Monday, September 29, 2008

I'm A Believer — Robert Wyatt (1974)

Another batch of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction candidates has been announced and, once again, Neil Diamond's name is nowhere to be found. His omission is inexplicable, bordering on criminal: If voters are reluctant to induct the bespangled one as a performer, then surely this Brill Building alumnus deserves admission for his compositions. Hell, even if he hadn't written Sweet Caroline or Cracklin' Rosie or Kentucky Woman or Cherry Cherry — immortal tunes all — he'd deserve induction solely on the strength of the pained, soul-searching Solitary Man and the euphoric I'm A Believer, which is, quite simply, one of the greatest pop songs of all time. The Monkees and Smash Mouth enjoyed major chart success with the song in 1967 and 2001, respectively, while the tune also inspired covers by such disparate acts as The Four Tops, The Ventures, Tim Huey and Bram Tchaikovsky. However, the most poignant version of the song surely belongs to Robert Wyatt, who recorded the track as a single in 1974, about a year after he accidentally fell from a third-storey window, leaving the former Soft Machine drummer paralysed from the waist down.

Produced by Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, who drums on the track, Wyatt's Believer hurtles along to Dave MacCrae's pounding piano and features lots of prog-rock guitar noodling by Fred Frith, who also contributes a violin solo. (This sort of thing was allowed in pop songs in 1974, apparently.) Meanwhile, in light of Wyatt's recent personal tragedy, Diamond's lyrics — "What's the use of trying?/All you get is pain/When I needed sunshine/I got rain" — carry additional emotional heft, while the song's central theme of overcoming hardship and transcending misery is genuinely inspirational coming from an artist who was doing just that.

Yet Wyatt isn't proud of I'm A Believer, released two months after his expressionistic masterpiece, Rock Bottom. In a 1996 interview, he revealed he was being pushed into recording radio-friendly singles by his then-label, Virgin.

"I didn't really mean to do that one," Wyatt told interviewer Richie Unterberger. "I thought, well, what should I do that's just like the most unhip thing you can possibly think of? But, that's really nice (laughs)? And I thought of the Monkees doing Last Train to Clarksville or something like that. But then, I couldn't remember the title, and I did I'm A Believer. I'm not full of malice, but I do dislike Neil Diamond a lot, and I'm sorry that I've done a Neil Diamond song. If I lived my life over again, I would leave them to the master (laughs)."

The master, however, is having the last laugh. Diamond recently revealed, of all the songs he's written, and all the hits he's charted, I'm A Believer has been the most lucrative.

I'm A Believer (link expired)

Regardless of Wyatt's antipathy toward the song, his Believer went top-30 in the UK, prompting an unlikely appearance on Top of the Pops in September 1974. The program drew Wyatt's ire when a TOTP producer suggested he perform in a regular chair, explaining a wheelchair-bound appearance was "not suitable for family viewing." (Different times, indeed.) Wyatt won this battle, although notice how the cameras avoid shots of the wheelchair ... and how pissed off Wyatt appears.

Buy it here

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bwana — Lindsey Buckingham (1981)

Is Lindsey Buckingham becoming (gasp!) a prolific solo artist as he approaches his 60s? Certainly, recent evidence suggests so. The Fleetwood Mac frontman's sixth album under his name, Gift of Screws, arrived in stores two weeks ago, just six months following the release of a concert set, Live at the Bass Performance Hall, and only two years after his previous studio outing, Under the Skin. To put that into perspective, Buckingham's solo career is now in its 27th year yet half of its output has come in the last 24 months. Perhaps fatherhood (he and his wife have three children, 10, 8 and 4) and a seemingly happy family life have tempered his notorious sonic perfectionism (which, in turn, led to protracted recording sessions and some loooong gaps between records). Then again, maybe the fact he's turning 59 on Friday is also inspiring him to pick up the pace. Whatever the reason, I'm glad to see new Buckingham music in stores on a more frequent basis: since hitting his creative stride on the Mac's 1979 opus Tusk, he has recorded some of the most inventive, challenging and deceptively dark music ever released under the banner "mainstream pop." Besides, Buckingham sounds like no one but himself and no one sounds like Buckingham. The man is an original.

Today's post is one of my favourite Buckingham moments. Bwana kicks off his first solo album, 1981's Law and Order, on which Buckingham (abetted by his trusty co-producer Richard Dashut) picks up where he left off on Tusk. It's the sound of a millionaire rock star goofing around in a posh, state-of-the-art recording studio, trying to sound amateurish but in a good way. Buckingham performs everything here, from the faux tribal drums (shades of Tusk, the song, and 1981 hitmakers Adam and the Ants) to the playful, guitar solo made to sound like a kazoo and those silly "ra-ta-ta-ta" backing vocals. On the surface, it's childlike fun, impossibly catchy and guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Yet, as with many Buckingham songs, the lyrics allude to a troubled state of mind. "We all have our demons/And sometimes they escape," sings Buckingham — possibly a veiled excuse for allegedly throwing his guitar at Mac bandmate and former lover Stevie Nicks a year prior while onstage during the Tusk tour. ("I saw it coming and ducked; it would have killed me if it had hit me," Nicks told MOJO magazine in 2007.)

Buckingham would return to this lyrical theme over the years — "I go insane, like I always do" was the psychologist-baiting chorus of a 1984 single — yet Gift of Screws track Bel Air Rain suggests the musician has finally caged, if not defeated, these demons in his head. "Everyone's peace lives side by side with their war," he sings, "but eventually everyone gets tamed."

Good news is, judging from Gift of Screws, a "tamed" Buckingham is still as wildly creative as ever. The new record doesn't cohere like his best solo discs — Law and Order and 1992's Out of the Cradle, both of which I recommend without reservation — but there are plenty of superlative tracks, most of which are more fleshed out and rocking than his acoustically focused Under the Skin. One quibble, though: Like all of his post-1992 material, Buckingham's music is missing that little bit of California-pop fairydust that Dashut once sprinkled. Current co-producer Rob Cavallo is not an equitable replacement.

Bwana (link expired)

Law and Order also contained Buckingham's biggest solo hit — the sublime, soft-focus Trouble. I've unearthed its video. Immerse yourself in those silky, overdubbed harmonies; pity the fellas miming along to the song, including Mick Fleetwood. They do look terribly goofy, don't they?

Buy Law and Order here

Buy Gift of Screws here

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Too Much Time — Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band (1972)

When your career has been spent pushing envelopes, subverting musical styles and pursuing surrealism to the periphery of rational thought, what's left to shock your audience? Going mainstream, of course.

That's what Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band did in 1972 when they hired Van Morrison/Carly Simon/Doobie Brothers producer Ted Templeman to guide their seventh record, Clear Spot. The album's relative accessibility and conventionality must have seemed the most radical of all possible moves for the Captain, aka Don Van Vliet, who spent the previous three years engaged in the gnarled blues and anarchic experimentalism of Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby.

Yet Clear Spot was hardly a sell-out move: the record is simply too accomplished, too well-crafted and too replete with good ideas and good songs to be dismissed because of the ease for which it can be enjoyed.

"Believe me, I'm not compromising one damn bit on this album," Van Vliet told Rolling Stone in January 1973. "Sure, the changes will ruffle some feathers but I'm fooling them all because I enjoy playing this stuff more than Trout Mask Replica."

Today's post is Clear Spot's most accessible track and first single, an uncanny replication of the classic Stax-Volt sound with horn charts by Templeman, sweet female harmony vocals by The Blackberries and some nice, Bobby Womack-styled guitar from Russ Titelman. No weird-ass lyrics from the Captain, either; just heart-on-shirtsleeve pining for a woman's affection ... and her culinary skills. "Sometimes when it's late and I'm a little hungry/ I heat up some old, stale beans/ Open up a can of sardines/Eat crackers and dream about somebody that'd cook for me," sings the Captain, likely raising the blood pressure of those pop fans who pushed Helen Reddy's I Am Woman to the top of the 1972 hit parade.

In the same RS interview, Beefheart predicted big things for Clear Spot — in his own unique way. "I know this album is going to make it for me," he said. "I can already feel all the fans blowing on me and I don't mind a blowjob, if you know what I mean. Do you know what I mean?"

Um, no. And ultimately Clear Spot didn't provide the commercial breakthrough the Captain anticipated although, as consolation, it ranks among his finest recordings. Unlike his other blatantly commercial album, 1974's Unconditionally Guaranteed, which blows in a bad way. Do you know what I mean?

Too Much Time (link expired)

Among the other Clear Spot highlights is the wonderfully titled Nowadays A Woman's Gotta Hit A Man. Here's a live performance of the song from 1980:

Buy it here

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hotel For Women — The Nails (1981)

"Tanya Turkish liked to f--- while wearing leather biker boots/Brenda's strange obsession was with certain vegetables and fruit."

With that provocative couplet and 43 others just like it, no wonder 88 Lines About 44 Women became a calling card for The Nails, a New York-via-Boulder rock sextet that's also remembered for, frankly, not much else. Shame, that: They've released some fine records and one great one, the self-produced and independently released Hotel For Women EP, which contained the original version of 88 Lines (far superior to the 1984 re-recording for RCA). At the time, I thought 88 Lines was a clever novelty song, good for a snigger, but hardly the best track on the EP (pictured below). That honour belonged to the title track, a pulsating ska number with a cool dub breakdown that transported listeners to the seediest, most soul-sapping strip club in town. Twenty seven years later, I still think it's a better song than 88 Lines.

Hotel For Women is an oddity in the Nails' canon in that it's sung by a woman, Connie Garcia, who provided backing vocals for the group's early recordings. Her blank, detached delivery is perfect as she sings of life as a topless go-go dancer — "life is a factory/grinding out misery/living anonymously" — and her humble sanctuary, a hotel for women with "clean sheets and colour TV." The Nails surround Garcia's ennui with sax, Farfisa and melodica riding a humid, sticky groove, all drenched in delicious reverb. More than a few Two Tone bands would have traded in their pork-pie hats for a song this good.

Alas, by the time The Nails signed to RCA and recorded their major-label debut, 1984's Mood Swing, the reggae/ska/dub influences were gone, replaced by a more commercial (but still gritty) R&B sound. Long unavailable, Mood Swing was finally reissued last year, along with its tepid followup, 1986's Dangerous Dreams. Sadly, neither disc was appended with the Hotel For Women tracks which, aside from the original 88 Lines, remain unreleased on CD.

Hotel for Women (link expired)

Despite being recognized an '80s classic, 88 Lines About 44 Women received scant mainstream airplay back in tha day. No promotional clip was made for 88 Lines; instead, RCA spent its money making a video for Mood Swing's one non-original, a spirited cover of The Hombres' Let It All Hang Out. MTV actually aired the video quite frequently (back when MTV actually played videos); this, and not 88 Lines, is the closest The Nails came to having a bona-fide hit.

Buy Nails here

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Forever — The Explorers Club (2008)

For fans of Brian Wilson, last weekend was long in more ways than one. The three-day Labour Day break was welcomed but, truth be told, part of me was itching for today to arrive so I could hit the record shops and pick up a copy of Brian Wilson's new solo disc, That Lucky Old Sun.

I've been pining to hear it since Wilson, the Beach Boys' damaged genius, and Van Dyke Parks, his friend and occasional collaborator, started talking it up more than a year ago. And as the record's release approached, the positive buzz grew louder and louder until I am now hoping for music that's closer to the orch-pop excellence of Pet Sounds and SMiLE than the retread Wilson-isms of 1998's uninspired Imagination and 2004's dire Gettin' In Over My Head. (Alas, an early review on AllMusic — read it here — has tempered these expectations.)

While counting down the last few days to That Lucky Old Sun's release, I've sated by appetite for new Wilson music with Freedom Wind, the debut album from South Carolina six-piece The Explorers Club. (Apparently, none of the group's members knows how to use an apostrophe.) Released last spring, this 35-minute disc flawlessly recreates the sun-kissed sound of classic-period Beach Boys, circa 1965-66, on 12 'originals' written in whole or in part by 23-year-old frontman Jason Brewer. Of course, countless groups have evoked the Beach Boys and updated their sound — please stand up Pearlfishers, High Llamas, Ruby Suns and Beulah — yet The Explorers Club are different. There's no updating. There's no evoking. In fact, there's no trace of unique style or approach. The Explorers Club's sound is the sound of the Beach Boys and, providing derivative isn't a dirty word in your vocabulary, there's much to treasure in Freedom Wind.

Opening cut Forever is rife with Beach Boys references, both blatant and subtle. Its drum intro is borrowed from The Ronettes' Be My Baby, which happens to be Wilson's favourite pop song. Its title is the same as a notable Dennis Wilson ballad found on the Beach Boys' Sunflower album (hear it here). And, of course, the soaring falsetto lead vocal, stacks o' vocal harmonies, chiming Christmas bells and irony-free lyric about unrequited love for a special girl — all rendered in glorious mono, or a reasonable facsimile — shape a track that could pass as a lost classic from the Today! or Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) sessions. Yes, it's that good.

One lingering question about these unabashed yet undeniably accomplished mimics: If Brewer is the group's de facto Brian Wilson, who drew the short straw and was named the de facto Mike Love?

Forever (link expired)

Now back to Brian. Here's EMI's promotional trailer for That Lucky Old Sun, with song clips from the new album:

Buy Explorers Club here

Buy Brian Wilson here

Monday, September 1, 2008

Comin' Back to Me — Jefferson Airplane (1967)

There's a paradox at the core of the classic-rock radio format. On one hand, the format thrives because millions of people (and not just baby boomers) believe that rock music of the 1960s and '70s has never been bettered; that the albums of this era were indivisible artistic statements and not just one or two good songs surrounded by a bunch of filler. Fair enough.

Yet, time and time again, classic-rock radio will condense an act's expansive, much-heralded body of work into a clutch of songs that generally can be counted on two hands. Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones are among the lucky ones; they might have 15 or 20 songs played regularly on classic-rock radio. Conversely, few bands have been as short-changed by classic-rock radio as Jefferson Airplane, which released seven studio albums between 1966 and 1972, yet is generally represented on the airwaves by just two overexposed warhorses: Somebody to Love and White Rabbit. If these San Fran psychedelic scene-setters were so damn classic, can't some programmer find another JA song to broadcast?

Bongo Jazz is here to help. Today's post is hardly an obscurity; a thing of delicate beauty, this Marty Balin-penned and sung ballad closes Side 1 of the Airplane's much-loved Summer of Love soundtrack, Surrealistic Pillow (also home to Somebody to Love and White Rabbit).

JA road manager Bill Thompson says Balin wrote Comin' Back To Me in one sitting while staying at the Tropicana Hotel in Los Angeles and, according to lore, enjoying some top-grade marijuana given to him by Paul Butterfield. (The song's first line — "The summer had inhaled and held its breath too long" — suggests Butterfield's weed was, indeed, primo.) So excited about his new song, Balin immediately entered the studio and recorded Comin' Back to Me, with Jerry Garcia and Jack Casady on acoustic guitars and Grace Slick on recorder, in one take on Nov. 1, 1966.

"(Balin) told the engineer to start the tape and he sang it live one time," Thompson recalls. "Marty, always the poet, said: Yeah, it's rough, but that's how love is."

One take is all that was needed. Comin' Back to Me is breathtaking; its striking chord progression and Balin's nuanced, masterfully phrased vocal are the aural equivalent of stirring from a deep sleep and feeling nothing but slightly dazed bliss. The song was resurrected in the 1990s by Richie Havens and Rickie Lee Jones but, as accomplished as these cover versions are, they can't touch the original.

Push come to shove, it's my favourite Airplane song — and one actually worth playing on the radio. Really.

Comin' Back to Me (link expired)

Surrealistic Pillow contained a second lovely Balin ballad, Today. Balin sang it on the album, although Slick performed it with the Airplane during the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Here's the footage:

Buy it here