Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sunday Soul: Please Uncle Sam (Send Back My Man) — The Charmels (1966)

This weekend's opening of army desertion drama Stop-Loss inspires today's Sunday Soul post. Please Uncle Sam (Send Back My Man) was released in November 1966 but surely its sentiment would still resonate among the loved ones of soldiers now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the track barely resonated with anyone upon its release; it was the first of four flop singles the Charmels recorded for Stax subsidiary Volt between 1966 and 1968, relegating the vocal group to footnote status in the annals of Memphis soul. Too bad: the songs deserved a much better fate.

The Charmels must have thought the stars had finally aligned for them in 1966 after five mostly fruitless years trading as the Tonettes and the Dixiebelles. Isaac Hayes, a proven hitmaker at Stax, took the trio under his wings, installed lead singer Barbara McCoy as a fourth member and, with partner David Porter, concocted the Charmels' debut 45, Please Uncle Sam (Send Back My Man).

"They wrote songs specifically around my voice," McCoy said of Hayes-Porter (pictured left), "and (the songs) were always sweet and kind of high."

She's right. Please Uncle Sam is not the gritty Memphis soul typically associated with Stax; it has more in common with slicker sounds of Motown and the innocent charms of The Fifth Dimension — which, I stress, is not a complaint.

This is a great track, highlighted by McCoy's yearning vocal and some nice call-and-response between McCoy and fellow Charmels Eula Jean Rivers, Mary Hunt and Mildred Pratcher. The song's emotional punch hits hardest during the bridge when the Charmels recall the last words the much-missed soldier man said before shipping out to Vietnam: "Don't worry baby/Course I love you/I'll be back in a year." You can tell by McCoy's nuanced voice that she understands the promised return could be in a body bag. (Amazingly, McCoy, who had never sung with a secular group before the Charmels, was so nervous in the studio that she insisted the lights be turned down so she couldn't see the people on the other side of the glass while recording.)

Please Uncle Sam (Send Back My Man) did nothing on the charts; ditto for the Charmels' next three Volt singles: 1967's I'll Gladly Take You Back and As Long As I've Got You, another two Hayes-Porter ballads that recall Burt Bacharach and Hal David's work with Dionne Warwick, and 1968's Lovin' Feeling, a funky interpretation of The Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling that proved to be the Charmels' final Volt release. A short and sweet body of work, then, but one worth discovering.

Please Uncle Sam (Send Back My Man) (link expired)

Buy it here

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Dawn (Go Away) — Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (1964)

What will be actor Joe Pesci's most enduring contribution to pop culture? Showing moviegoers how to kill a man by stabbing him in the jugular with a ballpoint pen surely will garner a few votes. However, 35 years before his role in Casino, Pesci played an integral but often unheralded role in shaping 1960s pop when he introduced a couple of his Jersey pals, Bob Gaudio, a talented keyboardist/songwriter/arranger, and Francis Castelluccio, a doowop tenor with a stratospheric falsetto who'd soon change his name to Frankie Valli. Pesci's two pals would strike up a creative relationship that would allow their band, The Four Seasons, and Valli's concurrent solo career to challenge The Beatles for chart supremacy for much of the 1960s.

(U.S. label Vee-Jay, which owned the rights to the early masters of both groups, took advantage of the situation by releasing the two-LP compilation The Beatles vs. The Four Seasons, in October 1964. "The international battle of the century," the front cover proclaimed. "You be the judge and jury!")

Those early Four Seasons chart-toppers (1962's Sherry and Big Girls Don't Cry, 1963's Walk Like a Man) thrust the group to stardom but, artistically, the best was still to come. Gaudio's songwriting and Bob Crewe's production made huge strides between 1964 and 1967 and many of the Four Seasons' songs from this golden era represent some of the greatest pop music of all time. Today's post, a top-5 hit from March of 1964, is my all-time favourite Four Seasons track, a bittersweet, class-conscious tale of selfless love soundtracked with a driving rhythm, sophisticated arrangement and widescreen Phil Spector-styled production.

"Pretty as a midsummer's morn/They call her Dawn," Valli swoons prettily at the start the record ... but this is no ballad. As the harmonies fade, the song kicks into gear with galloping drums (the stickwork on this track is outstanding), glockenspiel and stacks o' vocal harmonies as Valli dissuades his true love from falling for him and guides her into the arms of a wealthier boy.

"Think what a big man he'll be/ Think of the places you'll see/ Now think what the future would be with a poor boy like me," implores Valli, who takes a potentially corny pop storyline and infuses it with genuine heartbreak and street smarts. His vocal performance suggests Valli, the son of a barber and an Italian immigrant, could empathize with the song's "poor boy" and his plight. Surely others did, too. You can hear echoes of this tough yet tender Gaudio-Sandy Linzer song in fellow Jersey-ite Bruce Springsteen's Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) and especially in Billy Joel's 1983 hit Uptown Girl.

So how did this exciting, ageless track not soar to No. 1 in its day? There were three reasons, actually: (1) I Want To Hold Your Hand, (2) She Loves You and (3) Please Please Me. In the International Battle of the Century, give this round to the Beatles.

Dawn (Go Away) (link expired)

And, from 1962, here are the Four Seasons performing Big Girls Don't Cry:

Buy it here

Friday, March 28, 2008

Rock 'n' Roll Toilet — The Soft Boys (1979)

As Robyn Hitchcock embarks on another reissue campaign of his solo albums, I wonder what's taking so long to refurbish his earlier recordings with The Soft Boys. Matador gave the Cambridge group's 1980 sophomore album Underwater Moonlight the deluxe treatment a few years back but 1979 debut A Can of Bees and posthumous odds-and-sods collection Invisible Hits are currently (and tragically) unavailable on CD.

Some of Hitchcock's best work is on these albums, including today's post, which was recorded in 1979 but emerged four years later on Invisible Hits. Truth be told, I bought the record back then based solely on the fact I wanted to hear a song named Rock 'n' Roll Toilet. If you're going to use Rock 'n' Roll as an adjective, I decided Toilet is a cooler noun to modify than, say, Band or Fantasy or even Hoochie Koo. Strange reasoning, I know, but the song doesn't disappoint.

Hitchcock's usual Syd Barrett-isms are replaced by a tumbling guitar riff and snaking blues harp that prompt some people to consider Rock 'n' Roll Toilet a Rolling Stones parody. And maybe it is. The Soft Boys reportedly swapped instruments during its recording, suggesting they weren't taking the track too seriously. But so what? Rock 'n' Roll Toilet is big, loud, dumb and a helluva lot of fun, even if I'm still uncertain if the lyrics are pure nonsense or a sly stab at cokeheads. Give it a listen and decide for yourself:

Rock 'n' Roll Toilet (link expired)

And here's Hitchcock on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1985 performing Brenda's Iron Sledge, a track from his solo debut, Black Snake Diamond Role:

Buy it (used) here

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Clowns — Goldfrapp (2008)

"Say something once, why say it again?"

David Byrne posed this rhetorical question more than 30 years ago yet this Psycho Killer lyric still comes to mind every time I hear a 'new' album that sounds suspiciously like its predecessor. Sticking to a successful formula may be smart business, at least in the short term, but it's a drag in the long run. Certainly many of pop music's most enduring and influential acts — from Neil Young to the Velvets, Bowie to the Beatles — have a history of defying expectations rather than pandering to them.

Apparently British duo Goldfrapp is also more interested in embarking on a journey than simply running on the spot. Four albums into their career, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory are proving to be as artistically restless and musically fearless as pop's most revered mavericks. Look at their short history: Critical plaudits for the electronic torch songs on 2000 debut Felt Mountain; a sharp left turn towards glammy electro-disco on 2003's Black Cherry and 2005's Supernature; and now for something completely different, the mostly quiet and gentle chill-out disc Seventh Tree. And it's outstanding.

The new album has been called Goldfrapp's pastoral English folk album, a description that's mostly but not entirely accurate. (The label doesn't fit the effervescent pop of Caravan Girl or the Beatlesque Little Bird, with its Strawberry Fields mellotron and melodic McCartney bassline.)

But 'pastoral' is a fine adjective for today's post, Seventh Tree's bewitching leadoff track, Clowns. Goodbye disco ball and squelchy synths; hello finger-picked acoustic guitar, Alison Goldfrapp's breathy voice hitting notes at the high end of her register, unobstrusive strings and even bird song. It's part Nick Drake, part Cocteau Twins and, in the grand scheme of things, not a million miles away from Minnie Riperton's Lovin' You. I haven't been knocked out by such a gentle song since Mysteries, the opening cut from the 2002 Beth Gibbons/Rustin Man album Out of Season.

Be warned, though. If you fall in love with Clowns, and fall in love with Seventh Tree, as I have done, savour these songs knowing there's a chance Goldfrapp will be pursuing death metal polka on album No. 5.

Clowns (link expired)

And here's the video for A&E, the first single from Seventh Tree:

Buy it here

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sunday Soul: Uptown Babies Don't Cry — Max Romeo and the Upsetters (1976)

Max Romeo and producer Lee Perry (pictured, from left) were both at the peak of their powers when they recorded the 1976 reggae milestone War Ina Babylon at Perry's Black Ark studios. One Step Forward, I Chase The Devil and the title track were the album's calling cards but its other six tracks were equally outstanding, including today's post, a powerful, journalistic look at the cruel, unjust chasm between the rich and poor.

Romeo — born Maxwell Smith in Saint D'Acre, Jamaica in 1942 — grew into his role as a social commentator. His stage surname was surely chosen to complement the sweet love songs he initially recorded, although it was the lascivious Wet Dream that established his name ... and his rude boy cred.

More saucy novelty tracks followed (Pussy Watch Man, Mini Skirt Vision, Wine Her Goosie) but Romeo soon tired of his lover-man image and his political convictions drove him to record more socially conscious material. Romeo aligned himself with the socialist People's National Party (PNP) during his country's blood-drenched 1972 elections and his songs became fervently political and partisan. The PNP romped to victory but, four years later, on the eve of another election, the rich were still rich, the poor still poor.

The Romeo-penned Uptown Babies Don't Cry could have been written to remind the young 'people's' government of the work it still needed to do:

"Hear that little baby crying/She's crying because she's hungry/ You can hear her mommy saying, 'It ain't easy when you're poor, you see ... But uptown babies don't cry/They don't know what hungry is like/They don't know what suffering is like/They have mommy and daddy/Lots of toys to play with/Nanny and granny/Lots of friends to stay with."

Perry's sympathetic production is as vivid as Romeo's lyrics, with swirling organ and horns parts accenting the singer's supple vocal and adding colour to an earthy roots groove. Perry and Romeo's partnership was so symbiotic and produced such outstanding music that the dissolution of their relationship following Babylon's release still seems like a tragic lost opportunity.

Uptown Babies Don't Cry (link expired)

Romeo, now 65, is still recording and touring. Here he is singing the title track from War Ina Babylon earlier this year:

Buy it here

Friday, March 21, 2008

Church Not Made With Hands — The Waterboys (1984)

A spiritual song seems apropos for Easter weekend so I present Church Not Made With Hands, a track that doesn't mention God by name but is undoubtedly all about Him. Except, in this early Mike Scott masterpiece, God is a breathtaking woman, worthy of worship yet utterly unattainable. It's a metaphor, of course, but a very apt and effective one.

Church Not Made From Hands marvels at the infinite mysteries of life and basks in the beauty of unspoilt nature which is, Scott suggests, the only cathedral truly befitting its creator.

"When it's dark and evening falls/ She moves among men/ They would seek to have her as a prize," sings Scott, likely alluding to religious leaders who use their 'knowledge' of God's will to build their personal empires.

But, Scott suggests, you won't find the Almighty in some manmade mega-church.

"She is in the shadows/The ocean and the sand," he sings of this elusive spirit, "she is everywhere and no place/Her church not made with hands."

The lyric's sense of wonder is only matched by the music's rousing romanticism, building from an acoustic guitar strum into skyscraping, Wall of Sound arrangement, highlighted by a soaring brass riff, a blistering electric guitar solo and Scott's own impassioned vocal. He called his sound Big Music in 1984 but, in the case of Church Not Made With Hands (the leadoff track on the Waterboys' second album, A Pagan Place), the music was also stirring and epic without being too over-the-top or earnest.

Divine, in other words.

Church Not Made With Hands (link expired)

Here's more Waterboys from their early 'Big Music' phase. From 1983, this is the video from A Girl Called Johnny:

Buy it here

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday Soul: We've Only Just Begun — Curtis Mayfield (1971)

The Carpenters weren't exactly known for their civil rights anthems. Yet, in 1971, one of Karen and Richard's biggest hits was transformed by Curtis Mayfield on his Curtis/Live! double album. Once you hear Mayfield's version of We've Only Just Begun, you may never hear the song the same way again.

Promoting racial equality surely wasn't on the minds of Paul Williams and Roger Nichols when they wrote We've Only Just Begun. The song made its debut in 1970 as a commercial jingle (sung by Williams) for a California bank. Richard Carpenter recognized the composition's hit potential and opted to record it for The Carpenters' sophomore album, Close To You. Richard's faith in the song was warranted: We've Only Just Begun hit No. 2 on the pop charts in November 1970 and, since then, has become an easy-listening classic and a wedding-song perennial. Do you hear 'black power' in any of that?

Mayfield apparently did. He included the song in his set list when he played New York City's Bitter End in January 1971 and, perhaps surprisingly, it didn't sound out of place surrounded by his own black enpowerment anthems.

Mayfield doesn't change Williams's lyric; he simply asks the listener to approach the song from a different angle and hear it with a fresh pair of ears. "A lot of folks think this particular lyric is not appropriate for what might be considered underground," Mayfield tells his audience, "but I think 'underground' is whatever your mood or your feelings might be at the time so long as it's the truth. I think it's very appropriate that we might lend a few words of inspiration here."

Indeed, the aspirational message of We've Only Just Begun ("So much of life ahead/We'll find a place where there's room to grow") isn't far removed from the sentiment of Mayfield's own Move On Up ("Just move on up and keep on wishing/Remember your dreams are your only schemes/So keep on pushing"), We're A Winner ("We're a winner/And never let anybody say, boy, you can't make it") or Keep on Pushing ("Now maybe some day I'll reach that higher goal/I know that I can make it with just a little bit of soul").

If only the Carpenters tipped their hat to Mayfield and covered Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey) ...

We've Only Just Begun (link expired)

Here's more classic Curtis, performing Keep On Keeping On on The Old Grey Whistle Test:

Buy it here

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I May Hate You Sometimes — The Posies (1988)

The Persuaders said it best on their 1971 soul hit Thin Love Between Love & Hate but that hasn't stopped countless other acts from walking the same adoration/abhorrence tightrope. My favourites: Squeeze's If I Didn't Love You ("...I'd hate you...") and today's post, an early gem from the Jon Auer/Ken Stringfellow songbook.

I May Hate You Sometimes ("...but I'll always love you...") originally surfaced on a self-released cassette titled Failure in 1988 which later re-emerged as the Posies' debut LP. Back then, the Posies were just a twosome comprised of childhood friends Auer and Stringfellow, who multi-tracked themselves into a full-bodied power-pop band.

The dynamic duo doesn't miss a trick: luxuriate in their close harmonies, chiming guitars, shaking tambourine, supremely catchy melody and outstanding middle-eight. You may forget you're listening to the Posies and think you've tripped upon a great, unreleased Hollies single. Yes, it's that good. Meanwhile, the song's jokey title belies lyrics that possess genuine emotion and pathos: "Do you think you could treat me like somebody special," Auer and Stringfellow implore, "I can't be everything to everybody/Could I at least be something to you?" Only the hard-hearted and cloth-eared would be unmoved.

I May Hate You Sometimes (link expired)

And here are Auer and Stringfellow dusting off the 20-year-old tune last December:

Buy it here

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Age of the Understatement — The Last Shadow Puppets (2008)

Alex Turner resurfaces this spring, not with a third Arctic Monkeys record, but alongside pal Miles Kane of The Rascals.

The duo will trade as The Last Shadow Puppets and the title track of their forthcoming debut affirms the 22-year-old Turner is too bright and too ambitious to be satisfied with recording just more of the same. Cue unexpected spaghetti western motif and sweeping orchestration; it'll be interesting what other surprises Turner has in store.

The Age of the Understatement, the album, will be released April 21 in the UK and May 6 in North America.

The Age of the Understatement (link expired)

Buy it here

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sunday Soul: Grinnin' In Your Face — Son House (1965)

An old man's voice, a pair of hands for clapping/slapping, and a long, hard life lived. That's all Son House needed when he recorded his song Grinnin' In Your Face for producer John Hammond Sr. in April of 1965. The result was two minutes of bracing blues and a prime example of music as unvarnished human expression.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when 63-year-old Eddie James 'Son' House walked into Columbia's New York City studios to lay down his first recordings since Alan Lomax's Library of Congress sessions produced 19 songs in 1941-42. House was a tall, slender man whose disposition was reportedly as gloomy as his music was intense. Born near Clarksdale, Miss., in 1902, House was at varying times a Baptist preacher, a convicted murderer (House claimed self-defence), a train-hopping hobo, a pioneer of the Delta blues (along with contemporaries Charley Patton and Willie Brown) and an inspiration for Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. The man is a genuine icon of 20th century music.

Yet, a year before his three-day Columbia sessions, House was working at the New York Central Railroad and claimed he hadn't picked up a guitar in years. Guitarist-researcher Alan Wilson (later of Canned Heat) found House at the railroad; informed the non-practising bluesman of the surging interest in his recordings for Paramount in 1930 and for Lomax; and convinced House to resume his music career, even helping him re-learn his songs and guitar style.

This culminated in a three-day Columbia session released as The Legendary Son House: Father of Folk Blues LP in 1965. (It was re-released in 1992, with an extra CD of outtakes, as Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions).

Grinnin' In Your Face is one of two a cappella tracks on Father of Folk Blues and the song's stark intensity is spine-tingling. House had surely seen his share of injustice in his 63 years and, on Grinnin' In Your Face, he paints a world where deceit trumps loyalty and a friendly smile to your face can be followed by a shiv in the back. "You know they'll jump you up and down/They'll carry you all round and round," he sings, "just as soon as your back is turned/They'll be trying to crush you down." His voice still possesses the passion of a young man but the years have made it worn and weakened. The imperfection of the performance (listen to his voice give out at 1:21) and the intimacy of the recording (you can hear every intake of air and almost smell his breath) make Grinnin' In Your Face utterly compelling; when it's playing, it demands your full attention. You can't listen to it passively.

The Columbia sessions would be House's last studio recordings, although he toured into the 1970s. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's forced House to stop performing in 1976; his last 12 years were spent in Detroit, where he died on Oct. 19, 1988.

Grinnin' In Your Face (link expired)

And from 1967, here's Son House playing Death Letter, a song later covered by The White Stripes on De Stijl:

Buy it here

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dead Finks Don't Talk — Brian Eno (1973)

Brian Eno is known to be many things: Innovator. Theorist. Egghead. But humourist? Not so much.

Yet Eno's 1973 solo debut, Here Come The Warm Jets, is actually quite funny — in a subversive and absurdist way rather than a Weird Al Yankovic way. First of all, there's the album title: 'Warm Jets' sound kind of mysterious and exotic until one discovers it's merely Eno's euphemism for, um, urination. (Better than naming your record Here Comes The Piss, mind you.) Then there's Dead Finks Don't Talk, a hilariously bitchy skewering of Eno's former Roxy Music bandmate Bryan Ferry. Or so goes the story.

Eno's sonic manipulations played a huge role in shaping Roxy Music's first two albums but increasingly strained relations between he and Ferry about the direction of the group led to Eno's departure in 1973. Shortly thereafter, Eno — the self-professed non-musician — started recording Here Come The Warm Jets and, judging from Dead Finks Don't Talk, his Roxy divorce still rankled.

Eno initially denied the song was directed at Ferry, pointing out the album's lyrics were all randomly generated. So it was purely co-incidence, then, Eno addresses a subject who's "always so charming" but also a "headless chicken" with a "bad sense of direction." So, in no way should listeners think the line, "to be a zombie all the time requires such dedication," is about the perpetually cool, seemingly bloodless Ferry. But, um, how does one explain the mocking Ferry impression at the 1:14 mark?

Eno later admitted that, yeah, maybe he was taking the piss, albeit unwittingly.
"Dead Finks Don’t Talk is the most randomly generated of my songs. I wrote the lyrics at home with my girlfriend with a cassette of the backing track from the studio. I sang whatever came into my mind as the song played through ... (Producer) Chris Thomas said, ‘you’ll get me shot for that track. It’s obviously about Bryan.’ So I listened back to it and it obviously was. It was certainly something I hadn’t realised."
If Ferry carried a grudge over the song, he has apparently put it aside. Eno revealed in 2006 that he contributed two tracks and played keyboards on the long-gestating Roxy Music reunion album. Maybe Ferry can laugh about Dead Finks Don't Talk now. At least he's got to admit: It's a helluva lot funnier than Music For Airports.

Dead Finks Don't Talk (link expired)

And, from 1972, here's Roxy Music with a leopard-skinned, knob-twiddling Brian Eno playing Ladytron on The Old Grey Whistle Test:

Buy Here Come The Warm Jets here

Buy Roxy Music here

Friday, March 7, 2008

Invisible Man — Joe Jackson (2008)

Joe Jackson kicked off his 1979 sophomore album I'm The Man with a track called On The Radio. In the song, Jackson — then a new wave star on the rise — lashed out at "ex-friends, ex-lovers and enemies" by rubbing his new-found fame in their faces. "Don't you know you can't get near me," he sneered, "you can only hope to hear me on your radio."

Almost three decades later, circumstances have changed. Jackson isn't the Next Big Anything anymore. His audience has become, shall we say, more selective. And his ex-friends, ex-lovers and enemies can once again turn on the radio, confident in the knowledge they won't hear Jackson in heavy rotation anymore. And, you know what? Jackson is OK with that.

At least, I assume that's the case listening to Invisible Man, the opening cut on his superb new album, Rain. It is kind of like the photo negative of On The Radio. Jackson acknowledges he has become a non-entity, at least in terms of contemporary pop culture, and he relishes that role, as it allows him to follow his eclectic muse without compromising for the marketplace. On The Radio touted the power of omnipresence; the new song is about the invincibility of invisibility: "Why did the lights go down/Or onto someone new/Well, let them learn I used to own this town/Now I'm watching you."

Invisible Man's dignified bravado would ring hollow — or, worse, sound a little pathetic — had Jackson released a stinker of an album. I've been listening to Rain for about a month and can happily report it is his most satisfying pop outing since 1989's Blaze of Glory. Original Joe Jackson Band rhythm section Graham Maby and Dave Houghton are on board and, with Jackson on piano, they create a clean, crisp trio sound capable of caressing Jackson's prettiest melodies in years (Wasted Time, Rush Across The Road) or pounding out punchy, rollicking numbers (The Uptown Train, King Pleasure Time) that would make Ben Folds envious. Overall, Rain reminds me a lot of Jackson's 1984 classic Body and Soul: Both records are informed by jazz and R&B, leave plenty of empty space in the music, and sound like they were captured live in the studio. To recap: Great songs, great performances, great sound, great album.

"Can't touch the invisible man!" Jackson boasts.


Invisible Man (link expired)

And here's Joe Jackson, at the height of his popularity, performing On The Radio during his 1982-83 Night and Day tour.

Buy it here

Monday, March 3, 2008

Ocean Breakup/King of the Universe — Electric Light Orchestra (1973)

Record companies must hate interviews like these. In 1999, Sony Music arranged for me a nice, sit-down lunch with its new signing Tal Bachman, whose single She's So High was becoming a big deal at radio. First, we talked about his record and then about growing up with a famous musical father, Randy Bachman of Guess Who and BTO fame. But somehow the conversation turned to our mutual love for Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra.

Bachman, like me, loved all eras of the band but especially those somewhat obscure first three albums. I wonder if the folks at Sony would have picked up the bill if they knew this interview, intended to promote Bachman's album, had turned into an in-depth debate about whether Mr. Radio or Whisper in the Night is the best track on the group's 1971 debut, No Answer. I admit this was hardly the best interview I ever conducted but, dammit, you don't often run into people who appreciate ELO's entire body of work, not just the years when Lynne created perfectly produced, assembly-line pop hits.

In fact, nowadays when I want to indulge in a little ELO love, I don't automatically reach for Eldorado, A New World Record or even the landmark Out of the Blue. Rather, I find myself returning to 1973's On The Third Day, which may not be the best ELO record but it has become my favourite.

The record, ELO's third, represents a special, fleeting moment in the group's history when Lynne's music hinted at the carefully crafted AM pop to come (especially on Showdown and Ma-Ma-Ma Belle) but still contained elements of the group's barmy, prog-rock past.

On The Third Day is very much a transitional work but hearing the band mid-metamorphosis is fascinating, especially on the conceptual suite that fills Side 1 (in old-fashioned vinyl parlance). Ocean Breakup/King of the Universe kicks off the suite, which is loosely based on the story that God, "on the third day," created land and vegetation on Earth. The subject matter is all very Spinal Tap, and about a million light years away from Shine A Little Love, but charming in its ambition.

Meanwhile, ELO's performance is surprisingly lo-fi, at least compared to the group's latter-day standards. Unable to afford a full orchestra for the sessions, the resourceful Lynne just overdubs his string players ... and then overdubs them some more. The results are ragged but pleasingly earthy. This is also one of the last times that Bev Bevan is allowed free rein to pound the skins in ELO; soon, producer Lynne would reduce him to being a human drum machine perpetually set to 4/4 time.

Give a listen to ELO, circa 1973. They'd go onto bigger and better things but On The Third Day has an authentic 'band' feel they'd never conjure again. And if you don't believe me, ask Tal.

Ocean Breakup/King of the Universe (link expired)

And here's live footage of ELO from 1974 playing the suite's grand finale, New World Rising (a dry run for Mr. Blue Sky), followed by On The Third Day album track Daybreaker.

Buy it here

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Sunday Soul: Ready or Not Here I Come (Can't Hide From Love) — The Delfonics (1969)

Philadelphia soul is a genre strongly identified with the 1970s but its genesis dates back to the previous decade with groups such as The Delfonics. The hallmarks of Philly soul — the lavish orchestrations, the smooth vocal harmonies, the middle-of-the-road pop sensibilities — are all present and accounted for on the group's first three, Thom Bell-produced and arranged albums (1968's La La Means I Love You, 1969's Sound of Sexy Soul and 1970's The Delfonics). Each of these albums contained one stone classic: La La Means I Love You had its title track, The Delfonics had Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time) and Sound of Sexy Soul had the song I'm blogging about today.

I chose Ready or Not Here I Come because, of the group's three big hits, this one is, in some ways, the runt of the litter. It failed to crack to the top-30 in 1969 whereas the other two songs were top-10 smashes. As such, compilers nowadays always seem to default to Didn't I or La La Means I Love You when they're looking to include a Delfonics track. Ready or Not Here I Come has become the group's forgotten hit despite having so many great qualities.

Qualities like the intro, a dramatic 10-second overture with brass and strings that essentially tells the listener: You need to hear this. Then — bam! — we're right into the song's audacious chorus where the trio's vocals alternate between staccato and legato phrasings to stunning effect. At the quarter pole, we finally get to the first verse where William Hart's high tenor soars heavenward as the orchestra swells underneath him. It's sonic nirvana for Philly soul fans — but only for a brief time.

Ready or Not Here I Come is also a frustrating track because, after making such a grand entrance and after taking its time to fully flower, the song meekly fades out after two meagre minutes. Generally, I believe in the 'leave 'em wanting more' axiom but, in this case, one wishes co-writers Hart and Bell Linkcould have made the song a bit longer or at least conceived a better ending than its K-Tel-style premature fade.

That quibble aside, Ready or Nor Here I Come still stands as one of the Delfonics' greatest achievements. By 1970, producer/arranger Bell and the trio would go their separate ways — subsequent Delfonics singles would draw diminishing returns until the group disbanded in 1974, while Bell would apply what he perfected with the Delfonics to create quintessential Philly soul hits with The Stylistics and The Spinners.

Ready or Not Here I Come (link expired)

And, for your viewing pleasure, here are the Delfonics performing La La Means I Love You live on Top of the Pops from July of 1971:

Buy it here

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Homecoming — Joe Henry (1998)

For years, my only significant impressions of Tom T. Hall came from (1) the fact I knew he was the fellow who penned Harper Valley PTA for Jeanne C. Riley and (2) memories of hearing his song I Love played on my local AM top-40 station every hour during the summer of 1974. Back then, my eight-year-old ears determined lyrics such as, "I love coffee in a cup/little fuzzy pups," to be unbearably cornball (and I liked Captain and Tennille at the time!) so I grew into adulthood with the barest notion of the Kentucky songwriter's work and no interest in finding out more.

But in 1998, Calgary drummer Ross Watson, a very persuasive guy with an impeccable taste in music, somehow persuaded me to buy Real: The Tom T. Hall Project, featuring covers of 17 Hall songs from the likes of Johnny Cash, Whiskeytown, Calexico, Iris Dement and Ralph Stanley. The record was a revelation. (Thanks, Ross!) Suddenly, I realized why Hall is known as The Storyteller: using plain and guileless language, he spun compelling tales that embodied the joys, pains, regrets and passions of human existence and did so with both sly humour, searing insight and a keen eye for detail. But the song that knocked me sideways was Joe Henry's radical reworking of Homecoming.

Describing the composition in the liner notes, Henry writes:
Here is a one-sided conversation of an adult singing star who pops in on his widowed father for the first time in years for a brief, obligatory visit while travelling on tour. It's like a Raymond Carver short story — a bite out of the middle of someone's life, beginning abruptly and dangling at the end with a flash of almost unspeakable regret. It is remarkable that with the conversational small talk, we know in a handful of verses all we need to about this man, his relationship to his family, his arrogant facade and his gnawing self-doubt. I still laugh out loud when I hear it, as I'm sure Tom laughed when he wrote it, because what is inherently true is always irresistibly funny somehow.
And the 1969 original is funny because Hall sings the lyrics in a casual, almost clueless way that makes his central character seem oblivious to his thoughtlessness and self-absorption. Henry, on the other hand, goes for pathos. Tape loops, disembodied vocal samples and a cheap beatbox give the track a tired, airless, mechanical feel that underlines the disconnect between singing star, his family and his former life, while Henry sounds world-weary, wracked with regret and resigned to an existence in which stardom will preclude him from laying down any roots.

Highlighted by Henry's rendition of Homecoming, Real: The Tom T. Hall Project is an ideal introduction to the man's songwriting and storytelling talents. Hall, who turns 72 in May, remains active as a songwriter and recording artist, having released Tom T. Hall Sings Miss Dixie & Tom T. last year on his independent bluegrass label Blue Circle Records. He will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame later this year.

Homecoming, Joe Henry version (link expired)

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