Wes Montgomery: What's New?
The popular torch standard What's New? was written in 1939 and like all great standards has been recorded by many terrific jazz musicians over the years, including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Larry Coryell. The version I'm highlighting is much more understated and seductive. It features one of the finest guitar performances of Wes Montgomery (I can't believe we've never showcased him before!), here with the Wynton Kelly Trio—Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. It's from the 1965 jazz classic Smokin' at the Half Note (although this cut was actually recorded in the studio), which also includes one of my favorite tunes, Four on Six (she writes wistfully, as she waits for a numbers theme so she can post it, too…)
Saturday, January 7, 2012
Sam McGee: When the Wagon Was New
In recent decades, country music has branched off in a hundred different directions. In the days before “outlaw country” or “alt-country,” we had just simple, plain ol’ “country” music. I occasionally revisit those traditional roots to remind us of what the genre once was. So for that reason, I’ve chosen a song called “When the Wagon was New,” written by Sam McGee.
Who is Sam McGee, you ask? He and his brother (Kirk) were born in Franklin, TN. back in 1894 and 1899, respectively. Their father was a fiddler, bought 12-year-old Sam a banjo, and soon both boys (influenced by local black musicians) were out performing on banjo and guitar. After hearing Uncle Dave Macon about 1923, they joined his Fruit Jar Drinkers, and played on the WSM radio show that became the Grand Ole Opry. They began recording in 1928. The formed a popular trio called The Dixieliners with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith in 1930. After WWII, we hear them on the Folkways record label, recording with Macon Smith (with the Delmore Brothers), touring with comedy act Sara and Sally, and playing regularly on the Opry. Sam died on August 21, 1975 in a tractor accident.
About this song he wrote in the 1920s, “When the Wagon was New,” Sam McGee once said, “Back in the days when I was just a kid we did a lot of that – went to church in wagons and even on horseback. Those were the horse and buggy days. I seen a lot of that during the twenties and thirties in Alabama and down through there in places that I played. In some places, especially in the hilly countries, some of that is still going on right now.”
I really like the straightforward, nostalgic feeling conveyed in the song. What better song is there to remember the “good old days” as we begin 2012. In the first verse, Sam mentions the “old rusty wagon that’s left to rot away,” and he remembers how “people all loved their neighbor, everybody was so free.” It’s an old style of country music, and why aren’t songs written today that mention daddy, mom, the children, grandma and grandpa too, riding off to church on Sunday “when the wagon was new”? Even though the song is nearly 100 years old, look how relevant and insightful the last verse still is today:
The automobiles are here now, and the wagon days are through,
The airplanes are a-hummin’, good neighbors are so few,
Everybody’s in a hurry, it’s the money that takes you through,
We didn’t need much money, when the wagon was new.
Now, that’s one heartfelt sentiment with a lot of wisdom that is very germane today.
Guest post by Joe Ross
Old Crow Medicine Show: New Virginia Creeper
Never shying from creating modern railroad songs (and working their instruments to imitate the chugging, whistling sounds of the big, iron trains), OCMS gives us this song invoking the imagery of a relatively short-lived interstate railway between Virginia and North Carolina intertwined with some pretty heavy-handed euphemisms. The narrator in these lyrics comes across as a big-talking wooer seeking company in his plainly referenced bed. As always, OCMS does an exceptional job of recreating the plucky, easy-to-sing-along-to bluegrass style of old. Enjoy the train-like harmonica and traditional sounding bounce of this tune.
Guest post by Andrew
Billy Bragg: A New England
An oft-covered punkfolk youth anthem from UK singer-songwriter and left-wing activist Billy Bragg's 45 rpm debut that chugs along with the momentum of a train hurtling down the tracks, deliberate proof that the same combination of anger, frustration, innocence and optimism that fuels so much of his explicitly political work can be just as deftly applied to the age-old story of boy meets girl - or, at least, to the liminal narrative that comes of setting aside the old affections for the new unknown - in part because, to Bragg, moving on from the inevitabilities of cultural narrative is, after all, part and parcel of the political.
Because sometimes, you don't need to change the world, just your heart.
Lene Lovich: New Toy
In the fall of 1981 I was a freshman in college who had unfortunately been raised on some pretty lousy radio in Cleveland. I was ready for something other than the Springsteen-Eagles-Zeppelin stuff I had heard to death for years. Luckily I soon fell into a pretty musically savvy crowd and my listening pleasures grew exponentially. One guy, Jim, was a junior and a DJ at the college station. I remember his big passions at the time were Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen, the first I had ever heard of those two groups. One day he was all excited and couldn't stop playing this weird (to my naïve ears at the time) song, angular music with funny lyrics sung by a hyper-sounding, possibly whip-wielding woman and a catchy “oh-ay-oh” background chant. “New Toy” by someone named Lene Lovich, I was informed by Jim as he put the needle down on the vinyl for the fifth or sixth consecutive time. When I think back on all the great music I listened to in college over the next four years, I always think of “New Toy” as the initial jolt. It still sounds great. The song was actually written by a pre-fame Thomas Dolby, who played in Lovich's band. So far, 2012 has been filled with new toys for me: a new (used) car, a new (used) computer screen, and a new (old favorite) blog for me to contribute to. Thanks Star Maker Machine.
Guest post by Dan
Joni Mitchell: Love Puts On a New Face
I divide Joni Mitchell’s career in my mind into three distinct periods. These are not even divisions by time, but rather periods where Mitchell tried various modes of expression. The first, early period is the one most people know her for, and her mode was the folk-based confessional songwriting that gave rise to the singer-songwriter movement. The second period is Mitchell’s jazz period, starting with the album The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and ending with Shadows and Light. In her songwriting, Mitchell turned away from her confessional mode, in favor of storytelling. Mitchell’s late period began with Wild Things Run Fast. Here, Mitchell decided to try her hand at rock n’ roll, with mixed results. Some of the more uptempo songs from this period are almost hard rock, a style that fits Mitchell uncomfortably. But some of the quieter moments are overlooked gems, and as fine as anything in her catalog. The late period also has some fine poetry by Mitchell, but there are also songs that are little more than angry screeds.
Love Puts On a New Face is one of the overlooked gems from this late period. There are only three players on the song, Wayne Shorter on soprano sax, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, and Mitchell on guitar and keyboards. There are no drums. Together, the band creates a wash of sound that shifts like a thing alive. The lyric is a wonderful poem, presenting three stages of a relationship in three stanzas. The song features key lines that come just before the chorus: “What a pocket of heavenly grace” becomes “Some bad dreams love can’t erase” becomes “I long for your embrace”. It’s brilliantly economical piece of storytelling, and Mitchell hit’s the right emotional chord. As brilliant as her folk and jazz periods were, I can’t imagine Mitchell doing a song with this kind of feel in her earlier days.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
Released two weeks into a new decade – the 1970s – A Brand New Me was the title of Dusty Springfield’s first and only Philly album, and the title of the hit single from the LP (which would be released in Britain a month later as From Dusty…With Love).
Having previously done the Southern Soul thing with the immortal Dusty In Memphis album, Dusty now turned to Philly soul under the guidance of producers Kevin Gamble and Leon Huff, who together or with others wrote all songs on the album, and arranger Thom Bell.
The single “A Brand New Me”, a cover of Jerry Butler’s 1969 single which had been written by Gamble, Butler and Bell, provided Dusty with her last US hit for 17 years, reaching #24 in 1970. In her native Britain it didn’t even chart. In both countries, she’d not feature in the Top 40 for 17 years, when the Pet Shop Boys revived her career.
The album itself tanked, stalling at #107 in the Billboard charts, and a second set of recordings with Gamble and Huff was shelved.
When the album was made, Gamble and Huff were still relatively unknown and Dusty Springfield was a star. Soon the producers would become soul giants as serial hitmakers for The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, The Three Degrees and so on, and would be invited to write the theme for Soul Train (read the story of that here).
Gram Parsons: The New Soft Shoe
E.L. Cord was a visionary and innovator, the brains behind the famed Cord automobile of the 1920s and ‘30s. Cords were the first to sport front-wheel drive and retractable headlights. As technologically advanced as his cars were, Cord was known for lavishing even more attention on the way his vehicles looked. That tendency to put style ahead of profits had predictable results. Cord was derided by rivals, and his company, Illinois-based Auburn Automobile, went belly up during the Depression. Later, Cord headed west, where he made and lost and re-made a fortune in investments. He dabbled in politics and bought and sold real estate, oil wells, radio stations and the company that eventually became American Airlines. His critics claimed he lacked focus, his admirers said he was too wild and creative to be pigeonholed.
Something in Cord’s story resonated with Gram Parsons -- himself a restless spirit, who jumped from enterprise to enterprise. In his autobiography, Keith Richards recalls being told by Parsons that he was “writing a song about a guy that builds cars.” That song was “The New Soft Shoe,” one of the shining moments on "G.P.", Parsons’s debut solo album. The Parsons song offers only a brief biographical sketch. But he makes his point: Art has its place. Each generation needs a new Cord. And each will face new challenges.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Richard Thompson: Hope You Like the New Me
Richard Thompson can be downright creepy at times. Hope You like the New Me gives another meaning to the term “identity theft” Thompson imagines a narrator who takes everything he admires in a perceived rival, and steals it. The musical setting for this is disturbingly simple, as if Thompson is saying, “see how easy that was!” It’s mostly an acoustic guitar, playing a repeating pattern that changes only by getting louder and then softer. There is a subtle bass part, and a cello joins in for emphasis, and that’s about it. Nevertheless, the tension in the song builds to a climax, and then pulls back a bit, but there is never a release. Thompson’s vocal performance is suitably menacing. This is the kind of song that shows why Richard Thompson is so admired by his fellow musicians. The elements of the song are sparse, but Thompson knows that he has all that he needs, and he makes every bit of it count.
Monday, January 2, 2012
Talking Heads: New Feeling
"The name of this song is 'New Feeling'. That's what it's about."
The Groceries: Part of the New America
I was a college radio DJ at WPRB in Princeton, NJ during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and we enthusiastically supported a couple of local bands—Regressive Aid and The Groceries. Someday, I will try to post about Regressive Aid, who had a few members that went on to more well-known projects, but this post is about The Groceries, particularly, their song Part of the New America.
I liked The Groceries, and almost certainly played them on the air. Through the fog of history, I’m pretty sure that I saw them play live, at both an eating club on campus (Terrace?) and at the somewhat legendary City Gardens in Trenton. Based on some recent research, they are fondly remembered in the Central New Jersey area. They were a good band, with an interesting sound. My friend and former WPRB colleague Hal posted on his blog a few months ago—“The Groceries were musical soup. In today’s terms, boil the Barenaked Ladies, and drop in Bob Marley and flavor with Madness, and you get the taste.” That’s a pretty fair description, and I don’t think I can do better. To my knowledge, were never signed by any record label and I don’t think you can buy it anywhere. (Aside—after I graduated from college, I worked at a major record label for the summer, and worked with another kid my age who later became a serious player in the industry. I found a Groceries tape or record in a pile of submissions and asked him about them—he told me that the band had been trying to get signed for a while, but no one seemed interested.)
The song is a satire of the American materialistic culture that was being fostered by the Reagan administration, but the song also skewers liberals and the “politically correct”. I’d have to say that its message is still timely in the “Occupy” era, too. (Another aside—the lead singer of The Groceries was Richard Auguste Morse, who later moved to Haiti, has released music under the name RAM and bought the supposedly world-famous Hotel Oloffson—and in that role appeared in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.) It is a fun song, and if you look on the Internet, you can find an amusing video.
Sunday, January 1, 2012
James Taylor: New Hymn
Put away your image of James Taylor as a poetic lightweight, mere chronicler of the gentle muse: though his radio popfolk canon is tailor-made for easy listening, this track is a difficult one, with slant rhymes, an odd flowing meter, and a baffled imagery of the unknown, chock full of despair and darkness.
And yet, in many ways, New Hymn represents the under-appreciated apex of Taylor's prowess as a songwriter. Released only on his 1993 live album, this new hymn lives up to its titular promise, honoring the challenge of modern spirituality head on in a song that lingers long after its final notes fade. If it doesn't give you chills, you're not listening right.
So sit with it for a while: it's worth the visit. Soak in the tensions of the warm harmonies against the known darkness and the unknown fears evoked in its dense lyrical incantation. Note how the arrangement supports its fragmented vision, how the performance so effectively parallels its flares and flashes. Let its tiny coda sink in, and play it again, reveling in the short uplifting moment, the four word rise into hope at the song's end a deliberate echo of the Zen perfection psychedelic visionary Baba Ram Das described. Listen, and then accept its challenge: may we work to be here now, and in every moment, for this year, and for the years to come.
Grateful Dead: New Speedway Boogie
First of all, let me wish all of our readers a very happy new year.
To start our “New” theme, I wanted to share a song by the Grateful Dead. So, I had to decide whether to post New Minglewood Blues, New, New Minglewood Blues, or All New Minglewood Blues. I could even have gone with an obscure version of the song that is not the Dead at all, called Even Newer Minglewood Blues. I decided to avoid the problem by going with New Speedway Boogie instead.
Now, some of you have probably realized that the picture above is not the Grateful Dead at all, but rather the Rolling Stones. In preparing this post, I finally learned, after all these years, what New Speedway Boogie is about. The free concert at the Altamont Speedway in 1969 was originally conceived as a sort of Woodstock west. The show was headlined by the Rolling Stones, and the Grateful Dead were supposed to be in the line-up, but they decided not to do the show. Where Woodstock is remembered as an outporing of peace and love, Altamont is notorious for the violence that marred the occasion, even resulting in one death. It’s hard to say what accounted for the difference between the two shows. At Altamont, the presence of the Hell’s Angels is frequently cited as the cause of the violence, but the Angels had peacefully provided security at Grateful Dead shows for some time at that point. Whatever the case, Altamont is remembered as the concert shown in the documentary Gimme Shelter, and is sometimes regarded as a marker for the end of the hippie era.
New Speedway Boogie was written in response to the events at Altamont, and the Grateful Dead included the song for about nine months afterwards. The lyrics are typically cryptic, and the band probably assumed that their audiences would know the reference. But the Dead dropped the song from their set lists, possibly because they felt that it was too topical and becoming irrelevant. It would be almost twenty years before the band started playing New Speedway Boogie in their shows again. I heard the song when it was released on Workingman’s Dead in 1970. I was ten years old, so I hope I can be forgiven for not understanding what the song referred to.