Michael Nesmith Sings “Harmony Constant”

Listen to this track by one-time wool-hatted Monkee and recognized country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith. It’s “Harmony Constant”, a deep cut taken from his tongue-in-cheekily titled 1972 album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘, his fifth as a solo artist.

That title was applied in a characteristically wry manner by Nesmith, a response to his record company. They had given him a mandate to put out another album quickly after his more experimental Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1, this time preferably with a hit song or two included in there somewhere. Even if it didn’t set the charts on fire, the result was one of Nesmith’s most celebrated works as a solo artist. It also includes his version of an actual hit song he wrote for The Stone Poneys, “A Different Drum”. So in a sense, Nesmith kept his promise to his record company! Despite all that, a burgeoning number of country-rock songwriters by the early seventies would enjoy much greater chart success than Nesmith himself would, comparatively speaking.

Apart from any (ridiculous) snobbery around his association with a TV pop group, maybe this is down to Nesmith’s unconventional approach to writing country songs. In “Harmony Constant” specifically, there is a distinct contrast between how he presents an eminently hummable tune to lyrics that are high-minded, even touching on the metaphysical. There’s also a curious subtext to be found here that isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill for the standard love song, either. Read more

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Between Stations with Three O’Clock Train

And now, one-time regular columnist Geoff Moore makes a triumphant return to the pages of The Delete Bin. This time, it’s in conversation with Mack MacKenzie, the principal of legendary alt-country originals Three O’Clock Train. Mack has a new EP coming out, and with a good cause attached to it …

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“I started busking on the streets of Montreal. I could only play five songs and so I thought I better write one myself,” recalls Mack MacKenzie of Three O’Clock Train. The initial result, ‘Train of Dreams,’ was the synthesis of a crystal radio home kit, haunted record shop aisles, ribs broken while trying to buy Bowie concert tickets, and house music: Beatles, Stones, Monkees, and Johnny Cash. “I had to write more material and start a band. The idea was to play and have fun.”

Reflecting on his younger days, Mack says, “I was a vulture. I don’t think I missed a single concert at the Montreal Forum between 1975 and 1985. I always bought six tickets. I knew every word and every credit on every album.”

Despite the existence of the legendary Blue Angel nightclub with its red leather banquettes and uniformed washroom attendants, a showcase host to Cash and Patsy Cline, Montreal was never really noted as a country and western type of town. And so what to make of Three O’Clock Train’s explosive club shows, their 1986 debut EP Wig Wam Beach and its full-length follow up Muscle In? A prose Polaroid snapshot of those days is facile, washed out, but how could Roy Orbison be fronting the Clash in the shadow of Mount Royal? “We called our own shots. Nobody ever told us what to play. We had freedom from the get-go,” Mack says. “The closest band to us was Rank and File.”

Originally formed as a trio and named for getting home after the closing time of Montreal’s bars, Three O’Clock Train was cowpunk, alt-country before the term existed. “We were a DIY band; we didn’t sign our rights over to anybody in order to not get paid.”

Ignored by commercial radio, the group proved to be a hit on the Canadian university circuit. In 1996, tired of the grind, Mack put the band on hiatus to pursue his interest in the era’s emerging digital technology. “I tried to stay away.” But he never stopped writing and performing. “What else am I going to do?” In 2001 Mack quit an IT position with Cirque du Soleil to revive Three O’Clock Train as a one-man entity. “Now I’m like Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails,” he chuckles, “fluid.”

Recording sessions with Chip and Tony Kinman, Rank and File brothers, have just wrapped up. Cuatro de Los Angeles, a new Three O’Clock Train four-song EP is on the way. The new single, a cover of Rank and File’s ‘Today Was Going to be My Lucky Day’ will be released before Christmas. “Everybody just calls it ‘Lucky Day.’” Luck is fickle. Mack is $300 US lighter having just liberated his car and the vital contents of its trunk (one amp, five guitars and 60 T-shirts) from an LA impound lot.

The studio expenses are a bit of a tightrope too. Tricky business. Mack is only about half way to his GoFundMe goal to pay the costs. “It’ll work out, it always has. I’ve never been too concerned with money.” His laissez-faire attitude combined with a fierce streak of independence has allowed him to weather disruption in the music industry better than the major labels. “I keep my cool.” Nor is the Cuatro de Los Angeles GoFundMe campaign a one-sided deal. Contributor enticements include house concerts, copies of the new EP, sets of Three O’Clock Train’s re-mastered back catalogue, downloads and merchandise. A portion of funds raised in excess of the goal will be donated to the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. Mack already donates $2 from the sale of every Three O’Clock Train T-shirt to the organization. “Not a huge sum, but it’s a good cause and we need to raise their exposure and people’s awareness.”

And backtracking to tickets for Bowie’s 1976 Station to Station tour: “I lined up all night,” Mack says. “I was near the doors. When they opened them there was a crush of people behind me. I was up against the handle. There was a stampede. The staff picked me up off the floor and said I should go to the hospital. I said, ‘I know, but can I buy my tickets first?’”

And since then? “It’s been a lot of fun.”

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Thanks Mack!

Concert dates for the spring and summer of 2018 are accumulating.

For music, tour news and more information on Mack MacKenzie and Three O’Clock Train visit threeoclocktrain.com or facebook.com/ThreeOClockTrain.

To contribute to the Three O’Clock Train GoFundMe page where you can help Mack put out a new EP and get a chance to donate to Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal at the same time, click right here!

Enjoy!

Geoff Moore is a transplanted Montrealer, music fan, author, and roving reporter all rolled into one. He lives in Alberta.

 

 

 

Johnny Cash Sings “Hurt”

Listen to this track by venerable country-folk patriarch and one-time Man In Black Johnny Cash. It’s “Hurt”, a song as taken from his 2002 album American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around, Cash’s 87th (!) studio album, and last to be released in his lifetime.  As may be ascertained, that album was one in a series starting from the 1990s that had Johnny Cash working with producer Rick Rubin, showcasing material that on the surface seemed to be unlikely candidates for songs for Johnny Cash to cover.

This is certainly one of those songs, written by Trent Reznor the creative fulcum behind industrial rock outfit Nine Inch Nails. Upon hearing that Cash would cover his song, Reznor was flattered. But even he thought it might be an awkward fit for the guy who once had a hit with “A Boy Named Sue”. And yet, even Reznor would discover that through this new version of the track from an unlikely, and some might say mismatched, connection between artist and material, that there were hidden layers of meaning that could be brought out in his own song. Cash’s take on the song was a hit, as was the album off of which it had come; his best selling, non-compilation album in decades. But by the time this song was recorded, Johnny Cash was not a well man, suffering from neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome. It shows on this performance. It certainly was demonstrably true as evidenced by the gut-wrenching video that accompanied it.

This goes well beyond the realm of commercial success of course. This remains to be one of those songs that goes beyond its writer, and in many ways also beyond Johnny Cash. And maybe that’s why it had such impact. Read more

Blue Rodeo Play “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream”

Listen to this track by Canadian institution and alt-country pioneers Blue Rodeo. It’s “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream”, the closing section made up of two connected songs as taken from their 1993 record Five Days In July.

Blue Rodeo are celebrated on a grand scale here in Canada, having initially built their reputation on Toronto’s Queen Street scene from their first gig in 1985 at the famous Rivoli. They became a stalwart live act from there, reaching stratospheric heights by the end of the decade and into the nineties. By the time they recorded Five Days In July, they were widely regarded as one of the biggest acts in the country, having long since distinguished themselves via the work premier-level songwriters and band principals Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor.

With that history in place, the band were still interested in progressing their sound beyond their influences as they’d always sought to do, those influences being that Cosmic American sound popularized by The Byrds, Gram Parsons, and Harvest-era Neil Young. To do so, they did what another Band once had done; they retreated to the countryside for a while. Read more

Leon Redbone Sings “Lazy Bones”

leon-redbone-on-the-trackListen to this track by throwback ragtime guitarist and singular “character” Leon Redbone. It’s “Lazy Bones”, a cut off of his 1975 debut record On The Track. That album contained several renditions of pre-war tin pan alley,  jazz, and country blues tunes like this one that are so authentic sounding that you can practically hear the surface crackles on them.

For all of the retro-style textures from decades ago that artists today reference in their own music, Leon Redbone preceded them all. Like an artist today might reference a sound from the seventies, Redbone in turn reached back into the 1930s and even earlier to remind his audiences that the nature of pop music hadn’t really changed that much in terms of form in that they were still short little aural slabs of joy that are designed to get stuck in your head. The album even scored an #87 on the top 100 Billboard pop album chart by 1975.

Much like the dusty musical forms he traded in, Leon Redbone was an enigma. Like the blues itself, no one really knows where he came from, and not just in a showbiz sense.

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

The Roches Sing “Runs In The Family”

the-rochesListen to this track by sisterly New Jersey vocal folk trio The Roches. It’s “Runs In The Family”, a cut off of their 1979 eponymous debut album The Roches. The group was made up of the three Roche sisters, those being Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy, hailing from Park Ridge New Jersey from a solidly Irish-American background.

The Roches’ sound isn’t the genteel and polite one that we might expect from folk-singing sisters. There is a distinct edge to it, with three singers who don’t stay in their lanes even as they mesh their voices, and with those voices marked by idiosyncrasies instead of by standard purity of tone. And talk about unexpected musical combinations. King Crimson-honcho and prog-rock prime mover Robert Fripp not only played guitar on the record, he also produced it.

Even the material undercuts what we expect of a folk tune. This is no fey tale that tells a story of times past. This is decidedly contemporary, concerning itself with an important question that very few of us can honestly answer; why do we make the choices we make and in some cases, do we even have a choice at all? Read more

Abner Jay Sings “I’m So Depressed”

Abner Jay Swaunee Water And Cocaine BluesListen to this track by itinerant musician, self-styled last minstrel man and “World’s Worse (sic) Businessman” Abner Jay. It’s “I’m So Depressed”, a cut from his independently produced and distributed album Swaunee Water And Cocaine Blues. The song was also re-issued as a single in 2009 through Portland-based Mississippi records, a label that compiled Abner Jay’s somewhat scattered output.

Abner Jay seems like more of a figure that someone invented rather than an actual person. He was the ultimate self-contained act in the medicine show tradition, traveling in a mobile home that opened up into a makeshift stage, roaming from town to town playing for country folks at flea markets and store parking lots, and selling records from a cardboard box. Amazingly, he performed his material while playing all of the instruments himself in a live setting, including a six-string banjo he claimed was made in 1748 and handed down to him by his grandfather who had been born a slave. Maybe in some ways then, he really was invented, or rather self-invented.

There has been some question as to how to qualify Abner Jay’s music, too. Is it authentic? Could it be described as outsider music? I suppose all of that is determined by how you define each of those terms.. Maybe the clues to Abner Jay’s position on the authenticity spectrum can be found in this song. Read more

Taj Mahal Sings “Take A Giant Step”

Giant_StepListen to this track by blues and roots alchemist and multi-instrumentalist interpreter Taj Mahal. It’s “Take A Giant Step”,  the title track as taken from one-half of his 1969 two-fer double album Giant Step/De Ol’ Folks Home, his third release. The album represented two different approaches on each disc, with one being a full band excursion into the American roots music spectrum. The other is a solo acoustic record.

On both discs, you can hear just how well integrated Mahal’s sound is with respect to country, blues, folk, and pop music. This track may be the prime example of this, written by pop writers supreme Carole King & Gerry Goffin written for The Monkees and recorded by them as a B-side for first hit single, “The Last Train To Clarksville”.  This version by Mahal is a far cry from that one, slowing everything down, taking out the pop-psychedelic and far east edges, and replacing them with a languid and world-weary quality that the fresh-voiced Monkees couldn’t really have pulled off in their version, as much as I love it.

This is another sterling example of how an arrangement and vocal performance can add dimension to a song. So, what’s the angle on this tune? I think there’s a decidedly spiritual aspect to be found here that may have been missed earlier, but that Taj Mahal is able to draw out as easily as a bucket of water from a sacred river. 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