ongoing by Tim Bray

ongoing fragmented essay by Tim Bray

FaviconSotD: Elizabeth Reed 21 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

The full title is In Memory of Elizabeth Reed; it was written by Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers Band and is a highlight on their live album At Fillmore East, a collection of songs that is very special to a lot of people, including me. It’d be pretty obviously jazz if it weren’t for all the brilliant rock-guitar improv.

Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East

The album is one of those rare occasions when someone did a great job of capturing a live performance by an ensemble at the absolute top of their form. I knew people who’ve seen the Allmans lots and I’ve never heard anyone say they played better than on this record.

As for Elizabeth Reed, you can read lots of long exegeses, and they all come back to the lovely melodic unison of the opening and closing, then Dickey Betts’ graceful lead-off break, then Duane’s subsequent two-phase all-out assault. Altogether, a thing you wouldn’t want the world to be without. As for Elizabeth Reed? She’s a name on a gravestone in a cemetery where the band used to hang out, and there is said to be a story behind the song involving the woman and the cemetery but it wasn’t Elizabeth.

This is the 111th in the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on iTunes (album only), Amazon (likewise), Spotify. As for live video, there’s nothing that comes close to this performance. There is actually a recording of this edition of the band playing this song, but they weren’t at their very best that night. Second, here’s a competent take by some next-gen Allmans and Eric Clapton, good but not special really.

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FaviconSotD: Moustaki 20 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

After all that hardass rock the last couple of days, I feel the need of something softer. Alors, profitons d’une très douce chanson française de Georges Moustaki… oh wait. I’m talking about Georges Moustaki, a francophone singer-songwriter of generally Mediterranean extraction who was hot stuff when I was in high school a hundred years back. This is seriously sweet sonorous stuff.

When I get into someone obscure (to 21st-century Anglophones) like Moustaki, I have a hard time mentioning just one song in a large body of work, so I’ll mention and link to a couple.

Georges Moustaki

Did I say “generally Mediterranean”? Per Wikipedia, he was born Giuseppe Mustacchi in Alexandria to parents who were Italian-speaking Francophile Greek Jews from the island of Corfu. What’s kind of amusing is that his first big hit was Le Métèque, a word that means, more or less, “Wop” or “Dago”; it talks about him being a wandering Jew and Greek shepherd. No record company would take it, so Moustaki self-published on a 45RPM single and became a star. Mind you, he’d already carved out a nice niche by that point writing songs for all the big-name French stars; music was always good to him.

His songs always have acoustic arrangements with a south-Europe lilt. Moustaki has a soft baritone and often had soprano singing harmony with him, usually to beautiful effect. They were mostly about love, hopelessly romantic.

I’m going to feature two songs. The first, Le facteur, because it’s so simple and sweet, and has that heartbreaking soprano harmony. It’s about a dead seventeen-year-old and goes to a place so romantic I think it’s out of the English language’s reach: C’est lui qui venait chaque jour / Les bras chargés de tous mes mots d’amour / C’est lui qui portait dans ses mains / La fleur d’amour cueillie dans ton jardin.

Second, L'homme au cœur blessé, just because it was my favorite song for a while when I was in Grade Ten or so. It’s not even by Moustaki, but a cover of a tune by Theodorakis. What’s crazy is that I didn’t know that until I looked the song up just now, even though I’ve long been a huge Theodorakis fan, particularly of the soundtrack to the move Z.

This the 110th in the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. Le facteur on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. L'homme au cœur blessé on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. Live video of Le facteur and L'homme au cœur blessé (weak, but with Theodorakis and Melina Mercouri in the audience).

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FaviconSotD: Hoochie Koo 19 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

Yesterday I veered gleefully off the road of High Culture into the musical gutter. So, let’s hang out down here one more day. For your pleasure I offer “Rock & Roll, Hoochie Koo”. It was written in 1970 by Rick Derringer, who is OK by me, originally for Johnny Winter. Rick’s laid down some ace recordings both on his own and with one or more Winters.

Rick Derringer’s list of collaborators includes the Winters, Steely Dan, Weird Al, and the World Wrestling Federation. I guess that makes him a Great American.

Fortunately for you, I know the definitive version of Hoochie Koo, which is on a live album called Roadwork by Edgar Winter’s White Trash. I hesitate to recommend it for general-purpose consumption because it’s screechy, undisciplined, and ultra-raw. Fine by me but not for everyone. Johnny Winter was normally not part of his brother’s band, but on this night Edger invited him up for Hoochie Koo, so that’s the only version I know that’s played by Rick and Johnny together and oh my that’s some serious rockin’.

Rick Derringer, Johnny Winter

Rick Derringer and Johnny Winter, from the back cover of Roadwork.

This is the 109th in the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on Spotify, Amazon, and iTunes (where it’s listed as “Rock and Roll, H*****e Koo”). As for live video, I guess nobody was filming that night, but here separately are Rick Derringer (with Edgar Winter) and Johnny Winter; both videos are from 1973.

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FaviconSotD: Sharp Dressed Man 18 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

This series has been getting kind of refined and intellectual in recent days, so we’re going to fix that right now. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a ZZ Top song I didn’t like, and Billy Gibbons’ guitar sound is unequaled in its grit and its steel-spined groove. You also have to love the performances; the guys clearly don’t take themselves too seriously (I once described their moves as “a back-beat pavane”). Sharp Dressed Man is pure fun.

ZZ Top

Now, let’s get past one big issue. Bill Gibbons has a really dirty mind, and enjoys sharing it. I mean, songs like Lagrange and Tube-snake Boogie aren’t exactly subtle, and you might try to spin a story about how they’re a metaphor or something, then he comes down to the front of the stage, growls “Know what I’m talkin’ about?” and flashes a leer half the size of Texas. If you have issues with oversimplified heteronormative expressions of sexual urges, this music is not for you.

And there’s that line Every girl crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed man. He’s not in tune with the tenor of our times, but he’s also not entirely wrong. You could rephrase it something like “A significant proportion of women who are interested in men are more apt to be interested in a man who is at least making an effort to be well-groomed.” And you could pretty safely generalize, to say something about a small effort at style improving the general appreciation of you as a person. And it’s not as if Billy’s setting the bar very high; he starts out “Clean shirt, new shoes…” — how hard can that be? But I look around my co-workers (mostly male) and often despair.

This is entry 108 in the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. There’s no shortage of live video; I like this one.

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FaviconSotD: Mishima 17 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

This isn’t a song, it’s a movie soundtrack, I hope that’s OK. It’s by Philip Glass, and the movie is Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters from 1985. The name refers to Yukio Mishima, a Japanese novelist who went crazy and tried to lead a restore-the-sacred-Empire putsch against the Japanese government in 1970 and, when it predictably failed, committed seppuku.

Mishima was a loathsome person and my single attempt to read one of his books ran afoul of stinking heaps of metaphysical bushwah inside of a hundred pages, so I have no interest in seeing the movie. But it’s a damn fine set of songs.

Philip Glass is arguably the Twentieth Century’s most successful composer of “New Music”, using “New” in the sense of “classically rooted” and/or “not Pop”. For not-Pop music, some of his has been awfully popular. It’s been argued that every piece of Phil Glass music sounds like every other piece, but then the same is true of Vivaldi and Keith Richards. A lot of them sound very good to me, and he’s released several fine albums, but Mishima has always been my fave.

The Philip Glass Ensemble

Sometimes he takes his show on the road; the Philip Glass Ensemble (5 keyboards, 3 woodwinds, one soprano and some of the instrumentalists sing too) includes Phil but he doesn’t lead it, he plays the lowest keyboard line, providing the core pulse behind the music. I caught a tour in 2006 where they played his soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi in front of a screen showing the movie, and it was a hell of a show. Here’s a video clip (not Koyaanisqatsi) to give a feel for the experience.

The Mishima soundtrack is richly produced, with the awesome Kronos Quartet and lots of orchestral and keyboard help; it’s an audiophile favorite and sounds good turned way up loud.

This is the 107th in the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. As a sampler, I’m providing links to Mishima’s closing piece, entitled Closing, on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon. As for video, I can’t find any of the Glass ensemble playing this, but here is The Catalyst (String) Quartet playing Closing, the Amstel (saxophone) Quartet playing 1957 — Award Montage, and the Dublin Guitar Quartet playing what they call Blood Oath; the music sounds like part of Mishima but there’s a mistake, there’s no such track on the album.

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FaviconSotD: Misa Criolla 16 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

Written in 1964 by Argentinian Ariel Ramírez, Misa Criolla is the Mass in Spanish set to music with a sound and structure that combines several indigenous styles. You know those buskers that set up in public markets everywhere in colorful South-American outfits with giant Pan-pipes and guitars both huge and tiny? That style of music. Misa Criolla is great stuff, sold a zillion copies back there, and I can’t imagine anyone not liking it.

It’s is a little over twenty minutes long, but every minute is worth hearing. To bring it into Song of the Day territory, I’m recommending the second movement, Gloria, which is the center of the piece and is well under ten minutes. It’s a showpiece, with a flashy instrumental intro and lots of big notes for the soloist. Leading with it is a little bit wrong, because the Gloria works better when you’ve just listened to the serene, effortless Kyrie that precedes it. So if you like it, go back and listen to the whole thing all the way through.

The text of the Kyrie is just Señor, ten piedad de nosotros over and over. There are more words to the Gloria, but it keeps coming back over and over again to Paz a los hombres, a message we can all get behind.

Back in the day when people who liked music bought it on albums, people who liked Misa Criolla usually had two; one featuring Mercedes Sosa, an Argentinean folk-singer; and another featuring José Carreras. Back in 2007 I wrote a whole blog piece contrasting the two versions. Sitting in front of the big stereo with the lights low, I’ll go with Jose because the sound is exquisite and his pianissimo is like floating gold. But driving in the car or listening on headphones while commuting, Mercedes every time, because she flows through the music like water.

Mercedes Sosa José Carreras

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. Mercedes on Amazon; can’t find her on iTunes or Spotify. Jose on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify. As for live video, here’s Mercedes; not in as good voice as on the recording but still a stirring performance. And here’s another that’s worth watching: a live 2014 performance in Saint Peter’s basilica in the Vatican featuring a woman named Patricia Sosa whom research reveals is, (a) Argentinean, (b) no relation to Mercedes Sosa, and (c) formerly a heavy-metal singer. I think she’s awesome.

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FaviconSotD: La Isla Bonita 15 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

This is a beautiful and simple little Spanish-inflected melody, written by Madonna, Patrick Leonard, and Bruce Gaitsch. It sold a lot of records for her and is a staple of her live shows.

San Pedro

Last night I dreamt of San Pedro…

Wikipedia says the song was written as an instrumental, then Madonna added words and melody. But it sounds like a single voice and vision.

I’m an admirer of Madonna but not really a big fan of most of her music. The actual songs only rarely rise to greatness, as La Isla Bonita does. But by pure force of will she became, for a number of years, the sexiest, most attention-worthy woman in the world.

I also admire her showmanship and professionalism. Nobody’s ever gone to a Madonna show without coming away impressed. A lot more performers’ concerts would be pushed over the edge from fine to fantastic if they brought her level of dedication and practice and polish to the show.

This is the 105th in the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon. There seems to be a video performance from every Madonna tour in living memory. My faves are this one from 1986 and this from 2001.

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FaviconSotD: Hurt 14 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

No, not Trent Reznor singing the moany overwrought Nine Inch Nails version; I mean Johnny Cash’s take on American IV: The Man Comes Around, his last studio album. It’s grainy and sad and generally awesome. To his credit, Trent Reznor said “that song isn’t mine anymore.”

Johnny Cash American IV

That whole American IV collection is pretty great. It’s got an triumphant Bridge Over Troubled Water, sharing the vocals with Fiona Apple, a straight-ahead only-slightly-hilarious run through Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus, a duet with Nick Cave on I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, and a deeply beautiful performance of Danny Boy.

But Hurt is something special. Unlike Reznor, Cash doesn’t fool with the rhythm or get fancy with the phrasing, he just keeps striding and striding along this song’s very dark and narrow path; the arrangement (by Rick Rubin? It doesn’t say) is fantastic, with the brooding rhythm on an endless slow crescendo behind the voice then vanishing into silence behind Johnny’s voice.

And it’s Johnny Cash’s singing that you’re here for. His voice is like an old tree; rough, grainy, beautiful, inflexible; he doesn’t leave an atom of the song’s emotion untouched.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on Amazon, Spotify, iTunes. Live video? Johnny was barely alive, at the time. But the official video is quite a piece of work. Carefully conceived, it doesn’t pretend to be live, it’s nostalgia-drenched and super intense; it helps if you know some of the Johnny Cash mythology.

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FaviconSotD: Roads to Moscow 13 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

Even on the oldies stations, you never hear Al Stewart any more. In my youth he was a pretty big deal though, and had mega-hits with Year of the Cat and Time Passages. Roads to Moscow wasn’t a big hit but it was always my fave among his songs. I listened to it again the other night for the first time in years, and I was moved again by its story, and by its melodic grace.

Al’s always been a bit (to use a British word) naff; goofy-looking, yucking it up, not much of a voice, not rehearsing much. But boy, some of those songs can get their hooks into you.

Roads to Moscow is a pretty straightforward end-to-end narration of the Second World War from the point of view of an ordinary Soviet infantryman, from being overrun in Operation Barbarossa to marching inexorably on Berlin. I think it’s reasonably historically accurate. I’ll sample a few lines:

And the evening sings in a voice of amber, the dawn is surely coming
The morning road leads to Stalingrad, and the sky is softly humming
Two broken Tigers on fire in the night flicker their souls to the wind
We wait in the lines for the final approach to begin

General Guderian

“General Guderian sands at the crest of the hill…”

Go and read the whole story; it’s not long. It has a sad ending; most war stories do, but especially this one.

This is #103 in the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on Spotify, Amazon, iTunes. Here’s live grainy b&w video from 1977; but with OK sound and a good performance. I feel so sorry for the guy in the song.

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FaviconSotD: Doin’ Summertime 12 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

I’ve always liked Doin’ Time by Sublime which is (gasp!) approaching twenty years old. But I have a secret reason, because the breathy backing track is off a record approaching sixty years old by Herbie Mann that my Dad bought when I was still in short pants, and I still have the original, and love it. Well, and also because it’s based on Summertime; I’ve been in a musically-literate room where someone called it the greatest song ever written and while somebody else said “What about Good Vibrations?” a few heads were nodding. Let’s take a trip through the times.

The needle drops on At the Village Gate At the Village Gate by Herbie Mann

Above, the needle drops at the start of the Doin’ Time official video. Below, the record the needle was dropping on.

What happened was, when I was a kid and we were living in Lebanon where my Dad was a Professor of Agriculture, drifters came through and sometimes we accidentally took them in. The pair I remember were called Ping and Leslie, lesbians and big jazz fans, who brought us, among other things, At the Village Gate by jazz flautist Herbie Mann. My Dad fell in love with it and bought a bunch of other Herbie Mann records, but I never liked any as much as this one.

Am I about to argue that Mann has the definitive take on Summertime? Nope, in fact it’s not even the best song on the album; that would be Comin’ Home Baby. But his Summertime is great too, because of the hip, relaxed, spacious playing of the At the Village Gate band, with a graceful sliding bass line, the funky flute and sparkling vibes floating over it.

Doin’ Time also isn’t the best take on Summertime, but it’s fun to listen to, even though you have to be a little sad about the death of Bradley Nowell, another shooting star sunk by heroin. Sublime, his band, is described as “ska punk”. Huh?

So, you ask, what is the best take on Summertime? Silly question; what’s the best flavor of ice cream? My own music collection has versions, along with Mann’s, by Charlotte Church, Big Brother & the Holding Company (feat. Janis Joplin), Billy Stewart, Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong, Patricia Barber (twice), Miles Davis, and Chet Baker. Guess what: They’re all good, except for Charlotte. I guess I have no choice but to offer a tour.

This is the #102 in the Song of the Day series (background, Sppotify playlist).

Sublime

Ska punk they say? Hmmm, on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify.

Herbie Mann

Summertime on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify.

Comin’ Home Baby on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon.

Big Brother/Janis Joplin

This is a live version, off Cheap Thrills. Janis really overdoes it because that’s what Janis did. It doesn’t quite work for me, but I love this version anyhow because of the weird contrapuntal electric-guitar arrangement, not really like anything else. Big Brother might’ve been a bunch of fucked-up smack-heads, but damn they burned bright. On iTunes, Amazon, Spotify.

Billy Stewart

I don’t know much about this guy, wiped out in a car crash aged 32; older than Janis anyhow. He sets out to prove pthat Summertime is really an uptempo funk-pop number at heart. He doesn’t quite make his case, but it sure is fun to listen to. On Amazon, iTunes, Spotify.

Ella and Louis

I am generally not a Louis Armstrong fan, sorry. I’m with Miles Davis on this, who just couldn’t get past Louis’ constant cheesy smile. Yeah, I know he had to do that coming up in the biz as a black guy playing for white audiences, but it’s still weird and bad. Also, maybe the problem is with me, but his trumpet playing never grabs my interest. Having said that, the version he recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, while the string arrangements are too mushy, is memorable; Louis’s solo has more soul than usual, he sings well, and then Ella really brings it on the last verse, leaping up to an astonishing wide-open vibrato-free high note on “your daddy’s rich”. On iTunes, Spotify, Amazon.

Miles Davis

Miles, as usual, plays the fewest notes while somehow at the same time offering the most musical depth and density. But I just loathe Gil Evans’ backing arrangement, gooey and plodding. Still, three minutes and 21 seconds of Miles bearing down on a tune is not to be sneezed at. On Amazon, iTunes, Spotify.

Chet Baker

Mmmm, I really like this. It’s the most conventional “jazz” performance, with the standard piano/bass/drums backing, taken maybe too fast, and the breaks wander way off the melody. But Chet brings a whole lot of emotion to his playing, and his rounded golden tone is just the thing for this song. On Spotify, Amazon, iTunes. But Chet recorded this a lot, I might not have your fave here.

Patricia Barber

She’s done it twice, once in the studio on A Distortion of Love; that version is mostly instrumental, largely a lovely bass break, then she sings it once straight through, not dressing it up much, which is the right approach. On Spotify, Amazon, iTunes. Then again on Monday Night: Live at the Green Mill Volume 2; I think she overembellishes the vocal line, but then makes up for it with a lovely unfussy deep piano break. It’s not on Amazon but you can buy the music straight from Patricia.

Live Video

And now for my own favorite version of Summertime, which I ran across researching this piece; Ella Fitzgerald in 1968, with a small band playing slow. Oh my goodness. And, well, Billy Stewart on TV, because every day needs a smile in it; and he’s really pretty great; also dig the flashy camera and mike work. I am sure there are brilliant video captures of many of the others I mention, but I’ve already been working on this piece for days and it’s late.

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FaviconSotD: White Room 11 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

Let me tell you a story. In 1968 when I was 13, my then-43-year-old Dad, a Professor of Agriculture, had a business trip to London, which was a white-hot center of the whole Sixties thing. He walked into a record store and asked them to sell him a couple of records for his son, whatever was hot. He came home with two Cream singles: White Room backed with Those Were the Days, and Badge b/w What a Bringdown. Was your Dad ever that cool? Anyhow, that means I’ve loved White Room for fifty years.

I ran off to my room to stick in the little plastic doohickey so I could fit it on my record player turned up to 45RPM; I only had one speaker, but it was big. I was hooked, instantly; the surging chords and melody by Jack Bruce, the lyrics by Pete Brown (Yellow tigers crouched in jungles in her dark eyes), the huge Clapton solo, Ginger Baker thrashing and surging behind it all, the band lurching into and out of 5/4, the buildup after the third verse that says: Guitar solo here! It’s aged well. Eventually when I got a little hipper I bought Wheels of Fire, which remains a fine collection.

Wheels of Fire by Cream

There are many recordings of this, with lots of different arrangements of voices and verses, and on every single one Clapton plays a different guitar solo; some are not as brilliant as others, but that’s his gift to the world, if you’ve ever gone to see him play you’ve heard music custom-created for your pleasure on that evening.

This is entry #101 in the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. As for live video… wow, are there ever a lot; I watched a few and the quality is up and down but the song is just too good to ever fail completely. I’m going to stick with Cream; here’s their 1968 “Farewell Concert” despite the horrid camera work; Jack Bruce’s young voice full of power and flex, Clapton playing through way more effects than in later life for that “psychedelic” sound, Baker making sure the beat never gets too settled. Then again at one of the 2005 “Reunion” shows. Jack is post-addiction, post-cancer, post-liver-transplant, and his voice is not what it once was, but he gives it everything he’s got and I think brings more emotional weight. Clapton’s big break is cleaner, deeper, denser, wiser, but maybe a little less fun.

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FaviconSotD: Allegri’s Miserere 10 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

The work’s title is really just Miserere (“have mercy on us”), but since so many composers have asked for mercy, and since Gregorio Allegri was sort of a one-hit wonder, everybody says it like in the title above. I think that we can each use all the divine mercy we can get, but maybe your need is less than mine. The (Latin, of course) text is Psalm 51. It’s a little over twelve minutes of simple soaring melody, built of a short choral fragment repeated five times, with a variation last time around. It’s got a colorful history.

This Miserere was apparently written in 1638 for the Catholic church and became regarded as what today we’d call “Intellectual Property” of the Vatican; a Pope forbade that it be performed anywhere but in the Sistine Chapel, and also that no copies of the music could leave the Chapel. The story goes (apparently with supporting evidence) that it was stolen by the pre-teen Mozart on tour with his father, who attended a service in the Chapel then went back to the hotel and wrote it down. This is impressive but maybe not as insane as it sounds; remember, it’s a single musical fragment between two and three minutes long, repeated five times with one variation.

Anyhow, the Mozart family passed the music along, and a few centuries later it’s become a choir-concert chestnut. I’ve never heard a live performance in a church; it’s written for two choirs, one of five voices and one of four, singing a considerable distance (physical I mean) apart, against each other and finally in unison.

Tallis Scholars, Allegri and others

There’s a write-up at Medium that offers more chapters in the story, including how it came to have the famous passage where the high voice leaps up and up to an almost-unbearable summit, then descends gracefully like a leaf in the wind. This may have been originally performed by castrati, and these days is conventionally sung by a boys’ choir, because of their ethereal high notes.

The recording I have, and heartily recommend, is a 1980 outing by the Tallis Scholars, with the high part sung by soprano Alison Stamp not a gaggle of boys; her voice rich not ethereal. Here’s the the link on the Gimmell record label site, which in turns links to Hyperion’s site which itself links to the original CD liner notes, full of juicy info about the work and performers.

The recording also has Palestrina’s excellent Papal Mass and is really great end-to-end.

This is entry 100 in the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This music on Amazon, where they want to sell it as eleven segments, so get the album; on iTunes (similar story), and Spotify (album link). Now, as for live video, this has sort of become a trademark of the Oxford Kings College Singers (with boys); here they are. But I recommend Ars Nova Copenhagen, a small adult ensemble; each singer inhabits his or her part entirely. The men get an infinitely-deep Gregorian-chant vibe particularly on the Latin “e” vowel, and the soprano smiles as she leaps to that big high C, a wrinkling of her forehead the only giveaway that she’s going to a place that very few humans can reach. It’s a thrill to watch.

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FaviconSotD: Middle of the Road 9 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

In case nobody noticed, I have a thing for loud-voiced women singing in front of heavy electric-guitar noise. Any list of those has to have Chrissie Hynde near the top. She wrote and sings this, provides some of the guitar noise herself, and throws in a triumphant harmonica break.

Chrissie Hynde

Her voice is unique. She’s from Akron, Ohio and her intonation is pure Middle American White Girl, none of the traditional Southern or Black or British rock-vocal angles. There’s considerable songwriting and arranging skill in setting things up so her not-terribly-high not-terribly-sharp not-terribly-scratchy voice cuts through all the guitar chording. Anyhow, I love the way she sounds

Learning to Crawl is probably the Pretenders’ best album, and you could have a long argument about the best tune on it, because it’s got Chain Gang and My City Was Gone. But Middle of the Road burns brightest, rocks hardest, and then a lot of us can relate to Don't harass me, can't you tell / I'm going home, I'm tired as hell / I'm not the cat I used to be / I got a kid, I'm thirty-three.

I caught the tour that went with the album and it was good but not brilliant. They made a big mistake by having Iggy Pop open — never do that — and maybe it was just an off night, but while they gave strong performances of the big songs, it didn’t feel like they were really bringing it. Except for, during Middle of the Road they lit up, Chrissie went into full howl and then launched her harmonica. Anyhow, in recent years she plays it way better than back when she was only thirty-three; check the video linked below.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify. As for live video, brace yourself for this one; Chrissie is several decades past thirty-three and absolutely blows out the fucking walls; she’s assembled a really sharp version of the band, too; mind you, some members are younger than the song. Wow.

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FaviconSotD: The Boys of Summer 8 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

This was released by Don Henley of the Eagles in 1984, his words to music by Mike Campbell. It’s only a minor member of the California-rock canon but it’s special to me, and I still love to hear it.

Don Henley

Don Henley

At some point in time not too long after 1984, I took a winter trip from Vancouver to Regina to visit my mother, by Greyhound bus since I was kind of broke at the time. That‘s two days in a seat more or less, not an experience I’d ever hope to repeat. I had some way to listen to radio through headphones; The Boys of Summer was hot that winter, and I can’t ever hear it without remembering the bus ride. I’d maneuvered my way into a front-row seat, and not long thereafter discovered a long lame verse in my notebook, from which this stanza:

One bone-white noon:
endless wind
endless ropes of snow twist across the road
the skeletons of a thousand sunlit snakes
laughing under the wheels of the Greyhound.

Anyhow, this is a pure California Rock Croon; good melody, and those words:

But I can see you,
Your brown skin shining in the sun.
You got your hair combed back
And your sunglasses on, baby.
I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone.

I suppose it’s remotely possible that some won’t know where the phrase “boys of summer” comes from; it’s probably best known as the title of a a lovely, lovely baseball book by Roger Kahn from 1972, about Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers, as a team up to their World Series win in 1955, and then afterward as aging men. I read it when it was new and loved it. And that title is from a Dylan Thomas verse: the boys of summer in their ruin. I don’t know whether Don Henley was influenced by Thomas or Kahn.

And I can sneer about Californication all I want, but those lines stick in my ahead, including Out on the road today/I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.

Then in 2003, some band called The Ataris covered the song and their version had a Black Flag sticker on a Cadillac; it’s actually a catchy harder-rock version that still gets played. I heard on my car radio this evening, which is why you’re reading this, a few days later.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. The Henley version on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. The Ataris version on Spotify, iTunes Amazon. Here’s live video of The Eagles in 1994 (music starts at 0:28). And here are the Ataris.

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FaviconSotD: Feel It Still 7 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

Another contemporary — well, a year old — Song of the Day. What happened was, I liked Feel It Still on the radio, and liked that it quoted from Please Mr. Postman, and when I went looking for video to see what Portugal. The Man were like live, the first I found featured a stage surrounded by projected words reading “NO COMPUTERS UP HERE, JUST LIVE INSTRUMENTS”. So I was hooked.

NO COMPUTERS UP HERE (Feel it Still)

I dunno, they’re from Alaska, the singer’s got a crystalline countertenor, they’re not that dynamic live, the vocal arrangements are sharper than any razor. It’s got a beat, you could dance to it. My eleven-year-old daughter can sing along, thinks they’re almost as good as Taylor Swift. The official video has 142,996,379 views as of this writing. It’s short! And that’s absolutely all I know.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on Amazon, Spotify, iTunes. Live video with that NO COMPUTERS opening; check the vocal flourish at 2:04. Bonus: Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes and some other band. Last and best, the Marvelettes live at the Apollo in 1962.

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FaviconSotD: Plutonian Nights 6 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

The Nubians of Plutonia was recorded by Sun Ra and his Arkestra before 1960 and released in 1966, but it’s not really music of either period, it’s of the distant future. Or at least that’s what Sun Ra claimed; mind you, he also claimed he was born on Saturn and that aliens were going to be arriving any minute. Having said that, Plutonian Nights is one of the coolest jazz tracks ever recorded in any galaxy; I’m glad it was this one.

Sun Ra

Sun Ra combined ludicrous costumery and good-humored erudite craziness with strong songwriting, the exceptional talents of saxophonist James Gilmore, and pretty deft keyboard playing when he felt like it. Check out some of the video links below. If you listen to Plutonian Nights and decide you’re a fan, I advise sampling any other Sun Ra before you buy; some of the music is so far outside it’s heading for orbit, which is exactly the intent, only maybe it doesn’t sound like what you might consider music. Personally I find that the thrills make up for the spills, most times at least, but then musically I’m a thrillseeker.

Quoting from a blog I wrote on this piece in 2012: The opening rhythm-section makes weird but effective use of the piano’s very bottom strings, then it segues into a conventional horn vamp, except for Gilmore’s bass-saxophone continuo, mixed loud and front and center, is approximately the funkiest sax part in the history of the universe. Eventually you get some nice breaks, clarinet (I think) and bowed bass, then the funky horns come back to shiver your timbers for a minute or so on the way out.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon. There’s no live video of this tune, but lots of Sun Ra. Here’s an only-mildly deranged pair of songs from 1989. Next, don’t try this at home. As one YouTube comment notes, he misses one note at 0:56 but otherwise perfect. Nifty French TV show (music starts at 1:30, and the first twenty minutes are full-on drum hysteria).

It’s perfectly possible that Sun Ra was laughing at us all those years. But he went to his grave without losing his poker face.

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FaviconSotD: Crazy on You 5 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

Back in the Seventies when dinosaurs walked the earth, Heart was a pretty big one, and unique among hard (occasionally) rock bands in being woman-fronted, by sisters Anne and Nancy Wilson. Crazy on You was their debut single and for my money their best song ever, and one of the better arguments why Rock & Roll at its peak reaches above all other forms of music.

Dreamboat Annie by Heart

While their line-up changed around over the ears it was always Anne on ear-splitting vocals, Nancy on hot acoustic guitar and harmony, and Some Guy on electric. On Dreamboat Annie, the wonderful album containing Crazy on You, That Guy was Roger Fisher, a founding member who sounded fabulous when he was playing behind Anne and Nancy but never really amounted to much thereafter. I only saw Heart once and they’d just fired Some Guy so Nancy was trying to play all the hot electric parts that night and frankly it didn’t work out that well.

Anyhow, Crazy on You is melodic and romantic and electric, with a huge backbeat and a lovely acoustic intro. On the recorded version, Anne Wilson’s lead vocals are just cosmic and, on the sequence beginning I was a willow last night in my dream / I bent down over a clear running stream, go to that place that Rock music, but no other kind, can go.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. As for video, the picture is fuzzy here, but wow, the flame is burning bright. Here’s another take with better picture and electric guitar, and also Nancy’s sharper on the intro; but less divine madness.

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FaviconSotD: Up On Cripple Creek 4 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

This is a chestnut from The Band, written by Robbie Robertson and sung by Levon Helm. It’s from 1969 but sounds like it’s hundreds of years old, part of the underlying fabric of everything. I suppose nearly everyone’s heard it, but it’s worth another listen.

There’s nothing ground-breaking or innovative here, just a straightforward verse/chorus thing like you might have heard around a campfire or in a tavern in my grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents’ time. Well, there is the funky wah-wah on Garth Hudson’s Hammond, and the swirling instrumental polyphony, but really it’s a just a good old-fashioned singalong tune. And Levon Helm sounds like the guy at the next table over, assuming that guy was always flawlessly in tune.

The Band by The Band

And that chorus, it’s so heart-warming: Up on Cripple Creek she sends me / If I spring a leak she mends me / I don’t have to speak she defends me / A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.

Mind you, the narrator’s not a 100% honorable man, I bet his Big Mama doesn’t know about Little Bessie. And I suppose many women would be unhappy at being described as a drunkard’s dream; but we all feel like drunkards sometimes, a few too many drinks of life and just not able to handle it, hoping to be defended and mended, for mercy not justice.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on iTunes Spotify, Amazon. As for live video, you can’t beat the the opening of the Last Waltz.

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FaviconSotD: Nocturne No. 1 Op. 9 3 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

This is the first of Chopin’s Nocturnes, written when he was only about twenty. My love is not specifically for this piece but for all twenty-one Nocturnes, but that’s hours of music and you have to start somewhere. No more beautiful music for piano has ever been written.

Chopin Op. 9, Nocturne No. 1

Eleven years ago I wrote a big long blog piece on the Nocturnes, with pictures and lots of exposition; if you want to find out more, it’s a good place to start and I’m not going to reiterate. However, I did learn a couple of things when I popped up the Wikipedia article on this piece. First, it was dedicated to Mme Camille Pleyel, a pianist who was Chopin’s contemporary and apparently quite a colorful person. Also, #2 in the series of Nocturnes is “regarded as Chopin’s most famous piece”. Sorry, I’m sticking with No. 1. Because it sounds like an invitation. The right thing to do is sit down late at night with an adult beverage and listen to all the Nocturnes end-to-end.

In 2018, I stand by my 2007 recommendation for Arrau’s 1997 recording of the Nocturnes. Which may be unfair; loads of superb pianists have recorded it, nobody could possibly have listened to all of them carefully, and quite likely some will please some sets of ears more than Arrau does mine.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. I can’t find live video of Arrau doing this, but there is no shortage. Here’s a nice relaxed take by Yundi Li. Shut your eyes and lean back; it’s not very long.

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FaviconSotD: Let’s Go Downtown 2 Apr 2018, 3:00 pm

The Song of the Day needs a rocker every so often to keep up the energy level, and it’s never had any Neil Young ever, so let’s solve both problems with Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown, co-written with the late Danny Whitten. A triumphant rock holler carried on arching guitar lines, it’s a centerpiece of Tonight’s the Night, which is a triumph and a tragedy.

Danny Whitten

Danny Whitten

Tonight’s the Night was recorded and released in 1975, but Downtown was recorded live, with Whitten on guitar, in 1970. Whitten fell into the narcotics tarpit and died the same night Neil fired him from the band, as did longtime roadie Bruce Berry, in the months before the record’s release. Their names and spirits inform the record, and Neil is on the record as feeling that, in the rear-view, it’s one of his best. I’ve always agreed, and especially love the title track; but today I feel like rocking out a bit.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links

Spotify playlist. This tune on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon. This live video from 2001 is weirdly slow, so less of a party song, but still effective.

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