Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings Perform “This Land Is Your Land”

sjdknaturallyListen to this track by New York-based, twenty-first century funk-soul standard-bearers The Dap Kings as led by vocal powerhouse Sharon Jones. It’s “This Land Is Your Land”, an American folk anthem as written by fascism-fighting songwriter Woody Guthrie, re-positioned here as a sweaty soul jam in a minor key. The track is featured on their 2005 album Naturally, their second.

Guthrie wrote this song in 1940 in response to a certain strain of American jingoism that papered over the disenfranchisement experienced by many during the years of the Great Depression. Despite it’s jaunty feel and kid-friendly reputation, by the late forties and early 1950s in the McCarthy era, Guthrie’s song was considered dangerous due to some redacted verses that criticized American life directly. This song was about claiming a birthright, and being blocked while trying to do so. It revealed cracks in the facade.

When multi-racial soul band Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings recorded it in the mid-2000s, their version wasn’t entirely removed from the intent of its author during an era of ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, and a second term for George W. Bush. How has the politically charged relevance of this song changed since then, stylistic textures aside? Given that it was written by one who stood openly opposed to fascism, the answer is a very discouraging “not very much”. Read more

Genesis Plays “The Return Of The Giant Hogweed”

genesis-nursery-crymeListen to this track by parodic prog rock paragons Genesis. It’s “The Return Of The Giant Hogweed”, a tale of botanical horror as featured on the 1971 album Nursery Cryme, their third. The album kicked off a new era for Genesis; new members, new textures, and a new sense of scale.

The vital additions to the band by this time were drummer and vocalist Phil Collins, and guitarist Steve Hackett. Both musicians added their considerable instrumental chops to the material on the record to raise the whole band’s game. As a result, they helped to assure the group’s place as top shelf participants in a growing movement of bands at the time who traded on complex musical structures and often very high-minded lyrical subject matter.

To me, what made Genesis unique in their early output is that they could take conventions of all kinds and bring out the absurdities in them, no matter how obscure or mundane. And here, they’re able to write a song about an invasion, while also rooting it (pardon the pun) in an area not generally drawn on by most songwriters; botany. But there’s also hint at another area of interest that can be traced in their work that delves deeper still. Read more

Richard Thompson Sings “Beeswing”

mirror-blue-richard-thompsonListen to this track by British folk-rock storyteller and guitar hero Richard Thompson. It’s “Beeswing”, a cut off of his 1994 album Mirror Blue. That record had him working with producer Mitchell Froom, who helmed the boards for his celebrated record Rumor & Sigh. This time, though, the quirks that characterized their approach came to the surface a bit more, and it was not to everyone’s taste, critically speaking.

But even under these conditions where the album’s production is concerned, “Beeswing” is a giant of a tune by anyone’s standard. It comes straight from Thompson’s deep knowledge and superior command of British folk songwriting traditions dealing in well-traveled themes of tarnished love, character flaws, lost potential, and (to be frank) unhappy endings. This song adds a contemporary dimension to all of that, really sounding like a personal story as well as presenting characters that embody those well-understood and relatable themes.

Most importantly, it’s a song that hits on another resonant theme with which humanity struggles in any era or generation; the balance between personal freedom, and the  obligation to others whom we choose to love, and who in turn choose to love us. Read more

New Year, New Tunes 2017

yorinda-and-yoringel-in-the-witchs-wood

It’s 2017, finally! We’ve kicked 2016 to the curb and good riddance.

Last year, we lost a Dame. We lost a Prince. We lost a Poet Laureate. We lost a myriad of others who we count as heroes. Somewhere in there, the world gained a Drumpf. Last year sucked, basically.

From here, we have quite a job to do to make sure that this year, 2017, doesn’t suck as much. It’s early yet. But I get the feeling it may be a tall order. This is particularly given our political climate as racist organizations re-brand themselves, slither into the mainstream, and drip poison into the ears of the public.  We have to fight them. For that, we’ll need fuel for the trip.

Among other sources of spiritual nutrients, music is pretty high up on my personal list. If you’re here, you probably share my point of view on that. With that in mind, here is a selection of new music to kick off your new year. As is the norm, I invite you to take a deep dive, and tell me about your favourite tracks, and maybe even some ways you’re going to make sure that 2017 rocks instead of sucks. So, what are you waiting for? Step into my office …

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A Year With The Beatles Podcast: Magical Mystery Tour

thebeatlesmagicalmysterytouralbumcoverThe Beatles had a heck of a 1967, with plenty of ups and downs to characterize the year. One big “up” was the success of Sgt. Pepper in June that helped to change the game for peers, fans, the music industry, and for The Beatles themselves. Another was the discovery of Transcendental Meditation, which initially helped them to gain perspective on their own fame and the demands of the material world. They would double-down on their involvement with it by joining their newfound guru, Maharishi Mehesh Yogi, in Rishikesh by the start of 1968. That’s another story.

But back to 1967.  A big “down” in this very same year was the loss of their manager, Brian Epstein, who died due to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs in August while the band were away in Wales on a TM course. This set the band adrift in terms of their commercial destinations, an area that Brian had always tended as their manager. In fact, Brian had been their ballast as a unified group all around. By the end of 1967, they were on their own. So they decided to keep working.

They made a film, Magical Mystery Tour, that was shown on British TV on Boxing Day. Around the same time, they put out a couple of EPs with some new songs they’d worked up and had featured in the film along with a few that hadn’t been. A few of those songs were about their childhoods back in Liverpool, a theme which the film also touches on. Given the loss of their friend, it probably seemed like a good idea to reset things with such an affectionate nod to their roots during what must have been a very confusing and upsetting time. In so doing, they managed to create the most childlike and optimistic releases in their catalogue. It’s certainly their most “scouse” record, which is to say it’s overtly rooted in Liverpudlian culture.

Eventually, Capitol records who distributed Beatles releases in North America put all of the songs on the EPs together into a bang-up full album called, well, Magical Mystery Tour. And for once they were dead right to do so, so much so that Parlophone and Apple included the album in the cannon of official Beatles releases (so, we did too!). It’s a record that John Lennon once called his favourite Beatles album “because it’s so weird”.

Joining us this time around for our magically mysterious tour of the Beatles discography is British TV expert, visual artist, and film history author Jim Sangster, who as it happens is also from Liverpool. He even recorded his part of the episode while being only a short hop and a skip from Woolton, the site of the first meeting between Dirk and Nasty themselves. This is appropriate in that this really is the most Liverpool of The Beatles’ albums by some distance. There’s lots of cultural references to unpack here, and Jim’s the man to help us do it even when it gets graphic (which it does). We also review the aforementioned film Magical Mystery Tour, famously pasted by critics at the time. Only this time, it’s our turn!

Listen to the episode right here.

And from here, Good People, I must leave you until the dawn of 2017 (or thereabouts) when, if the stars align as they should, I will return with a mix of new songs to kick off our New Year. The podcast will continue, too of course. Until then, happy holidays everyone. Thank you all for joining me in 2016 by reading, subscribing, leaving your comments, and sharing on your social feeds. Until we meet again, friends …

Enjoy!

Big Mama Thornton Sings “Ball And Chain” Live With Buddy Guy

ball-and-chain-big-mama-thorntonListen to this track by underappreciated blues and rock architect Big Mama Thornton. It’s “Ball and Chain”, a cut that Thornton wrote in the early 1960s, recorded by the end of that decade and can be heard on the Ball And Chain compilation album. The song provided the runway for her resurgence as a performer at that time, too.

This particular rendition was recorded for public television in 1970, including Buddy Guy and his band behind a very formidable Thornton. The two artists had worked together on live shows in Europe in the mid-sixties, the musical rapport they create here perhaps indicating how simpatico they are. During her intro, Thornton mentions Janis Joplin who also had massive success with this song, inspired as she was by the elder singer’s powerful and heart-wrenching original version. Joplin would later invite Thornton to open shows for her.

Yet, Thornton was the pioneer while Joplin trod her path. This being the music industry, and being our world in general, that path was fraught with perils for someone like Big Mama Thornton. The first casualty was her own fame, or lack thereof. Read more

The Monkees Play “Daydream Believer”

the_monkees_single_05_daydream_believerListen to this track by enduring multimedia phenomenon that featured ex-jockey and Artful Dodger Davy Jones as a lead singer, The Monkees. It’s “Daydream Believer”, one of their biggest hits and appearing on the 1968 album The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees.

As with many songs that The Monkees recorded, “Daydream Believer” was sourced from an outside writer. In this case, the writer is John Stewart who was a one-time member of folk group The Kingston Trio. That folk connection seems like kind of an odd fit on the surface of things where The Monkees were concerned, maybe. But producer Chip Douglas, who was a friend of Stewart’s, helped the band turn this into a smash pop single. This is in no small part thanks to Peter Tork, who came up with and plays the bright piano line that helps to define the song so sharply. Additionally, both Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz add their own parts (guitar and backing vocals respectively), making this a full-band effort.

But the one who really shines on this is Davy Jones himself, striking a balance between joy and melancholy that’s as good as any of the best pop songs of the decade. Beyond the era in which it was made, I think this song says a lot about it’s lead singer too, and continues to do so even beyond his time spent on earth singing it. Yet initially, Davy Jones just didn’t get this song. Read more

Rilo Kiley Play “Does He Love You?”

rilo_kiley_-_more_adventurousListen to this track by Los Angeles-based indie rock auteurs Rilo Kiley. It’s “Does He Love You?”, a cut as taken from their 2004 breakthrough album More Adventurous, their third. The record’s title reflected their approach, which was one that certainly paid off in terms of critical dividends and by the presence of many of its songs on soundtracks at the time.

The band featured singer and multi-instrumentalist Jenny Lewis and guitarist and singer Blake Sennett, who also served as a writing duo from their formation of the group by the end of the 1990s. Both musicians came from acting backgrounds, with credits in film and television. Maybe that’s why they were able to craft such a sense of character and cinematic spirit into their songs. This one is surely one of their best on that front, and on many other fronts to boot.

This is a tale that starts off as a simple conversation between two friends who live long-distance, both ruminating on the state of their love lives. That is, until a shocking revelation is dropped into their laps, and into those of us who are the listeners, too. Read more

A Year With The Beatles Podcast: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

The Beatles Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club BandAfter the revelatory sonic achievement that was 1966’s Revolver, it would have been almost impossible by the next year to imagine that The Beatles could go anywhere else to try and top it. But, that’s what they went ahead and did. Now, this is a tricky subject for many, of course. During the nineties especially, the supremacy of Sgt. Pepper was severely questioned when compared to the quality of Revolver, in part thanks to Britpop that held the latter album as a holy text, and rightly so. During that era particularly, cries of “overrated!” were common as applied to Sgt. Pepper.  But for me, even though Sgt. Pepper is not my favourite Beatles album as much as I love it, I can easily concede the point that it is the Beatles’ creative pinnacle. Seriously.

This isn’t just because it’s the most striking work in their catalogue that helped to redefine the album format as we now know it today. It isn’t because of the technical accomplishments it represents, which also transformed the way that the recording process was approached, with samples, studio effects, and intricate non-rock arrangements playing integral parts to create a record that made everyone’s jaw drop when they first heard it. It isn’t even strictly because it had so much cultural impact on the time of its release, inspiring not only the fans to embrace pop music as art and not consider it to be a part of the showbiz treadmill, but also their peers and their work. I think it was mostly because it was the purest example among many in The Beatles’ catalogue that found each member exactly where he was artistically with crystal clarity.

Paul McCartney was enamoured of Brian Wilsonesque sonic landscapes and character-driven drama, and with an idea in his head that the record could be the one to go on tour instead of him and his bandmates. John Lennon would go full on into his Lewis Carroll fixation and interest in Victoriana, adding a child-like sense of wonder that had never emerged in quite that way in his writing before. George Harrison created his most sumptuous track to date, marrying Indian classical music to Western pop music and delivering the best of both. And Ringo Starr, if you didn’t get it before this, proves himself to be the master of the drum fill, adding so many great parts to the songs his bandmates wrote with almost inconceivable precision. With all of these elements in place, the album is a theatrical, optimistic sea change, not only for The Beatles, but for pop music too.

As is our custom, my friend Graeme and I, along with our mutual friend and fellow Beatles nut Shannon Dohar discuss this great work, including our favourite tracks, our thoughts on the role this record played in music history, and about how it simply makes us feel to hear it. In addition, we talk about Eric Idle’s superb 1978 Beatles parody, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash and about what makes it so damn funny, along with being legitimately tuneful as well.

You can listen to the podcast right here, Good People.

Enjoy!

The Long Ryders Play “Looking For Lewis And Clark”

the-long-ryders-state-of-our-unionListen to this track by Americana and alt-country rock outliers The Long Ryders. It’s “Looking For Lewis And Clark”, a high point in their 1985 album The State Of Our Union. That album had the band on a major label and seeking a wider audience for their unique brand of punked-up Americana tinged with the brown-sound Woodstock vibe of their influences.

In this, they were ahead of their time, anticipating the alt-country movement that would gain in popularity by the mid-nineties and a full decade after they’d laid this record down. Despite the musical wells they were drawing from that tied them to the songwriting traditions of the past and the sound they foresaw that we’d see as a movement by the next decade, The Long Ryders had a lot to say about the political trajectory of America in the present. They weren’t kidding around with that album title.

There’s a real sense of betrayal to be found on this album and certainly on this song, with the direction of the American narrative taking a turn for the worst. We can all relate to that by now. But this was a particularly heinous thing to this particular band of musicians and songwriters given how important mythic visions of America were to them.

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