A Year With The Beatles Podcast: Rubber Soul

Rubber_SoulThe Beatles demonstrated a significant spike in maturity by the time they began to write songs for their sixth record, Rubber Soul. This revealed itself in the way they recorded the album, deliberately meant to be an artistic statement and not just as a memento of their live act. Their new maturity also revealed itself in the arrangements of the songs, incorporating new instruments and the influences of music from other cultures, too. It certainly comes out in the vocal arrangements that are gloriously layered in a way that, as great as the harmonies always were on Beatles records, reaches a sonic zenith here with the best singing of their career as a band to date.

Possibly the most striking sign that the Beatles had truly come into their maturity as a band, a recording entity, and as individuals is the songwriting. There are love songs on this record as expected. But, they aren’t just the paeans to puppy love as they were on “Thank You Girl” or “From Me To You” from two years previous. As Moe Berg from Canadian band The Pursuit of Happiness once said: “I don’t write songs about girls anymore. I have to write songs about women. That’s where the Beatles were at by Rubber Soul; they were adults now. So, here on this set of songs love is far more complex, often provoking as much ire and insecurity as it does warm feelings of affection. At times, it gets pretty dark and overtly so, where in the past those feelings of anger and resentment were less obvious behind a pure pop sheen. Basically, Rubber Soul is the first of their records aimed at grown-ups, or soon to be grown ups, and not specifically at teenagers screaming from the stands.

To discuss some of these themes in this episode of the podcast, my good friend Graeme Burk and I am joined by NPR Books editor Petra Mayer to talk about these very themes, and other bits and pieces to do with The Beatles sixth UK record. Speaking of teenagers screaming from the stands, we also talk about an historic performance not just in Beatles history but in all history; The Beatles at Shea Stadium.

Listen to the podcast right here.

Enjoy!

The Lilac Time Play “Return To Yesterday”

The_Lilac_Time_(The_Lilac_Time_album)_coverListen to this track by British folk-pop outfit The Lilac Time. It’s “Return To Yesterday”, a single as taken from their 1988 debut The Lilac Time. The band was led by singer-songwriter Stephen Duffy, AKA Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, one time synthpop solo artist (“Kiss Me”), and (as not everyone knows) a founding member of Duran Duran in their pre-fab five incarnation. He left in 1979.

The Lilac Time owes less to either project than it does to British chamber folk and American-style roots music, both of which are inextricably related of course. The band was formed by Duffy with his brother Nick in 1986, leaving the new wave sounds he once traded in well behind and taking the name of his new band from Nick Drake’s “River Man” (going to tell him all I can/About the plan/Lilac time …”). Musically, the band’s material is very Anglocentric in an age that preceded Britpop by the better part of a decade. The Lilac Time would even release an album on Alan McGee’s Creation label in 1991, although in a trend that would mark this band’s lack of good timing, that would be before Britpop reached its zenith.

One thing that Duffy kept as far as his early career in new wave was a high tension between melody and lyrical themes using a stark contrast between the two as artistic fuel. For instance, this song presents a bouncy, country-ish feel while simultaneously touching on a pretty weighty theme; the future and the loss of innocence where the future is concerned. Read more

Fall Into Tunes 2016

goddess_of_the_autumn____by_villenueve

Fall is a glorious time of year, with late September being an episode of the season when the land casts off the last vestiges of summer, at least in this particular hemisphere. It’s a melancholy and often bittersweet time where we reflect on the boundless joy of summertime memories we’ve made, or at least console ourselves that it will soon be a lot cooler so that we can actually get some sleep! It’s also a time I personally associate with new beginnings, even as things are busy coming to an end. Maybe you do, too. September is like the more pertinent marker for a new year in that respect.

With all that in mind, it’s time once again for a new playlist of new music on this year’s edition of Fall Into Tunes. So, as per tradition at this time of year by now, here is a selection of new music from across the spectrum for your review and enjoyment.

Read about and listen to the songs below, and tell me your favourite tracks in the comments section, Good People.   Read more

Missy Elliott Performs “Get Ur Freak On”

MissyElliottGetUrFreakOnListen to this track by producer, rapper, and genre-crossing hip hop auteur Missy Elliott. It’s “Get Ur Freak On”, a monster hit single as taken from her third album, Miss E … So Addictive from 2001. The song is a bona fide classic by now, and covered by many from Eels who made this song a staple during their 2003 tour, to Britney Spears during her Vegas residency, to FLOTUS Michelle Obama featured in her recent appearance on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, with Missy Elliott herself joining in while riding in the backseat. Talk about cultural reach!

“Get Ur Freak On” borrows heavily from bhangra in terms of its rhythmic make-up and with music of the Asian continent generally in terms of its texture. That latter aspect is particularly reflected in its use of the very sticky six-note riff sampling what sounds like a koto, that being a 13-stringed instrument used in traditional Japanese music. Other sources say it’s a tumbi, which is something akin to a Punjabi one-string banjo. Either way, that’s pretty far from just an 808 programmable drum machine and a microphone.

In that regard alone, “Get Ur Freak On” represents an evolutionary jump for hip hop in general, going beyond urban America and into whole new geographical and cultural territories by the early two-thousands. It opened the gates culturally speaking, and it has wider implications thematically, too; that of empowerment, and on all kinds of levels. Read more

Gordon Lightfoot Sings “Carefree Highway”

Gordon_Lightfoot_SundownListen to this track by beloved Canadian singer-songwriter and Orillia Ontario favourite son, Gordon Lightfoot. It’s “Carefree Highway”, an international hit as taken from his 1974 album Sundown. This song was one of several in his catalogue that scored a top ten placement on the US Billboard Hot 100. Otherwise, this song made the easy listening charts and the country charts in his home country of Canada, where he’d become rightly held as a national treasure.

Like Bob Dylan, Lightfoot was managed by Albert Grossman during the 1960s, and was on many of the same scenes. During that time his material was covered by many, including Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins, Judy Collins, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, among others. By the early 1970s and after defecting from United Artists to Warner Brothers, Gordon Lightfoot settled into a sound of his own that mixed acoustic folk-rock with a smooth country feel, along with a dash of sorrowful strings for good measure that gave his output a heavy shot of melancholy. The period between 1970 and 1978 is looked upon by many as his golden period that had him enjoying massive exposure on Canadian radio across the dial. For all of his ubiquity, it was easy to take him for granted.

On “Carefree Highway”, it was also easy to miss what lay beneath his gentle, made for radio play, and easy on the ears sound, to wit; an ocean of bittersweetness, much of that fueled by what seemed to be personal regret, not to mention the songwriting savvy it took to deliver it so poignantly to listeners.  Read more

Blondie Play “Maria”

Blondie_-_MariaListen to this track by returning pop-punk chartbusters turned pop rock elders Blondie. It’s “Maria”, their comeback single as issued on their 1999 album No Exit. That record was their first together since 1982’s The Hunter. That’s a pretty long time between releases. But this song ensured their success as their sixth number one single in the UK where they’d always been championed since their early days. This new song’s chart placement corresponded to the day with another number one song of theirs in the UK, “Heart Of Glass” in 1979.

“Maria” was penned by Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri, even borrowing the phrase “walking on imported air” from his own “Walk Like Me” from 1980’s Autoamerican. Also, the song shares a similar dynamic with their early song “Rip Her To Shreds” that has lead singer Debby Harry judgmentally (and with a heaping tablespoon of irony) commenting on an observed woman. “Maria” is kind of the twin sister to that song, more concerned with the woman as unobtainable object of love, or maybe lust, with a dash of the divine thrown in for good measure.

“Maria” demonstrates that classic power-pop perspective in this way, and is very connected to the band’s earlier oeuvre on these many fronts. It’s no wonder it did the business for them as a comeback single. Along with that I think it has something to say about women in general. Read more

Kid Creole & The Coconuts Play “My Male Curiosity”

Kid Creole Coconuts My Male CuriosityListen to this track by genre-blending post-disco merry-makers Kid Creole & The Coconuts. It’s “My Male Curiosity”, a single that appeared on the 1984 soundtrack album for the Jeff Bridges, James Woods, Rachel Ward film Against All Odds.

“Kid Creole” is a persona of lead singer, bandleader, and creative head August Darnell, borrowing a look from 1930s zoot-suited jazz singers particularly Cab Calloway, pencil moustache and all. The band made a name for themselves as a live act in New York, a city that has a continuing tradition of jazz and Latin scenes that have endured since the 1920s onward. The sound of Kid Creole & The Coconuts is directly inspired by those older traditions, all the while utilizing the rhythms and the attitudes of the newer ones like art rock, disco, and punk. That’s what made them unique, along with Darnell’s theatrical stage presence as backed by a larger scale band and three colourful women backup singers which captured a visual dynamic as well as a musical one.

Otherwise, there’s more to their music than just a lead singer backed up by women singers. There’s a real musical dialogue going on here, particularly on this song. And I think too that it would be a mistake to take what’s being said in this song by its central character at face value. This tune has something to say about relationships, too. Read more

The Monkees Play “Sometime In The Morning”

MoreoftmListen to this track by enduring four-man multimedia phenomenon Micky, Davy, Mike, and Peter; The Monkees. It’s “Sometime In The Morning”, a deep cut and favourite track off of their mega-selling second album More Of The Monkees, released in January of 1967. The album remained at the number one spot on the Billboard 200 for a big 18 weeks. Meanwhile, this song would appear multiple times in their concurrent and very popular TV show The Monkees including in one of my favourite episodes “Monkee Mother”, guest starring Rose Marie.

Nineteen sixty-seven was a banner year for the group for a number of reasons. First, the TV show was an Emmy-winning hit. Second, their first live appearances as a group starting at tail-end of 1966 were going swimmingly during a time when they were taking heat for being just a pretend group who couldn’t play their own instruments. As far as the “pretend” part of that equation, this was true in one sense; the group they played on TV really was fictional, even though its members had the same names as the four principle cast. In real life though, they were as real as any other band playing shows in front of live audiences. The differences between their two identities, one fictional and one real, may explain the confusion around The Monkees’ authenticity. No one else was doing this sort of thing in quite this way at the time.

Further to that, this dynamic blurred the lines about who was responsible and who should be credited for the music people were hearing and buying. So, when More Of The Monkees hit the racks in January of 1967 to the surprise of The Monkees themselves who had no idea it was even coming out, things were about to get real ugly, real fast. Read more

Jill Sobule Sings “When They Say We Want Our America Back (What The F#%k Do They Mean?)”

monster protest jams vol 1Listen to this track by singer-songwriter-satirist with a highly developed social conscience matched by a sense of humour, Jill Sobule. It’s “When They Say We Want Our America Back (What The F#%k Do They Mean?)”, a single as taken from her involvement in the recent My Song Is My Weapon project, and its accompanying album Monster Protest Jams, Vol. 1. The album is a compilation of new protest songs that includes the work of artists like Tom Morello, Todd Rundgren, Amanda Palmer, Wayne Kramer, Wendy & Lisa, and many others.

The project, co-founded by Sobule, is based around the idea that the grand tradition of artistic protest in America needs an online forum. Through Pledge Music, we can help make that a reality particularly during a time when it is very difficult to tell satirical headlines from the actual news. More to the point, it’s a time when also-ran politicians and would-be world leaders seem to deal mostly in ambiguity and emotional button pushing instead of real data, specifically around the nebulous concept of the good ol’ days when America Was Great. No one can quite remember this era in exact detail, but many feel as though they need to replicate it in our modern age by electing repressive and out and out dangerous demagogues.

So, what is the role of the protest song in a socio-political environment such as ours? Does is have the same effect as it once did in the idealistic sixties or even in the jaded seventies? In this age of technological networks, maybe the answer is less about the song, and more about the listeners. Read more

A Year With The Beatles Podcast: Help!

HelpIn 1965, Beatlemania was still raging on, and the Beatles rose to the occasion with their fifth album, Help! Their songs further delved into some of the genres that they had explored previously, including folk rock, R&B, country, and probably most notably for the first time chamber pop with their game-changing song “Yesterday”. They even had room for one more cover song for the road in Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”.

Saying that, the band were growing up as both songwriters and as people, bringing more of their personalities to the fore as writers. This is certainly reflected in the songs on this album which is a continuation of the more sophisticated approach to subject matter hinted at earlier, including some of their most personal songwriting to date. And that personal side of things would only become more developed as the year went on.

Additionally, the Help! record would serve as a showcase for the songs that would appear in the movie of the same name, in which the band also appeared. Playing out like a sort of surrealist Marx Brothers affair, The Beatles solidified their image as happy (and also edgy) lads from Liverpool, although even by this time some of the cracks in the union, however small, were beginning to show.

My old friend Graeme Burk, and my newer friend Shannon Dohar talk about all of this and more in this fifth episode of our A Year With The Beatles Podcast.

Have a listen to it right here.

Enjoy!