Monday, March 15, 2021

Perfect (Cover) Songs - Paris Summer

A lot of great songs are discovered as covers, but we usually become so accustomed to the cover that hearing the original can be jarring. In the case of this song, I had heard the cover first and instantly fell in love with the song and, yet, once I found the original, I was blown away that I hadn't already been deep into Lee Hazelwood's work with Nancy Sinatra. I knew her stuff, and had heard his name, but didn't really know anything beyond that. But I was deeply into The Last Shadow Puppets' first album, Age of the Understatement with it's dark, retro and vaguely cinematic feel. I was hunting for anything that had that sound, from them or anyone else - a sound I've since learned has been put under the genre Baroque Pop. So I dug into the b-sides of this side project from The Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner and Miles Kane, and found a live performance of a song called "Paris Summer" featuring The Kills' Allison Mosshart.

I mean, come on. That's just awesome. The mood, the narrative, the music, the twang, all of it. The back and forth vocals was something The Last Shadow Puppets were making their thing, but here, the way it supports the story of the song, painting a vivid picture of this forbidden, adulterous affair in the city of romance is just breathtaking. And who's better than Allison Mosshart? I had to find the original of this song and I was not disappointed when I did.

Lee Hazelwood's low droning voice can be a little hard to get into, I get that. But it's precisely what I think makes his work with Nancy Sinatra so great. Their voices compliment and contrast each other at the same time. While the original doesn't have the twangy guitar of the Shadow Puppets, the orchestration is deep and dynamic in a way that made me want to dig more into Hazlewood.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Watching the Apocalypse (But Still Dreaming)

I feel a manifesto manifesting in my mind. I'm not sure what to do with it.

the cat who hated people

Here we are, under stay at home orders while COVID-19 reveals the failures most of us already knew existed in our system and in our so-called leaders, from governors on up to the POSOTUS.  And today, we see another black man murdered by police in Minneapolis because nothing stops the virus of hate, not even an actual pandemic. All at the same time, we have an economy on the verge of collapse and a planet that if we're lucky, will not completely kill us with storms and fires of our own making within our lifetimes, but most likely will within our childrens'. And the most disturbing thing of all is that we could fix all of this if we wanted to. But the real killer, the real virus, I've come to realize isn't people or stupidity, it's ideas. Bad ideas. Big bad ideas. And we should vocally point them out.

I could easily start with the worst idea of all - religion. I could start with that and I would be on a path that I think has merit, but I've realized it's not the source. Greed isn't either. These are symptoms. The source is this idea that difference is somehow bad. It's a very simple thing, Utopian even. Difference is what makes us stronger. I sometimes get angrier  at well meaning, non-racist people who go out of their way to try to achieve color-blindness. It's misguided because at the end of the day, there's always something on some level that makes us different, no matter how similar we may be. We may all bleed red, but so what if we didn't? Who gives a flying fuck if your blood were yellow and mine purple? I know that sounds ridiculous to get into, but it's the idea. It's what I think we need get past. The idea that it's all good because we're the same, deep down. It should all be good, because who gives a fuck if we're not the same on the surface, deep down, or between our sweaty ass cheeks. If you're not harming anybody, how does it matter?

As for Utopia and the fixes to everything, I absolutely know that we can do it and in the cases of many things (world hunger, access to health care, homelessness, lack of education, poverty in general, turning back the clock on environmental disaster) we can already solve them. We just don't. We have in our pockets (maybe even in your hand right now) computers, more powerful than those that got us on the moon, that can potentially connect us with every person, every piece of information about anything is at the tip of our fingers for the asking. And instead of using it to unite us, in most cases (not all) it's the opposite. We use it to further divide ourselves. We have the technology to transition to a completely clean global power system, but we don't do it because those controlling clean technology are just as fucking greedy and corrupt as those that control the filthy oil that we've spilled so much blood over. But we could do it. We could end wealth inequality by snapping our fingers and deciding as a whole that wealth, this thing we completely made up, is meaningless and that instead we are just going to take care of each other and it wouldn't end up with everyone living in squalor. We could all live in some version of paradise. 

I'm sure by now of the 3 of you reading this (if I'm lucky) 2 of you are laughing hysterically at the naive moron who thinks we can actually achieve Utopia (and the other one fell asleep). And that's the problem. Because I'm not saying we will achieve it. I'm saying we could if we wanted it. Will it happen? Probably not. Does that mean we should give up and just continue to do nothing but compromise to the big bad ideas? That's what most people do. That's what our supposed good leaders do. Why? Because it's practical? Fuck that. If you're going to lead me, give me a god damned horizon I can look at and want to keep going. If we don't make it, well, we don't fucking make it but what exactly was the loss?

Why do we say it's OK to struggle for some things but not the things that really matter?  Why is it OK for a poor person to have to struggle to "lift themselves up by the bootstraps" but not OK for us to struggle to do the lifting for them? Why is it OK for someone to struggle to put food on their table but not OK for us to struggle to make sure everyone has food on their table. Or even a table. Or a roof. Why is it OK to struggle to "overcome" adversity, but not OK to struggle to eradicate man made adversity all together? Why is it OK to ask that a black man, a Hispanic woman, a gay man, a transsexual woman, or anyone else, lead by example and "break through" barriers, but not OK for us to say, "fuck barriers"? Why? Why do we glorify struggle at all? (OK, that's as close I'll get to some corny speech with swelling music in the background and it's more ramble than speech anyway, so whatever, it's done I stand by it.)

I don't fucking know why. I don't have a god damned clue why. I do know that I've come to realize that I'm not the misanthrope I pretend to be. It's not people that are the problem, exactly, though many people certainly are and fuck them. It's these big bad ideas. Bad ideas such as greed, hate, discrimination, misogyny, etc, etc. But still, I think the biggest one hindering all this is that we don't truly embrace difference enough. And that boils down to one thing: we lack empathy as a whole. And the definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. That's it. Not another who you recognize as being like you in some way. Just another. They don't have to be anything like you. Look, I won't pretend I don't judge people. We all do it. It's part of the human condition. But I'm going to judge on the basis of your ideas, maybe your actions, though that's not always going to be true. You can call it character but that to me is too abstract. There's never a good definition of what character is and it just takes us back to people being different. Bottom line, if you are not harming anyone, I don't have a problem with you. This includes if your politics, the people and ideas you support, do harm to others, then I'm fucking judging you. And it's not my job to teach you empathy. It's not my job to educate you on why your choices are harming people, it's yours to weigh your decisions carefully and if you fucked up, change your mind and make a different choice. It's not my job to change your mind about a god damned thing.  Be better. 

Anyway, rant over. I really have no fucking clue what any of this means, and I know it's all over the place, but it's been on mind in stages for a while (along with this: "I'm the chan-cellor of the dance-felor" [I don't know either]). Do I feel better dumping this onto my keyboard so it electronically seeps into the cracks of the internet? Not really. Wasn't really expecting it to. But I hadn't written in some time and felt like trying again. Oh, and since this is a music blog, here's a playlist I've been putting together. It's more about mood than a message of any kind. Enjoy. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Elvis Costello w/ Larkin Poe at The Broward Center for the Performing Arts: March 18, 2015

This originally appeared on (FKA FDRMX) 5 years ago. It's probably my favorite concert review I've ever written and hands down the best last paragraph. This is still one of the best shows I've ever seen and where I became not just a huge Elvis fan, but a huge Larkin Poe fan.

Larkin Poe

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve usually found I actually have less in common musically with people my age. For the most part, as people age, their taste in music narrows, and in many ways just freezes completely, stuck in whatever period they can nostalgically hold on to as being better than “kids today.” That’s not to say I don’t like old and straight up retro music, because I obviously do, but I don’t just like that, and I don’t dismiss anything new outright.

Still, for years I’ve heard my contemporaries talk about seeing people like Paul McCartney live and how he shames young musicians by playing marathon length shows and demonstrating a complete mastery of his art. I’ve never had the chance to see McCartney live, but I’ve had a small taste of that seeing Dylan a couple of times. But that was just a small taste. Last night, I really came to understand what total mastery of the artform is when I saw Elvis Costello play, mostly by himself, for approximately two and a half hours at Ft. Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

Before I get to Costello, though, we have to talk about Larkin Poe. I’d seen them on the YouTube series Jam in the Van not too long ago and liked what I heard, so I was familiar with them already. Last night, however, it was just the two Lovell sisters, minus bass and drums, which is fine because these two sisters from Atlanta know their shit. Roots music, whether blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, folk, or whatever depends on a certain authenticity to be sure, but it also depends on a knowledge of its history that I don’t think more modern genres necessarily do. That knowledge has to be organic in order to really come across. I know nothing of their upbringing, but judging from their performance last night, I would not be surprised if they learned to play mandolin and lap steel on a wooden porch by watching their elders. There’s just something loose and natural about their style which came accross from the first song they played, “Wade in the Water” and in every original song they played as well, including a stripped down and more gothic version of “Jailbreak” off their first full length album, Kin.

Of course, as much as I was already loving Larkin Poe, they took me over the top with the last song of their opening set. “You’ll have to decide if this is a Cher song or a Nancy Sinatra song,” announced Rebecca Lovell, eliciting an immediate “Oh shit” of excited recognition from me that I’m sure everyone around me must have noticed as I stumbled for my cell phone. What followed was a completely fresh take on one of my favorite songs of all time, the often covered “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”

During the intermission, I met the ladies at the merch table where they signed their album for me and I mentioned that to me it was a Nancy song because her version was better than Cher’s original, but I should have added that the version I’d just heard was up there with Nancy’s because they brought something completely new to the table by making this story of a love gone as bad as possible into a true southern gothic tale and really all their own while not losing the original’s vision. There’s just a certain fire that they brought to out that came through with the lap steel.

Before the show and during intermission, on the stage was a giant TV playing Elvis Costello videos. So when Elvis just matter of factly walked on stage with little warning, he approached the mic and said “well, you’ve heard all the hits, so I guess you can just go home now” and then unceremoniously started playing “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” Right off what stood out in this solo performance was that there was no pretension about it. He was just going to play and that’s that. Also, he was going to be heard, and everyone there understood that.

I’ve always liked Elvis in a more distant way. I’ve never really dug deep into his catalog because, as he pointed out at one point last night, at this point there are over 500 songs. That’s intimidating to get into if you’re exploring. The good news is, as of last night, it’s clear to me that his mastery of the craft goes well beyond the songs I was already familiar with. I finally really understand what the big deal is.

How often have you been to a show where a performer tries to do something a little quieter than normal only to be drowned out by talking or inappropriate cheering (or worse, heckling) followed by angry shushing from the rest of the crowd? Sometimes the performer will practically have to plead with people to just shut up for one damn second because this could be special damn it!

I experienced the complete opposite of this several times during this show. The first one hit me in the face with it’s power. At the end of “Accidents Will Happen” he stepped back from the mic, played more quietly on the acoustic guitar and sang with no amplification for a few verses. And you could hear every bit of it. There was never a moment of transition to being quiet. It just happened and everyone just understood because he wasn’t asking. He was just doing it and he is Elvis so you’re going to listen, is the feeling I got. There was something very powerful about the way this happened and it happened several more times throughout the night.

For most of the show, Elvis Costello played one guitar or another, acoustic or electric and I was wowed by how underrated he is as a guitar player. He’s not just playing chords for the sake of rhythm, it’s much more complex than that. But his first journey over to the piano resulted in the most clear indication of two other things about Elvis: his songwriting and the overwhelming beauty of his voice. He really is a complete songwriter in the sense that every note, every pause, every flourish is there to support a lyric or an idea.

This is when he played “Shipbuilding,” a song I was familiar with, but never loved or even liked that much, to be honest. But, hearing it this way, just piano and vocals, stripped down, highlighted the complexity and emotion of the song and the performance showcased the power, range, control and genuine feeling that Elvis radiates with every note he sings. His vibrato particularly is amazing to hear live. He’s been accused of oversinging and I’m sure that’s true in a lot of his recorded work, but last night, there was nothing over about it. It was right on and I’m still impressed.

So, there were three encores. The first one was with Larkin Poe and felt like a good ole fashioned hootenanny with the lap steel, mandolin and harmonies. This set ended with the mandatory and uplifting “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a song he didn’t write but did make famous. Like most people I was sure this was it, but suddenly, Elvis just appeared inside that giant TV and started playing again. At several points throughout the night people yelled out requests. I kept hearing calls for “I Want You,” which I would have loved to hear in a stripped down version like this, but that wasn’t to be.

The other most requested song was “Allison” and this is when it came. What hit me at this point, is that as much I had wanted to to hear this song, and as great as the song is, I can understand why he might have skipped it and it would have been ok. There just wasn’t much more to do with the song in the way that he did with some of the others he played earlier in the night. It was a good performance and I’m glad he played it, but I understand now why the first time someone had yelled it out the response was a sarcastic “I love a man with an imagination.”

The second encore ended with a song that I think perfectly distills everything that happened that night, “Radio Soul,” which is an early version of his hit “Radio, Radio.” In this early version, it’s a love song to radio, but it can more broadly be said to be about music and the lines “but everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed but for myself I don’t work too much least not since I’ve been told I could sail away to the songs that play upon that radio soul,” could have closed the night. But, of course, they didn’t. There was one more encore, which started with Elvis on piano doing a somewhat creepy take on the standard “Side by Side,” before he called Larkin Poe back out for two more songs.

All around me everyone was impressed with how much music we had just heard. All told, Elvis played 32 songs for about 2 and a half hours. It’s the longest I’ve ever seen anyone play. The theater had senior citizens who volunteer as ushers and as I was walking out I overheard one of them saying to another “I kept thinking it was over but every time he just picked up that god damned guitar again.” So, in summary, at 61 years old, playing mostly acoustic songs by himself on stage, many of them ballads, some country and at least one standard, Elvis Costello is still pissing off old people. Punk’s not dead.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Perfect Songs - Manna

This originally appeared over (formerly FDRMX) back in December of 2014. At the time, I was beyond thrilled because Tanya Donelly commented on it. A week later, my dog, Kane, died and I was devastated, but this song had laid some kind of groundwork for me to deal with it. Over there it was filed under Single Review, even though it wasn't a single. Here, I place it back in it's proper place as a Perfect Song.

I got to see Ms. Donelly with Belly last year in Brooklyn, and while I didn't get to hear this song live, it was still moving to finally get to hear her live, in person and at close range after all the years of wanting to.

Lovesongs for Underdogs

Emotional responses to music do not depend on having any understanding of what the song is supposed to be about. In many cases it can happen even if you don’t understand the language at all and there are instrumentals that can evoke very specific feelings. Sometimes we do understand the language but the lyrics are just cryptic enough to somehow put you in a very vivid, if mysterious frame of mind. You won’t know what the original intent of the song is, but it won’t matter, and really it hardly ever does. When art manages to connect with something universal, while doing something that is likely very specific, it’s breathtaking, but when it does this and maintains a certain air of mystery that allows you to make it wholly your own, we’re in a transcendent space altogether. For me, a clear example of this is Tanya Donelly’s “Manna” off her first solo album, Lovesongs for Underdogs.

I fell in love with this song the instant I heard it, 17 years ago. It opens with a quiet whistling wind like sound that leads to a simple acoustic guitar chord progression, complete with fret noise that seems to suggests weariness. The song instantly transports me to another room and though I’m not entirely sure what is in that room, I know it’s white and there is a large open window with white lace drapes, letting the light shine through. And although the room is comfortable and providing some sort of relief, there’s a sense of sadness in it, or perhaps just melancholy. It might be grief. But tt might not be. It might just be intense love that somehow makes one weep at the sheer beauty of life. Either way, Tanya says she is “here now and I’m staying put, for reasons, my reasons” and I’m moved by her voice and presence. And she never tells us her reasons, which only helps this song become yours as you fill in your own reasons. Is this a deathbed she’s sitting next to? If so, whose? I don’t know, but it affects me in a very deep way that I cannot explain.

Once the chorus kicked in that first time I heard this song, and every time since, I was blasted with nostalgia that I could not put my finger on but also could not deny or avoid in any way. That marching snare drum and cello and the melody of Tanya’s angelic voice reminded me of something from my childhood. Over the years I’ve determined that it somehow brings to mind an artist my parents used to play when I was a kid, Demis Roussos. But try as I might, there’s no one specific song that I can say directly connects. It could be several, from “Goodbye My Love, Goodbye” to “Morir Al Lado De Mi Amor” or even his cover of Edith Piaf’s “Hymne a L’amour.” Interestingly, each one of those could also relate to “Manna” thematically, but I would not have known that from hearing them as a child.

I’ve always leaned towards thinking this song was about someone who comes to visit a dying loved one. Perhaps that’s because I took the lyric “and when I hold you like tomorrow you might die, well, that’s because you might, but I’m here now and I’m staying put for reasons my heart knows” literally. But over the years, I’ve also come to appreciate the preciousness of life to the point that I think I understand that we are always dying and now I think that’s what the song is about. And while that may be morbid, it’s also quite beautiful and touching to accept it so that you can fully love someone in the moment. What’s truly amazing to me is that while that idea comes through so clearly, there are verses about a “milky whiteness” that leave me scratching my head. Could the song be about trying to conceive a child? It’s likely this song is about something very specific in Tanya’s life, but I couldn’t care less to pry into what’s behind it because It’s now about so much more than what she might have intended that I think she succeeded, regardless. It’s a perfect song.