harmonies launch into the chorus. It's a breathtaking intro; one that surely made the likes of Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff a little envious. That said, the multi-talented Record didn't need to take a backseat to anyone — he wrote for the group, produced their records and his high tenor/falsetto was a distinctive part of the Chi-Lites sound.

What inspired the song? I've never read an interview with Record talking about this track, in particular, but he was known to be a soft spoken, spiritual man. (After claiming God told him to change his life, he quit touring with the Chi-Lites in 1988 and became a minister).

And surely there were no shortages of international conflicts, including the winding-down Vietnam War, to inspire a simply stated anti-war song like this.

Maybe it was that title, maybe it was political-song burnout, maybe it was the changing musical tides signified by the first stirrings of disco — whatever the reason, There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God is Seated at the Conference Table) peaked at No. 63 on the U.S. pop charts in 1974, while its parent album, Toby, barely cracked the top-200, hitting No. 181. On the other side of the world, however, There Will Never Be Any Peace was played repeatedly on Mediterranean radio stations in 1974-75, while Greece and Turkey clashed over Cyprus. (From all accounts, God was not invited to sit at the conference table and today the island remains partitioned.) The song received further exposure more than two decades later when Nick Lowe started playing it in concert following the 9/11 attacks.

Lowe is hardly the only artist to cover the Chi-Lites. Paul Young and MC Hammer had hits with Oh Girl and Have You Seen Her, respectively; The Jam and UB40 recorded Stoned Out of My Mind and Homely Girl, respectively; and producer Rich Harrison sampled Are You My Woman (Tell Me So) for the central hook on Beyonce Knowles's 2003 blockbuster Crazy in Love.

Record, the man behind all of those songs, died July 22, 2005, of cancer. He was 64.

There Will Never Be Any Peace (link expired)

Buy it here

Friday, February 1, 2008

Colin Moulding of XTC — Previously unpublished interview, May 2000

Today I break from the usual Bongo Jazz format to present a previously unpublished interview with Colin Moulding, the co-founder of one of my favourite bands, XTC. I chatted with Colin in May of 2000, right after the release of XTC's Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2 which, sadly, now appears to be the band's swansong.

A little background: XTC — singer-guitarist Andy Partridge, singer-bassist Moulding, and multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory — went on 'strike' following the release of their 10th studio album, 1992's Nonsuch, in an attempt to extricate themselves from a less-than-lucrative contract with Virgin Records. The trio remained virtually inactive for the rest of the decade.

When they were finally cut loose from Virgin, XTC started recording the mountain of material Partridge and Moulding had penned over the previous several years for release on their own indie label.

Partridge had planned to release all of this material in one grand package that would include a disc of orchestrated material and another disc of guitar-bass-drum pop. But finances and other circumstances led to separate releases: The orchestrated Apple Venus: Vol. 1 in 1999 and the stripped-down Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2 the following year. The latter was completed as a duo, as Gregory left during the tumultuous sessions for the magnificent Apple Venus Vol. 1. (You can read my 1999 interview with Partridge here.)

In the following previously unpublished interview, Moulding talks about Wasp Star (pictured right) as well as plans for a couple major archival releases: a Virgin box set (Coat of Many Cupboards) and a self-released collection of demos, which would turn out to be the nine-volume Fuzzy Warbles collection. Tellingly, he expresses uncertainty about the future of the band as far as new music is concerned. In the end, Moulding didn't participate in that massive Fuzzy Warbles project — all the demos came from Partridge's closet — and soon Partridge would admit XTC is 'in the fridge', telling interviewers Moulding had moved away without him where he was going or how to contact him.

BONGO JAZZ: In the book Song Stories, the band admits there were heated debates over how these songs should come out. Looking back, do you think you made the right decision in releasing them on separate albums a year apart?
MOULDING: Oh, I think it would have been a bit of a car crash if we had mixed them all up. They're quite diverse in style. I think it would have been a mistake to jumble them all up. They wanted different treatments for the songs. Yeah, I think it was a good idea to separate them, you know. I think they would have been in one box — two discs in one box. But we kind of ran out of money. So we had to hurry up and get something out.

BONGO JAZZ: Recording and releasing all that material at once would have been a huge task.
MOULDING: Absolutely. We had 20-odd songs. What we originally started to do actually was record all 20-odd songs. But as I said, we got a couple months into it and ran out of money and ran out of time. We just had to concentrate on more the orchestral/acoustic stuff.

BONGO JAZZ: Do you believe, after 11 or 12 songs, most listeners just tune out, no matter how good the songs are?
MOULDING: Yes, a little bit of that. The continuity factor, as well. It's important to have continuity in a record. I think some of my favourite albums have kind of a thread going through them. If you put on too many songs, they're going to be outside a field, a lot of them. So continuity is another thing to consider. Of course, I suppose one can get a little weary listening to a large body of work.

BONGO JAZZ: XTC goes on strike for seven years and then, in a relatively short span, you make two albums and do a lot of promotion for both. Has it been a shock to the system?
MOULDING: It's nice to get back working. Absolutely. A shock to the system? A pleasant shock, you know. It's what we enjoy most: working, recording and writing songs. We're back doing what we enjoy.

BONGO JAZZ: Tell me about the construction of your studio, where much of these records were made.
MOULDING: I think I told you we ran out of money. Well, that was part and parcel of it. We actually finished Volume 1 in my two front living rooms. It was quite a feat but we managed to do it. And we hit upon the idea that, because we invested in some equipment, we should take it to my house and finish the album in my house. We thought: Well, if we could convert the garage in some way, we could have a permanent studio for ourselves. That's what we did. My garage was just full of junk. We just took all the junk out and tried to make it into some sort of studio. And it's been quite successful. So we recorded Wasp Star in my garage, really.

BONGO JAZZ: A real garage rock record, then! A lot of time and money must have been needed to turn a garage into a good recording space.
MOULDING: It's surprising. Wood is very good. If you have wooden floors and you have a wooden ceiling, you're halfway there. A lot of people don't realize that's what the major studios use a lot of — wood, basically — and you don't have to make it too dry. It has got to have some reflective surfaces but wood is very kind to sound. So we have a predominance of wood in the recording studio.

BONGO JAZZ: From the standpoints of ease and enjoyment, how would you compare making the two Apple Venus records?
MOULDING: Volume 1 was more dramatic, traumatic and had a band member leave (Gregory, pictured left) during the making. We had a producer (Haydn Bendall) leave as well (laughs). We had to appoint someone else to finish the record and to mix it, so it was quite traumatic. But I actually enjoyed making both of them in different ways. Such a thrill on Volume 1 to hear the orchestra in that big room, Abbey Road, where a lot of big records have been done. That was a big thrill. I think people get frightened of Volume 1 because they think it's going to be XTC Goes To The Albert Hall or something, with the orchestra. They're really only pop songs. Some of them just have orchestral accompaniment. There are only two songs with the full orchestra on. But I like Volume 1 a lot. It's more moody and more melancholy, I suppose, than Volume 2. But they're both different. That's the beauty of it.

BONGO JAZZ: If it's true, it's too bad some people were frightened off Volume 1 (pictured right) because you're right: I'd Like That doesn't have the full orchestra, your songs Frivolous Tonight and Fruit Nut are...
MOULDING: ... well, they're kind of music hall songs, really. Yeah. Yeah. That's what I think. It's just a pop album. But a lot of people thought: 'Oh, it has strings on it. I don't think I'll like that.' But they're just pop songs really but, to bring out the more melancholy aspects of the record, strings are a very good instrument for doing that, you know. The celebratory aspects of the record were brought out by the brass. You just use the instruments that the songs dictate. Some people shouldn't be put off by it.

BONGO JAZZ: At times, did you miss Dave's contributions to Wasp Star? Strange to think this is the first XTC record since Go 2 in 1978 that he hasn't been on.
MOULDING: That's right. Well, I think Dave wouldn't have had much to do to ornament Volume 2 in any case because the songs are more straight ahead and the arrangements were kind of known before we even recorded it. I think his contributions would have been more or less reiterating what Andy and myself had already done on our demos. I don't think he would have had much inventing to do. But we'll probably miss him in the future, yeah. We'll just have to see.

BONGO JAZZ: So how well did Andy handle the tricky bits on guitar?
MOULDING: There were a few solos to do but I think it was just laziness before (laughs). He probably would have given those solos to Dave in the general course of things when we were a three piece because we're basically lazy and (Andy) in particular. He would have given those solos to Dave but Andy is perfectly able to play a good solo.

BONGO JAZZ: Did you miss having a potential ally in the group when you had a disagreement with Andy?
MOULDING: Uh (pause), we didn't really have much disagreement, to tell you the truth. Not on these projects because they're pretty much cut and dried with the demos. I mean, the basic disagreement why Dave left was because he wanted to play more guitar-oriented stuff. I think that's the truth of it. He would have liked to have seen the albums kind of mixed up. He thought it was a mistake to do two separate records, whereas I thought it was perfect to do what we did. Dave — it's gotten rather complicated because Dave is quite a complicated guy. To say he left on that premise is probably not entirely true. It's probably a lot of the personal antagonisms over the years but, if you asked him, he'd probably say he left because 'they weren't making the record that I wanted to make.' There you go.

BONGO JAZZ: Andy told me last year that, once Dave departed, his relationship with you became stronger. 'Co-conspirators' is the word he used.
MOULDING: Probably, yes. I think even when Dave was in the group, we were kind of closer. I think Dave felt a little like an outsider at times. When Andy and myself used to get together and start cracking the jokes, it was kind of impenetrable sometimes. So I think he felt a little bit like an outsider. Also, he came from a slightly different background than Andy and myself. Andy and myself more or less grew up on the same housing estate and came up through the same schools (in Swindon), whereas Dave, I suppose, is viewed in England as being kind of middle class whereas Andy and I are viewed as working class. It's different background. That's not to say we were totally separate from him. We weren't. But there are certain times when he felt that he was the outsider, yeah.

BONGO JAZZ: Songs of yours like Wonderland and My Bird Performs suggest you've never lost that working class self-image.
MOULDING: Oh, yes, I'm a firm believer in only talking and writing about what you know. I can't say I know too much about world affairs and politics and stuff. I try to stay well clear of that sort of arena, you know.

BONGO JAZZ: What about Generals and Majors (pictured right)? Or Ball and Chain?
MOULDING: The few times that I've tried to write about worldly affairs, I think I've failed quite miserably. So now I tend to stick to a lot of personal and a lot of domestic issues. That's what I really like. That's what I think really registers with people. I think you'll find not many people really care about what's going on in the world outside them. They're more interested in the relationships in their own backyard.

BONGO JAZZ: In Another Life (link expired) is obviously inspired by your own marriage. It's romantic but in no way romanticized.
MOULDING: In that particular instance, I tried to avoid ... you know, when you write about marriage relationships and stuff, it can sound like a kind of slushy country and western thing, which I tried to avoid. I thought, if I'm going to write about marriage, let's do it in a slightly comical way. Not comedy but just one or two jokes along the way to relieve the slushiness or the sentiment. So I tried to do it in more of an English music hall kind of way. Say something like, oh Christ, Lionel Bart would have written.

BONGO JAZZ: My favourite line in the song is: "I'll take your mood swings if you take my hobbies/It all works out in the end." That's marriage.
MOULDING: If it hadn't been for the electric guitars on that song, it could have ended up in a musical like My Fair Lady or something. I think it's got that real Stanley Holloway kind of delivery — you know, music hall delivery — which I think is very good for writing about marital relationships. Otherwise, they can get really slushy. You have to watch the cheese. I tried not to do overboard on the sentimentality and I tried to make it more celebratory, which is celebrate people's foibles. The little things that they do that can really irritate people, you know.

BONGO JAZZ: You've mentioned English music hall tradition several times. I assume that's what Andy means when he talks about your newfound appreciation for easy-listening music — and not Barry Manilow.
MOULDING: No, definitely not Barry Manilow. When you get older, you begin to investigate the music that your parents liked. That's the thing. Whereas when you're in your early 20s, you couldn't do that because you'd be ridiculed by your friends and your contemporaries. Music like Burt Bacharach and things like that — stuff that we call easy-listening and stuff from showtunes — you couldn't really admit to liking stuff like that when you're in your early 20s because of fear of ridicule. But as you get older, that fear diminishes and goes altogether and you don't give a damn. So I found myself going back and listening to a lot of the stuff that I kind of missed out on. I just got a taster as a child but wanted to know more about it and investigate it more.

BONGO JAZZ: I bought the Burt Bacharach box set last year. It's phenomenal. I couldn't believe I overlooked the music's sophistication the first time around.
MOULDING: You didn't think it was great at the time probably because of the style. That's what it was. It was the style in which the song was done at the time. But now style doesn't worry you and you're probably not fashion conscious in any way, you realize you can like lots of different styles. You're probably not afraid to like that kind of Bacharach style.

BONGO JAZZ: Would you rather be a homebody now than a world traveller?
MOULDING: Oh yes, absolutely. I like travelling, mind you. I like travelling a lot. Not too much but it's always nice to get around and see people and stuff and if you have a nice hotel, it makes it all the more pleasurable. But I would say I cannot possibly write songs when you're doing promo and you're stopping in a hotel. There are too many distractions. People think you'll be able to write songs on the road. You never do; well, I never did anyway. So you have to get back to normalcy to write songs, I think. That's what I like doing — writing songs — so I find myself becoming more and more of a homebird, I think.

BONGO JAZZ: Fruit Nut suggests you like puttering around the house.
MOULDING: Well, I think that particular song is slightly comical. I didn't mean to make it too much of a novelty song, which is what it turned out to be. But there you go. Oh, I think people take themselves far too seriously in the pop industry, especially a lot of the younger bands do. They think: How are people going to take us seriously if we don't make serious music? I think the art of making light music has all but disappeared. We should never be afraid of making light music and chuck a few jokes in there. It's always viewed as being a bit of a comedy, isn't it? Well, it isn't. You can write about a very serious subject and still chuck in one or two jokes in there to kind of have that bittersweet thing, which is very important in writing a song. It's very important to get the ol' bittersweet going, I say. It's very useful for your favourite films — you get a very moody sequence and then you'll get a very light sequence and it's all in the same film. I think records should be like that. They should have lighter moments.

BONGO JAZZ: And hence Standing In For Joe (link expired), which I'm surprised made the cut because Song Stories hinted you weren't too keen on the tune. Did you revamp it since writing it for XTC's ill-fated bubblegum album?
MOULDING: This is the odd one of the bunch, I must say, because it was written as a parody. That's not really me in the actual story.

BONGO JAZZ: Your wife will be glad to know.
MOULDING: We were going to do it for this bubblegum record — that's quite right. It has a very glam-rock sound to it. Somebody said it sounded like the Sweet or something. It's kind of the odd one of the bunch because it is a parody and it sounds rather old-fashioned — around the early-'70s, like. But I thought it was a good tune and had a cheeky lyric. I thought: Let's do it.

BONGO JAZZ: You've had these songs on the horizon for years. Now that they're finally out, have you and Andy even dared to broach your next move?
MOULDING: We really don't know what's going to happen next, as regards to a new album. We've got one or two little projects — like little demo projects, little sketchbook things — that we want to give to the fans. As regards to the next XTC record, we're all delightfully blank. We don't know which way we're going to go and that's kind of thrilling but kind of fearful as well.

BONGO JAZZ: Please tell me it's not going to be another seven years...
MOULDING: No. I wouldn't have thought so. No, probably the normal year or two gap is how it's going to turn out. But who knows?
As regards to the next XTC record, we're all delightfully blank We don't know which way we're going to go and that's kind of thrilling but kind of fearful as well ... Probably the normal year or two gap is how it's going to turn out. But who knows?
BONGO JAZZ: Are we going to see a demo version of Wasp Star, like Apple Venus's Homespun?
MOULDING: It's quite possible and there are also plans to release demos of new songs that kind of didn't make the albums recently and also demos of old singles, like Nigel and Mayor of Simpleton. All that kind of stuff, there are demos in existence of us recording those songs at home.

BONGO JAZZ: Are you involved in the Virgin box set?
MOULDING: Yes, we've been in negotiations with Virgin about this box set (which would be released in 2002 as Coat of Many Cupboards, pictured left). They want us to co-operate and come up with a lot of these old demos. Of course, the rub is they want to own all these demos when we give them to them. They don't just want to licence them off of us. They want to own them. That's where the rub is. We say: We don't mind you using these demos on the forthcoming box set providing we get them back and you don't own them. That's what's been happening. We've been in negotiations with Virgin to decide who's going to own these demos when they come to light.

BONGO JAZZ: What form will your own box set take?
MOULDING: Our little demo package, you mean? It's going to be called Fuzzy Warbles. Do you remember the bar scene in A Clockwork Orange? The name Fuzzy Warbles comes to mention. We thought it would be a good, little title to call our little box set of demos. So that's what we intend to do. But I think the Virgin thing has to come first. They've got plans to get it out before the end of the year. So we hope we can sort something out.

BONGO JAZZ: So the size and scope of your set will depend on how the Virgin negotiations go?
MOULDING: It's pretty substantial. We've got lots and lots of demos of the old stuff, as well as the recent stuff. We've got a lot of stuff. But we've got to resolve a few things before we go ahead.

BONGO JAZZ: Andy is always asked if he'll get over his aversion to touring. At this point in your life, are you quite happy not to have to uproot yourself for months at a time to play some gigs?
MOULDING: When the decision not to tour was kind of taken from me all those years ago through Andy getting ill, I thought: Oh God, how does one go on? This is what bands do. Bands have to tour — it's part of the curriculum. So I was quite fearful how we were going to stay in touch and exist as a band. But I can honestly say at the time I was always a little anxious when we used to tour. I never actually took to being onstage that well. I think it actually stems from school times when you're asked to read a book out to the class. I think I was always terrified of that. It's more than that. I think we're both a couple of basketcases at the end of the day (laughs). When that decision was taken from me, not to tour, at the back of my mind it was a bit of a relief.

BONGO JAZZ: Sometimes I think if the band tried to plow ahead, XTC wouldn't be around now.
MOULDING: Oh, I think you're probably right, yes. Touring takes its toll and all those little things that annoy you about one another come to the fore, believe you and me.

BONGO JAZZ: I'm thinking about the 10 best Colin songs on XTC albums. What would you like to see top that list?
MOULDING: I think Frivolous Tonight (link expired) is my favourite song of mine, ever. I'm very keen on In Another Life; it's one of my better ones because the lyrics have become more important to me over the last few years. Going back to the old stuff, probably some of the stuff you don't hear that often. There's a track on Nonsuch called Bungalow. It's very cinematic, I think. Those are some of my favourites.

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