Saturday, May 21, 2011

Show Tunes: Hedwig and the Angry Inch version


Spoon: Tear Me Down


Bonnie Pink: The Origin of Love


Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a glam-rock musical written by (and for) former Army brat John Cameron Mitchell. It premiered off-Broadway in 1998. The plot sounds farfetched and convoluted in description (gay man meets Army officer in East Berlin and undergoes a botched sex change to escape Communist rule, ending as a failed rock singer whose young almost-boyfriend steals her songs and becomes a star). But it's easy for the audience to fall in love with the flawed Hedwig as she tells us her story, and the music (by Stephen Trask) is great.

Tear Me Down is the self-actualizing song that introduces a defiant Hedwig to the audience. Spoon drops the energy level to suit their style, but it's still a terrific anthem. It's from a Hedwig tribute album, Wig In A Box, released in 2003.

The Origin of Love is a ballad based on Aristophanes' monologue in Plato's Symposium. It postulates three sexes of humans (man-man, man-woman, woman-woman) who were split by angry gods and forced to search out their other halves to find completion. The vocalist, Bonnie Pink, is a J-pop star, and the song's from an album of cover songs she released in 2005.

Show Tunes: It Ain't Necessarily So


Bronski Beat: It Ain't Necessarily So


Aretha Franklin: It Ain't Necessarily So


Porgy and Bess, the 1935 faux-folk opera by the Gershwin Brothers, was a creation of its racist times. On one hand, it perpetrates a seriously distorted view of black America of that or any other time, with its focus on drugs, gambling, casual sex, and violence. On the other, it gave focus and prominence to many black singers and actors when roles for them were few and far between. Plus the blues-jazz music is flat-out wonderful. Best known is Summertime, the most covered song in history. This song, though, is not a bad second choice. Sportin' Life, the drug dealer, humorously expresses his disbelief about the truth of some famous Biblical stories.

I've chosen covers by two very different but no less compelling singers. The first is by Bronski Beat, an 80s synth pop group fronted by Glaswegian Jimmy Somerville, later of the Communards. I think I've mentioned my affection for falsetto singing; Jimmy's pretty well known for standing out in any high-pitched crowd. The second is by Detroit's own Aretha Franklin, from her self-titled 1961 album. Aretha needs no further introduction.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Show Tunes: Frank Mills

The Lemonheads: Frank Mills


There have been many covers of the various groovy pop hits from Hair, the sixties celebrational musical which first hit Broadway in 1968 - from the Cowsills' 1969 chart hit title track to Three Dog Night's Easy To Be Hard, from Quincy Jones' version of Walking In Space to Canadian folkpop singer-songwriter Serena Ryder's wonderfully bombastic 2006 take on Good Morning Starshine, which I posted way back in May of last year when I took on the topic of showtunes coverage at Cover Lay Down.

But my favorite has to be this 1992 cover from The Lemonheads - likely just Evan Dando, performing under the name of the band he led and founded, plus either a drum machine or some random bandmember patting gently away on a guitar case. Frank Mills appeared as a coda of sorts on their alt-pop album It's A Shame About Ray, and surprisingly, though it had already been recorded by the likes of Liza Minelli and Barbra Streisand before them, their performance manages to come off without a hint of irony. Instead, it's delicate acoustic grunge, tender and raw, much like Dando himself, who was quite literally a crackhead throughout much of the early nineties, but has since cleaned up a bit.

Show Tunes: I've Gotta Be Me

Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me

“I’ve Gotta Be Me” was a surprise #11 hit for Sammy Davis Jr in early 1969, while it still featured in a not excessively triumphant Broadway musical titled Golden Rainbow, starring Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. The musical ran on Broadway from late December 1967 to February 1969. In between, Lawrence released a single of “I’ve Got To Be Me”, followed shortly after by Sammy Davis Jr, who tweaked the title for his more successful record.

Davis performed “I’ve Gotta Be Me” in 1972 at the black consciousness concert PUSH Expo, co-organised by the Rev Jessie Jackson. The line-up of the concert, which was made into a documentary film titled Save The Children, was hip and impressive. It included Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, The Main Ingredient, Gladys Knight, Jerry Butler, The Temptations, Ramsey Lewis, Zulema, The Jackson 5, The O’Jays, Cannonball Adderley and more. In that line-up, Sammy Davis Jr was a contradiction and an anachronism.

His scene was Vegas, the Rat Pack and “The Candy Man”, not socially hip soul music and the funk; he had recently endorsed Richard Nixon, not the on-going fight for civil rights and against urban decay (even Sammy’s recent cover of Elvis’ “In The Ghetto” had been a drug-fuelled joke). He did not follow Jesus, but had converted from the Puerto Rican Catholicism of his grandmother to Judaism. And he didn’t even like black Sisters, going for Scandinavian types instead. He was regarded by many as a sell-out, an Uncle Tom (poor, tragic Uncle Tom, the fictional character who has received a bad rap for being a collaborator with the oppressor, which in Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s anti-slavery novel he most decidedly wasn’t).

Now Sammy, a man who never was confident about who he was, stood in front of a potentially hostile crowd with whom he had no apparent cultural, political, religious or even social connection. He did not launch straight into song. He addressed the crowd, slowly and purposefully – a little like Martin Luther King Jr when he used to begin a speech. “I am not here [long pause] but as only one way. I am here, because I have come home as a black man.” Polite applause. Sammy’s voice rises: “Disagree, if you will, with my politics, but” – and now with slow, precise deliberation – “I will not allow anyone take away the fact that I am black.” Huge cheer. The piano starts, and Sammy’s diffident stage act kicks in: “I would like to sing – if you would like for me to sing [cue Sammy lapping up the approving bonus cheer]… ‘Whether I’m right, or whether I’m wrong…’.”

What better song could there have been for Sammy to sing at that moment than the anthem for self-acceptance?

Show Tunes: Pirate Jenny

Nina Simone: Pirate Jenny


Most of the songs this week have come from Broadway, and, in a sense, Pirate Jenny is no exception. The song comes from The Three Penny Opera, which debuted in the original German in Berlin in 1928. However, the lyrics heard here are the English translation that was done for the first Broadway production of the show. In the show, Polly Peachum is a maid in an inn by the harbor in London, and she takes abuse regularly from the patrons. Pirate Jenny is Polly’s fantasy of revenge for this abuse. Some productions of The Three Penny Opera have given the song to a different character, the prostitute Jenny, but this is not what Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, who wrote the original book and music, intended. Nina Simone’s performance clearly belongs to Polly. Simone gives the song a spare arrangement, and she speaks rather than sings many of the lyrics. This gives her performance a raw power which suits the song perfectly.

Incidentally, there is a recording of this song by Steeleye Span, with the title The Black Freighter. Ironically, there is no black freighter in the German. The corresponding lyric in the original describes a ship “with eight sails”. However, since that doesn’t scan properly in English, it was replaced by “the black freighter.”.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Show Tunes: There Are Worse Things I Could Do

TheAudience: There Are Worse Things I Could Do


I've always sort of believed that seeing the movie "Grease" was sort of a rite of passage for girls of a certain age growing up...they had to see it, and usually then watch it over and over at every sleep-over. It was like an unwritten rule, though that may have only been my generation. A shame, really.

As it is, Grease is a classic movie, but began as a theatrical production in 1971 in Chicago, and then the movie was made of it in 1978. This song, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" is certainly not one of the most famous from the movie, but it's still memorable, as it takes on a popular character, the tough girl Rizzo, and shows her softer side.

This version is sung by the little known and long defunct British band TheAudience. Lead singer, the beautiful Sophie Ellis-Bextor, went on to bigger fame as a solo artist doing mostly dance and pop music, but these are her beginnings, humble or not. I enjoy what I've heard (merely this EP) from TheAudience more than her solo work as the band seems to have more character.

Show Tunes: I Get a Kick Out of You

Dolly Parton: I Get a Kick Out of You


Anything Goes is a classic musical from 1934. The songs are by Cole Porter, and they include some of his best known numbers. The first song in the show is I Get a Kick Out of You. The show is a romantic farce, and a lot of fun. That sense of fun is what comes through most in Dolly Parton’s version of Kick. For the first minute, the song is an instrumental, with Chris Thile on mandolin sounding quite a bit like David Grisman. Finally, Parton enters. She doesn’t take the song too seriously, but she gives it all the fizz and sass it needs.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Show Tunes: My Favorite Things

John Coltrane: My Favorite Things

Musicals are not really my thing to say the least, but when the great jazz cats ran away with show tunes I've always been all ears. Take My Favorite Things, which was originally written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for The Sound of Music. I'm sure Trane's revolutionary modal remodelling, featuring his at times almost Indian-sounding soprano sax, will make your jaws drop. But do pay attention to McCoy Tyner's waltzing wizardry on the piano, too.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Show Tunes: Millworker

Pearl Jam: Millworker

[live, 2004]

Emmylou Harris: Millworker


Lavinia Ross: Millworker


I posted the author's "original" of this song way back in 2008 for our Work theme; aptly enough, the song was written for the score of the James Taylor-penned musical "Working", based on the Studs Terkel novel of the same name. Though neither the musical nor the 1979 album this song ultimately appeared on were terribly well received, I've always liked this simple song, and ol' JT clearly does, too, or he wouldn't keep recording it, trying to find just the right balance between the resignation and the desperation of the narrator, a widowed blue-collar millworker and mother from my home state of Massachusetts.

But today is for coverage, and thankfully, a number of musicians have taken this one on, from Pearl Jam to Emmylou Harris. Here's both: the former live and ragged; the latter, recorded relatively early in Emmylou's career, a solid countrypop tune exactly as plaintive and haunting and dreamlike as you'd expect it to be - plus a warm, gentle cover I just received in the mail last week from organic farmer and occasional singer-songwriter Lavinia Ross.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Speaking in Tongues => Show Tunes: Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen

Girls From Mars: Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen


Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen is probably best known as the song that made stars of the Andrews Sisters in 1938. But not nearly as many people know that the song was originally written, entirely in Yiddish, for a Yiddish operetta called I Would If I Could in 1932. The original songwriters were Shalom Secunda and Abraham Bloom. The English lyrics heard here are by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin. Cahn and Chaplin bought the rights to the song for $30, and reaped all of the royalties until 1961. Cahn and Chaplin used a Germanic spelling for the song title, which I have also used for the title of post, because that is how Girls From Mars have it on their album. But the picture I have chosen shows a transliteration of the Yiddish. I was not able to find a version in the original Yiddish; if you have one, please let me know in the comments. The full story of the song is told here.

Update: My thanks go out to fellow Star Maker Bert, who sent me a version of Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen recorded with the original Yiddish lyrics. Here it is:

Budapest Klezmer Band: Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen