Monday, October 2, 2017

All I Want(ed)

Taking another dip down the Joni Mitchell rabbit hole, I found a live, early version of "All I Want," and the incomplete lyric has some fascinating differences from the album version: I was mildly shocked by "looking for the truth in men and in me," amused by the awkward placeholder "phony camaraderie," and genuinely touched by the past tense of the chorus ("All I really, really wanted love to do was..."). Since this doesn't seem to live anywhere else on the interwebs, I offer it to you here:

I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Looking for the truth in men and in me
All my jealousy, my greed, they all unravel me
It undoes all the joy that could be
Ah, you’re not real, no, no
Do you think you’re fooling me
With these false pretensions of phony camaraderie?

All I really, really wanted love to do
Was to bring out the best out in me and in you too
All I really, really wanted love to do
Was to bring out the best out in me and in you too

I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Looking for the truth in men and in me
All my jealousy, my greed is my unravelling
It undoes all the joy that could be
Ah, but you’re not real, no, no
Do you think you’re fooling me
With your phony camaraderie?

All I really, really wanted love to do
Was to bring out the best out in me and in you too
All I really, really wanted love to do
Was to bring out the best out in me and in you too

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Some Get the Marrowbone

Joni Mitchell won't get a formative-album replay post on this blog because, though her music has twined in and out of my life over the years, none of her records have been central to me or the development of my taste. Like most casual listeners, I've cottoned to much of Blue and understood if not quite shared the high esteem, even awe, of many listeners and musical peers for her protean songwriting craft.

That all changed recently, quite dramatically, and entirely thanks to the advocacy of Carl Wilson, a pop critic at Slate and one of the few who writes about the musical content of music as deftly as its lyrical and cultural implications; he's the closest I've found to an Alex Ross of pop. He appeared on the Culture Gabfest recently to talk about his review of a new biography of Mitchell, which was in effect his case for giving her the Olympian due so readily accorded to others in her cohort (Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Lennon/McCartney, et al.). He talked a bit about her infamous guitar tunings and about her somewhat miraculous piano playing, and that was enough to send me back to the records. I'd dipped into many of her albums over the years to see if one stuck, but when I glanced at For the Roses I realized I hadn't really given it a shot.

I've barely stopped playing it since. As with Blue, it has a one-two punch of songs at the start that set the tone, and a high bar, for what's to come, "Banquet" and "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire." Also like Blue, it has a clear, crisp folk-pop sound, minus some of the lite-jazz wash that mucks up some subsequent records (to my ears). And if my favorite Joni song till recently was the angular, assertive piano encomium "My Old Man," my new favorite, by leaps and bounds, has become the similarly constructed but more sweeping masterwork "Banquet." It's got the same polychord smash of piano chords, the same wrenching major-minor shifts, the same sense of swell and surge and ebb.


Its lyrics, which consider both fulsome bounty and grinding inequality, are more broadly philosophical, even wizened, than the defiant/supplicant affection of "My Old Man." But the song twirls on a similar emotional knife's edge whose sharpness, I'd say, is defined by that muscular piano. I've been playing through a transcription of it lately, and it's deeply satisfying; also edifying. Basically, I would posit that one key to Mitchell's unique harmonic language is that she plays the piano a bit like an open-tuned guitar (or dulcimer), and vice versa: strong chords riding over pedal tones, those major-minor shifts, clusters and suspensions. The point, though, is not so much what kind of instrument she writes on; it's that she seems to be using whatever instrument she's on as a divining rod to plumb the weird, questing harmonies she hears in her head. What I'm saying, in other words, that I'm beginning at last to hear her as a composer, and it's a stature her capacious music well deserves.

I'm planning to dive into this academic paper, chiefly about her use of modal harmony, soon. Suffice to say, while I can't retcon my musical development and insert Joni into my pantheon of formative influences alongside Dylan and Simon and Newman and Costello, I'm beginning to grasp the enormity and singularity of her work. I'm even almost grateful to have had this blind spot till now, so sharp and sweet is the feeling of discovery.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rag Waters and Bitters and Blue Ruin


Today’s formative-album replay: Tom Waits Rain Dogs. “Bangin’ on a table with an old tin cup” goes one barked lyric in the menacing murder blues “Gun Street Girl,” late on Side Two of this definitive 1985 collection by the Bard of Whittier. That simple image, of a racket made with available objects, is Waits’s second-phase sound in a cracked nutshell, and the key to its integrity and acquired-taste appeal: that his music sounds like it was literally formed from, and played on, pieces of the crumbling, tumbling world his lyrics describes: pawnshop radios and broken umbrellas, a shower of hammer and nails, shipwreck trains and wooden legs, canebrake and scattering crows. Very little of this booming, wheezing, twanging, crinkling record sounds either premeditated or post-produced; it is all happening now, with the immediacy and unpredictability of a field recording by Harry Smith.

This should come as no surprise from an artist whose best album, Nighthawks at the Diner, is essentially a live word-jazz show, though that hails from his earlier junkie-Hoagy-Carmichael dispensation. Here, as in the previous kaleidoscope jumble Swordfishtrombones, Waits (and his indispensable partner in crime, Kathleen Brennan) have made that paradoxical artifact, a la Harry Partch or Robert Rauschenberg: an original piece of folk art, a made/found object. Dylan did something analogous, steeping himself so deep in American folk and blues that his voice (both as a singer and a writer) fused with its sources. But Waits’s tricks of ventriloquism and reclamation are both more encompassing and more theatrical. There are songs here--some great ones--but there’s a jagged carnival frame around all of them that’s as compelling, in some cases moreso, than the music inside it.

The record’s opener, the stomping nautical polka “Singapore,” echoes the climb-aboard throwdown of Swordfishtrombones’s opener, “Underground,” but surpasses it in headlong bravado--and this time out there’s no respite from the high-wire phantasmagoria and minor-key gypsy atmospherics. We teeter from the seasick swirl of “Clap Hands” to the clamped-down fury of “Cemetery Polka,” from the lean slice of “Jockey Full of Bourbon” to the sodden staggering of “Tango Till They’re Sore” and the sawed-off shotgun boogie of “Big Black Mariah.” By the time “Diamonds and Gold” rolls around, the artifice is showing a few seams (there's even a quote from the melody of “Chim Chim Cheree”). But that only makes the no-frills, all-feeling punch of the forlorn “Hang Down Your Head” land all the harder, followed by the hymn-like sagacity of “Time,” with its layered signifiers (“It’s time that you love” reading in at least two distinct ways) and aphoristic equanimity suggesting a song Waits is half-remembering as much as writing.

Side Two starts strong with a satisfyingly goofy, angular title song (highlighted by the call and response of Marc Ribot’s tensile, reptilian guitar) and the palette-cleansing spy chase of “Midtown.” Then it’s the William Burroughs/Ken Nordine prose poetry of “9th and Hennepin,” which I have to believe has a faint wink of self-parody (“I’ve seen it all...”), a pair of mostly convincing tough-guy blues blowouts (“Gun Street Girl,” “Union Square”), and the album’s only outright failure, the wannabe Stones country ballad “Blind Love,” which never clicks into its groove, though not for lack of strenuous trying. Waits regains his strut with the suave “Walking Spanish” and the lovely, quietly passionate “Downtown Train,” a kind of spiritual sequel to “Jersey Girl.” The album closes with a spare-parts instrumental and the Salvation Army hymn “Anywhere I Hang My Head,” which is a tad self-conscious and over-sung but not out of place, fading out of sight not with Waits’s howling growl but with the rumpled dignity of a New Orleans funeral march.

Waits may have made better records--as I say, my favorite is Nighthawks, though I’d entertain an argument that Mule Variations is his true masterpiece--but few that hang together as brashly as the clatter and steam of “Rain Dogs.”

Another Tom Waits post here.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

We Throne Folk

Today’s formative-album replay: Camelot (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Some musicals aren’t just better on record than onstage--some may have found their ideal form on their Broadway or London cast album. I’ve often felt this about a few Sondheim scores, which I grew to love only after repeated rotations and still have yet to see staged satisfactorily, and any number of Weill shows I’m not sure I ever need to see staged (Johnny Johnson, looking at you). I have to guess in this case, since I’ve never seen Lerner & Leowe’s Arthurian variation onstage (and I’m not sure the film, which I once half-watched, counts), but the received wisdom about Camelot is that it just doesn’t work as well onstage as their other biggie, My Fair Lady.

Thing is, though, while I heartily gobbled that record up too, it never captured my heart like this faux-medieval fantasy of royal romance and mild mischief, with its heraldic trumpets and sweeping strings. And this replay made it clear why, apart from those assets: the retiring, self-effacing lead, Arthur, as conveyed indelibly in the dry but warm whisky baritone of Richard Burton. Even after all these years, his unique Welsh bemusement, at once regal and relaxed, starch-stiff yet welcoming as a toasty hearth, taps a rich seam of emotion (for me, at least) that anchors and elevates even the show’s more eye-rollingly twee moments (particularly the grating doggerel of the title song, in which L&L have taken a playful metaphor--weather as a gauge of a nation’s health--and somehow forgot to flesh out its underlying meanings, not to mention committed such lyrical crimes as “that’s how conditions are” and “those are the legal laws”).

A fixation on climate and seasons impressed me anew on this replay: not just the title song but the prim hoedown “The Merry Month of May” and the calendar-flipping swoon of “If Ever I Would Leave You,” even the seductive mists of “Follow Me.” Along those lines, I also clocked the way the impish merriment and bravado--the spring and summer--of Side One closes with the pivotal autumnal rumination “How to Handle a Woman,” and then Side Two opens with a pair of sincere if wintry love ballads, “If Ever” and the chastened “Before I Gaze at You Again,” the latter registering a striking change of tune as Guenevere’s laughing coquetry is all but silenced by the complications of true love.

I blush a bit now at how much my younger self thrilled to the needlingly cynical, punny “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and the mild bloody-mindedness and/or bawdiness of “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” and “Fie on Goodness.” But I returned with unchecked enthusiasm to the climactic “Guenevere,” a galumphing, modal march that hands the show's storytelling finale over to the chorus. That seems like it must have been a bold move, and I’m sure it raises (and/or solves) some interesting staging questions. Thankfully I don’t have to know the answer, though, to cherish this round-table roundelay in the only form I’ve ever known it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Hammer on the Slap and Tickle


Today's formative-album replay: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Trust. A painful, aggrieved grab bag that somehow sensationally coheres, this 1981 masterwork might be thought of as Revolver to Imperial Bedroom’s Sgt. Pepper. As explosive as it is eclectic, somehow both stark and polished, it has an unseemly urgency in its delivery that’s unmatched by anything in Costello’s work with the Attractions outside of This Year’s Model. But of course a central virtue of his early work in particular is that keen, spitting rage fits him like a sweat-through suit; in his prime he makes howls of shame and recrimination baroquely beautiful. Trust represents both the apotheosis of his brilliant first chapter as Angry Buddy Holly and a harbinger of the ageless, jack-of-all-trades artisan he’d soon settle into.

By most accounts this is the record where Costello started to feel his age, in part following the rock convention that marks 27 as a make-or-break year, and in part because he and his band were accelerating the process with the conventional upper-downer showbiz diet. But it’s not a drug influence I hear on Trust so much as a kind of acid reflux: While the accusatory venom of his songs’ unreliable narrators had previously sprayed some inevitable blowback on them as they lay waste to their targets, on this record the indignation and anger seem aimed inward more than outward. When he sings “You’ll never be a man/No matter how foreign bodies you can take,” it’s impossible not to hear it as self-reproach. The title of the album’s most astonishingly lovely song, a penny dreadful for just piano and voice, sums it up: “Shot With His Own Gun.”

If Costello incriminates himself more than ever before, the result is new reservoirs of near-compassion, or at least a wider-ranging lens of consideration, and new shades of vulnerability. The record feels distinctly cinematic, and he’s not the only character, or even always the lead: From the startling in media res throwdown of “Clubland” to the shuffling, simmering home brew of “Big Sister’s Clothes,” Trust lays a teeming panorama of barroom brawls and indiscreet assignations over a soundtrack as propulsive and varied as any Costello would offer until Spike. And the Attractions throughout sound like the most versatile bar band you’d ever dream of, from barreling rock to sidelong country, with Bruce Thomas’s bass occasionally almost singing like a vocal part, Steve Nieve’s piano and organ slashing and splashing at odd angles, and Pete Thomas’s surgical drums slicing through it all, especially the circumspect yet soaring morning-after pill “New Lace Sleeves.”

That song's lyrics, like the ambling, engagingly under-sung “Watch Your Step,” reportedly date from Costello’s teen years. As these are two of the album’s best and wisest cuts, does this give the lie to the idea that Trust represents some kind of badge of maturity? Perhaps, but I rather think that Costello was an old soul from the first--an old soul thrust into a seething, all-too-human body (with a froggy voice) that he punished with all the usual sins of the flesh but which, along the way, he honed into a richly expressive instrument. I’ve loved many of his records before and since, but for me Trust is the one on which that instrument first showed its full dynamic range.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Grace Notes


I’ve been traveling, ostensibly vacationing, but not immune to a few random musical observations about songs that have shuffled themselves forward up on the old iPod in the leisure hours. A sampling:

“Many a New Day” Good Lord, what a great song. I’ve always loved it, tucked neatly in the middle of a score not short on lovable tunes. It's a perfect iteration of the kiss-off-for-now song (later varied but not improved by the likes of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and “I’m Not at All in Love”), with a melody that’s somehow both flirtatiously trilly as well as broad-shouldered and matter-of-fact--both feminine and feminist, if you will. (I’ve also always adored the characteristically Hammerstein-ian bluntness and specificity of “I’ll scrub my neck and I’ll brush my hair.”)

But my ears perked up anew on a recent listen at the key trick of its lyric--“trick” might be too strong a word, as it’s laying there in plain sight, in the song’s title. The sleight of hand all these go-away-but-not-too-far songs have to pull off--much like their cousin, the I’m-not-in-love-with-you-yet song (“I’ll Know,” “If I Loved You,” or this score's “People Will Say We’re in Love”)--is to have it both ways, to give us the satisfaction of a breakup and the anticipation of a reunion (and, in this paradox, the pleasure of secret knowledge, something we know that the characters don't quite). And that’s where “Many a New Day” handily aces the form: While Laurie uses “never” all too freely (“Never have I once looked back to sigh,” “Never gonna think that the man I love/Is the only man among men”), her thesis statement blunts that finality: “Many a new day will dawn before I do,” i.e., weep over a man to come back. So it’s just a matter of time, then? We’re happy to wait, Laurey.

“On a Night Like This” I’d always liked this spirited Dylan pop number, but hearing it again today it hit me why: With its sprightly zydeco beat and a lyric so tender, convincingly joyous, and deceptively simple, so perfectly set and framed--each rhyme of “this” is teed up beautifully, as the scene-setting builds verse by verse, and he pulls off that old-school move of starting and ending the chorus with the title--it’s a bracing reminder that dammit, Dylan can be as good a light-music tunesmith as anyone ever when he wants to be.

“Lying” Sometimes one note can make a song. Case in point: In this sly bit of double-negative shade for pop-culture happy talk, Sam Phillips (and her producer, then-husband T-Bone Burnett) get many things right (including having their pal Elvis Costello play his guitar with pencils), but none more so than the last note of each chorus line, where she lets the “ing” of the title slip from the reassuring root note of its underlying chord into a memorably jarring major-7th interval (in this case, a C# over a D chord). This insistent little fly in the ointment, this crack in the facade, nicely undercuts any trace elements of preachiness (much as a similar major-7th on the last note of the chorus of Lily Allen’s “Smile,” come to think of it, lightly defuses that song’s gleeful effrontery).

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Des ailes en chandail, Des algues en paille


Today’s formative-album replay: Juliette Gréco. Much of this record makes me want to lie down, perhaps because a good amount of it sounds like it was sung from a reclining position, the singer’s head lifted just enough to emit sound, like an opium addict from her couch. Even when the orchestra is trotting jauntily along, Juliette Gréco--the thinking man’s Piaf--often sounds like she either can’t be bothered to sing at all, or is simply too wrecked by emotion to manage more than a sob or a moan. Lachrymose is not the the only shade she manages, of course: There is also the shy, warm coquette of “Deshabillez Moi,” the dashing bon vivant of “Jolie Mome,” and various modes of ageless Parisian mascot: party girl (“La Fete aux Copains”), wry sphinx (“Paname”), and jovial tourguide (“Paris Canaille,” “Accordeon”).

But the heart of this hits collection (yet another pivotal purchase inspired by my devotion to Stephanie Vlahos’s peerless French cabaret act) beats in Gréco’s world-weary, half-swallowed, spoke-sung lyrics, a sophisticated Gallic cousin to the artless croak of Dietrich. In songs like the heartbroken “Chanson de vieux amants,” the warily vulnerable “Il N’y a Plus D’apres,” the ruminative lover’s farewell “Si Tu T’Imagines,” or the emotionally caved-in “Les Enfants Qui S'Aiment,” she pulls off the actor’s trick of heightening the drama by underplaying it. When she runs the manic-depressive gamut in a self-consciously zero-to-60 number like “Je Hais Les Dimanches,” it comes off as a bit of a gimmick, while the flickering alternation of past/present, sweet/sour, and major/minor conjured by a reverie like “C’Etait Bien,” on the other hand, is all the richer for seeming tossed off.

The absolute molten core of the album’s Proustian magic is the snow-globe carousel waltz of “Coin de Rue,” which feels somehow neither spoken nor sung but rendered as a limpid, candlelit incantation (it doesn’t hurt that its distinctive harmonic ambivalence--it’s in a major key but sounds graver than many a song in a minor key--is singularly French). If many of these songs have the sound of a heart sinking, “Coin de Rue” is the sound of a bright, shiny little memory bobbing down a dark, eddying stream to sweet oblivion. That’s a restorative best taken lying down.