Sunday, August 31, 2008

Things Fall Apart/Slink — Jerry Harrison (1981)

By now, Brian Eno and David Byrne fans surely have heard the pair's first collaborative album in 27 years, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, does not mark a return to the polyrhythmic, funk-rock experiments of I Zimbra, Remain in Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. For those disappointed by this fact, I dust off the mostly unloved first solo disc from Talking Heads keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, recorded less than a year after the release of Remain In Light and featuring most of that landmark record's supplementary musicians. Harrison titled it The Red and the Black; it could have been titled Remainder in Light. That's not meant as an insult; the best of these Byrne- and Eno-free solo tracks are better than the Remain in Light outtakes that surfaced on its 2006 reissue.

Case in point: Red/Black leadoff track Things Fall Apart. Steve Scales and the late Yogi Horton lay down a hypnotic, percussive intro before their fellow auxilary Heads lock into a deep, funk groove, driven by a killer bassline from George Murray and topped by the soulful background harmonies of Nona Hendryx, Dolette McDonald and Koko Mae Evans as well as a groaning Adrian Belew guitar solo. The lyrics, meanwhile, seem to address intraband tensions within Talking Heads during the Remain in Light sessions, when Byrne and Eno's creative 'leadership' made the other three Heads feel like sessioneers in their own band. "You thought that whatever happened, we would make up," Harrison sings about a subject who's "so convinced of your own point of view/In any event, you thought you'd know just what to do."

The summery, feel-good Slink is the closest thing to Red/Black's big pop moment, a la Once In A Lifetime, except a lyric detailing how to smuggle drugs past security without getting caught ("You've got to control your panic/ Slow down, pause and handle it") possibly prevented it from battling Olivia Newton-John and Quarterflash to the top of the late-1981 singles charts. Of course, the fact Harrison's lead vocals make Byrne sound like Aaron Neville probably curtailed the song's — and album's — commercial potential.

In the end, The Red and the Black proved the red-headed stepchild of the three Heads solo releases of 1981, easily eclipsed in terms of sales and acclaim by Byrne's soundtrack to Twyla Tharp's The Catherine Wheel and by Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz's self-titled Tom Tom Club debut, both of which have stayed in print since their release. Harrison's solo debut, on the other hand, was quickly deleted and remained unavailable until recently, when iTunes started selling it as a digital download.

Music fans still hankering for a sequel to Remain in Light could do a lot worse.

Things Fall Apart (link expired)

Slink (link expired)

So, what are Byrne and Eno up to on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today? Here's the video for first single Strange Overtones:

Buy The Red and the Black on iTunes

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Help Me — Kensington Market (1969)

The history of pop music is chock full of unlikely alliances and odd partnerships. Like when Frank Zappa started hanging out with The Monkees. Or when Aimee Mann harmonized with Geddy Lee. Or when jazz legend Miles Davis played on a crap Toto album. And who can forget Garth Brooks's contributions to the sessions that produced Chris Gaines's immortal debut album? Today's post is another left-field head-scratcher: A single from short-lived Toronto psych outfit Kensington Market, co-written by the guy who produced Cream's signature classic Sunshine of Your Love and the fellow who produced Rough Trade's new wavy, girl-on-girl fantasy High School Confidential. Well, you know what they say about truth being stranger than fiction....

I suppose a few details are in order. Help Me is the leadoff track and first single from Kensington Market's sophomore disc-turned-swansong, Aardvark, released in May 1969. (More on that title later.) The six-piece was managed by Bernie Finkelstein and featured in its ranks guitarist-pianist Gene Martynec, who penned Help Me with Felix Pappalardi, the producer of Aardvark and its predecessor Avenue Road. New Yorker Pappalardi was riding high in '69, having helmed a trio of Cream albums (Disraeli Gears, Wheels of Fire and Goodbye) and founding proto-metal band Mountain with Leslie West.

However, Help Me echoes neither Cream nor Mountain. The song's striking intro doesn't even sound like a 1969 psych track; rather, it starts like a 1980 electro-pop record ... played at 16 r.p.m. (Credit new member John Mills-Cockell, whose singular Moog and synth work colours many of Aardvark's 13 tracks.) When the band joins in, they build upon the intro's wobbly, slo-mo rhythm and woozy vibe; the end result could be mistaken for late-period Flaming Lips ... yet The Soft Bulletin was still 30 years away.

Alas, Kensington Market's prodigious consumption of hallucinogens took a toll on intraband relations and, before the year was up, the group had disintegrated. Undeterred, Finkelstein established True North Records in early 1970 and, over the ensuing three-plus decades, many of the label's acts (including Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Rough Trade) were managed by Finkelstein and produced by Martynec. As for Pappalardi, he found steady work as a producer until the late-'70s when hearing loss forced him to retire. He was shot and killed by his wife in their Manhattan apartment in April of 1983.

And, finally, why name an album Aardvark? Apparently, the band was pleased to see debut Avenue Road listed near the top of the Warner Bros. catalogue and, as you'd expect from any self-respecting psych band, Kensington Market was determined to get higher.

Help Me (link expired)

The surviving members of Kensington Market reunited last June at Hugh's Room in Toronto to perform a show celebrating the re-release of Avenue Road and Aardvark. Here they are performing Avenue Road single, I Would Be The One:

Buy it here

Monday, August 25, 2008

Cheap Champagne — Sloan (2008)

This might make me sound like an old fuddy-duddy but I miss the days when the charts were populated with pop bands that contained multiple, accomplished singer-songwriters, each with a distinct style that nevertheless complemented the others. Oh, the fun one could have debating the individual merits of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison; McGuinn, Clark, Crosby and Hillman; Buckingham, Nicks and McVie; Stanley, Simmons, Frehley and Criss; and, of course, Woloschuk, Long and Draper. (It's my blog and I'll drop a gratituous Klaatu reference anytime I damn well want!)

A few of these multi-headed monsters still exist. In Canada, there's Sloan, a criminally underappreciated pop-rock quartet whose albums feature songwriting contributions from all four members. Yet if I were forced to carry a lunchpail adorned with a picture of my favourite Sloan member, I'd be spending my noon hours with Jay Ferguson.

Over the course of nine studio albums, Ferguson's contributions invariably wind up my favourites: breezily melodic, pure-pop confections such as The Lines You Amend (from 1996's One Chord to Another) and C'mon C'mon (from 1998's Navy Blues) zero in on the same aural pleasure centres that render me weak-kneed whenever I hear Runt-era Todd Rundgren, Badfinger, Emitt Rhodes and The Ballad of John and Yoko.

Today's post is, for my money, the best track on Sloan's fine new album Parallel Play and as good a song as anything Ferguson has done with the band. Clanking piano chords and a ba-ba-da refrain lead us right into the Cheap Champagne's bubbly chorus (sorry, couldn't resist) and, by the 20-second mark, you should be under the song's pop-tastic spell. And after the first verse, you'll be pleasantly surprised to learn the lyric is as sour as the melody's sweet. "When I look into her eyes," Ferguson sings, "y'know it never meant that much to me."

Cheap Champagne's key components — piano, strummed acoustic guitar, overdubbed close harmonies and simple, Macca-style drumming — ensure the track stands out among the album's many moments of electrified riffola. Yet Sloan remains the best vehicle for Ferguson's songs, as I can only imagine a solo disc containing 12 variations of the same theme would prove underwhelming.Link
Sloan's music remains greater than the sum of its parts, not unlike the Beatles, the Byrds, Fleetwood Mac and, er, Klaatu.

Cheap Champagne (link expired)

Here's the video for the forementioned Ferguson gem, The Lines You Amend. Dig its cool Ringo reference:

Buy it here

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Old Turns — David Vandervelde (2008)

Sometimes, you can tell a book — or a record — by its cover.

Waiting for the Sunrise, the recently released second album from David Vandervelde, pictures the singer-songwriter long-haired and bearded, looking like a young Kenny Loggins, sitting by the window of a room whose curtains and flowery bedspread likely have been unchanged since the Nixon administration. Put a cat somewhere in the foreground, staring down the photographer, and you'd almost have Carole King's Tapestry. (Gee, 2008 Vandervelde and 1971 King would have made a lovely couple, don't you think?)

Sunrise's cover gives you ample clue to the contents: Gone are the fizzy, electronically enhanced homages to Marc Bolan that populated Vandervelde's full-length debut, The Moonstation House Band; say hello to a warmly recorded approximation of early-'70s, Laurel Canyon rock, with soft- and country- modifiers, that owes more than a little debt to Neil Young's work with both Crazy Horse and CSN (and, as such, also echoes contemporary acts with similar influences, especially The Jayhawks and The Thrills). Derivative? Sure. But who cares when the new songs are instantly memorable and handsomely adorned in Hammond organ, pedal steel and multi-part vocal harmonies. The only way I could like this album more is by hearing it on a nice, thick slab of vinyl as the scent of patchouli oil fills the room.

Old Turns is my early favourite: a mid-tempo, taking-stock number with great harmonies; a surging, ascending chorus; and lyrics that suggest why the longtime Chicago and Brooklyn resident upped stakes and relocated to Nashville: "All the places I've been through/They don't compare to/All the beauty I've found/Shining through Mother Nature/All the money in this world/It cannot buy you a clearer mind."

Old Turns is worth the price of admission alone but I Will Be Fine, California Breezes and Cryin' Like The Rain are every bit its equal, making me wonder why Sunrise has received so many lukewarm reviews from fans who preferred his previous musical direction. Personally, I like acts that throw curveballs once in a while and, after all, anyone who pays attention to Sunrise's cover art can't claim they weren't warned.

Old Turns (link expired)

From The Moonstation House Band album, here's the record's second track, Jacket, with Vandervelde in full Bolan vocal mode:

Buy it here

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Isaac Hayes: Coolest dude in heaven

Just last weekend, I was jogging around the neighbourhood and starting to feel dog-tired when my iPod shuffle happened upon Sam and Dave's Hold On, I'm Coming. My fatigue immediately evaporated and my pace quickened, as the song's nagging horn riff powered my every stride and those stealthily filthy lyrics kept my mind otherwise distracted. (How did the song sneak by censors??!!) When this classic Isaac Hayes-David Porter composition ended, so did my second wind — not surprising, as only the truly special songs can get the adrenalin flowing and make you feel transcendent, if only for a few fleeting minutes. As I limped home, energy now fully expended, I decided to blog about Hayes sometime soon.

I wouldn't have believed, seven days later, I'd be mourning the great man's passing. To me, Hayes always seemed bigger than life. He was elemental. He was Black Moses and the tablets, for chrissakes. Alas, he was found by his wife, collapsed by a running treadmill in their Memphis home, and pronounced dead this afternoon. He was 65 — and is now, unofficially, the coolest mofo in heaven. If God ever wanted to hear Amazing Grace tranformed into a carnal, 22-minute slow jam, well, He's got His man.

Here on earth, his music remains immortal. With Porter, he penned such world-conquering Stax singles as Soul Man, When Something Is Wrong With My Baby, I Thank You and B-A-B-Y. Yet, when he embarked on a solo career with 1967's Presenting Isaac Hayes, he became more of an interpreter of other people's material, creating upscale, epically blackified versions of Jimmy Webb's By The Time I Get To Phoenix, George Harrison's Something and a handful of Burt Bacharach-Hal David standards (Walk On By, The Look of Love, Close To You). 'Proto' is a prefix that can be used liberally when discussing Hayes's influence. He was proto-southern soul and proto-disco and proto-rap; it's no exaggeration to say the '70s output of Barry White, Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott Heron owes a huge debt to Hayes's early, trailblazing solo discs.

And you all know about Shaft.

And Chef.

So, here's a miniscule sampling of Hayes's work: Rachel Sweet's cover of B-A-B-Y (a Hayes-Porter smash originally recorded by Carla Thomas), the edited, seven-minute version of By The Time I Get To Phoenix (not the 18-minute behemoth) and, finally, Hayes-as-Chef boasting about his Chocolate Salty Balls.

B-A-B-Y by Rachel Sweet (link expired)

By The Time I Get To Phoenix (link expired)

Chocolate Salty Balls (link expired)

For a fellow who initially made his name behind the scenes at Stax, Hayes proved to be a consummate performer, as this footage from the 1972 Wattstax concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum attests:

Buy Isaac Hayes music here

Friday, August 8, 2008

Dolls and Staples: Classic vehicles, used parts

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression. There's a lot of truth in that hoary cliche. So remember: if you can't make that good first impression, consider stealing ... er, borrowing one from someone else. Musicians do it all the time and, in today's post, I present a couple of notable examples of great songs that were built with used parts.

"When I say I'm in love, you best believe I'm in love — L-U-V!" declares David Johansen at the beginning of Looking For A Kiss, the second track off the New York Dolls' classic 1973 self-titled debut album. It's is an awesome opening gambit, dripping with style and attitude, but it's not theirs: the Dolls pilfered it from Give Him a Great Big Kiss, recorded eight years prior by legendary girl group, The Shangri-Las.

The Dolls did not give Great Big Kiss composer George 'Shadow' Morton a songwriting credit on Looking For a Kiss; they did, however, hire him to produce their 1974 followup album Too Much Too Soon. Meanwhile, the Dolls' own version of Great Big Kiss, recorded before making their debut, surfaced on the 1992 demos compilation Seven Day Weekend, while guitarist Johnny Thunders continued to include it in his sets with the Heartbreakers following the Dolls' breakup:

The two songs are complementary: On Great Big Kiss, Mary Weiss tells her fellow Shangri-Las about the cool-as-fuck bad boy she's now seeing. ("He's good bad but he's not evil," she assures.) Looking for a Kiss seems designed as a sequel: eight years later, Weiss's bad boy is a New York Doll, he's screwing around and he's telling everyone he's looking for a great big kiss, too, but not from her.

And you thought Leader of the Pack ended tragically.

Give Him a Great Big Kiss (link expired)

Looking for a Kiss (link expired)

Next up: The Staple Singers' 1972 chart-topper I'll Take You There, written and produced by Alvertis Isbell, better known as Stax executive Al Bell.

A perfect marriage of soul and reggae, this is simply one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded. Next to Mavis Staples's sensuous vocal performance, the track's most distinctive features are its slinky rhythm and bassline intro, both lifted from The Liquidator, a 1969 reggae instrumental written by Jamaican producer Harry Johnson and recorded by his session band, The Harry J Allstars.

Bell travelled to Jamaica regularly and surely heard The Liquidator during his many visits there; besides, it was also a top-10 smash in the UK. Yet I'll Take You There sports his sole songwriting credit. This has been disputed — not by Johnson but by Staples, who insists she and Bell collaborated on the song's lyrics in her Chicago apartment. David Hood, who played bass on the track, says he and drummer Roger Hawkins also deserve some authorship. "I feel like we all co-wrote it because there was no I'll Take You There until we cut this track," Hood has said. "The idea for that was kind of out of the air."

Out of the air? You decide.

I'll Take You There (link expired)

The Liquidator (link expired)

And, from 1972, here are the Staple Singers performing I'll Take You There on The Flip Wilson show:

Buy New York Dolls here

Buy Shangri-Las here

Buy Staple Singers here

Buy Harry J Allstars here

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Rockfort Rock — Sound Dimension (1968)

In 1968, Motown had The Funk Brothers; Stax, Booker T. and the MGs. Further south, in Kingston, Jamaica, another record label house band was busy making history. Sound Dimension were literally inventing roots reggae in Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd's legendary Studio One recording studios.

Sound Dimension — named after a brand of echo-box machine — featured former Skatalites pianist Jackie Mittoo, Heptones singer-bassist Leroy Sibbles and oft-hired session guitarist Ernest Ranglin in its rather fluid ranks. Between 1968 and 1972, they provided the bedrock to countless classic reggae sides by the likes of John Holt, Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis and Freddie McGregor, to name a few.

They also scored many hits of their own, most notably Full Up and Real Rock, two of the most versioned songs in reggae history. (The former, for instance, provided the melody for Musical Youth's 1983 chart-topper Pass The Dutchie; the latter was turned into Armagideon Time by Willie Williams/The Clash, Cool Out Son by Junior Murvin, Keep in Touch by Sizzla, and All Mixed Up by 311.)

Rockfort Rock (aka Psychedelic Rock) hasn't been versioned as often as Full Up or Real Rock but, nevertheless, it is one of Sound Dimension's most popular and enduring tracks. This is deep reggae driven by a Sibbles's booming bassline, an elephantine riddim and a playful, stick-in-your-mind melody courtesy trumpter Johnny Moore, another Skatalites alumnus. (Listen for his little riff on London Bridge is Falling Down at 1:32.) The only problem with the track: It fades after two and a half minutes, leaving you craving more.

Rockfort Rock (link expired)

Venerable reggae duo Sly and Robbie imagined where Rockfort Rock could go after those original 150 seconds. Here's their amazing six-minute cover, performed live in 2005:

Buy it here

Friday, August 1, 2008

Shame — Randy Newman (1999)

Randy Newman must have known he was skating on thin ice when he lampooned certain aging rock stars in I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It). "Everything I write all sounds the same/ Each record that I'm making/ Is like a record I've made/ Just not as good," he sings over a backdrop of mockingly cranky electric guitar. The song could have been ridiculing any number of classic-rock survivors whose best-before dates had long passed yet Newman, then 55, avoided self-incrimination by ensuring its parent album, 1999's Bad Love, was among his best ever.

Harps and Angels, the long-awaited followup to Bad Love, arrives in stores Tuesday. I haven't heard it yet but the advance buzz has been uniformly positive. No surprise there: now 40 years into his recording career, Newman only makes a new pop platter when he has the goods and, as such, Harps and Angels is his third disc of new material (excluding soundtrack work) in 20 years. Quality trumps quantity, then, as it always should.

Today's post is my favourite cut off Bad Love, another first-person lyric set to a New Orleans shuffle in which Newman's aging sugar daddy interrogates his sweet young thing to find out why she has been avoiding him. Of course, he already knows the answer: "A man of my experience of life/ Don't expect a beautiful young girl like yourself/ To come on over here every day/ And have some old dude banging on her like a gypsy on a tambourine."

As the song proceeds, he becomes increasingly agitated and aggressive, occasionally with side-splitting results. "You know what it feels like to get up in the middle of the night and sit down to take a piss? You do know? So you say," he rants, mouth now operating independently of brain. Then Newman does something I've never heard in a pop record: he shouts down the background singers, ordering them to shut up. Before the song spirals out of control and his character turns into caricature, Newman dials down the intensity and closes the track on an unexpectedly sweet and vulnerable note.

Shame is the work of a master songwriter whose best work could still be ahead of him. Tuesday can't arrive fast enough.

Shame (link expired)

For more Bad Love goodness, here's Newman performing the forementioned I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It) in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2006:

Buy it here