The Spencer Davis Group Play “I’m A Man”

Spencer_Davis_Group_I'm_a_Man_single_coverListen to this track by Brummie blue-eyed soul and rock quartet The Spencer Davis Group. It’s “I’m A Man”, their 1967 hit single as taken from the self-same album I’m A Man.  This would be the group’s last hit single in their original incarnation that featured Stevie Winwood on vocals and organ before he left to join Traffic later in the year.

Like many soul singers, Winwood started his musical journey in part while involved with the Church, although this time it was the C of E and decidedly not a sultry Baptist chapel somewhere in the American South. Nevertheless, access to a bona fide church organ had to be important to his trajectory. He had something that a lot of British musicians didn’t have at the time besides. Winwood didn’t just pick up his trade simply by listening to blues and soul records. The time he spent playing in pick-up bands to back up American bluesman like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker as they toured Britain was also an important part of his musical apprenticeship. This gained him first-hand exposure and training to achieve the real sound of the blues and get straight to the heart of soul music. It also introduced him to how all-consuming it can become to pursue a musician’s life.

That’s what this song is all about; a love song to the music itself and to the state of being in a band, despite the dangers of losing oneself while being entangled in it all. It’s a snapshot of a mind that is both juvenile and ambitious all at once, which is part of why it became a rock standard. But, it goes beyond that, too.

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Tom Waits Sings “I Wish I Was In New Orleans (In The Ninth Ward)”

220px-Tom_Waits_-_Small_change_(1976)Listen to this track by gravelly-voiced troubadour and downtown Saturday night mythologist Tom Waits. It’s “I Wish I Was In New Orleans”, a sumptuous tune as taken from his 1976 album, Small Change. The album was recorded quickly in the last two weeks of July of that year.

This record represents a high point in Waits’ initial foray into a unique and signature take on the emerging singer-songwriter “genre”of the early-to-mid-seventies, in Waits’ case complete with heavy jazz flourishes and hard-boiled lyrical imagery to go along with his distinctive and texturally complex singing voice. Additionally, some high profile West Coast Jazz musicians back him up on this one, including renowned drummer Shelly Manne who’s intricate brushwork is a highlight through out, coupled with warm acoustic bass, and a lot (a lot!) of tenor saxophone that provides an effective musical foil to Waits’ voice.

“I Wish I Was In New Orleans” includes this jazz dynamic, but centers on Waits’ piano and voice, contrasted with a string arrangement that seems to weep with melancholy. On this one, you can almost see Waits leaning in close to the microphone while hunched at the piano, eyes closed and brow furrowed.  This has always been one of his strengths; vivid and wholly embodied performances, even on a studio recording. It’s not just the arrangements, the playing, and the production we get, either. It’s another element that is common to many successful singer-songwriters and bands of that era — the evocation of a mythological world within the music. In this case, it’s a world that is in the process passing, or has passed entirely. Continue reading

Happy Mondays Play “Kinky Afro”

Kinky_AfroListen to this track by Madchester scene-stealers and dance-indie-psych-rock purveyors Happy Mondays. It’s “Kinky Afro”, their top five UK hit single that would otherwise appear on their landmark 1990 album Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches, their third LPThat release would consolidate the band on the scene as being one of the key acts coming out of Manchester by the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s. It would also provide an important template for many bands from similar geographic origins to follow during that decade, including The Charlatans and Oasis.

Along with The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays were among the acts that best helped to represent a few movements during that time period in Greater Manchester. First, their output would re-emphasize something that had been firmly established in the 1960s; that music scenes springing from the provinces in Britain were in many cases just as vital as those centered in London, which was still viewed as the seat of the industry. Second, the sound which the Mondays had developed since their formation in 1980 showed that rock bands still had musical regions to explore that remained largely untapped.

But, what else did Happy Mondays bring to that scene, and what do they deliver on this song? Well, I think it has to do with how rock music needed to develop by that time, and how much a sense of the dark side needed to be re-injected into the mix, too.
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The White Stripes Play “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”

Dead_Leaves_and_the_Dirty_GroundListen to this track by tri-colour schemed indie-blues-rock twosome from Detroit The White Stripes. It’s “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”, a cut as taken from their breakthrough 2001 album White Blood Cells. It served as the third single from that record scoring a top twenty showing on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.

The impact The White Stripes had on rock music by the beginning of the two-thousands was hefty. Their music challenged many of the conventions of the time, while also reinforcing many of the same that fans had perhaps forgotten about. It was brand new, and yet somehow dusty and old at the same time. The band’s approach certainly undercut the idea that to make new music, one had to leave the past behind. But is also undercut the idea that one couldn’t take a left turn when it came to presenting it in a new context.

That what this song illustrates so well, and perfectly frames why The White Stripes were able to make such an impact on the mainstream. Continue reading

10 Songs About Elvis

Elvis.

PresleyPromo1954PhotoOnlyJust that first name alone conjures up so much imagery, so much cultural currency, so much good feeling for generations of people. Born in Tupelo, MS and raised in Memphis TN, Elvis was an eighteen year old who recorded a single at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio for his mum one day in 1953 on the occasion of her birthday as a gift to her; “My Happiness/That’s When The Heartaches Begin“. Who did he sound like? Well, he didn’t sound like nobody. From there, the landscape of popular music, and the barriers that existed between musical genres at the time, would be changed forever. From the cramped studios at Sun Records, to Hollywood movie sets, to Las Vegas residencies, to global satellite transmissions from Hawaiian stages, Elvis weathered all those changes besides.

What also changed was the man himself of course. By the end, he was no longer the earnest American boy with a singular talent for musical interpretation of anything thrown at him. He had become transformed into something more; a cultural avatar of almost religious stature. Those who came after him, carrying legendary mythologies of their own, all held him in the highest esteem. Even to his peers, he was The King; a messianic figure who stood above all of the trends, and enjoying the seemingly unconditional love of the masses up until his death at the young age of 42 on August 16, 1977; thirty-eight years and a day from today in the year that would have had him celebrate his eightieth birthday.

Since his passing, the mythology surrounding Elvis has endured in the imaginations and the works of many. Here are ten songs about Elvis, or at least ones that touch on his cultural importance. Some are down to earth and humourous. Some are profane. Others are almost Biblical in their veneration of that boy from Tupelo who made good. Overall, the range of songwriting styles and musical textures shows that even though he’s gone (or is he?), Elvis’ musical and cultural reach remains extensive even today.

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Pearl Jam Play “Alive”

PearlJam-Ten2Listen to this track by flannel-wearing Seattle-based hard rock concern Pearl Jam. It’s “Alive”, the first single as taken from their now-classic record Ten, released in the summer of 1991. This song reached peak positions all over the world, and helped to add intensity to the spotlight on the Seattle scene in general at the time, when the mainstream press were beginning to whip themselves up into a frenzy over that which they themselves called grunge.

Nineteen-ninety-one was a pivotal year for many bands, particularly those based in Seattle. It was also a year that many of these bands were lumped together by the press, some having only tenuous common musical threads to unify them. But somehow, they were still a part of a sea change that let everyone know that the eighties were well and truly gone, and that the nineties had officially begun. For the first time in a long time by 1991, rock music was being talked about not only in musical terms, but in sociological ones, recasting rock music as the cultural phenomenon that it had been when it was first coined as a cultural trend. Pearl Jam’s Ten was a text to prove the thesis just as much as Nirvana’s Nevermind was by the early nineties, reinvigorating strains of rock music that had slipped away from the glare of the mainstream until then, casting down the idols of the previous decade as a side effect.

This song in particular was a burning light to a remarkable new take on hard rock, escaping the Spinal Tap-isms of late eighties poodle-glam world of cherry pies, spandex, and women writhing on the hoods of cars. Instead, it shot an arrow straight for the soul, with this song telling a whole novel’s worth, even including some autobiographical material from a 25 year old singer Eddie Vedder, who wasn’t even in the band when he originally wrote this three-verse tale of childhood, betrayal, and guilt.

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Parliament Play “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”

Parliament-MothershipConnectionListen to this track by earth-moving intergalactic funk pioneers Parliament. It’s “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”, aka “Star Child (Mothership Connection)”, the second track and third single off of 1975’s Mothership Connection and released in August of 1976.

This record was their second full-length album in the same year, following up Chocolate City which was released in the spring of 1975. That earlier album created a mythology that placed black culture in the mainstream, and in the literal seats of power in the United States where in real life it was absent; the white house and the Lincoln memorial as depicted on its cover. With the follow-up in Mothership Connection, lead creative mind George Clinton decided to make the presence of black people and culture known in another sphere where they had largely (Star Trek excepted) also been absent; in the stars, and the realm of science fiction. This led to an even more potent mythology and set of imagery for which Clinton and his various projects would become best known; a comic book-style world of outer space.

In some ways, Clinton’s child-like vision that frames the music here was the antithesis of much of funk-soul music at the time. It’s fun and full of abandon instead of political and earnest. And yet, with this approach, it was political in its own way, just by challenging the expectations of the mainstream, and helping to change perspectives on the role of black voices in the wider culture at the time. Continue reading