Saturday, July 18, 2009

Color My World: Sixteen Blue

The Replacements: Sixteen Blue


It's common rock and roll currency to appeal to the pathos of adolescence. Here The Replacements lament how difficult it is to be sixteen, bored, and naive. Great song from a really great album.

Songs Called Songs: The Front Porch Song

Robert Earl Keen, Jr.: The Front Porch Song


My picks this week were kinda jokey, but this one I really love.

By chance, Robert Earl Keen, Jr. and Lyle Lovett happened to live in the same neighborhood while students at Texas A&M. They quickly became friends playing their guitars and singing together on the front porch of Keen's rental house. This song, which they co-wrote, is one of the results of those sessions. Both artists have recorded nice versions. I picked Keen's because his title fits this week's theme. (Lyle calls the song "This Old Porch.")

It's chock full of great lyrics, so give it a whirl.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Songs Called Songs: This Song Has No Title

Elton John: This Song Has No Title


I've mentioned elsewhere that I have mixed feelings for Elton John. I think he has put out a lot of crap in his career. But he was my first favorite artist when I was about 10 years old, and for that I'll always have a place for him in my library. Also, for every song that I dislike, there is another that's excellent.

This is one of the good ones.

Songs Called Songs: Song to a Seagull

Joni Mitchell: Song to a Seagull


It’s hard to imagine, after all these years, how bizarre Joni Mitchell’s debut must have sounded at that time. Ostensibly a new folk singer, Mitchell played folk music from an alternate universe. Early fans tore their hair out trying to play her guitar parts, not realizing that Mitchell used her own tunings. Her vocal lines used interval jumps that had never been heard on the folk circuit before. And the production on Song to a Seagull, the album, emphasized this sense of alienness.

The song is about the freedom Mitchell sought vs the restrictions she felt. The seagull is free of any expectations from humanity. As Mitchell sings, “no dreams can possess you, no voices can blame you.” By contrast, the human world is represented by the city, which Mitchell calls, “an island of noise in a cobblestone sea”. These may be the words of a not-much-more-than-teenager from the sixties, but the poetry still works.

Paul Desmond: Song to a Seagull


Mitchell’s music has always made sense to jazz artists, and the sentiment of Song to a Seagull could easily describe the freedom that some artists find in jazz. So it only makes sense that jazz artist Paul Desmond would be drawn to the song. Desmond was the sax player for Dave Brubeck for many years. This track shows that his recordings under his own name were just as fine.

Songs called songs : Song For Ireland

Dick Gaughan : Song for Ireland


As Dick Gaughan (see his bio here) says on his site :

"Song for Ireland" was written by Phil and June Colclough and it is not an Irish song, it is an English song about Ireland. Spot the difference. I do know what I'm talking about as I was the first person ever to record it ( Handful of Earth, 1981 ) and Phil and June are/were friends of mine (June is now deceased) and they're English.

And to make things easier, Dick Gaughan is Scottish (but his paternal grandparents were irish), so it's easy for him to sing this song from a stranger/neighbor point of view.

Beautiful song.

Songs Called Songs: September Song

Willie Nelson: September Song


September Song was has words by Maxwell Anderson. Anderson was a famous playwright and novelist who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1933. Ha also was well known and highly regarded for his screenplays. The music is by Kurt Weill, who was best known for this song and the music for The Threepenny Opera. The song comes from a Broadway musical from 1938, Knickerbocker Holiday.

Anderson was a pacifist and anarchist who used Knickerbocker Holiday to criticize FDR as being a “fascist”. Nowadays, we think of President Roosevelt as the epitome of liberalism, but at the time he was criticized from the left as well as the right. Knickerbcker Holiday ran on Broadway for less than a year, and has been all but forgotten since.

But September Song has become a standard. The song is not at all political. Kurt Weill would later marry singer Lotte Lenye, and September Song would become her signature tune. There are any number of jazz versions, with and without vocals. Frank Sinatra recorded it. Even Lou Reed did a version. But Willie Nelson’s take on it is my favorite. It comes from Stardust, Nelson’s album of standards. If Nelson ever wants to do more of this, I’d like to know about it.

Songs Called Songs: The Motorcycle Song

Arlo Guthrie: Motorcycle (Significance of the Pickle) Song


This one is fairly self-explanatory.

I don't want a pickle, I just wanna ride on my...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Songs Called Songs: Swimming Song

Loudon Wainwright III: Swimming Song


Loudon Wainwright III -- father of Rufus and Martha by ex-wife Kate McGarrigle, and of Lucy Wainwright Roche by Suzzy Roche, who we featured below -- has made a career of wryly humorous, folky songs which hide deeply personal insight below seemingly mundane lyrics.

The oft-covered Swimming Song, which first appeared on Attempted Moustache in 1973, is a perfect early example. Though the lyrics are nominally nothing more than a list of where and how Wainwright spent the summer swimming, the subtext of phrasing and tone tells a familiar backstory of a narrator with a brash and unapologetic awareness of his self-destructive ego and show-off personality. The banal and obvious title is a masterstroke: it calls our attention to the transparency of the song's surface, encouraging us to dive in deeper.

Songs Called Songs: Hammond Song

The Roches: Hammond Song


The Roches’ second album was Nerds; in it, they tried to stretch out, and explore their rock side. If that had been the first thing I heard from them, I might have left the matter there. Nerds has a few good moments, but not enough to stay with them.

But I got on board with their self-titled debut. This is a mostly acoustic album. Producer Robert Fripp adds what he calls “fripperies” to some tracks, but the focus is on the songwriting and the Roche sisters’ wonderful vocal harmonies. Hammond Song is a perfect example. The song depicts a free-spirited woman who is going to Hammond to be with her boyfriend, despite the serious misgivings of her family. This is a standard set-up for numerous pop songs. But Hammond Song is unusual, because it presents the point of view of the disapproving family. The vocal harmonies feature chords that barely resolve, beautifully reflecting the emotional tension of the situation.

Songs Called Songs: The Pina Colada Song

Rupert Holmes: The Pina Colada Song


It must have been a ton of fun to be an adult during the 1970s when this kind of stuff was happening. Not saying the tunes were always great, but the yacht rock lifestyle had its moments. I mean, who doesn't like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Songs Called Songs: Radio Song

R.E.M.: Radio Song

This collaboration between R.E.M. and rapper KRS 1 appeared on R.E.M.'s 1991 mega-hit album Out of Time.

I always felt that it got a bad rap (no pun intended) from R.E.M. fans who just couldn't reconcile the fact that their favorite band was performing with a hip-hop artist. I never really had that problem myself and have always liked the track.

But... for those of you who prefer your R.E.M. rap free... here is bonus version of the song from the band's appearance on MTV Unplugged in 1991.

Songs Called Songs: The Anyway Song

Lullaby Baxter Trio: The Anyway Song


Sometimes instead of finding great new music, it finds you instead. When I had a radio show back in college, they had a bin where once a year the DJs could take a CD to keep from the promotional items we had received because there simply wasn't room to store/listen to them all. I got there late and one of the few things left was a CD by an artist I hadn't heard the music of, but whose album I had seen a few reviews for and whose album art (see above) I thought was adorable, so I grabbed it. Turns out, the album was wonderful and I loved every second of it. It's a strange whimsical mix of sometimes country, sometimes jazz-infused folk that teetered on children's music at times. Since then I've included this track (a lovely piano ballad), my favorite from it, on a number of mixes and gotten other people to fall in love as well. It is out of print as far as I know, but available at insanely cheap prices now, as well as digitally.

Before hearing the song I loved the name of it. I've always been a fan of the word "anyway", as my late grandmother was a pro at using it to politely change the course of a conversation she wasn't sure she wanted to go any further. I went through a stage where I used the word more often than I should have as well. It's a great catch-all, and I think the word, not like the song and the album, is wildly underrated.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Songs Called Songs: Ohio River Boat Song

Ohio River Boat Song by the Palace Brothers was the first musical sign of Will Oldham as a musician, and I´ve been an ardent admirer ever since I bought that lofi 7" on the Drag City label back in ´93. So it was quite a treat to hear a much more upbeat version of this delicate lament for love lost a couple of years later, when Oldham decided to re-record it under the Bonnie "Prince" Billy moniker, this time backed by Nashville´s finest session players.

"And her dance is like the gleam of the sunlight on the stream,
and the screeching bluejays seem to form her name when screaming
But my heart is full of woe for last night she made me go,
and the tears begin to flow as I sing the whole day through..."

Songs called songs : The Anchor Song

Björk: The Anchor Song


Björk is unique. To me she's the perfect incarnation of the Artist, unpredictable, with a genius that takes her and the listener to strange and virgin musical landscapes, just like the ones on her native Iceland. And her voice...

With time I realized that all the artists I love have a voice, and that vocals is to me the best instrument ever. Here she just sings with the backing of three Coltrane-like saxophones, and takes us into one of her weird fairy tales.

If I was Odysseus and she was a mermaid, never would I have made it to Ithaca..

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Songs called songs: Tiger Mountain Peasant Song

Fleet Foxes: Tiger Mountain Peasant Song


This blog tends to focus on well established bands and artists that have stood the test of time. We have an informal, but pretty well adhered to, rule around here that we stay away from the hot new bands that are burning up the blogosphere. I hope my colleagues will forgive me if I make an exception for the favorite sons of the music blog universe, Fleet Foxes.

I have told my wife a few times that Fleet Foxes have actually changed my life. I know that sounds absurdly hyperbolic, but it's actually true. I remember when I was younger I used to buy a new album by a beloved band and play it over and over and over again. I would memorize every note and every word. It would go with me everywhere I went, sometimes for months. These albums became intertwined with certain eras of my life in ways that are still powerfully evocative today. However, the advent of the digital age changed all of that. I started acquiring a lot more music, and I started paying a lot less attention to it. There were still great albums coming out, but even the best of them were competing in such a rich field that they were never able to dominate my mental space the way certain music did when I was in high school and college.

Then along came Fleet Foxes. This album has reminded me what it's like to truly love an album. I know every note, every word. I have played it a few times a week for a year now. It is powerfully intertwined into this era of my life.

Maybe they aren't your taste, and maybe they're too modern for this blog, but when I saw a chance to post a song from a band that I truly love, I couldn't resist.

Check it!