The Modern Lovers Perform “Roadrunner”

The Modern LoversListen to this track by Massachusetts quartet tagged by many as “proto-punk” and fronted by one Jonathan Richman, The Modern Lovers. It’s “Roadrunner”, a song about driving with the radio on featured on the band’s 1976 eponymous debut record. It was released as a single, and would be recorded over Richman’s career a few times with the band and without. There are a few versions floating around, but  this one is my favourite, produced by John Cale in 1972.

Besides that, the song is pure magic to the point that it is amazing to me that it even exists. In some ways, it’s totally amateurish. But, that’s a big part of its charm. When Richman counts off “1,2,,3,4,5,6 …” you know you’re in for something eccentric and cool all at once. Unlike a lot of Jonathan Richman songs, this one is aligned with an expected rock ‘n’ roll subject; driving at night with the radio on, in love with rock ‘n’ roll and being out all night. But, it’s also about being in love with the place you’re from. In Richman’s case, that’s the state of Massachusetts, and the scenery along the way.

This is a song that’s been hailed by many as the first punk song. Where I don’t think I can agree with that (I personally think it was “Louie Louie” myself …), I can understand why people think that. This song has roots that are well known.  Continue reading

Said The Whale Play “Emerald Lake AB”

Listen to this track by Vancouverite indie quintet Said The Whale. It’s “Emerald Lake AB”, a shining gem as taken from their 2009 record Islands Disappear, their second.

Said The Whale Islands Disappear

The band formed in Vancouver and very soon became recognized as being an important addition to the scene after their initial release Talking Abalonia in 2007. From there, they scored awards locally and eventually on a national scale, too. Being on that level in Canada, they had two agenda points to cover.

The first point was the business of selling to America. Every band in this country who is looking for a wider audience has to consider that goal; it’s an economy of scale thing. Their involvement in the 2011 documentary Winning America was a snapshot of their efforts on that front at SXSW. They subsequently made headway with their recent 2013 album Hawaii, and with the single “I Love You” charting in the States.

But, what about that second agenda point? Well, that’s the one this song seems to capture best. Continue reading

Big Brother & The Holding Company feat. Janis Joplin Play “Summertime”

Cheap Thrills Big Brother & The Holding Company
The cover of *Cheap Thrills*, as designed by renowned cartoonist on the ’60s Counterculture scene in San Francisco, Robert Crumb. Janis Joplin was a big fan of underground comics in general, and Crumb’s work in particular. As it happens, Crumb is an enthusiastic collector of old blues records from the ’20s to the ’40s of the sort that brought Joplin to her singing career.

Listen to this track by San Franciscan psychedelic blues band fronted by transplanted Texan R&B shouter Janis Joplin. It’s “Summertime”, a re-telling of the Gershwin-Heyward American songbook classic as featured on the band’s 1968 debut album Cheap Thrills. 

The song is one of three cover versions on the record, and the one with the longest pedigree having been covered by many over the years since it was written in 1935 for the musical Porgy and Bess. That musical, and certainly this song, was a snapshot of American southern life through a very romanticized lens. Maybe this band covering this song is kind of an unexpected choice for a long-haired rock ‘n’ roll band like Big Brother & The Holding Company. The song had grown a sheen of respectability by the 1960s along with the jazz traditions out of which it came. But, when you think of where jazz, the blues and rock music comes from, and the idealistic nature of the counterculture, it really isn’t all that much of a leap. After all, George Gershwin was as fascinated by African-American folk culture as any white rock ‘n’ roll singer was by 1968.

But, I think this cover version is notable for something else, too when it comes to Big Brother frontwoman Janis Joplin. In many ways, this song was waiting for her to record it. Because its story is hers. Continue reading

Pet Shop Boys Perform “West End Girls”

Pet Shop BoysListen to this track by urbanely detached duo and superlative synthpop vectors Pet Shop Boys. It’s “West End Girls”, a smash for them in 1984 as a US club single, and then again in late 1985 as a single released internationally, later to appear on their debut record, 1986’s Please. From there, it would be re-mixed many times, ready for the clubs once again.

This song had made inroads into a musical area that really hadn’t been explored; a synthpop and rap hybrid. Somehow, I’d be hard-pressed to call this a rap tune in the strictest sense. But, one might see why someone might argue that it is, I suppose. It certainly takes its cues from early hip hop records like Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”. To me, it’s more of a spoken word piece, with a big groove behind it, which somehow isn’t the same thing as a flat out hip hop record. It’s actually much closer to Isaac Hayes’ “(The Theme From) Shaft”, with the extended, tension-building instrumental intro, and with the rest of the song buoyed up by a narrator’s voice (the original definition of a “rap”, kids), this time with a cut-glass English accent.

However like rap at the time, “West End Girls” certainly does evoke a distinctly urban feel. This is a song about the city, and the culture around cities. And despite it being a hit all over the world, it touches on something that is very much associated with the culture of those who created it, which is class structure and socially encoded roles. Yet, it was originally born outside of that culture, and in a place where the roots of the song were firmly established. Continue reading

Interview With Gay Nineties Who Play “Letterman”

Listen to this track by four-cornered West Coast indie-rock pop artisans Gay Nineties. It’s “Letterman”, their single that served as a taster for their first “album-EP” Liberal Guilt, released online January 27, and in shops on February 3.

The band was born in 2010 when guitarist Parker Bossley, formerly of Hot Hot Heat, formed a musical bond with bassist Daniel Knowlington and drummer Malcolm Holt. They’ve since added a fourth member in keyboardist Bruce Ledingham IV, thereby expanding their sonic palette from the indie power-trio they were into a supple unit with an easy hand with texture and nuance. With that shift of course, they’re still able to joyfully pummel audiences with their enthusiastic brand of angular pop-rock in an alternative vein, and clearly made for radio.

The Gay Nineties Liberal Guilt

I got a chance to chat with Parker Bossley who answers for Gay Nineties via email about this song, about the new record, and about the role which that aforementioned pillar of success, rock radio, has in their lives.

*** Continue reading

Norah Jones Sings “Sinkin’ Soon”

Sinkin'_Soon_single_coverListen to this track by documented Grammy-magnet and Texan country-jazz-indie-whatever singer-songwriter Norah Jones. It’s “Sinkin’ Soon”, a Tom Waitsean political parable as taken from 2007’s Not Too Late, her third album.

This song was released as a second single from that album, which overall was something of a departure from the meticulously wrought jazz and country hybrid she’d perfected on her first two albums, both of which sold a boatload, and made her a household name. For one thing, this time Norah Jones herself along with bassist and songwriter Lee Harris helmed the controls in place of legendary Arif Mardin who had produced those first two albums, making it looser and with more unfastened edges.

The result was still a debut at number one on Billboard’s top 200, three for three where top spot showings were concerned for Norah Jones. Another big change was an emphasis on original songs. Instead of songs sourced from various external sources to fill out the running time, Jones had a hand in writing all of them, either alone, or with band members. She worked many of these out on guitar rather than from her expected place at the piano.

Lee Harris also co-wrote this one with Jones, a story about an ill-fated journey by sea that reflected a certain political point of view during a time when the destiny of a nation seemed to be very much in doubt. Continue reading

Frank Black & The Catholics Play “All My Ghosts”

Frank Black & The Catholics albumListen to this track by prolific songwriter and one-time Pixies lead Frank Black, neé Black Francis, neé Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV along with a band which he had formalized as The Catholics. It’s “All My Ghosts” the opening track to their 1998 debut album craftily entitled Frank Black & The Catholics.

The song, and the rest of the album was recorded very quickly in a matter of days on two-track tape. Because of the nature of the recording set-up, the parts were all played live off of the floor. You can hear on this song that there is something of a false start, with a snippet of the theme from the ’60s TV show Green Acres quoted before the band kick into the proceedings. The record was committed to tape at Sound City in Van Nuys California, the site of many a famous recording session, including Nirvana’s Nevermind. Besides being recorded at such a famous site, the single and the record would make history in the way it was initially distributed, too; as a legal download in Mp3 format, and the first of its kind on a major label (American Recordings) to do so.

With all of that said, let’s not forget about the songs! This song in particular would hook into some recurring themes for its author since his Pixies days, in particular the business of myth through a biblical lens. Continue reading