Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Francis Dunnery “Good Life”

Call it the 3rd Act Problem.

I read The AV Club pretty regularly, and they had a pretty interesting piece, where they asked the writers on the site to name a movie that was great for the first two-thirds, but blew it in the final stretch.

Some of the films failed because they switched tone, or had an improbable or cloying plot twist. For whatever reason, the film, which had been on it’s way to becoming a fave, fell flat.

I don’t think “Good Life” falls flat. I think it’s a great song, through and through. But I can’t quite connect, because of a 3rd Act problem.

I’m with the song in the first verse. It’s a break-up song, and I really like the gentle, realistic scene it portrays. It’s not a “fuck you you fucking Fuck” break-up tune. He simply says “I’m not meant for you and you’re not meant for me.” And he wishes her happiness and good relationships going forward.

That’s me. I worked hard to burn few bridges in my life. And I have rarely heard that reflected in song.

So in the middle of "Good Life," he gets married to someone, but he tells his old girl that there’s someone for her, and she’ll be okay.

I’m still with him. I wish nothing but the best for the people of my past.

But here comes the 3rd Act.

Now she’s married with children, and suddenly he’s overcome with regret, and suddenly he’s calling her on the phone. He still wishes her a good life, but the strummy tone of the song, goes from sweet and wistful, to smelling a little to much like self-pity. He wants her back, but it's too late.

And while that's a real scene for many folks---wanting the girl back---I'm happy to say that I don't have any regrets. I'm married and have kids and have been happy to live in the universe of the second verse.

This is a song that could potentially remind me of a number of ex’s, but I can’t claim it. It belongs to Francis. He takes it back in the 3rd Act.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Those Darlins “Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian”

There is no shortage of pitfalls, when you’re going to cover an iconic artist’s song.

You hear it on American Idol all the time. The judges will complain that the singer just did an impersonation of the artist, hewing too closely to the original version.

So perhaps the hardest challenge, is to record a cover of a funny song.

If the entertainment value of the song is in the jokes, then it is really difficult to recreate the comic timing, without just doing the song the way the original artist did it.

I think it’s why artists like Paul Westerberg, Ben Folds and John Prine are rarely/poorly covered, unless the interpreter tackles one of their more somber tunes.

I mean, I can tell a joke that is Seinfeldian, or Carlinian (yeah, I’m making up words) in style, but if I just repeat their jokes, the impact is muted, and therefore moot.

Those Darlins have the right idea, they have fun with Prine’s song. That’s the best you can do. You just can’t tell someone else’s joke.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bettye Lavette “The Battle Of Bettye Lavette”

This song is better than a motivational speaker. It’s Bettye Lavette’s story.

Forty years after her first success, she was still toiling away, true success still seeming to be around the next bend. Most of us would have shelved that dream many miles back. But she believed in her talent, and she just wasn’t willing to quit.

Bettye Lavette is an interpreter of other people’s song, she’s not a songwriter.

But her producer noted, rightly, that she has such a strong voice (“voice,” as in point of view) that she should really tell her own story, in song form. The lyrics say it all.

If you feel like giving up, I can’t blame you. It’s hard out there. But just remember this Grandmother, who knew what she had, and wasn’t going to let any setback deter her from her goal.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Duran Duran "Rio"

I'm going to share a terrible, shocking secret. When I tell people this, they really have trouble wrapping their head around it. Maybe you should sit down.

I have never been to Nantucket.

"But, but . . . it's right there! Next to the Vineyard! You can practically sneeze on it!"

Yes. It is the neighboring Island to Martha's Vineyard, but it typifies the old New England saying "Can't get theah from heah."

In the summer, there is only one boat per day between the Islands, and I believe the round-trip starts on Nantucket. So the most realistic way to get from the Vineyard to Nantucket, is to take the Steamship from the Vineyard to Woods Hole, drive an hour to Hyannis, and take the ferry from Hyannis to Nantucket. Then do the reverse to get home. It's the long way, and it eats up a huge part of the day. So I've never gotten around to doing it.

Until now.

My wife has family visiting the Cape, so we are going to Nantucket!

It'll be my first real pleasure cruise of the summer (I don't count SSA trips from the Vineyard to the Mainland; that's commuting to me).

And simply, stupidly, anytime I'm on a boat, I am compelled to sing "Rio." It's Pavlovian. I can't help myself. I can't stop it. I'm sure this has something to do with it.

But hey, I'm going to Nantucket, so I don't really mind it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ugly Casanova "Here's To Now"

Some people just don't want to give up on their cover story, despite the fact that the audience stopped believing long, long ago.

Joaquin Phoenix insists that he's giving up acting to become a rapper, despite that fact that everyone knows he's just making a faux-documentary.

Ricky Martin didn't want to give up saying that he wasn't gay, despite the fact that everyone knew he was.

And Isaac Brock doesn't want to give up his "Edgar Graham" story, despite the fact that no one really believes Graham exists.

Brock is the frontman of Modest Mouse, and some 10 years ago, he claimed to have been sought out by one Edgar Graham, who gave him some demos. Brock recorded Graham's songs under the "Ugly Casanova" moniker.

Sure, it adds a layer of mystery, to involve a shadowy figure who delivers these songs. And it forces the critics to not compare Ugly Casanova to Modest Mouse so directly.

But since the story wasn't believable the first time around, why bother to revive it nearly a decade after the last Ugly Casanova record? Were people really wondering all that time what became of Graham? Is there really a need for such an elaborate press release?

We're all adults here. Can't we just enjoy the music?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

R.E.M. "So, Central Rain"

My friend Ross posts about music, on this cool Facebook page called "Mythic Radio." On Tuesday, he wrote about R.E.M.'s "So. Central Rain" and asked "Who else remembers EXACTLY where they were when they first heard" the song. And as part of the post, he put up an early R.E.M. appearance on David Letterman, when the song was so new it didn't even have a name yet.

I can't say that I exactly remember where I was when I first heard the song, but I know where I was, the first time I saw that Letterman performance. I was living a few floors below Ross.

UMass, 1988. The beginning of sophomore year in McNamara Hall.

I'd already established a small group of friends on the first floor of the dorm, but we were all intrigued by our new neighbor. Brett was a transfer student from Georgia, and he had a way about him. A bit odd, quietly brilliant, perceptively sensitive, and whole lot of hilarious, when he wanted to be.

He, like several of the others in the group, played guitar. And introduced us to indie bands that hadn't crossed our path yet.

Being from Georgia, he was an R.E.M. fan.

I already owned a copy of "Document," but Brett filled in the backstory of the previous R.E.M. albums. It was he who told me about the famous Letterman appearance. And it was in our common/TV area, that I first saw it, on a warbly videotape. Probably a tape of a tape.

The musicians in the group set about learning several R.E.M. tunes, that were performed and perfected, incessantly.

If the noise got to be a little much, or a little late, a Resident Assistant would stick his or her head in, and tell us to keep it down.

Ross was an R.A. and was known to be tough, but for some reason (simpatico musical tastes?), he never busted us.

On the flip side was Holly the R.A., who was as sweet as could be, and had a soft, maternal spot for our group. But perhaps because she was our friend, she felt, at least on that one particular night, like she couldn't let us slide.

The gang was running through "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" for probably the Four Hundredth time in two hours. Holly had already asked us a couple of times to keep it down, which we probably honored for about 2 seconds, before cranking things back up.

This final time she came in, all her reserve of resolve pooled, and she did what she had to do. She shut us down for the night.

It's no fun being the bad guy, but Holly played the heavy, and then left us to think about the position we'd put her in.

And here's what I think of, when I hear "So. Central Rain."

About 20 minutes later, at Brett's urging, I was sent to the front door of the R.A. office where Holly had retreated. I instructed her to look out her back door.

Positioned there were the rest of the guys, Brett strumming his acoustic guitar, all of them singing, quietly, just the chorus to the song:

"We're sorry. Sorry. Sorry . . . "

It was quietly brilliant, hilarious, sensitive and odd. And very very memorable.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lori McKenna "Leaving This Life"

Despite what you might have gleaned from previous posts, I actually don't cry at songs all that often.

And if I do, it's because:

a) I associate the song with a particular time and place that's sad. Maybe was a song an old girlfriend and I used to listen to, or was a tune that my late sister loved.

Or b) I find something familiar and personal in the lyrics, that touches an emotional chord that is real to me, like the tunes mentioned in those previous posts.

What's extremely rare, is for me to hear a song on the radio, a song I've never heard before, and find myself sobbing.

I was in the car, driving up the Woods Hole Road away from the Steamship Authority, flipping through the radio dial. (Hey, just because I work for mvy, doesn't mean I can't listen to what other stations are doing)

I recognized the voice in a few lines, as Lori McKenna. But it wasn't a track that I was familiar with.

Lori lost her Mom when she was just a child. I didn't know that at the time I heard the song, but I didn't really need to have anyone tell me. The lyrics are just so unbelievably real and raw, how could you not connect to it on a powerful level?

It really was breathtaking, to have something that I had never heard before, and had no association with, hit me so hard. And that's when you know, the writer is doing something right.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Joe Bonamassa "Quarryman's Lament"

Sometime, I should probably write a whole week's worth of entries about songs that have been ruined for me, by something having nothing to do with the song itself.

When I first played Joe Bonamassa's "Quarryman's Lament" for Laurel and Barbara and other friends on the mvyradio staff, well they all raved.

Maybe it is a good track, but unfortunately, I can't take any song with a flute solo seriously. Not since seeing this scene from "Anchorman."

Now listen to Joe Bonamassa, and try to not just laugh at how pretentious the flute sounds.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The B-52s “Planet Claire”

They can’t all be happy memories, right?

Not that this is a sad one. Just an uneasy one.

I think unease comes from the mix of emotions and images.

This song takes me to a very specific place and time: Freshman year of college.

It’s a pretty incredible time. You experience this explosion of freedom, new friends, new situations, new possibilities. A giddiness accompanies nearly every situation.

Every Friday that fall, I’d meet up in the dorm room of one particular friend, before hitting a party or whatever. We’d meet in this particular friend’s room, because he was always the last to be ready to go out.

If we planned to go out at 9, let’s say, then I and the other guys would show up at, you know, 9ish. And he’s just be getting out of the shower.

He’d roll into the room, wrapped in a towel, and put on this favorite record, The B-52s debut album. And then he’d get dressed.

So if you ask me what I feel when I hear this song, I’ll tell you that it immediately conjures up feelings of excitement and anticipation, knowing that in an hour or so, we’d be drinking and mingling and talking to pretty, pretty co-eds.

But if you ask me what I see when I hear this song, well, my mind’s eye, unfortunately, goes straight to my friend, dropping the towel, dancing and dressing while singing “Planet Claire.”

And there’s the unease. The emotion and the image don’t match, and my brain can’t reconcile the two.

Best to hit forward on the disc player. Everyone is dressed by track #2.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Jace Everett "Bad Things"

Can you sing the theme song to “Facts Of Life”? How about “Welcome Back, Kotter”?

If I tell you that “The world don’t move to the beat of just one drum . . .” or if I ask you “Wouldn’t you like to get away?” would you be able to complete the 1980s TV Theme song?

How about the theme to the Tom Hanks/Peter Scolari show “Bosom Buddies”? Do you remember that one?

That one stuck out like a sore thumb (which was hard to do in the gaudy, day-glo 80s). Why? Because the “Bosom Buddies” theme song was Billy Joel’s “My Life.”

Of course, in 1981, it was unthinkable that a legitimate recording artist like Billy Joel would record some crappy TV Sitcom theme. And he certainly wouldn’t allow one of his hits to be befouled in such a scenario.

And anyway, back in that era, there were guys who did that as a career. Artists (Hacks!) who crafted songs for every show. The first 60 seconds of a show were a chance to, in song, give a little exposition, run some credits and build excitement for the wacky hi-jinks about to ensue.

Times have changed. Original theme are rare, and if a show does have one, the songs are either kitschy or ironic. Many TV shows don’t even bother, or at the very least just use an instrumental.

But the biggest ideological shift, is to view the theme song as a money-making opportunity.

Where Billy Joel wouldn’t even consider using “My Life,” for a show in the 1980s, now The Who reaps the major financial rewards of licensing three of their songs to the CSI franchise.

And it works even better for unknown and up-and-coming artists.

You’ve probably already forgotten about the band The Refreshments, and their wonderful 1996 alterna-pop hit “Banditos.” But the mailbox money will arrive by post to their home, every month, because they provided a tune to be used as the theme to “King Of The Hill.”

Bands that would take years to turn a profit solely through selling CDs, are quickly in the black when they license a song for TV.

Which brings us to today’s song. Would you have any idea who Jace Everett is, if he didn’t provide the theme to a hit show like “True Blood”? Not bloody likely.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Little Feat “Dixie Chicken”

You can go on and on all you want about the nobility of artistic pursuits, and yes, I suppose you are right, there is something noble about the “pursuit.” But let’s face it, the artistic life is a daily slog against indignity upon indignity.

You could be the Juliard trained actor, who becomes typecast as “that guy in the talking Hot Dog commercial.”

Or the brilliant but undiscovered novelist who’s paying off his English degree, writing obituaries for the newspaper.

Or the budding fashion designer, who’s hired to make a line of sweatpants.

Sometimes, as creative and as talented as you might be, you will need to use your talents in the most common, unimaginative way possible, to be able to pay the bills.

Which is how a musician ends up at a piano bar.

Sure, I bet he took years of music lessons, spent countless hours practicing, played in bands, wrote original music, and made demo tapes, propelled by a dream of being a recording artist or a sessions man or a composer.

Instead, he was in a Key West bar, taking requests for Jimmy Buffett cover after Jimmy Buffett cover after Jimmy Buffett cover.

I watched him working for every dollar, trying find some life in the songs he’d probably sung a million times, probably sang every day, probably weren’t intended to be played as solo piano songs (“Fins”? I think not).

And the requests were crushingly banal. “Piano Man.” “Margaritaville.” “The Pina Colada Song.” And the dispiriting (ignored) requests for “Freebird.”

I don’t want to sound like my idea is the most original in the world either, but I will tell you that the look on his face was worth the five bucks I put in his jar, before he ever played a note of “Dixie Chicken.”

Clearly, it was a respite from the predictable requests of the day. Clearly he loved Little Feat. And clearly, he was going to wring every note out of this favored request.

Little Feat can stretch out a song, and this guy was going to take full advantage of that leeway. He sang with gusto. He wandered down noodling musical alleyways, circling back to the melody before he had fully lost the crowd (most of whom didn’t likely know the song anyway). He made the most of his mini-vacation, before returning to his reality of having to play “Your Song” for the hundred-thousandth time.

But hey, when you have given your life to artistic pursuits, five dollars worth of dignity is more than enough to carry you through to the next day.

Check out this awesome live TV appearance, featuring Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Jesse Winchester!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Gogel Bordello "Pala Tute"

Today, I'll put the song clip at the beginning of the post. I want you to listen to the track before you go any further.

Gogol Bordello is a New York City based band, led by Eugene Hutz, a Ukrainian refugee who incorporates Gypsy, Punk and wild, wild energy into Eastern European flavored music. The band's major label debut, Transcontinental Hustle, was produced by ultra-hip Rick Rubin.

So know you know a little, you've heard a little.

If I told you that this band recently collaborated with a major artist, who would you guess that collaborator to be?

I pitched this around the office, and got some sensible guesses: David Byrne. Paul Simon. Dave Matthews. They are all known to embrace world music and esoteric sounds.

But maybe our view is too limited.

Check out this video
, featuring a major, major music star, melds her song with Gogol Bordello's song.

We want to put artists (like the one in the video) is a box. She makes pop music and only pop music. And therefore, she can only like pop music.

But why wouldn't she like Gogol Bordello? None of us is so rigid that we only like one style of music, for instance Pop songs, but not Country or Blues or Hip Hop or Eastern European Gypsy Punk Rock.

So if you have written this artist off as one thing, remember, none of us is just one thing.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ben Folds Five “Steven’s Last Night In Town”

“Steven’s Last Night In Town” is a song about a guy who throws a party for himself on the eve of his announced departure, only to not actually leave town. He repeats this a number of times. “Last week it was funny, now the joke’s wearing thin.”

I had a friend who had this same lack of self-awareness.

He’d announce his plan to change careers, leave town, or geez, go get something to eat. And shortly after the pronouncement left his lips, it seemed to cease to exist.

You’d see him a few days later, and ask him if he did that thing he so emphatically said he was going to do, and he’d look at you blankly, as if hearing it for the first time.

He’s a sincere guy. I don’t think he was ever bragging or bullshitting. In the moment, I think he truly believed whatever he was saying. But then it was said, and Poof . . .

I hesitated writing this post, in case he reads it. But the thing is, I know he likes the song “Steven’s Last Night In Town.” And in a non-ironic way. I think he sees Steven as ridiculous, but doesn’t see himself in the song.

And if he doesn’t see himself in the song, he wouldn’t see himself in the post. Right.

So yeah, this post is not about you.

Ben tells the real story of Steven

Friday, June 11, 2010

Bruce Springsteen "London Calling"

I had a cool experience yesterday. I listened to the radio. That happens more rarely than you might think.

I was off work for the day, taking care of business with the family on the Cape. We were early for an appointment, so we took a swing by Trader Joe's. My wife and daughter went inside. I stayed in the car with the sleeping infant boy.

I flipped on mvyradio and caught Alison, who was filling in for Barbara.

Alison was her usual engaging self, bringing The Lunch Hour to life, and because I'd hadn't been in work-mode at all that day, I really just listened to her and the music, not as a co-worker or boss or Music Director. I just listened and enjoyed and absorbed what I was hearing.

On the What's New For Lunch menu was a new live Bruce Springsteen version of "London Calling," and just the mention of it got me excited.

I love The Clash. I love Bruce Springsteen. It seemed like a great match of song and singer and spirit.

But listening, not through headphones, or the big studio speakers, or as part of my regular going-through-a-stack-of-cds-to-sample-songs-for-broadcast, but just in my own car, in a bustling parking lot, waiting for my wife to come back with pop tarts and avocados, I experienced the song as a fan. And I wasn't won over.

Did my fandom build up too much expectation? Or, is this a case of It-Looks-Good-On-Paper? Either way, on first listen it didn't hook me.

If I had been listening as a programmer, I'd be muting my own reaction, trying to listen to it instead as someone who might really want to hear Bruce Springsteen covering The Clash, wondering whom I'd please if I played the song on my show. Instead, I was the audience, not concerned about anyone's reaction to the song but my own. And that guy, wasn't crazy about the experience.

So I now think I'm in the position of having Real Me exerting a prejudice on Professional Me.

As always, I turn to you. What do you think? Good version? Not quite there? Merits a few plays? Should be in heavy rotation? Joe Strummer is turning over in his grave? Let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Band “The Weight”

Here’s how to tell if you are a really good singer. Like, better than just an In-The-Shower or Car-Windows-Rolled-Up enthusiastic yelper.

Find a song that has two- or three-part harmony. Indigo Girls or Crosby Stills and Nash songs are good ones to practice on, because each singer’s voice is relatively easy to discern.

Pick one of the lines, melody or harmony, and sing the song the whole way through, sticking to that one part.

Then sing it again, choosing a different melody/harmony line and see if you can stick with that, all the way through, without defaulting to the first line, or jumping between lines.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then, I’m sorry to say, you’re not a really good singer. Sure, I bet you can even hold a tune, but you don’t have “ears.”

And even if you can hear what I’m talking about, for most of us, actually doing it is incredibly difficult.

I remember being at a party, a going away party for me, back in my early 20s. I was with my friends Teddy and Jason, both of whom would qualify as good singers (by this post’s definition). And I was one of those people who thought he was a good singer.

Until we sang “The Weight.”

It was late. We’d been drinking. Teddy had his guitar out, and was running through some fun, sing-a-long songs. Cat Stevens. Jimmy Buffett. “Sexy Sadie.”

And when he busted out “The Weight” it seemed perfect for the after midnight, slightly sloppy vibe.

You’re familiar with the denouement of the chorus . . . it’s that part that goes “And! . . . And! . . . And! You put the load right on me.” Each “And” is sung by a different voice, in a progressively higher note. Notes 1, 2 and 3.

We’d get to the chorus, and Teddy, who was leading, would sing the 1. I was supposed to sing the 2 and Jason was supposed to sing the 3.

And every time we’d try it, Teddy would sing the 1, and I would go straight to the 3, leaving Jason to backtrack, go down a note and sing the 2.

Afterwards, Jason said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard it sung that way before.”

Truth is, I just couldn’t find the note. Not that I was out of tune. I hit the 3 just fine. But I could only follow the prevailing melody line, not my assigned harmony.

It’s hard. Can you sing “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” but only the John part? Or “Falling Slowly,” sticking only to the Marketa Irglova line? Or “Uncle John’s Band” doing only Bob Weir? I’d like to say I can, but I can’t.

I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t sing if you want to sing. I think any expression of musical joy, is beautiful.

But if you are wondering if you are a good singer, well, see if you can carry The Weight.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Dave Barnes "Little Lies"

My Dad was a high school math teacher. Every Sunday morning, he would get up early, and go to the donut shop. It was a little treat for him, and us all, for a long week behind, and a long week ahead. A consistent bright spot.

One Sunday he came home hoppin' mad. It became a story he'd repeat to us, and to his math classes for years to come.

In the weeks previous, he had picked up a dozen donuts, which was too much for the family. There were only five people in our house, so even if we ate a couple of piece, we always ended up throwing donuts away (yes, we were donut-snobs--we'd never eat a day-old donut).

Back in the day, you could get a dozen donuts for a dollar. But Dad only wanted 10 donuts. He didn't want to buy donuts we were just going to throw away.

The kid behind the counter, who happened to be a student of Dad's, told him that his 10 donuts would cost a dollar-fifty, because individual donuts cost 15 cents each.

Dad spent 15 minutes arguing with the exasperated kid (who I'm sure didn't want a math lesson on a weekend), trying to get his student to explain how buying 2 fewer donuts could cost 50 cents more.

The kid finally just said, "Mr. Finn, do you want the donuts or not?"

I tell you this story, in relation to today's song and album.

If you buy 8 single tracks on Dave Barnes' "What We Want We Get" disc, from Amazon, it'll cost you $7.92 (at .99 per track).

But if you buy the WHOLE album, all 10 tracks, from Amazon, it'll cost you $3.99.


Yeah, for today only Amazon has the album for $3.99. It's a special promotion.

Don't try to explain it to my Dad.

By the way, if you click through the link below and buy the album, or buy anything from Amazon, you'll be helping mvyradio. We get a referral fee (about 4 cents on the dollar) on whatever you spend on Amazon, when you click through the link. Doesn't cost you anything, but it helps us out a little.

And if you DO buy the album, let me know what you think. "Little Lies" is one of those "on the bubble" songs for us. We may add it into rotation, we may not. Your opinion counts.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

James “Laid”

The normal trajectory of a successful song’s popularity goes something like this:

--It gains a few early supporters

--It becomes a hit in its genre (alternative, R&B, country, etc)

--It crosses over and becomes mass appeal, it’s everywhere, completely inescapable for a season

--The song burns out and drops to the background

And this process, at most, takes about a year. From there, it remains familiar for years to come, occasionally spiking in popularity as new generations discover it (or some cover version).

It’s a pretty simple, rarely deviated from, graph. It trends up sharply, within the first year, and gradually slopes off over a period of years. And this particular rate of popularity is pretty unique to music.

Think about other art forms. Their trajectories can be quite different.

Paintings might take years, or decades, or centuries before they become a cultural phenomenon. Van Gogh was derided in his lifetime; now he’s one of humanity’s most cherished artists.

Books, similarly, can sit on a shelf for years before being discovered.

Meanwhile, Fashion goes in and out of, well, fashion.

And movies can follow the same pattern as music, or they can find a greater following year after year. Neither “The Wizard Of Oz” nor “It’s A Wonderful Life” were big hits in their day, but built a following over time.

Songs just don’t usually do that.

So how did a song, a risqué one at that, pull off such a trick?

James released the song “Laid” back in 1994. It was the second single off a well-received record by the British band. It did fine on the alternative charts. But it wasn’t a huge phenomenon or anything.

So far, the trajectory is just as it should be. The song caught on, become popular, and then started to fade.

But here’s the weird thing, “Laid” stubbornly refused to leave the public consciousness.

Five years after it was released, you could walk into any pub in Boston that catered to the college/post-collegiate crowd, and “Laid” would be on the jukebox. And when it got played, you’d hear the whole bar singing.

Ten years after it was released, you could walk into any pub in Boston, and find the same experience.

Fifteen years later, you’d find the same thing.

Improbably, “Laid” seemed to enjoy more popularity as the years went on.

Without the first-year-ubiquity that is usually necessary to lodge a song in our collective cultural brain, it just isn’t likely for a tune to become a pub sing-a-long song. And yet, “Laid” defied the odds, perhaps because of the sexual content, perhaps because it was deserving, perhaps just because of a quirk. Who knows? But it remains a staple of the P.A. system of gathering places everywhere.

The musical equivalent of Van Gogh? Probably not. But it’s a great song to share a pint with.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Michael Franti “Sound Of Sunshine”

What is Michael Franti doing, do you think?

We all have our opinion of who an artist is, and what they should sound like. And when an artist decides to defy that definition, we have to ask (often with some annoyance), What are they doing?

It’s harder for artists than you think. For every U2 fan open to a band that tries to forward their sound every couple of records, there’s a Bruce Springsteen fan who asks with each new Boss release, “When is he going to make another album that sounds like ‘Born To Run’?” Elvis Costello can dabble in country and classical and opera, without too much fan repercussion. But Eric Clapton better not even think about it.

So, being aware that my questioning is typical fan prejudice, What do you think Michael Franti is doing?

Franti’s earliest material, with the outfit Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, was decidedly, overtly political. You don’t cover "California Uber Alles" without a revolutionary ax to grind. “Television, Drug Of The Nation” was one of the most scathing songs of its era.

In the late 90s/early 2000s, Franti downplayed the anger, but still focused on social political causes, tackling HIV, poverty and the racial divide, with thoughtfulness.

So there was evolution, but it still a surprise to hear last year’s “Say Hey,” which, on the surface, seemed like nothing but a party song, a crossover hit, a stab at commercialism.

Franti has followed it up with this year’s “Sound Of Sunshine.” And the cynic in me wondered if he’d abandoned his principles, if he’d given up on creating social change through the power of music.

But I started thinking about this documentary he made a few years ago, called “I Know I’m Not Alone.”

In it, he traveled to the Middle East to talk to Muslims and Jews about their views of each other, and of peace.

Noting that there was a language divide between the cultures and communities he was talking to, he dug around, looking for a single word, most of the folks he’d cross paths with, would recognize, that had a positive meaning. He wrote this one word song, “Habibe” (it roughly means “sweetheart”) and performed it, inspiring the Jews and the Muslims and the Christians and the white people and the black people and the old and the young and the angry and the resigned to sing along wherever he went.

And so I go back to “Sound Of Sunshine,” and the idealist in me wonders---did he have a change, not of heart but of focus, on his politics? Has he given himself, fully, over to the notion that maybe he can create the social change he dreams of, not by castigating, but by uniting?

Does talking about love, does producing a song so joyous that people can’t resist coming together . . . does that make more of a real world difference that 100 songs about California Governors?

Let the cynic in you consider Bob Marley, who is perhaps most successfully, of any artist in our lifetime, motivated people to address their political concerns though his music. Let the cynic ask the next person you see, “Quick. Name a Bob Marley song.”

Did they say “Them Belly Full”? “Get Up Stand Up”?

Or did they say “One Love”? “Three Little Birds”? Or “Positive Vibration”?

All are great songs, but which had a farther cultural reach?

So maybe you can write off “Sound Of Sunshine” for its shiny, happy surface.

But maybe Michael Franti just unwittingly engaged you in some deep political discourse.

The “I Know I’m Not Alone” Trailer

The Habibe scene

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tift Merritt “Mixtape”

You can find lots of nostalgic love for vinyl. Audiophiles love to go on and on about the superior quality of sounds found on records. And Album-ophiles lament the loss of LPs, claiming the art of the cover and the weight of the wax are as essential to the experience, as the music itself.

But you don’t find the same kind of romance for cassettes, do you?

Certainly, the same nostalgic reasoning doesn’t hold up. The audio quality on a cassette is poor, and degrades quickly. And cassettes are actually blamed for the death/dearth of the album cover as an art form.

But Tift Merritt and I are of like minds.

On “Mixtape” she brings back the romance to cassettes. For all the limitations of these little reel to reels, they have one true, head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest advantage:

Mix tapes with homemade covers.

You can’t make your own vinyl compilation. It’s just not technically feasible for the average person.

And sure, you can make an iTunes playlist, but you can’t lovingly craft an iTunes playlist and then physically present it to someone. It’s not a thing---it’s just files. And playlists, even burned CDs, are made to be randomized, to have tracks skipped over, to be embellished or deleted.

A mixed cassette is a collage that can tell a story, based on the songs and the song order. A track listing matters.

Then there's the sides. A Side and B Side. You can’t have sides on an iTunes playlist, for crying out loud.

And yes, some vinyl enthusiasts sniff at the idea of cassette album art. But when you make a mixtape with a homemade cover, you tap into a charm that’s not a part of vinyl or disc or MP3 or 8-Track.

I have dozens of cassettes, made by me or given to me as gifts, in the basement. I’ve probably made hundreds in my day. But since the world went digital, the practice has fallen by the wayside of my life.

Thanks for the reminder, Tift: Time to press rewind, rewind.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Calexico “Tulsa Telephone Book”

Hitting random on the iTunes playlist . . .

It’s not that musicians are necessarily the coolest people on earth. But there is something about musicians, that causes the average person suddenly become not-so-cool.

Maybe it’s because you’re trying so hard to be cool, that you become decidedly uncool.

I had a chance to go see Calexico, at a little hole in the wall club in Nashville. And I even got to be there for Sound Check.

It’s a pretty wonderful experience, if you’re not a musician, to be in an empty club, just you and the band and a few bar workers, as the band sets up and warms up. Without the distraction of a crowd, I was able to really tune in to the songs.

After Sound Check, I wanted to show the band that I was really hooked in to what they were doing.

“I love that new one, the Telephone Book song!” I enthused.

“Yeah, that’s a Tom T Hall song . . .” (And in parenthesis, ‘it’s the one song of that whole set, that isn’t ours’)

Buy the Tom T Hall tribute album, featuring Calexico's version of "Tulsa Telephone Book."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Buffalo Tom "Summer"

There are songs you listen put on, specifically to amplify emotion.

You play The Cure to amplify your depression.

You play Rage Against The Machine to magnify your aggression.

You play Rufus Wainwright to ratchet up your melodrama.

You play the early Beatles to make your joy, pure.

Music touches an emotional chord.

But sometimes, the emotion isn't the thing. It's the message.

Sometimes you have to put a song on, as much for what it is saying, as for how it is saying it.

I always make sure I listen to this one around Memorial Day weekend, as a concrete reminder to myself that time is limited, regret brings nothing back, and Endless Summer is only the title of a Beach Boys album, not an actual thing.

"Summer's gone, a summer song, you've wasted every day."

I play it after Labor Day, too, as an emotional, wistful goodbye to Summer. But I play it now, as an admonition to myself:

Summer is short. Enjoy it while it's here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Talking Heads "Road To Nowhere"

David Byrne must appreciate the irony. And perhaps the cash, too.

Following up last Friday's post about Patty Griffin's possible payday, David Byrne may have had an inadvertently fruitful last week, too.

It seems that Florida Governor Charlie Crist used the Talking Heads song "Road To Nowhere" in an attack ad against Marco Rubio, that aired online.

Because Byrne is the songwriter, he is due compensation for the use. Or at the very least, he must grant permission if anyone---be it a political candidate, a cable channel or a new brand of soap---wants to use his song in their ad.

Crist did not ask, so Byrne is suing him for one million dollars.

(A brief editorial: Wouldn't it be great if lawmakers knew enough about copyright law so as not to flagrantly break it?)

Here's the best part. Byrne is suing, because he deserves to be paid if someone is using his song in their broadcast of a message. Because of the players involved (famous singer, well known candidate, contentious election race, political party that has recently run afoul of copyright law and promised to never do it again) this story has made national news.

So when ABC Nightly News runs the story, they play a clip of "Road To Nowhere." And they have to report that they did. And Byrne gets paid.

When NPR runs the story, they play a clip of "Road To Nowhere." And Byrne gets paid.

When your local Fox affiliate runs the story, they play a clip of "Road To Nowhere." And Byrne gets paid.

And so on and so on, until the news cycle ends.

Byrne's lawsuit may never come to court. He may never get the one million dollars from Crist. But because this song will appear in the National media more frequently than a 20 year old song would on any average day, Byrne's next royalty check is likely to be quite a bit fatter.

"Rich with irony" was never so accurate.