Saturday, January 22, 2011

I Have A Dream: I Dreamed A Dream


Aretha Franklin: I Dreamed a Dream


Last year, YouTube was abuzz with a version of this Les Miserables song done by a previously unknown vocalist, Susan Boyle. She went on to turn that wildly popular debut into a pretty successful album, and the rest passes for pop history.

This is not that version.

Instead, this is from a truly historic event: Bill Clinton's 1993 Inauguration. It's sung by one of the greatest vocalists of our time, a woman who was awarded Grammy's Living Legend and Lifetime Achievement Awards, and whose voice is an official natural resource of Michigan.

Life must not kill the dreams that we dreamed…

I Have a Dream: Innocent When You Dream

Tom Waits: Innocent When You Dream


There is a history of other artists missing the point when covering the songs of Tom Waits. I love Bruce Springstein’s version of Jersey Girl, but it has a completely different backstory from Waits’ original. As for Rod Stewart’s Downtown Train, don’t get me started. There are a scattering of covers of Innocent When You Dream as well. Probably the best known artists to try the song are Great Lake Swimmers and Mark Ereli. Something very strange happens in these versions: the narrator sobers up! No! Innocent When You Dream starts with the line, “The bat’s are in the belfry.” Here is a guy who lost his love through his own mistakes, and he is drinking himself into oblivion, trying to forget. And that’s not beer either, it’s the strongest whiskey he can find. Tom Waits has portrayed characters like this throughout his career. They scrape the bottom of society, but Waits has always been able to find the beauty in their lives. That is his particular genius, and it is also the quality that is missing in so many covers of his songs.

I Have A Dream: Dreaming's Free

Ryan Adams: Dreaming's Free

[don't purchase; download]

I've said it before: though it's blasphemous to say so, I'm a much bigger fan of Ryan Adams the sensitive folkpop artist than Ryan Adams the alt-country rocker. And this delicate piece is a beautiful love song, of the same acoustic playbook as Elliot Smith, Evan Dando, Beck, and other sensitive men who swing both ways musically.

That's David Rawlings and Gillian Welch on guitar flourishes there, by the way, as in most of Destroyer, an album blocked by Adams' label as "too folk", and still living a life as greyware, bootlegged and distributed through the 'net.

Dreaming is free, by the way. It's getting "all locked away," as Adams says, letting our dreamlives become all-encompassing, that's costly. The result is a slight hint of bittersweet in an otherwise simple love song, reminding us that dreams without action don't change the world much, save through our absence. As our week's theme comes to a close, it's worth remembering that - lest we lose sight of the dream which got us here in the first place.

Friday, January 21, 2011

I Have a Dream: Coming Apart at the Dreams

Peter Himmelman: Coming Apart at the Dreams


There is a state between waking and dreaming that can be very disorienting. I remember a morning a long time ago, when my alarm went off, I got up, showered and shaved, and went to get breakfast. At that point, my alarm really went off, and I woke up for real. Now take that disoriented state and add in the memory of an old relationship. That’s my take on Coming Apart at the Dreams. But you may hear it differently, because dreaming is like that.

As a side note, I am currently reading Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series. I’ve been meaning to read it for many years, and I finally took the plunge. Call it a comic book series if you don’t care what people think, or graphic novels if you do care, but it’s serious weirdness, and right up my alley. Gaiman’s depiction of the relationship between the waking world and the land of dreams is fascinating. I can imagine someone making an animated film out of the series, and I can imagine Coming Apart at the Dreams playing during the closing titles.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I Have A Dream: Dreaming

Blondie: Dreaming


Yo La Tengo: Dreaming


Has it really been two and a half years since we last posted a tune from Yo La Tengo? Then since I seem to be on a track to post originals and covers this week, let's return to the fold with a bang, letting their take on this Blondie classic stand up against the original as a perfect exposition of the difference between the disco-punk new wave at the end of the seventies and the post-punk grunge rock of the early nineties. Because when it gets right down to it, doesn't the original sound just a little more anthemic than you remembered, perhaps only a single step away from both Abba and the Go Gos?

I Have a Dream: All I Have to Do Is Dream

The Everly Brothers: All I Have To Do Is Dream


When I was growing up I had an unshakable crush on a boy in my grade who wouldn't give me the time of day. It was one of those crushes where I perked up and had memorized the sound of his sneeze, cough, yawn...and it would make my heart swell just a little bit to hear it from across the room. Oh, childhood crushes...they call them crushes for a reason though, they hurt.

Needless to say, nothing ever became of it, but whenever I heard this song it made me think of him, as I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what it would be like if he would just like me a fraction of the amount that I liked him. But in my dreams things could be exactly as I wished they'd be, in my dreams he liked me back. This song still makes me think of that old crush, but now it just makes me shake my head.

I Have A Dream: Dreaming My Dreams With You

I am the last person you'd ever want to ask about country music. I have a superficial grasp of it, at best, and I've been eager to dismiss it for most of my life. For no good reason, of course: It's outside my comfort zone, is all.

I grew up in a hayseed town (literally), and took a Greyhound outta that berg the day after I graduated high-school. My first big city job was at - what a quaint idea, nowadays - a newsstand. We sold out-of-town papers, periodicals, comic books, trading cards, and A LOT of adult product. These were pre-internet days... all the sketchy stuff was paid for with folding money and put into plain brown bags.

One bracing Minnesota January night I was positioned at the front register. My "boss", Trea, took my They Might Be Giants cassette out of the box and sent me down to the basement with his pinch-hitter, while he popped in a cassette. From the basement, through the concrete floor, I could tell he was playing music above the regulation level, but it didn't sound like the normal punk-rawk we all listened to...

I floated, muzzy-headed and cotton-brained, back upstairs and took my place behind the register again. Music blasted and echoed off the concrete walls. Not the serrated buzz-saw guitars and aggitated drums, which I was used to. Concrete-pure and mellow: The Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Sessions. A neck-snap revelation.

There is no music I relate to bitter-cold Minnesota nights more.

We've got one of those nights tonight,

I dreamt of that picture here

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I Have a Dream: I Will Dream

Emmylou Harris: I Will Dream


I Will Dream is a song of unrequited love. There is a tenuous quality to both the emotion and the song. Emmylou Harris captures this quality perfectly with her performance. The song is a co-write with Harris and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Jane Siberry contributes the wonderful intertwining background vocals. Three of my favorite acts all do their best here, and the collaboration works, well, like a dream.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I Have A Dream: Dream On (Live)

Greg Brown: Dream On (Live)


Dream On is a cynical song, suggesting that it is in vain that we hope for true love, a peaceful world, and politicians who will respond to the needs of the people. Of course, the comedic quality of the lyrics blunts the edge of this theme.

Although I'm an optimist in my private family life, I have to admit that I am cynical most of the time when it comes to overall social progress. It so often seems that for every forward step we take, we take two steps back.

On Monday a friend's Facebook status was "Happy birthday MLK, we're still trying our best."

I appreciated that positive attitude. Most of us really are trying our best. So in spite of Greg Brown's comic cynicism, I will do my best to continue to dream on.

I Have A Dream: Dream Baby

Cherilyn: Dream Baby

(Out of print)

Cherilyn, who released her single “Dream Baby” in late 1964, would very soon find greater and lasting fame going by the shortened moniker Cher, initially as part of a duo with Sonny Bono, who wrote and produced “Dream Baby” for her.

It was not Cher’s first record: first there was the novelty single “I Love You, Ringo”, released as Bonnie Jo Mason. That was not her first appearance on record either: with Sonny Bono, who worked for Phil Spector, she sang backing vocals on classics such as The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”, The Chiffons’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” (which was recorded around the time “Dream Baby” was released).

“Dream Baby” was arranged by 24-year-old Gene Page, who would go on to create gorgeous arrangements for the likes of Barry White, Roberta Flack and George Benson. It flopped, as had the Spector-produced “I Love You, Ringo” (so did her first outing with the 11-years-older Sonny, released around the same time under the ghastly moniker Caesar & Cleo). But “Dream Baby” received airplay in Los Angeles, encouraging Salvatore Bono and Cherilyn Sarkasian to persevere with their dream of stardom as recording artists.

Things did move rapidly in those days. The paean to Ringo was released on 4 March 1964. Within a year and a few months – via “Dream Baby”, the Caesar & Cleo thing, backing vocals and a change of record labels – Sonny & Cher had their breakthrough with “I Got You Babe”, on Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label. By October, Cher released first solo album, All I Really Want To Do. It included “Dream Baby”, but I don’t know whether she re-recorded it for that album – given the sloppy production of the single, I do hope so.

Monday, January 17, 2011

I Have A Dream: Don't Dream It's Over

Crowded House: Don't Dream It's Over


Crowded House: Don't Dream It's Over [live acoustic]


There are days when I worry that we've lost the dream. Two generations past the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., my daughters are growing up colorblind and feminist, and I'm proud of my culture for supporting this stance, and making it seem natural. But as I noted this weekend at Cover Lay Down, that doesn't mean the fight is over: rather, having peeled away the obvious layers of discrimination, we find ourselves living in the murky core of cultural dis-ease, where it is harder to name the abstract injustices which still linger deep at the root of society.

Like my previous entry into this week's theme, this well-known EnZed pop ballad is clearly intended to be romantic in nature. But strip away the pop production, as in the above live take from the Netherlands-based 2 Meter Sessies, and it, too, transforms effectively as an anthem for our times, a call for change in a world where the vitriolic stream of talk radio madness overwhelms any attempt at rational discourse, where the news stations dumb down our world daily in their attempt to demonstrate that every idea has two equal and equivalent sides, where my inner city students struggle to find safe haven in a culture which seems to have forgotten them.

Don't dream it's over. The walls between us remain, and their slippery abstraction makes them more poisonous than ever.

I Have a Dream: Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

Ed McCurdy: Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream


I think it’s fair to say that everything Dr Martin Luther King did in his public life was for the cause of peace. So, for me, the week had to begin with Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream. I first heard the song at the peace demonstrations of the 1960s, performed by the likes of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and The Kingston Trio, to name a few. So Iwas surprised to learn that the song dates from 1950, and was not written by any of the artists I associate it with. Strangest Dream is by Ed McCurdy. Music at peace demonstrations was provided a sense of solidarity, and helped break up the string of speeches. But Strangest Dream is also the earliest song I can remember noticing for the quality of the songwriting. From the first time I heard it, the song has always planted pictures in mind.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I Have A Dream: Cristofori's Dream

christofori's dream

David Lanz: Cristofori's Dream


This single song spans many dreams.

First, we have the inventive dream of the title figure, Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco, the Italian who is credited with the invention of the piano circa 1700. Without him, the dreamy, meditative New Age music that blossomed in the 80s and gave us this song would have been sorely lacking.

David Lanz is one of the Sensitive New Age Guys that Christine Lavin & John Gorka memorialized in their song S.N.A.G. (I joke; I actually love David Lanz). He's a major star of the Narada label (they can't all be on Windham Hill, you see). Cristofori's Dream topped the newly-created New Age/Adult Alternative chart for nearly half a year in 1988. For good reason: It's a gorgeous solo piano piece.

To me, though, this song epitomizes a personal dream---to give my daughter the opportunity to study piano, something I wish I'd been able to do. We were fortunate to find the perfect teacher for her, a sweet, kind, and gifted woman who happened to adore the music of David Lanz. His music became a fixture during the students' recitals, and when, after years of scales and Suzuki pieces, my daughter gave her senior performance, this song was one of the highlights. I can admit now that even though this song clocks in at about 6 minutes, it seems like an hour when one is an anxious mom in the audience. She did a terrific job, though, and hearing this song now still brings back those wonderful memories.

Sleepsongs -> I Have A Dream: Sleep To Dream

Fiona Apple: Sleep To Dream


Bettye LaVette: Sleep To Dream


It's hard to find a better transitional song to get us from sleep to dream than Fiona Apple's half-chanted declaration of feminist self-reliance and confidence. Unless it's Bettye LaVette's incredibly soulful transformation of it, which brings an awesome grit and determination to what had been a poppy, almost petulant charter.

Though I'm sure the 18 year old Apple had a more singular foil in mind - a wanna-be lover, an anonymous misogynist - the way LaVette takes on the lyric, especially the repeated coda of "I've got my own hell to raise", universalizes the sentiment for me. In my mind, the slow, sultry, sparse jazz-funk beauty of LaVette's chosen setting, coupled with the woman's own backstory as a black artist who initially faded early and spent decades toiling in the shadows as a cult favorite, only to revive her career late in life thanks to the incredible all-covers album from which this song comes, allows the song to play out as a grander statement, letting us see it - if we choose - as a kind of response to King's I Have A Dream speech, accepting the ownership of the dream on behalf of all women, everywhere.