Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Large Numbers: Millions: A Million Miles Away

Jim Boyd: A Million Miles Away

[purchase]

[purchase Reservation Blues]

For our new theme, I went to YouTube and did searches for what seemed to be likely titles for songs. I am somewhat embarrassed that I had never heard of Jim Boyd until I did that. Boyd is identified in most references to him on line as a Native American singer-songwriter. He was certainly that. His roots were on the Colville Reservation in Washington state, where he was an important member of the tribal council. But, on the strength of this song, Boyd deserved to be more widely known. True, A Million Miles Away expresses the yearning many on the reservations feel for a better life somewhere else. But the theme of the song is more universal than that.

I am reminded of a book I would like to recommend, Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie. Alexie is a novelist. He has achieved a level of fame where he no longer has to be called a Native American novelist, although he gives voice to Native American concerns in the book. In fact, Alexie and Boyd became friends, and even wrote songs together. Reservation Blues is about a group of young Native Americans who form a band and try to use their music as a way off the reservation to a better life. In the end, they are unsuccessful, and they have to go back to the life they knew. There was eventually a movie version, and Jim Boyd was on the soundtrack. Boyd’s music was good enough to stand with anything ever posted here, but I’m guessing most of our readers didn’t know about him either.

Musically, someone could probably have a hit with A Million Miles Away by turning it into a power ballad. I can hear in my head just where the band would come in with drums, bass, and screaming electric guitars. Boyd doesn’t do that, and the song simmers intensely all the way through as an acoustic ballad. To me, the song is better for it, but subtlety is not how you get onto the charts.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Gold: The Golden Vanity

Rory Block: The Golden Vanity

[purchase]

Gordon Bok, Ann Mayo Muir, Ed Trickett: The Golden Vanity

[purchase]

Sam Kelly: The Golden Vanity

[purchase]

Unlike in my last post, there is no need for make to make the case for The Golden Vanity as a folk song. Instead, the song and the versions offered here give a great example of the folk process. What are now traditional songs once served a role in society that is filled now with far less artistry by tabloid newspapers. In a culture that was mostly illiterate, songs like The golden Vanity were how the masses got their news. As stories like this got told and retold, different singers would add their own agendas to the lyrics. The Golden Vanity may have begun as a tale about a specific sea captain. The singer might have left him unnamed, secure in the knowledge that his audience would know who he was. But the song is also a tale of the unfairness of the class structure of British society. There are versions that present the tragic conclusion as inevitable, citing how impudent the cabin boy was to expect to be rewarded for his efforts. The universality of the main theme of the song assured it a long life that extended well beyond the life of the people it was written about. So the enemy is often a “Turkish Revelry”, but sometimes it is a Spanish ship. Likewise, it is important to some singers that the enemy deserves their fate, so there is a verse that describes them as sinners, playing cards and shooting dice as they sink into the sea. Rory Block gives us a lyric where the crew give the cabin boy an honorable death, as if the teller is a former shipmate struck by pangs of guilt. It is unlikely, in the actual event, that the captain would have allowed this, but it puts the blame on him alone for what happened. Gordon Bok and crew give us an exchange between the captain and the cabin boy that exposes the villainy of the captain for all to see; here, the reason the cabin boy does not take revenge is an act of class solidarity.

Another aspect of the folk process is on display here as well. All three versions here are recognizably the same song. But Rory Block and Bok, Muir and Trickett take very different approaches musically, although both are ballads. Sam Kelly turns the song into an uptempo burner, and it really cooks. As these songs pass from news items to parts of the traditional culture, each new artist uses their unique talents to put the song over the best way they can. There are times, like this one, where there never becomes an “official” way to do the song, so each artist must make it their own. I could have presented many more versions, including classic takes by Pete Seeger, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Peter Paul and Mary, but the versions I have chosen suffice to illustrate the point.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Gold : Gold Town


Tommy Keene : Gold Town


    In 1986, a year that jangly guitars were still all the rage on college radio stations like mine, Washington D.C.'s Tommy Keene released one of the year's finest power pop albums. Songs From the Film was Keene's major label debut. Produced by Beatles audio engineer Geoff Emerick, it's a collection of straight ahead tunes that grow on you ten, twenty, even thirty years later. 

   I caught Keene's act from the back of the 9:30 Club in his hometown a year or two earlier and I wasn't impressed. From the back of the room, he looked like Alan Thicke. In my hometown of New Orleans, the Jesuit owned TV station had replaced David Letterman with Thicke's show Thicke of the Night. We hated Alan Thicke. So that counted as strike one. Keene's reedy voice reminded me of Let's Active's Mitch Easter who seemed to be constantly replacing female bandmates taller than him. Strike two. And the songs may have sounded too straight forward to a guy like me, who considered himself a music snob. Strike three.




 Then, in 1984, Tommy Keene released a pair of EPs on the Dolphin label that sounded great with the kind of songs I liked to play on my college radio show ( Back in the USA MC5, Marshall Crenshaw, the dBs, R.E.M., The Byrds, The Beau Brummels,  the garage rock bands from the Nuggets Compilation, you get the idea). One of them, Run Now, produced by T Bone Burnett and Don Dixon, topped the Village Voice Pazz and Jop EP poll and is now included on the Songs From the Film CD.

  Keene never made it big. But take a listen to  "Gold Town" and you'll be left wondering why.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Gold: James Bond




purchase [Lulu]


[Un] fortuitously, this comes more or less upon Roger Moore's demise. I had already started in on this topic when I read the news this week about his passing.

More than once, the James Bond series has shown its affinity for gold: the word appears in more than one film title: Goldfinger, GoldenEye, The Man with a Golden Gun. And the metal itself appears even more often - you know, the root of all evil.  Ask yourself: Why does one rock dug out of the ground have such value? Go figure. Gold ... Silver...  Diamonds and more.


The James Bond film series is a serious production process - not least the selection of its music - both throughout each film, but more emphatically, in the film's  intro section. Over the years, the honor of singing the films' intro music has fallen to  the top of the pop: Paul McCartney, Louis Armstrong, Nancy Sinatra, Carly Simon, Rita Coolridge, Tina Turner  ... the list goes on and on. Kind of like  how the list of Bond films that include <gold> goes on and on.

 
The Bond <gold> selection I highlight  spans a number of musical genres, but there seems to be an over-arching theme to them all: lots of [studio] production. I don't mean to necessarily place this in a bad sense. In fact, the Bond music over-production is appropriate, but it's obvious. That's probably a given for anything Bond - the whole operation is tightly managed - and that's part of what makes the series classic.


Herewith, 3 golden Bond theme songs:


Tina:

 

Lulu:

 


Shirley Bassey:

Gold: Killerman Gold Posse


French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson: Killerman Gold Posse
[purchase]

A theme within a theme—two “Gold” related posts about 1980s Richard Thompson side projects. To follow up last week’s post about the Golden Palominos, this week we look at French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson, a more traditional “supergroup” in form, if not sound or popularity. FFKT released two albums, 1987’s Live, Love, Larf & Loaf, from which today’s featured song comes, and Invisible Means, released in 1990.

Thompson is both a personal favorite, and a SMM regular. His cohorts in FFKT, though, are somewhat lesser known. John French is a drummer, although he contributed some vocals to the project, and is probably best known as “Drumbo” from Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Fred Frith, best known as a guitarist, although he mostly played bass and violin in this group, was a founder of the English avant-garde rock group Henry Cow, and has played with and produced a wide variety of mostly experimental and unconventional musicians (including Golden Palomino Bill Laswell). Frith is Professor of Composition in the Music Department at Mills College and is also a writer. Henry Kaiser is another experimental guitarist and ethnomusicologist whose body of work stretches across the spectrum of jazz, rock, electronic and world music.

As could be expected from this crew, Live, Love, Larf & Loaf is an eclectic set of music which seems to also reflect the members’ off-kilter senses of humor. The album includes, among other things, experimental, noisy songs, an Okinawan folk song, a version of the Beach Boys' “Surfin’ U.S.A.” played in the style of Chuck Berry before descending into chaos, and a few songs that sound like slightly twisted Richard Thompson songs.

“Killerman Gold Posse” is one of these, a song about a London youth gang, in which Thompson recounts the gang’s practices of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, although he notes that “the poor are we, and the poor are we.” However, the narrative is interrupted by a chorus, which sings, “We are children, please don't take our freedom away.”

It is an odd song, and one that probably is exactly long enough at 1:47.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Gold: Days of Gold


Purchase The Cadillac Three's Days of Gold

The Cadillac Three is a three-piece, hot-shit, slide guitar, honky-tonk stompin’ outfit that churns out sizzlin’ hot southern-fried country rock. The band is a showcase for lead singer and songwriter Jaren Johnston’s considerable and prodigious talents as a hit maker. Johnston has been around Nashville for a long time (he literally grew up at the Grand Ol’ Opry, where his father was band drummer). But, what sets him apart is his job that has him writing hits for everyone from Keith Urban to Tim McGraw—Johnston maintains a publishing deal with Warner Brothers while still fronting The Cadillac Three.  Which is pretty amazing, but when you listen to the swaggering, brawling, booze-soaked country rock of the TC3, its hard to think of the likes of Keith Urban or any other pop country signer being anywhere near the same league as Johnston’s band.

TC3 channels the best of all genre’s of rock: there’s the laid back lyrical sense of breathing in deep the humid, bug filled air of a backyard party somewhere way down south, to the hyped up giddy kind of buzz that comes from cold beers and shots of Old # 7. Johnston’s a visual writer, who turns phrases expertly and can delve in country clichés without being cliché in the least. TC3 captures everything you might love, or not even realize you love, about not just southern/ country rock, but rock ‘n roll in general: exuberant, down and dirty, crunchy and raw.


Take a listen to “Days of Gold”, a hymn to good time southern summers—whiskey, beers, a smoking grill—set to a quick time, hand clapping, boot stomping lap-steel-driven beat. TC3 are kind of the best kind of party you can find on disc: down home and all revved up. Here’s to summer and all the parties to come!

I'll post two versions of the song: the original, and live version, so you can get a taste of what these three guys can do, which is pretty much tear it up!




Sunday, May 21, 2017

GOLD: FOOL'S GOLD

Iron, actually, iron pyrites, but, given its name, not to say the myriad songs so entitled, hopefully quite worthy of a mention here. And clearly a theme of some inspiration, the age old tale of being taken in by all that glitters. Akin to buying a record unheard on the strength of a review. Or a cover.


The Stone Roses were huge for a moment at the rump of the '80s, their debut single blazing a trail that could never quite be replicated, a blend of dance and guitars, heralding the era of 'Mad'chester. For a while (that still lingers) all drums sounded like this, leading rather than riding. I found it exhilarating and still do, but the combination of management and internal rancour effectively leaves it a much better epitaph than the much delayed later product and ill-advised ongoing reformation. Lyrically this is an odd concoction, seemingly both a warning and expectation, about the discovery/dessert of riches the final lines almost apocryphal:

'Gold's just around the corner
Breakdown's coming up round the bend'



Graham Parker and the Rumour are/were, in my opinion, the closest thing to Bruce Springsteen produced in the UK, Parker's gritty songs and presentation pre-dating the passion of punk by a year or two too soon, arguably then diminished by its onslaught. The Rumour were the epitome of classic bar band, grizzled pros even then, most still playing, not least when quirk and circumstance put the original line-up back on the road a few years back. Parker was the angriest man in music, spitting his words out with a venom barely believable from his slight frame. On his last tour of Britain, last year, in duo form with the exemplary Brinsley Schwarz on guitar, he seems finally to have found some mellow. The lyrics here seem to suggest a knowingness, suggesting not only is the music biz paved with fool's gold, but the searching of it is a fool's errand. Or it could be about girls:

'I'm a fool so I'm told I get left in the cold
'Cause I will search the world for that fool's gold, fool's gold'

Ryan Adams is almost frustratingly prolific and terrifyingly inconsistent, at least in live performance, previous shows often marred by his various demons. The story around Fools' Gold is almost typical of his battles. Gold was the name of his 2nd long player, to my mind his best, but not what he wanted or had intended, the idea being of a double set, thwarted by his record company. Some songs came in a limited edition extra disc, others sneaked out, like this, as a b-side for a single, the rest sneaking out as a bootlegged recording. As is so often the way with Adams, his best work is sometimes the hardest to source. The words perhaps display a well-learnt cynicism:

'Fool's gold can buy you anything you want
Fool's gold, fool's gold'



What hasn't ever been said about Amy Winehouse that I could add here, the backline almost lifted from any of the recent posts about Songs From Movies About Musicians,  riches and recognition to ruin. Whilst only putting out 2 records, she was prolific enough to have a swell of other material, b-sides, outtakes and more, and this is one, appearing on a later de-luxe edition of Frank. Of all the 4 songs I feature, it is lyrically the most poignantly apposite, a warning as to the falsehoods that can arise from the entrapment of a band of gold on your finger:

'For me it ain't real, it's fools gold
There too many fools sold, not an excuse, oh
For me it ain't real, it's fools gold
I don't hear everything I'm told'

There are other songs by other artists about this shiny deceitful stone, from Thin Lizzy to One Direction, citing it both a subject and a metaphor for the desperation of hope versus the disappointment of discovery. How apt for popular music, this most fickle of industries.

So, what Fool's Gold old are you going to buy? Fill yer boots!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Gold: Fields of Gold

Sting: Fields of Gold

[purchase]

When I first heard Fields of Gold, I thought I was hearing a traditional English folk song that had somehow escaped my notice. I am no expert, but surely I would have heard someone’s version of a song this good before this? The song features the repetition of alternating lines “fields of barley” and fields of gold” in a way that can be found in many traditional English songs. But there was a reason I had not heard the song before. Fields of Gold is a Sting original, although it shows a strong knowledge of English folk music. This is a side of Sting he had not really shown before. We knew he loved rock and reggae from the sound of his band the Police. On his first solo album, Sting returned to his jazz roots. Since then, he has explored classical music and continued to make his own brand of what must be called pop for lack of a better term. Fields of Gold is the only original folk song of his that I have heard, but it really works. I could hear in my head a more “traditional” arrangement the first time I heard it.

Eva Cassidy: Fields of Gold

[purchase]

In searching for such a version, my first stop was Eva Cassidy’s version. Here we can ignite a whole argument about what is and is not “folk”. Cassidy didn’t care. While she is a revered figure among folk fans, her music is not purely folk. She drew songs from a rich array of genres and sources, and her arrangements were not always what one might consider folk. But if you consider the role that folk music served in society when the songs we are most familiar with were being written, you realize that songs like Froggy Went A’Courting were the pop music of their day. On that basis, any song is fair game, and it is the job of any modern folk artist to make their choice of songs their own. Eva Cassidy did that job brilliantly.

Richard Bennett: Fields of Gold

[purchase]

Still, I wanted to see if I could find an even folkier version without sacrificing either quality or authenticity. Bennett’s Fields of Gold still isn’t what I heard in my head. For that I would need an Irish singer, backed by just guitar and uillean pipes. But Bennett does the next best thing, giving me a small acoustic ensemble, and featuring the cello in the role I assigned to the piper. Bennett’s voice is perfect here. Like Cassidy, Bennett takes his material from a wide range of sources, and he too makes his songs his own.

Fields of Gold has become a standard since Sting wrote it. You can find multiple versions on Amazon by looking either for wedding music or lullabyes. There are also many covers of varying quality and in various genres. So the song may have started life as a Sting original, but I would argue that the place it has taken in our culture now qualifies it as a folk song.