Lou Reed Plays “Beginning of a Great Adventure”

Here’s a cool clip of drone-rock godfather and professional New York curmudgeon Lou Reed jazzing out on his 1989 album track “Beginning of a Great Adventure”, the studio incarnation of which appears on his superlative New York LP. Having bassist Rob Wasserman on this really is a bonus. Watch out for his tradeoffs with Lou’s guitar in the beginning; magic.

[Listen to the studio version of  “Beginning of a Great Adventure”]

Lou Reed image courtesy of Jazz Fest Wien Team

There is plenty of gooey music about having children out there from super earnest singer-songwriter types, evoking all kinds of über-philosophical musings on how parenthood will change their lives. But, I love Lou’s take on this mini-genre, still full of petulance and dark humour which we expect from him. Yet ultimately, this song is about doubt. Like all expectant dads, Lou is wondering about whether he’ll be any good at it.

I think it’s this last thing that resonates most with me, that being a dad does require inner transformation and all. But, it’s also ultimately a job, and an important one; passing on something better than what we ourselves received, if we can. It really is the beginning of a great adventure. It’s true what Lou’s wife said to him.

I love that the writer of ‘Heroin’ also has this song in his catalogue, that the darkness of drug addiction is balanced off ultimately, by the impulse to nurture. Of course, Lou hasn’t phrased it quite that way. And we’d be disappointed if he had. Nope; he’s going to “raise a little liberal army in the woods”. One man’s nurturing, is another’s mobilization to confront the world, preparing them to be thinkers and dissidents in a world that demands conformity and passivity. And you get the impression that Lou, and his kids, are up for it by the end of this tune.

Enjoy!

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Bill Withers Sings “Ain’t No Sunshine”

Here’s a clip of singer-songwriter-soulman Bill Withers singing one of his biggest hits, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, from his 1971 LP Just As I Am.

Bill Withers, Just As I Am (1971)
Bill Withers, Just As I Am (1971)

This is a favourite track of mine, a blues structure in a minor key which is an approach to that form that I would have thought would be more common. But, as it is, it’s unique all around. Withers’ tune is a towering statement in pop song loneliness, a lament of a tune laden with pathos and soul to spare.

I know I always beat this to death when it comes to the subject of R&B singing, but you’ll notice that Withers doesn’t see fit to emote all over this. He’s a good enough writer and a smart enough performer to trust in the song, and not in histrionic delivery. And yet, note the breathing control during the “I know, I know…” section. This guy is a great technical singer.

Withers made this record into one that isn’t easily pigeonholed. Overall, I’d say it’s an R&B record. But, with the acoustic folk feel, it departs from the usual textures of that genre. And his voice offers a relaxed, tempered feel of a folk artist, not a soul man. Maybe it was because both Booker T. Jones (organist for Booker T. and the MGs) and Stephen Stills with Graham Nash were in the studio when it was recorded. You couldn’t ask for a better presence in the studio when trying to create music that brings the world of soul together with the world of folk-rock. Yet, it’s Withers’ own talent which brings this off; his restrained, yet believable voice, not to mention a great song that not many writers can match for impact.

Despite standing outside of an obvious musical category, “Ain’t No Sunshine” was a breakthrough hit for Withers, written while still working in a factory. Since his recording of the song, it’s become a popular favourite for other artists too ranging from pop wunderkind Michael Jackson, to country-pop chanteuse Crystal Gayle, to indie-hero Mark Eitzel.

This record off of which this tune comes proves the rule that necessity is the mother of invention. Prior to this release, Withers was starved for material in a genre which, like a lot of country music at the time, relied on outside writers. At the time, Withers was trying to break into a singing career while in his early 30s and not connected to the machinery of the music business, stumbling blocks both. Dauntless, he wrote all the songs himself including this one, all but for his cover of Fred Neil‘s ‘Everybody’s Talkin'” which Harry Nilsson had made into a hit two years before, and Lennon/McCartney’s “Let it Be”, which perhaps the muse should have delivered to Withers to write, so suited it is to his voice.

Although rarely put into the first string soul pantheon by critics, Bill Withers is his own man when it comes to a quality output and a signature style. Withers’ influence can be heard in the work of India Arie, Corrine Bailey Rae, and Ron Sexsmith, among many others.

For more information about this unique singer, check out the official Bill Withers Website.

To hear more music, feast your ears on the Bill Withers MySpace page.

Enjoy!

Radiohead perform “Go To Sleep” from Hail to the Thief

Here’s a clip of Radiohead’s 2003 song “Go to Sleep” taken from their album Hail to the Thief.

One of the key challenges with this band is that they’ve made so many radical changes from album to album, that they’re in constant competition with themselves, more so than with most bands. In the opinions of many, this record didn’t quite hold up to Kid A and Amnesiac. Yet, to be fair, very few albums held up in comparison to those, so the point about stiff competition within their own catalogue and without is proven.

But I think that HttT featured some of the band’s best work, this track included, and I think it can be argued that the group managed to synthesize their strengths into a record that still sounds like Radiohead. And they’ve done so without sacrificing one texture over another to an impressive degree here. Love them or hate them, they’ve been able to pull off this trick better than most. And it’s no easy trick.

On this track, they play pretty close to the sound they established on 1997’s OK Computer. But even on that album, the group added texture by way of electronics to separate them from the sound they created for themselves as a straight-up guitar band, writing songs on their own terms, seemingly in reaction to none. And this track proves that you can do that, and still serve a rock sound without crossing into ‘dance-rock’ territory, which to me would lose the subtlety of the music entirely.

Overall on this track and many others on this same album, Radiohead make the ominous atmospherics and aggressive guitars and drums work together without anyone seeing the seams. It’s easy enough, given the asset of Thom Yorke’s voice, and Jonny Greenwood’s dexterity when it comes to constrasting texture and arrangement. And Phil Selway is a vastly underrated drummer, even in the face of Yorke’s recent tendency to turn to the laptop for beats.

A lot of the criticisms placed against this album were unfair, but a lot weren’t. It’s too long, and the pacing suffers greatly as a result. They corrected this with 2007’s In Rainbows to a larger degree. But, for songs that work on an individual basis such as this one, the record is as undeniable as anything the group has put out.

One thing this band has always believed in is grass roots communications with fans, in place well before the recent “pay what you can” marketing innovation that everyone but the band themselves viewed as revolutionary. As such, it’s worth checking out the official Radiohead website for blog entries, podcasts, and other assorted information.

To hear more music including unreleased materials, check out Radiohead Myspace page

Enjoy!

Candi Staton Sings ‘Heart on a String’ from her ESSENTIAL 2004 self-titled compilation

Here’s a clip of underrated soul goddess Candi Staton singing her 1970 single “Heart on a String”, recorded on the Fame label in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. This track, along with several others from this fertile period in Staton’s career, was brilliantly compiled on a 2004 compilation simply entitled Candi Staton.

Listen carefully to the next thing I’m going to say…

This record is ESSENTIAL.

Source: phuturelabs.com via Valerie on Pinterest

 

The songs compiled on this album are comprised of Staton’s singles and B-sides output between the years 1969-1973. By 1976, Staton caught the wave of disco, and had her biggest hit in “Young Hearts Run Free”. But it was in this earlier period that her work on “Heart on a String”, and other songs including brilliant covers of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”, Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, and one of the latter-day songs in Elvis Presley’s repertoire, “In the Ghetto” made her into the professional she was. In addition to the covers, Staton recorded originals of her own, including the heartfelt “To Hear You Say You’re Mine”, the sassy “The Thanks I Get For Loving You”, and the brilliantly soulful “I’m Gonna Hold On (To What I Got This Time)”.

Songs like this tied the various influences prevalent in the sonic landscape of the American south together, with the grit of soul mixed with the storytelling power of traditional country music. For anyone, ANYONE, interested in pop music, classic soul, or indeed any type of music at all, you must run not walk to pick this up.

The sales of this compilation were impressive at the time, thanks to a lot of coverage from music rag journalists, bloggers, and music dweebs such as myself rattling on about how great it is (well, it is…). I read about it before I’d heard it. And then one day, in an old school sort of way, I wandered into my local record store, A&B Sound at Dunsmuir and Seymour here in Vancouver as I am wont to do. And I heard “Heart On A String” playing over the store’s sound system; it reached out and grabbed me by the … well, it grabbed me where it counts, people. Anyway, I had to have it. It was everything I had been promised. A lot of people felt the same.

The success of the compilation actually allowed Staton to return to the studio to make a new Southern soul album. She’d taken time off as a soul singer by this time, re-fashioning herself as a gospel artist and recording R&B tunes only sparsely. Her comeback record was the impressive His Hands in 2006 which includes songwriting contributions from writers as disparate as Merle Haggard to Bonnie Prince Billy’s Will Oldham. And as always, Staton embodies the role demanded of her in the songs, her voice remaining virtually unchanged since her Fame label days.

All of this music is where Amy Winehouse, as good as she is, is trying to get to, folks. Find out for yourself why she’s trying so hard.

For more, check out the Candi Staton discography page on her site to sample her work across her career.

For full-length songs and other information, don’t forget the Candi Staton MySpace page.

Gomez Performs ‘Here Comes the Breeze’ from the Album Bring it On

Here’s a clip of Southport England’s Gomez, performing one of my favourite tracks of off their exceptional 1998 debut, Bring It On. The record won the coveted Mercury Prize in ’98, against some stiff competition including Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Pulp’s This is Hardcore, and The Verve’s Urban Hymns, among others.

Gomez
Gomez

Bring it On was a big record for me then, and I still love it now. On the whole, you get a gumbo of influences that can’t always be immediately identified; there’s blues and folk mixed with an indie-guitar approach, which separates the group from the herd of bands which came out of that late-90s musical landscape in England. And I am a sucker for bands who have no frontman, and in fact have three lead singers – Ben Ottewell (the growly voice), Ian Ball (the Gallagher-esque voice), and Tom Gray (who kind of acts as a medium texture to his two associates).

The music renders a sort of homemade sound, as if they’d created everything in their front room. In this way, and in many others, Gomez kind of reminds me of the Band. Like the Band, the group consider the spiritual home of their music to be in the American South, aligned to, but not really representative of, American roots music. On their first American tour, they wondered how it would be received. Yet, John Lee Hooker himself acknowledged their impact, although their music is certainly not in the same vein as his. I think what was being picked up on was not really about style, so much as feel.

It was clear that the band were not interested in being tied to a specific genre, enthusiastic as they were for the music of those who came before them. Their next few albums explored similar territory while ratcheting up electronic textures at the same time. Liquid Skin, their 1999 follow-up rendered a cut on the American Beauty soundtrack, the crystalline “We Haven’t Turned Around“. 2002’s In Our Gun produced a more experimental turn that was mediated by its follow-up, Split the Difference in 2004. The most recent studio record, How We Operate is their best since the debut, mining what the group does best; great melodies with plenty of rootsy-meets-indie appeal.

To hear tracks off of their most recent album and of albums past, check out the Gomez MySpace page.

And for fan-related goodies, news, and tour information you’ve got the Official Gomez site to turn to, Good People.

Enjoy!

Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3: Adventure Rocketship, and New Releases Too

Here’s a clip featuring Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 performing the lead track off of their 2006 album Olé Tarantula.

Olé Tarantula was one of my favourite releases that year, a real ray of sunshine with a lot of lyrical loopiness which I expect and celebrate in Hitchcock’s work, plus all of the Byrds/’67 Beatles/’66-’76 Dylan references that I’ve come to love.

Robyn Hitchcock and Peter Buck of the Venus 3
Robyn Hitchcock and Peter Buck of the Venus 3

Recently, news of a second installment in the repackaging program from Yep Roc has come down the pipe. The first of course was I Wanna Go Backwards, which was a re-release of three of his albums plus extras in one 5 CD box. Those albums are Black Snake Diamond Role, I Often Dream of Trains, and Eye, all of which received individual re-packaging releases too if you want to cherry-pick. Read more about the details of the I Wanna Go Backwards box from Yep Roc on their site.

The second box is the upcoming Luminous Groove (including 1985’s Fegmania, ‘86’s Element of Light, and the long-awaited re-issue of the live Got to Get This Hen Out. The release for that box and the individual album re-issues at press time is August 19, 2008. Read more about it here.

Boy, it’s beginning to sound like I’m on Yep Roc’s payroll – Nick Lowe, Billy Bragg, Hitchcock, Sloan, Ron Sexsmith, Yep Roc artists all – have been heavily featured here on the ‘Bin. But, it’s pure enthusiasm, Good People. They happen to be favourite artists of mine, so I’m just spreading the word. I actually like a lot of artists on their current roster. But, I’m not making a dime writing about them here, folks.

Still, Yep Roc – to quote the old song – can you spare a dime (or a couple of free records at least)?

I kid.

Mostly.

Enjoy the clip!!

10 Happy Songs That Aren’t Really Happy

Happy Face Sad FaceEmotional states and the act of managing them seems to be one of the key tensions in this thing we call human experience. We have a built-in capacity it seems to cover our anguish and turmoil with a coating of contentedness, a patina of pleasure, a veneer of vitality, and yet very often on the inside, we’re full of doubt, worry, insecurity, and an impending sense of doom. Well, don’t think that songwriters have overlooked this dynamic in human experience. Oh no. There are plenty of songs out there that can be counted on as bitter pills coated with sugar.

This is not to say that they are necessarily mocking, or are in some way disingenuous, although some of them are. After all, all of that is a part of life too. But, here are ten jaunty tunes of doom, ten ditties of delightful destruction, ten anthems of anguished despair that proves the grand greyscale of our existence is not so lonely, knowing that we all appreciate the irony of a disaster you can dance to.

Happy face image courtesy of A.M Kuchling

The Wanderer – Dion & the Belmonts

Dion and the Belmonts the WandererThis is a macho guy’s anthem in many ways, taken from their 1961 album named after it, The Wanderer. This is the tale of an itinerant ladies’ man who is with a different girl, or group of girls, every night. Which one does he love best? His tattoo, man – Rosie on his chest. Nothing can touch this guy. When love rears its head, he hops back into his car and he’s gone again. But, there’s the rub. This doesn’t happen when women fall for him; it happens when he finds himself falling for one of them. To me, this is where the macho womanizer tale ends, and where the lonely soul who is frightened of love begins. Ultimately, this song is one of the most tragic of the period, even among all of the teen death ballads that were out around this time when Dion & the Belmonts recorded this.

Dion’s own story is also a tale of the seemingly happy, together singer who had a dark secret – Dion struggled with heroin addiction. Luckily, he managed to shake it, while recording some critically acclaimed folk-rock albums by the end of the decade, and finding religion in the next.

Baby’s in Black – The Beatles

Beatles For SaleOne of the most joyous sounds to me is the combined voices of Lennon and McCartney on some of those early Beatles sides. This tune, taken from the 1964 album Beatles for Sale, is a great example of what great singers these guys were together, with John’s lower voice anchoring the melody while Paul soars above him. Without listening to the words here , the song could be about rainbows and unicorns. But despite the sweetness of the voices, this song is all about trying to woo a widow, a woman caught up in the despair of her loss. And more, it’s about the feelings that arise from her would-be lover, that she is wasting away, denying love in exchange for a memory. To me, it’s one of the most sombre tracks the group ever recorded. And yet those voices – aural honey!

One of the things which amazes me about the Beatles is their maturity as writers even very early in their songwriting careers. It’s been written many times that at some point, they stopped writing for teenage girls and began writing for themselves and their peers. But, where does this one fall? It’s not really a teen death song because there’s no romanticism in the death spoken of here. The tragic event is implied more so than directly described. There’s no romantic tragedy here. There’s just two messed up lives, both pining for a love that can never be returned.

Crippled Inside – John Lennon

A few years later, Lennon had kept what he’d learned about making the words work against the melody of a song in order to create a jarring effect. And on this cut, taken from his landmark 1971 solo album Imagine, is a prime example of his dark humour, and his prowess in using a good-time melody and style against his own sobering views of inner turmoil. Since John knew a lot about both great melody and dealing with lifelong demons, it probably made some sense to him to put them together. The song was allegedly about an acquaintance, yet it’s hard not to apply the message of the song to Lennon himself, who had by this time made the subject of his own anguish something of a favourite when he approached songwriting.

Lennon had spent many years as “Beatle John”, one of the lovable mop-tops, never without a quip or a mug for the camera. And yet the death of his mother while he was still a teen, and his feelings of abandonment surrounding his absent dad from early childhood were dark feelings he could barely conceal even at the height of his popularity. In 1965, he’d written “Help!” which is a child’s cry for love and attention in the guise of a catchy pop song. By ’71, he was writing from this vantage point with a level of self-awareness which he may not have been at liberty to demonstrate at the height of Beatlemania. Yet, still he struggled. I’d like to think that if he’d lived, he’d be at peace with his past by now. After all, he’d done his therapy and recorded it for posterity.

Marie Provost – Nick Lowe

Much has been written of the New York death; that is, the death of someone who is not discovered for weeks and months, due to how disconnected and anonymous that person was in a bustling metropolis. There is further tragedy heaped upon this sad situation when the person in question once dominated the limelight, and had in fact been celebrated as a star in their field. Such was the fate of silent screen actress Marie Provost (actually spelled Marie Prevost), sidelined by the advent of sound in movies, and destined to die penniless in her New York apartment, only to become “a doggie’s dinner” to her pet dachshund post mortem. A ghastly tale of tragedy and gore, right? Sure.

But in Nick Lowe’s 1977 song taken from his Bowi EP (so named in answer to David Bowie’s Low album…) and later featured on the compilation Basher: The Best of Nick Lowe , you’d think that this was a bouncy, happy-go-lucky 60s pop throwback, with chiming guitars and twinkle-in-the-eye vocal delivery to boot. But this is a song about the empty and transitory trappings of fame, a weighty subject. Yet you can practically hear the smile on Nick Lowe’s face. Lowe understands and employs a classic angle in pop songwriting; using the contrast between lyrics and melody to drive the delivery of the song, which is ultimately a sad tale told with ironic jubilance.

Nite Klub – The Specials

The SpecialsIn Britain at the beginning of the 80s, things were not looking too good for traditional industry. And because of that, the industrial centers of the country suffered lay-offs, long-term unemployment, and thousands and thousands of people “on the dole” without anything to really define their purpose in life. Racial tensions were on the rise, and street violence was common. At the same time, the music of the Caribbean had made cultural headway in the area too, particularly reggae and its early progenitor ska, both of which had been the answer to the joyfulness of Tamla Motown as interpreted by musicians from the islands. It is party music, music to dance to, to use as a means of celebrating life.

British musicians, including first and second-generation immigrants from Jamaica, St. Lucia, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands, took the celebratory nature of ska, and mixed it with the sneering dissatisfaction of punk. And songs like “Nite Klub” from one of the premier proponents of the scene, Coventry’s The Specials, typified the spirit of the times. This tune, taken from their 1979 debut The Specials, portrays the emptiness of nights out while facing the crushing economic pressures of having no job and depending on government money to survive. Yet, with the bright tones of the horns and the bouncy energy of the rhythm section, at least this is social marginalization that you can dance to, right?

Genetic Engineering – Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (OMD)

As was pointed out in an article about Kraftwerk I wrote recently, there is a tension running through the music of the futurist pop that sprang up at the beginning of the 80s. The tension is about looking forward to the future and dreading it at the same time. Medical science and the leaps and bounds that were (and are) being made were a concern as much then as they are now. This is so much so that it filtered very easily into pop culture, and onto the charts. Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock had been a popular bestseller for a decade, and everyone who had their minds on the role of technology in society seemed to reflect this duality, this longing for a bright future mixed with a fear of the unknown, and possibly a deep-seated mistrust in the moral basis upon which a lot of technology was being developed.

The question seemed to be: are we moving into the future too fast for our society, and individuals in that society, to manage? Perhaps not much has changed, but for the question which is perhaps unasked all too often. It’s easy to forget that the brains that invented digital technology which has come to define our world, are arguably no more wise than those who wage preemptive wars with countries who have done us no direct harm.

OMD’s “Genetic Engineering” from their 1983 album Dazzle Ships expresses this is a roundabout way. To me this is like a children’s song, or an advert, except for the menacing drone of the music against the shiny, happy melody line. And then of course there are the lyrics “These are the lies they tell us/the future’s good as sold/In all the things we do and know, we really must be told.” Suddenly, after pushing through the chirpiness of the melody, we realize that this isn’t the ode to salvation through science it seems to be. It’s a propaganda piece, with a hint that the future is a place where all things are controlled – yet by whom?

Our House – Madness

Madness Our HouseFamilies are almost never what they seem. And yet there is often pressure on them to project a certain image to others that the family in question is normal, healthy, and fit to stand as an example to other families everywhere. I suppose there is a good side to this of course; it’s always good to aspire to an ideal, just as long as that ideal is not thought of as reality. Because in every family, there are secrets big and small. Some are unexpected in a good way; that Grandma once backpacked through Europe when she was a girl. Or that your uncle once played bass in a pickup band for a one-off Chuck Berry show in 1973. But some secrets are so dark, so unspeakable, that they remain to be a hovering spectre over a household that dare not explore it or deal with it.

This is what we’ve got here, I believe. Just as their “House of Fun” single is not about going to a carnival, Madness’ sole 1983 North American hit “Our House” is not what it seems either. In this tune, we get the portrait of the mundaneness of a family, of a sister sighing in her sleep, a brother who’s got a date to keep, about a house-proud Mum. This is all well and good, except for the throw-away line buried between the verses: “Something tells you that you’ve got to get away from it.” Suddenly, there are other forces at work in this tune, with the veneer of normality and even dullness scratched away just a little bit to discover dissatisfaction and negativity underneath.

Road to Nowhere – Talking Heads

Talking Heads Little CreaturesThey say that life is all about the journey, and it’s certainly been depicted that way in popular literature from Pilgrim’s Progress, to On the Road, to Dude, Where’s My Car?. I think that one of the main drives behind this idea is the hope that life is intrinsically meaningful, that it is in fact going somewhere. Whether this is a place, as some religious orders and traditions hold, to a certain state of mind, or to some technological and entirely rational future based purely on the merits of human achievement is almost beside the point in these terms. But, what if life is just a series of events linked together randomly, with nothing but cause and effect as its only source?

This is what I get from this 1985 Talking Heads song, taken from their album Little Creatures. The music is almost a tent-meeting gospel singalong track, in the traditions of the timeless church hymn “I’ll Fly Away”. But, the song has a message which could be construed as being entirely opposite. What with the concepts of American manifest destiny, the Second Coming of Christ, and Star Trek fantasies of a harmonious world government and an end to hunger and poverty in the future, our culture seems to be clinging to the hope that things will work out in the end. With this song, the jauntiness of the tune seems to hint, rather ironically, that no future is guaranteed but for the present times which will shape and define it.

Lovefool – The Cardigans

Love – the two-edged sword. It can make you, or entirely ruin you. Of course, love has been the subject of popular song for centuries, and I imagine too that heartbreak hasn’t changed all that much over the course of time. With the advent of heartbreak of course come a myriad of other emotions, exploding outward like shrapnel from an emotional epicenter. Among those comes desperation, delusion, and the distortion of one’s self image, defined forever (or seeming to be) by a damaged connection to one who doesn’t return the sentiment. How do you make a perky pop song about that, exactly? Well, it’s been done numerous times.

The Cardigans’ 1996 hit from their album First Band on the Moon, “Lovefool” was such a song, with the chirpy backing vocals and bouncy rhythm, all aiding and abetting lead singer Nina Persson’s plaintive vocal of someone who will settle for the pretense of love instead of the real thing, just to remain with the one she adores. The tragedy of that proved to be an infectious dance groove by the middle of the 90s, perhaps fueled by the universality of the scenario. And as above, what better way to expunge the feelings of worthlessness than by singing and dancing about it and to it? If the origin of the blues can be traced anywhere, then surely that place is here.

This song was used effectively on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack album, brightly bouncing along to arguably the most tragic love story there is.

She Called Up – Crowded House

Crowded House She Called UpOne of the most frightening sounds is the ring of a phone early in the wee hours of the morning from loved ones far away. Phone calls like that, unless someone is expecting a baby, are almost always bad news of the worst kind. It means someone is dead, doesn’t it – or at very least in the drunk tank. But think of the life of the internationally traveled musician, finding themselves in all time zones for large portions of the year while life happens for their families and friends at home without them. The chances of such wee-hour phone calls expand exponentially. And as a result, the news and the experience of finding out the news, filters down into songwriting. This is what happened with Neil Finn while touring with his brother Tim. His friend and former bandmate Paul Hester had been found dead near his home in Australia, and Finn was in England.

In times like that, there really is nothing to be done, and particularly when in another country. So, the song “She Called Up” , taken from the group’s 2007 album Time on Earth is a tale of bad news, sadness, and helplessness, all to a blithe backing and even “la la la” backing vocals which Hester probably would have appreciated. And this is just the thing. With all of the tragedy, the song that came out of it was true to the memory of the one who’d passed, known as he was for his onstage banter and clownish demeanour. This is a wake of a song, rather than a funeral. And it points out that there are many ways to mourn, many tones in the emotional paintbox to help one grieve the loss of a friend.

***

When in music class at school, we learned to tell the difference between major keys and minor keys in terms of happy and sad; major was positive sounding, happy, triumphant, while minor keys were blue, morose, sad. As we got older, we became more aware of the complexities of emotional states. And while those first impressions still ring true to some extent, we know that something as wonderful and dangerous as emotions and the experiences which provoke them aren’t always so cut and dried.

And because it is the stuff of the lifeforce, music follows suit, acting like a medium to communicate complex ideas to millions of people using simple tones to unlock new possibilities and new connections, whether they be good tidings or bad. It is because of this that a dirge can make us aspire to greatness, while the sweetest ode can allow us to see the greatest sense of grief.

Diana Ross Sings ‘The Theme From Mahogany’

mahogany-coverHere’s a clip of Diana Ross’ “The Theme From Mahogany”, the title song from the 1976 film in which Ross stars as an ingénue in the fashion industry. The picture was directed by her svengali figure and Motown label boss, Berry Gordy.

This tune is very much of its time perhaps, much like the film in which it features. But, for whatever reason, I love it. It’s almost classical sounding to me, like a Bach fugue in places. And usually sumptuous orchestration is a red flag for this kind of song, unless the vocalist presents a contrasting texture of some kind. Ross doesn’t do this, which is a testament to how well arranged the tune is. It shouldn’t have worked, but it does. Well, it does for me, anyway.

I’ve said before that Diana Ross’ career owes a lot to the material upon which it was built. This tune, for instance, was co-written by former Brill Building songwriter, Gerry Goffin, for which he won an Oscar nomination. And her Motown oeuvre owed a huge debt to the superlative writing talents of Holland Dozier Holland. I’m not sure that her voice is terribly special, frankly. But, maybe her bland voice is her secret weapon in this way. For one, it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, and makes way for the delivery of the material. Maybe this is why Ross was able to skip across genres so easily too.

Her late 70s-early 80s renaissance was largely down to her being able to etch out a niche for herself when disco came along. There again, she was bolstered by great producers and players, as well as great songs in “Love Hangover”, “I’m Coming Out”, and “Upside Down”. Her 1980 album Diana, produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic, is the perfect example of Ross working with the best to get the best results.

Although saying that, there is the story of Ross demanding that her vocals be brought up in the mix, after hearing a version of the record as laid down by Edwards and Rodgers. I wonder how grand the original mix of the Diana album would have sounded, with a slinkier bass, a more playful rhythm guitar, and funkier drums. It might have caused heads to explode, or very least for disco and funk to remain more mainstream further into the decade. Who can say?

Enjoy!

Crowded House Perform “Pour Le Monde” From the Album Time on Earth

Here’s a clip of Crowded House performing their song “Pour Le Monde”, from their 2007 comeback record Time on Earth.

[Click hear Pour Le Monde]

Paul HesterWith the good news of Crowded House coming together again last year, both in the studio as well as on the road, came the reminder of the death of friend and founding member, Paul Hester. Hester was the band’s Ringo, not just because he was the drummer, but because he was in many ways the spirit of the band. He was funny, affable, but also troubled at the same time. It might be argued that Neil Finn’s “Leonard and McCartney” (as in Leonard Cohen…) dual-natured songwriting was lived by Hester, who suffered from chronic manic depression. He committed suicide in 2005.

While on the road with Tim Finn as the Finn Brothers, Neil Finn invited former Crowded House bassist Nick Seymour on stage to pay tribute to Paul Hester at the Royal Albert Hall on the evening of March 28 that year. The appearance drove the eventual re-launch of Crowded House, re-uniting members Nick Seymour on bass, and multi-instrumentalist and latter-day addition to the group Marc Hart. With the hiring of a new drummer in Matt Sharod, the band were ready for a record and a tour.

The new album was fueled by songs which Neil Finn was originally planning for a solo project. And much of the emotional content there was concerned with Paul Hester’s passing. In some ways, this tune arguably contains the whole story about the reformation of Crowded House (“And I wake up blind/Like my dreams were too bright/And I lost my regard/For the good things that I had “), grouped in with a leaden awareness of losing a member and a friend (“He’s the best you ever had”). The resulting record, while not somber by any stretch, is marked by a certain melancholy more so than in albums past. Ultimately, I think this makes for a very engaging album which I hope will present Finn and the band with the momentum needed to carry them into the next record.

I’m sure that the spirit of Hester will still be present while this group remains to be a going concern, as he was when he was alive and drumming with them. Tales of his exploits while with the band (appearing naked on stage during a Neil Finn solo piano spot while grinning ear to ear, being one) were affectionately recounted from the stage during the show I saw. But, I think the opening line, “he imagines the world/as the angels ascending/like the ghost of the man/who is tied up to the chair” is telling of a writer who is likely to leave the past behind, celebrating the memory, but not being held by it. I think this bodes well for the life of the group. But, we’ll see.

Just as an aside, I cannot over-emphasize just how enjoyable the band’s live 2-disc set Farewell to the World is. Not only does this give the first-time listener a grand view of what this band was like to see live, it also gives you a glimpse into Paul Hester’s charisma, joie de vivre, and playful sense of mischief while on stage.

If you are new to Crowded House, want an overview of the band’s catalogue, or are wondering what all the fuss is about, then you should start here. This was the group’s last performance with Hester in the drum seat, recorded (and filmed too) at the steps of the Sydney Opera House in November 1996.

Kraftwerk Perform “Pocket Calculator” Live

Here’s a clip from the Beatles of Electronica – Kraftwerk and their song “Pocket Calculator”, originally taken from the 1981 album Computer World.

KraftwerkNot many casual music fans really know just how important this band is to the development of popular music from the mid-70s to the modern day. Their influence can be traced in new wave, hip-hop, acid house, 90s big beat, and modern electronica. Heavily imitated and very heavily sampled, Kraftwerk’s signature sound is the brainchild of leaders Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, who met as students of classical music at Düsseldorf Conservatory at the end of the 60s, united by their obsessions with experimental music and technology. They experimented with traditional instruments in the early 70s as a group, but it was 1974’s Autobahn album, a record which greatly benefited by their purchase of a Moog synthesizer, which set them on their stylistic path.

Kraftwerk are connected with both the Krautrock sounds of Can and Tangerine Dream, and also are closely connected with the British synthesizer acts of the early 80s, over whom they had tremendous influence – Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, OMD, and many others. This is not to mention American acts like Afrika Bambaataa who sampled selections from Kraftwerk’s catalogue for his breakthrough hip-hop track “Planet Rock”. More modern day Kraftwerk-influenced acts like the Chemical Brothers, Alpinestars, LCD Soundsystem, and Fat Boy Slim have regularly fed Kraftwerk samples into their dance-music constructions, or have crafted their original sounds after them.

The key tension in the music itself is the idea that technology and modernity are both liberating and dehumanizing at the same time; that which enables greater efficiency is also that which can be a source of isolation. Pushing past what many perceive to be the coldness of electronica in general, and of Kraftwerk specifically, there still lies a very human drama at the heart of it. The best of music of the genre frames this tension very well, showing electronic music is just as connected with the beating heart of humanity as any visceral rock music. Further, the idea which is intrinsic to the Kraftwerk approach to music-making is that there are very few divisions between technology and users of it. This is a prophetic notion of course, conceived as it was in the 70s, and looking at it now in this age of Internet, social media, and (ahem) blogging.

For more information about Kraftwerk, check out the official Kraftwerk website.

For a wider sampling of the music and more clips of the band, get yourself on down to the Kraftwerk MySpace page.

Enjoy!