Monday, June 30, 2008

Sun — The Toms (1979?)

Now I'm no mathematician but I suspect the chances of creating a genuine power-pop classic are rather slim. So what would be the likelihood, then, of creating a power-pop classic and earning a Grammy Award nomination for work on Saturday Night Fever's crap sequel Stayin' Alive and collaborating with Richie Sambora on the Bon Jovi guitarist's first solo album? Pretty effin remote ... statistically speaking, of course.

Meet Tommy Marolda, the New Jerseyite who has defied these astronomical odds (which could explain why he now resides in Las Vegas).

His CV is a long one; the byproduct of a fruitful 30-year career spent running his own studio; contributing music to TV shows and film; and writing for and producing other acts. Yet Marolda might be best known and best loved trading as The Toms, a one-man band whose 1979 self-titled debut is rightfully hailed as a power-pop classic — and it doesn't even include Sun, arguably his finest three-and-a-half minutes.

Today's post surfaced three years ago on Yellow Pills: Prefill Numero 004, a two-CD compilation of late-'70s, early-'80s power-pop. Alas, the liner notes don't indicate Sun's recording date or session info and even Marolda's own website sheds no light on this amazing track. (Anyone with these details is encouraged to leave them in the comments.)

But here's what I do know. Fuzzy guitar squall and metronomic 4/4 snare beat sets Sun in motion and, if this sounds a little Sonic Youth in theory, in practice it's pure pop nirvana. On the chorus, Marolda plays a nagging riff on the bells and adds Space Invader-like sound effects and multitracked vocal harmonies, all nicely phased for slight psychedelic effect. "I'm waiting for the rain to end/Watch a whole new day begin," he sings and, indeed, the sound of Sun evokes beams of light breaking through the murk. That said, I'm still uncertain if Sun is a song of unabashed optimism or if its pockets of turbulence and recurring refrain of "darkness comes and darkness goes away now" make this The Catchiest Song about Bipolar Disorder ... Ever!

If you like Sun, check out that 1979 debut and, according to Marolda's website, more Toms titles are coming to iTunes soon.

Sun (link expired)

For a sample of his work outside of The Toms, here's the video for Ballad of Youth, the first single from Sambora's 1991 solo album Stranger in this Town, co-written by Sambora and Marolda:

Buy it here

Friday, June 27, 2008

That Was The Greatest Song — The Pooh Sticks (1993)

I recently read a magazine article that claimed the music we love in our early teens gets hot-wired into the pleasure centres of the brain and will trigger feelings of happiness for the rest of our lives. Gawd, I really hope that's true because this theory justifies my otherwise inexplicable affection for Reunion's Life is a Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me) and countless other bubblegum hits of the 1970s. Naturally, I'm also a sucker for songs that evoke this era, such as today's post from producer/songwriter Steve Gregory and vocalist Hue Williams, the core members of Swansea pop conceptualists The Pooh Sticks.

To be entirely honest, these two indie smart-alecks evoked the era because they shamelessly pilfered from it, mixing and matching existing melodies, lyrics, solos, even song titles. (1991's Great White Wonder, for instance, contained such Pooh Sticks 'originals' as Desperado, I'm in You, Sweet Baby James and The Wild One Forever, titles more commonly associated with The Eagles, Peter Frampton, James Taylor and Tom Petty, respectively.)

That Was The Greatest Song — the closing track on the Pooh Sticks' penultimate album, 1993's Million Seller — is also made from used parts: its sunny chorus lifted (with appropriate credit) from the 1979 single Greatest Song by long-forgotten UK rock band Freeway. Williams wrote the rest, including the charming faux-naif lyric that quotes Pete Wingfield's 1975 single Eighteen With a Bullet and equates the thrill of a first kiss with the joy of hearing a perfect pop song. What self-respecting music fan would dare argue with a sentiment like that? Best of all, That Was The Greatest Song approaches pop perfection itself; it would have fit snugly between The Raspberries and Badfinger on an early-'70s AM playlist.

How very Pooh Stick: Recording the greatest song that was ever sung by anyone, baby, about the greatest song that was ever sung by anyone, baby.

That Was The Greatest Song (link expired)

Buy it here

Monday, June 23, 2008

Johnny Carson — The Beach Boys (1977)

Last week marked the long-awaited deluxe reissue of Pacific Ocean Blue, the 1977 solo album from Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. Although older brother Brian is the widely recognized genius of the three Wilson boys, middle child Dennis quietly crafted some of the group's finest post-'68 material; songs like Baby Blue, Slip On Through and Forever (see video below). Pacific Ocean Blue, however, was his artistic high-water mark: An ambitious and engrossingly personal album that represented what a mature-period Beach Boys could have sounded like in The Year of Punk. Could have ... but didn't.

Three months before Pacific Ocean Blue originally hit shops, The Beach Boys' much-ballyhooed 'Brian's Back' campaign shifted into high gear with the release of The Beach Boys Love You, a warm 'n' fuzzy title for a deeply strange and fascinating album. Yes, Brian was in the producer's chair and, yes, he authored or co-authored all 14 songs, just like the good ol' days. But Love You was neither a return to the group's surf-rock innocence nor Pet Sounds sophistication. In fact, there's nothing quite like it in the group's CV.

First off, Love You is a Beach Boys record in name only. By all accounts, Mike Love and Al Jardine had little faith in Brian's new material and participated sparingly throughout the sessions. That left the three Wilson brothers to piece together what's essentially a lo-fi Brian solo album. The florid arrangements and superlative session work of the past are replaced by electric piano and airless synths, while Brian's lyrics reveal a badly damaged psyche that had reverted to childlike state. This leads to a few disturbing moments: Brian, then 35, should not suggest sweet lovin' to a Roller Skating Child. Ewww! By comparison, today's post — a tribute to the venerable Tonight Show host — is brilliantly odd and one of my all-time favourite Beach Boys tracks.

Brian's lyric starts blandly ("He sits behind his microphone/ He speaks in such a manly tone") but gradually grows darker and weirder ("When guests are boring he fills up the slack/ The network makes him break his back"). Love and Carl Wilson tag-team on the mic and maintain straight faces throughout, even conjuring a little Beach Boys vocal magic on the choruses. But then the song takes another bizarre turn, stopping for a series of half notes on the piano before closing with the mock high-school cheerleader chant: "Who's the man that we admire?/ Johnny Carson is a real live wire." Crazy? Yes, but Brian genius is still on full display in the song's intricate rhythm and his wild synth bass work.

At the time, Pacific Ocean Blue and Love You both underperformed, selling only 300,000 copies each and peaking outside of the top-50. In retrospect, however, 1977 looks like the last great year to be a Beach Boys fan with two very different yet equally remarkable new albums to enjoy.

Johnny Carson (link expired)

And from 1971, here's Dennis Wilson performing his song Forever with the Beach Boys:

Buy it here

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Nem Vem Que Nao Tem — Wilson Simonal (1967)

Summer's officially here (at least on my half of the world) and, to my ears, there are few songs as summery as Nem Vem Que Nao Tem. Today's post radiates unabashed, carefree joy, a quality that belies both the political backdrop of its creation and the tragic fate of its artist.

Brazil's Wilson Simonal was a hugely popular nightclub performer during the 1960s. His sound fused samba with American soul and swing, a style that would become known as pilantragem (which, depending on the translation, means 'piracy' or 'mischief'.) People loved it — loved him — and the Rio native sold a ton of records, hosted his own TV program, drove expensive foreign automobiles and dated a bevy of attractive blondes. No wonder the pilantragem classic Nem Vem Que Nao Tem sounds like the work of a man who's on top of the world. In 1967, Simonal was.

The song — from the album Alegria, Alegria!!! (below left) — starts with a burst of Simonal laughter, party sounds and handclaps (as many of his songs did during this era).

Soon, it settles into a hip, fingerpoppin' groove, highlighted by some slinky guitar, jazzy piano tinkling and Simonal's playful, mischievous vocal. Nem Vem Que Nao Tem is so celebratory and life-affirming, you almost forget, at the time, Brazil was in the fourth year of a brutal, right-wing military dictatorship that would endure 17 more.

Alas, mischief — and not the musical kind — led to to his downfall. In 1971, Simonal suspected his bookkeeper was embezzling from him and called upon his friends within the police arm of the military government to kidnap the accountant and get a confession out of him. Bad move. The accountant was eventually released, sued Simonal for extortion and, during the subsequent trial, an army general claimed Simonal was a government informant, hired to spy on his fellow musicians. Once loved, Simonal was now a pariah. Naturally, his fellow artists wanted nothing to do with him, and he was banned from record companies, radio, TV and record stories. His career took a sharp downturn from which it never fully recovered.

Simonal died from cirrhosis eight years ago this week. According to friends, Simonal, on his deathbed, remained hurt by the accusation he was an informant for the military government.

Since then, his widow has accessed documents listing the former government's many informants.

Simonal's name? Didn't appear.

Nem Vem Que Nao Tem (link expired)

From 1970, here's some fabulous footage of Simonal sharing the stage U.S. jazz great Sarah Vaughan, who appears to succumb to Simonal's easy-going charms.

Buy it here

Sunday, June 15, 2008

I Did It For Everyone — The Feeling (2008)

Tabulate the most common disingenuous statements spoken by professional musicians and "I just play for me, I don't care if anyone else listens," or some variation thereof, must be top o' the charts. The sentiment rings hollow, though, when the artists who trot out this BS line have label deals that put their CDs in stores, their videos on YouTube and their asses onstage. Don't get me wrong: There are countless signed artists who don't pay heed to commercial considerations when making a record but surely even they want people to hear their work when it's done. Otherwise, they would have stayed in their bedroom/basement/garage with the door shut, happily unseen and unheard, like some Milford Academy honour student.

For The Feeling, however, populist is not a naughty word. It's a one-word mission statement. The British five-piece specialize in the sort of glossy, FM pop-rock that conquered the world in the 1970s. Queen, Wings, ELO, 10cc — there's a little bit of each of these bands in The Feeling and had they debuted in 1976 rather than 2006, Roy Thomas Baker and Alan Parsons would have fought each other to the death for the right to produce them.

Refreshingly, The Feeling don't apologize for their well-crafted melodies and lyrics, and one suspects they'd be thrilled, not embarrassed, to appeal to hipsters and housewives alike. In fact, they pretty much say so much on I Did It For Everyone, one of the highlights on The Feelin
g's jinx-defeating sophomore album, Join With Us.

"If sweet harmony could spread like a flu/Then all the world would be singing it, too/I did it for me/I did it for you/I did it for everyone," frontman/guitarist Dan Gillespie declares on a rousing chorus that would sound great blaring from a radio on a warm, summer day. The rest of the track is damn good, too — beginning low-key and sweetly melodic, like something from the Eels first record, but eventually making room big Brian May guitars, airbrushed vocal harmonies and, right at the end, a baby singing along a music-box keyboard melody. The diaper-filling demographic? Apparently, The Feeling did it for them, too.

I Did It For Everyone (link expired)

Also from Join With Us, here's the video for the opening track and single, I Thought It Was Over:

Buy it here

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Think It Over One More Time — Buckwheat Zydeco (1985)

A buddy of mine, who is of the heavy metal persuasion, has become all hot and bothered by advance hype that suggests Metallica will return to their speed metal roots on their forthcoming, Rick Rubin-produced album. Nobody, I was duly informed, can match Masters of Puppets-era Metallica for white-knuckle velocity and manic energy. Which sounds all pretty impressive if it were, you know, true and stuff.

Now I ain't slaggin' Metallica; I'm just saying intensity and velocity are not qualities exclusive to guys with electric guitars, tattoos and mammoth Marshall amps. Case in point: Today's post, a combustible combination of frenzied zydeco and urban blues by Louisiana's Stanley Dural, a.k.a. Buckwheat Zydeco. (Yes, a post that starts with Metallica segues into Buckwheat Zydeco. Welcome to Bongo Jazz...)

Born in Lafayette, La., in 1947, Dural was a piano prodigy who was playing professionally around the time his age hit double digits. Later, he'd accompany the likes of Joe Tex, Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown and, starting in 1976, zydeco originator Clifton Chenier, who would become Dural's mentor. Within a couple years, Dural had switched from organ to accordion, adopted the Buckwheat Zydeco name and struck out on his own — taking the music that Chenier pioneered and broadening it with R&B and rock elements.

Think It Over One More Time, a Dural original from his 1985 Rounder Records release Waitin' For My Ya Ya, is a superb example of the Buckwheat approach. It's a basic blues chord progression delivered at warp speed by the exceptional Ils Sont Partis Band, with Dural's crazy-ass accordion playing providing the authentic Louisiana flavour. The track moves and grooves at such a frantic pace that sitting still while it plays is simply not an option.
Break it down and, admittedly, there's not a lot to Think It Over: The chord progression and rudimentary don't-leave-me lyric just repeat over and over for three and a half minutes. But this is a case of: It's now what you say; it's how you say it.

White-knuckle velocity? Check.

Manic energy? Check.

Think It Over One More Time (link expired)

And here's some great footage of Dural's mentor, Clifton Chenier, entertaining a New Orleans audience with the wonderfully titled I'm a Hog For You. Chenier died in 1987; the same year Dural released his first major-label album, on Island. The torch was passed.

Buy it here

Friday, June 13, 2008

Sale of the Century — The Futureheads (2008)

Rock's freshman class of 2005 were a promising bunch but, one by one, the likes of The Futureheads, Maximo Park, The Editors, The Magic Numbers and Bloc Party turned all moody, difficult and, frankly, kind of spotty in their sophomore year. Growing up, it's a bitch.

Of the forementioned acts, Sunderland's Futureheads are the first to release a third album of new material and — whew! — the melodies that went AWOL on sophomore disc News and Tributes make a triumphant return on This Is Not The World.

The Futureheads are still partying like it's 1979 — specifically, the abrasive, angular side of post-punk — but producer Youth (himself a post-punk legend with Killing Joke) has beefed up the band's sound and tunefulness, while keeping a watchful eye on quality control. The new album hits the same peaks as the debut; better yet, there are more of them.

Suddenly, 679 Recordings' decision to drop the band after the disappointing News and Tributes seems premature and foolhardy.

The Beginning of the Twist is the new album's first single and leadoff track:

But Sale of the Century is my early favourite, a track that starts off as a love song before U-turning into something stranger, darker — all to the soundtrack of a naggingly repetitive riff, jackhammer rhythm and the group's trademark four-part vocals. If you liked early single Meantime, you'll love this.

Sale of the Century (link expired)

Buy it here

Monday, June 9, 2008

Nobody But Me — Naz Nomad and the Nightmares (1984)

Multiple personality disorder is not necessarily a bad thing— at least, when it afflicts a rock and roll band. Green Day, for instance, is currently sidestepping that whole 'how-do-we-follow-up-a-blockbuster?' dilemma by trading as Foxboro Hot Tubs and cranking out '60s-style garage rock, with a sprinkling of power-pop, on their derivative but highly entertaining 'debut' album, Stop Drop and Roll!!!

It is a savvy move on Green Day's part but they're simply following in the footsteps of several other bands that have sought fresh inspiration by adopting a different name and musical direction, typically one that's near and dear to their collective hearts.

XTC resuscitated their commercial and artistic fortunes in the mid-'80s after recording as their psychedelic alter-egos, the Dukes of Stratosphear.

A little before that, British punk band The Damned dove headfirst into the Nuggets and Pebbles songbooks under the awesomely alliterate band name: Naz Nomad and the Nightmares.

Their one and only album, Give Daddy The Knife, Cindy, contained mostly covers (unlike Foxboro and the Dukes) but original Damned members Dave Vanian (as Naz), Rat Scabies (as Nick Detroit) and Captain Sensible (as Sphinx Svenson) absolutely nail the energy, excitement and crude stereophonic panning of the source material.

And what great source material: The Wind Blows Your Hair (The Seeds), The Trip (Kim Fowley), I Can Only Give You Everything (Them), I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night (Electric Prunes), Kicks (Paul Revere and the Raiders), Action Woman (The Litter) — and today's post, a hyperactive version of the Human Beinz's Nobody With Me, complete with overdubbed party noise, swirling farfisa organ, handclaps and all the vocals blaring out of the right channel (because, as the album jacket points out, this music was recorded in "full 3D stereo.")

Give Daddy The Knife, Cindy is one of the Damned's finest moments even though the band isn't credited anywhere on the album — jokingly billed as the soundtrack to a (fictional) 1967 American Screen Destiny picture. But the real punchline? While many official Damned titles have long been deleted, Naz Nomad and the Nightmares' one and only record remains in print.

Nobody But Me (link expired)

And, for more multiple-personality fun, here are the forementioned Dukes of Stratosphear, looking like XTC frolicking in Sgt. Pepper's puppet playground, in You're A Good Man, Albert Brown:

Buy it here

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Blues Got The World — Bruce Cockburn (1973)

If you visited Chez Bongo Jazz anytime over the past 10 months, chances are you were greeted at the door by the sounds of Bruce Cockburn on the stereo. He has long been a favourite of mine but, after seeing him perform last August in Banff, my wife and I purchased every Cockburn album we didn't own and proceeded to listen to his entire catalogue, one album at a time, in chronological order.

It has been a revelatory experience. Decades-old songs such as 1976's Gavin's Woodpile, 1983's The Trouble With Normal and 1985's Call It A Democracy could have been ripped from today's op-ed pages. Also somehow the man has not made a duff record in his 38-year recording career — and what other artist who's been putting out albums since 1970 can say the same?

I've particularly enjoyed discovering little-known gems on his earliest records. For instance, 1973's Night Vision, his fourth LP, contains one of his prettiest melodies, Clocks Don't Bring Tomorrow-Knives Don't Bring Good News, which has a piano coda that'll take your breath away. Yet, unless you're a diehard fan, you've likely never even heard of it.

The album also contains today's post, a frivolous ditty (with a purposely truncated title) that won't jibe with popular, one-dimensional perceptions of the artist as a rural hippie, questing Christian or righteous foreign policy critic.

Why? Because in this I've Been Everywhere-type travelling song, Cockburn concludes every verse with the plain-spoken observation: "Everywhere you look/ The blues got the world by the balls."

Yes, balls. You never expect Bruce Cockburn to sing about balls.

"I remember sitting in the back of my camper, feet dangling off the tailgate, being highly amused at myself over this one," Cockburn says of writing this track, on which the dexterous guitarist opts to mimic a kazoo during its instrumental break.

Needless to say, Wondering Where The Lions Are, it ain't.

I could have posted many better Cockburn songs but I chose The Blues Got The World because, in his expansive body of work, he doesn't have many others like it: A life's-a-piece-of-shit-when-you-look-at-it singalong that puts a smile on your face.

The Blues Got The World (link expired)

Fifteen years later, Cockburn would end his concerts with this Monty Python classic that could be seen as a highly evolved version of Blues:

Buy it here

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Burnin' — Alan Wilkis (2008)

High technology can be so overrated. Not always, of course: I am very happy to be writing this blog entry on a Mac iBook rather than a Commodore 64 and, no, I will not swap my iPod for your portable 8-track player. But when it comes to musicmaking technology, I'll always prefer analogue synths and wobbly, early-generation drum machines to their newfangled equivalents. Old technology is imperfect and, because of that, these machines can sound organic and, in the right hands, even funky.

That's the case with Brooklyn-based, one-man band Alan Wilkis, whose self-released debut, Babies Dream Big, employs vintage electronics and classic influences in service of fresh, primary-coloured pop-funk songs, like today's post.

Burnin' chugs along to a lo-tech motorik beat over which Wilkis layers all sorts of seemingly incongruous elements, including classic-rock guitar riffage, sweet falsetto vocals and what sounds like a synthesized melodica. The result is both familiar and unique: Certainly, I can't think of another pop song that reminds me of Todd Rundgren and Shuggie Otis and Rupert Hine's early-'80s solo albums, all within three-and-a-half, feel-good minutes. Such pop savvy and inclusive spirit bode well for Wilkis; one can only hope, if his promising self-released debut leads to bigger and better things, his music never forsakes its DIY charm.

Burnin' (link expired)

Buy it here

For a further sampling of Wilkis music, check out this GOOD magazine video profile of presidential candidate Barack Obama which features another Babies highlight, I'm Famous:

Monday, June 2, 2008

Flutter and Wow — Elvis Costello and the Imposters (2008)

When I started to get into music in the mid-1970s, my young imagination was captured by not only the timeless bands of the era (Pilot! Jigsaw! Star-freakin'-buck!) but also by the strange, unfamiliar words used to describe stereo equipment. Thanks to Rolling Stone's annual hi-fi guide, I knew my woofers from my tweeters, and worshipped at the altar of Dolby. But the term I loved most was "wow and flutter." It sounded mysterious and otherworldly and, from what I could gather, chances are my cheapo Sears Electronics turntable had plenty of it. One day, my 12-year-old self dreamed, I would own a turntable that had neither wow nor flutter and maybe, just maybe, by then I'd actually understand what this really bad thing is.

As it turned out, wow and flutter isn't otherworldly at all. It's merely the frequency wobbles caused by speed variations in analogue reproduction devices that use rotary components — for instance, when the turntable spins that vinyl record, or the cassette player moves the magnetic tape over the tape heads, at slightly varying speeds. How such a mundane concept gets a sexy name like wow and flutter, I dunno. (Good PR agency, perhaps.) I do know nothing in the digital age compares; "wow and flutter" certainly kicks the ass of "lossless compression."

It also makes for a great metaphor, at least in the hands of a gifted lyricist like Elvis Costello. Flutter and Wow — one of the highlights on Costello's superb new album, Momofuku — is the greatest, all-time love song for that rarely catered-to demographic: folks who appreciate classic R&B and the intricacies of high-end audiophile equipment.

Musically, Costello is in full soul-man mode here; you can imagine Al Green covering this song, just as Chet Baker was destined to croon Almost Blue.

But it's the lyrics that seal the deal (at least for this particular music geek). "You make the motor in me flutter and wow," he sings to his romantic interest, a novel way of expressing the rush of romantic love. Of course, Costello being Costello, he can't resist exploring the tape-machine metaphor to the fullest: "The incident tape across the bed/ Threading it from the reel to the head/ I’m planting this thought in a magnetic field/ I’m pressing the button/ And all of a sudden/ Erase everything rotten." (Is it just co-incidence he penned this old-fashioned, analogue-referencing love song for inclusion on an album originally intended for a vinyl-only release?)

Please remember: Costello is a trained professional. This same metaphor in less capable hands — "Sweetie, you make me feel like a malfunctioning reel-to-reel machine" — may not have the desired results.

Flutter and Wow (link expired)

Buy it here

Costello isn't the first to use wow and flutter in song. From 1994, here's Stereolab:

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Only A Hobo — Rod Stewart (1970)

Once again, it's time for What's The Matter With the Record Industry, Part Frankly Too Many To Count. In today's episode, Rod Stewart informs his record label that he'd like to make an album of country and folk standards, only to have the idea rejected because it didn't 'test' well. The morons in J Records' all-powerful focus group probably didn't know Stewart made records before Lost in You. And surely they never heard the singer's early solo albums, where Rod the Mod's considerable interpretive skills are best demonstrated on country-folk material such as Ewan MacColl's Dirty Old Town, traditional Man of Constant Sorrow and today's post, the definitive version of Bob Dylan's Only a Hobo.

Dylan originally recorded the song in 1963 but it failed to find a home on The Times They Are A-Changin' album and remained unreleased (at least officially) until 1991, when it appeared on his vault-cleaning The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 boxset.

By then, though, the song truly belonged to Stewart, who appropriated it for his 1970 sophomore solo set, Gasoline Alley. While his crack acoustic band provides pretty, sepia-toned accompaniment, Stewart finds value and dignity in a vagrant's recently ended life by conveying the sort of empathy and humanity that would recede from his music as his popularity swelled. Only A Hobo is affecting, heartfelt and about a million miles away from Do Ya Think I'm Sexy (which, in fact, was only nine years down the road). Oh yeah, and the acoustic guitars and fiddle and mandolin place the song firmly in a country-folk tradition that, I'm afraid to say, doesn't test well with cloth-eared number-crunchers.

Their loss? Nope, ours.

Only A Hobo (link expired)

And here's more evidence of Stewart's former greatness, performing Gasoline Alley/Around the Plynth with The Faces in Paris during early 1971:

Buy it here