Rickie Lee Jones: Danny‘s All-Star Joint
1979 was a fine year on the charts for what I like to call speak-singing. This is where the vocalist switches freely between speaking and singing in a line of a song, or even within a word of more than one syllable. Done well, it sounds completely natural, and gives a song a sense of realness that it might otherwise lack. It was done well in 1979 by Mark Knopfler in the Dire Straits hit Sultans of Swing. And when it was time for a follow-up single to Rickie Lee Jones’ smash Chuck E.’s in Love, another fine example emerged in Danny’s All-Star Joint. You hear the speak-singing in the verses, especially in the interplay between Cecil, the narrator, and the kid who winds up at the pinball machine. But then there is the bridge, and Rickie Lee Jones takes the speak-singing to another level entirely. There is little more in this section than Jones’ voice and percussion. This makes perfect sense, because this section is based on jump-rope rhymes Jones was hearing at the time on the streets of Los Angeles. On the street, these would have been accompanied only by handclaps.
Saturday, February 25, 2012
For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals.
Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk.
Let's count the ways this song fits our theme by starting out with its (1) title, which exhorts us to Keep Talking, even though the lyrics declare the singer's inability to communicate (Why won't you talk to me?"). In fact, the theme of the entire album is (2) communication or the lack of it. The album title, The Division Bell, refers to the bell that's rung before a vote to summon members of the British Parliament, a place where (3) speechmaking is the major form of communication and where a vote solidifies into law by a verbal yes or no. Considering that Pink Floyd had undergone a very public fracture due to the (4) breakdown in communication between members David Gilmour and Roger Waters, who had left the band by 1994, there was much speculation that this song was heavily biographical.
One of the key features of this song is the (5) sampled electronic voice of physicist Stephen Hawking, who has relied on a speech synthesizer since the 80's. Gilmour, for his part, relies on a guitar talk box that merges vocal effects with his electric guitar notes, mimicking the sound of (6) human speech.
It doesn't have to be like this,
All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.
Blown: Orange Coloured Daydreams
The past is an interesting place. While it’s undeniable that we are all the sum totals of our experiences, it’s sometimes hard to apprehend exactly how this can be so. Equally, we can’t escape nostalgia, especially when it comes to our childhoods. Even the worst of times can be tinted by a patina of magic, because looking back on innocence (for want of a less loaded word) with jaded adult eyes creates a sheen that is both inevitable and deeply desirable.
At the same time, the past can be almost impossible to understand. This song’s protagonist looks dreams of an idyllic childhood in pre-revolutionary Iran with the adult knowledge that there was far more going on than he could have realised and that ‘when you’re young you never know that good things come and good things go,’ but still retains the ability to return to a world that may never have existed simply by dreaming about it. The sun that lit his childhood is inside him – it may only ever have been – but at least that way the past need not remain out of reach.
An admission – this song represents my past. While my actual involvement in it was relatively small - a few lines added here, some structure imposed there - and the majority of the words are someone else’s, it featured on my band’s debut (and, as it turned out, only) album way back in 1994. All these years later, I realise that I feel the same way about that period of my life as Farhad (my bandmate, producer and friend to this day) felt when he sat down to write the poem that would become Orange Coloured Daydreams. For all the stress and heartache that I know intellectually was present back then, there is nonetheless something magical about that time that I like to revisit now and then. Even if those weren’t the best days of my life, it’s sometimes fun to imagine them that way.
Guest post by Houman
King Crimson: Thela Hun Ginjeet
Just a quick second post before this theme is over. As a prog-rock fan in the late 70’s, I was familiar with King Crimson, in general, but not with an enormous amount of their music. The band was rarely, if ever, heard on the radio in New York, and if it was, they probably played “21st Century Schizoid Man.”
I have a very strong memory from 1980, when one of my tasks at WPRB was to go to the post office and pick up the mail, which included all of the records that the station was sent by the record labels. I remember walking toward the station and opening a package from WEA Music and seeing The Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light” album. I had read about the record and put it on the turntable in our office as soon as I could. I was blown away by how revolutionary it sounded to my ears; the polyrhythms and odd sounds that made it seem like something completely new. Yet it was also still a Talking Heads album. Among other things, though, it featured a new guitar sound, provided by Adrian Belew, who I had never heard of. “Remain in Light” is still probably one of my Desert Island Discs.
The next year, the word started to filter out about a new King Crimson album that would feature Robert Fripp, who was a legend, Bill Bruford, my favorite drummer, Tony Levin, who I hadn’t heard of, and Belew. When I first heard “Discipline,” I was again blown away. There were some similarities to “Remain in Light”—the rhythms, Belew’s guitar playing, and his very David Byrne influenced vocals. It was a record that was liked by the prog-rockers and the new wavers, and by those of us who liked both. We played the crap out of that record, and I got to see them on campus in March, 1982 (and maybe also at Rutgers a month earlier, but I don’t specifically recall.)
“Thela Hun Gingeet” (an anagram for Heat in the Jungle), is a typically dense King Crimson song, with Fripp and Belew’s complex guitar playing over Bruford’s busy drumming and Levin’s solid bass (or Chapman Stick?). During the song, while the music continues, there is an extended recording of Belew telling a story about being confronted by dangerous people with guns during a walk around London. He returned to the studio and told the story, which was surreptitiously recorded and then added to the track. There is something so real and immediate about Belew’s fear of being in a “dangerous place,” and his relief when they finally leave him alone, that elevates the song.
Friday, February 24, 2012
When Garth Brooks reinvented himself as rocker named Chris Gaines, many considered it more evidence that Brooks was cracking under the pressure of superstardom. But some theorized Brooks was reviving a long-abandoned practice by country music singers of assuming an alter ego to release off-beat material. For example, decades before Brooks/Gaines, Ferlin Husky cut novelty records as Simon Crum, Buck Owens rocked as Corky Jones and Hank Williams recorded recitations under the moniker Luke the Drifter.
Hank Williams began using the Luke pseudonym in 1950. Luke the Drifter records were often spoken-word homilies on the troubles of life and the rewards awaiting the pure of heart in heaven. In his definitive biography of Williams, Colin Escott describes Luke as “a wise and thoughtful soul, dispensing advice that the willful Hank Williams ignored.”
MGM, for whom Williams recorded, pushed him to release these morality plays under an assumed name, so as not to diminish his standing as a raucous honky-tonker. Though Hank’s secular records were hardly highfalutin, his releases as Luke are even more unvarnished, with scant instrumentation and Hank's thick rural accent on full display. Recorded in 1951, “Pictures from Life's Other Side” is the archetypal Luke record, with sorrow and southern drawl dripping from the record grooves.
The Luke the Drifter legacy continued long after Williams died on New Year’s Day, 1953. MGM and its successor labels released Luke the Drifter sets on 78, EP, LP, tape, CD and MP3. Hank Williams Jr. kept the Luke brand going, releasing three albums as “Luke the Drifter Jr.” in the late 1960s. Luke Jr. offered up the same mawkish recitations as his forerunner, starting with an awkwardly named hit single, “I Was With Red Foley the Night He Passed Away.”
Bonus track: Not every Luke the Drifter song was dark. Here Hank/Luke dabbles in some good-natured Commie bashing in a track spoken to Josef Stalin, "No, No Joe."
Thursday, February 23, 2012
For many, the epic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” represents something of an proto-rap, along with the works of the Watts Prophets and The Last Poets (and what was that point-missing woman at the Grammys babbling on about how to Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution will be televised?). Gil Scott-Heron issued a number of the spoken word proto-raps.
Of those, “Whitey On The Moon” is particularly apt now, some four decades after it was recorded, with Newt Gingrich half-wittedly undertaking to return people to the moon while simultaneously robbing the people who need it most of universal health coverage should the American voters stumble to the polls in so brown a haze of lunacy to actually elect that emissary from Acheron.
If “Whitey On The Moon” shows sharp wit, then “H2Ogate Blues” is a shark-toothed chainsaw massacre of barbed anger. The year is 1974, and America is still waiting for King Richard to finally depart. In a live performance set to a basic blues riff, Gil Scott-Heron raps about “that cesspool, Watergate”, as sidekicks (one sort of pictures a nightvision-goggled hanger-on of Ludacris being among them, though that doubtless is the imagination seeing things through an early 21st century lense) voice their agreement and encouragement. Gil’s scene-setting definition of the hues of the blues is worth the price of admission alone, but when he goes on to the politics, well, you can’t put a price on that. The cast of characters – Halderman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Dean, if you dig what I mean – might have changed, but the concerns of 1974 find an echo in almost 40 years later.
“How long, America, before the consequences of keeping the school systems segregated, allowing the press to be intimidated, watching the price of everything soar and hearing complaints ’cause the rich want more? It seems that Macbeth, and not his lady, went mad. We’ve let him eliminate the whole middle class; the dollar’s the only thing we can’t inflate while the poor go on without a new minimum wage.”
“H2Ogate Blues” appeared on 1974’s excellent Winter In America album. In the liner notes, Scott-Heron takes aim at Nixon: “In the interest of national security, please help us carry out our constitutional duty to overthrow the king.” He meant really the system. His message probably would be the same today – except Gil might prefer to retain this king in fear of the ghastly alternatives.
Taj Mahal: Linin' Track
Taj Mahal has been doin' his thang for many a year. His early recordings, back in the 60s, focused on the blues, when he turned out his formative albums like the Natch'l Blues and Recycling the Blues. Over the years, in addition to the blues, he's covered jazz and folk, reggae and African.
Like my main man Ry Cooder, he has researched and aimed to keep alive music of various traditions. He's a veritable scholar and ethnographer of music. In fact, musically, he's all over the place. The man has worked with the Rolling Stones, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, Ry Cooder, Eric Clapton, Doc Watson and Toumani Diabate (and if you haven't heard this Malian musician, you are missing some great sounds. Check out a free listen to Queen Bee with the two of them on the radio channel at (http://www.tajblues.com/.)
Not posessing the most musically "soaring" voice, Taj still packs a great deal of emotion into what he's he's been gifted with. His is a rasping kind of voice, well suited to the blues, but it's also the kind of voice that works well for telling a story (a la Tom Waits), and that is what this week's focus is all about: telling or speaking a song.
There are many spots of Linin' Track where Taj's voice trends more to the musical than the spoken. However, in other places, his vocals are very much spoken - or certainly not musically tonal. This is a song credited to Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly.
Speaking of the blues and apropros of the economic woes many of us are living through, the lyrics of Linin' Track include the words: "talkin' 'bout the money I aint made" may ring true for a number of us. Or maybe, considering the Arab Spring (Israel, Egypt and environs), maybe you can relate to the lyrics: "Moses stood on the Red Sea shore, smotin' that water with a 2 by 4" ... are more to the point. The line continues, "if I could I surely would ...". A positive outlook for our times, me thinks.
Guest post by KKafa
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
James Brown: King Heroin
The Godfather of Soul sets aside the funk for a few minutes to rap brother to brother and brother and sister about the evils of one of the most deadly killers in our country: heroin.
I can make a man forsake his country and flag
Make a girl sell her body for a five-dollar bag
Some think my adventure's a joy and a thrill
But I'll put a gun in your hand and make you kill
This lyrics are credited to Manny Rosen, who --according to Wikipedia--worked at The Stage Delicatessan on Manhattan's Seventh Avenue, and had lost his daughter to a drug overdose. But according to Jet Magazine, "Manny Rosen" is a pseudonym for impressionist George Kirby who had seen the insides of a prison after dealing heroin to an undercover cop in Las Vegas. Whatever the circumstances, the lyrics deliver a haunting message that, as a single, managed to hit the Top 40 in 1972.
There are a whole lot of spoken-word songs to choose from in Todd Snider's catalog. In fact, even when Snider sings, it kind of sounds like he's talking. Since Snider says it all -- literally -- in the lyrics of "The Ballad of the Kingsmen," there's no point going too deeply into its backstory. The song has appeared on two official albums by Snider, as well as on several bootlegs and scores of YouTube clips. Here's the original studio version, from 2005's East Nashville Skyline. And, here's what Snider had to say about the song in that album's liner notes:
I wanted to make the point that teaching kids to get as much as they can all week at public school and then sending them to some church on Sunday where some old guy goes on about how wrong it is to need so much stuff -- and then somehow when the kids act confused it's 'cause of Alice Cooper or somebody -- is silly. That's what I hope this song shows. That, and that I can memorize a lot of words.
Laurie Anderson: Language Is a Virus
What does this song mean? Laurie Anderson likes to string together words and phrases that we, the listeners, recognize as English. But she leaves what you might call “cognitive space”. It falls to the listener to connect the dots and find a meaning, and what you take away from this one might be very different from my impression. Likewise, Anderson’s music often suggests a musical genre with being quite of that genre. Language Is a Virus is the suggestion of funk, but it definitely cooks, whatever it is. This all sounds terribly abstract, and like a lot of work. Maybe it is, but Anderson’s sly sense of humor makes it go down easy.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones: The Ballad of Jed Clampett
The Flecktones use rhythmic spoken word as if it were a jazz instrument: a core albeit sparsely played component of the arsenal digi-percussionist Roy Wooten (aka Future Man, aka the guy in the pirate hat in the image above) lends to banjo-master Bela Fleck and company's experimental jamjazz fusion. Here, two layers of yawping, mischievous rap from Future Man and partner-in-crime Bobby McFerrin serve as a madcap, untrustworthy narrative voice hovering over the instrumental cliffs of insanity in a tribute to The Beverly Hillbillies that sounds like it was arranged by Frank Zappa. Bonus points for the Sam Bush mandolin runs.
Tom Waits: The One That Got Away
Billed primarily as a piano player, Tom Waits is also a poet who - in my opinion - rivals the likes of Dylan. Now, I don't know that you can call some of his work "song lyrics", but the definition of the word lyric is "having the form and musical quality of a song, and especially the character of a songlike outpouring of the poet's own thoughts and feelings" (dictionary.com). That fits the man and his work, for, in addition to his musical skills, a poet he is for sure.
Raspy and gritty, Waits' voice conveys the atmosphere of the smoky bar whence his music comes and where it best belongs. In the best tradition of the barroom piano player, Waits provides us with a glimpse of the seamier side of life that is a deep down part of all of us, but which most of us shy away from out of fear of the dark side.
His 1976 album Small Change is one of my favorite albums of all time. There are a number of pieces on this album where Waits talks us through this story, as opposed to singing a song. A number of the songs from the album have been included here before on StarMaker, by Darius and Boyhowdy: among others I Can't Wait To Get Off Work (Aug 31, 2008), Tom Traubert's Blues (Sept 15, 2010), and Step Right Up (Mar 27, 2011)
The One That Got Away and Pasties and a G-String both fit the bill for this week's theme. Line after line of the words should give pause: just what on earth does he mean? (for me, there are so many lines that carry some connotation, worthy of an extra minute's pondering):
half past the unlucky, the hawk's a front row seat
I've lost my car key, my equilibrium and my pride
Herewithin, one of them. I strongly recommend that you go out and purchase the whole album so that you can get the full sense of this, his best work.
Guest post by KKafa
What's the first spoken-word song that pops into your head? Easy: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen's "Hot Rod Lincoln," from their album, Lost in the Ozone and a surprising top 10 hit in 1972. It has a lot of spoken words.
What's the first thing that pops into your head about "Hot Rod Lincoln"? It is truly amazing how eclectic pop music was in 1972 -- and how narrow it is now. "Hot Rod Lincoln" made it all the way to number 7 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. Other artists with records in the top 40 from the same week that "Hot Rod Lincoln" peaked: The Staples Singers (#1!), Sammy Davis Jr., the Rolling Stones, Al Green, Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Castor, the Jackson 5, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Jackson Browne, Andy Williams, Cat Stevens, and the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragon Guards. (Yep, their version of "Amazing Grace" made it to the top 20).
OK, what's the second thing that pops into your head? How much I love this song and everything about it. The great mile-a-minute recitation by Commander Cody himself (a/k/a George Frayne). Bill Kirchen's incredible guitar runs. The song's pedigree -- "Hot Rod Lincoln" began life as a straight-ahead hillbilly boogie and an "answer" record, a sequel to a similar song called "Hot Rod Race." (An excellent history of both songs is available in a Star Maker post from 2008.) That despite now being nearly forgotten by both rock and country fans, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen deserve a lion's share of the credit for introducing hard-core country to the hipsters. And the fact that, even today, when you see Bill Kirchen perform, you know when he gets to "Hot Rod Lincoln" in his set, the next 10 to 15 minutes are going to be pure overdrive.
Bruce Piephoff: Ransom Notes
Bruce Piephoff is a North Carolina bard with an affinity for both music and poetry. With college degrees in English and creative writing, his calling is clear. The indefatigable and prolific singer, songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player has released over 20 albums.
Bruce Piephoff also recognizes the value of music for therapy, a cure for nearly every ill. With melody, the songwriter brings his introspective poems and haunting truths to life. But, on occasion, he simply uses the spoken word to tell a sly story (such as “Hucksters”) or to pay tribute to departed friends (in cuts such as “For Marvin” and “Ransom Notes”). These songs are heard on Bruce Piephoff's 2011 album called “Still Looking Up at the Stars,” produced by guitarist and arranger Scott Sawyer who performs on all 17 album tracks.
With matter-of-fact delivery, personal observations, and a dash of wry humor, Piephoff cleverly relates the story of his bud, Billy Ransom Hobbs. Accompanied by understated moody sax, guitar, and brushes, “Ransom Notes” is an avant-garde spoken eulogy about a lovable, gentle soul and fellow musician (Billy Ransom Hobbs, aka Hobo Billy) who tragically passed about 2008.
Piephoff promises that the two will meet again “backstage” when he gets there. Besides being a poet and musician, Piephoff is an author. “Ransom Notes” first appeared in his second book of poetry, “Fiddlers and Middlers” released in 2009. Thanks to You Tube video of the song, we even get to see these guys hanging out in North Carolina in the early 1970s. There’s Billy “the grassroots Buddah … in a black leather motorcycle jacket, jeans and long curly black hair.”
What a fitting way to remember a good friend!
Guest Post by Joe Ross
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Dan Bern: Jerusalem
If I went to see Springsteen (and I haven’t since college) and he didn’t play “Born to Run,” I’d be unhappy. When I saw Led Zeppelin in 1977, I would have been horrified if they didn’t play “Stairway to Heaven.” And I expect to hear 1952 Vincent Black Lightning when I see Richard Thompson. A Dan Bern show, to me, is not complete without “Jerusalem.”
Bern, a Jewish Midwestern singer songwriter with a nasal voice, has regularly been compared to Dylan, and he doesn’t seem to shy from the comparison, considering the number of talking blues he has written in Dylan’s style. Not to mention his hysterical “Talkin’ Bob And Woody, Bruce And Dan Blues” which updates Dylan’s “Song to Woody” (and which I thought about writing about, but decided to write about “Jerusalem” instead). Bern has long been a family favorite, with his songs that are funny, poignant and political. “Jerusalem” is one that has all of that.
As is common in Bern’s songs, “Jerusalem” takes a meandering route. It starts off with its somewhat cynical theme—the singer has expressed his love to someone, but warns that his love should be accepted and not tested, because it may be that he doesn’t really “love you all that much.” The song abruptly turns to an admonition to people who want to know what music he is going to play, and those who want to pigeonhole him—“And if you must put me in a box, Make sure it's a big box,” he sings. Then, out of nowhere, the song heads off into a strange place, with Bern talking about being asked to become an “ancient king”, and works in a reference to Einstein’s theory of time.
Bern then discusses how everyone seems to be waiting for the Messiah, and that he knows how hard it is to wait, illustrating the triviality of religion by equating waiting for salvation with waiting “for a bus or something; An important phone call,” before announcing that, in fact, he is the Messiah. He tells us that he was going to wait to make this announcement, and build the suspense, but his therapist, Dr. Nusbaum, suggested that he would feel better if he got it out in the open.
So, why exactly is this song called “Jerusalem?” Because, the singer then tells us, he spent 10 days in Jerusalem, eating nothing but olives, but that it was OK because, “I like olives.” He then segues into “I like you too” and a reprise of the initial warning about not testing his love. At shows, the audience sings along to this crazy song, which to me highlights a couple of Bern’s regular themes—ambivalence about love and ambivalence about religion. And it is very funny.
Frank Zappa : Valley Girl
[purchase at the Galleria or here]
This 1982 song may be totally obvious to the max. I'm like, whatever! Frank Zappa—or more accurately, his 14-year-old daughter Moon Unit—started a Valspeak craze, where normally articulate Americans began to emulate the lingo of the San Fernando Valley of southern California. Fer shure! And you, too, can sound like a Valley Girl using this handy online translator. Seriously bitchin'!
Valley Girl was Zappa's only top 40 hit. Like, oh my God! I was all like, no way!
(The way cool photo up there is bitchin' J-rock superstar Yoshiki. Some fly dude or dudette came up with it when he bought a trippendicular home in Encino. Way!)
Big Bill Broonzy: Ridin‘ on Down
Talking blues is a style that is often associated with political songs, and with Woody Guthrie. Guthrie did indeed work with the form, and was one of the first to use it for political songs. But Guthrie was adapting an older style that was part of the blues tradition. Pre-Guthrie, these songs related humorous stories, or a series of humorous anecdotes. Ridin’ on Down is a fine example. Each verse has a different story, and these may have been adapted from longer folktales that performers like Big Bill Broonzy would have expected his audiences to recognize. Broonzy was a fine blues artist in the way we usually think of the blues, and he probably used a song like this to provide comic relief from his more serious material.