Saturday, December 5, 2009

Leftovers (Little Black Book): Sharon and Karen Edition

Leftovers, especially this year, have been a lot of songs from “themes I missed in the time I was here.” That’s as true of my posts as anyone else’s. But I missed our Little Black Book theme because it happened before I became involved in Star Maker Machine. So I never saw the formal definition of the theme. It seems to me that a little black book implies that something illicit is going on. These ladies are not entirely respectable, and you keep them secret. Here are two who fit that description perfectly.

David Bromberg: Sharon


Sharon is not the kind that you can make an honest woman of. To cheat on a girlfriend or a wife, you don’t have to talk to Sharon, or even set eyes upon her. The transgression has occurred as soon as you enter her tent.

Jill Sobule: Karen by Night


Karen is trickier. By day, she seems respectable enough, boring even. But Karen has a secret. To learn it, add moonlight. And no, she’s not a werewolf. Nothing supernatural is needed here.

Leftovers (Fruits and Vegetables): Homegrown Tomatoes

Guy Clark: Homegrown Tomatoes


Jay Ungar & Molly Mason: Homegrown Tomatoes


Like several others of our hardy band here at Star Maker Machine, I start each week by compiling a quick list of likely candidates for the week's theme; from there, I generally dip in as time allows and the whim hits. It's a useful method, I guess, but it sure does leave a lot of good songs hanging at week's end, especially when I've been busy.

Today seemed like a good day to ketchup on a few old playlists, just to see what I missed. So I set the ol' music manager to shuffle, closed my eyes, clicked on a random playlist, and figured I'd just post whatever came up. And to my utter delight, up comes Fruits and Vegetables week, and Texas troubadour Guy Clark, live and grinning, singing of the juicy sensualities of summer's harvest just as the snow finally starts falling outside my New England windows. Yeah, that's a keeper.

Jay and Molly's cover is a swingin' set, too. And why not pick a bonus tomato song, while the fruit's on the vine?

Pink Martini: Hang On Little Tomato


Leftovers (Color My World): The Gold Around You

Mark Bradley: The Gold Around You

[out of print]

I debated about whether this should be in the Metals or the Color My World theme. I eventually decided that it fit better as a color.

Sometime in the late '90s or early '00s, I was in a used record store in New Brunswick, NJ with a friend of mine, killing time before a concert. He unearthed a copy of Mark Bradley's posthumous CD, Extraordinary and asked me if I though he would like it. I told my friend, who is significantly older than me, that he would probably really love some of it and really hate some of it. He bought the CD, and later sent me an email that simply said, "You were right."

Mark was one of a kind. He was the songwriter other songwriters revered. You wrote some absolutely beautiful, personal songs. He wrote political diatribes. He was also fond of off-the-wall improvs with his band Walt Whitman’s Beard. Basically, he lived his life with his heart on his sleeve. His flame burned brightly in late '80s/early '90s New Brunswick, but it didn't last long. When he passed away in 1994, he was only in his late '20s.

I saw Mark perform a couple of times, but his impact didn't really hit me until I attended a tribute concert in 1995 that also celebrated the release of the "Extraordinary" CD. The disc is a mix of home demos, studio recordings, and live performances. "The Gold Around You" is a home demo from December 1993. The low fidelity somehow ads to its charm. The song is about love: The magic of that first meeting, and the insecurities and doubt that can crop up in a long-term relationship.

Paul Rieder: The Gold Around You

[not commercially available]

Paul Rieder (Wooden Soldiers, All Gods' Children, Walt Whitman's Beard, Fiesherman's Stew) helped put together the Extraordinary CD. Later, he spent a few years living in Austin, Texas. While there, he recorded some home demos that have never been officially released, including his take on "The Gold Around You" (as well as several other Mark Bradley covers). Paul's dobro and mandolin playing give his version a appropriately southwestern feel.

Kate Evans: The Gold Around You


Kate Evans (All Gods' Children, ISOE) has a way of masterfully wringing strong emotions from delicate performances, as if there is no filter between her heart and her voice. She sings her version (from her 2000 album, Release) alone at the piano, and you just want to hug her when it's done.

Bonus cover: My own out-of-tune, home-recorded version of this song, recorded in 2005, can be found here.

Leftovers (This and That:): The Joni Edition

Looking back on our This and That theme, I see I'd already posted three times... so it wasn't as if I was feeling under-represented - however, I germinated an idea in my head all week that, because of the scope/breadth/comprehensiveness, I just ran out of time executing. I've been saving this for six months, in anticipation of another chance at Leftovers - in Joni's words:

Come to the dinner gong The table is laden high...


What do songs about anti-war... heroin addiction... relationships... a cocaine connection... duality/dichotomy... a privileged couple on vacation... the slippery slope of success... and anti-war 40 years later have in common? - This Joni... and That Mitchell... on eight separate albums!

Quite simply, her music sustains me... from my first discovery of Ladies of the Canyon at a garage sale in high school (1970)... to her 2007 release of Shine, her poetic and melodic songs make me laugh, cry and think... even years later when I didn't "get" them the first time around - in retrospect, I wish I'd made it my modus operandi here at Star Maker Machine to post a Joni song each and every week as, with her extensive catalog, most certainly one could be found to fit every theme...

I began my SMM apprenticeship with a Joni tune - a bit over a year later, I'd venture to reiterate Janet Jackson's Got 'Til It's Gone: Joni Mitchell never lies...

The Fiddle and the Drum


Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire


Court and Spark


Edith and the Kingpin


Otis and Marlena


Shadows and Light


Snakes and Ladders


Strong and Wrong


Friday, December 4, 2009

Leftovers (This and That): Love and Affection

Joan Armatrading: Love and Affection


Leftovers happen in different ways. Sometimes life intrudes, and there isn’t time to post for a particular theme. Then there are always those of us who missed a theme because we weren’t part of Star Maker Machine yet. But sometimes, a theme is announced and I have a full slate of posts in mind, only to realize after the week has passed that the perfect song completely slipped my mind. That happened to me after This and That week. I can’t believe I forgot Love and Affection.

Joan Armatrading was part of the first wave of singer-songwriters in the 1970s. But, she sounded like no one else. Her songs had a looseness that allowed plenty of freedom for her band. And she could capture unusual emotional states. Here, she depicts a woman in a relationship poised between friendship and love. It is not clear what, if anything, will push it over. But the emotion is delicious with anticipation.

BTW, there is a wonderful cover of this song, done in a medley with Sweet Jane, by a group called Two Nice Girls. If anyone has an mp3 of it, I would love to have it. Please let me know in the comments.

Leftovers (Long Songs) : Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Gavin Bryars : Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (part 1)


(Don't worry if you can't hear any music during the first seconds, it will come, the songs is a crescendo and starts at a very low level)

I first heard this astonishing piece of music at a dance show by French choregrapher Maguy Marin. When we got out of the theater everybody wanted to know where this strange song came from.

English composer Gavin Bryars once recorded a tramp singing a religious song in the streets of London. Then, as he recalls,

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song - 13 bars in length - formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man's singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp's nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.

It's one of the most moving things I've ever heard.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Leftovers (Smiles): Smile Away

Paul and Linda McCartney: Smile Away


Having just returned from the dentist with my 41-year cavity-free record still intact, I though it would be good to revisit the Smiles thread. "Smile Away" comes from the Ram album, which was credited to Paul & Linda McCartney. That says less about Mrs. McCartney's musical abilities than it does about Paul's desire to share his life completely with his soulmate. It's a noble romantic gesture, but practically speaking, this is Paul's second solo album.

The disc is full of loose performances that often go in unexpected places. "Smile Away" is one of the more straight-ahead songs on the album, however. A charming '50s rock pastiche with only a handful of lyrics, it never pretends to be anything more than a catchy tune that will indeed make you smile away.

Leftovers (Drugs): Stoned Soul Picnic

Laura Nyro: Stoned Soul Picnic


The 5th Dimension: Stoned Soul Picnic


Laura Love: Stoned Soul Picnic


Jill Sobule: Stoned Soul Picnic


It was the summer of 1968, a year before Woodstock, a year after the impromptu San Francisco gathering popularly referred to as the Summer of Love: the free love movement was thick in the air, and though the history books have surely magnified the scale of American awareness and participation in the movement, those of us conceived in the midst of it all have been taught to believe that hope was everywhere.

Into the midst of this swamp of countercultural change came two versions of a song: one by its author Laura Nyro, a popular white R&B and soul singer, the other by the popular African-American R&B quintet The 5th Dimnension, who would go on to chart with the Aquarius theme to the musical Hair in the following year. The dual versions became part of the bridge across the rapidly-closing racial divide, and within weeks, Stoned Soul Picnic was atop both the popcharts and the Black Singles Charts; according to apocryphal record, the song was sung on "every street corner", and - given its simplicity and its message - it's easy to see why.

As much as it reflects the civil rights aspect of the sixties counterculture, Stoned Soul Picnic is a product of its times on its lyrical and sensual merits, too. It's hard to figure out what, if anything, this song is really about, beyond the strange feeling that anything could happen, and should, if people would only join together in communal celebration. Other than the word "stoned" in the chorus and title, there's no direct mention of drugs or drug-taking; this is a promise of mood, not an instruction booklet for a movement.

But there's no denying the summery, soulful, swaying melody line of both original versions, which maintains a tone that clings to subsequent covers as if it were an inevitable aspect of the song. And the organic visualizations of nature that show up in every verse sound like a great trip, indeed.

Leftovers (Songs Called Songs): Just to Have You Hum Along (The Futon Song)

Betty Elders: Just to Have You Hum Along (The Futon Song)


Some of you may recall I had a life-changing summer, spending two months in the Atlanta area as primary caregiver for my ailing/aging mom, who passed away mid-July from pulmonary fibrosis - I still checked in with Star Maker Machine during that time (it was a touchstone of serenity when everything else was chaotically out of my control) but I rarely posted (lack of time, energy and my own CD collection trumped intention)...

I regret missing some themes during that period and it's nice to have a do-over (ah, if I could only... never mind) - I'm pleased to be able to offer up this little gem for the Songs Called Songs theme, however belatedly...

When I began my journey into the contemporary folk scene, I was like an addict - I just couldn't get enough, scouring used CD stores to find anything that seemed to fit into this newly-discovered genre. I ran across Betty Elders' Crayons in a bin for $4.95 and, as soon as I got it home and pressed Play, I knew I had scored - just hit a vein, baby!

I was captivated by her voice and songwriting, yet when I got to this song, I was a bit disturbed - it starts out sweet and, dare I say it, cute... but the further along it goes, although there's nary a pet rabbit in sight, it began to sound like a folk Fatal Attraction (bet you never thought you'd see those words in the same sentence, eh?).

I still love the song, but...

I'd crawl through shards of glass I'd be what I was not just to have you just to have you just to have you hum along


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Leftovers (Metals): Ironbound - Fancy Poultry

Suzanne Vega: Ironbound - Fancy Poultry


During Metals week, I was hard at work shopping for a new file host, and making improvements to my blog. So I never got the chance to post this one.

The Ironbound section of Newark NJ is a Portugese enclave. The area takes its name from the fact that it is bounded on all sides by railroad tracks. Newark is a short trip on the PATH train from Greenwich Village, where Suzanne Vega was living when she wrote this. It is not necessary for me to describe it further; Vega does that beautifully.

Leftovers (Name-Droppers): I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone

Sleater-Kinney: I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone


It was just a few weeks ago that we did a Name-Droppers theme. I had a few ideas that week, but only ended up finding time to post once. So now is my chance to make amends.

In particular, I wanted to include (what some would consider) Sleater-Kinney's major opus "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone". In the late 1990's, when the Pacific Northwest was having a huge influence over music, and the riot grrl scene was slowly dwindling away, Sleater-Kinney came on the scene with their all girl punk rock. They pushed the envelope of gender lines in rock music by making songs like this one. A song that's a play on The Ramone's song "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend", except now it's about wanting to be a punk rock icons like Ramone, of wanting fans to idolize them and use them as bathroom alone-time fodder and get fans back to their place after the show. For good measure, they also name-drop Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Leftovers (Similes): Tossed Like a Stone

Health and Happiness Show: Tossed Like a Stone


Looking over the past year's themes, the Similes week stuck out for the paucity of posts: just two short missives. It was the middle of August, I was on vacation, and I'm guessing other SMM'ers were, too. So here's what I should have posted that week...

I don't know many people in Hoboken, New Jersey, but on a cold, icy night in March 1996, I was invited to a private gathering in a large warehouse there. The Health and Happiness Show were the main musical entertainment for the party.

And what a party it was.

A couple hundred fans of New York DJ Vin Scelsa and his radio show, Idiot's Delight, had gathered to celebrate the legendary DJ's return to the equally legendary WNEW-FM, where he had worked for much of the '70s. Just a month before that, he and most of the other DJs at his former station, WXRK (K-ROCK), were unceremoniously fired in a format change. Fortunately, about a year previous, one intrepid fan had started a "mailing list" on this new thing called "The Internet" for listeners of the show to connect with each other. When K-ROCK dumped Vin, the mailing list (The Idiot's Delight Digest, or IDD for short) became a two-way lifeline between the DJ and his listeners.

It was an early example of the benefit of the online community. In an earlier age, if a DJ was fired, listeners were left in the dark. One day he was there, the next day, someone else was, usually without explanation. So the party in Hoboken (known in IDD lore as "The Hobobash") was more than just a communal celebration of Vin's return to the New York airwaves; it was also an in-the-flesh celebration of this new type of community. Many members of the IDD met each other for the first time there, and the Hobobash has become a legendary event in the history of the IDD.

But this isn't a post about the IDD. It's a post about the Health and Happiness Show.

Lead by James Mastro (formerly of Hoboken's The Bongos), the Health and Happiness Show were Vin Scelsa favorites in the '90s. The band released only three albums, and "Tossed Like a Stone" comes from their second, Instant Living. It's upbeat, country-influenced rock, with celtic hints. Fun stuff, and it was the perfect soundtrack to that euphoric celebration at the dawn of a new age.