Sunday, November 30, 2008

My Future Just Passed — Shirley Horn (1963)

Last weekend, as I watched a preening Beyonce belt out a lung during her SNL musical performances, I was faced with a horrible dilemma: Do I poke out my eyes first, or chop off my ears? In the end, I opted for a third option: Mute the TV and go feed the cats. Less blood. Nevertheless, my initial reaction sums up how grating I find Beyonce and her diva contemporaries: They may have the ability to sing on key without the use of Auto-Tune but remain painfully oblivious to the concept of nuance, opting to deliver lyrics as if they should all end with an exclamation point.

Oh, what they could learn from singers like the late Shirley Horn, an exceptional jazz pianist who also happened to be one of the genre's greatest ballad singers, thanks to her smoky, seductive voice and impeccable, understated phrasing. Her best recordings are enticingly intimate. Rather than attacking the music and lyrics, she caresses them, gently and unhurriedly. If your heart doesn't skip a beat listening to Shirley Horn sing, you may already be dead.

Today's post is from Loads of Love, one of two pop-vocal albums she released on Mercury in 1963. (The other being Shirley Horn with Horns.) My Future Just Passed was originally a peppy little number performed by Victor studio band The High Hatters in the 1930 musical-comedy Safety in Numbers. Horn's version has some altered lyrics and an almost glacial tempo, both of which change the song significantly. Whereas the High Hatters' version sounds like harmless trifle (you can download it here), Horn's rendition is dark blue and desperate, as her case of love-at-first-sight turns into heartbreaking realization fate might not be an ally and her soulmate could belong to another: "Life can't be that way/ To wake me then break me," she whispers, with slight reservation, as if she really knows life can be that way.

Yet, in the liner notes to a 1990 reissue of Loads of Love, Horn dismisses her vocal performances on the Mercury albums. "When I made those records," she said, "I hadn't experienced enough to know what the song lyrics meant; I hadn't lived them yet."

Could've fooled me.

My Future Just Passed (link expired)

Horn put her musical career on the backburner following those 1963 Mercury discs and focused on family life for the ensuing 15 years. She began touring again in 1978 and released a series of critically acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning albums for Verve starting in 1987. In 2002, she had a foot amputated due to complications of diabetes but she continued to perform and record until succumbing a massive stroke in 2005. She was 71. Here is Ms. Horn in her latter years, looking frail, but still able to sing circles around pop stars a half-century her junior.

Buy it here

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Remembering Kenny MacLean

Bongo Jazz was saddened yesterday to hear about the death of Kenny MacLean. For most, he will be best remembered as the bass player for Platinum Blonde, a hugely popular band in Canada during the mid-'80s who were, admittedly, thinly guised Duran Duran copycats. Suffice to say, Platinum Blonde were not my kind of thing and, as a young music writer learning the ropes, I surely took a few good swings at 'em in print at the height of their success. I thought they were fakes, flawlessly designed by accountants in some music industry boardroom to con 16-year-old girls to part with their money (and, at their concerts, with sundry items of clothing.) At the time, I thought musicians fell into two categories: those with integrity and those without, and the four members of Platinum Blonde fell into the latter category.

I had a lot to learn and Kenny MacLean provided a lesson I've never forgotten. In 1986, I chatted with MacLean over the phone to promote an upcoming concert at the 20,000-seat Pengrowth Saddledome. The show fell during Calgary's annual Stampede Week. MacLean was a good sport despite putting up with an interrogation, er, interview technique that can only be described as Defend Your Life. Near the end of the conversation, MacLean inquired what other acts were playing in the city during Stampede week. I mentioned The Everly Brothers were at the Saddledome the night before Platinum Blonde — and MacLean flipped out. He said he loved the Everlys; he mentioned he was in town that evening; he needed a ticket. I had an excellent pair of seats and no date, so I offered my extra ticket to MacLean. To my surprise, he accepted the offer and, an hour before showtime, I met a member of the dreaded Platinum Blonde at the hockey arena.

There was nothing 'fake' or 'manufactured' about MacLean's excitement that night. In fact, he reminded me of the girls I'd see at Platinum Blonde shows. He wanted to go to the merchandise tables and buy a T-shirt, and, omigod!, wondered if I had enough pull to get him backstage to meet Phil and Don. (I didn't.) He was dressed down that night — just a pair of ordinary jeans, a non-descript button-up shirt and hair that appeared untouched by any Vidal Sassoon product. Nevertheless, as we walked through the concourse, I could tell many of the kids who were dragged by their parents to see this lame-o show recognized MacLean. He was gracious and accommodating to all the teenaged fans who approached him for an autographs or to pose for a photograph. As the kids surrounded MacLean, a man likely twice their age, I surveyed the parents as they stared at this unassuming (albeit impossibly svelte) fellow. I suspected what they were thinking: This guy is a rock star?

Funny, I was beginning to think the same thing.

MacLean and I finally took our seats and, with a few minutes before showtime, we just shot the shit. We talked about the new records we liked; the songs we hoped the Everlys would sing. I mentioned I liked his previous band, The Deserters, and thought they recorded some pretty good material before losing their way. MacLean said he was proud of the Deserters and wished they could have paid the bills. Platinum Blonde, he said, didn't make the sort of music he personally enjoyed but, as a professional musician, it was good to have a steady gig, play high-energy music before big, adoring crowds, and tour with bandmates he genuinely liked. He felt blessed. And I thought to myself: Really, is that so bad?

Soon the lights went down, the Everlys took the stage and MacLean transformed into someone I recognized: a music fan, kind of like myself. Phil and Don's harmonies obviously lit up MacLean's pleasure centres; he whooped and cheered every song with unreserved glee. Sadly, I had to leave the show before its conclusion to file an early review; I wish I could have stuck around, to hear more Everlys, but moreso, to soak in MacLean's good vibes.

Platinum Blonde didn't have many more good years. As bands of this ilk are wont to do, they tried to go 'respectable' and 'adult' with an ill-fated 'funk' album and soon thereafter it was all over. Undeterred, MacLean stayed busy over the next couple decades, recording the occasional solo disc, playing sessions and helping developing artists. His sister found him dead Monday in his Toronto apartment.

I'll always remember him for that Everly show, and how he loved this song:

Let It Be Me (link expired)

Finally, here a video of MacLean performing Don't Look Back, the title track of his first post-Blonde solo album. Very Beatle-y, and a mighty fine song.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I Love You Like I Love Myself — The Playn Jayn (1985)

Hair metal, hip-hop and electro-pop are among the genres most widely associated with the 1980s but anyone who frequented indie record shops during the era knows the decade also spawned a seemingly endless supply of quality, '60s-inspired psych and garage bands. A few hit the mainstream but most came and went without much notice, leaving behind a bunch of shoulda-been hits waiting to be rediscovered. Rhino's excellent Children of Nuggets box set from 2005 collected 100 of them — and still there were notable omissions, including today's post from The Playn Jayn.

Led by brothers Mike (vocals/harmonica) and Nick Jones (guitar), the London quintet released two albums — the first live, the second studio — that never have been released on CD (at least as far as I can determine). The wonderfully titled I Love You Like I Love Myself is the leadoff track from the group's sole studio offering, Five Good Evils, released in July 1985.

Naturally, this Jones/Jones composition is a meant to be a narcissist anthem but its dopey lyrics — "Love is like a butterfly/ Lives one day and then it dies" — suggests tongue is firmly planted in cheek. The music, though, is no joke: It's an uncannily accurate period pastiche, highlighted by Nick's doomy, horror-movie intro, Clive Francis's hyperactive drumming and Mike's playful vocal. "I love myself! I need myself!" he declares straight-faced, as the song comes to a close.

The Playn Jayn fell off the radar following Five Good Evils and a revival seems unlikely. According to internet reports (so take this with a block of salt), Nick has given up music and is working as a photographer, while brother Mike is an acid casualty, living with his parents in Bournemouth.

I Love You Like I Love Myself (link expired)

I was unable to locate any footage of The Playn Jayn but I found the next best thing: Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes playing Eleanor Rigby on ukelele. Tune in, turn on and drop out, man.

Visit the Playn Jayn's Myspace page here

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Amanita Muscaria — Shelleyan Orphan (1989)

2008 will be remembered as the year a beloved, late-'80s act returned to record stores for the first time in 17 long years. I am referring, of course, to the Bournemouth, England, duo of Caroline Crawley and Jem Tayle, better known as Shelleyan Orphan. (To whom did you think I was referring?)

They are currently touring the UK in support of We Have Everything Their Need (pictured left), their first album of new material since 1991's Humroot. (You can hear a couple new songs, as well as their sublime 1986 single Cavalry of Cloud, about Nick Drake, on their MySpace page here.) These chamber-pop boffins didn't split because of intolerable, Pink Floydian rancour yet their reunion is still surprising because there seemed an utter lack of demand for one. I have great affection for their first three Rough Trade records, especially 1989 sophomore disc Century Flower, but I would have suspected Shelleyan Orphan could play to all of their remaining diehard fans in a venue only slightly larger than a telephone booth. I'm glad to be proven wrong.

Today's post is one of my favourite cuts from the forementioned Century Flower. Amanita Muscaria may not feature Crawley's lovely voice but the instrumental is bewitching all the same and representative of the baroque beauty of which Shelleyan Orphan are capable. The dramatic, sawing cellos and swirling, unfettered woodwinds combine for what could be mistaken as God's soundtrack for the blooming of a flower. Yes, it's that enchanting. Perversely, Amanita Muscaria isn't a flower but a poisonous fungus known for its hallucinogenic properties. Oh, the stuff you can learn reading this blog...

Amanita Muscaria (link expired)

Despite using such non-rock 'n' roll instruments as oboes and cellos and bassoons, Shelleyan Orphan are also capable of rhythmic, pulse-quickening songs, such as Century Flower's rollicking single, Shatter. Here's the video:

Buy it here

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Stuff That Works — Guy Clark (1995)

Great songwriting never goes out of style. That's why, when someone like Rodney Crowell is given the freedom to simply do what comes naturally, the Houston native crafts crackerjack Americana records like his latest Sex and Gasoline. This Joe Henry-produced disc has been on heavy rotation at Chez Bongo Jazz over the past six weeks; its humanity, (often black) humour and homespun wisdom replenish the soul while leaving a smile on your face. 

Oh, and it rocks, too.

There isn't a dud on the disc — Crowell's first in three years — and a handful of tracks rank with the best songs he's ever written. I'm particularly sweet on the final track, Closer to Heaven, in which the 58-year-old takes stock of what's important to him ... and, in an amusingly cantankerous way, what's not: 

"I don't like hummus/ I hate long lines/ Nosy neighbours and Venetian blinds/ Chirpy news anchors alter my mood/ I'm offended by buzzwords like 'awesome' and 'dude.' " 

Among his loves he lists: his wife and kids; biscuits and gravy; actress Sissy Spacek, and singer-songwriter Guy Clark. Have a listen:

Crowell, of course, has mined this seam before. Closer to Heaven is a close relative of today's post, Stuff That Works, a song Crowell co-wrote with fellow Texan Clark on the latter's must-own 1995 album, Dublin Blues. Like Closer to Heaven, Stuff That Works is a simple yet poignant celebration of the old and reliable over the new and shiny. At first, Clark sings of favourite shirts and boots and guitars but, in the final two verses, the song becomes about even more venerable stuff. Stuff like trust and loyalty and true love. "Stuff that's real/ Stuff you feel," sings Clark, "the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall."

It takes a man of a certain vintage to deliver a song like this with authority — perhaps explaining why Crowell felt he needed another 13 years to write one for himself.

Stuff That Works (link expired)

Here's a little more from Sex and Gasoline, the video for the title track. Lyrically, it's the photo negative of Closer to Heaven, as it skewers society's misplaced obsession with youth and beauty. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud lyrics in this one. My favourite: "You're over 30/ Why, you old hag!"

Buy Sex and Gasoline here

Buy Dublin Blues here

Monday, November 17, 2008

One of Those Things — Dexy's Midnight Runners (1985)

Exactly 30 years after Warren Zevon scaled the pop charts with Werewolves of London, the song's addictive piano riff was once again all over radio this year — this time, as the foundation of the ubiquitous Kid Rock single All Summer Long. Sampling Werewolves proved a savvy move on Rock's part but not necessarily an original one.

In 1985, Dexy's Midnight Runners released Don't Stand Me Down, the difficult and willfully contrary followup to breakthrough album Too-Rye-Ay and its globe-straddling single, Come On Eileen. The Celtic soul sound and gypsies-in-dungarees look of 1982 were gone, replaced by long, conversational tracks and natty Ivy League attire. If Dexys leader Kevin Rowland was trying to befuddle his fan base, he succeeded. Time has revealed Don't Stand Me Down as an idiosyncratic masterpiece but, at the time, it was career suicide.

One of Those Things was one of the album's catchiest songs, thanks to its unmistakable piano riff. It's Werewolves of London. Except, when Don't Stand Me Down was originally released, the song was credited to Rowland ... and no one else.

"Basically, I'm amazed and quite embarrassed at my arrogance when I hear this," Rowland wrote in the liner notes of the album's 1997 reissue. "I stole the riff totally from Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London after hearing it on the radio. I didn't care that it was obvious and I ignored the danger that it might well be detected, feeling that what I was doing was more important, Ironically, I thought up a melody that was maybe as good to go over the chords ... but I still insisted on using Mr. Zevon's as well, such was my obliviousness. He now rightfully owns a portion of the song."

One of Those Things might have stood an outside chance at radio play if the first verse, you know, didn't piss all over the music played on the radio. Gotta say, though: The song's chorus and central complaint — "It all sounds the same!" — is more relevant than ever.

One of Those Things (link expired)

Also from Don't Stand Me Down, here's the video for This Is What She's Like, a phenomenal 12-minute album track edited into a four-minute flop single.

Buy it here

Sunday, November 16, 2008

You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything — The Faces (1975)

The surviving members of The Faces are scheduled to reconvene tomorrow for the first rehearsal for a planned Summer 2009 reunion tour. Certainly, it's good to see 'em back together. Considering their boozy exploits throughout the 1970s, it's a small miracle four of the band's five original members are still with us, their livers apparently still functioning. (Bassist-singer-songwriter Ronnie Lane died in 1997 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.) The question remains: Can Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, Kenney Jones and Ian McLagen conjure their former shambolic soulfulness now that they're all in their 60s? I'd be surprised if the old chemistry still exists but, hey, I look at it this way: as long as Rod is busy with The Faces, he isn't recording another installment in his abysmal Great American Songbook series.

Today's post is one of the Faces' last official releases before their dissolution in late 1975. Lane had left the band at this point, Stewart was eyeing a full-time solo career and Wood was only a year removed from replacing Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones. Given the circumstances, You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything could have been an uninspired toss-off by a distracted band in commercial decline. On the contrary, this jointly penned single, released in January 1975, proved a triumphant swansong that cemented a legacy from which The Black Crowes, Georgia Satellites, The Quireboys, Flies on Fire and countless others would draw inspiration.

You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything (link expired)

Here are The Faces in their 1972 prime, covering Paul McCartney's Maybe I'm Amazed.

Buy it here

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Rubber Ring/Asleep — The Smiths (1985)

Another Smiths compilation; another missed opportunity. Rhino's two-disc Sounds of the Smiths best-of arrives in stores next week, boasting a fine track listing and much-needed remastered sound supervised by guitarist Johnny Marr. The first CD rounds up the usual singles, most of them timeless; a second CD cherry-picks album tracks and B-sides that haven't appeared on previous compilations. So what's this missed opportunity?

The Smiths' late-1985, 12-inch single, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (pictured left), contained two excellent non-album B-sides, Rubber Ring and Asleep, which were effectively conjoined. These tracks would make regular appearances on subsequent compilations — 1987's Louder than Bombs contained both – but they were always separated for some inexplicable reason. (Sounds of the Smiths contains Asleep but not Rubber Ring).

Perhaps someone in the Smiths doesn't like the segue from Rubber Ring to Asleep. If so, he's wrong. These Morrissey-Marr songs fit like, um, hand in glove (sorry, couldn't resist); as originally released, they combine for eight uninterrupted minutes of Smiths bliss.

Fans of the legendary Manchester band will likely have to wait for the inevitable Smiths Singles CD box set to hear the combined Rubber Ring/Asleep in remastered digital sound. Until then, enjoy this vinyl rip.

Rubber Ring/Asleep (link expired)

And here's the none-more-'80s video for the A-side, which would later appear in remixed form on The Queen Is Dead.

Buy it here

Saturday, November 8, 2008

There's No Blood In Bone — The Poppy Family (1969)

There was a She & Him long before Her & That Guy. She & Him, of course, is actress/singer/songwriter Zooey Deschanel and multi-instrumentalist M. Ward, whose debut album Vol. 1 was one of the left-field hits of 2008. Deschenel's sweet, melancholy-tinged vocals wrapped in Ward's gentle country/folk/pop arrangements proved to a beguiling combination but not necessarily an original one. She & Him have drawn comparisons to countless acts and, today, I'll throw out a rarely mentioned antecedent: The Poppy Family, a Vancouver-based group led by another she-and-him partnership, Terry Jacks and his then wife Susan. Their two albums, 1969's Which Way You Goin', Billy? and 1971's Poppy Seeds, would not only appeal to fans of She & Him but also to anyone with an affinity for late-'60s, early-'70s soft-psych. Their music is ripe for rediscovery ... and more eclectic than you might remember.

The Poppy Family are best known for the title track of their debut, a No. 2 hit in the U.S. in 1970 and still a staple of easy-listening radio:

And 1971 brought the Poppy Family's best single, Where Evil Grows, which peaked outside of the U.S. top 40 despite sounding infinitely groovy (that riff! that sitar! those harmonies!) The song may have underperformed in the U.S. because its sinister lyric provided an unwelcome and likely unintended reminder of the Manson Family murders, still fresh in the American psyche. Thirty seven years later, this remains one of my all-time favourite songs:

Which Way You Goin', Billy and Where Evil Grows are very different songs and yet the group also could play straight-up country (1972 single Good Friends — very She & Him) one moment and soft-psych freakouts the next. Today's post, from the Poppy Family's debut disc, falls into the latter category.

"When Joey died, Marie went mad," is the song's outstanding opening gambit (not including the eerie spoken-word intro in which Susan's voice is varispeeded wildly.) The band embraces this unhinged spirit, with fuzz guitar and organ soloing almost free-form and Susan bellowing like Grace Slick after ingesting the bad brown acid. If you remember The Poppy Family as soft-pop peddlers, There's No Blood in Bone will confound your expectations.

Terry and Susan Jacks divorced in 1973 and the Poppy Family disbanded. They would both embark on solo careers and Terry even enjoyed an international chart-topper with 1974's ghastly Seasons in the Sun. But neither would reach the artistic heights they scaled together.

There's No Blood in Bone (link expired)

Let's end this post as it began, with a little She & Him. Here the video for Vol. 1's first single, Why Did You Let Me Stay Here?

Buy Poppy Family here

Buy She & Him here

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Change Is Gonna Come — Sam Cooke (1963)

Dear America,

Hey, it's finally Election Day.

Please don't screw this up.


Bongo Jazz

A Change Is Gonna Come (link expired)

Buy it here

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jimmy Browns — Bend Sinister (2008), Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head) — Ben Folds (2008)

Seeing Elton John in Las Vegas this summer was among my concert highlights in 2008, especially since the show began with my all-time favourite Elton song, Bennie and the Jets. I've never tired of this classic-rock fixture because, 35 years after its recording, the track has somehow maintained its elusiveness and duality. Bennie and the Jets is glam and disco; studio and live; celebration and satire; a dancefloor filler and stubbornly mid-tempoed. The song is so damn indefinable and flummoxing, I wonder if the producers of Soul Train realized they were booking a balding, pasty white Englishman to perform this chart-topper on the African-Amercian music show. Bennie and the Jets — it's a special song, indeed.

Within the last month, I've come across a couple of new songs that could be Bennie's grandchildren.

First up is Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hits His Head), the opening track from Ben Folds' latest album Way To Normal (pictured left). Folds, of course, was initially described as the slacker generation's answer to Elton and this comparison, in some ways, stands up. Just as Elton went from the inspired pop of Honky Chateau to the perfunctory MOR of 21 at 33 in eight short years, Folds's recording career followed a similar trajectory between 1997's fizzy Whatever and Ever Amen and 2005's accomplished and mature (read: bland) Songs For Silverman.

The good news is Way To Normal recalls Folds's more playful and energetic earlier records. Opening track Hiroshima sets the tone: It's a blatant homage to Bennie, with its dubbed crowd noise and stomping piano chords (not to mention the stuttering B-B-B's in the subtitle), but whereas Elton's song describes some ultra-cool Rock God in full flow, Folds's song recounts the time he walked over the edge of the stage and sustained a concussion during a concert in Japan. "They're watching me/watching me fall," goes the catchy-as-hell chorus, while the verses are equally guileless and self-deprecating. The song has a great, abrupt ending, too.

There's more Elton love in Jimmy Browns, a track from Stories of Brothers, Tales of Lovers (pictured right), the second full-length album by Vancouver's Bend Sinister.

The quintet — think of them as Canada's answer to The Feeling — borrows liberally from FM rock of the late 1970s, especially from the modestly proggy likes of Queen, 10cc, Boston, Klaatu and Supertramp. Here, they build an entire song around the slightest variation of Bennie's piano chord progression although, to be fair, the rest of the song creates its own brand of electric music, solid walls of sound.

Hiroshima (link expired)

Jimmy Browns (link expired)

As good as these tracks are, they don't hold a candle to the song that inspired them. So, I'd be remiss if I didn't include a video of Elton performing Bennie and the Jets. Here's a campy clip of Elton duetting with the host of The Cher Show, from 1975:

Buy it here and here