John Wesley Harding: To Whom It May Concern
[purchase] (scroll down to New Deal)
In August 1997, I began an e-mail relationship with someone through the Dar Williams discussion list - by virtue of our shared love for Dar's music, our correspondence escalated to in-depth cyber-conversations about books, movies, parenting, marriage, and of course other musicians... which led to us sending each other mix tapes through the mail... and, in his first one to me, my new friend included John Wesley Harding's Infinite Combinations. I completely fell in love with the song, and of course had to buy the CD, by an artist I'd heard of but never listened to - I also discovered To Whom It May Concern, another tune that described our long-distance connection. Over 12 years later, we are still in each other's lives, albeit less frequently than before... and we've met up twice (once in 2000 and again six months ago) - never underestimate the power of the written word..
Dar Williams: If I Wrote You
Speaking of Dar, I would be remiss if I didn't include this song for our weekly theme - I've heard her say it was semi-inspired by the passing of Townes Van Zandt. In her words:
"I started writing this song in Austin, Texas, and to me the influence of the area is obvious. There's more open space than in many of my songs, and there is an insinuation that the narrator is clean and sober now, which would describe many Texan songwriters I know today. Larry Campbell's guitar parts and Richard Shindell's harmony made me very emotional for a while, but I'm getting over that."
We‘re About 9: Writing Again
We're About 9 is a twenty-something trio (Katie Graybeal, Pat Klink and Brian Gundersdorf), home-based in Maryland, with literate lyrics (who uses the word concatenate in a song?!?) and stunning harmonies - this tune, written by Brian, underscores the theory that one's best writing is done after experiencing great pain ("this is my letter to tell you the truth, I can't tell if I'm better, I've been thinking about the way most things are difficult to open and easier to close"). I especially love the way the tapping on the guitar simulates a beating heart - reminds me of the quote: "Writing is easy. Just sit at the keyboard and open a vein."...
Saturday, October 17, 2009
The Zombies: Care of Cell 44
The title of this song stretches the theme just a little bit. But the lyrics are the contents of a letter a guy is writing to his significant other, who is locked up in jail. Although the gender of the jailbird is never mentioned, one assumes it's a woman, which makes this a fairly unique pop song, even for 1968. As a single, it bombed.
"Care of Cell 44" is the opening track on the Zombies' magnum opus, Odessey and Oracle. The band's two hits, "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No" were several years old when the they recorded the album in 1967, and it was their final stab at making it big. Unfortunately, the album was pretty much ignored when it was released in the UK, and the band quickly broke up.
Then Al Kooper heard the album and convinced his label, Columbia, to release it stateside. "Time of the Season" was pulled from it as a single and became a huge hit in 1969.
The band (or 3/5 of it) cashed in on its surprise success by recording a follow-up album. In 1991.
Over the years, the rest of Odessey and Oracle has garnered a cult following, and now it's considered a masterpiece. With its sophisticated arrangements, beautiful melodies, and Beach Boys-like harmonies, I wholeheartedly agree.
Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs: Care of Cell #44
A few years ago, Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs recorded an album of covers of some of their favorite songs from the '60s. Their version adds a number sign to the title and changes the gender of the narrator, with Susanna taking the lead.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Postcards are a way of sending a short message, just enough to check in. Their shortness would seem to make them perfect for songs. Here is what three artists do with them.
Wendy Wall: Postcard to the Stars
I have previously told my Wendy Wall story here, and reviewed her latest album here. So suffice it to say, she is a favorite of mine.
Wall’s postcard is not bound for Hollywood. She sends it off into space, to whoever might be listening. The song is a humble account by one example of what it feels like to be human and on earth.
Mark Knopfler: Postcards From Paraguay
Mark Knopfler presents a white collar criminal, on the run and in a hurry. He must leave the scene of the crime now, and has not even the time to send a postcard.
Bare Naked Ladies: Another Postcard
Finally, Bare Naked Ladies find themselves on the receiving end of some very unusual fan mail.
The Marvelettes: Please, Mr. Postman
Yet another definitive postal song that I couldn't let pass by. This song was The Marvelettes', one of the first girl groups of Motown, only #1 song, though they had a number of other top 40 hits. The song was well loved enough to be covered by other popular bands, including The Carpenters and The Beatles. The Carpenters even took it back to #1.
In the song, a girl pleads with the postman to look in his bag one more time to check for a letter for her because it's been so long since she's heard from her man.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Seigobillies: Letter Song
Hey folks, it's time once again to set the Wayback Machine for New Brunswick, N.J., in the early 1990s. One of my favorite bands from the era were Seigobillies. (The flyer in the photo is from the first time I ever saw them, when they were still called the Seigolillies.) They combined elements of reggae, ska, bluegrass, and what was then called "college rock" into an intoxicatingly danceable mix. On this track from their self-titled debut cassette, they slow the tempo down for a banjo-lead lament that leaves the narrator weighed down by unwritten letters.
Seigobillies went through several changes over the years, but they still exist as Billy. They put out a new album this year. Do check it out.
Michelle Shocked: Anchorage
"I took time out to write to my old friend
I walked across that burning bridge
I mailed my letter off to Dallas
but her reply came from Anchorage, Alaska..."
I'm a sucker for anything presented in epistolary form: songs, books and even TV shows and blogs - Michelle Shocked does the form justice in her tune of two women, who obviously shared some wild times in Texas, catching up after an over-two-years' lull in communication...
As with most female friendships, you can tell they are close enough such that they pick up just where they left off... with warmth, humor and a genuine desire to find out about, and fill the other in on, what they've been doing - a note of wistfulness creeps in as Chel's friend decries the isolation of her current situation, even as she describes the life she's now sincerely embracing...
"Leroy got a better job so we moved
Kevin lost a tooth, he's started school
I've got a brand new eight-month-old baby girl
I sound like a housewife
Hey Chel, I think I'm a housewife..."
And, as with all good stories, I want to know what happened next - I hope they kept in touch... and I hope they kept on rocking, each in their own way...
Bonnie Hayes, like so many others, started life as a musician. In the early 1980s, she fronted a pop-punk band called Wild Combo. But, by 1989, Hayes was looking for other ways to pay the bills. She became a studio musician and songwriter for hire.
In 1989, Bonnie Raitt was a blues musician who had enjoyed a minor hit with a cover of Runaway. Active since the early seventies, Raitt had built a devoted following, but never put up the kind of numbers that major labels like to see.
In 1989, the two Bonnies came together. Hayes was hired to write two songs for the album that would be called Nick of Time. One was Have a Heart. And the other was Love Letter. I find it ironic that the bluesiest song on the album that would finally take Bonnie Raitt up the charts was written by someone whose background was in punk and new wave. But there it is. Love Letter is a smoldering blues love song, and a great showcase for Raitt’s slide guitar playing.
In 1996, Bonnie Hayes went back to Love Letter and recorded her own version. I don’t have it, and I have no idea how good it may be, but if anyone else has it, please feel free to post it in the comments.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Elvis Presley: Return to Sender
It might almost be cliche to post this song since it's such a quintessential mail song, but alas, there are a few oldies but goodies I feel somebody ought to post this week, so I am going to go ahead and post this one to get it out of the way.
This song was a number one single for Elvis. It's a catchy little song that was featured in his film "Girls! Girls! Girls!", about a guy trying to get his lady back by sending her a letter and the letter being returned over and over again with the "return to sender" stamp on it. He finally gets the point when he hand delivers the letter and it still comes back to him. The boy might be a bit dense, but it makes for sweet little tune.
Robert Plant and Allison Krauss: Please Read The Letter
We have a mail chute of sorts. It's a slot in the outside wall of the house that feeds the box which is inside the wall, that is accessed from a flip door that's inside a closet. The box is narrow and not very accommodating for anything larger than a standard business envelope, and as a result, sometimes our mail gets chewed up in removing it from the box (to say nothing about removing our-self from the closet). That said, it's sometimes better for us to have an empty box than a full one.
Actually posted by Bert, with technical assistance from Darius
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
John Mellencamp: Death Letter
Cassandra Wilson: Death Letter
You may hear that the blues is dead. It has been done to death, and there is nothing more to say. After all, the blues consists of one simple structure, and the lyrics are just someone complaining. Unfortunately, a lot of the blues music that is out these days supports this point of view. But, if you love the blues as I do, you will want to have a rebuttal handy. And here it is.
Consider these two versions of Death Letter. The original is by Son House. A man receives a letter, informing him that his lover is dead. As he reflects on this news, he comes to realize just how much he loved her.
John Mellencamp takes the song and delivers a version that feels old. The arrangement is spare, with no bass that I can hear. The guitar and national steel have knife-like parts that cut through the singers heart. Mellencamp sings this with a passion. His performance makes you wonder how you could have heard him sing all of those hits, and never realized how perfect his voice was for blues. His version burns like a fresh wound.
Cassandra Wilson takes the same song in a completely different direction. Of course, she changes the genders, but that is the smallest part of it. Her version is new, a combination of sounds no one ever thought of before. There is a solo on a tenor banjo. The other instruments create a wall of support that wobbles, reflecting the unsteadiness of the singer’s emotions. And Wilson sings this as a sob. Some of the words almost disappear, as if singing them aloud will make them true.
So here are two different versions of the same song, two completely different approaches. Both are emotionally valid. Taken together, they demonstrate that there is plenty left to do with the blues.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Blind John Davis: No Mail Today
[purchase digital only]
We're off to a slow start this week, but that's okay: mail doesn't come on Sundays, and it doesn't usually get delivered on bank holidays, either.
Still, here's something light and bluesy from the back of the dusty stacks, in recognition of the day off from school that so many American schoolchildren and teachers are enjoying. And a bonus cover from a subsequent generation, a bit more folk-blues than Chicagoan Blind John Davis' original boogie woogie jazz lament.
Jorma Kaukonen: No Mail Today